The Robin Issue

Dan DiDio famously hates Dick Grayson.

DiDio is the DC equivalent of Joe Quesada – not just in terms of their position, but in terms of their attitudes towards superheroes. He hates endings, he hates characters getting to grow, and he thinks happy endings are boring. It’s been a long running joke in fandom that Nightwing’s greatest nemesis isn’t Deathstroke or Blockbuster, it’s DiDio. And a while back, he made a comment about precisely why he hates Dick that I found interesting – and by interesting, I mean frustratingly ridiculous. And that comment was that he hates him because he’s getting older.

The reason that I hate Nightwing is that he’s getting older… The reason people like Nightwing because he aged with them. But Batman can’t get older.

This is something I disagree with for multiple reasons – mainly because I think it’s silly to claim that a character as popular as Nightwing is only liked for one reason, and that it’s completely inaccurate to say he can’t get older. But even though I disagree, the comment made me think about the roles Dick has had in comics throughout the years, and comments I’ve seen from various people about different members of the Batfamily, and I came to a rather unfortunate conclusion that it’s not really that I disagree with his point so much as that I disagree with who the point is about.

I adore Dick Grayson and his relationships with other members of the Batfamily, but we’ve reached the point of oversaturation. DC has spent so long relying on a formula that works when it comes to non-powered heroes that they’ve wrung out just about every bit of use they can get out of it. As the first, and arguably the last, kid sidekick, Robin is hugely important to the Batman mythos…but I think it might be time to retire the mantle.

The Many Characters To Use The Name

Batman-and-Robins

A few months ago, there was this whole thing going on. Zack Snyder had mentioned on Vero that he had envisioned the Robin whose suit we saw in Batman v Superman. There was quite an uproar about that, with a lot of people objecting to the idea because “being killed by the Joker is Jason’s story”. Similarly, many people complained about the characterization of Dick in Titans, insisting that he was behaving more like Jason or Damian. I found both of these complaints very strange. Because you know what? Even assuming they’re true, after everything that the other Robins have taken from Dick, I don’t see a problem in Dick retaliating.

The thing is, Robin is one of the legacy characters with the most people that have held the title. The Batfamily in general is enormous. Between Alfred, Dick, Jason, Tim, Barbara, Stephanie, Cass, Damian, and Duke – even if the current roster doesn’t include all those people – it’s a massive slate. And the one that ultimately loses out is Dick.

For a significant amount of time – close on twenty years, really – what we now call the Batfamily was just Bruce, Dick, and Alfred. And it was a dynamic that worked, which was why Jason was introduced to begin with. But now? Now, it’s too much. There are too many characters, and because so few writers have a good enough sense of nuance, there’s little sense of what makes each of them unique. It’s not a zero sum game, or at least, it shouldn’t be. But every time there’s a new Robin, they get some of Dick’s character traits, plot points, even friends, in an attempt to give them a clearly defined role within the family. To try and justify their existence – to make their value clear – writers have to lessen Dick, make him less competent, intelligent, driven. He’s a hugely popular character. Yet with how he often gets treated in works where he’s not the central character, you’d think he’s the Betty Kane to Jason, Tim, Damian’s Barbara Gordon – a far less competent character than the others to bear the name whose only claim to fame was being there first. That is painfully far from being true, because Dick defined Robin. Everyone to take up the mantle after him took on at least some of his traits.

Jason got Dick’s sometimes strained relationship with Bruce. Tim got his intelligence. Cass got his “best athlete in the Batfam” thing. Different people have started arguing that everyone should get his position as heir to Batman. Even Alfred plays a role, because he took on the position that was originally Dick’s as the most important person in Bruce’s life, the first one that he trusted and considered family. That last one has now been true for longer than it wasn’t, so I don’t mind it so much, but it is frustrating to see just how many comics involve writers forgetting how important Dick is while singing the praises of other characters for something Dick was first.

The Gradual Lessening Of Character Complexity

Dick is hard to write well, because even more so than the other characters in the family, because you can’t really distill him down to core characteristics. If you do, you’ll end up with seemingly contradictory traits that you’re forced to choose between, because he is that much of a complex character. It took him years to truly define himself, but when it comes down to it, he learned his attitude from Superman and how to deal with criminals from Batman. When Dick is written well, he’s the jack of all trades. He might not be as good a hacker as Barbara or Tim, as good a marksman as Jason, as good at fighting as Cass, but he can easily beat anyone else at all of those things. He has one of the worst tempers in DC while also being one of the nicest people. He’s a loner with social skills. He’s the former teen rebel that became the Golden Boy that set the standard all his successors have to live up to.  He’s a character that really can’t be simplified without cutting out half of what makes him interesting. It’s why he’s my favourite character.

Both in and out of universe, Dick was a trailblazer. He inspired a whole generation of heroes. He’s a monument to everything Bruce has ever done right. He has – or maybe has had is more accurate – interesting relationships with just about everyone else in DC. And because all of this was built up over eighty years, it all felt earned. Nothing felt rushed or undeserved – everything to do with his character, from leading the Titans to moving to Bludhaven to becoming Batman – was a natural progression of the character. It’s why I can buy his version of “student surpassing the mentor”. It took pretty much the entire time from his debut in 1940 to being the Batman to Damian’s Robin to do it fully. It was a lot of effort and time, but he did it.

nightwing.jpg

A lot of the newer characters just don’t have that level of nuance. Whether it’s because DC is impatient or they haven’t had good enough writers yet or any number of other reasons, their progress into becoming a hero falls flat. Take characters like Harper Row. Sure, she’s not used too much anymore (if at all, I can’t remember), but when she was, she came across to me as a complete creator’s pet. She had the same “get characteristics from predecessors” thing, but it was poorly done and felt jarring, because the writers felt it wasn’t enough to have one thing she was great at or many things she was good at, she had to be more determined than Steph, better with tech than Tim, be described by Bruce as his ideal Robin. That’s a problem that I think will only get worse with time and more new characters, especially if those characters become Robin.

The Batfamily is now considered by many to be basically everyone in Gotham. The roster as it stands is too much. Gotham has too many heroes. I’m not saying that DC should simplify it by not including some of them. Of course not. At this point, pretty much all of them have a long history and unique fanbases. But it is beyond time to stop adding new members. Certainly Robins, but maybe even in general, because at a certain point, it’s going to be all but impossible to give all these characters sufficiently nuanced personalities. They’ll end up more similar than different.

The Attitude That The Status Quo Is God

batman-dick-grayson.jpg

DiDio also once claimed that Dick was redundant because he was never going to be Batman and wasn’t Robin anymore, arguing that once characters are allowed to age, they all become too similar – again, this is clearly ridiculous, but buried in there is something approximating a valid point.

Yes, it’s true that Dick’s not Robin anymore and will never go back – which is good, I have no idea why DiDio seems to think that’s a bad thing and have no desire to try to unpack that one. But it’s also obviously false that he’s never going to be Batman, because he has been. Repeatedly. The first time he donned the cowl was in 1994! And you know what? It’s completely untrue to say fans would never accept him as Batman on a more permanent basis, because we did. Dick as Batman after Final Crisis was widely loved to the point that readers lamented him going back to Nightwing. It’s completely false to say that any of this is because of the fans. No, this is because of writers that can’t move on – fanboys are running the asylum, and they don’t want to tell characters to grow.

Because of this fixation on the past, DC reboots its entire universe at the drop of a hat. They compress timescales, send loved characters off into limbo, erase relationships from existence, and force characters back into old roles rather than letting them move on. As long as they’re doing that, they have to stop adding new characters, because then it’s just getting ridiculous – there are so many vigilantes in Gotham, all serving approximately the same purpose, that it’s a wonder someone can even jaywalk without getting stopped!

Dick has been shoved back into Bruce’s shadow, because various people refuse to actually allow the student to surpass the teacher. The pre-Flashpoint Dick was the single most beloved hero in the DC Universe. He’d grown up and had his own life going on. He was extremely competent. He learned from both Batman and Superman. Everyone respected him. He was Bruce’s first son and his most trusted partner, an older brother to the other Robins. But now? The scale has been compressed so much because writers refuse to let Bruce be older than, like, thirty five. It’s resulted in Dick being presented more like Bruce’s younger brother than his son, and all of his accomplishments going unacknowledged. He’s gotten mentors that he stopped needing years ago, and stopped having relationships nearly as meaningful with his friends from outside Gotham. It’s nonsensical. And if that’s all that Robins have to look forward to – being unable to age or grow up or become heroes of their own – what’s the point in adding more?

Robin as a legacy once hugely important. It was good for Dick’s successors, because there was a precedent set they could both follow and stray from and a person from whom they could learn. It was good for Dick, because it demonstrated just how influential he was, proved irrefutably that he’d moved on, and let him complete the cycle as a mentor rather than a mentee. But that legacy, as much as I love it, has been used about as much as it can be. It’s time to let it rest, if not retire forever.

I made a post a while back about how Chris Claremont has never moved on from a certain plot point. In it, I noted that he wanted characters to get to grow and change, but that he was writing endings in a medium that doesn’t do endings. But you know what? Claremont’s approach seems largely the way to go, when we’re talking about DC and Robin. He’s very much not a fanboy running the asylum. He wouldn’t be afraid of letting characters grow up and change and move on, even as they maintained relationships with each other. In the hands of a writer like Claremont, given the freedom to make creative choices, I might not think it’s time to put down the Robin mantle. Unfortunately, that’s probably not happening.

I love Robin. I love the concept of Batman and Robin and the idea of the Batfamily. But unless DC completely changes its approach – and soon – I don’t see a way for the mantle to continue past Damian.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s