05 February 2012

Dick Grayson’s Unresolvable Foundational Conflict

This weekly Robin is a follow-up to last week’sToB’s comment on it, and the thoughts that inspired about how open-ended series need main characters with unresolvable foundational conflicts.

Adventure comics, in both newspaper and magazine form, have for the most part been open-ended, and thus demanded such characters. As Robot 6’s Tom Bondurant wrote in a Grumpy Old Fan column on the Watchmen prequels:
Superman and Swamp Thing were created to be ongoing characters with no definite endpoint, but Watchmen, [James] Robinson’s Starman, [Garth] Ennis’ Hitman, and [Neil] Gaiman’s Sandman were all finite series.
(At least they became so—I don’t recall Gaiman describing such a plan at the outset of Sandman when he was still a starry-eyed British freelancer happy for his big break.)

That’s why DC has commissioned prequels to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s graphic novel. Those new stories won’t affect the characters’ ultimate fates as Watchmen portrayed them. They’ll play out the characters’ foundational conflicts, but everyone who’s read the novel will know how those conflicts resolve. (And how different is that from the usual superhero comics?)

From the 1940s to the 1960s, the unresolvable foundational conflict of Batman and Robin was the tension between their comfortable “real” lives and the challenges of fighting crime while dressed in garish costumes and masks.

Every story about secret identities played off that conflict. Every time Bruce Wayne’s life as a playboy millionaire or Dick Grayson’s as a high-school kid interfered with the Dynamic Duo, that plot grew out of the same foundation.

In most 1940s issues of Batman, one of the four stories focused on the Dynamic Duo’s relationship under pressure from their double lives. “Bruce Wayne Loses the Guardianship of Dick Grayson” (issue #20) was one example. Others include:
  • “Batman Plays a Lone Hand” (#13): Bruce kicks Dick out of Wayne Manor with no explanation in order to protect him from criminals.
  • “Robin Studies His Lessons” (#18): Dick can’t fight crime until he gets his grades back up.
  • “Collector of Millionaires” (#19): Bruce is kidnapped and a double takes his place.
Most of those stories would be impossible if Bruce and Dick gave up their secret identities, their crime-fighting, or their millions. (Or if they just talked to each other more.)

Batman and Robin let some partners in on their secret identities, starting with Alfred and Superman. That didn’t change the foundational conflict, however, because most of the world still didn’t know.

The imaginary tale “The Marriage of Batman and Batwoman” (#122) shows Bruce marrying Kathy Kane. Later imaginary tales of that couple show that the stories could keep coming as long as there was some circle of secrecy. But in that tale, Kathy accidentally reveals Batman’s identity, and the saga screeches to an imaginary end.

Of course, most Batman stories from those decades were driven by that month’s villains, or aliens, or plan to travel back in time through hypnosis. They could have worked with other heroes. It wasn’t until the 1980s that writers began to focus on longer story arcs and more complex motivations for ongoing readers. And then the “we have to preserve our secret identities” conflict just wasn’t enough.

Since 1980 or so, the unresolvable foundational conflict for Bruce Wayne has been his drive to fight crime, avenging his parents and defending innocents, even though that impossible mission threatens his health, his sanity, and his relationships.

For Dick Grayson, the unresolvable foundational conflict has been his relationship with Bruce Wayne. As critic Douglas Wolk put it in Reading Comics, Robin’s “symbolic value is as a son trying to learn from his father’s experience and wisdom without making his father’s mistakes.”

As Nightwing, Dick took a step away from Batman and had his own adventures, but his larger story kept coming back to his relationship to Bruce Wayne. Could he measure up to his mentor? Is taking his own path disrespectful, or a cop-out? Is being the most liked, respected hero on the planet enough when your father figure is so emotionally distant?

When Grant Morrison led DC into making Dick Grayson into Batman for a couple of years, that resolved the hitherto unresolvable conflict. Yes, Dick could be Batman. In some ways, he was a better Batman. He mentored his own Robin, more damaged and dangerous than his predecessors. He defeated Batman villains, Titans villains, and some new villains. He helped to get Bruce Wayne back from time.

But the problem with resolving a character’s unresolvable foundational conflict is that there’s no place further to go. The central question has found its answer. The story has reached its end. DC could put that Dick Grayson back into the Nightwing costume, but why? Better to let that version of the Dick Grayson saga end successfully, and then go back a few steps and a few years to start another one with the same symbolic value but no resolution in sight.

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