02 March 2008

For a Guy Without Pants

A long-time Oz and Ends reader replied to my "For a Guy Without Super-Powers" essay that what Robin most obviously lacked wasn't powers, but pants.

Indeed, the costume that Dick Grayson wore for over forty years (and the two Jason Todds for about five more) is remarkable for showing a lot of leg. Robin not only wore shorts, he wore shorts on the short side.

(So did Aqualad, the fellow at the center of this panel--but he lived underwater, so of course he spent his life in bathing trunks. Among kid sidekicks Toro, the original Human Torch's internally-heated partner, wore the least clothing: only trunks and boots. In the late 1940s, he left off the boots.)

Of course, showing the main characters' musculature during frenzied action scenes is a hallmark of superhero comics. But artists were able to do that perfectly well by dressing Batman and Superman and Captain America in colored tights. Among the headlining superheroes, only the Sub-Mariner and Wonder Woman wore less than Robin.

And yet, as far as I can tell, nobody mentioned this fact for decades. Batman comics showed Robin wading through drainage pipes, climbing mountains, and visiting outer space. I don't recall any character suggesting that perhaps he'd forgotten something when he got dressed that evening.

In one issue of Star-Spangled Comics, Robin even parachuted out of a plane over the Arctic. (Here's a more complete summary with pictures of him in what looks like his regular costume.) That story raised just enough questions to come with this reassuring caption:

Note: Robin’s Arctic costume is interwoven with fine wires that connect to a small but powerful battery in his belt. The radiating heat is well able to protect him from the cold.
And on tropical adventures Robin might wear even less.

Obviously, the original Robin costume made no sense on a practical level, but at the time it didn't need to. I think that for the comic's creators and readers that outfit made symbolic sense, for three reasons.

1) When Jerry Robinson designed the Robin costume in 1940, "long pants" were still a symbolic marker of maturity for American boys. Some comics showed Dick Grayson wearing britches. Thus, for those original readers, Robin's shorts underscored how he was still a Boy Wonder.

2) The Robin costume recalled the clothes of the trapeze artist Dick originally was. In real life, to be sure, circus flyers wear tights on their legs and tape their wrists to protect their skin. They don't wear pixie boots or flared gloves or capes, all of which would get in the catcher's way. But in its flashy styling and colors, the Robin costume looked like a circus outfit.

3) The main purpose of the Robin costume was to reflect the general outline of Batman's costume but provide a visual contrast in almost every way. The short sleeves, bare legs, and smaller mask were all part of that contrast. (More about this in a week.)

All seems to have been well, if a little chilly, until the 1980s. Then the conceit of the short pants had become simply too strained to go without comment. In the New Teen Titans magazine, Robin's teammates teased him by calling him "short pants." After the Crisis, DC's new gritty, realistic mode even allowed a new Robin, Jason Todd II, to point out how impractical the shorts were.

But it still took two shocks for DC Comics to rethink the Robin costume from the bottom up. The first was the death of Jason Todd in 1988, and the consequent reexamination of what readers wanted from the Robin character (which I'll discuss eventually). The second was the success of Tim Burton's Batman movie in 1989, with its redesigned Batman and Batmobile and its millions of dollars of merchandise sales.

DC Comics decided to introduce a new Robin into the comic books while another part of the same corporation, Warner Bros., thought about adding a Robin to a future movie. The publisher wanted the new Robin costume to reflect modern tastes in style and practicality. It asked up to a dozen artists to submit ideas.

This interview with artist Neal Adams, whose design (shown at right) was eventually chosen, confirms what he thought were the worst features of the 1940 look:
The problem with Robin came up when the movie company wanted to do Robin in the movies. So they said to DC, “We have to redesign Robin.” They couldn’t use Robin the way he was. . . .

The most important thing that I did was realize the character had to remain Robin, but had to be a new Robin, and there were some things that were really wrong. Like his legs were bare, that didn’t make any sense. He wore these little elf boots, that didn’t make any sense.
Another artist to submit ideas was Batman penciler Norm Breyfogle. He offers collectors a look at his memo on the topic, along with his redesigns. Breyfogle saw the same problem as Adams with the traditional outfit: "Bare legs are impractical; looks almost effeminate." Like Adams, he suggested "dark tights" and more body armor, and all his designs follow that path.

There were no doubt other redesigns; New Teen Titans co-creator George Pérez submitted some. The movie studio eventually went with something completely different. But I bet all those Robin designs got rid of the bare legs. Fans could no longer swallow that detail.

Today, Robin's short pants appear only in stories about Dick Grayson or Jason Todd set in the comic-book past, or in snarky parodies like Drastic Comics.

No comments: