The Sensational Character Find Of 1940: Celebrating The First Appearance Of Robin
In Detective Comics #27, when he first appears courtesy of Bill Finger and Bob Kane, Batman isn't really Batman just yet. He's the Shadow with a different set of clothes. Over the course of that first year, you can see the pieces start to fall into place that would stay there for the next seven decades, forming the foundation of the Batman that we still have today --- and in Detective Comics #38, released March 5th 1940, the final piece of the puzzle appears when we're introduced to Dick Grayson, better known as Robin, the Boy Wonder.
It wasn't just a shrewd marketing move to give young readers a way to see themselves as part of the story, and it wasn't just that Robin's introduction changed the superhero genre forever by opening the floodgates for the kid sidekick, although both of those things are true. More than anything else, Robin defined Batman, and in doing so, allowed that universe to define what Dick Grayson himself could be, and gave us one of the greatest comic book characters of all time.
See, the thing about Batman is that he's patently ridiculous. All superheroes are, really, but while most of them operate in the realm of easy concepts like soldiers or circus strong-men --- with the first page of Action Comics #1 even going as far as offering up facts about ants and grasshoppers as pseudo-scientific examples for Clark Kent's incredible feats of strength --- Batman is downright weird right from the start. He's working with the same familiar elements as the Shadow, but put into a superhero costume, one step removed and put into a world that was being defined by leaping tall buildings.
In a way, that uniqueness was his hook, a striking visual and an interesting idea --- the lack of super-powers --- that made him stand out in the crowd of Superman imitators that were starting to line shelves on the newstands of 1939. But as the character started to solidify as a superhero rather than just a pulp vigilante in a Halloween costume, you saw that ridiculousness creeping in around the edges. The origin story in Detective #33 is what does it, combining the very serious emotion of a child who watches his parents' murder with the strange-at-best decision to dress up like a bat because one of them flew through a window that he left open.
Don't get me wrong, it's great --- those two pages are arguably the most important thing about Batman --- but even in this new genre of leaping over tall buildings and buffing up with Vita-Rays, there has to be a part of your mind that thinks, "Is this really the best course of action here?" You see that reaction even today, when people wonder why Bruce Wayne fights muggers one-on-one instead of attacking the root causes of crime and injustice (which, incidentally, he also does). There's a disconnect there.
But Robin shows that it works.
Finger, Kane and Jerry Robinson mirror Batman's origin in Dick Grayson's, and in doing so, they show how much has changed by the simple fact that Batman is there. Because Batman exists, Dick Grayson doesn't have to lead a life of solitude, and when he swears his oath to fight crime, he does so in the presence of a partner, a mentor, and a friend.
As a result, he becomes a very different character than Batman. Instead of drawing on the tradition of the Shadow, Robin quite obviously draws on the tradition of Robin Hood, a swashbuckler and a daredevil. And because all of that is there right from the start, we see Dick Grayson grow up over the course of his 76-year crimefighting career into a character defined by an entirely different set of attributes. Dick Grayson is an optimist, a friend, someone who can and does form intense relationships with those around him rather than staying remote. A character whose motivating tragedy never cost him his humanity.
And all of that follows him as he develops over the years, from Boy Wonder to Teen Wonder to Teen Titan, from Nightwing to occasional Batman to globetrotting super-spy and all the way back again. It's all there, because of what we see in that first appearance.