What Can The Robins Tell Us About How Comics Portray Kids?
Many different heroes have held the mantle of Robin over the years. Each of them is completely different, and we all have our favorites (cough Damian cough). Each one also represents a different idea about who and what children are, and how they are depicted in superhero comics. Kids can represent hope, they can represent dread, they can represent immaturity, and they can represent legacy. Let's break down how the Robins can represent all of these things.
A QUICK NOTE ON THE GIRLS
While there are a bunch of kid-specific tropes to explore, neither of those characters are treated as children. This happens a lot with female characters of a certain age --- think of Terra, the evil underage seductress in New Teen Titans. Stephanie Brown's stint as Robin fell under predictably boring tropes --- the Girlfriend, the Woman in a Refrigerator --- and Carrie Kelly eventually became nothing more than Batman's girlfriend.
These are bad and bare depictions that can only prompt us to say, "Ew, don't do that anymore," before moving on. So...
Damian Wayne is the only Robin to be Bruce Wayne's actual child, and tragically, he dies. In that way, more than any other Robin, he is every parent's worst fear personified.
But Damian is more than that. He's the perfect example of a certain type of dark child, reminiscent of the kids in Children of the Corn, or more recently, Black-Eyed Kids. And it's no coincidence that his name is taken from the diabolical child of The Omen. Of course, those children are villains, and even in Damian's introduction --- as an amoral, bloodthirsty assassin --- he wasn't evil.
That's true of a lot of kid characters like Damian -- powerful, dark children, but ones who aren't strictly malicious. Think of Hades in Wonder Woman, who is bad but not necessarily a villain. Or Kid Loki, in his Kieron Gillen-written appearances.
Damian, and other kids like him, represent children not as evil, but as power and change, which are understandably feared. Heck, basically every X-kid falls into this category. (Of special note are the two somewhat similar mutants from Ultimate X-Men and Uncanny/All-New X-Men, who kill everyone around them as soon as their power awakens, without even meaning to. Starbrand does the same thing.)
Powerful children represent the idea that you can't control the future. And Damian, as Bruce's actual child, represents this parental fear perfectly.
Speaking of children who die; here's Jason Todd. Is there a more perfect example of a legacy gone wrong? Someone who exists just to be a smaller, less successful version of the parent?
Jason Todd might be the only comic character to ever be killed by the audience. The distaste for him didn't disappear in death either. Since he came back, he's usurped an old identity of the Joker's, and adopted his own pseudo-sidekick Scarlet in an attempt to become Batman --- but edgier.
Jason Todd represents the idea of the disappointment; children who attempt to become their parents, but fail. A lot of times these characters are also a symbol of rebellion (was there ever a more hostile Robin than Todd?), partially driven by their own insecurities.
More than anything these type of characters are rebels who fall to the dark side. Look at Anakin in Star Wars! Look at young Ultimate Reed Richards' descent to The Maker.
Of course, that's not the only route for rebel children. If you look at the Archie comics, you'll see Jason Todd reflected in Reggie Mantle's pitiable sneer. You could view him --- and Green Arrow's drug-addicted ward Speedy --- as those who laid the groundwork for Jason Todd's introduction. But of course, there is no single character that better personifies the whiny rebel than Jason Todd.
Perhaps more than any form of child character, the rebels are defined by the adults. What is a rebel without something to rebel against? And what character has Batman failed more fully than Jason Todd, the child he let die, and the child who came back as a villain?
While all of the Robins are sidekicks by definition, there's one who stands out as the enduring example of the type. Tim Drake, aka Robin, aka Red Robin.
More than anything, the sidekick is an accessory to the adult hero. What is Batman without a Robin? And for a long time, it seemed that was the main reason that Tim Drake stuck around as Robin; merely so Batman would always have one.
The sidekick is designed to lure younger readers in, and to give the main, adult character someone to provide exposition for. Think of Bucky in his earliest appearances, or Kid Marvel. Even Jimmy Olsen --- who has gone on to have wonderfully weird adventures --- still exists most famously as Superman's pal.
These characters are the kid avatar for anyone who wants nothing more than to be the hero's best friend, and perhaps his worthy pupil.
Of course, sidekicks don't always stay sidekicks. Some grow up to actually step into the shoes of their mentors. If I asked you to name your favorite Flash, half of you would probably say "Wally West," because despite the fact that he began as Kid Flash, he established himself as a different, awesome version of The Flash.
These characters manage to break free of their secondary status and become serious leads, and there's no better example than the original Robin, Dick Grayson. He started as a sidekick, and look at him now. Dick Grayson has his own city, Blüdhaven; his own identity, Nightwing; and his own comic.
Dick Grayson represents the hope that adults have for their children --- that they'll mature, find success, and become their own fully-formed person. Sure, they're influenced by the people who helped raise them --- you know that Nightwing could never have started out as Green Lantern's sidekick --- but they carve out their own identities nonetheless.
Nightwing also represents one of the rarest types of children to see in superhero comics; ones that grow up.
James Tynion IV --- the head-writer of Batman & Robin Eternal and current writer of Detective Comics -- recently took to Twitter, to say that Grayson is "100%" Bruce's favorite, because he is "proof that you can fight the war he fights and be emotionally complete in a way Bruce never will be."
Isn't that all parents want for their children? To be like them, but greater?
This is why, despite it being decades since he wore the R, Dick Grayson is the most popular character ever to call themselves Robin. Grayson, more than any of the other Robins, is the one who made it.
Of course, one thing that all the classic Robins --- and the majority of kid characters in superhero comics --- have in common is that they're defined by their relationship to adults. But that's changing.
In the sadly short-lived series We Are Robin, a group of kids who, for the most part, have never even met Batman, are inspired to join together to become superheroes. There's no true parent figure for the characters to be subservient towards, and they define themselves in relation to Robin, not Batman. They're kids, doing it for themselves.
This is the final, and best, portrayal of children --- as people in their own right. Sure, it's fun to read books where kids are sidekicks trying to live up to their heroes, but those books position kids as just a product of their "parents."
Luckily, superhero comics nowadays are getting much better at portraying kids as independent and autonomous, as heroes in their own right. Maps Mizoguchi is a wonderful example from Gotham Academy. New Super-Man is about a kid becoming Superman, without any deference to the existing Superman! Batgirl is all about young Barbara Gordon striking out on her own.
Over at Marvel, Ms. Marvel is following in Spider-Man's footsteps as a kid hero who is more than just a stereotype. Even Nova and the new Spider-Man are managing to escape the shadows of their predecessors.
But it's perhaps in indie comics where the best portrayals can be found. Lumberjanes, Backstagers, The Woods --- all of them manage to portray children as... children. Children who learn, grow, mess up, and try to be better. Not mini-versions of their parents. Not hostile alien creatures. Just as messy, tired, wonderful, weird people.
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