At last the weekly Robin returns to exploring how the tenet that Robin isn’t evil became an important part of what the character symbolized in the DC Comics mythos. Before the 1980s, all superheroes weren’t evil. Robin’s solo stories had depicted him as struggling to follow Batman’s model. But a new characterization showed him trying to help people with Batman as one inspiration among several.
Concurrently, DC writers were edging toward the possibility that Batman might be evil. In the early ’80s The Comics Journal quoted comics artist and writer John Byrne calling the character a “brooding psychopath.” Not everyone in the business agreed with him, of course, but that possibility became more and more central to Batman stories.
Does Batman operate so close to the edge of human endurance that he might go over at any time? Is he so driven by his mission that he’s willing to sacrifice ordinary human relationships? Is his life as Bruce Wayne such a sham that it’s made him as hollow as he acts? As his ward, Dick Grayson was Bruce Wayne’s natural foil in such stories.
In Detective, #500 (1981), scripted by Alan Brennert, Batman got a chance to enter an alternative universe where Bruce Wayne is still a boy and his parents haven’t been murdered—yet. He jumps at the chance at saving some version of his parents. Robin (already a star of New Teen Titans) races to accompany Batman because he doesn’t trust what Bruce might do when he sees his parents under attack. While Batman gets tunnel vision, Robin worries about disrupting this alternate universe before deciding what his values require. This story ends with a curious twist. Batman does save his parents, but his young alter ego nevertheless starts to dedicate himself to being a crime-fighter. That implies that Bruce wasn’t necessarily motivated by his parents’ murder; rather, their murder may have simply been his rationale for doing what he’d have been naturally driven to do anyway.
DC started to separate Batman from its other heroes with Batman and the Outsiders, #1 (1983). Scripter Mike W. Barr showed him storming out of the Justice League of America to start his own, more aggressive superhero team. A crossover with New Teen Titans a few issues later underscored the new rift and differences between Batman and Robin—the younger man is the better team leader.
Which brings us to Batman’s working methods. Back in 1939, Gardner Fox’s origin story explained that after his parents’ murder he chooses to dress as a bat to scare criminals. He became more cuddly under the Comics Code of the 1950s and early ’60s, then returned to the dark side. And any persona based on vengeance and fear naturally lends itself to questions of evil. In the early 1980s writers began to explore how close Batman came to that evil. Could Bruce Wayne be driven to kill? Does the Batman persona actually attract supervillains like the Joker? Might Batman’s methods end up producing the injustice that he wants to eradicate?
Frank Miller brought those themes to the fore in The Dark Knight Returns (1986). This volume also explored how Superman might become evil, so ready to serve “the American way” that he’s the tool of a repressive US government. Where in that book does the ideal of heroism shine purest? In its new Robin, of course: Carrie Kelley.
Miller’s vision of Batman fed into Alan Moore’s characterization of Batman in A Killing Joke and Grant Morrison’s in Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, both depicting the Dark Knight as a mirror of his villains. These stories aren’t outliers in the modern Batman mythos; they’re fundamental. Most of the examples I’ve discussed are among the ten greatest Batman stories ever told as recently announced at Comics Should Be Good!
In the last two decades, Batman’s storytellers have maintained his potential for evil—never fully realized, of course—as part of his basic characterization, even in the DC Animated Universe. Meanwhile, the most successful young Robins provide solid examples of sanity and virtue. Some notable storylines:
- Knightfall: After being injured, Bruce Wayne chooses a replacement Batman who can’t stand the pressure, goes crazy, and starts killing criminals. Meanwhile, Robin isn’t evil.
- JLA: Tower of Babel: After suffering hideously effective attacks, members of the Justice League discover that Batman has assembled information on how to beat each of them, and a villain has obtained those files. The League members wonder if they can trust Batman, and their young counterparts in Young Justice wonder the same. But Robin isn’t evil.
- In one of DC’s many lead-ups to its Infinite Crisis event, Batman has created a satellite called Brother Eye to keep watch over everyone on Earth with superpowers or criminal tendencies. Naturally, this gets out of his control and threatens everyone on Earth. Meanwhile, Robin and Nightwing aren’t evil.
COMING UP: But what about the second Jason Todd—wasn’t that Robin evil?