02 December 2007

Batman's Ace in the Hole

In The Great Comic Book Heroes, his pioneering look back on America's early superhero comics, Jules Feiffer declared:

I couldn't stand boy companions. If the theory behind Robin the Boy Wonder, Roy the Superboy, The Sandman's Sandy, The Shield's Rusty, The Human Torch's Toro, The Green Arrow's Speedy was to give young readers a character with whom to identify, it failed dismally in my case.

The super grownups were the ones I identified with. They were versions of me in the future. But Robin the Boy Wonder was my own age. One need only look at him to see he could fight better, swing from a rope better, play ball better, eat better, and live better--while I lived in the east Bronx, Robin lived in a mansion, and while I was trying, somehow, to please my mother--and getting it all wrong--Robin was rescuing Batman and getting the gold medals. He didn't even have to live with his mother.

Robin wasn't skinny. He had the build of a middleweight, the legs of a wrestler. He was obviously an "A" student, the center of every circle, the one picked for greatness in the crowd--God, how I hated him.
Reading this as a lad made me wonder, again, whether I was mistaken in not loathing the character of Robin from an early age. But again, I did the math.

Feiffer's response to Robin, however deeply felt, was a minority view. Many more readers liked the character. Robin's presence might have helped Batman last through the late 1940s and 1950s while so many other superheroes were canceled and forgotten. According to Bob Kane's memoir, sales for the issue of Detective Comics that introduced Robin on its cover were double the usual. Understandably, the next 115 covers also featured the boy wonder. Of the first hundred issues of Batman magazine, Robin appeared on all but three.

Another reliable yardstick of Robin's popularity is how so many other superheroes quickly gained their own young sidekicks. Feiffer himself listed six, yet still left out Bucky, companion to Captain America; Captain Marvel, Jr., and Mary Marvel; and the Star Spangled Kid and Stripesy, an unusual pairing in which the adult was the sidekick, apparently because the kid was upper-class. (Feiffer also disliked boy companions enough to misremember the name of the Shield's partner; he was, the internet assures me, Dusty the Boy Detective.)

There were also whole series about groups of young heroes with little adult supervision: the Young Allies, a Captain America spin-off; the Boy Commandos, which shared Detective with Batman during World War II; the Newsboy Legion, who bumped the Star Spangled Kid off the cover of Star Spangled Comics; and on to such small-timers as the 1951 creation Dan Tayler, Boy Detective.

Boy sidekicks remained de rigueur in DC's superhero comics as the decades passed, with writers creating young companions for Tomahawk, Aquaman, the second Flash, and (in the person of Jimmy Olsen) Superman. The company also devised adolescent versions of Superman and Wonder Woman to have their own adventures.

One of Marvel's innovations in the 1960s, the decade when Feiffer assembled his book, was to create superheroes without young sidekicks. Or perhaps it's better to say that the company had one teen companion, Rick Jones, doled out to several heroes in turn. Yet the stellar success of Marvel's Spider-Man and later of The X-Men showed how many young comic-book readers were still happy to read about heroes close to their own age--even if they did have unusual strengths and didn't have to live with their mothers.

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