14 March 2010

Robin’s Regular

Last week I proposed the daring theory that Robin the Boy Wonder isn’t evil. And that this is a fundamental part of the character’s appeal and function within the DC Comics mythos—a “Reason for Robin.”

But aren’t all comic-book heroes not evil? Or if not all, isn’t goodness a very common trait in that crowd? Indeed, in the first four decades of DC superhero stories, not being evil doesn’t distinguish Robin from every other costumed crime-fighter we remember.

Of course, it’s still interesting to watch the definition of “not evil” change over those years. At top is the very last panel in Batman, #1, published in early 1940, almost immediately after the Boy Wonder’s debut. Usually that last panel promoted the next issue of Detective Comics, but here it promoted the values Robin stood for.

Or at least the values that writer Bill Finger could come up with on deadline. The alliterative emphasis on “being REGULAR!” and the acronym strike me as signs he was throwing down the first words he could think of. A couple more minutes of thought might have identified Bravery as more valuable to a hero than Brotherhood. And with World War 2 raging in Europe, there might have been a higher value than Nationalism. Then again, regularity means fitting in, not standing out.

Over a quarter-century later, Teen Titans, #3, brought us the panel at left. This magazine was DC’s attempt to claw back some of the youth market from Marvel by teaming up its teenaged sidekicks. Debuting in February 1966, Teen Titans reflected the New Frontier ethos of the preceding few years—and looks completely out of touch with the years to come.

In the magazine’s debut adventure, titled “The Beast-God of Xochatan!”, the US government sends the sidekicks to South America to guard the construction of a hydropower dam. Parachuting into the country (well, Wonder Girl points out that she can fly) as Peace Corps volunteers, the teen heroes find that the disturbances center on an ancient temple that the dam will flood. As the water rises, they see mysterious beasts emanate from the temple itself.

So what do Robin and his friends do, bearing in mind that they’re not evil—according to the values of that time?

  • Find proof that the “god” producing those creatures is actually a real-estate speculator using special effects for his own greedy purposes.
  • Convince the authorities that the mysterious beasts reflect the power of an ancient culture and environment that must be preserved.
  • See that the ancient god and his creatures were just trying to protect their temple home, and let the monument be flooded anyway.
They take the third course. Because not being evil in 1966 meant spreading technological progress and American values around the globe.

By the end of that decade, Robin and the Titans team openly supported progressive causes. Like the early Superman, they tackled the challenge of urban renewal. After a difficult false start, the team included DC Comics’s first costumed black hero. Of course, they never completely embraced the counterculture, and the magazine never mentioned Speedy’s heroin addiction in Green Lantern. According to the larger American culture, Robin remained clearly “not evil.”

In fact, measured against the youth fashions of the day, Dick Grayson was definitely unround. Licensing deals meant he couldn’t grow his hair long or otherwise change his look drastically. He stayed in college throughout the 1970s. Robin was, we might even say, “regular.” And most other DC heroes were as well. But then came 1980.

COMING UP: Batman and Robin take different paths.


Richard said...

Love the multiple choice quiz. :-)

If I may just add one comment on behalf of Bob Haney…one thing readers of today should bear in mind about the Teen Titans of forty-five years ago is that while they may seem decidedly square, unhip, and pro-establishment compared with the actual youth culture of the era, Haney's message in his stories is still resolutely pro-teenager. Right from the very first Titans story, the message is "teens aren't lazy or uninvolved, they're idealistic and want the best possible world, if adults treat them with respect as citizens and try to understand their concerns the world will be a better place." There were a great many comics writers then -- guys in or approaching their forties -- whose depiction of teens was far less positive. Haney was vastly more progressive and enlightened than, say, Bob Kanigher, whose idea of the Titans seems to have been as clueless blunderers who needed a stern talking-to from Mr. Jupiter. From just a few years later, my favorite TT story is unabashedly and overtly pro-hippie and anti-establishment.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I see Bob Haney’s late 1960s Teen Titans scripts as reflecting the values of the early 1960s, with the torch being passed to a new generation and all that. I dislike his stories’ loose ends, flapping plots, and powers pulled out of thin air, but temperamentally he was a fine match for the Teen Titans (and the Super-Sons).

Haney’s posthumously published Teen Titans Swingin’ Elseworlds Special, in which Robin visits JFK in the Oval Office, is a nice, appropriate reprise of that era of tales. Haney’s late 1960s Teen Titans would have fit perfectly in America of just six or seven years earlier.

As I understand it, Robin’s merchandising value kept him away from the influence of Mr. Jupiter’s “no costumes” rule. DC couldn’t afford to give up the colorfully costumed Robin. So in the comics, he left the group for college, and got spared the worst.