The phrase “Bat Family” gets thrown around a lot when describing Batman’s ever extending cast of supporting characters, and for good reason. Wayne Manor is basically the best orphanage this side of Starlight House. Any more lost souls full of raw potential just waiting to be harnessed in a never ending battle against the forces of evil and Bruce might just have to move his base of operations to Graymalkin Lane. Though his reluctance to take on new charges belies his compassion for patriarchal sidekick rearing, the sheer length and breadth of Batman’s war on crime depends heavily on the new blood who continue to join his cause in droves. Charles Xavier had to use Cerebro to seek out new mutants for his crusade, but it seems like The Batman can’t take a wrong turn down Crime Alley without tripping over a crucially wounded youth with a fertile mind, an obsessive drive and a bone to pick. The image of a man whose family was torn from him as a boy building one piecemeal from strays is kind of an obvious one, and one that paints Batman in a sickening light. This is the same light that outlines the utter ridiculousness of having a giant penny in your cavernous headquarters. The same light that implies some improper measure of pederasty in the hero/sidekick relationship. The light that screams, “No, hey, but seriously, what in the entire FUCK is this sketchy billionaire doing endangering the shit out of these random kids?!”
Look, superheroes weren’t designed to hold up to such cynical scrutiny. As Grant Morrison tell us, “nobody pumps air into the Batmobile’s tires. It’s not real.” You’re reading this article and I’m writing it, so, obviously, “It’s still real to me, dammit.” Here’s the thing, Batman isn’t some creep throwing costumed kids in the line of acid flower fire because he’s lonely, okay? He’s a severely damaged man who chose at entirely the wrong age to embark on an unwinnable quest to make sure that what happened to him never happens to anyone else. The shitty part? It DOES happen to someone else. It happens to lots of someone elses. The good part? That may be the only reason Batman can endure.
Bruce Wayne makes the choice as a boy to devote his life to avenging his parents’ murder. Dark though it may be, it’s the idealistic plan of a child. Cut to twenty years later. This whole “being Batman” thing is pretty effed up. He doesn’t sleep much. No child would ever imagine fighting criminals would mean your blood type is Percocet and your skin tone turns to bloody bandage. Every night, he goes out, poses dramatically on a well placed gargoyle, stares out at his city, and says, “No.” It’s not enough. People still die. No amount of Kung Fu Survivalism and Techno-Capitalist Gadgetry can change that. Perhaps a night at the circus could help.
The familiar gun shots. The pap-pap-pap Bruce hears in every quiet room, every day of his life. The sickening thud. A young boy’s tears. Not his. Someone else’s. A rough and tumble carny with no one to turn to. Dick Grayson. The first, and best, student of the bat.
Robin saved Batman, in every possible sense. Obviously, giving a shady, noir vigilante a kid partner helped moved a fair number of funny books off the newsstands in the 1940s. Would a comic about a weird loner torturing criminals for his childhood trauma really get to stick around for 70 years without a palpable paradigm change? Batman having a Robin helped soften the dark knight’s rough edges and generated the first of many aesthetic shifts to come over the subsequent decades. This goes deeper than just pop cultural longevity or sales boosting.
Following Grant’s Unified Theory of The Bat, Dick saved Bruce. It’s easy to see how Bruce taking Dick in and helping raise him is some kind of noble, heroic charity, but they need each other. That ampersand that links “Batman” with “Robin” may as well be a heart emoji with wings. For Dick, having his family murdered before his eyes only to be saved by a man who had the same thing happen to him is like the best, IMAX 3D “It Gets Better” ad ever, but for Bruce? Here’s a chance to pay it forward and be the hero he wishes he had when he lost his parents. Dick entering Bruce’s lonely, noir bachelor life is everything. Bruce puts away the weird purple gloves and the frightening, German expressionist Bat-ears and becomes the loving, paternal protector Dick needs (This particularly transition is most beautifully realized by Darwyn Cooke in The New Frontier.)
Likewise, Bruce is enamored by Dick. Bruce was a child of privilege, completely ill equipped for the trauma that befell him. Dick is from the circus life. He’s used to the difficult hands fate has a tendency to deal, and faces forward with an aplomb that is staggering to Bruce, who needed billions of dollars and martial arts lessons to handle things even a fraction as well as Dick does. They aren’t just an obvious father/son analogue. They’re brothers. Dick is the boisterous friend childhood Bruce wishes he could’ve commiserated with.
Like all best friends, they don’t consider one another equals, but betters. Dick will always see Bruce as the man who took him in and gave him a new life when the world stopped spinning, and may never consider himself worthy of the cowl, no matter how many times he ends up circumstantially donning it, and Bruce will always envy Dick’s abominable spirit.
There’s a reason Dick Grayson, whether as Robin or Nightwing or even Batman, has such a deep connection with so many varied characters in the DCU. There’s a reason he’s the “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha” of the lineage of Robins. He was first and he was the best, and he gave Bruce a reason to keep going. Without a Robin, there’s a good chance Batman would have lost his shit and ended up in Arkham himself. When Dick took up the mantle of the Bat for the second time, he more than filled out the role. He’s was the Dark Knight Who Smiles, something Bruce wishes he could be.
Dick changed Bruce’s life so much so that he keeps surrounding himself with Dick Grayson cyphers. Regardless of the risk and the implications, Batman needs a Robin. Frank Miller wants you to think the yellow around the Bat symbol is to attract bullets, but that is bullshit. A Robin flew into Batman’s life, and that bright yellow cape wrapped itself around his dark heart and kept it safe.
Sandy Jarrell is an artist from Cary, NC. His body of work includes issues of Batman ’66, Unfair from MonkeyBrain, and contributions to Negative Burn and Oni Press’ Wasteland. Follow him on Twitter and tumblr.
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