15 February 2009

Reason for Robin, #7

My last weekly Robin installment acknowledged fan complaints that it doesn't make practical sense for Bruce Wayne to keep recruiting teenagers to fight crime alongside him, especially when they have a tendency to be taken hostage. Of course, that objection assumes that it makes sense for Bruce Wayne to fight crime dressed as a giant bat in the first place.

In fact, the Batman comics of the 1940s show that Dick Grayson's youth provided a practical benefit for the Dynamic Duo. Which brings me to...

Reason for Robin, #7: Under age and undercover!

Dick Grayson was a child worker from the beginning, as a star in his family's trapeze act. But he also took jobs after he went to live with millionaire Bruce Wayne.

Those jobs were undercover work that let Dick spy on gangsters without attracting attention or appearing to be a threat. In his very first adventure with Batman, bringing to justice the small-town crime boss who killed his parents, Dick worked as a newsboy and, if I recall it right, a bowling alley pin-setter.

Sometimes Dick wore a work uniform as a disguise. For poorer jobs, a member of the scans_daily has pointed out, he almost always wore a cloth cap, a turtleneck, and dirt on his cheeks. Since Dick rarely wore such working-class clothing in his "regular" life, that helped readers to distinguish at a glance when he was undercover.

(I should acknowledge that in Batman, #22, Dick took a job delivering telegraphs because he'd spent all his allowance on war bonds. Simpler times.)

These days, a boy in his mid-teens would probably attract attention in most workplaces rather than deflect it. But Dick's ability to go undercover made more sense in the 1940s, when the character was created. Far more teen-aged boys were then at work in offices, stores, and workshops.

Not surprisingly, the comic-book industry attracted young workers, both because of their interest in the product and because they came cheap. In 1939, the year when Bob Kane invented Batman, the DC Comics/Independent News staff included Irwin Donenfeld, the thirteen-year-old son of owner Harry Donenfeld, working after school. That fall Kane hired incoming college freshman Jerry Robinson as his assistant, and they soon co-created Robin.

Other examples of youthful work in that first generation of comic-book creators:

  • Bill Gaines worked at his father's Educational Comics as a teenager after school.
  • Johnny Craig took a job as artist Harry Lampert's assistant soon after seeing his first comic books at age thirteen in 1939; within a short time he was working at All-American and EC.
  • Stan Lee started work at Timely Comics in 1940 at age seventeen.
  • Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, and Carmine Infantino were all urban newsboys as children.
  • Kirby left high school to work at the Max Fleischer animation studio.
  • Gil Kane started work on comics about age sixteen, assisting other artists, including Kirby.
This trend didn't completely die off, either. DC Comics's current president, Paul Levitz, took his first job at the company at age sixteen, according to the New York Times (fourteen, according to Gerard Jones's Men of Tomorrow). Former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter sold his first scripts to DC at age thirteen, though editors didn't know his age at the time.

COMING UP: Robin's very special disguises, and why he hated them.

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