The Many Faces of Robin

Last week, twitter was all, well, atwitter when artist Sean Murphy tweeted out a loose pencil sketch of Robin — Batman’s trusty sidekick — with an African American teen under the mask. Needless to say, the internet pretty much exploded when the initial tweet went out. Two hours later, though, Murphy and Scott Snyder deflated many a nerd’s bubble when they clarified that this “new” Robin wasn’t actually meant to be “in continuity.” Instead, the sketch Murphy sent out was only meant to be a brief glimpse into an alternate future in one of the anthology pieces in a special issue celebrating the 75th anniversary of Detective Comics #27 next year.

Still, all the swirl around “the first Black Robin” — and the fact that cross-racial casting of superheroes has been a popular topic on the blog recently — got me thinking about comics’ prototypical superhero sidekick. Few headlining superheroes are as indelibly iconic as the Boy Wonder. He’s also one of the few “legacy” heroes — that is, heroes whose mantles have passed down to different characters over the years — who has successfully navigated through several different and distinct identities without losing any of the iconography (while developing ardent fanbases for each version of the character). He’s also one of DC Comics’ most enduring multimedia stars as well, having been portrayed in several incarnations in very different media.

To start, we must go back to the beginning. In 1940, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson felt they needed to add a character to help liven the mood of the increasingly dark and violent world inhabited by the Batman in the pages of Detective Comics.

After deciding that young readers needed a surrogate to identify with, they introduced Dick Grayson in issue #38. The inclusion of Robin was an instant success, and he became one of DC’s most popular heroes for the next several decades.

For most casual Bat-fans, it’s probably safe to say Dick Grayson — the orphaned son from a family of circus performers — is the default Robin. Grayson has certainly had the longest tenure of any of the other characters to don the red and green, having been Robin from 1940 until 1984 when he took on the new identity of Nightwing. By that same token, there is a legion of fans who only associate Dick with the Nightwing persona, which has become just as iconic as Robin.

You’d think it’d be harder to snatch Batman’ tires.

Following in Grayson’s footsteps was Jason Todd, one of the more divisive Robins in the Batman universe. Like Dick, Jason was an orphaned son of acrobats who gets adopted by Bruce Wayne and becomes his trusty sidekick. And no, I didn’t just get Jason and Dick mixed up. You see, in 1983, when DC Comics introduced a new Robin, I guess they decided rehashing the origin of the previous guy was the go-to move. It wasn’t until a couple years later (after Crisis on Infinite Earths wiped out a lot of DC’s sloppiest continuity) that the powers that be re-introduced the Jason Todd that fans are familiar with. Ya know, the street orphan who tries to steal the hubcaps off the Batmobile!

Jason is likely the most infamous of Robins because he’s the one that fans loved so much, they all dialed 1-900 numbers to see him killed at the hands of the Joker at the conclusion of the classic Death in the Family storyline.

Jason Todd was only Robin for five years before he was replaced by, arguably, the most popular of all the modern incarnations of Robin, Tim Drake. Other than Dick Grayson, Tim’s tenure under the mask is the longest of any Robin. For more than a decade, Tim fought side-by-side as Batman’s sidekick and partner. His origin was also the most different in that he used his detecting skills to deduce Batman’s secret identity before joining the Dark Knight as his crimefighting ally. Tim’s time as Robin is also notable for the fact that he was the first one to garner his own ongoing series, written by Chuck Dixon and drawn by Tom Grummett. Tim is also responsible for the modern redesign of the Robin costume, doing away with the pixie boots and bare legs. This look became so iconic that future depictions of Dick Grayson in the Robin costume — like on Batman: The Animated Series or Teen Titans — actually default to Tim’s look.

After Tim hangs up his cape — after seemingly beating Johnny Warlock to death in a fit of rage — his girlfriend, Stephanie Brown (aka the Spoiler) takes up the mantle to be the first female Robin (though in publication terms, Carrie Kelly of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns predates Stephanie by more than two decades. That said, it seems DC is poised to give Carrie the title in the New 52 continuity sooner than later). Unfortunately, Stephanie was only Robin for a couple months. She still holds the title as the only Robin to ever get fired on the job (for disobeying Batman’s orders in the field). In a misguided attempt to regain Bruce’s trust, Stephanie embarks on an ill-conceived plan to defeat the entire Gotham Underworld in one fell swoop. Too bad for her, things go awry fairly quickly, and Stephanie gets captured, tortured, and — eventually — “dies” from her wounds. It wasn’t until several years later, when the Spoiler mysteriously reappears in Gotham, that we learn Dr. Leslie Thompkins actually faked Stephaine’s death, because comics.

Last but not least, we come to the most recent Robin, Damian Wayne. The first Robin to be Bruce’s biological son (Dick, Jason, and eventually Tim, were all adopted), Damian was apparently the result of Bruce being roofied by Talia Al Ghul one night years ago. Raised by the League of Assassins to be a trained killer, Damian’s relationship with his biological father started out pretty rocky. Though Damian debuted in Grant Morrison’s “Batman and Son” story arc in 2006, he doesn’t officially become Robin for another three years when he takes on the mantle as Dick Grayson’s partner (who had replaced the allegedly deceased Bruce Wayne as Batman).

Of course, as is the lot for most people who take on the Robin costume, Damian met his demise in the pages of Batman, Inc. this year. The other interesting note about Damian, as Comics Alliance’s Andy Khouri points out, is that he is actually the first person of color to take on the role of Batman’s partner since Talia is ostensibly of Middle Eastern descent (though to be honest, the actual ethnicity of the Al Ghuls is pretty murky, at best).

There have been even more incarnations of Robin depicted in live action. Burt Ward famously portrayed the Boy Wonder for three seasons and a movie in the 1960s. Chris O’Donnell had two rather forgettable cracks at Dick Grayson during the Joel Schumacher era of the Batman movies. And last year, Joseph Gordon-Levitt played an amalgam of all the past Robins when he portrayed John Blake in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. If you didn’t catch it the first time, JGL’s “Robin” John Blake took on personality traits of Dick (police officer), Jason (street orphan), and Tim (deduced Batman’s secret identity).

Not to mention that Marlon Wayans was almost Robin in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. As Trish pointed out a while back, Marlon was actually cast in 1991 prior to filming the sequel to the 1989 Batman film, but the role was cut prior to shooting. It was all good, though, because Wayans still gets residuals from the deal:

I was cast, I was paid and everything. I still get residual checks. Tim Burton didn’t wind up doing three, Joel Schumacher did it and he had a different vision for who Robin was. So he hired Chris O’ Donnell.

Maybe, if Tim Burton had had his way back in 1992, we wouldn’t have to make such a big deal out of Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy’s African American Robin, who isn’t even supposed to be “real” anyway.