01 February 2009

Reason for Robin, #6

In my last discussion of what the character of Robin added to the Batman comics, I noted how for three decades the Boy Wonder had a tendency to fall down at inconvenient times. No matter that Dick Grayson was a professional acrobat before he met Bruce Wayne. If there was a pebble anywhere in range, Robin would slip on it.

That pattern leads to the next function the character played in the Batman stories.

Reason for Robin, #6: Robin, the Boy Hostage!

The phrase "Robin, the Boy Hostage" comes from the villain Two-Face in Frank Miller's ground-breaking The Dark Knight Returns (1986). Another villain, Killer Croc, uses the same phrase at some point in the No Man's Land story (1999), but that comes in five volumes and darned if I'll go through them all to find it.

However, those characters voiced what Batman fans had seen for decades. Robin was constantly getting captured by crooks, tied up, and locked in death traps. And then, of course, rescued by Batman (though he did occasionally free himself).

As I've written before, superhero comics are thrill rides, based on sudden reversals in the heroes' fortunes. But Batman is a relentless crime-fighter. That's essential to his character, but also makes for a potentially monotonous plot. How can a criminal stop him, or at least slow him down? How can a writer make Batman change course for a few pages? Only by threatening someone that he cares about.

In the first year of Batman comics, Bruce Wayne has a fiancée named Julie Madison who sometimes serves that purpose. However, it doesn't make sense for the girlfriend of a bored playboy to keep getting grabbed by crooks. She doesn't know Bruce is Batman, so she has no reason to draw criminals' attention or put herself in danger.

In contrast, when Robin goes on patrol with Batman or investigates places on his own, he's vulnerable to being overpowered. And then Batman has to stop fighting, or drop everything to search for his missing partner, or worry about how to rescue him. And the dramatic tension rises.

Many 1940s covers and splash pages (the dramatic image at the start of older comic stories) show Robin being held hostage or threatened in some way, with Batman coming to the rescue. This pattern is especially striking because often those images don't reflect what actually happens in the stories that followed. The image alone was thought enough to grab readers.

Robin's habit of becoming a hostage fits his symbolic place in the superhero universe. He doesn't have special powers. He's the littlest guy in the fight. Robin's vulnerability is part of his essential character. This was made clear on the Robin comics of the 1990s; many covers show Tim Drake in some sort of peril, and his response is a frightened "Eeep." You don't hear Batman reacting to danger that way.

Of course, Robin doesn't get taken hostage nearly as often in his own solo adventures, which appeared first in the late 1940s and then from the 1970s to the present. He gets captured, of course, but he usually rescues himself. After all, he's the hero of those stories.

Robin the Boy Hostage still shows up every so often in stories written around other characters, as in the following panels from the Nightwing: Freefall volume. Here Nightwing is looking at the videophone on his wrist and sees Tim, his successor as Robin, being overpowered. So now Dick Grayson gets to know what it's like from the other side.


Anonymous said...

And don't forget the relatively recent Detective #826 which is essentially one long "Robin: the Boy Hostage" scenario, where he also saves himself handily, a terrific issue that!

J. L. Bell said...

I put that issue of Detective into the category of Robin solo stories since the Joker holds Tim Drake captive, but not hostage—i.e., he never tries to make Batman change behavior to save Robin. Which produces a different sort of plot.

An excellent story, indeed. In fact, I can’t recall reading a better single-issue story in superhero comics recently.

(Folks can find this tale in the collections The Joker: The Greatest Stories Ever Told and Batman: Detective).

Anonymous said...

I'm curious... where are all these pics from?

J. L. Bell said...

I'm afraid I didn't keep a record of the original sources. There are so many possibilities, after all.

I note that a year or two after this posting the University of Queensland catalogued an undergraduate thesis with the title “Robin the Boy Hostage: The Evolution of the Superhero Sidekick.” So someone out there—Mrs. Isabel Bentley—has literally made a study of this trope.

Anonymous said...

That's hilarious!