02 May 2010

Robin Isn’t Evil, But Batman…?

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.
We can see those themes in today’s magazines and movies: Batman being driven to kill in Final Crisis, the Joker’s soliloquies in The Dark Knight, Tim Drake putting on a dark cowl in Red Robin and then having to pull himself out of a dark place, and of course the “goddamn Batman” of Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin.

COMING UP: But what about the second Jason Todd—wasn’t that Robin evil?


Anonymous said...

There was a good fanfic I read set just after the Tower of Babel story, where Dick berates Clark for not realising that the reasoning for Bruce having the takedown protocols was sound, given the number of mind control stories they've all been through. When Clark challenges Dick by saying "Do you think he has a file on you?", Dick's surprising, but appropriate response is "I hope he does, because if for whatever reason I'm hurting or killing people, some part of me buried inside would want to know that there was someone out there who would know how to stop me, and would, no matter how much it hurt them to."

J. L. Bell said...

I think the strength of the “Is Batman evil?” storylines (when done right) is that there’s a strong case to be made for his actions, as that fanfiction story does. JLA: Tower of Babel lets him explain his reasons, too.

Those tales eventually come down to whether Bruce’s mission hampers his ability to maintain normal relationships, or whether normal relationships would hamper his mission. And that question is fundamental to Batman’s character, its danger and appeal.

I’ve kept my eyes open for stories in which Dick Grayson’s mind is taken over and he becomes evil. There are some, of course, but there seem to be far fewer of them than there are for Batman or Superman. That’s still just an impression since I haven’t done a full survey and run the numbers.

If that pattern holds up, I suspect it partly reflects how the mind-control gambit was a staple of Silver-Age stories, when Robin was clearly the weakest link on the World’s Finest team. Why, given a choice, would any villain want to control him?

Wasn’t it more exciting to imagine mighty Superman or crafty Batman under mind control than little Robin? “Oh, no, the Boy Wonder’s gone evil! What can we do?” “Well, you could use your superstrength to break his bare legs.” “Yeah, or you could just sit on him.”

But the pattern persists even after Dick became Nightwing. Nowadays, DC heroes trust Dick Grayson so much that he’d be extremely dangerous under mind control. But has anybody at DC written that story? Would anyone dare? (Well, would the company dare to print it?)

Anonymous said...

Dick was more often controlled than more corrupted, since a helpless Robin under the villains sway makes a more effective threat to Batman than an evil Robin per se (It'd also be terribly difficult to look MENACING in the pixie boot costume). Burt Ward managed to be an evil-Robin a couple of times in the 60's series though...

In the comics Dick was under the influence of Brother Blood for a long time, as Robin and Nightwing, but again, not really in an evil capacity, more a standard mind-control scenario on two occasions. He managed to free himself the first time when Blood ordered him to execute the Titans, but the second time took ALL the Titans to free him and a similarly affected Raven.

Straying slight at a tangent, I confess I've never found the Batman is evil/borderline psychotic to be interesting, because I've never remotely considered for a moment that he was. If anything Batman is probably the most terrifyingly sane person in history, he's sane past the point of sanity. He doesn't even allow himself the harmless little illusions and deceptions that ordinary people allow themselves.

I can't recall any evil Nightwing stories offhand, though there's always Deathwing if you want to reopen that can of continuity worms...

J. L. Bell said...

I just remember TV’s Dick Grayson dressing up in leather to look like a juvenile delinquent and then not being able to smoke a cigarette.

With Batman’s sanity, my only objection to the “brooding psychopath” or “benign psycho” interpretation is that it‘s too final. I think it’s more interesting to leave the possibility up in the air and see Bruce/Batman struggle with it.

Where’s the line between being prepared for any contingency and being paranoid? Is preparing to take out all your best friends for the sake of everyone else on Earth make you more humane or less? If you can act friendly and cheerful toward 99% of your neighbors, why be so brusque to your nearest and dearest?

The Batman stories never provide a final or definite answer to such questions. (Except, I suppose, for Earth-Two Batman.) And I doubt most fans want final answers. Part of the character’s post-1980 appeal is the danger he represents, and how (so far) he always pulls himself back from the worst. Batman not only has to fight to preserve Gotham City and/or the world, but he also has to preserve his value system and himself.

As for Deathwing, sooner or later I’ll polish my thoughts about how both Dick Grayson and Tim Drake have been haunted by images of themselves grown up as evil. In Tim’s case, the figure of fear is the Batman of “Titans of Tomorrow.” Both Robin characters represent aspects of growing up, so among their biggest fears is growing up wrong.

Anonymous said...

Tim Drake and his evil Batman self would be good, but as far as I recall, Nightwing and Future-Nightwing/Deathwing/never-was-Dick never met. Dick-Nightwing and the somewhat random Jason-Nightwing of the just post OYL might make an interesting contrast.

J. L. Bell said...

Deathwing invited himself to Dick and Kory’s wedding, as I recall. But he and Dick didn’t get much face-to-face time to debate, like Tim and possible-future-Tim.

It may be more accurate to say that possible-future-Dick haunted readers rather than Dick himself. At first, what seemed to be a familiar, heroic Dick was stuck in an awful future. Then that Dick turned awful as well, and got a “shocking” cover out of it. The two characters also seemed to move in parallel, even to having bad sex with Mirage. But then nothing in the period of Zero Hour and Marv Wolfman’s writer’s block is really coherent.

Anonymous said...

Dick was under Jericho's influence in a Titans last year or so. Not evil, but he was the one controlled without realizing it.

Dick himself seems to be harder to make evil than just Robin. (Obviously we currently have a Robin well acquainted with evil.) I remember that story where Bruce pretends to give Tim a warning from the future about one of their allies going bad. Tim imagines how they all could go bad. The one for Dick didn't ring very true to me.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I recall that moment. Winick’s script built up to “Who is Jericho hiding inside?” And I think the fact that it was Nightwing was supposed to be a big reveal because Dick’s the last person we want/expect to have villainy inside him.

Of course, Joe Wilson (or even Joey Slade, as that series oddly called him) has known since he first came on the scene in New Teen Titans that you never leave Nightwing for last.

Anonymous said...

About the only time I DO recall Robin being evil per se was when he was turned into a hungry vampire by his then girlfrined Dala, and comes THIS close to chowing down on Vicki Vale. Batman, similarly infected, goes all alpha-Bat on him so he's not a threat for long, but it's closest I can think of offhand.

J. L. Bell said...

I remember the vampire storyline, in which Dick’s wish to help Dala (mixed with the horniness of youth) makes him vulnerable—an example of being so not-evil that he briefly becomes evil. Gerry Conway was writing a lot of Batman and Robin at this point, and he had a traditional view of Dick Grayson’s challenge as learning how to avoid mistakes.

Of course, there was nothing more shocking in that period than the sight of Robin attacking Bruce Wayne in the shower in Batman, #356. Even though there turns out to be simple explanation for that moment (simple in comic-book terms), it wouldn’t have had the power it did if we readers weren’t convinced that Robin would be the last guy to do that.

One of the relatively few Silver Age comic-book covers that suggested Robin had gone bad was Detective, #342.

That story involved dark-haired white teen boys dressed up in Robin costumes to commit crimes. It seems significant that DC felt the need to reassure readers that this was indeed a “startling cover” and that only one of the young men on it was the “real Robin.”