Robin: What's In A Name?
In years gone by it seems as though every superhero used to have a sidekick – Green Arrow had Speedy (also known as Red Arrow & Arsenal), Captain America had Bucky, Aquaman had Aqualad and Aquagirl, The Flash had Kid Flash but no sidekick is more famous or more revered than The Boy Wonder himself, Robin. Throughout DC’s continuity there have been SIX iterations of Robin and what I want to do today is focus on the four most well-known of these and look briefly at their origin but also what I believe is the rationale behind Batman taking each of these under his wing (pun intended) as I feel each represents a different aspect of Batman’s psyche.
So the logical place is start right back at the beginning…
Everyone seems to know the story of Richard “Dick” Grayson, the first Robin and the first time that the brooding figure of Batman had ever taken a sidekick. Dick and his family – known as The Flying Graysons – are part of a travelling circus who are struck by tragedy after crossing paths with gangsters who attempt to extort them for protection money and Dick secretly observes this conversation. When the family refuses, the gangster take their retribution by sabotaging their high-flying trapeze act causing Dick’s Mother and Father to fall to their death as the helpless young Grayson watches on.
Bruce Wayne, in attendance that night, warns Dick that revealing the information he knows would undoubtedly cause him to be the next victim of such an “accident” and so Bruce takes Dick into his care, becoming a Father figure and mentor but Dick grows unhappy with the lack of attention he receives from his mysterious new family and sneaks out of Wayne Manor to investigate the murder himself. During this excursion he crosses paths with Batman.
Dick is taken to the Batcave where Bruce reveals his secret identity and Dick pleads with him to allow him to join his cause in order to find justice for his parents. After months of training and conditioning, Bruce is satisfied that he is ready for the task ahead and so Robin, the Boy Wonder, is born!
Dick’s early life as a crime fighter wasn’t always easy, his negligence caused the death of a Gotham District Attorney at the hands of Two Face (who then proceeded to beat the snot out of him) and he was also shot in the shoulder by The Joker and Bruce often had a hard time accepting that a child was fighting this war alongside him, this war that he started alone to exact revenge for his own parents murder. Did he really have the right to bring others into the firing line? Dick and Bruce often butted heads with the former disapproving of some of Batman’s tactics and the latter often trying to push Robin into retirement.
As he grew older, Dick began to resent Batman’s rule and craved the opportunity to break out and this opportunity came in the form of the Teen Titans, a group of younger heroes also featuring Kid Flash, Wondergirl and Aqualad who also sought to make a name for themselves. Dick’s natural aptitude for leadership led to him being appointed leader of the Teen Titans and this enabled him to reach a key decision in his life: Robin was Batman’s sidekick and he couldn’t continue as a sidekick any longer. Robin was no more but, following a fruitful conversation with Superman, into the light stepped Nightwing.
Dick’s adult career as a crime fighter would see the Teen Titans become the Titans (as the members all grew older), the high rises of Gotham were replaced with the murderous slums of Bludhaven and while he has several times taken on the mantle of Batman when Bruce has been missing… or “dead”… he has made it clear that he has no ambitions to ever become Batman full-time. He spent years trying to get out of Bruce’s shadow and has no desire to be drawn back into it.
Dick Grayson has always been a hugely popular character as Robin, Nightwing, a member of the Teen Titans and later the Titans. He has formed relationships with Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl) and Starfire and has close friendships with Roy Harper (Speedy/Red Arrow/Arsenal) and Wally West (Kid Flash/The Flash) while also garnering respect from many of DCs most high profile heroes – especially Superman with whom he forms a close bond.
To me, Dick Grayson’s Robin represents everything that Batman wanted to be – he is not only faster than Batman but more morally sound as he has able to deal with his grief in a far better way than Bruce Wayne ever could and so has avoided the darkness which swallowed his mentor many years ago. Dick is the light to Bruce’s darkness, the angel on his shoulder and often the voice of reason. One crucial factor which draws the two together is that both witnessed the murder of their parents at a very young age, you could even say that Dick Grayson represents the path that Bruce could have taken had he not been so consumed by the tragedy.
While the two have had their differences over the years, Dick is arguably the son Bruce never had… but we’ll come back to that line in a little while.
(For the purposes of this article we’re going to look at the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths origin as the pre-Crisis origin was an almost identical copy of Dick Grayson whereby Jason was the son of circus acrobats killed by Killer Croc and this was thankfully retconned in the 80s)
Jason Todd was a street orphan, a petty criminal doing whatever he could to survive on the mean streets of Gotham City and so he couldn’t believe his luck one night when he stumbled across an unattended Batmobile and decided to help himself to the tires. Batman returns and, following a brief conversation with the boy, ensures he is placed in a school for troubled children in an attempt to get his life back on track… little does Bruce know that the school is actually a front for a criminal gang and, upon learning this, decides to take Jason into his care to prevent him from falling into an even worse life of crime. Bruce sees a darkness in Jason, a violent streak and a blatant disregard for authority at times but believes this can be channeled into crime fighting as he seeks to appoint a replacement for the recently departed Dick Grayson. After six gruelling months of training, Jason Todd formerly takes on the mantle of Robin.
Jason’s time as Robin was not without controversy and was seen constantly disobeying Batman’s orders, using excessive force when fighting bad guys, he smoked, swore and often showboated much to Bruce’s annoyance. But the most telling moment in his fledgling career as The Boy Wonder came when he was suspected of murdering an escaped serial rapist. Jason arrives early and finds the man, Felipe Garzonas, at his apartment but when Batman turns up soon thereafter all he seems is Felipe falling from his balcony to his death.
While the answer is never found, Bruce suspects that Jason finally went one step too far and actually killed someone. This wouldn’t be the last time that Batman would doubt the suitability of his latest partner.
While Jason did a lot of good during his time in the bright red tunic, he wasn’t well received by fans. He was seen disrespecting both Batman and Nightwing (when the former Robin returned to Gotham while working a case) and his popularity was at an all-time low when the writers decided to make a bold call: they created a storyline where Robin would be placed in mortal danger and his fate was at the hands of the readers themselves. During a storyline where Jason attempted to trace down his birth mother, he is captured by The Joker, savagely beaten to within an inch of his life with a crowbar and left in a warehouse packed with explosives.
Two telephone numbers were created – one to call in order to save Robin, one to call in order to kill him.
5343 people voted for Robin to die and 5271 voted to keep him alive so the votes were in and the decision was final: The Boy Wonder was to be killed!
Batman arrives at the warehouse but is seconds too late to save his protege. He finds Jason’s battered and broken body in the rubble but it’s already too late – Robin is dead. The story, titled “A Death In The Family”, is regarded as one of the finest Batman stories ever penned but also one of the most controversial due to the fact that a child superhero was savagely beaten to death but also the fact that this decision was left up to the public. The writers did in fact draw panels which showed Robin surviving the beating just in case the vote had gone the other way.
Jason’s death haunted Bruce Wayne like never before, he became more violent with criminals, he started to lash out and edged ever-closer to losing his morality as he blamed himself for ever putting Jason Todd in the position to be killed in the first place. He kept his costume on display in the Batcave as a constant reminder of his biggest failure as Batman – for all the innocents he saved, he couldn’t save his friend ward when he needed him the most.
Now as everyone knows, nobody really stays dead in comic books but Jason Todd remained in the ground for over a decade before he resurfaced in another seminal Batman storyline. Jason was brought back to life when Superboy-Prime shook the foundations of reality (something we don’t have the time to look into properly) but when he returned he was an empty husk, devoid of any real life and lacking all his memories. He was eventually taken to a Lazarus Pit by Talia al-Ghul where he was restored to his former self but along with his memories came all the pain and trauma associated with his death and this had a dark, telling effect on Jason. He wanted to resume a life as a crime fighter but could no longer do so with the moral compass he once shared with Batman. He believed that death was sometimes justifed, that sometimes the ends justify the means and so a new anti-hero was born. Enter the Red Hood.
What Robin couldn’t achieve with Batarangs and non-lethal punches, Red Hood is able to achieve with advanced weaponry, armour and kill-shots. Jason accepts that sometimes the only way to truly make a difference is to kill.
Jason formed an alliance with Roy Harper (during his time as Arsenal) as the two shared the world view that sometimes the normal morality of a superhero doesn’t deliver the right results and while Jason has never been an especially popular character as Robin, his return to the fold as Red Hood saw his popularity surge. In the current DC Rebirth universe, Dick and Jason are still seen arguing but their close friendship is also evident as the two seem to accept that they are two sides of the same coin and neither will change the other’s perspective but they both want the same thing – a safer Gotham and a safer world.
So what does Batman see in Jason Todd? He is the polar opposite of Dick Grayson, where Dick represents light and justice – Jason represents darkness and vengeance. He is what Batman would become if he ever abandoned his principles and gave in to the urges that he fights every single day. Jason is the devil on Batman’s shoulder, the voice in his head that tells him to punch a little bit harder or aim a deadly Batarang as someone’s throat.
In a wonderful piece of after-the-fact writing, Tim Drake and his family were said to have been in attendance when The Flying Grayson’s died. After having a photo with his heroes, Tim later saw Batman consoling his young hero but decided to keep his distance.
Young Tim was a huge fan of Batman and Robin and followed their exploits closely but when he saw Robin perform an acrobatic manoeuvre that he knew only someone as skilled as a Flying Grayson could perform, he quickly deduced that Robin must be Dick Grayson and therefore Batman must be his mentor and Father figure, Bruce Wayne. This alone sets up Tim Drake as one of the few people to ever work out the Batman’s secret identity. Tim followed the Dynamic Duo for years and even kept up with Dick when he became Nightwing and follow Jason Todd as Robin. After Jason’s death he saw the change in Batman and realised that Batman doesn’t just want a sidekick – Batman NEEDS to have a Robin alongside him to keep him in check, to keep him in balance and to keep him sane.
After assisting Batman during a troubled mission (with the help of Alfred), Tim pleads with Bruce to let him become the next Robin and he agrees but only after even more extensive training than usual from not just Batman but also Nightwing. Once Tim has completed his training and proven his worth, he is finally allowed to don a slightly changed Robin outfit and become the third Boy Wonder.
What Tim lacked in natural athletic ability he more than made up for with his detective skills and love of technology and gadgets. He was more composed than Jason but still a competent fighter who could more than hold his own. During one fateful encounter with The Joker, the Clown Prince of Crime becomes enraged when he thinks that the previous Robin survived his cruel beating but then realises that this is a different Robin. He attempts to force history to repeat itself but is outsmarted by Tim, captured and sent back to Arkham. It takes a special type of hero to take down The Joker and this showed Bruce that he had made the right call in taking Tim on as the third Robin.
Tim would engage in a relationship with a young girl named Stephanie Brown who, at the time, went by the alias of “Spoiler” but would one day become Batgirl and actually had a short stint as Robin herself.
Tim Drake was the active Robin during the incredible “Knightfall” storyline where Bane breaks Batman’s back and leaves him for dead causing the then-Azrael (Jean Paul Valley) to take on the mantle of the Bat and Tim often acted as the voice of morality and reason as Valley displayed a ruthless, blood-thirsty approach to his work as Batman and often overstepped the line.
Tim lost his Mother at an early age and while he originally used this as an opportunity to bond with his Father, he also had obligations as Robin and his troubled Father didn’t react well to seeing what he thought was his own son seeking a new Father figure. Tim’s double life would also cause his countless problems with his on-again/off-again girlfriend as he struggled to balance real life with the obligations of a crime fighting teenager.
Much like Dick Grayson, Tim was a very popular hero and often found himself fighting alongside other younger heroes such as Superboy (and the two would become close friends) and would eventually become a founding member of the Young Justice team.
As he grew older, Tim began to yearn to stretch his legs and started taking on more crime fighting work as a solo Robin and this would ultimately lead to his decision to leave behind the Robin mantle and become the Red Robin so he too was no longer seen as just Batman’s sidekick.
Tim represents a more modern side to Batman, he is his technological side, his love of gadgets and computers but also showcases hard work and determination more so than any other Robin. He had to work harder, train faster and be better than anyone else to get where he wanted to be. And while he doesn’t share the same upbringing or “career” trajectory as his predecessors he too has stated several times that he has no interest in one day become Batman. Only one Robin has ever done so…
The most recent (and current) Robin is Damian Wayne, Bruce’s biological son but his conception was by no means conventional. A single, no-strings encounter between Batman and Talia al-Ghul – the daughter of long-time Batman villain, Ra’s al-Ghul – resulted in a pregnancy but the baby was removed and grown in a laboratory with the goal of genetically modifying him to create the perfect warrior, the ultimate assassin and the one-day future leader of the League of Assassins.
While this was going on, Bruce had absolutely no idea that he had a son until Damian was unceremoniously dropped on his doorstep during the critically acclaimed Grant Morrison Batman run in the “Batman and Son” story arc.
Although initially sceptical, Damian decides that he and he alone is the worthy successor to the Batman mantle and decides to take on the role of Robin in the meantime
The problem here is that Batman is known for his principles of not killing and this Robin has been raised by the League of Assassins – the most dangerous and feared shadow organisation in the world – and for as long as he’s been able to stand upright he has been taught to kill. Damian has had his skills honed and perfected for almost his entire life and is now a killing machine, always with a katana sword at his side and initially seems hesitant to give up what he considers to the best way to deal with criminals. This causes much friction with Bruce but ultimately his respect for his Father trumps that of his Grandfather and so Damian falls in line.
Batman too has struggled with finding out he has a son, he has had several son-like figures throughout his life but an actual son, a genetic heir is a whole new ball game which has taken time. He struggles with raising his son both as a child and as a superhero, trying to educate him on both fronts and encouraging him to not only be a vigilant and fair crime fighter but also a decent and respectable child.
Damian has also clashed with Tim Drake who he sees as some sort of Wayne family usurper and Dick Grayson who many regard as Bruce Wayne’s truest son and the most logical successor to the Batman name. This has even continued into the DC Rebirth universe where Damian has recently been seen asking the rest of the Teen Titans who they believe would take over as Batman and they all answer with Nightwing. This enrages Damian as, again, he believes this to be his birthright.
The Damian Wayne character has been done to perfection in the most recent DC Animated Universe movies which I highly recommend watching… well, I recommend watching all of them really. In order.
So what does this incarnation of Robin represent? Damian is Batman’s stubborn childish rage, the side of him who sometimes cannot take no for an answer but he’s also the truest representation of Batman’s inner fighter and this is surely a strong bonding point for the two. Both have a unique and unparalleled fighting ability with Damian seemingly having stamina which goes far beyond his years – a comment which has also been levelled at Batman across his career, despite being “just a man” he can outlast many opponents due to years of training and conditioning.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this, my latest little brain-fart moment and please do reply or talk to me/us on Twitter about these things as you know we love a good natter! Let me know about your favourite Robin and your thoughts too. Thanks for reading!