Publication date: April 1940
Author: Bob Kane
Well, this is it. Batman has jumped the shark. It’s all downhill from here, all 70 years. Friggin’ Robin.
No, actually, Robin does a lot for Batman. I mean, Batman’s job is very long and very hard, and Robin’s always there to help him take care of–no! No, I swore I wouldn’t succumb to this. I will review these comics without dwelling on possible homosexual subtexts. Which aren’t there. Not. There.
Robin actually does do a lot for Batman comics. First of all, he provides a Watson to Batman’s Holmes, taking some of the exposition onus off the narrator and thereby allowing stories to flow much easier. The strong, silent superhero might be appealing, but it makes it hard to show what Batman’s thinking and planning without resorting to poor storytelling techniques. Although I did enjoy some earlier comics in which this silence helped make Batman much more mysterious, I recognize that that’s a limited vein of storytelling.
Second, Robin helps to humanize Batman’s character somewhat. By taking an orphan boy under his wing (creepy as that may be in some ways), Batman seems a little more normal. Human relationships and all. And with somebody who doesn’t have a goatee! We’ll later see that having a kid around leads to a bit more domesticity in his life. Up until now, Bruce Wayne is just kind of the mask that Batman wears in the daytime, but with Robin around, the two interact and have breakfast and make fun and basically act like two people, albeit two very odd, immature people.
Third, Robin is even better than Batman at getting at the escapist fantasies of the children who originally read this comic. Batman is the child’s idea of an adult: he can buy whatever he wants, fight without consequence, he’s strong, he’s Good (versus Evil), he stays up all hours of the night, and he even gets to dress up when it’s not Halloween. The kid reader’s relationship to Batman is, that’s the guy I want to grow up to be.
Robin is one step closer. That’s the guy any kid wants to be right now. Not only is Robin strong and skilled, but look at his situation: he gets most of the adult fantasy elements (dressing up, staying up all night, fighting crime) with the addition of an awesome, exceptionally permissive father/brother figure who lets him do all those wonderful things. And as we’ll see in later stories, not only does Robin get to hang out with Batman, he gets to rescue him all the time. What could beat that, for a kid?
Robin’s origin story.
This story has always carried with it some absurdity: the Flying Grayson family, mother, father, and son all leaping from one trapeze to the next under the big tent, only to be the victims of a protection racket trying to extort money from the circus. The finest moment, tragic and bizarre, is probably this image:
But what make this origin poignant and mythic as well as strange are the clear parallels, acknowledged within the comic, between Dick Grayson and a young Bruce Wayne. Both boys lose their parents to a senseless, almost random crime committed for money. Batman is drawn to this case and this child explicitly because they remind him of his own tragedy, and implicitly because this is a chance for little boy Bruce, now all grown up, costumed and strong, to get his own revenge.
Dick Grayson, newly orphaned and impressionable as all hell, vows to kill the people who murdered his parents. It’s only the timely intervention of Batman, with his demonstration of another way–a lifetime of vigilantism–that sways Grayson’s course. The boy requests to follow Batman’s example, and Batman, moved by the boy’s troubles and obvious similarities to his own case, agrees to make Grayson his “aid”. At least he warns him of the danger, first….
Cue the training montage.
Albeit one short as Batman’s originally was. As I recall, that one had Bruce learning science and then lifting weights. Here an unmasked Bruce Wayne teaches Grayson boxing and jujitsu, and establishes that the kid already knows more gymnastics than he does. Finally the process is complete, and a scared, orphaned kid has been transformed into Robin, the Boy Wonder!
But the story isn’t done yet. Revenge still waits. Robin leaves Gotham for the town where his parents got killed, going undercover as a newsboy. Within a day, he’s being pressed by the same protection racket that went after the circus. He pretends to be scared, pays up, and then trails them back to their employer, the underworld boss running his racket on the entire town:
I love this grotesque caricature of the greedy criminal Boss Zucco. It’s worthy of Dick Tracy. He’s not only smoking a cigar, he’s also hot under the collar. And the repetition of the (heavily accented, in my imagination) “see” just sells his odious monologue. Here’s a guy we’ll have no problem seeing beaten to a pulp by a child in a costume.
Now that Robin’s told Batman who’s behind this mess, Batman does a beautiful thing: he turns the protection racket’s methods back on themselves. Batman goes all over town, beating up anybody asking for protection money, and then telling them to carry the message back to the boss. This goes on, very entertainingly, for at least a page and a half, including a scene where Batman bursts into one of Zucco’s illicit casinos and tosses a roulette table around, patrons scrambling to pick up the chips. And just when Zucco is fuming, Batman mails him an actual bat in a box, with a note telling Zucco to get out of town, and specifically not to come near the under construction Canin Building.
Of course that’s precisely where the enraged Zucco goes. Once the boss and his men are up in the half-completed building, Robin swings into action–literally. He uses a sling at one point–the author is very fond of telling us that Robin fighting adult crooks is like the Biblical story of David and Goliath–but for the most part it’s the acrobatics his family taught him, coupled with Batman’s fighting skills, which serve him here. He’s swinging off ropes, flying around girders, and kicking several people right off the building. And when it looks bad–Zucco pulls a gun on the kid–Batman is there to save the day, swinging in feet first and kicking Zucco right in his ugly face.
Batman does another of his trademark, incredibly illegal, no way in hell will this stand up in court interrogations:
It’s not like that guy didn’t have it coming. But still. Come on, Batman.
Of course, they end up not really needing the confession–in a fit of rage, Zucco tosses Blade back off the building, an act that Robin catches with his camera. Zucco is left alive, but eventually found guilty of murder. (Batman’s parting shot is “Your ‘boss’ will be the electric chair!” His quips still need some work.) And now that Robin’s parents have been more or less avenged, Bruce asks him if he wants to go back to circus life. Dick thinks his parents would have wanted him to carry on fighting crime–and anyway, who doesn’t love a good adventure?
Clearly, Batman feels the same way. He pays lip service to the idea of caution, but look at the grin on his face.
Tune in next week for Detective Comics #39 as Baturdays continues.