DC Comics is marking 80 years of spunky sidekick Robin with a 100-page “super spectacular” featuring stories by comic book luminaries and tributes to the various individuals who have taken up the character’s mantle over the decades.
Also known as the “Boy Wonder,” Robin joined Batman, the crime-fighting alter ego of billionaire Bruce Wayne, in March 1940, bursting through the cover of Detective Comics #38 while decked out in his signature suit of red, green and yellow. In the decades since, many fictional youths have donned the mask—but not all wore trousers while in costume.
The first character to take on the role of Robin was Dick Grayson, a boy orphaned after a gangster had his goonies rig a circus trapeze to fail, killing Grayson’s parents. DC Comics introduced Grayson in an attempt to soften Batman’s character and reach a wider audience; originally, the masked hero was a vicious crime fighter modeled after grisly noir stories like those featured in the pulp fiction magazine Black Mask.
When Batman took Grayson under his wing, he became a mentor and father figure rather than a murderous vigilante.
“The two orphans were a positive influence on each other,” writes George Gene Gustines for the New York Times.
Together, the Dynamic Duo secured a lasting place in American culture.
“Batman is particularly popular, and so enduring, because he resolves the inherent contradictions in American identity,” Matt Yockey, author of the 2014 book Batman, told Smithsonian magazine’s Ryan P. Smith in 2018.
The dark hero encapsulates the paradox of “unity through collective individualism,” according to Yockey, working through his personal problems while simultaneously protecting wider society.
“Batman is the ultimate individual, but he’s always working for the good of the larger social body,” said the author. “So you get to have it both ways with Batman.”
As Robin, Grayson stood at Batman’s side for more than 40 years. During this period, the Batman comics shifted away from gritty, realistic guns and knives toward bat-inspired gadgets like the batarang and Batmobile. Grayson’s Robin featured in a solo series, Star Spangled Comics, and founded a team of super-youths, the Teen Titans, before becoming Nightwing, a super hero in his own right.
Todd and Grayson were both white men with black hair and blue eyes. But the next person to wear the suit, Carrie Kelley, defied this trend, becoming the first female Robin in 1986.
Kelley’s debut comic, The Dark Knight Returns, takes place in Batman’s future, setting it outside of the main DC canon. Still, writes Julia Savoca Gibson for the Guardian, the story line is “regarded as the most influential Batman comic in history.”
Whereas the boy Robins were “defined by their confidence,” explains Gibson, “Kelley’s fear powered her story. She was bold and badass, like the other Robins, but, unlike them, she could be afraid.”
Kelley’s emotions shine through, for example, when she sees a memorial for Todd in the Batcave and when a villain is decapitated in front of her—both moments of stark contrast to the plucky, punny antics of Grayson’s Robin.
Just one female Robin appears in the main canonical comics: Stephanie Brown, who first appeared as the love interest of Robin number three, Tim Drake. When Drake quit in 2004, Brown offered to take his place but was fired two issues later for not following directions (“which, as anyone familiar with Robin will know, is one of the defining traits of the character,” according to Gibson).
The next development in the Robin story line dates to 2015, when Batman met a group of vigilante teenagers who wore red, green and yellow and called themselves the “We Are Robin” movement. The lead character, an African American teen named Duke Thomas, caught Batman’s attention. But instead of becoming the next Robin, in 2018 Thomas took his own superhero name: the Signal.
“Sidekicks are a way for younger people to tap into superhero fantasy,” writes Gibson. “… Few characters come close to Robin’s legacy. Few superheroes have so much potential to be more inclusive, too, since very few mantles are passed on as often.”