07 December 2008

Robin Has the Worst Dad in the World

My "Reason for Robin, #4" postings about the emotional contrast between Batman and Robin lead naturally to an analysis of the fraught relationship between those characters.

In the first several decades of Batman and Robin comics stories, Dick Grayson was officially Bruce Wayne's "ward." The difference between their ages was unspecified. The ambiguity of that relationship allowed readers to interpret it in various ways; a client of the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham famously took Bruce and Dick as a rare model of a happy homosexual couple. (I expect to discuss that interpretation in more detail someday.)

I think the first several decades of Batman and Robin comic books depicted the relationship as mainly fraternal. Occasionally the characters say as much, as in panels that appear here and here.

Nonetheless, as the adult guardian, Bruce tried to raise Dick responsibly. For example, in the 1943 story "Robin Studies His Lessons!" he insisted that Dick stick to his schoolbooks after his grades appeared to drop. That went so well.

The tenor of that relationship changed significantly after two developments in the 1980s:

Since then, the long-term narratives of all the Robins have been dominated by their difficult relationships with Batman. Bruce has adopted some of those teenagers. (He even legally adopted Dick.) Other Robins had biological fathers who were challenging in their own ways. But the constant for all those young characters is:

Batman is the Worst Dad in the World.

I'm not talking about Batman's habit of encouraging his protégés to fight insane and superpowered criminals while dressed in bright colors, foolhardy as that is. Many comics fans and creators (including artist Alex Ross, quoted here) say that this makes no sense, but what parents always make sense? Moreover, that behavior is the essential premise of the Robin role. And all those characters obviously like being Robin. No, the real problem with having Batman as a father or father figure is that his emotional ineptitude and his astronomical standards add up to an inconsistent, unreliable relationship. Bruce Wayne's money provides a fantasy life: luxurious home, wonderful toys. He believes his adolescent protégés can accomplish wonderful things, and gives them the rare chance to command respect from the adult world.

But most of the time Batman also withholds information and approval. He makes nearly impossible demands. He dismisses expressions of love. He's obsessed with work. He keeps secrets from his loved ones and spies on them.

But only most of the time. There's always the chance that next time he'll offer a great compliment. So the Robins—especially Dick Grayson—keep going back.

Just as the roots of Batman's emotional frigidity appear in "Golden Age" stories, so do signs of Batman's problematic paternalism. Dick was repeatedly left to worry about whether he was being replaced. The panel to the right comes from a birthday tale; the spanking (a 1940s tradition, oddly no longer recommended in parenting manuals) is followed by the gift of his own airplane. You just never knew what Bruce will do next.

DC's writers have played up Batman's difficulties with interpersonal relationships over the last two decades. As an example of how hard working with Batman is, for years he insisted that the fourth Robin, Tim Drake, keep his civilian identity secret from all his young crime-fighting colleagues. Then Bruce himself revealed that identity to Tim's girlfriend Stephanie Brown without asking Tim.

Later, after Tim quit being Robin, Batman invited Stephanie to become the new Girl Wonder, which his butler Alfred pegged as manipulative behavior. Batman soon fired Stephanie and brought Tim back. Stephanie appeared to die, yet Batman refused to memorialize her, later saying he wasn't sure she was really dead--but he'd never shared his doubts with Tim.

No wonder Tim resisted making Bruce Wayne his legal father for a while—and he's the Robin who deals with Bruce's limitations best.

Even so, some might think that calling Bruce Wayne/Batman "the Worst Dad in the World" is too harsh, considering the other fathers in the DC Comics universe. The father of the current Batgirl taught her to fight but not to read, and shot her in fleshy parts to enure her to the pain. Deathstroke raised two children as assassins and reluctantly killed the third.

Even among the good guys, Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow, apparently adopted a kid sidekick simply because he was jealous of Batman for having one, and then neglected that partner until he became a heroin addict. Queen also deserted a biological son. And then there's the whole Aquaman question.

In fact, it's not easy to find a young superhero comics character with a stellar dad. Among Dick Grayson's colleagues in the New Teen Titans, Changeling's stepdad was an occasionally insane telepath, Cyborg's dad a work-obsessed scientist, Starfire's dad a wishy-washy ruler who sent her into slavery, and Raven's dad a gigantic transdimensional demon of evil. The parents of Dick's best friend Wally West, the original Kid Flash, were originally a normal Midwestern couple; after the Crisis, Wally's father was rewritten to be a rogue secret agent.

So why do I say that Bruce Wayne/Batman "the Worst Dad in the World"? Because he, unlike most of those other men (and demons), really wants to be a dad. He idolized his own father. He embarked on his crusade against crime largely to shield other children from the loss he'd suffered when a mugger killed his parents. That's the real reason he keeps recruiting kid sidekicks.

Batman even lectures his superhero colleagues on dealing with teens. Which causes Dick's boyhood friends to respond with incredulity, as in this panel from a gathering of the Justice League.

The Robin characters—and their readers—know that Bruce is trying his best. He's as supportive and open as his personality allows. As a result, they can't just cut ties and move on, as the children of those other fathers do. They keep working closely with Batman, despite the frequent disappointment. Hence he's the Worst Dad in the World to deal with every day.

I think that Bruce Wayne's futile struggle to be as good a father as he is a crime-fighter makes him more interesting than the pre-Crisis paragon. That dichotomy also provides much of the humor in the "Batman and Sons" parody webcomic.


Anonymous said...

I'd Batman has at times been shown to be a completely supportive parent, but aware of his own limitations and the strangeness of the life he's given "his" kids.

I'd say his relationship with Dick was always a father/son one, as noted in the pages of everything from Brave and the Bold #83 to New Teen Titans where Dick contrasts his and Bruce's father son relationship with Donna's sisterly ties to Diana.

There have been many father/son moments most notably with Dick Grayson and Jason Todd Mk1, since JT Mk2 was too "badass" to want a father figure, and Tim had a father already.

Batman considers Nightwing to be "the ONE thing I got right".

Then we have the Bruce/Dick post-Knightfall discussion in Robin 13 and in Final Crisis we see a worried and stressed out Batman needing reassurance more than anything that the early days with Dick had been good for him too (Which Dick proudly confirms), and the apparent murder of Dick is the one thing which nearly causes the fragile Batman to kill someone.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that Bruce Wayne/Batman can be a supportive parent, guardian, or mentor, especially when the chips are down. But the stories these days seem to emphasize how he’s often frustratingly inconsistent and closed off in normal daily interactions.

In 1969, the same year that The Brave and the Bold, #83 (“Punish Not My Evil Son”), came out, Dick Grayson in Batman, #217 (“One Bullet Too Many”), said that Bruce saw him as a “kid who needed a big-brother-image.” That reflects the ambiguity that runs through their relationship.

The arrival of the first Jason Todd definitely settled matters for him and subsequent Robins: Batman = Dad. And it now seems clear that even the Bruce/Dick relationship has settled into the father/son model.

But in the 1940s and ’50s, I think, the writing team tended to depict both Batman and Robin as big kids. Hence my “fraternal” judgment.

(I hope your comment about “Batman needing reassurance” from Dick refers to the nice moment between them in Infinite Crisis. If it’s happening again in Final Crisis, then DC really has run out of ideas.)

Anonymous said...

Ahem, sorry, I did indeed mean "Infinite Crisis" rather than "Final Crisis".

Me, I'm still waiting for "Mid Life Crisis", where Superman buys a Ferrari, Batman starts dating a string of bimbos, Ollie wears a toupee, and we find out Hal Jordan really does dye those white sideburns.

J. L. Bell said...

And here I thought the Batmobile was already a sign of overcompensation!

Speaking of growing up, the DC writers seem to be making a lot of Dick Grayson not joining his peers in matrimony and fatherhood. Donna, Roy, and now Wally have all had kids. Could Dick Grayson possibly join them? Or would that go against all that the character stands for as a sixty-eight-year-old symbol of youth?