06 July 2008

Robin’s “Storytelling Engine”

As I wrote yesterday, at Fraggmented John Seavey writes an ongoing series of posts called "Storytelling Engines," which analyze the situations that drive different superhero comics. These are the dilemmas, paradoxes, and never-resolved desires and questions that keep successful comic-book serials rolling year after year.

Last Monday, Seavey discussed Robin, both the original (Dick Grayson) and current (Tim Drake) incarnations. I suspect that two recent developments influenced how Seavey analyzed the Boy Wonder:

  • Fans are working themselves into a fever about the upcoming second Batman movie from Christopher Nolan, many debating whether the expected third movie could or should include the character of Robin.
  • Chuck Dixon, who scripted the first several years of the Robin comic (1993-) and the first few years of the Nightwing comic (1996-), recently returned to Robin, only to suddenly part ways with DC Comics.
Seavey's essay discusses what having a young sidekick has brought to Batman's stories since 1940:
The Boy Wonder is an essential element of Batman's storytelling engine, and has been for generations. He's a handy audience identification figure for younger readers who want to imagine themselves adventuring side by side with their hero, he's a handy means of providing exposition (so that Batman doesn't have to talk to himself quite so much), and as a crimefighter slightly less competent than the Darknight Detective, he's a useful source of plot complications if the writer needs to extend the story. (And he's also a source of comic relief, if your source of humor trends towards terrible puns...)
In the last twenty years, DC Comics writers have emphasized a couple of other ways that Robin adds to Batman's stories. He represents the innocence that Bruce Wayne lost when his parents were murdered, and he can talk back to the Caped Crusader when almost everyone else is afraid to. But those are relatively recent developments; they don't explain why Robin was immediately popular in 1940, and I agree with Seavey's explanations.

Off and on, DC published solo Robin adventures. The first batch appeared in Star-Spangled Comics in late 1940s and has been collected in the Archive volume shown at top. Another set appeared starting in the late 1960s, when Robin was the "Teen Wonder"; some are reprinted in the cheaper Showcase volume at right. However, neither set was really compelling.

Dick Grayson became a widespread favorite in his own right in the early 1980s when he was the leader of the New Teen Titans. DC had him take on a new identity as Nightwing. Eventually the company created Tim Drake as Batman's new young partner, giving this Robin some miniseries and then (when Bruce Wayne was temporarily replaced as Batman) his own magazine. Seavey writes:
So now, instead of one Robin who doesn't work as a solo hero, we have two that do (three, if anyone here actually cares about the resurrected Jason Todd. Anyone? Anyone? No, didn't really think so.) What made the difference? Arguably, Chuck Dixon. As a writer who's always been concerned with the nuts and bolts of good storytelling, he made sure to surround his characters with the elements that made their storytelling engines work. He made sure the characters had easy access to story ideas, if for no other reason than it made his job easier, and it made those characters work in a way they hadn't before...and in a way they haven't since. . . . A hero without a good supporting cast, a good setting, and a good antagonist is really just a sidekick.
Unfortunately, I don't think Seavey's essay ever gets to the question of what has made Robin's and Nightwing's solo stories successful enough to sell year after year. It's all very well to praise Dixon for creating good supporting casts and sticking with them, but the heroes themselves need to have interesting conflicts and challenges that arc from issue to issue. So here are my thoughts on those two characters' storytelling engines.

Nightwing's solo series began after he left the Titans in the early 1990s. (He's returned to that group at least twice since, but no matter.) Within the Titans, Dick had a role and even a family. Without them, he feels adrift and unaccomplished. He has to find a place in the superhero world outside of Batman's shadow and in the civilian world outside of Wayne Manor. Above all, he has to live up to the impossible standards he's inherited from his mentor.

As for Tim Drake, he was the first and most successful of several teen-aged heroes that DC launched in the 1990s. One ongoing theme of his magazine is what a young man has to do to grow up as a hero, but that theme also appears in the stories of the second Superboy and the speedster Impulse.

What's made Tim Drake's adventures last longer than those others is how clearly he sees the dark side of being a costumed hero. He admires Batman, but from the beginning he sees the harm that Batman can do to himself and others. Tim wants to learn, but he also wants to figure out how to avoid his teacher's mistakes.

For most of Robin's run, Tim also sought his father's respect, yet had to hide his nocturnal crime-fighting. More recently, his father and several friends have been murdered, and that's made Tim closer to and more worried about sliding into a dark, Batman-like adulthood.

Those challenges and paradoxes have run from issue to issue, evolving but never resolved. They were often more interesting than the villain of the month. They comprised this Robin's storytelling engine.

There's more commentary on Seavey's Robin essay at Comics Should Be Good.

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