15 November 2009

When Robin Grows Up, version 2: on Earth-Two!

For the first twenty-plus years of Batman comics, Robin was an unaging symbol of youth. Indeed, as the last weekly Robin showed, for Robin to become a man was a horrible disruption of the status quo. Such a change was, like an escaped criminal or errant meteorite, a problem to be fixed by the end of the story. Occasionally readers saw an adult Dick Grayson take over the role of Batman—but only in imaginary tales. Eventually, however, that situation changed. In the late 1950s, DC Comics began to reinvigorate its old trademarks with new heroes using the same names: Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Atom, and so on. In Flash, #123, the new Flash ran so fast he ended up in the world of the Flash published in the 1940s. The company’s writers gradually built up that “Earth-Two,” where all the old heroes had started operating twenty years before what were now the standard “Earth-One” versions.

What did this mean for Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Robin, who had all been published continuously since the 1940s or earlier? (What did it mean for Aquaman and Green Arrow, who had also never gone into abeyance? Well, far fewer people cared about them.) DC told readers that Earth-Two had versions of those heroes who started fighting crime decades before their Earth-One analogs. Batman, with no Kryptonian or Amazonian powers to ward off aging, was approaching retirement, and Robin was...

Earth-Two offered writers the opportunity to explore paths they couldn’t try in the standard DC “continuity” without jeopardizing what made the characters work. As one example of such experimentation, in the late 1970s the Earth-Two Superman married Lois Lane. The standard version of that character didn’t do so until 1996, when TV’s Lois and Clark proved the public wanted that change.

By setting a story on Earth-Two, therefore, DC could preserve its continuity but offer readers a new vision of a “Grown-Up Robin” on the cover of Justice League of America, #55, published in 1967.

And that vision was, frankly, unappealing. Not just because that Robin’s costume is an ugly blend of details from his childhood outfit and Batman’s costume: batwinged “R” on the chest, bright yellow cape over gray tights.

In addition to haberdashery troubles, this grown-up Robin struggles hard with the challenge of being Batman’s successor. His Justice Society teammates still treat him as a youngster. When the Robins of two worlds get together in Justice League, #91-92, they spend a fair amount of time whining about how inadequate they feel. And it doesn’t help that in 1979 the Earth-Two Batman dies, shot by a petty criminal.

DC eventually gave the Robin of Earth-Two a nicer costume, as shown in the panels at the top (and in the Brave and the Bold cartoon on TV). That costume reflects the character’s adulthood by covering his legs and arms. I think its style of mask signals his roots in the past; it has to be tied on while the Earth-One Robin’s little domino mask appears to stick with just willpower.

But the Robin of Earth-Two never seems to escape a dark cloud that hangs over his adventures. Here are panels from a 1982 issue of The Brave and the Bold in which the Batman of Earth-One visits “the Ex-Boy Wonder.” The villain of this tale takes control of a certain old-fashioned automobile.
Dick Grayson of Earth-Two is a successful lawyer, a prosecuting attorney and ambassador to South Africa—as well as a member of his world’s most important superhero team. Yet “the best years of his life” have come decades earlier, when he was a boy. And this adventure forces him to blow up a reminder of those years.

As I interpret these stories of Earth-Two, they carry the same message as the earlier decades’ rare tales of Dick Grayson as an adult. A “grown-up Robin” is a problem to be resolved, not a character readers can identify with. He’s never as real as the Dick Grayson who’s still young.

In 1985-86 the Crisis on Inifinite Earths miniseries did away with Earth-Two and its Robin, after more awkward moments. The only Dick Grayson who survives is a former Boy Wonder—Nightwing, leader of the Titans.

Even on an alternate Earth, it appears, a character who symbolizes youth can’t grow up without running into insurmountable problems—for himself, for writers, for the world he lives in. The only Dick Grayson to become a happy adult is the one who left the identity of “Robin the Boy Wonder” to younger heroes.


Angel said...

Beautiful vpoin of view about the problem of Robin aging

ashrafanam said...

I just realised Earth-Two adult Robin's costume is very similar to Bob Ringwood's original Robin costume design for Tim Burton's Batman films.

J. L. Bell said...

The original Ringwood design seems to owe a lot of Neal Adams's design for Tim Drake at the same time.