A few days ago, one of my friends from work was telling me about a particularly attractive girl that he knew from his other job. I know, this isn’t a terribly interesting way to start off this week’s column, but bear with me. He told me that if I wanted to see a picture of her to go on his Facebook and look under a specific folder from an event that happened a while back, a super-hero costume party that he attended, and look for a girl dressed as Robin. I said that was funny, since I always kind of thought the Robin costume was kind of hot on a girl.
At this point, another work buddy piped up and explained that my admiration for females who are wearing Robin’s costume is actually a result of how inherently feminine Robin is. He then went on to bash the idea of Robin with the same tired rhetoric that all Robin detractors tend to use. “I mean think about it, when you were a kid did you want to be Batman or Robin? No one ever wanted to be the sidekick.”
My first instinct was to tear his argument to shreds. Of course I wanted to be Robin. Robin provides an entry point for young children into the dark, grim, noir world of Batman. He’s a relatable character; a spritely little kid that gets to put on his own brightly colored super-hero suit and go pal around with Batman solving crimes and beating up bad guys.
Wanting to be Robin is what got me into comics in the first place. Of course I wanted to be Batman too, but so did Robin, right? He was the student training under the master. And this was even more apparent to me when I found out that there wasn’t just one Robin, Dick Grayson, but there had in fact been several. Batman was a superhero, Robin was a rite of passage on the road to being a superhero. I never considered Robin a “sidekick.”
No one proved this point better than the character of Damian Wayne. See, I don’t need a tiny kid to be my entry point anymore into the world of Batman. I’m 28 and I live in New York City. At this point in my life, if I’m going to relate to either of those two characters, it’s going to be Bruce Wayne. Although, to be sure, I certainly can’t relate to his being a perfect athlete or having tons of money or a mansion and a butler, as much as I’d like to. But then again I still have both my parents, so I guess we’ll call it a draw.
Damian Wayne wasn’t created as an entry point for older readers like me. And he certainly wasn’t created as an entry point for younger readers, since he was pretty much the complete opposite of the type of kid you’d want to encourage your son or daughter to emulate. My guess is that Damian Wayne was created for guys like me who grew up wanting to be Robin, who can remember a time when Batman had a Robin and Robin was a prepubescent kid. Maybe he represents how we’d like to remember ourselves at that age as young Batman fans, tough and punk rock and a total master of martial arts by the age of 7 or something.
And now that I’m older I don’t relate to Robin as a character anymore, I relate to Batman, and so it was fitting that Damian Wayne’s Batman was the first Robin, the Robin I looked up to as a kid, Dick Grayson. The student had become the master and the wheel keeps turning. And then, every few issues, we’re given glimpses of the future and we see Damian growing up to take up the mantle of the Bat many years from now. The cycle continues.
So we’re no longer the student. We’re no longer the the kid reading the comic, wanting to get transported to Batman’s world to learn his secrets and become more like this ninja/Sherlock Holmes/Zorro guy. We’re now seeing the world through the eyes of the master. We’re Dick Grayson, a guy who graduated from Robin to Nightwing and from Nightwing to Batman. We’re the older brother, the role model, and we have the next generation of superheroes standing beside us, eager to follow in our footsteps.
The question then, for us, is, what are we going to teach them? How do we want to enrich their lives and put them on the path to becoming the heroes of tomorrow? What can we talk to them about? Well, first of all, comics. Comic books obviously did a lot for us growing up, otherwise we wouldn’t be here talking about them as adults. But we are talking about them, and it’s because we know the value of these stories, we know that these aren’t just American corporate icons. It’s not like I’m sitting alone in my room right now on Friday night banging out 1,500 words about Mickey Mouse or Ronald McDonald.
These are myths, modern day American myths, and they’re meant to be passed down from one generation to another. When we are dead and gone kids will still be learning the story of the man who came down from the stars and taught the human race how to trust compassion over selfishness. Or the little boy who lost his parents and who, upon becoming a man, disguised himself as a bat and took nightly trips into the underworld to spare other children from having the same fate. We grew up on these stories, and now it’s up to us to tell them to our successors.
When Damian Wayne first took the job as Robin, he was far from being the ideal student, let alone the ideal superhero. He was reckless, disrespectful, and egotistical. He had all the training necessary for being a master crimefighter, but none of the heart necessary for being a superhero. Perhaps that is Grant Morrison’s concern with the younger generation. Perhaps that’s what he’s saying we need to help them with.
Kids need guidance, they need cool role models who are into good art and good music who can guide them away from an increasingly shallow, selfish, artless society. Granted, they’re smart as a whip when it comes to technology, but what good is it if that technology is being wasted on sharing Justin Bieber videos? And it’s not like our representatives in congress are looking out for them. Perhaps as fetuses today’s children were of some importance to those in power, but now that they’re alive and breathing, the government is fine with providing them with a sub-par education and encouraging them to question the theory of evolution while protecting the right for gun nuts to buy 30-round magazines for assault weapons in the wake of a terrible school shooting. Kids don’t have anyone on their side, and they run the risk of growing up to be pretty shitty people. We need to help them out. We can do that with comics. (And with voting.)
Eventually Dick Grayson was bumped back to being Nightwing and Bruce Wayne was brought back in as Batman and the wheel of progress was pushed back a little bit. I really didn’t agree with this decision, but I understand that there’s no way Batman would’ve been anyone other than Bruce Wayne for very long.
The stories then became about a father and son Dynamic Duo, adding some legitimacy to the team and safeguarding it against the decades-old sneer that Batman is a weirdo for hanging around with little boys. But it still destroyed the stronger metaphor that was in place and killed the idea that a role model could be, and in some case should be, a person from outside your immediate family.
And ultimately nothing is going to age a character like having them raise a child, so eventually it came time to kill off Damian altogether. The wheel is pushed all the way back to the start. Such is the way of superhero comics. Only now, Batman’s not just a father, he’s a father in mourning, on top of being an orphan, making him quite possibly too tragic of a character. We’ll see. They probably should’ve worked all this out before rebooting him.
Anyway, in spite of the eventual shoehorned-in return of Bruce Wayne, the death of Damian and the inevitable retcon or resurrection of Damian that is to follow, those initial stories with him as Robin and Dick as Batman were some of the best Batman comics I’ve ever read. They were fun and original, a breath of fresh air that simultaneously moved the series forward and rejoiced in the long-forgotten quirkier areas of it’s past. The character of Damian Wayne was a nod to our childhood, a clever way of returning Robin to the age that he was when we were kids, done in a way that made sense and didn’t feel silly. His existence was brief, but the lesson he taught us as readers and as comic book fans was invaluable. We’re the superheroes now, it’s time to start acting like it.