The Robin Mantle: How Dick Grayson Is One Of The Few Characters To Get No Say Over Who Bears His Name

As with many people, I’m not a fan of the current direction of Nightwing comics. And that’s for a lot of reasons – how isolated it feels, with so few of Dick’s friends and family coming to see him; how silly the whole amnesia plot is; how I half suspect that this is an elaborate plot by Dan DiDio to make sure sales on the book drop so he has an excuse to cancel it and send Dick off into limbo for a while; and so on. But I think the primary reason it bugs me is the context of it in terms of how Dick made the Nightwing identity and how the Robin one ceased to be his.

When Jason became Robin, it was because Bruce decided the title was Batman’s to pass on. When Tim became Robin, it was because he stole the suit, and Dick accepted him partially out of guilt. When Stephanie became Robin, it was because she sneaked into the Batcave and demanded Bruce train her. When Damian became Robin, it was because Dick gave it to him – the only time when Dick actually got to choose who bore his name. My point with all this? That Dick almost never gets a say as to what happens with the first identity he forged. Which makes it absolutely essential he does with the second.

Robin was the first sidekick – even though when it comes to Robin, sidekick isn’t really the right word. And he was really the only one with a codename unique to him with no connection to his mentor – one that could really be the codename of an adult. Think about the Titans – Wally went by Kid Flash. Donna was Wonder Girl, Garth was Aqualad. All of those are names that have a limit on them. You can’t have an adult going around calling themselves any of those, because they’re not a kid, a girl, a lad. If they were to do that, they would always be beneath their mentors. Even the name Speedy – sure, it doesn’t have the same problem where it defines an age, but it was still connected to Green Arrow, because Roy only got that name because of how quickly he could shoot relative to Oliver. Robin was unique. Dick chose it. It had nothing to do with his mentor’s bat motif. And there was nothing about it that meant he couldn’t continue using it as an adult – hell, his Earth Two counterpart did. He moved on, not because he had to, but because he wanted to, and he wanted to not because the name had stopped mattering to him but because the name was too much associated with Batman.

Take pre-Flashpoint Barbara. She defined Batgirl, and it was only with her blessing that Cass took on the role. That blessing led to a really great dynamic between the two of them, and I loved that it happened. But despite this, one can argue that “Batgirl” isn’t really Barbara’s enough that it had to. Because it was a name derivative of Batman. Because as Batgirl, Barbara was just another vigilante with nothing really unique about her. Because even though it was Batman and Robin, not Batman and Batgirl, it was Robin that was less tied to Batman and Gotham. Batgirl wasn’t personal to Babs. Her being a vigilante was. That’s not the same thing. I think Barbara is better as Oracle. I think she moved on a long time ago and it was a mistake to make her Batgirl again, but before the writers did that, her legacy was a beautiful one of choice. Barbara got to choose her successors, Bruce got to choose his. It’s only Dick that’s denied that right – and denied that right repeatedly. People think they have a right to his identity. Not only that, they behave as though they have the right to tell him what his name means, whether that be in the form of Alphonse Whatsit unknowingly telling Ric what Nightwing represents – and not in the form of a pep talk – or Duke claiming that he’s Robin now. Hell, in Robin War, Dick even said that Bruce told him what Robin means. That’s not even remotely what happened! By contrast, despite the fact that the idea of the bat as a symbol has been pushed forever, we don’t see people that are supposed to be seen as heroes dressing as Batman. We have people that are inspired by him choosing their own Bat-identities with their own costumes – Batgirl, Batwoman. But anyone that goes around calling themselves Batman? They’re always considered crazy imposters. Even down to Dick! When he first put on the suit in Morrison’s run, he complained about how he was considered just another imposter and not Batman!

I enjoyed a number of scenes in Robin War. But Dick has always been my favourite comics character, and I felt like it didn’t grasp the point of Robin, or how much Dick shaped that legacy. What’s strange is that it did that without actually characterizing Dick poorly. While I liked that he was written as smart enough to outmanoeuvre all the other players, that the reason he got his brothers to train the kids wasn’t because he thought they were in the right to use the name, but because he was setting them up to be caught by the police so he could get them off the streets and out of trouble and implement his real plan…this was a story that was supposed to be celebrating his anniversary. And it didn’t celebrate what Robin means, what the legacy and symbol represent to the people of Gotham, but focused on the idea that anyone can be Robin. Which isn’t at all what other canon says. Robin War ignored the fact that other official Robins flat out could not be Robin the way Dick was by acting like it’s just a legacy that can be filled by anyone, with or without training, with or without any connection to what Robin means. And it really bothers me how obvious it is that no other character gets this kind of treatment. Hell, one of the “Robins” joined the movement because she idolized Batgirl.  Not Robin. So why the fuck didn’t she put on a Batgirl suit and fight crime?! The concept of Robin is iconic and necessary, but doesn’t get much respect. Lee Bermejo wanted to “update” it by trying to make it into a movement. I think that’s bullshit. If you’re updating Robin, you gotta do the same damn thing to Batgirl. To Batman. But that’s not what happens. You don’t see a We Are Batman movement, because Bruce gets acknowledged as special  somehow. 

And then there’s Nightwing. I like seeing the impact Dick has had on Bludhaven and that he’s inspired others to follow in his footsteps. It’s as if he’s getting deeper ties to Bludhaven as a city, rather than being halfway to Gotham all the time. But it’s another example of people behaving like they have a right to Dick’s identity and taking it on without permission. Dick as Nightwing demonstrates how to take on a legacy with respect and make it your own, how he wished Robin had been passed on – he talked to Clark who told him a story, and Dick, with permission, took on the name as a way of honouring both his mentors. All these other Nightwings don’t know Dick or what Nightwing means. They just took on the costume and started calling themselves Nightwing. And the people that buy Nightwing aren’t doing it to read about a bunch of random characters that only showed up now. We’re doing it because we care about Dick Grayson and the Nightwing identity he made. This feels like writers that are so determined to leave a mark on the mythos that they’re willing to do all kinds of stupid things and use a popular character to do it. It kind of reminds me of Harper Row, and the way her Bluebird costume was so clearly a reflection of the pre-52 Nightwing suit at a time when Dick was off being a spy. These are things that should be his that are being handed off to other characters by writers that expect fans to be excited just because it’s an “homage” to a character we love. It’s really, really not. I’d make the case that Dick is the most important legacy out there. So it is long past time writers stopped giving people elements of his mantles as a way to give them a popularity boost and start actually respecting what those legacies are.

That’s one of the things I enjoyed about when Dick became Batman after Battle for the Cowl. Bruce said that he didn’t want anyone to take up the mantle. Dick saw that he needed to and did it anyway. It’s the only time he’s ever gotten close to doing what so many other characters have done to him. And yet, it was done in a way that made sense in the story, made sense with the characters, and respected the legacy Bruce had built. That’s never happened with Nightwing, and has only sort of ever happened with Robin.

What makes superhero stories interesting is the idea that anyone can be a hero, whether or not they have powers or special abilities of any kind. Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean anyone can be Robin or Nightwing. It means that Leslie Thompkins can open a free clinic in the worst part of Gotham and keep helping people with nothing but medical knowledge and willpower. It means Lois Lane can solve all kinds of problems and fight for truth and justice, armed with nothing but her brain and determination. It means that Bruce Wayne can spend years training to become someone capable of protecting his city. It does not mean that any random person can take up the legacies Dick fought for and forged to honour the people he loves as if he had no unique skills whatsoever. Not everyone can be Lois Lane. Not anyone can be Nightwing. What it means that everyone can be a hero is that everyone can become their own hero.

Dick Grayson is my favourite comic book character of all time. I love Nightwing and all it represents. And I don’t have a problem with Dick setting it aside to go do something else, because he as a character is way more than the name Nightwing. Thematically, though, it does not work anymore for someone else to take up his mantle without him choosing to pass it down. So after this arc is resolved, if the writers want Dick to go off and do something totally different while someone else takes Nightwing? Fine! But that someone else had better be someone Dick cares about, and it better be his choice to give it away.

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One thought on “The Robin Mantle: How Dick Grayson Is One Of The Few Characters To Get No Say Over Who Bears His Name

  1. Pingback: Why I Hate The Thought Of Jason Todd As A Regular In ‘Titans’ – Nerd With Words

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