20 March 2011

Dick Gray and Richard Grayson

Marc Tyler Nobleman, author of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman and an upcoming biography of Bill Finger, co-creator of Batman and Robin, recently alerted me to the sensational character find of 1903: The Boy Wonder, Dick Gray!

Appearing in one story in the pulp magazine Brave and Bold, Dick Gray was “athletic in figure and singularly agile in his movements”—but then so were most other dime-novel heroes.

In the Comic Buyer’s Guide, David Frank reported that “The Boy Wonder, or Dick Gray’s Marvellous Pump” is “about the adventures Gray gets into with his anti-gravity device.” It thus seems to be of a piece with the Stratemeyer syndicate’s Tom Swift series, L. Frank Baum’s Master Key, and similar young men’s tales from that age of technological wonder.

I doubt this 1903 magazine had any influence on the creation of Dick Grayson in 1940. Finger, Jerry Robinson, and Bob Kane weren’t even born when Dick Gray was pumped out. But the similarity of the characters’ names highlights one ubiquitous aspect of American pop fiction until recently: the WASPiness of its heroes and heroines.

Both Baum and Edward Stratemeyer had German surnames, but practically all their main characters had surnames from the British Isles. Two generations later, many of the first generation of superhero creators were Jewish: Finger, Bob Kane (originally Robert Kahn), Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Will Eisner, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby (originally Jacob Kurtzberg), Stan Lee (originally Stanley Leiber), and so on. But they created heroes with names like Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Denny Colt, Steve Rogers, Reed Richards, and Peter Parker.

That trend in popular culture both reflected and amplified the trend in real life for some Americans to shed their “ethnic” names. Which brings me to a real Richard Grayson.

Back during the national crisis over the edition of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn published without ethnic slurs, one small electronic press announced the publication of The Hipster Huckleberry Finn. It replaced the “n word” with “hipster.” The editor and publisher of that edition is a writer, teacher, and activist named Richard Grayson.

In this autobiographical essay he explains:

I was born Richard Arnold Ginsberg in Brooklyn on June 4, 1951, two years after my parents, Marilyn and Daniel, had married. When I was six months old, Mom and Dad changed our Jewish last name to the ethnically neutral Grayson.
At that time, superhero comics were in a doldrum. Robin was one of the handful of costumed heroes who continued to appear often in comic books—Batman, Detective, and World’s Finest—but even he had lost his cover slot on Star Spangled Comics.

The Batman newspaper comic strip had stopped years before. The low-budget movie serial Batman and Robin had appeared in theaters in 1949 and then disappeared, and there was no TV show in daily reruns.

As a result, most Americans might not have seen any particular meaning in the name “Richard Grayson,” aside from the “ethnically neutral” quality this man’s parents were seeking.

But as the former Richard Ginsburg grew up, superhero comics came back. He even read them:
I also was a big fan of superhero comic books. I proudly possessed the early issues of Justice League of America, Green Lantern, Spider-Man, and Daredevil. At 11, I would pretend to be The Flash – Fastest Man Alive – as I bicycled around the neighborhood, playing hooky from Hebrew school.
Alas, Grayson doesn’t discuss whether he identified with Batman’s Boy Wonder, or was teased for sharing that character’s name. Perhaps one day he’ll make a story about it.


Richard said...

Well, nobody ever called me Dick. My friends (not my family) called me Richie. And back when I first read a Batman comic -- around 7 or 8 years old probably, 1958 or so -- Robin the Boy Wonder was always referred to as "Dick," which I didn't think was the same name. None of my friends ever really mentioned it except maybe to point it out once and then, oh, go on to the next thing of interest to boys.

(My first memory of seeing a Bob Kane comic is probably from around age 8, in the Church Avenue, East Flatbush, Brooklyn barbershop/beauty salon around the corner from my grandmother's house and owned by my grandparents' friends -- the same block where I often got my comics a couple of years later; see "Land of Golden Giants").

Only when the Batman TV show came on four or so years later did I ever hear the character referred to as "Richard," I think on an episode in school where his principal referred to him that way.

I can recall my history teacher at the private Franklin School (blue blazer uniforms, rep ties, attache cases) -- an erudite drunk who'd been an NYU professor -- mentioning it in our large lecture class the next day and people chuckling at the coincidence.

By the time the character was referred to as "Richard," I was already pretty old. Mostly it would come up when I'd give my credit card to male cashiers who were in their teens and early twenties. "Do you know that you have the same name as . . .?" they'd always say, as if I'd spent the previous 40 years in another dimension.

There are a lot of better known Richard Graysons than I, notably my acquaintance (we were both fellows at the MacDowell Colony) the brilliant composer (who also can appropriate pop culture -- see his famous Darth Vader YouTube performance) and many others.

It's such a generic name, I don't think it has much impact. Very rarely has anyone ever remarked on it, and I've been a college teacher and law school administrator since 1975, so I see a lot of people in the comic-reading ages.

I did once meet a man named Bruce Wayne, though that is all I can remember about him.

And I found Jules Feiffer's speculations about Robin in the introduction to The Great Comic Book Heroes interesting.

Thanks for the mention.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comments, Richard.

Growing up with the name John Bell, I came across men with my name in various places: a football lineman, a presidential candidate, a type designer, and so on. But never a character in a popular TV show while I was still in my teens.

Once while I was working at a publisher I answered my phone as usual with my name and the name of my division: “John Bell, General Books.”

The caller said, a bit dubiously, “This is John Bell from General Publishing.”

“Yes, it is,” I said. “And who is this?”

And another couple of minutes of lively repartee like that. The caller turned out to be another man named John Bell, working for the General Publishing Company of Canada. I don’t think the conversation ever recovered.

gail said...

Hey, I remember this Richard Grayson from the Readerville on-line readers'/writers' community. Every now and then I see a writer's name from those days.