Oh, Brother, I Hate Your Guts:

The Use of the Brother Versus Brother Motif in Comics

Comic books, like all other forms of literary mediums, use a few different literary devices to stimulate our interest. We read them and enjoy them and we keep reading because we have to know what happens next to these characters that we grew up reading. One of the prevailing trends has been the “brother versus brother” motif. Two men that have been raised together and often very close to each other find themselves on opposite sides of some violently defended ideology.

The idea is to put brothers at odds with each other in a way that typically only one of them ends up surviving. It’s not a new idea, people have been reading about it for centuries: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Isaac, Zeus and Hades. The use of brother versus brother extends past that of biology and enters into the brotherhood bond extending the trend of brother versus brother. Comics have taken the ideas that we have become accustomed to and applied them to the characters we love. Instead of Cain and Abel, comics have brothers in spandex waged warfare. Thor and Loki, Scott and Alex Summers, various generations of the Robins of Gotham, Bruce and Thomas Wayne (the jury is still out on that one), Magneto and Xavier, Superman and Lex Luthor (the Smallville iteration) and the list goes on.

Why is this trend so common? Is it easy to write? Is it some sort of vicarious familial homicide? Honestly, it does hold a sort of interest. Usually the two brothers are strikingly similar in every regard save that of the cause of their discourse. Many times the gap between the brothers is widened by external influences. Scott Summers had Prof. X to guide his moral compass while Alex Summers had various influences such as Polaris. The two brothers, while both are often on the X-men team, are not the sort spend Christmas together and Alex’s role often changes due to whatever Marvel event is going on (good guy, bad guy, back to good guy, okay settle on anti-hero, then get restless and shifts to aspiring hero, etc., etc.) which causes an obvious strain on the relationship the brothers could ever cultivate.

Traditionally, these brothers fit into a very form-fitting established cliché where the older brother is more mature and usually more obedient to the family overall whereas the younger brother is much more impulsive and rebellious. G. David Schwartz brings up this point in his article “The Acumen for Survival and Advancement” where he examines the relationship of brothers in folklore. This same concept is very evident in the relationship between Dick Grayson and Jason Todd, the first two Robins.

Both are adopted sons of both Bruce Wayne that were trained to become his sidekick, Robin. Dick Grayson excelled at crime-fighting and regardless of the strain Dick and Bruce endured, he had always been a “good soldier” for Bruce even after becoming Nightwing. Jason Todd, on the other hand, is infamous for his impulsive behavior and often leaping before he looked. As Jason’s career as Robin continued, his anger and rebellion increased and eventually lead to his death. After Jason’s resurrection, his anger and rebellious nature stayed. But in various issues of the Bat-Family titles, Jason was constantly competing with Dick Grayson. Even after the reboot of the New 52, the problems that plagued Jason stuck around and are brought up in flashbacks in Red Hood and the Outlaws. We even see one panel where Jason and Dick are arguing over tactics on a rooftop and Jason slanders Dick a bit and then jumps off the roof, his cape flowing in the wind, to go pout.

Dick and Jason are at odds with each other because they believe very different things in regards to criminals. Dick follows the guidelines that Batman taught him. He stops villains, saves victims, and sometimes saves the life of the villain all because Batman taught him about the sanctity of life and blah blah blah. Jason Todd is a lethal enforcer that shoots first, shoots second, shoots a bit more, and then stabs somebody. He often shows his discontent of the teachings of Batman through snarky quips to the other Robins. In many of the panels, he is making these comments to the other Robins like a child that’s mad because he was grounded. Instead of rallying the other Robins to his way of thinking, it isolates him further from the rest of the Bat-Family. The contrast between Dick Grayson and Jason Todd can be summed up by relating the two men to “the good son” and “the red-headed stepchild” (sometimes literally if Morrison’s writing him).

This isn’t the only pairing we have in the Bat -amily that uses the brother versus brother motif. One of the more interesting and deepening conflicts is between Tim Drake (Red Robin) and Damian Wayne (Robin). Tim Drake, originally the third Robin, is the most recent adopted son of Batman. Damian Wayne is the biological son of Batman and Talia Al Ghul. And they do not get along. At all.

When Damian first arrived in the Batcave, he saw Tim as his rival and in his rightful place as Robin. Even in current Batman titles, the relationship between Tim and Damian is competitive. In Pre-New 52 titles, Tim wanted to cultivate a more legitimate father-son relationship. He even bought Bruce Wayne a father’s day present after he was officially adopted. Batman is a harsh critic of other super-heroes, especially of the ones he raises. This makes earning his respect difficult and an investment in time. Tim makes the comment in a few issues that Damian should have had to earn Batman’s respect like the rest of the Robins instead of being entitled to it.

Damian has demonstrated over and over again that he is jealous of the relationship that Bruce and Tim had (in pre New 52 titles). Batman stated, during the “Batman and Sons” story arc from Grant Morrison, that he was proud of Tim. This statement isn’t the normal sort of statement that Batman makes regarding his protégés. This need for Damian to be accepted as a Robin worthy of the name and Tim’s resentment of the ease of which Damian was accepted into the Bat-Family has created a rivalry that has brought tension and even harm into the Bat Family titles. After Tim found out that Damian’s DNA had been tested and that he was indeed the biological son of Bruce Wayne he stated, “My brother is the son of the devil.”

There are other examples from both Marvel and DC Comics to pull from but the idea follows the same plot line. 1) Two men spend years together growing and learning, usually in an environment of harmony. They share similar traits and beliefs until some sort of outside force pulls their united ideology apart (Thor and Loki).

2) They spend time apart developing their individual skills even further (Dick Grayson and Jason Todd).

3) And then they meet again on opposite sides of the battlefield, often commanding their own forces (Magneto and Xavier).

Obviously this is not a blanketed statement that is the standard for all stories that use the brother versus brother concept, but it is the basic path that is seen.

Why do we keep reading about these relationships that were once supportive and unified but are torn apart and set against each other? Time and time again we see it and we want more. Perhaps it’s because that while we are entertained by Red Hood shooting at Nightwing and the fight that ensues, we very much want the brothers to come back together. We want to see some sort of reconciliation. Some sort of return.

Recently in the new Batman and Robin title, Damian challenges all the former Robins to prove his superiority. By the end of the arc, the brothers are all fighting in unison against the same enemy. It was a very satisfying issue. For the first time in recent memory, all of them were working together. Even Jason Todd joined in and holstered his killing appetite to appease Batman’s code while in that battle. I don’t think that Dick Grayson and Jason Todd will ever be swapping Christmas cards, but it fills me with hope that maybe one day we will see the brothers working together when the need arises.

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Nathan J. Harmon is a graduate of Missouri State University and teaches English in southwest Missouri

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