Sidekick Bar Mitzvah
Lessons in getting older and navigating the course of your own life from the original Boy Wonder
Just follow along with me for a minute: Bruce Wayne’s parents died in an alley, shot by a mugger. And somehow, as a small child he makes the fateful—and also impossibly fucked up—oath to declare war on crime.
He gets older, does a training montage, and wages war with brutal efficiency and just a touch of pageantry night after night, filling the police precincts and trauma wards with b-list villains. And then, along the way, another small boy watches his parents get killed, this time in a circus accident orchestrated by the mob. So Batman takes in this similarly scarred 12-year-old and offers him a home. And then, asks him if he wants to join the fight.
Does that mean Robin was a child soldier?
Robin the Boy Wonder celebrated his 80th birthday in March, (though DC Comics has been calling it an “anniversary,” which I guess means there’s no need to send gift cards?) Robin wasn’t the first sidekick, stories have always needed a first witness to verify how great the hero is. But Dick Grayson, the original Robin, was likely among the first sidekicks not old enough to buy a pack of smokes.
So let’s be real here: Robin’s origin is a baffling punchline at best, and child endangerment at worst. Bruce Wayne takes in a child because he...wants a pet? Finally discovered his deeply repressed feels? Or, because he sees something like the soul obliterating trauma that destroyed his life and made him dress up like a bat every night in a vain attempt to punch crime into submission. Look, there’s a lot Brucie could have done with his wealth to help Dick Grayson: pay for counseling, find a more stable family for adoption, funded broader family support and crime prevention measures (...you know what, let’s just take it for granted in many ways Bruce Wayne is just like any other billionaire who will find any possible way to not use their wealth to support public programs.)
But, instead, Bruce Wayne takes in a child he has no concept how to raise, and trains him to be a weapon in a war. And let’s not forget: he’s letting his new protege take on murderers and assorted goons in a unitard that’s lit up like light a traffic light. So while Batman gets to skulk around color coordinated with the shadows, Robin’s more or less begging to get shot. That’s not a partner, it’s a very useful decoy.
And yet, for a child soldier/decoy, Robin has always been one of my favorite heroes. That makes a kind of weird sense when you’re a kid. He’s a circus acrobat who does cool flips off the side of buildings! You imagine how incredible it would be to ride shotgun in the Batmobile or troll the Penguin for being a one percenter with a bird fetish. In this case what was good for comics sales was also fodder for the imagination, kids buying comics because they see themselves. Together Bruce and Dick became more than just a fatalistic rich guy and his boy hostage: they became “The Dynamic Duo.”
And then, something interesting happened: The original Robin actually got to grow up. Dick Grayson went to college, got a job of his own (leading the Teen Titans is basically like the Peace Corps, right?) and eventually in the 1980s decided to ditch his Robin mantle to become Nightwing, a hero of his own making. He pushed aside Batman’s history, his worldview and methods. The symbolism is pretty on the nose: a child leaving home to become a man, ditching the bright red traffic vest and hot pants for a disco leotard. He breaks away. It’s basically a Springsteen song.
Like any kid living in the shadow of a larger than life parent, Dick Grayson wanted to make a mark on his own. (That and editors at DC Comics desperately wanted Batman to throw the Robin title onto a new dark-haired kid fresh off the bus from the Sisters of Tragic Dead Parents Orphanage. And that pairing DEFINITELY didn’t result in one of the most gruesome stunts in comics history.)
The remarkable thing about comic books, like soap operas or Nickleback songs, is they never really change.
Robin got to grow up. Let that settle for a second. Years of getting kidnapped and strung up over death traps, having Alfred explain the birds and the bees. All the detailing the Batmobile and inventory utility belt parts (did you know Bat Shark Repellent is highly flammable?), but Robin got to move on. The remarkable thing about comic books, like soap operas or Nickleback songs, is they never really change. That’s been a little different in the last few decades, but comics largely exist in stasis, with only momentary hallucinations passed off as transformation. A hero dies, someone else keeps the cape warm until that hero appears again, refreshed from the grave, as if they visited a holistic wellness retreat or Burning Man.
But Robin changed that. Becoming Nightwing, graduating from being a part of someone else’s tale to finally being at the center of his own, with his own trajectory. A spin-off.
Look, I turned 40 last week. I’ve been thinking about time and the act reconciling who you are with who you thought you’d be. How it’s necessary (and still hard, ironically) to allow some generosity with yourself on the gulf that may exist between disparate parts of you. Turns out self discovery is a process that takes time, and it doesn’t come without examining your previous selves.
Comics were one of my earliest loves, they were my doorway to reading and storytelling. A weathered copy of The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told I borrowed off a friend in elementary school is one of the oldest books I have, surviving moves across six states. With enough time and distance—or therapy—it’s impossible to not look at superheroes through their experience of trauma. That’s not a word we knew as kids. It’s even harder to identify as an adult. And in comics it gets substituted for the word “origin” pretty regularly. Seriously: Can you think of even one hero with a backstory where something horrible doesn’t happen, or someone’s parents/spouse/beloved dog gets out alive?
Batman and Robin’s partnership was built on childhood pain. But the two of them learned different lessons. Batman dedicated his life to becoming a weapon, the kind that could theoretically stop what happened to his parents. Robin...got pulled into his adopted dad’s zany schemes. And after he was old enough to move out tried to figure shit out for himself. He decides he doesn’t want to be a vigilante, a scourge to the endless supply of superstitious and cowardly criminals filling Gotham. Instead, he wants to be something different. From the DC Universe Encyclopedia:
After seeking some advice from Superman, Dick decided to adopt a new identity—“Nightwing,” after a hero from Kryptonian legend—and returned to the Teen Titans with an all-new look and a renewed sense of purpose.
He goes to Bat-dad’s truth, justice and American way-loving, best friend for help and (probably) a tall glass of milk. And he comes away from it changed; instead of becoming a vessel for his fear and trauma—like, say, a certain cave dwelling billionaire playboy—he wants to be an actual hero. Not something that terrifies villains or becomes the subject of urban legends. Someone who saves people. The former kid acrobat who wants to be a safety net for anyone who falls.
It’s possible Robin wasn’t a child soldier. But it’s worth pointing out Batman put at least five different kids in the costume after the OG hung it up. At least one died. (It didn’t stick.) Maybe the problem is Batman is actually a stage parent, he just wants his kid to get on America’s Next Top Hero in the worst possible way.
Growing up I loved the idea that Robin more or less graduated, that he went from Boy Wonder to his own super hero. When I think about that now it resonates different. Nightwing has, by comics standards at least, led a well adjusted life: he has friendships (not just, say super powered co-workers), he’s had romantic relationships. He quips and smiles. His butt has become a topic of great interest.
It’s not just that he moved out of Bat-dad’s basement, but that he (or, perhaps, the writers and editors who worked on the character decided Robin/Nightwing ) grew beyond what he was. It’s not just shedding one costume for another, but picking the direction you want for your life. It’s taking the active step of interrogating your past, your joy and hurt, and just trying to live your life the way you want. In a leotard of your own choosing.
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