04 October 2009

A Return to Carrie Kelley

Last month the weekly Robin examined a couple of times in the early 1980s and ’90s when Batman creators considered making Robin a black teenaged boy. In that same period, writer-artist Frank Miller did what many fans found even more radical: he made Robin a girl.

Of course, readers didn’t have to accept that portrayal as real. Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns miniseries depicted one possible future for Bruce Wayne, after he and his fellow superheroes have been driven underground or coopted by an authoritarian US government.

Gotham remains crime-ridden, and an acrobatic, hero-seeking teenaged girl named Carrie Kelley spends two weeks of lunch money to make herself a Robin costume, then finds herself rescuing the aging caped crusader and becoming his sidekick.

An Oz and Ends reader named Raius spontaneously sent me an essay on Carrie Kelley, perhaps not realizing how hungry a daily blogger is for material. So I asked if he’d share those thoughts with the world, and here they are.

The first time I read Dark Knight Returns, Carrie Kelley was one of my least favorite elements. I didn’t like Robin being a girl, I didn’t like her lack of really obvious talents or skills, and I didn’t like the way she talked.

I was a lot younger then. I recently re-read the book. All I could think as I read it was, “This is exactly what Batman’s dynamic with Robin should be like.” I loved all the little nuances of how he sees her, why he lets her join, and why he likes having her around despite Alfred’s protests and the cries of child endangerment from virtually everyone else.

To Bruce, kids are serious business. He took himself seriously as an eight-year-old with murdered parents, and he sees himself in all children. He likes having a kid around because it keeps that part of him alive. He likes their hope, their naïveté, their sincerity, their openness to teaching, their recklessness, their devotion, and their simplistic view of right and wrong, so close to his own.

With Carrie, we see all of this. Batman revels in mentorship. When she complains about waiting on ledges, he enjoys teaching her about patience, something he probably wishes he’d been able to learn earlier. He likes her pluckiness, the way she just states she’s Robin, and he accepts the assertion. He enjoys her ingenuity, when she changes the controls on the helicopter to help him out, even in defiance of his orders. He admires her bravery as she starts to fall to what could easily be her death and notes that she doesn’t make a sound. As a much older man at this point, he envies her youth and potential, as he watches her learn to ride and grow. He empathizes with her loss of innocence as she sees a man who was trying to kill her fall to his death, even as he relies on her resilience in dealing with such things and her continuing support of him and his war, contending with threats that are really years beyond her.

She embodies everything that gives him hope, that makes the mission about more than his own demons. Last but not least, he just seems to enjoy having someone out there with him, someone to share the night with.

Also, all of these things are implied about his earlier relationships with Dick and Jason, to one degree or another. He remembers Dick as his “little monkey wrench”—that little x-factor that skewed bad situations in his favor.

In some ways, I feel like he even sort of preferred Jason because the age difference between them was greater, he was more of a fixer-upper, and possibly even more of a son to Bruce. Dick was almost more like a little brother, who’d already had his own strong parental figures, and eventually becomes his own man, with his own views and such (not quite so positively in the Millerverse, but I tend to ignore The Dark Knight Strikes Again). I always loved that line about Jason. “I will NEVER forget Jason. He was a Good Soldier. He HONORED me. But the WAR goes on.” Just got me right here, ya know? He had so much to teach Jason, who had so much life left to learn it in, and then he died a hero’s death. No wonder Batman retired in Miller’s ’verse. His hope died with Jason.

So anyway, I came away with a much more charitable view of Carrie Kelley, if only because she works as such a wonderful foil for Bruce, someone to bounce things off of that we wouldn’t see otherwise, which is of course one of the original “Reasons for Robin.” She’s still not my favorite, but I think portrayals of other Robins could maybe learn something from her dynamic with Batman.

Thanks, Raius!

All the pictures in this posting come from The Dark Knight Returns, which offered the darkest portrayal of Batman until then. As you can see, Carrie Kelley with her light red hair, her green sunglasses instead of a mask, and her traditional Robin costume with turned-up toes is the lightest, most colorful Robin to date. The Dynamic Duo’s visual contrast thus became even more striking.

The Dark Knight Returns remains only one potential future for Batman, and Carrie thus remains only a potential Robin. But of course symbolically any Robin is all about potential.

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