14 December 2008

Reason for Robin, #5

Now we come to a reason for including Robin in the Batman comic books that appears to have been very important in the first three or four decades of the mythos, less so today.

Reason for Robin, #5: He slips, he falls!

In countless Batman adventures from the 1940s through the 1960s, the Dynamic Duo are on the point of catching a gang of crooks when Robin trips over something. Or over nothing at all. He's rarely overpowered by bigger and stronger people. No, he falls down all on his own.
This bit of business served an important function in those adventure comics. Their narrative style depended on a series of sudden reversals: The good guys are winning! No, the bad guys are! No, the good guys! If Batman just captured all the villains right away, the story wouldn't be so exciting.

So the plotting required some way for malefactors to escape or, even better, capture Robin and/or Batman and put them in an imaginative but inefficient deathtrap. Robin stumbling was a convenient solution. Even when no villains were in sight, Robin could still trip just to heighten the sense of danger and emotion in the story.
In his first, solo adventures, Bill Finger and his fellow writers had addressed the same need by giving Bruce Wayne a glass jaw. A well-timed punch could knock him out of action for a while. But Batman couldn't keep losing fights like that without calling into question all that those comics said about him being a physical paragon.
So it fell to Robin to be the fall guy. Then Batman could stop his fight or pursuit in order to look after his little buddy, and the story would survive for another few pages. Since Robin was still only a Boy Wonder, learning and growing, the comic-book creators apparently expected readers to accept Robin's stumbles.

Which I had trouble doing, even when I first read those old Batman stories in first youth. Dick Grayson was a professional trapeze artist at an age when Bruce Wayne was still a rich kid whining about wanting to go to the movies. Adolescents often go through clumsy stages, but this amount of awkwardness for Dick was beyond belief. It was an obvious plot contrivance to the detriment of a character.
After the Batman stories became more realistic in the late 1960s, the Boy Wonder became remarkably more graceful. Indeed, in the last two decades DC Comics has declared that Dick Grayson is the most adept acrobat on Earth, able to leap off tall buildings in a single bound and survive. It's okay for him to be better than Batman in that regard since he's not as skilled a detective, or as obsessed.

The Robin stories have also been able to find meaningful contrasts between Dick, now Nightwing, and his successor Tim Drake, who's relatively awkward as a gymnast (though of course excellent by real-world standards). That's okay for Tim's fans because, the stories remind us, his strengths as Robin lie in other areas. He can have a few falls and seem more realistic, not less so.

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