17 April 2011

Researching Robin

Marc Tyler Nobleman, author of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman and an upcoming book on writer Bill Finger, has generously shared some of his notes on the question of who created the original Robin, the Boy Wonder.

Jerry Robinson, who was working as an artist for Bob Kane, has often credited Finger for the idea of giving Batman a sidekick while providing strong evidence that he himself came up with the character’s name and look. For example, here’s an extract from Gary Groth’s interview with Robinson in The Comics Journal, #271, as supplied by Marc:

GROTH: I assume you’ve read Gerry Jones’ new history of comics, Men of Tomorrow. There’s a little contradiction I wanted you to clarify between what you’ve said previously about who created Robin and how Jones related it. Jones wrote, “When Bill Finger felt Batman could use a sidekick to talk to, he and Robinson created Robin, the Boy Wonder.” Now, you contradict that in an interview that you did with Comics Interview when the interviewer asks you, “What about Robin? You were responsible for his creation” and you reply, “No, no. I was not. I can’t take credit for that. As I reconstructed it and Bill confirmed my recollection, Bob and Bill had the idea of having a kid and discussed that idea before I arrived.”

ROBINSON: Right. That’s basically true. Gerry I think was very accurate in his interviews. He interviewed me extensively for the book. I think he did a very fine job. In any event, yeah, more accurately, adding a kid was under discussion. I’m sure it was Bill’s idea for adding a boy. That I would attribute to Bill without question. When I came in they were already discussing possible names. So I joined the discussion of the creation. There was nothing on paper yet, nothing but the idea of adding a sidekick. And I know that was Bill’s idea to add a sidekick, from the discussion that ensued. The impetus came from Bill’s wanting to extend the parameters of the story potential and of the drama. He saw that adding a sidekick would enhance the drama. Also, it enlarged the readership identification. The younger kids could then identify with Robin, which they couldn’t with Batman, and the older ones with Batman. It extended the appeal on a lot of levels.
Robinson said similar things in Alter Ego, #39, and elsewhere. However, this interview also makes clear that Robinson was not present when Finger presented the “idea for adding a boy”; rather, he inferred that Finger deserved the credit.

It’s notable, however, that Bill Finger himself didn’t lay claim to Robin even as he took credit for originating other parts of the Batman mythos. In 1965 he told The New Yorker that the “group” created Robin to be Batman’s Watson.

Bob Kane, of course, claimed the credit for himself.

I think this investigation may be so complicated because Robin was created in stages. The character is the combination of three ideas:
It’s clear that the last stage was mostly Robinson’s creation, with a bit of help from Finger. It also appears likely that Finger was already pushing to add a companion for Batman, which would make his scripting easier.

But who had the idea to make that companion a teenager? My theory remains that someone in the DC office pressed Kane to increase the “kid appeal” of the stories he was supplying. As I wrote back here, at the start of 1940 Fawcett reportedly had a poll showing that boys comprised the biggest set of comic-book readers, and the company created Captain Marvel as a response.

Robin’s arrived at the same time as new Detective Comics chief editor Whitney Ellsworth. He bumped the story announced for Detective, #38, in favor of introducing the Sensational Character Find of 1940. Shortly after that, Ellsworth demanded that Batman stop using guns and other lethal means because those weren’t appropriate for children’s entertainment. So Ellsworth definitely pushed the “kid appeal” message, and liked Robin’s potential.

So here’s a scenario to consider. In early 1940 Ellsworth told Kane that he’d be taking over Detective and that the Batman stories needed to offer even more for boys. Kane brought that message back to his apartment/office as his own idea—at the time, he was the only link between the publisher and his team.

Finger saw how this suggestion offered a solution to a problem he’d been wrestling with: the lack of a “Watson.” Finger and Kane had thus agreed to add a kid sidekick when Robinson came into the conversation. Robinson finished developing the character with Finger’s help.

Each man could thus claim to have come up with basic ideas for Robin—or, in Kane’s case, perhaps to have adopted that idea as his own. It’s consistent with what we know of their personalities for Kane to maximize his claims, Finger to be scrupulously minimal, and Robinson to take the side of the underdog. But the character was a joint creation, driven by a combination of commercial pressure, storytelling needs, and artistic choices.


Robin Appreciation Group said...

Excellent article as always!

J. L. Bell said...

Marc Tyler Nobleman continues the discussion here.