12 October 2008

Reason for Robin, #3

As I discussed last Sunday, the team producing Batman stories in 1940--artist Bob Kane, writer Bill Finger, and assistant artist Jerry Robinson--have disagreed on who had the idea to give the Dark Knight Detective a kid sidekick. But they all agreed on why that idea made good marketing sense.

Reason for Robin #3: Younger readers can identify with Robin.

Kane, who tended to describe his creations (and those of his colleagues when he claimed them for himself) in grandiose terms, stated in his memoir Batman and Me:

Robin evolved from my fantasies as a kid of fourteen, when I visualized myself as a young boy fighting alongside my idol, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. I imagined that young boys reading about Batman's exploits would project their own images into the story and daydream about fighting alongside the Caped Crusader as junior Batmen.

I thought that every young boy would want to be like Robin; instead of having to wait to grow up to become a superhero, they wanted to be one now. A laughing daredevil--free, no school, no homework, living in a mansion over the Bat Cave, riding in the Batmobile--he appealed to the imagination of every kid in the world.
Kane's colleagues agreed with this underlying thought. Finger recalled: "Bob called me over and said he was going to put a boy in the strip to identify with Batman." Robinson added: "it enlarged the readership identification. The younger kids could then identify with Robin, which they couldn't with Batman, and the older ones with Batman. It extended the appeal on a lot of levels."

To be sure, many young readers preferred to identify with Batman. I've already quoted Jules Feiffer's resentment of a kid sidekick who was far more athletic than he was. And in 1989 longtime Batman artist Norm Breyfogle said: "When I was a kid I never really identified with Robin. I still liked him, but he was just the 'sidekick'."

In Manufacturing Desire: Media, Popular Culture, and Everyday Life, Prof. Arthur Asa Berger wrote:
Like many other super heroes, Batman provides youngsters with a young sidekick hero to identify with--Robin, though it is Batman who captured the imagination of children the most. . . . During the Batman rage of a number of years ago [presumably the mid-1960s], many children in my neighborhood used to tie a towel around their neck and play Batman. It was always the youngest and weakest children who were forced into the Robin role.
But Robin's status as the littlest guy in the fight might actually increase the character's appeal to some children, especially the "youngest and weakest."
David A. Zimmerman, author of Comic Book Character, chose to dress as Robin for Halloween around age six, for example. Nostalgist Don Edrington recalls:
My favorite superheroes were Batman and Robin. I especially liked them because I could identify with Robin--I was sure he was exactly my age. I was positive of that when I first started reading the comics at about age nine, and I was still convinced he was my age when I was fourteen or fifteen.
And, as I noted back here, Jim Jacobs even modeled his physical training on Robin.

According to Bob Kane, the sales of Detective #38, introducing Robin, were much higher than previous issues. I don't trust Kane's anecdotes, but that one accords with some undeniable facts. Robin remained at Batman's side for three straight decades, appearing on almost all covers of Detective, Batman, and World's Finest comics during that stretch. And shortly after his first appearance, many other adult superheroes acquired kid sidekicks as well.

Obviously, the idea of giving younger readers a character to identify with worked. A lot of comic-book fans apparently enjoyed looking at Robin and seeing something of themselves.

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