27 March 2011

Revisting the First Boy Wonder’s Boyhood

This cosplay in its purest form comes from the website of WSOC in Charlottesville. Evidently it’s Charlie, one of the station’s deejays, around age six.

And speaking of childhood, this week DC and Grant Morrison addressed a detail of the Batman and Robin saga that nagged me ever since I read Batman: From the ’30s to the ’70s when I was a little older than Charlie here.

The original Batwoman was Kathy Kane, a socialite/circus performer. (In the world Bob Kane created, almost all heroes had to be rich. And it didn’t hurt if they had names similar to the one he adopted.) Batman figured out Batwoman’s identity by noticing she used circus slang. Robin, despite having grown up in a circus, was left with the “Holy jargon, Batman! I never realized!” routine.

For a while I rationalized that by telling myself that Dick Grayson was just so used to those terms that he didn’t realize they were unusual. But then I read other comics fans expressing bother at the same detail, and I could acknowledge it a sign of disrespect for the Boy Wonder.

Thanks to the billions of dollars humans have invested in the internet, I can even pin that down on science-fiction novelist Edmond Hamilton (1904-1977). The Grand Comics Database credits him with scripting Batwoman’s debut in Detective, #233, published in 1956.

But Hamilton may not have known Dick Grayson’s background. He started writing regularly for DC in the late 1940s, years after Robin was introduced. Today’s superhero comics constantly refer back to major characters’ backgrounds and origins, but the comic books didn’t retell Robin’s backstory between his arrival as the sensational character find of 1940 and Batman, #129, twenty years later. (There was a 1943 pilot for radio, never broadcast, that made his doomed parents trapeze artists and FBI agents.)

As a result, most of Hamilton’s young readers had probably never read about Dick’s upbringing in a circus. But when I saw Robin’s origin in the same volume as Batwoman’s, the discrepancy popped out. As I’ve noted before, Grant Morrison read the same collection as a wee lad in Glasgow, and perhaps he had the same thought.

In the latest issue of Batman, Inc., Morrison reinterprets the first Batwoman’s role in Batman’s past, as he forecast doing two years ago in a story collected in Batman, RIP. But this time Dick gets to spot the circus slang. He doesn’t tell Bruce what he knows because he’s conflicted about his adoptive big brother falling in love. And because he’s a grumpy thirteen-year-old. Now that I can believe.

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