06 January 2008

Robin, the Littlest Guy in the Fight

A month ago I quoted Jules Feiffer's explanation of why he hated Robin, the Boy Wonder:

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. . . . 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.
In this passage, Feiffer seems to have been imagining Robin sauntering into his schoolyard in the Bronx. And of course the comic-book character would stand out from all the other young teenaged boys. He was a paragon of American youth.

But that's not the context in which comic books usually showed Robin, of course. Instead, readers saw him accompanying Batman on crime-fighting patrols. And in that context Robin wasn't the "center of every circle, the one picked for greatness." He was always the littlest guy in the fight. He was repeatedly getting beat up, screwing up, or feeling clueless. In perhaps one in every twenty stories Robin got a chance to shine and save the day.

Among DC's major comic-book heroes, Superman and Wonder Woman can do practically anything. The Flash, Green Lantern, and many others have superhuman powers. Batman has none, but he's the scariest, smartest guy around, as well as immensely rich. Robin is just a sharp, athletic kid with neat toys and guts.

(Yes, Robin has the advantage of being friends with the scariest, smartest guy around, but that means having to live with the scariest guy around and to measure up to the smartest guy around. Those tensions were only implicit in the first decades of Batman comics, but have became abiding pressures for the Robin characters in the last quarter-century.)

Feiffer had trouble identifying with Robin because he was about the same age as the character and knew that he hadn't developed the Boy Wonder's athletic or detective skills. But for other readers, Robin's youth and lack of powers have made him more compelling. He has to struggle with what comes easily to older, more powerful superheroes. He makes mistakes and loses fights (the little guy must have suffered more concussions than an NFL lineman). He learns and keeps plugging.

Which of course makes Robin's triumphs--those one in twenty Batman stories, his adventures on his own or with fellow teenagers--all the more improbable, and all the more satisfying.

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

In saying that Robin was "always the littlest guy in the fight," I neglected how some artists have drawn Oswald Cobblepot, the Penguin. So mostly always, depending on whether one measures height or weight or both.