09 February 2014

A Real Young Circus Flyer

In 1979 the photographer Jill Krementz published A Very Young Circus Flyer, about a nine-year-old trapeze artist working with the Ringling Bros. Circus. This was an unusual volume in her Very Young series because it focused on a boy rather than a girl. But there weren’t a lot of headlining circus flyers to choose from.

Tato Farfan was a sixth-generation circus acrobat. With his father, mother, and older brother, he made up that period’s Flying Farfans. The book showed their life traveling by train with America’s biggest circus, practicing their routine, and putting on the show. It also showed other backstage details of the circus.

I liked this book a lot when I was younger. It also told me that, contrary to some tellings of the Batman mythos and somewhat to my dismay, Dick Grayson’s Robin costume has nothing to do with the circus. In fact, it would be dangerous to dress that way while flying on a trapeze.

Tato Farfan wore tights so his father could grab his ankles; bare legs could hurt, and boots with a flare at the ankles would have gotten in the way. Tato taped his wrists since circus flyers grip each other’s wrists rather than cling hand-to-hand; flaring gauntlets would have been dangerous.

And as for a cape, the Flying Farfans wore sequined floor-length capes for their entrances and exits on the floor, but certainly not while on the trapeze. Up there, a big sheet flapping around would just get in the way. (Of course, Tato still liked swirling his cape backstage.)

To be fair, even back in Detective Comics, #38, Jerry Robinson drew young Dick in a traditional aerialist costume while he was with the circus, looking much like Tato. So have most artists since, though some have also showed an older Robin performing trapeze tricks in his costume, cape and all.

Jerry Robinson’s inspiration for the Robin costume wasn’t the circus but, as he always said, N. C. Wyeth’s paintings of Robin Hood in late medieval style. The boots, gloves, cape, jerkin, and mail trunks have their roots in that art, not in the circus.

TOMORROW: Where is Tato Farfan now?


Richard Bensam said...

Hmm. Doesn't it seem like you've found a springboard for a pre-Silver Age-style flashback story about Dick's initial reaction to the Robin costume? Many of these issues would also apply to situations where Robin is fighting crime with Batman, so imagine Dick secretly thinking "Gosh! This costume is all wrong! We'd never wear anything like that! Does Batman really know what he's doing?" Then in the course of events, Robin learns that the features which seem to be liabilities from the POV of a trapeze artist turn out to serve some beneficial purpose in a fighting situation.

(Of course at that point Robin wouldn't have discovered Bruce designed the costume to wear himself when seeking tutelage by Harvey Harris, but that could be worked into the script in a framing sequence...)

J. L. Bell said...

As far as I can tell, no one in DC Universe hinted that the Robin costume made no sense until the 1970s. Nor was there much discussion about where it came from. As you note, one story said Bruce designed the costume for himself as a boy and then totally forgot about it—and everyone then seemed to totally forget that story.

More recently, there have been steady efforts to justify the multiple colors, the bright cape, the bare legs or tights. Most recent retellings of how Dick Grayson became Robin, such as Dark Victory, say that he insisted on that outfit. Some of those tales connect parts of the garment to the Flying Graysons' costumes. Juvenile taste is almost the only plausible explanation.

If the colors and details aren't Dick's own choice, what benefits do they provide? One story with Tim raised the possibility that Robin is supposed to distract bad guys' eyes so Batman can swoop in. The cape might provide warmth, but so would sleeves and pants legs. I suppose Dick could realize that as Robin he wouldn't have a catcher like his dad, and therefore didn't need to dress that way, but there are still a lot of flaps and flares whose only purpose is to look good in a comic book.

The recent Batman and Robin Annual goes a different direction. Dick wants to wear a costume very much like his family's with a mask added; Bruce tells him no, go put on "the first one" or something like that. So Dick ends up wearing the new variation of the old outfit. At least one aspect of that moment definitely makes no sense: Dick's Flying Graysons outfit is all blue-gray, good for night camouflage, yet Bruce says it's too flashy—and orders him to wear the red, green, and yellow.

Fashion Maven said...

Not to be a doofus, and not to lower the tone here, but I always thought that the reason Robin is drawn with the costume that he has is that readers liked looking at him. The rationalization is way after the fact.

J. L. Bell said...

Well, yes, if we take the approach that Robin isn't real, then the costume was designed for its graphic effect on the page. Back in 1940 he wore red, green, and yellow because those colors stood out from Batman in black and blue. He wore shorts and short sleeves because they symbolized he was a kid. And once the character became popular, then that was the costume eveyone expected.

As fashions changed and superhero comics became more realistic and less cartoony, the costume seemed to require more in-story justification.