11 October 2009

Reason for Robin, #9

Having laid the groundwork by quoting Douglas Wolk’s manner of reading American superhero comics, I return to my series of reasons for Robin.

Reason for Robin, #9: Robin is still a kid.

That statement may seem more than obvious. Youth is the quality that unites all the characters who’ve served as Batman’s partner: Dick Grayson (nineteen years old when he finally gave up the colorful costume), the two Jason Todds, Carrie Kelley, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown, and now Damian Wayne (who’s all of ten). But that youth is also the key to most of the previous reasons for Robin.

Furthermore, Robin being a kid gives a different meaning to the three other “reasons for Robin” I’ve listed so far: giving Batman someone to talk to, giving Batman someone not to talk to, and comic relief.

A supporting character doesn’t need to be young to bring those last three benefits to an adventure story. Plastic Man’s Woozy Winks, the Spirit’s Ebony White, and the Fighting Yank’s girlfriend Joan are adults who offer the same narrative benefits.

But when adult sidekicks can’t figure out a mystery, botch a chase, or get captured, they look irredeemably incompetent. In fact, the Flash’s hangers-on made that quality explicit: they were called the Three Dimwits. And when such a sidekick happened to be black, or female, the unfortunate implications were clear.

In contrast, when Robin has such problems, they don’t render him or her an incorrigible fool. Readers know Robin is still growing up, so it makes sense that he or she still has stuff to learn.

And that brings us to the symbolic importance of Robin still being a kid. As I quoted yesterday, in Reading Comics Wolk suggests the best way to make sense of American superhero stories is to interpret the main characters as “bold metaphors for discussing ideas or reifying abstractions into narrative fiction.”

Robin, as the original kid sidekick in superhero comics, represents youth and, therefore, potential. The various young people who’ve served as Robin all had different skills and personalities, thus hinting at different sorts of potential, but they all embodied the process of growing up. In contrast, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and other adult heroes appear as fully formed; we expect them and their principles to be tested, but not to develop further.

What the Robins symbolize gives them what Wolk calls “particular allegorical values,” which make them “meaningful parts of the master ‘universe narratives.’” When Fabian Nicieza was tapped to bring the Robin magazine to a close, he expressed the value of the character in just such terms:
the Robin concept is just as vital to the foundation of the DC Universe [as Batman] and has been a bedrock of the mythology since its inception.

The concept of Robin defines the nature of the legacy in the DCU and with that, implies hope for the future, stability coming from the next generation of hero, and on a societal level, it harkens to the need for proper parenting, education and stimulation to help guide the next generation to fruition.
The idea that Robin represents a future generation of crimefighter has been part of the character from the beginning, as this panel from 1940 shows.

More recent Batman comics portray Bruce Wayne as obsessed and emotionally damaged—which only increases the significance of Robin growing up. Here’s how Wolk sums up the meaning of the longest-serving Robins in Reading Comics:
[Batman’s] drive is the kind that parents often pass on to their children; hence his parental relationship with Robin, whose symbolic value is as a son trying to learn from his father’s experience and wisdom without making his father’s mistakes.
We’re seeing that tension play out in DC’s current magazines about the characters. Dick Grayson has taken on the role of Batman with a new style and a new Robin whose mistakes he must correct. Tim Drake has become Red Robin, and is edging toward being as obsessive and cut off as his adoptive father.

NEXT WEEK: If Robin represents youth, what does it mean when Robin gets old?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent post here--I'm looking forward to what happens when Robin grows up. There really is something wonderful in putting a kid in the Watson role, that's usually taken by an adult that just needs to be limited compared to the great detective. Or at least different from right off. With Robin there's a learning situation going on.

There's an essay in a book I have of philosophical essays about Batman that talks about how the writer didn't like the TV Robin because he never seemed to learn.