10 February 2008

For a Guy Without Super-Powers

Last month, one of my weekly Robin postings discussed how Batman's sidekick Robin was almost always the littlest guy in the fight, a kid up late in the adult world. Thus, although he's a Boy Wonder--physically, mentally, and constitutionally superior to almost all his readers--Robin remained an underdog.

Even when Robin gets together with other crime-fighting teenagers, he's at an apparent disadvantage because he has no special powers. That was a major theme of Dick Grayson's first team-up with Kid Flash and Aqualad in The Brave and the Bold, #54, published in 1964.

That comic book's cover shows the villain of the hour sneering to Robin, "If Kid Flash and Aqualad couldn't stop my fire-storm with their super-powers, what chance do you have?" At the time, the other boys are unconscious, and Robin is struggling just to carry them out of harm's way. Within the story, the villain tells himself, "Without super-powers, he can't harm me!" And, as the panel above shows, Robin's own companions aren't much more complimentary about his strengths.

But that's the whole point. Robin does save his friends and does disarm the villain. He shows himself to be a natural tactician and leader. By the end of this story, Robin's superpowered friends realize the error of their ways.

That team-up led to another, and eventually to the launch of the first Teen Titans comic book series in 1965. Those stories are almost embarrassing, with the period's usual silly plots given an extra coating of kitsch from writer Bob Haney's attempts to appeal to youth through a desperate concoction of fads and slang. The series faded away, returned, then faded again, only to be resurrected in glorious form in 1980 by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez.

It's telling that when Wolfman and Pérez offered readers a sneak preview of the new series in DC Presents, #26, they did so by following Robin. He was not only the most identifiable of DC's teenaged heroes, but also the one easiest for readers without superpowers to identify with.

Indeed, when restarting Teen Titans yet again in 2003, writer Geoff Johns recalled:

I knew immediately that the Teen Titans had to have a few things: They had to have a Robin.
Five years later, that group has undergone lots of changes, but Tim Drake as Robin remains. The Titans need a Robin.


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, I've tried to avoid it for several days, but I can no longer resist pointing out that, in our culture, the pantsless look never denotes great power. (And I have some comments on the emperor's new clothes as well.)

J. L. Bell said...

Well, perhaps not wearing pants is just another way Robin lures people into believing he's less of a threat.

Seriously, I think Robin's costume makes a little more sense when we consider it was designed in 1940, when starting to wear long pants was still often treated as a rite of passage for boys. But just a little.

The shorts and the colors were an artistic conceit, I believe, chosen to make a greater contrast between Batman and Robin.

By the early 1980s, Robin's hero buddies were kidding him about the costume. In the late '80s, the new Robin was complaining about the shorts. The new Robin in 1991 got long pants made of bullet-resistant, flame-resistant fabric. And a little magic was lost.