Like many, my first introduction to the character of Robin, The Boy Wonder, was from the 1960s Batman television series with Adam West. For a while, I found Robin to be less interesting than Batman, and when Batman: The Animated Series came out, all my attention became focused squarely on Batman. However, as I came to know Robin through many graphic novels, comics and animated episodes, I found him to be much more of an engaging character. One of the aspects I find so interesting is the idea that Robin is not actually one singular character but the title of whoever is chosen to be Batman’s partner. Each individual who has held the title of Robin has been a unique character and added profound dimensions to the Batman legacy. I have come to realize that this particular aspect of the Batman universe is not common knowledge. Sometimes it seems as if everyone thinks of Robin, when they think of him at all, as just Batman’s “lame” kid sidekick. I feel this is an oversight I must at least try to rectify, and the only way I can do so is by shining some light on each of the five characters who have held the position of Robin, one of the most famous sidekick positions in the superhero universe.
Richard Grayson, Dick for short, was the first and most famous Robin. He was the one who set the stage for the role and stayed the longest (in publication timeline): roughly 40 years. When most people talk about Robin, either positively or negatively, he is the one they are referring to. He has appeared in all the television shows, movies and animated media depicting the DC Batman universe*. His portrayal has been the one that has incurred the greatest range of reactions. When he debuted, he was given a similar back story as Bruce Wayne; he and his parents were circus performers and family died when a gangster purposely sabotaged their trapeze equipment. Bruce took him in and trained him and they became the first Dynamic Duo. Fans that followed the comics, or the recent animated series (such as Teen Titans and Young Justice), tended to like Dick because he was smart, at times sarcastic, and generally the “cool” leader due to his connection to Batman. People who watched the Adam West’s show, or watch Joel Schumacher’s movies, found the character to be either a campy overeager kid in shorts or a wise-cracking angry screw-up in a rubber suit with nipples respectively. Suffice it to say, Burt Ward and Chris O’Donnell have done a lot of damage to both the character of Dick Grayson, and the general negative perception of Robin.
What separated Dick from all the Robins to come was that even at a young age, due to his circus background, he was a physical force akin to Batman. Having been trained by Batman himself, Dick grew in mind but also has become a physical rival to Bruce. When he left the Robin suit behind, he created his own superhero identity, Nightwing, and has even filled in as Batman when Bruce has not been able to wear the cowl.
The second character to hold the position of Robin was Jason Todd, and he is commonly considered to be the least liked of all the Robins. After all, after only five years of appearing in the comics, the readers voted to kill off the character in the now classic “A Death in the Family” storyline. Jason was a street orphan who came to Batman’s attention when he attempted to steal the tires off of the Batmobile. Wanting to give focus to this angry child he found on the streets, Batman brought him in on his secret and began training him to make him the next Robin, a position which was left vacant after Dick grew up to become Nightwing. Being an overly aggressive and less intelligent character, fans never really connected with Jason Todd because his rebellious behaviour seemed to annoy rather than inspire interest. What he is most famous for is his death at the hands of the Joker. He is the Robin that was killed on the job by a psychopath who beat him brutally with a crowbar and then left him to be blown up.
He came back to life fourteen years later as the anti-hero Red Hood, a crime fighter who does not mind killing the bad guys. Oddly, Jason finally gained the fan following he lacked when he was Robin upon his resurrection, and after “Batman: Under The Hood” became a complex and dark character that people wanted to know more about.
He is the third Robin and my personal favourite. Tim Drake proved he was a smart kid when he deduced Bruce Wayne was Batman on his own just by reading newspapers and watching news reports on his exploits. He realized Batman needed a Robin to balance his growing darkness, specifically after Jason died, and felt he could fill in that role. Amazed by his strength of will and growing detective mind, Bruce agreed to take him as his new Robin, but only after Tim had a go around the world and trained the way Batman had done years before. While in the role of Robin, Tim lost his mother to random violence and years later would lose his father because of a supervillain. These tragedies, combined with his increasingly dark demeanour, helped groom Tim to be more of a younger Batman than an actual Robin, which explains why Tim began being known as The Teen Wonder. This can also be seen through the multiple transformations the Robin costume has gone through since Tim took over the mantle. Each change has made the costume look more serious and darker, like Batman’s costume, which represents Tim’s growth and signal his becoming more and more like Bruce.
After twenty years of stories and development, Tim has become a master detective, accomplished fighter and a compassionate yet serious strategic leader to the Teen Titans (the sidekick superhero team). If Dick Grayson inherited the physical prowess of Batman, then Tim inherited Batman’s mind and strength of will. The writers, critics and fans all have come to love and respect Tim Drake, and chose to make him his own superhero, Red Robin, when Batman was killed; maybe thinking that he was too strong of a character to be a sidekick to anyone else but Bruce. Mike Mullens of Newsarama wonderfully stated: “Tim is a more natural detective than previous Robins and is talented with computers, which allows him to stand in his own unique spotlight. Unlike his predecessors, Tim is not the most proficient combatant … Tim almost always seeks to analyze a problem and to outthink his opponent but has shown the ability to win a fight when necessary.”
Stephanie Brown was the first and only female Robin, not counting Carrie Kelly from the (non-canonical) The Dark Knight Returns storyline, who also happens to be the worst treated by the writers. Stephanie is the daughter of a criminal, and became the costumed superhero Spoiler to shed the shame her father’s crimes made her feel. She has been the on again/off again girlfriend to Tim Drake, and they have worked together many times. When Tim briefly quit as Robin, Stephanie convinced Bruce to make her the replacement Robin. Bruce agreed, but only under strict conditions, which she broke in attempting to “win the day”, and was subsequently summarily fired. But, despite her very short reign as Robin, Stephanie has proven to be a smart, strong and resilient character. Unfortunately, the writers wrote her character to cause a gang war that resulted in Stephanie being tortured and apparently killed by Black Mask. In later issues, she was said to have faked her death with a close friend of Batman’s, Leslie Thompkins, and returned and became the new Batgirl under Barbara Gordon (the first Batgirl). When the DC Universe was revamped in the New 52, her character was wiped out entirely and Barbara Gordon has been made the current Batgirl with no mention of Stephanie’s existence. Confused? So are all the other Stephanie fans who stuck through all the ups and downs her character was made to suffer by the writers and now do not even know when, or if, she will appear again.
Despite being condescended to, used, tortured, killed, brought back and then wiped from DC existence, Stephanie has a very loyal fan base. Her strength of character, wish to do good, self-sacrifice, chemistry with Tim and natural talent in fighting crime has made her a great addition to the Batman family. She was an effective Robin, yet she was the only one fired (on a technicality no less) and a thoroughly interesting Batgirl. However, the only real impact she had as Robin she was in kicking off a gang war and being the second Robin to “die”: a really unfit legacy for a great character.
The fifth and current Robin, Damian is the biological son of Bruce Wayne and Talia Al Ghul. Talia is the daughter of one of Batman’s greatest enemies, Ra’s Al Ghul, and when Damian was growing up, he was trained by his grandfather’s League of Assassins. This makes him the most bloodthirsty and entitled Robin, as well as being the least moral. When Dick Grayson became Batman (after Bruce’s death), he took Damian as his Robin to make sure he would grow up a better person than he had been raised so far to be. When Bruce returned from the dead and reclaimed the mantle of Batman, Damian remained as Robin and their relationship is currently strained but has the potential for a loving one in the future.
Damian has been Robin for a few years now, and so far has been getting a lot of focus since his background is so rich. Being Batman’s son alone makes him interesting, and his relation to a 600 year-old villain gives his character a lot of potential for growth. He is the kind of Robin where you do not know whether he will be good or turn bad. He is a character about whom fans are annoyed with his entitled and murderous antics, but hope Bruce or Dick can turn him around. His violent “brotherly” rivalry with Tim is another interesting aspect to his character. As Tim has been officially adopted by – and shares some very important characteristics with – Bruce, it ignites jealously within Damian who then attacks Tim whenever he is feeling self-conscious. In terms of his relationship with other members of the Bat-Family, Damian has the most fascinating and least predictable, but only time will tell how he does as a Robin.
Unfortunately, the legacy of Robin has taken a massive hit in the current comic book universe, one that almost undoes much of the great work that has come before. In the New 52 universe DC created to spark added interest from readers, much of this great background has been either changed or removed entirely. Bruce has been Batman for less than 10 years, and already has had two to three previous Robins. Both Dick and Jason were Robins, but there is controversy over whether Tim Drake was ever a Robin before he became Red Robin. Stephanie has been completely written out, and Damian is the current Robin learning from his father and not from Dick. Since the New 52 is only a year old, there has not been enough background yet given as to this new universe’s origins, so hopefully this will be addressed in the coming year. Personally, I don’t see how this new timeline has helped make the characters better or the stories more interesting. It all could have been done in the timeline fans have lived in for the past 30 years, without sacrificing the best elements of or character arcs of each of these characters. Only time can tell how the New 52 will treat the Robin legacy, but hopefully after reading this, more of us can at least gain some respect and interest in the Robin title and find it as engaging as I do.
* – Except Nolan’s. Though (spoiler) John Blake was an amalgam of Dick, Jason and Tim.