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John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: Robin

Here’s the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Click here to read John’s description of what a Storytelling Engine IS, anyways. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.

Storytelling Engines: Robin

(or, “You Can’t Be A Serious Superhero In Short Shorts”)

Everyone knows who Robin is. If you think about the best-known superheroes in popular culture (indeed, arguably the best-known figures in popular culture, period) Batman has to pop up right near the top of the list…and everyone who knows about Batman knows that it’s not just “Batman”, it’s “Batman and Robin”. The Boy Wonder is an essential element of Batman’s storytelling engine, and has been for generations. He’s a handy audience identification figure for younger readers who want to imagine themselves adventuring side by side with their hero, he’s a handy means of providing exposition (so that Batman doesn’t have to talk to himself quite so much), and as a crimefighter slightly less competent than the Darknight Detective, he’s a useful source of plot complications if the writer needs to extend the story. (And he’s also a source of comic relief, if your source of humor trends towards terrible puns and the overuse of the phrase, “Holy (fill in the blank), Batman!”)

But all that is Robin’s role in Batman’s storytelling engine. What happens if you want to try to take Robin and turn him into a lead role? How do you handle taking the sidekick and making him into a hero? That’s a bit of a tricky question, one that DC struggled with for many years while trying to establish a storytelling engine for Robin. As we can see from ‘Showcase Presents Robin, the Boy Wonder’, they weren’t quite sure where to begin.

They began by establishing him as more of a grown-up, which is a good start. Robin kicks off his solo career by leaving Gotham behind and going to college. (This is a bit of a backwards step, as most of the people writing Robin at this point had left their teen years behind a while back–there’s very little as painfully awkward as reading dated teenage culture references. It’s like listening to your dad try to be “hip”.) With his own stomping grounds and a bit of distance from Batman, Robin has to be the lead hero because there’s nobody to save his bacon (apart from occasional guest shots by other “young heroes” like Batgirl, of course. And a guest shot or two from Superman. And okay, yes, Batman does drop by campus a few times to see how he’s doing. But, um…yeah. Sorry.)

Other arguable mistakes would include keeping the iconic Robin costume, which is by now practically a symbol of childhood (in particular, the little short shorts and the bare legs (which must be shaved, if Dick Grayson is a college student and still able to keep them that smooth. That doesn’t speak tremendously of your macho heroism, being the only superhero on the block who makes sure to use ‘Nair’.) The change from ‘Boy Wonder’ to ‘Teen Wonder’ seems like a good idea, highlighting his growth, but “teen” tends to connote junior high and high school kids rather than college students, thus having the effect of making Robin still seem a bit young.

But the great mistake is the lack of a rogue’s gallery. Batman is out there fighting the Joker, Two-Face, Killer Croc, and Ra’s Al Ghul, and Robin’s helping out neighborhood kids and trying to figure out who’s sending threatening letters to the Dean. One of these two is going to be seen as a major superhero, the other is going to be seen as a sidekick. One guess as to where Robin falls, here.

It really isn’t until the 80s (and arguably the 90s) that Robin begins to work as a solo hero. Dick Grayson gets a major makeover from Marv Wolfman and George Perez, turning him into Nightwing and making it clear that he’s ditched the trappings of childhood completely, while the new Robin, under the wing of Chuck Dixon, ditches the puns, the short shorts, and many of the much-derided elements of the old Robin, and begins accumulating his own supervillains to fight as well. (Dixon also has a hand in the storytelling engine for Nightwing, his run on that book establishing a home city, a rogue’s gallery, and a supporting cast for the former Robin. Of course, all that’s gone now, and coincidentally, the book is kind of floundering. Go figure.)

So now, instead of one Robin who doesn’t work as a solo hero, we have two that do (three, if anyone here actually cares about the resurrected Jason Todd. Anyone? Anyone? No, didn’t really think so.) What made the difference? Arguably, Chuck Dixon. As a writer who’s always been concerned with the nuts and bolts of good storytelling, he made sure to surround his characters with the elements that made their storytelling engines work. He made sure the characters had easy access to story ideas, if for no other reason than it made his job easier, and it made those characters work in a way they hadn’t before…and in a way they haven’t since, as the supporting casts he built up got killed off in the current climate of “shock comics” that exists at both of the Big Two. If there’s a lesson to be taken away, let it be that. A hero without a good supporting cast, a good setting, and a good antagonist is really just a sidekick. And not every Robin has a Batman to hang around with.

10 Comments

I sometimes think the only reason the DC universe is permanently set ten years into the modern superhero reign is because it allows Dick Grayson to be an adult. Good note that fixing Robin’s status quo gave us two good characters from it, not one.

I would argue that the reason Dixon’s characters were killed off is that they were pretty lame, and mostly bad riffs on Batman’s rogue’s gallery in a ridiculously named city. Some character additions deserved to get nuked by Chemo.

I think Dixon did a great job establishing a new status quo for Dick Grayson/Nightwing — his own city (albeit one with a silly name), cool supporting characters like ex-superhero Jonathan Law & Dick’s landlady Clancy, a career direction of his own (Dick Grayson as a cop), the beginnings of his own rogues gallery (The new Blockbuster, Lady Vic, Shrike) — and then it all got torpedoed by subsequent writers, leaving Dick Grayson back at square one.

Note to DC & Marvel: Radically changing a character’s status quo & supporting cast isn’t all that interesting when you do it every two years or so. Give readers something — and someone — to latch onto & look forward to seeing every month, and then try to tell interesting stories within that framework.

And he’s also a source of comic relief, if your source of humor trends towards terrible puns and the overuse of the phrase, “Holy (fill in the blank), Batman!”

Oh, come on! That’s a cheap shot!

I mean, Batman’s Batusi doesn’t get credit for being a source of sweet and revolutionary dance moves… in the 60′s & 90′s!

The “Holy Whatever, Batman!” comes mostly from the TV show, yes, but Robin’s been making terrible puns almost since the character’s introduction.

For whatever it’s worth, the setting and name of Bludhaven wasn’t Dixon’s idea, but one of only a couple of odd editorial mandates when he took over the book (I think using Blockbuster might have been another.)

The post-Dixon Nightwing really should become a textbook example of What Not To Do with an ongoing series. I found the “Officer Dick Grayson” storyline particularly intriguing. Peter Tomasi seems to (finally) be doing a good job of establishing a context and supporting cast for Nightwing again… but he’s had to start from scratch, and who knows if all the good work *he* is doing will get blown up by the next “hot” writer to follow him?

I’ve been reorganizing my collection, came across and re-read the Robin “Joker’s Wild” miniseries. Dixon did a *really* nice job of building up a character there. Robin has to take on the Joker alone, with no backup, and it’s pretty damn scary. With some stories like this, the Joker would be “dumbed down” to make him a better match for Robin, but he’s not. Robin wins in the end, of course, and impresses the reader that this (then) new kid is “for real,” but in a believable fashion, a near-run thing.

“What made the difference? Arguably, Chuck Dixon. ”

I’d be stunned if you could find ANYONE who’d put up much of an argument against that, frankly.

As for the post-Dixon-era… yeah, Devin Grayson really fumbled the ball. I mean, I understand that she REALLY wanted to go with the theory that Nightwing was now DC’s version of Daredevil, but doing a poor riff on Born Again probably wasn’t the smartest thing. I won’t even start on the weird rape fantasy thing going on with the Tarantula subplot.

Tomasi, as I’ve noted many times, has mainly gotten back to Dixon-era basics, even if I like the idea of Dick as a cop rather than the museum curator role he’s in now, and Bludhaven was obviously preferable to New York.

One of the big things of Dixon’s Nightwing run was not only his establishment of the status quo, but also that he talked the reader through what a hero needed to do to establish himself in a city where he didn’t have much in the way of experience or resources. Sure, he had to cheat a little bit (Nightwing suddenly having millions of dollars tucked away in a trust account made for a convenient plot smoother), but just things like “okay, how does a hero build a supercar?” made for great reads.

Incidentally, I think Tomasi’s doing an excellent job of making New York seem like a real place.

Well, obviously, New York *is* a real place, but it’s surprising how in decades of New York comic book writers writing stories set in New York, the city often seems devoid of much character. Maybe it’s just all those writers knowing New York and thinking “Eh, what’s so special about it, it’s just home,” or it’s just easier to treat it semi-generically apart from the stuff tourists would recognize? But I like seeing all these weird little New York nooks and crannies and details from Tomasi – cool stuff that *I’m* unfamiliar with as a non-New Yorker, anyway….

The “Holy Whatever, Batman!” comes mostly from the TV show, yes, but Robin’s been making terrible puns almost since the character’s introduction.

Again, so has Batman… old chum!

But all that was, pretty much gone by the mid 70′s when Batman was made “more serious” and Robin was taken off the Batman titles and paired up with Batgirl (as the new Dynamic Duo) in the pages of Batman Family.

There were some attempts at giving Robin his own rogues; like with the Joker’s Daughter. But this was “an era” where DC was going out of their way to write some pretty awful comics.

And hey, it’s not the character’s fault he was written badly. In fact, it’s a testament to the character the fact that he’s survived “short-shorts”, bad puns and editorial mandates designed to burry all incarnations of him, his girlfriends and fathers (or father figures).

But at the end of the day, and regardless of those “showcases”, Robin’s storytelling engine is that of the Aprentice. Of the hero in training. And it’s timeless.

Robin is to Batman, what Bruce Wayne was to Ducard in Batman Begins. What the Skywalkers were to Kenobi. What Kenobi was to Ducard… wait, what? …err… you get my drift. In a world where being a Superhero is an option, seeking out the Batman as a trainer is as natural as seeking out Yoda, or Mr. Miyagi.

The main problem Robin’s had, and you mentioned this, is that he has been written as the way the grown-ups see their “current” teen-generation. Consequently, he’s been written as a… “leave it to Beaver” character, a Beatnik, a College dropout, an untrusting rebel and so on.

But a good Robin story (like the ones written by Dixon) shows the character traveling the world… training… and learning new fighting techniques from ancient masters. And in the case of Nightwing, where the character has finished his training, you get the occasional flashback that shows him learning and getting his experience with Batman. And that’s the problem I see with some versions of Nightwing. Some writers try too hard. They want to cut all ties with the character’s history and when that happens, it ends up being “just a guy in a jump suit” that knows karate. For a Nightwing story to be good, it has to embrace its history, that he was once Robin. Otherwise, there’s nothing special about him.

And as far as “a serious superhero in short shorts”.

You got to admit, it’s a purely aesthetic decision.

In a world where Heroes wear their underoos on the outside, it’s ridiculous to point out that Robin is wearing shorts.

But if you need some sort of logic for it, then here it is…

Superheroes are fighters. That’s mostly what they do; fight. In a world with Superpowers, they are your wrestlers, your mix-martial artists, your boxers, etc. To critizise Robin’s shorts is to critizise Tito Ortiz, Kevin Von Erich, Hulk Hogan and a zillion other fighters or “rasslers”.

In other words, it may not be my (or your) cup of tea; but apprarently, it’s a look… or a preference.

Like wearing panties under a short tight mini-skirt, and then flying all over Metropolis for its citizens to enjoy.

I just came across this old thread and would like to offer a belated comment about Robin’s costume. Remember that Robin as a boy was the orphaned son of circus acrobats. It was common for acrobats in the 1920s and 1930s to wear trunks and tights, so this probably accounts for his character’s clothing. Burt Ward, who played Robin in the mid-1960s Batman TV series (now being televised by MeTV on Saturday nights), always wore tights and was never “bare-legged”.

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