15 January 2012

“The Guardianship of Dick Grayson!”

“You must have read how Batman first took charge of a young boy named Dick Grayson...whose parents, The Flying Graysons of circus fame, had died in a tragic fall from their trapeze!

“Since that day, the mutual affection between this man and boy has been as strong as that between father and son!”

That’s the start of “Bruce Wayne Loses the Guardianship of Dick Grayson!”, a classic but badly-titled story in Batman, #20 (cover date Dec 1943-Jan 1944). It came out of Bob Kane’s apartment studio, with his pencils, Jerry Robinson’s inking, and George Roussos’s lettering bringing out a script by Bill Finger.

And as far as I can tell, this was the first Batman story based on exploring the legal relationship between Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson, established in an afterthought back in 1940. In fact, back then the comics rarely mentioned Dick’s circus upbringing, the murder of Bruce’s parents, or what brought them together. Crime-fighting was just what they did.

But then Dick’s paternal uncle George shows up. (The whirling head effect in the first panel is a technique Kane brought from humor comics, his real love.)
It’s striking that Bruce says, “Not after all these years!” Dick has burst onto the scene less than four years before in real time, and in comic-book time Dick Grayson had barely aged. (There was one birthday story.) The same balloon also establishes that Bruce sees Dick “like a son!”

Uncle George goes to court, requiring anguished testimony. Per Reason for Robin, #4, Dick shows more emotion on the stand, but even Bruce is “strained” as he pulls out the word “love.”
But the judge decides that a “nightclubbing, shiftless, café society playboy” is no good guardian for a teenager and awards custody to Uncle George. The Dynamic Duo enjoy a panel of reminiscing…
That upper panel might be the first time the phrase “good soldier” appears in a Batman comic. It’s been echoing since Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Back in 1943 it was an allusion to actual soldiers, of course.

I’m also struck by how Roussos chose to draw Bruce’s “Goodbye, kid, goodbye” in such small letters; that’s a very rare technique in 1940s superhero comics, and it again reflects Bruce’s feelings.
Bruce starts to mope around Wayne Manor (which in this era looks much bigger from inside than from outside). While complaining about unfairness as fervently as any thirteen-year-old, Bruce now calls Dick “the person I love the most!”

Being alone again even affects Bruce‘s work as Batman.
But after the fight Dick has to go back to his newfound relations. A few pages on, it becomes clear that Uncle George is simply trying to extort money from Bruce Wayne, offering him his own teen-aged boy for a mere million dollars. At the suggestion of Alfred the butler, Bruce steps in as Batman. But without his partner, the criminals lure the Caped Crusader “into a man-trap!”

How bad do things look? Batman’s only back-up now is Alfred, and not the ex-special-forces Alfred of today. This was the original fat, comic-relief Alfred. But he knows where to get help: he knocks on Dick’s new bedroom window, and the two of them race off to rescue Batman.

The outcome of that fight hinges on one of the Penguin’s trick umbrellas—a detail established back in that panel of reminiscing. It wasn’t necessary to have read a lot of earlier Batman comics to follow this story. Nevertheless, Finger clearly created it for readers who were already fans of the Dynamic Duo and wanted to learn more about their relationship.

Finally, we have another scene in court, where the judge reverses himself.
Interestingly, this story doesn’t end with Dick’s uncle revealed as a complete fraud; it suggests that he really is a brother of the late trapeze artist John Grayson. I don’t think Uncle George ever resurfaces in the Batman mythos, though.

This story was successful enough that Finger wrote a variation on it in “The Trial of Bruce Wayne!”, published in Batman, #57 (Feb-Mar 1950), with art by Dick Sprang. In this tale, a criminal whom Bruce somehow helped sent to prison seeks revenge by hitting the millionaire where it will hurt the most: he orchestrates a legal hearing to take away custody of Dick.

The crooks in this story attack Bruce instead of Batman, and there are no lost relatives for Dick. Once again, Bruce’s public persona as a shiftless playboy works against him. And in the end he calls the same character witness as before, only this time Finger has Batman speak to the court on panel. (Meanwhile, it appears that Bruce can’t be bothered to show up for his own hearing.)

The “Trial” story never rises to the emotional pitch of “Bruce Wayne Loses the Guardianship of Dick Grayson!”, but it’s a solid example of a story type that usually showed up about once a season: something threatening the partnership of Batman and Robin. I don’t think, however, there were any more stories about Bruce and Dick’s legal relationship, not even when Aunt Harriet appeared, until the 1980s.

COMING UP: The Jason Todd soap opera.


Richard said...

I don't like Batman appearing as a character witness on behalf of Bruce Wayne, no, not one bit. This is entirely the wrong message for a comics hero to be sending the impressionable youth of the Forties. For shame, caped crusader.

Icon_UK said...

Not sure I see the issue Richard, Batman in the 1940's was a respected (if mysterious) lawman, deputised by the GCPD. Him being a character witness may not say a lot about the Gotham legal system, but works in context... sort of.

J. L. Bell said...

I’m guessing Richard means that Bruce Wayne/Batman was sockpuppeting for his own benefit, and in a court of law. He could get away with that in Gotham, but how did that influence the kids? It probably led directly to writing their own hall passes.

Richard said...

That's just where it starts! If Batman can claim to be another person to help Bruce Wayne, how can we say it's wrong to just sign your mother's name to a report card instead of actually bringing it home to show your parents? Or forge a note to excuse yourself from an assignment? Ethically speaking, it's a slippery slope.

J. L. Bell said...

Children would never have thought of those things if they hadn't read about them in comic books.