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31 July 2009 @ 02:17 pm
The Hoard Potato: the Boy Wonder and the Last Pulp Hero  
As some of you may recall, I have a Blogger account, reserved, in theory, to be my soapbox for ranting about pop culture in general and comic books in particular. I originally established it with the intent of participating more fully in the "comics blogosphere".* Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect. Due to the inconvenience of the interface** and the pressure of Treating This Like A Column instead of whipping out a stream-of-consciousness LJ entry, I didn't use it much -- but I also found myself making fewer LiveJournal entries about comics, because I felt I had to "save" them for Kirby Dots & Ditko Ribbons.

*Translation: all the cool kids had one.
**Translation: a password too long and complex to log in consistently.

So, just as an experiment, I'm going to start whipping up comic-related posts on LJ, and cross-posting them to KDDR. The movie and TV posts you're used to seeing under "The Hoard Potato" header may follow, as well.

Here we go:

The other day, working at the comic shop, I had a conversation with one of my teenaged customers about the early years of Batman. and he reiterated something I've heard for decades. Jules Feiffer groused about it in The Great Comic Book Heroes, insisting that he'd felt this way since childhood, so the complaint's been around pretty much as long as the character.

It's the idea that the introduction of Robin the Boy Wonder was a Bad Idea and Ruined The Whole Batman Concept.

After reading the first few volumes of The Batman Chronicles, however, I think it's just the opposite.

Before Robin, "The Bat-Man" was just another pulp character.

Oh, those early stories are nice, tight little packages of action and suspense, just like the pulps that inspired them -- but there's the key. They were just like the pulps that inspired them; a bit more compressed, perhaps, and with the exotic appeal of the new medium, but the protagonist was interchangeable with any of the lesser mystery men of the Street & Smith line.

Unoriginal, undistinguished; a guy in a bat costume with (eventually) boomerang. He didn't have the intricate network and multifarious identities of The Shadow; he didn't have the small army of geniuses that followed Doc Savage; he didn't even have the exotic Old California setting of Zorro, the character he really most resembled in those early years.

It was only after the introduction of Robin that Batman really started to come into his own, started to develop his own distinctive motif and theme, started to evolve what could rightfully be known as a mythology. Even Miller recognized that, when The Dark Knight Returns has Bruce reminiscing that Dick named The Batmobile -- "a kid's name."

Before Robin, he was just Zorro in New York. Not The Shadow, mind you; despite what the revisionists of the latter day would have you think, the obsessed devotion to the War On Crime wasn't a major part of the character in those pre-Robin days. Bruce Wayne's effete disaffection with everything around him was misdirection, no doubt, but nonetheless, those early stories convey the impression that, on some level, he put on the costume to fight crime because he was bored.1

It's tempting to assume that Robin just happened to be introduced at the same time as the elements that make Batman so distinctly Batman, but I don't think so. I think that the new character dynamic of the duo was a key factor that shaped a truly mythic character.

Before Robin, Bruce had a social life. Bruce had a fiancée. The Batman was something Bruce Wayne did. It wasn't yet who he was... until he took on a partner.

With a confidante, someone who knew both sides of his life, Robinson, Finger and Kane could let Bruce Wayne immerse himself in the role of Batman.

The conventional interpretation is that the introduction of the brightly-clad wise-cracking kid sidekick was a distraction that pulled the Batman away from his Holy Mission. If you really sit down and read the stories, though, the opposite is more the case. The idea that everything Bruce Wayne does is really just to serve the needs and goals of his alter-ego only emerges post-Robin.

The modern Batman, the revisionist Batman, the grim, obsessed avenger, lurking in the shadows, devoting his entire life to his personal War, is intriguing today only because he's an anachronistic example of a once-profligate phylum. In that time, in that place, he would never have stood out enough become the iconic archetype that we know today -- if he had ever really existed in that form back then.

It's not Superman who's the last survivor of a lost race.

1This is not, in itself, an unacceptable motivation for a fictional crimefighter; Sherlock Holmes got a great deal of mileage from it.

Pakapaka on July 31st, 2009 11:50 pm (UTC)
I did not know about the Blogger account. I was wondering about suggesting a topic then. Something which I've thought in the past was that Thor was basically Jack Kirby's baby - far more than it ever was Lee's - because it was pretty much a predecessor to New Gods, with Space Vikings in aluminum foil. Am I totally off, here?
Your Obedient Serpent: tell it like it ISathelind on August 1st, 2009 03:35 am (UTC)
Whoever actually threw the Thor ball, it was Jack who took it and ran with it.

It's always seemed to me that the Fourth World was Jack, given free reign to do the things he'd WANTED to do in Thor, but didn't feel like he had the freedom (or that was getting paid enough to provide his Coolest Ideas).

While the Fourth World remains my favorite moment in comics history, honestly, it's been the target of so much scrutiny that I don't really have anything left to say after this.
Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on August 1st, 2009 12:42 am (UTC)
I'm not sure I agree that Robin made Batman who he is, today, but I do think that Robin allowed Batman, as a character, the opportunity to survive long enough to develop the iconic status that he has, today.

You might know more than me about the history of the character, but I was under the impression that back in 1940 that the introduction of Robin saved Batman. And that many of the things we now consider iconic about the character weren't developed until O'Neil and, ultimately, Miller created them.

But what I think is interesting about the development of the character is that, y'know, right before The Dark Knight Returns that DC's best selling title was The Teen Titans. A lot of the asshole, control freak Batman that is now standard for the character arose to give Dick Grayson narrative justification for getting away from Batman as The New Teen Titans grew in sales. In the years immediately preceding the DKR, it could be fairly argued that Dick Grayson was a more popular character than Bruce Wayne.

And . . . if Robin "ruins" the character Batman, why do we keep getting new ones?! After Dick left Bruce, why not let it fade into obscurity? I think that one of the things that these guys who dislike the Robins fail to grasp is that comic book fans, in general, *do* like the Robins. We *like* Dick Grayson. We *like* Tim Drake. OK, we didn't like Jason Todd and I'm not sure about this new punk (he feels really laser sharked in a way that kinna makes me want to hit Grant Morrison). We like the father-son interaction that occurs between Batman and Robin, we like the feeling of familial connectedness the character creates, even if it does "ruin" the grim-grim-grimmity grimness of Batman (which is really a johnny come lately thing with the character, you didn't see it at all until the late 60s and it didn't get made permanent in the character until the DKR, really).

So, I'm not necessarily sure that Robin helped develop the mythic qualities of Batman except insofar as Robin helped boost book sales to keep the character alive.

This post feels scattered. I hope something useful comes out, though.
trpeal on August 1st, 2009 01:32 am (UTC)
You might know more than me about the history of the character, but I was under the impression that back in 1940 that the introduction of Robin saved Batman.

I have not done the research myself, but in Michael Chabon's novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, which deals extensively with the early days of comic books, it's more or less stated that the introduction of Robin improved the sales of Batman comics, and to such a degree that it drove nearly every other super hero to acquire a youthful sidekick. Captain America got one. I thought the Sub-Mariner got one (though I can't find direct evidence of it, so maybe not). The freaking Human Torch got one! And he was an android!
Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on August 1st, 2009 01:37 am (UTC)
That's actually one of the points I wanted to make but didn't do right. Yeah. It was a wildly popular construct.

I think that a lot of people kind of want their comics to grow up with them, y'know? They want to read the adventures of Batman as an adult, not as a teenage boy, and forget the literature is essentially juvenile (I mean that in the sense of for young people, I should add, not inferior).

And in modern DC comics, they are generally making quite a to do about legacy heroes, like in the JSA, and a lot of that flows from the existence of Robin - the idea that the "mantle" of that hero-dom can survive the "original" hero. It also is part of the process through which comic characters have at least partially acknowledged time, an heir means that, y'know, some day you're not gonna be the guy doing this. That time passes. Robin is the first introduction of the concept of time into comic books, AFAIK and in an admittedly roundabout way.
Your Obedient Serpent: hoard potatoathelind on August 1st, 2009 03:28 am (UTC)
As I recall, Feiffer's gripe was based on his reaction AS a kid: he could, conceivably, dedicate himself, push himself, and grow up to become Batman.

But he couldn't be Robin, because he wasn't ALREADY Robin.

Sales indicate that Feiffer was not in the majority there. =)

I should drag part of this thread over to legacy2020, so we can converse freely about who Batman and Robin really HAVE been over the years.
Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on August 1st, 2009 04:57 am (UTC)
I think we can then regard Feiffer was a fool, hehe. Unless, of course, he was a millionaire's kid who had the miraculous freedom to travel the world to gain the skills to be the world's greatest crime fighter? No, he could not have been Batman. What went into making Batman was a great deal more than will to succeed but also the incredible material resources to make it reality. ;)

But, yes, sales do seem to indicate that most readers liked Robin. What's not to like?

And I'll pretty much go anywhere the Batman conversation goes, hehe.
Your Obedient Serpentathelind on August 1st, 2009 06:17 am (UTC)
Oh, he wasn't a fool.

He was TEN!

Okay, maybe eleven when Robin was introduced.
Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on August 1st, 2009 06:35 am (UTC)
When he was ten he wasn't a fool. He was ten. When he was an adult talkign about how when he was ten he thought he could be Batman? Maybe then he became a trifle foolish in this regard, O-sensei. ;)
Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on August 1st, 2009 04:57 am (UTC)
The Bat-versation, as it were.
Your Obedient Serpentathelind on August 1st, 2009 06:24 am (UTC)
Same Bat-time, different Bat-channel.
Your Obedient Serpent: Superboy Punches The Universeathelind on August 1st, 2009 03:23 am (UTC)
That's a better way of putting it, really: the Batman as we know him today was really the work of Denny O'Neil's work in the '70s and (grumble) Miller in the '80s.

(I loved DKR. Not so wild about the two decades of ramping up Bruce's Asshole Factor that followed.)

What I was trying to convey before I started drowning in the stream of consciousness was that the introduction of Robin allowed Batman to survive long enough to get there.

And yes, Robin saved Batman -- not just from poor sales at the time, but from drowning in his own particular sea of fellow pulp-adventure holdovers.

Potential fodder for another post: since Denny bundled Dick off to college back in 1970, The Batman has slowly accrued more and more of the trappings of other, forgotten pulp characters. A lot of people still think of Batman as a loner, but he's got so many sidekicks, apprentices, and auxiliary characters nowadays that the "Batman Family" is really one of the larger super-teams in the DCU.

And that's NOT including the Outsiders in their number.

Incidentally, back in the Pre-Crisis Universe, when Dick first gave up the Robin identity to (eventually) become Nightwing, it was all very cordial. He and Bruce were on fine terms. Dick's rationale was that "Robin would always be the second part of 'Batman and...'" -- and HE'S the one who gave the old costume to Jason Todd.
Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on August 1st, 2009 04:55 am (UTC)
This post fueled by beer. You are warned.

Who doesn't love DKR? It is pretty much the high point of Miller's career, where his cinematic style flourished without being bogged down by the absurdity of his characterizations and his disturbing recurring motifs (such as his obsession with prostitution and his work to turn every female character into a drug addicted hooker). I wish the modern Batman was a lot more O'Neil and a lot less Miller, myself, but you can't fault DKR, really. Fault everyone who uncritically accepted the unspoken premises to the extent that the deconstruction was ignored to the extent that it was adopted and became part of the undeconstructed assumptions of the genre (uh, I THINK I just came up with an interesting issue with deconstruction right here with you, now, in the sense that deconstruction can be subverted into non-deconstructed works, it can be adopted into the genre . . . which explains a lot about DKR and The Watchmen and subsequent comic book development). It's probably the key reason that I like Dick Grayson more than Bruce Wayne - he's sometimes allowed to be, y'know, a nice guy. (I am also troubled by the current construct in comic books that child abuse makes a person a better crime fighter, ugh.)

And, see, I was right that you would know more about the continuity of events! ;) But I first started reading about Robin as part of The New Teen Titans, so I pretty much had the "Batman is a controlling jerk" as one of my foundational personal comic book mythologies.

But, yeah, I think that in practical terms, the inclusion of Robin has certain allowed Batman the longevity to develop into the iconic figure he is now. Bigger than Jesus! But part of that is definitely Robin. In great truth, no Robin, no Batman.

I also noticed that the people who whine about Robin are also the ones who cleave most strongly to the worst of the characters in comicsdom (IMO). They're the crazy nutjobs who love the Punisher and any character with a huge body count, the asshats responsible for turning Wolverine into a troubled guy looking for redemption into a blood-minded mass murderer without remorse and the depth of a wading pool. Thanks, guys, hehe. You go over there and sharpen your triple bladed knife and I'll stay over here behind my pile of comic books. That MIGHT have been a touch of rant. ;)
Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on August 1st, 2009 05:39 am (UTC)
I also didn't mean my reply as challenging! Bleh. I think sometimes believe me to be more challenging than I am, hehe. In these matters, I am largely your student, O-sensei.
Stalbonstalbon on August 1st, 2009 11:15 pm (UTC)
I'd definitely be interested in seeing more comics entries posted here, as I'm a big fan. Mind you, I'm more of a Marvel fan than a DC fan, but that's more because Marvel focuses on their heroes as characters than heroes half the time, in my opinion. But yes, more comics is good!