13 September 2009

The Legend of Batman and Raven

Robin: Tragedy and Triumph was DC Comics’s second volume of stories about Tim Drake, the fourth (or, by some counts, third) Robin. Editor Dennis O’Neil’s preface on the history of Batman sidekicks begins, somewhat self-congratulatorily, “The third time we got it right.”

O’Neil writes with authority about the role of Robin in the early Batman comics, which I’ll analyze someday alongside my own “Reasons for Robin” series. Today the weekly Robin explores a path that O’Neil says DC didn’t take after the success of the New Teen Titans magazine of 1980 made Robin into the tail wagging the Batman dog.

As O’Neil told the story in 1993, the company decided Dick Grayson should become Nightwing. And as for a sidekick for Batman:

Gerry Conway began seeking a replacement.

Gerry was writing the Batman titles and he felt Robin was a necessary part of the saga. Or, if not Robin, maybe a new sidekick? Gerry suggested that Robin be retired and replaced by Raven, whom Gerry conceived as a black ghetto kid. It was a nifty idea, one that today might very well be adopted, but at the time Gerry’s superiors opted for tradition. They wanted nothing more or less than another Robin—fast.
The result was the first Jason Todd, basically a younger Dick Grayson with red hair—which was quickly dyed black. Other analyses suggest that DC didn’t dare make a big change because it had deals with too many licensees selling the traditional image of Robin as a white teenager with black hair and no pants.

However, there are some inaccuracies in O’Neil’s history. He describes Jason Todd being invented after Dick Grayson became Nightwing, but in fact the new boy appeared in the comics a year before, as Conway’s run on the Batman and Detective magazines culminated with the May 1983 issues.

It’s easy to spot why O’Neil was confused. In the early 1980s he was writing for Marvel (particularly Daredevil and Iron Man), so his knowledge of Robin-replacement conversations was secondhand at best. O’Neil returned to the Batman comics as editor in mid-1986, just in time to deal with the second Jason Todd.

Furthermore, there’s no way DC would have seriously considered giving Batman a sidekick named Raven in the 1980s. The company already had a major character using that name. That Raven was a linchpin of the same popular Titans team that was taking up Dick Grayson’s time. (Read more about her at Titans Tower.)

So did Gerry Conway really propose the new team of “Batman and Raven”? It would be nice to resolve this mystery Annie Hall-style by saying, “I happen to have Gerry Conway right here,” and pulling him out from behind a movie poster to resolve the questions.

Alas, when I raised the question through the weekly Robin Twitter feed, @gerryconway’s quick and gracious reply was: “Hmm. Sounds like something I might have thought of, but I’m not 100% sure.” Which isn’t surprising. Conway’s been coming up with ideas for comics and other formats full-time since 1969. If a quarter-century ago one short-lived idea was “Batman and Raven,” he never had time to dwell on it.

My suspicion is that Conway did propose making Batman’s new sidekick a poor black kid as a way to do something different, possibly even progressive, with the opening created by Dick Grayson‘s impending departure. The phrase “Batman and Raven” might have been a shorthand label for that idea—sounds like “Batman and Robin,” but new.

I suspect O’Neil later heard of that idea during discussions of what to do with Jason Todd, who quickly lost popularity with readers in the late 1980s. Starting in the late 1970s, O’Neil had been part of the cohort that pushed DC into contemporary themes, along with Neal Adams, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, and other young creators.

I suspect the “Batman and Raven” meme stuck in O’Neil’s mind as a slightly revolutionary road not taken. (Revolutionary for superhero comics of that time, that is.) And, knowing that that Raven could never fly, he shared the idea with readers in 1993 to encourage them to consider forgone possibilities.

NEXT WEEK: Another time Robin was black—almost.


Anonymous said...

I'm sure I've read somewhere the original idea was for blond Jason 1.0 to keep the non-standard-Robin costume he put together in his costumed debut and use the codename Tanager (after another small red bird), but this was dropped as an ID.


J. L. Bell said...

That sounds as if DC’s editors were saying, “Come on, guys! We’ve got to come up with a name that’s even less intimidating than ‘Robin’! Anyone? Anyone?”

Nevertheless, the story is out there. In 2003, Scott Tipton wrote: “After Bruce Wayne took in the orphan [Jason], he briefly operated under a different name and costume (the truly terrible ‘Tanager’ concept) before Dick Grayson gave Jason the uniform, along with his blessing to operate as Robin.”

But that’s the only mention of Tanager that I’ve come across. That late pre-Crisis period of the DC Universe seems to be one of the least accessible if you weren’t picking up the magazines at the time. So it’s possible there were mentions of Tanager in print that haven’t been digitized yet.

In Batman, #368, Dick Grayson turns over the Robin costume/identity to Jason. That magazine starts out with Jason in the non-standard costume, trying out different names on Batman. He tries and rejects Wonder-Boy, Bluebird, even Tonto—but not Tanager (or Raven). And that seems like a logical place for the name to have been used.

Anonymous said...

Jason was never named Tanager on page though, there's a nice scene where he and Bruce are suggesting new names, "Wonder Boy?" "Sounds like a loaf of bread", "Flying Ace? Bluejay? Cardinal? Eagle? Domino?"

Odd that Tanager wasn't on the list, but also a little bit of a shame, as I rather like "Bluejay" as a name.


J. L. Bell said...

I think “Bluejay” would have required Jason’s costume to have some, you know, blue in it.

And that points to another reason why a Raven or Bluejay can’t fulfill all the artistic purposes of a Robin: a black or blue costume wouldn’t provide as much contrast to Batman’s outfit.