Last week I proposed the daring theory that Robin the Boy Wonder isn’t evil. And that this is a fundamental part of the character’s appeal and function within the DC Comics mythos—a “Reason for Robin.”
But aren’t all comic-book heroes not evil? Or if not all, isn’t goodness a very common trait in that crowd? Indeed, in the first four decades of DC superhero stories, not being evil doesn’t distinguish Robin from every other costumed crime-fighter we remember.
Of course, it’s still interesting to watch the definition of “not evil” change over those years. At top is the very last panel in Batman, #1, published in early 1940, almost immediately after the Boy Wonder’s debut. Usually that last panel promoted the next issue of Detective Comics, but here it promoted the values Robin stood for.
Or at least the values that writer Bill Finger could come up with on deadline. The alliterative emphasis on “being REGULAR!” and the acronym strike me as signs he was throwing down the first words he could think of. A couple more minutes of thought might have identified Bravery as more valuable to a hero than Brotherhood. And with World War 2 raging in Europe, there might have been a higher value than Nationalism. Then again, regularity means fitting in, not standing out.
Over a quarter-century later, Teen Titans, #3, brought us the panel at left. This magazine was DC’s attempt to claw back some of the youth market from Marvel by teaming up its teenaged sidekicks. Debuting in February 1966, Teen Titans reflected the New Frontier ethos of the preceding few years—and looks completely out of touch with the years to come.
In the magazine’s debut adventure, titled “The Beast-God of Xochatan!”, the US government sends the sidekicks to South America to guard the construction of a hydropower dam. Parachuting into the country (well, Wonder Girl points out that she can fly) as Peace Corps volunteers, the teen heroes find that the disturbances center on an ancient temple that the dam will flood. As the water rises, they see mysterious beasts emanate from the temple itself.
So what do Robin and his friends do, bearing in mind that they’re not evil—according to the values of that time?
- Find proof that the “god” producing those creatures is actually a real-estate speculator using special effects for his own greedy purposes.
- Convince the authorities that the mysterious beasts reflect the power of an ancient culture and environment that must be preserved.
- See that the ancient god and his creatures were just trying to protect their temple home, and let the monument be flooded anyway.
By the end of that decade, Robin and the Titans team openly supported progressive causes. Like the early Superman, they tackled the challenge of urban renewal. After a difficult false start, the team included DC Comics’s first costumed black hero. Of course, they never completely embraced the counterculture, and the magazine never mentioned Speedy’s heroin addiction in Green Lantern. According to the larger American culture, Robin remained clearly “not evil.”
In fact, measured against the youth fashions of the day, Dick Grayson was definitely unround. Licensing deals meant he couldn’t grow his hair long or otherwise change his look drastically. He stayed in college throughout the 1970s. Robin was, we might even say, “regular.” And most other DC heroes were as well. But then came 1980.
COMING UP: Batman and Robin take different paths.