16 December 2007

More Than One Robin

Today's weekly Robin comes in two intertwined parts because I'm pondering two major developments since my days as a fanboy reader, and I couldn't figure out how to discuss one without mentioning the other. These facts will come as no news to folks who've read DC comic books in the last couple of decades, but I didn't.

When I was reading The Teen Titans in the early 1980s, there was still only one Robin on this Earth: Dick Grayson. During that comics series, he retired his first costume and took on a new identity as Nightwing. I didn't either know or care at the time, but simultaneously Bruce Wayne adopted a young replacement, who turned out to be the first of several new Robins.

In fact, by my count (which differs from the usual), there have been four official Robins after Dick, and a handful of other notable Robins in other media or alternative futures. Here's the rundown.

1. Dick Grayson
The original, created in 1940 and still going strong in his twenties as Nightwing. A young trapeze artist whose parents were killed by criminals, Dick became Bruce Wayne's ward and crime-fighting partner while going to school in Gotham City.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Dick had solo adventures in Star-Spangled Comics. Starting in 1964, he teamed with other teenaged sidekicks in the Teen Titans, usually functioning as the group's leader. In 1969 Dick went to college, and he was still working on that bachelor's degree in the early 1980s.

The Crisis on Infinite Earths series from 1985 had little effect on Dick's personality, but it changed Bruce Wayne's character enough to give them a different history together. More on that in some future posting.

2. Jason Todd I
Created in 1983, Jason was a trapeze artist whose parents were murdered. Cornering the market on orphaned young male circus acrobats, Bruce Wayne adopted Jay and trained him to be the second Robin. He was a natural redhead, but dyed his hair black. You think the DC writers were trying to recreate Dick Grayson? This Jason Todd never developed much character of his own. He went into the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths (as shown here), but apparently never came out.

Most people don't count this Jason Todd as separate from the next one, but I say that if the two characters have different parents, different histories, different personalities, and different genes, then they're separate characters who happen to share the same name.

3. Jason Todd II
The post-Crisis Batman writers of 1986 completely revamped Jason Todd's character to produce more friction and drama with Bruce Wayne. Now Jay was a street kid whom the Batman caught trying to steal tires off the Batmobile. His dead father had been a criminal killed by one of the usual supervillains.

Most important, this Jason Todd disobeyed Batman. He was angry, impulsive, and reckless. And, for reasons I'll ponder at some point, he was unpopular with fans. In 1988 the DC editors set up a storyline that ended with the Joker blowing up a building with him in it, and invited readers to call a 900-number to vote on whether Jason would live or die. He died.

It would have been unthinkable for Jason to die pre-Crisis. And even now, superhero characters don't stay dead. The second Jason Todd is now back, older and more bitter than ever, and causing trouble for his counterparts. He has apparently received sole custody of the twin forehead curls that Robin wore from the 1940s through the 1960s.

4. Tim Drake
Created in 1989-90, Tim Drake has proven to be as popular as Dick Grayson, by some measures even more so. (Sometime I'll present my theory why.) He's very smart, can stand up to Batman without being rebellious, and has a warm brotherly relationship with Dick. Tim was the first Robin to have a magazine named after him. He was a stalwart of the Young Justice group and assembled the latest Teen Titans.

Unlike his predecessors, Tim was not an orphan when he started working with Batman. It was only coincidence that he suffered the requisite death of his mother at the hands of criminals. His father survived until 2004, thus producing a novel tension for a Robin: hiding his nocturnal activities from a parent. (It was easier when Dad was in a coma.)

Tim is easy to distinguish from previous Robins because the costume was altered to make it more, well, reasonable. He got to wear Kevlar tights instead of short shorts and pixie boots, and his cape became black with a yellow lining instead of yellow. (Last year Tim started to wear a new costume, mostly red and black, giving comic-book shops a whole new line of action figures to sell.)

5. Stephanie Brown
Many issues of Robin magazine traced the relationship between Tim Drake as Robin and a young female vigilante named the Spoiler. Tim figured out that she was Stephanie Brown, daughter of a minor supervillain. They fell in love and worked through various teenage troubles: he wouldn't tell her his real name, she needed a Lamaze partner, the usual.

When Tim's father discovered he was Robin and barred him from crime-fighting, Batman went looking for a new partner. And he chose Stephanie. (This did not help the teens' relationship.) However, making Stephanie the girl wonder was just a set-up for her death, which the DC editorial staff had already determined on. All this is terribly controversial, and I have no opinion about it.

After Stephanie Brown's murder, Tim Drake once again took up the role of Robin. Some fans are now all squee about hints that the Spoiler will come back.

In addition, the last quarter-century has brought several more variations on the Robin character:

  • Carrie Kelly was the first female Robin, but she doesn't exist yet. She appears in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, a possible future for Batman.
  • The Batman television cartoon produced an "alternate continuity" called the DC Animated Universe (DCAU as opposed to DCU), with its own comic books. The Robin in that continuity is named Tim Drake but has Jason Todd II's background.
  • The Robin of the Teen Titans television cartoon, which has also inspired a comic-book line, really doesn't have another identity. He doesn't even take off his mask to sleep. Clues indicate that he's a version of Dick Grayson, though his costume more closely resembles Tim Drake's.
  • DC is about to publish a "tiny Titans" comic book; detail from Art Baltazar's preview here. I like the lowercase chest insignia. The pixie boots are back.

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

It’s 21 May 2008, and DC has just published the Robin comic book that confirms ex-Robin Stephanie Brown is alive and back in Gotham.