08 November 2009

When Robin Grows Up, version 1: Owlman!

I’m finally getting back to exploring the implications of “Reason for Robin, #9: Robin is still a kid.” Indeed, within the DC Comics universe, Robin (whichever character is in the costume) represents youth and its potential. But can a symbol of youth grow up?

For decades successful growing up for Robin was portrayed in imaginary or alternative-history stories of Dick Grayson becoming Batman after his mentor’s retirement or death. In all of these scenarios, new boys take on the role, and representational function, of Robin. The exemplary image above comes from the cover of Batman, #119, published in 1958. DC is playing out yet another variation on that scenario now.

In the 1980s the success of the New Teen Titans magazine prompted the publisher to imagine a different way for Dick to mature successfully: he found a new identity as Nightwing. Once again, another boy became Robin.

Indeed, Dick’s maturation was so successful, and Bruce Wayne’s character has since been portrayed as so arrested in some ways, that there’s ongoing debate among fans and within the comics about whether Dick should remain Batman or resume being Nightwing when Bruce inevitably returns.

Even more revealing about the importance of what Robin symbolizes, I think, are the company’s portrayals of Dick aging unsuccessfully. Scripter Bill Finger explored this idea in 1957 with a story called “The Grown-Up Boy Wonder!”

At the start of that adventure, a box Superman has brought back from outer space gives Dick an accidental dose of “maturing gas.” “Golly!” he says the next morning. “During the night I’ve grown—grown as big as a man!

Dick’s costume no longer fits; symbolically, he can longer fulfill the Robin role. He proposes becoming a second Batman, and the first—the preternaturally well-adjusted hero of the 1950s—nixes that idea. “But when Batman leaves,” a caption tells us, “Dick reacts like an impulsive youngster…”

Dick dons an owl costume and makes his debut as Owlman! This costume has short pants, just like the Robin outfit; symbolically, he’s still a boy. Dick’s not used to his new weight, and still has a tendency to fall down and get captured. As Batman rescues him, just like so many times before, Dick says ruefully, “I’ve got a lot of growing up to do before I can be a real man!”

Owlman’s career ends when the extraterrestrial gas wears off. Dick has learned a valuable lesson about not trying to grow up too soon, as the story’s final panel shows. Note that he’s once again dressed in the bright Robin colors. All is well in the DC Universe.

NEXT WEEK: Dick Grayson matures unsuccessfully—on another planet.


Nathan said...

In the first picture, Bruce has apparently become Father Time.

J. L. Bell said...

That story is called “Rip Van Batman,” and Bruce’s glimpse of the future turns out to be a fumes-induced dream.

Anonymous said...

Ha! Love the blond Robin--so we know it's a new one--while Bruce's beard indicates he's old now.

J. L. Bell said...

As I understand it, that story never explains who the blond Robin is.