In April of 1940, about a year after the debut of arguably their most popular character, Bruce Wayne/Batman, DC Comics debuted “the sensational find of [that year]”, Dick Grayson/Robin. Since then, Batman’s pixie-boots-wearing partner has changed outfits and a number of different characters have assumed the mantle as the Dynamic Duo of Batman and Robin have become an iconic staple of DC Comics. Considering my fondness for the character and those who assumed the mantle over the years, what better way to celebrate this dynamic debut than to dedicate an entire month to celebrating the character?
Story Title: Technically untitled but presented as: “The Batman Presents The Sensational Character Find of 1940…. Robin – The Boy Wonder”
Published: April 1940
Writer: Bill Finger
Artists: Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson
Since his debut in Detective Comics #27 in 1939, Batman had become a popular staple of DC Comics; the masked crimefighter began as a mysterious individual and, over time, acquired many of the supporting characters and gadgets that would become synonymous with the character thanks, largely, to the understated influence of writer Bill Finger, who greatly expanded upon many of the ideas of artist Bob Kane.
However, to make Batman more accessible to younger readers and to give him someone to talk to rather than simply relying on monologues or thought balloons, Kane, Finger, and fellow creator Jerry Robinson came up with the concept of introducing a kid sidekick for Batman. With the character’s look inspired by illustrations of Robin Hood, the appropriately-named Robin not only significantly altered Batman’s dynamic and portrayal, casting him as a less darker and violent vigilante and more as a Sherlock Holmes-type father figure, but also dramatically increased sales and interest in the character upon his debut.
The issue kicks off right away by introducing us to the Flying Graysons, John, Mary, and their young son Richard (or “Dick” as he prefers…feel free to make jokes in the comments), a family of trapeze artists for Haly’s Circus who regularly wow the crowd with their high-flying antics, particularly their “death-defying […] triple spin”. One night, whilst backstage, Dick overhears a couple of criminals threatening the owner of the circus, Mr. Haly, who balks at their attempts to force him to pay them protection money, though they promise him that “accidents will happen”.
The next night, right as John and Mary are performing their headline act, their trapeze ropes snap in mid-air and they plummet to their deaths off panel but right before Dick’s very eyes! After being briefly comforted by Bruce Wayne, who was in attendance that same night, Dick overhears the gangsters confess to causing the accident, which is enough to both scare Haly into paying them protection money and to convince Dick to go to the police.
However, he is stopped by the timely arrival of the Batman, Gotham’s legendary vigilante, who takes Robin with him in order to spare him from reprisals since the entire town is run by mob boss Tony Zucco and ratting out Zucco’s men would surely mean death for Dick. Batman shares with Dick a truncated version of his own childhood trauma and Dick immediately volunteers to join his cause. Though Batman warns him of the dangers of his vigilante life, Dick is unafraid and, with what now appears to be very little convincing, Batman swears Dick to an undying oath to dedicate himself to the fight against crime and corruption.
Having revealed his true identity to Dick (off panel, of course), Bruce begins training the boy for his new life; thanks to his circus background, Dick excels at rope swinging and takes to his training in the likes of boxing and “jiu jitsu” with an eagerness and talent over a period of many months. Finally, Dick is ready to play a part in Bruce’s crusade and, for his first assignment, Bruce has Dick impersonate a grubby-faced newsboy in order to attract the attention of Zucco’s thugs and track them back to their lair.
With the information provided to him by Dick, Batman is able to intercept and disrupt Zucco’s operation, taking out his thugs across town and smashing up the mob boss’s gambling house. Each time, he tells his prey to give Zucco one simple message (“The Batman”) and dispatches Zucco’s cohorts with both ease and a snappy wit.
Batman then delivers a threatening note to Zucco, who is so wound up by Batman’s antics that he falls completely for Batman’s bait and heads to the Canin Building (along with a number of his goons) to personally put an end to the Batman’s interference. However, instead of the Batman, Zucco and his minions are targeted by Dick in his new costumed guise of Robin. Striking fast and hard, Robin tackles one of Zucco’s men, causes another to (apparently) fall to his death by throwing a stone at his head, and handily takes out the rest using his speed, acrobatics, and the element of both surprise and misdirection.
However, perhaps because of his youthful exuberance (Dick is clearly relishing the chance to beat up some thugs), Robin slips on a girder and is left dangling hundreds of feet in the air at the mercy of one of Zucco’s men. Fortunately, Dick’s circus training pays off and he is able to twist himself around to send the gunman falling to his death and Batman arrives to take out Zucco before he can get a shot at the Boy Wonder.
Batman than threatens Zucco’s remaining henchman, Blade, into signing a confession (…he just happened to have this on him, presumably in his utility belt) about their involvement the deaths of the Graysons and willingly allows Zucco to send Blade falling to his death in order to capture evidence of Zucco killing a man. Batman then assures Zucco that both the confession and the picture will be enough to see him tried and sentenced to summary execution and, having orchestrated events so that Dick could avenge the deaths of his parents, returns to Wayne Manor with Dick to await their next “corker” of an adventure.
Okay, so, maybe Batman didn’t immediately turn into a child-friendly character all at once. Indeed, if you judge this story by most modern metrics of the character and his much-lauded “no kill rule”, you might be surprised to see Batman being so complicit and stoic about things such as mobsters being tossed off a building by a young boy. Of course, you can make the argument that Batman technically doesn’t murder anyone in this story; instead, he orchestrates events so that others do the dirty work for him but it’s quite astounding to see Dick go from a fun-loving, carefree young circus acrobat to a masked killer in just a few months.
Of course, the entire point of this story is to introduce and sell us on the idea of Batman adopting (in the literal sense rather than the legal one) a young sidekick; Robin’s origin is a thematic parallel to Batman’s, having witnessed his parents’ deaths at the hands of criminals, but he’s a much different character to Bruce. He’s younger, obviously, faster and far more agile and, thanks to his circus background, takes to his new vocation with vigour and enthusiasm. Though he takes a vow to commit himself to justice, for Dick, being a crimefighter is a thrill and a privilege and, clearly, the entire point of the character is to exist as a form of wish fulfilment for all youngsters out there who wish they could swing through the city and fight thugs alongside the Caped Crusader.
What did you think about Robin’s sensational debut? What do you think about the idea of Batman having a kid sidekick? Do you prefer Batman to work alone or do you like the dynamic he has with his colourful partners? What are your thoughts on comics characters brazenly killing or willingly allowing children to be involved in such a violent life? Which of the Robins is your favourite, or least favourite, and why? How are you celebrating the debut of Robin this year? Whatever you think, feel free to leave a comment about Robin below and pop back next week for the next instalment of Robin Month.