It’s comic book column time again! This week I’m talking about Batman, his various partners, and why he works great (perhaps even at his best) when he’s not brooding on his own. Full disclosure: I had not read a lot of Batman comics until recently. When I was a kid collecting comics for the first time, I was more into Marvel characters like the Avengers and the X-Men. Most of what I knew about Batman I knew from other media: cartoons (Batman: The Animated Series, The Batman, Justice League Unlimited) and movies (Christopher Nolan’s excellent trilogy, Tim Burton’s enjoyable two, and Joel Schumacher’s couple of embarrassments to the art of cinema).
As a result of my limited exposure, I developed negative opinions of the caped crusader’s sidekicks. The cartoons either mostly focused on Batman working without sidekicks (a term I’ve come to loathe due to the way it discredits any characters that it is used to describe) or with heroes who were depicted more as his equals (as in the case of him fighting alongside the rest of the Justice League). When it came to the movies, the series from the 90s added Robin to the mix precisely when their quality fell dramatically. After Tim Burton (director of Batman and Batman Returns) left, he was replaced by Joel Schumacher (director of Batman Forever and Batman and Robin). Schumacher’s films introduced the world to bad superhero storytelling the likes of which has seldom been matched, starring versions of Batman and Robin who wore suits complete with nipple protrusions as they attempted to withstand an endless barrage of ice-themed puns from Mr. Freeze.
Needless to say, I did not care much for those movies. In addition, due to my being a young (and dumb) kid who was too hasty to make generalizations or conclusions, those films played a large part in my deciding that I did not like the character of Robin. I had never at that point seen an iteration of the character that I liked. When the Teen Titans cartoon came around, Robin remained my least favorite member of the show’s cast, although I did not dislike him. I tossed my ability to tolerate the character up to how incredibly good the show was in general and did not think much of it.
Flash forward a literal decade. After years of not reading comics, I took up my old childhood hobby again last summer. Batman comics still weren’t of immediate interest to me, but they were to my boyfriend. Given my desire to check out and give anything he liked a chance, I decided to read some of his Batman books. As a result, my opinions of Batman and Robin as characters have dramatically changed from when I was a child. Given the fact that I’ve now actually engaged with the source material now and not just adaptations, I feel more acquainted with the characters I once only watched on screens.
Many adaptations of Batman depict him working mostly on his own. I would argue that this vision of a solo dark knight has largely dominated the cultural perception of the character in the 2000s, with the Christopher Nolan films presenting Batman as a lone fighter (save for Alfred and Lucius Fox assisting in auxiliary roles). The comic book version of the character, however, has decades of great stories and continuity that are enriched by his relationships with crime-fighting partners, the Robins being the most notable of them.
Robins. Plural. It’s a comic book thing; mantles get switched around between different people all the time. The fact that there have been several Robins only increases the degree to which I’m impressed, given what great characters they all are. For example, the original Robin, Dick Grayson, grew up as an acrobat in a traveling circus until his parents, like Batman, met a tragic end. Bruce Wayne then took the young orphan under his care and, in a decision that would perhaps seem crazy if comic book plots weren’t already built upon the unimaginable, trained Grayson to be his sidekick. Over the years Grayson became a skilled fighter known as the original Robin, and then, in an effort to become his own man outside of the shadow of Batman, Nightwing. The two characters have one of my favorite relationships in comics, with Bruce’s time spent raising Dick being shown as both being one of the greatest things he ever did as well as a significant boost to his mental and emotional health.
Characters work best when they are interacting with other characters, after all. While monologues can be impactful, there’s a reason most works of fiction have dialogue and full casts. Characters interacting brings out tension, conflict, as well as joy. Touching bonds between people are at the core of more works than can be counted. While the image of Batman as a lone warrior fighting crime on the streets of Gotham is certainly a cool one, and there are plenty of great stories with him fighting alone, my favorite iterations of the characters feature him fighting alongside other people. I love reading about his pride in Nightwing, who is effectively his son, even if they butt heads at times, as all parents and children do. Speaking of children, the latest Robin is Damian Wayne, Bruce’s son. While I was initially weary of Batman’s son being an unsatisfying gimmick character, I have come to love Damien as a character as well. Then you have Batman’s relationships with the other Robins, the various Batgirls, etc., and of course Alfred.
It is my belief that the best superhero stories show who and what the hero cares about. In order to move forward beyond tired rehashes of the well-known origin story, it makes sense that Batman stories would feature him developing new close bonds. While Batman’s love for his parents is a vital part of the character and franchise, it would be hard to maintain years’ worth of effective emotional resonance without finding new figures to focus on. If a sense of freshness is to be had, the character must love more people besides just his dead parents and Alfred. No man (or fictional simulation of one) is an island.
With all that said, my opinion of Robin outside of the comics has not changed much. He’s been a decent to good character in a handful of cartoons, but he has yet to make enjoyable appearances on the big screen. I would like to see the character be well-adapted at some point in the new DC cinematic universe, though I am anxiously waiting to see if DC’s next movies will be better than the mediocre Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad. Regardless of the quality level of future Batman films, I am glad to have begun reading more of the characters’ comics. If you haven’t read a lot of Batman comics but would like to try them, I highly recommend Scott Snyder’s Batman run. In terms of currently running series I recommend Nightwing, which follows Dick Grayson as an independent and grown-up hero, and Detective Comics, which depicts Batman fighting alongside a team of fellow Gotham heroes including Batwoman, Clayface, Orphan, and Spoiler. That’s all for this week; I’ll be back with another nerdy comic column in a fortnight!
Eric Cline is a gay poet, 2016 Best of the Net nominee, and the founding editor-in-chief of Calamus Journal. His debut chapbook, “his strange boy eve”, was published by Yellow Chair Press in September 2016. He tweets @ericclinepoet.