22 February 2009

Robin—She’s No Lady!

Bruce Wayne, secretly the Batman, was established early in his comics as a master of disguise. Nevertheless, there were some roles that a muscular man over six feet tall simply couldn't fade into. The last weekly Robin documented how in the 1940s Dick Grayson often disguised himself as a young worker to gather information for Batman.

In addition, on rare occasions--three in the 1940s "Golden Age" of superhero comics, according to the sharp-eyed subscribers to scans_daily--Dick Grayson disguised himself as a female.

I find it striking that two of those three stories appeared first not in the comic books, but in the Batman newspaper strip. The panel at top is from a daily strip, the one to the left from a Sunday installment.

Reportedly that newspaper strip was written for a wider audience than the comics magazines. It was intended to entertain adults as well as kids. So what adult middle-America wanted in the mid-1940s, it seems, was the hilarity of a teenager in drag.

A common element of all of Robin's appearances in female disguise is that they show the character objecting to his outfit in almost violent terms. And of course they all contain the big reveal when he throws off his wig and dress and throws himself into a fight--but superheroes were always throwing themselves into fights.

The chest-beating insistence that dressing as a female is an awful fate seems so imperative that it resurfaces in the one time Tim Drake, the current Robin, has dressed as a young woman. As printed in the collection Batman: As the Crow Flies, published in 2004, Tim pretends to be a medical student in order to peek at certain files. Why a female medical student? That's explained in the dialogue transcribed here.

Afterwards this Robin asks Batman, “I don’t have to dress up as a chick again, do I?” This is the same character who once assured us readers, “I hate that demeaning word, ‘chicks’”. But feeling he has to to reassert his masculinity can do strange things to a teen-aged boy.

1 comment:

Glenn Ingersoll said...

masculinity is so fragile -- it's one dress away from complete destruction!