Why Robin Matters
Robin the Boy Wonder is the most maligned superhero in the world of comics. He gets no respect. His mentor, Batman, is one of the most beloved and iconic heroes in the entire world! But poor little Robin gets picked on and teased to no end. It’s a travesty. And it’s going to change.
I’m here to tell you folks that Robin is one of the best superheroes in comics and he doesn’t deserve all the hate. Forget the 1960s Batman TV show, push all of the gay jokes out of your mind, and let’s just pretend that 1997’s Batman and Robin never happened. Because if all you’re going to do is focus on the worst interpretations of the character then you’ll never see the whole picture.
And Robin is a deeper and far more interesting character than anyone gives him credit for. Until now. It’s time to give Robin all the credit.
Robin’s importance to the Batman mythos can be summed up in four key points that we’re going to explore in this article. The first idea is my own, the second I got from noted Batmanologist Chris Sims from Comics Alliance. The third idea comes from artist Tim Sale. The fourth is just kind of obvious.
1.) Robin represents approval of Batman’s costumed crimefighting. Characters like Commissioner Gordon and Alfred will only ever accept that Batman exists, but Robin is not only someone who approves of the life, but has flourished in it.
2.) Robin is a reflection of Batman, in that this is what happens to a child who loses his parents when there is a Batmanaround to help him.
3.) Robin is visually and psychologically the opposite of Batman, creating an inventive and appealing juxtaposition and balance between the two characters.
4.) Robin can change; Batman can’t.
Join me after the jump and we can get started!
Batman is cool. There’s no getting around this fact. Batman is probably the coolest, most popular superhero in all of comics. And this shouldn’t surprise anyone. He’s a total badass, his costume is cool and he doesn’t need superpowers to compete with his peers. He’s the ideal, red-blooded superhero. So why does he need to dress up a little kid in bright colors to tag along when he fights mobsters? What’s the point of having Robin?
There are a lot of in-comic answers to this question that I will explore in depth at a later date. For one thing, Batman doesn’t have a Robin Training School, where he just picks a new one when he loses the last one. Each Robin joins Batman for very specific, in context reasons. We’ll talk about those another time. In general, Batman has Robin because he’s training his replacement. Batman is mortal, and there’s always a chance that he could die during a fight with some criminals. If he doesn’t want his war on crime to end, then he’s got to train the next Batman. Also, Batman is the master of being prepared for any situation. And what’s better to have in a fight than a partner who’s got your back?
But all of those in-story reasons aside, we’re going to talk about what Robin brings to the literature of Batman. Why do the writers insist on keeping Robin around? Everybody seems to think Batman should be a loner, the singular Dark Knight fighting his one-man war on crime. And yet Robin keeps showing up in the comics, the cartoons and especially the movies. Both Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale swore they would never have Robin in their movies, and yet there he was in The Dark Knight Rises. Why does Robin keep showing up?
Robin Represents Approval
For this to really make sense, you’ve got to think of Batman living in a vacuum. Take the Dark Knight trilogy, for example. In those movies, and when Batman was first created, the world wasn’t populated by colorful superheroes, where dressing up in costume and fighting crime is the norm. The shared universe with Superman, Wonder Woman and the Justice League all came later. In the Dark Knight movies, it’s just one guy who decides to dress up like a bat and punch criminals. That’s a pretty weird decision, and reasonably, everyone in Bruce Wayne’s life is usually against it.
Let’s look at the two other most important supporting characters in Batman’s life: Alfred and Commissioner Gordon. These characters would prefer that Bruce Wayne not be Batman. But they are all willing to accept that Batman exists. Alfred would rather Bruce embrace the civilian life, fall in love and populate Wayne Manor with lots of kids. Commissioner Gordon would rather Gotham City not need a masked vigilante in order to keep the peace. But for circumstances that exist, both are willing to accept the Batman. Alfred helps out Bruce because he cares for the boy and its not his place to tell Bruce not to be Batman. Gordon accepts the Batman’s help because Gotham City is just that bad.
Robin, on the other hand, approves of Bruce Wayne’s choices. The Robins are usually in the same place as Bruce Wayne. They’re usually orphans who lost their parents at a young age. So when the opportunity presents itself to become a superhero and help Batman, they jump at the chance and fully embrace the role of Robin. And when they grow up, they usually stay as superheroes, and sometimes they even take over as Batman. Some Robins have had it harder than others, but most of them have some kind of success. Dick Grayson, the first Robin, is flourishing as his own superhero. Likewise Tim Drake, the third Robin, became a well-respected member of the superhero community.
Most of the people in Bruce Wayne’s life would prefer that he not be Batman. They’re willing to accept Batman, but only out of necessity. Robin approves of Batman, and Robin shows that being a costumed crimefighter is not just the dark, insane agenda of a lone, broken man. It can work for someone, and it can work very well.
Robin is Batman
This idea comes from noted Batmanologist Chris Sims, and it’s just so good I had to share. You can read Sims’ original piece here. His idea is that Robin, especially Dick Grayson, is a reflection of Bruce Wayne, thereby boosting Batman’s character. It’s the same way that all of the best Batman villains are a twisted mirror image of some version of himself.
Dick Grayson is Bruce Wayne in a world where Batman was around to help him.
When Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed, he didn’t have anybody round to help him. He had Alfred, but Alfred never took over as a father. Alfred remained the faithful butler, raising Bruce as well as he could, but always in a master/servant role. The father/son relationship is there, but Alfred never became Bruce’s new father, he always remained Bruce’s butler. Bruce then on his own decided to become Batman and fight crime, and why did he do this? So that no other little boy would have to suffer the same fate as he did, that no other little boy would have his parents taken away by crime.
And then it happened right in front of him. Bruce Wayne attends Haley’s Circus one night and watches in horror as another little boy is orphaned right before his eyes. Bruce was powerless to stop mobster Tony Zucco from cutting the trapeze, and he was powerless to save Dick Grayson’s parents.
Afterwards, Bruce takes it upon himself to adopt Dick Grayson as his ward because he knows what Dick is going through. Bruce isn’t the best father figure, but it’s not long before Dick decides to join him as Robin, and together they take down Tony Zucco. Under Bruce and Batman’s tutelage, Dick Grayson grows up to become a very well-liked and well-adjusted person, much more so than Bruce himself. Everybody knows that Batman is a dark, brooding and lonely hero, and that Bruce Wayne is just a facade he puts on when he appears in public. That’s not the case for Dick Grayson. Dick doesn’t put on a facade or pretend to be someone he’s not. Both as Dick Grayson and as Nightwing, he’s a happy, friendly, sociable person who has a lot of friends and is well-respected in the superhero community. He and Superman are pals.
When Bruce Wayne lost his parents, there was no one to help him. So he grew up into a dark, lonely person. But he also became the person who could help. So when Dick Grayson lost his parents, there was Batman. And through Batman, Dick grew into a friendly, happy and successful person.
Proof that with Batman around, the world is a better place.
Robin is the Balance
One of the most popular Batman stories of all time is The Long Halloween, and it’s a very good comic indeed. But few people know that it has a sequel called Dark Victory, and Dark Victory tells Robin’s origin story. It’s a classic, solid origin for how Dick Grayson chooses to become the first Robin, and how Batman reluctantly accepts a sidekick. It’s very good, and is one of my favorite Robin stories of all time. The comic is written by Jeph Loeb and drawn by artist Tim Sale, the same creative team that worked on The Long Halloween.
In the forward written by Sale, he tells the reader that he never really like Robin. He was one of the haters who just didn’t get it – until he started working on this book. And soon Sale saw the light, and he understood why Robin is a good partner for Batman.
It’s because Robin balances the Dark Knight, both in mood and in visual style. Being an artist, of course, Sale was more interested in the visual style.
Batman is all about darkness. He either wears all black or a combination of dark gray and dark blue. The look definitely works for him. Batman has one of the best costumes in all of comics. But if you’re going to give him a partner, do you really want someone who looks exactly like him? Do you really want a Mini-Me Batman running around? Of course not. Comic books are a visual medium, and when the writers created Robin, they made the very wise decision of not just making him Batboy. That’s where all of the other kid sidekicks go wrong. Superboy, Wonder Girl, Kid Flash, Speedy, Aqualad; they’re all just miniature versions of the adult heroes. But not Robin. He’s his own character, his own look, his own personality. And that’s why Robin works so well from a sheer visual standpoint.
Batman is tall, dark and shadowy. Robin is short, bright and colorful. The visual juxtaposition is part of the fun.
And, of course, Robin’s personality is a balance to Batman. This part has been discussed to death, but is no less important. Many people would argue that Batman belongs in Arkham Asylum right alongside the villains. He’s crazy to dress up like a bat and fight crime. And if left to his own devices, Batman would spiral downward into the darkness. He’d probably stop eating, stop sleeping, stop being Bruce Wayne, and he’d just be a sick old man living in the Batcave all by his lonesome. That’s why Robin is so important. He brings cheerfulness into the Batcave. He can get Batman to laugh, he gives Batman someone to care about. Robin gives Batman a reason to hang on.
Robin is the only other superhero Batman really trusts. And Batman doesn’t trust anybody.
Robin Can Change
Batman cannot change. He will always only ever be Bruce Wayne. And while there are many different interpretations of Batman, he will always be the staunch warrior for justice. Batman and Bruce Wayne will be smart, noble, heroic and kind. Whether it’s the campy 1960s Batman TV show, the darker movies of the 90s, the even darker movies of the 00s, the Animated Series, the goofier Batman: The Brave & The Bold cartoon or whatever, Batman will always be the same general character.
But Robin can change. And through change, there can be new stories and new angles to explore.
In the comics, there have (technically) been five different Robins. Reboot aside, there was Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown and Damian Wayne. And the possibility exists that there’s going to be a sixth Robin coming along sometime this year. And that’s not even counting alternate reality Robins like Helena Wayne or Carrie Kelly. Each of these Robins has their own personality. Each one is their own character. And to this end, each one brings something new and different to the table. Dick was the happy-go-lucky jokester, Jason was the rude problem child, Tim was the brainy intellectual, Stephanie was the eager go-getter and Damian was the arrogant jerkass.
So each Robin is different, and as such, they bring out different traits in Batman. If you had the same Batman and the same Robin for all these years, the stories would all be the same. But giving Batman a different Robin every once and awhile brings out some new facet of Batman’s never-changing personality. How does he deal with a problem child like Jason? How is Batman different when a good kid like Tim Drake comes along? How does Batman deal when Robin is his own biological son Damian? These were all good stories.
And don’t we all want good Batman stories?
So there you have it. I’ve been wanting to write this essay for years now because Robin is one of my favorite comic book characters and most people just don’t understand the character. I know I’m not the only Robin fan out there. So please feel free to share this article with any of the haters out there. We can’t let them win!