16 November 2008

Reason for Robin, #4

It's been over a month since my last Reason for Robin: the Boy Wonder as a character younger readers can identify with. My next analysis of what Robin brought to the Batman mythos is closely related.

Reason for Robin #4: Robin displays a broad range of emotions.

In the first “Bat-Man” story in Detective Comics, #27, the costumed crime-fighter showed basically one emotion: grim determination.

Later writer Bill Finger gave Batman some sarcastic wisecracks as he fought, but they still came from a deep well of grim determination. When things went well for Batman, he was grimly determined. When things went badly, he was determinedly grim.

By adding Robin, the creative team brought in a character who could show more emotions. Half of Batman's face is covered, while most of Robin's is visible, and the eyeholes in his mask can apparently change shape to express different feelings. (Of course, Batman's eyebrows have been known to show through his cowl when they're needed.)

Robin's wide range of moods didn't just provide variety. The young readers who identified with Robin could take their emotional cues from him. He made the high points of each story higher, the low points lower.
Thus, while Batman occasionally allowed himself some grim, determined pleasure, Robin expressed great joy in besting the bad guys. Even a little too much, as in the panel at top, from the first issue he appeared in. By the mid-1940s, Batman was grinning and cracking jokes during fight scenes as well, so the contrast between him and Robin on the pleasure side wasn't that big. But it remained wide when it came to other emotions.

Batman could reproach himself for making a mistake, but the comics couldn't show him breaking down without lessening his status as a manly hero. In contrast, the Boy Wonder could fall to pieces for a while, and most readers would accept that because they knew he was still growing, like themselves.

Batman could be stymied by some villain, but only temporarily. Robin could be totally flummoxed, and by showing his puzzlement alert readers to the story's baffling twists.

In some stories Robin even expressed Batman's troubled emotions for the reader since the Caped Crusader was too stoic to emote himself. And of course that amplified the dire nature of their situation.

The combination of Reasons for Robin #3 and #4 helps to explain the vast quantity of "shocked Robin" covers that DC Comics put out in the 1950s, occasionally on issues of both Detective and Batman magazines at the same time. Like Robin, young readers were supposed to be watching Batman's predicament. Like Robin, they were supposed to be emotionally affected by what they saw. And then, of course, they were supposed to buy the comic book.

COMING UP: How this emotional dynamic evolved in the last two decades of Batman stories.

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