Friday, January 16, 2015

What About Robin?

This past week I preached a sermon about heroes as a means of exploring issues of identity.  On Wednesday I posted a reflection on a comment someone made as they left that service, "How many identities does the Joker have?"  Somebody else that morning made a request:  "Next time talk about Robin."

Of course, as my fellow comic nerds will tell you, that's not such an easy thing to do.  First, you'd have to decide which Robin you're going to talk about.  Dick Grayson, the first of the Robins?  Jason Todd, the one who got killed by the Joker?  (Actually, he was killed by-a phone in vote in which readers were asked if he should live or die -- he lost.)  What about Tim Drake, who actually figured out the Batman's secret identity, and who was temporarily replaced by Stephanie Brown?  Damien Wayne, Bruce Wayne's son with Talia al Ghul?  Duke Thomas, who becomes Robin five years or so after current continuity?  What about Carrie Kelly, the Robin of Frank Miller's seminal The Dark Night Returns?  (Which, as an aside, my good friend Jimbo gave me years ago and which reignited my childhood fascination with comic book heroes.  Yes, this is all Jimbo's fault!)  There are others in other iterations of the DC comics universe(s), but that's probably enough links for now.  Suffice it to say, there have been a lot of Robins, so to talk about Robin we need to know who we're talking about.

It gets even more complicated when we consider that some of these Robins have also been other costumed heroes.  Dick Grayson becomes Nightwing.  Jason Todd becomes Red Hood (and a few others).  (Yes, I know, I'd said he'd died.  Not, apparently, such a final thing in the comics!)  Tim Drake becomes Red Robin.  And if this weren't enough to scramble your brain cells, there have been different versions of the DC multiverse that contain different stories for these characters.  The combinations are virtually endless.

All that said, though, I think that this is much more than that parishioner wanted to know.  I think she was saying, "What about the dark and brooding Batman having a young and bright sidekick?"A good question and one which, as with so many other things, the comics have explored over the years.  In his fabulously interesting -- and fun! -- book Batman and Psychology:  a dark and stormy knight, Professor of Psychology Travis Langley devotes a chapter to the question of "Why Robin?"  He demonstrates that, whether the comics' authors were aware of it or not, the various Robins actually show traits appropriate for their "birth order" and psychosocial stage at the time they joined the Caped Crusader's crusade.

He also addresses the charge, originally made in 1954 by Dr. Fredric Wertham, that Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson are gay.  (He never actually said this straight out.  He did say that the two lived "a homosexual fantasy lifestyle."  In his book The Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham wrote, "Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychology and psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature 'Batman' and his young friend 'Robin.'")  This understanding of the relationship continues to this day.  Frank Miller, creator of some of the most compelling comic book storytelling (including the aforementioned The Dark Knight Returns), had this to say about the Batman's sexuality:
"Batman isn't gay.  His sexual urges are so drastically sublimated into crime-fighting that there's no room for any other emotional activity.  Notice how insipid are the stories where Batman has a girlfriends or some sort of romance.  It's not because he's gay, but because he's borderline pathological, he's obsessive.  He be much healthier if he were gay."
So why then this steady stream of young side kicks?  And why are they so often so bright and colorful, a marked contrast from the Dark Knight himself?  One reason is that Bruce Wayne was himself a young child when his parents were murdered during that mugging-gone-wrong, the event that gave birth to the Batman.  Bringing these young men -- some no more than children -- into his mission can be seen as trying to provide the mentorship and support that he never received.  There are exceptions, but several of the Robins -- including the first -- suffered losses similar to Bruce's.  Young Dick Grayson was part of an acrobatic troupe -- the Flying Graysons -- and saw his parents murdered as part of an intended extortion scheme.  Bruce Wayne was in the audience that night when their trapeze wires suspiciously broke and he recognized something of himself in the suddenly orphaned Grayson.  It's been noted that Grayson, Todd, and Drake have often been drawn as looking like younger versions of Bruce Wayne.

Practically speaking, the authors of the comic who actually introduced the Robin character have said that it was getting difficult writing all of the "thought balloons" necessary to convey the Dark Knight's thinking.  With a partner, a side kick, he could talk out loud the things that were going on in his head, and with someone who was a little less perfect with whom the reader might be able to relate a little more readily.  After all, didn't Holmes need a Watson?

From a psychological point of view it can be said that Bruce needs a Robin to remind himself of himself and the reasons for his crusade.  He also, at some level, is aware that he cannot continue this fight forever and so he's training the next generation of crime-fighters, as it were.

But why so bright and cheery?  That original Robin costume, with it's bright yellow cape, red jacket and, as they're not so affectionately known, "pixie boots" would certainly stand out, contrasting quite dramatically with the shadowy Batman.  So what's up with that?  Again, a practical answer is that the too grim detective/vigilante needed to be toned down for readers and that a bright side kick was a way of doing it.  (Adam West and the rest of the gang did it even more in the Batman television show of the 1960s.)  It also makes some good psychological sense.  With his parents gunned down before him at such a young age, it could easily be argued that part of his psychosocial development was halted there, and that while he matured in many other ways a part of him remains that little child.  The brightly clad Robin -- which in a recent depiction of his origins is noted to be a sign of spring -- represents his childlike hope and optimism.

My favorite understanding, though, comes from a flashback in a one-shot from November 2014:
Robin (apparently looking at his costume for the first time):  It's a little, I don't know, bright.  I mean, you get to wear all the black stuff.  You get to use the night and the shadows and things.  Won't everyone, like, see me out there?
 Batman:  Do you know how to use the shadows and the night?
Robin:  No, but ... 
Batman:  You wear black and you rely on the dark.  It becomes your crutch.  Someone takes it from you, and you fall.  Wear your outfit so they will see you.  Then beat them when they see you.  When you're ready, wear mine.  Earn the night.
Earn the night.  And he does.  As Nightwing, his costume is mostly black.  And when it is thought that Bruce Wayne had died, Dick Grayson dons the cape and cowl of his mentor and friend.

One of my mentors charged me, at my ordination, "don't be an old curmudgeon until you are one."  He might have been saying, "earn your curmudgeonliness."  And I can think of so many other parts of my personality that I have had to "earn," as well as many I'd have to admit that I haven't quite earned yet.  Perhaps you can, too.

And I think that all of us can stand reminders from time to time of who we once were -- of the optimism, and the dreams, and the ideals we once had.  St. Paul aside, we should not always "put away childish things."  Perhaps we could all use a Robin in our lives.

Pax tecum,


A portion of the so-called "Bat Family" (l-r) Red Robin, Batwoman, Robin, the Batman, Nighwing, Batgirl, Red Hood

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