28 March 2010

Batman Shows Robin the Door

Today’s weekly Robin resumes exploring how the fact that “Robin isn’t evil” developed in the 1980s. At first, the Boy Wonder was as heroic as any other comic-book hero: “regular,” patriotic, a little square. But as superhero comics grew darker, Robin began to shine in a new way.

The process started in 1980, after DC Comics recruited a handful of highly successful writers from Marvel, including Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Gerry Conway, and Roy Thomas. Each had been Marvel Editor-in-Chief for a while—in Thomas’s case for years, in others only a few months. DC publisher Jenette Kahn and newly rehired managing editor Dick Giordano invited those writers to come over to the competition and reshape the DC Universe.

Wein as editor and Wolfman as writer teamed up with artist George Pérez and launched the New Teen Titans. At first, Wolfman was also writing Batman, which allowed him to portray the decades-old character of Robin in two situations: as leader of the young superheroes, and as a frustrated sidekick to Batman. For the first time, the Boy Wonder began to separate from the Dark Knight.

Of course, DC had published stories of Robin on his own before: in Star Spangled Comics starting in the late 1940s, and in the back of Detective, Batman Family, and other magazines in the 1970s. But those adventures didn’t draw a clear distinction between Batman and Robin. The characters still stood for the same things, just in big and little sizes.

In contrast, Wolfman developed friction within the Dynamic Duo. Dick Grayson drops out of Hudson University and worries about how to break this news to his guardian. Yet when Dick comes back to Gotham, he discovers that Bruce Wayne has entered a partnership, perhaps even a romantic relationship, with Talia, daughter of his nemesis Ra’s al Ghul.

“That woman’s destroying you!” Robin tells Batman on the cover of Batman, #330. “Either she goes, or I do!”

“The door is that way, chum,” Batman replies.

Of course, the conversation inside the magazine isn’t so dire. The conflict continues over the next five issues. And, not to spoil this thirty-year-old story, eventually it turns out that Batman was onto Talia’s scheme all along.

Nevertheless, the scenes between Batman and Robin in these issues highlight the difficult aspects of Bruce Wayne’s personality. Too often he’s emotionally distant, overbearing, and secretive.

The Dynamic Duo argue about intimidating a young delinquent. Driven by vengeance, Bruce is out to scare people; that is, after all, why he dresses as a giant bat (rather than a stoplight). It also becomes clear that Batman is drawn to the dark side—he’s truly attracted to Talia, and in issue #332 the only other woman Robin can find who might tempt him away is another villain, the Catwoman.

At the end of Wolfman’s extended story, Bruce and Dick are reconciled, Batman and Robin still on the same team. But the two characters no longer symbolized the same values and ideas about heroism. They were now in a dialogue. COMING UP: And that gap widened over the 1980s.

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