Yellow Capes and Nondescript Domino Masks:

Examining the Recently Enhanced Value of the Sidekick

One of the most known comic book conventions is the insertion of a sidekick into the main character’s plot. Comic book writers have used this convention in numerous ways over the years with various levels of success.  For example, if someone calls another person Robin, Tonto, Watson, then those around them know that they are in the “subordinate” role. People who are unfamiliar with the contemporary comic books still think about sidekicks as a little helper monkeys that do what they are told but end up becoming hostages for the main character to save in the end as well. But in recent years, sidekicks have become much more than just the assistant and have become the focal point of many readers.

The most familiar and possibly most famous sidekick would be Dick Grayson. Originally, he was the quintessential and stereotypical sidekick. He has suffered a tragedy very young much like Bruce Wayne, and he then suited up in a bright yellow cape that helped Batman out and ended up getting into trouble.  Dick Grayson appeared in Detective Comics #38 in 1940 and he became the poster boy for sidekicks everywhere. He was a boy hero, taking on gangsters and spouting a punch line in a midair backflip. His only real purpose was to drive the plot forward slightly so that Batman could come in and save the day.

Readers have seen this all over comics. Captain America had Bucky, Green Arrow had Speedy, Aquaman had Aqualad, Martian Manhunter had his niece Megan, Iron Man had War Machine, The Tick had Arthur (on second thought forget that one), the Green Hornet had Kato, etc., etc. It is an accepted and often used strategy that lets the main character express his/her thoughts in ways other than the traditional thought bubbles. The sidekick was often used to show the main characters prowess whether mental or physical, the sidekicks inadequacy is overshadowed and used to enhance the qualities of the main character.

Bucky Barnes was introduced to readers in 1941 in Captain America Comics #1. He was created to be Captain America’s kid sidekick that was an orphan (just like so many other heroes) and was taken by an army camp (which I’m sure was perfectly legal to take in a kid and let him throw himself into a domino mask). The pairing of Captain America and Bucky was essentially Marvels version of the dynamic duo. The kid would throw himself into danger and often helped the hero but once again he would occasionally be taken hostage and Captain America would have to show his mental and physical prowess to save him. This trend of sidekick/ hostage became common place and, quite frankly, a cliché.

But in recent years, there has been a growing popularity of sidekicks that were not present in the golden years of comics. Teen Titans, Young Justice, Robin, Superboy, Supergirl, Batgirl, etc., all are titles (and former titles) of sidekick-based comic books. The characters specifically are what drove the plots and the titles even gave comic writers the opportunity to create side characters and villains that they might have been able to in the mainstream titles such as Batman or Superman.

Tim Drake was the first Robin to get his own monthly series in 1993. People loved the third Robin that he was able to keep his own series afloat for sixteen years and then continued in the form of Red Robin (his newest moniker) for another two years. In 2011, Tim Drake’s exclusive titles were removed (a tragic disservice) and Tim became the Bat-Family’s whipping boy. There has been growing dissatisfaction over the current limbo that Tim Drake is in. These fierce opinions about Tim show how much this “sidekick” means to the readers.

The idea of the sidekick has grown into more fully developed characters that bring depth and often humanity to the stories of contemporary comic book plots. For instance, Robin (Dick Grayson) was originally Bruce Wayne’s ward, the current Robin (Damian Wayne) is Bruce Wayne’s biological son. The sidekick’s value to the community of heroes has increased significantly. They matter. They are no longer cannon fodder. When something happens to a sidekick or even a supporting character, it becomes a massive storyline and/or event that typically has long last consequences (well, longish…they are comic after all).

The revaluing of sidekicks extends past the contemporary and often utilizes the past. In 1968, Bucky Barnes was killed off from the legend of Captain America. And for the next forty years he stayed dead until 2005, when the character was brought back into the mainstream continuity. This move caused many ramifications in the storylines of Captain America and the related books.

2005 also saw the return of Jason Todd, Batman second robin that was killed off in 1988. This return sent the Bat-Family titles swerving all over the place in related storylines in much of the same way that the return of Bucky Barnes did for Captain America.

The reappearance of these former sidekicks had a rather large impact in both the DC and Marvel camps. The characters both had carved out their places in their perspective worlds. These storylines that they have affected are riveting and pivotal to the development of the main characters that they are related to. The fates of Jason Todd, both his death and return, had a massive impact on the relationship that Batman has had with his Robins since. He constantly refers to his newer Robins that he wouldn’t make the same mistakes that he did with Jason. The implications here demonstrate that Batman has used his experience with his dead sidekick to model and shape how he dealt with the others.

The way that writers have used sidekicks have changed. They went from being child assistance that can back flip to actual partners that have their own significant contributions to the team and to their allies. Readers have accepted and enhanced the value of the sidekick role and have started to view in terms that are much more closely related to partners or siblings than to expendable commodities.

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

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