Welcome to this new feature on Pixel Bedlam, the Weird World Of Comics. With every instalment, I intend to explore something particularly odd, unusual or just plain stupid from this crazy medium and offer it unto you, dear reader, much like how a cat might kill and lightly maul a bird only to dump it on your bed for you to puzzle over.
So, let’s dive in and where better to start than with Batman? I’m gonna go out on a limb here and assume you’ve heard of him. You know, tall, black cape, scowls a lot, has a fancy car. Most people will also be aware that Batman has a sidekick called Robin, a fact that Hollywood went to great lengths reminding people of in the title of the 1997 classic Batman & Robin (easily the best of the original four Bat-films).
But what tends to surprise people who don’t read many comics is just how many Robins there have been over the years. Here’s a no-nonsense rundown of all the young children Batman’s spent his time with.
Robin #1 – Dick Grayson (1940 – 1984)
Dick is not only the first Robin, but the first kid sidekick in general. He’s the Ur-Text that would become the template for not just the later Robins, but also a host of imitations and homages, from Green Arrow’s Speedy to Captain America’s Bucky to Sandman’s Sandy The Golden Boy. When Batman’s adapted for other mediums, it’s usually Dick that’s used as Robin, or at least the core basis of him.
The son of acrobats, Dick is orphaned when crime lord Boss Zucco (a 40s name if ever there was one) has his family murdered. Rather than be taken in by social services, he’s taken as a ward by wealthy philanthropist Bruce Wayne, who trains him to fight crime in a garish costume with shockingly little around the thighs.
Dick would branch out from just being Batman’s sidekick, forming the Teen Titans and, prompted by Batman firing him, eventually striking out on his own as Nightwing, settling in to protect Gotham’s suburb Bludhaven (which was destroyed by a chemical bomb about five years ago, so he’s not doing too well on that count). He’s even replaced Bruce as Batman for a few stints and been part of the JLA.
Through this, Dick has met pretty much everyone in the DC universe. He’s old pals with Superman, privy to all of Batman’s secrets, on first name terms with all the JLA and an idol to every other teen hero. Essentially, Dick is like that friend you have at Uni who somehow knows literally everyone else on campus and is every five minutes stopping to say hello to some random stranger. You’re his friend, but you never really feel like you’re his best friend.
Aliases: Robin, Nightwing, Batman
Robin #2 – Jason Todd (1984 – 1988)
After Batman ‘fired’ Dick, he set out to find another Robin and miraculously found another orphaned acrobat! Sure, he had to dye the kid’s hair, but it was an almost seamless switch, like when a TV show recasts a minor character and hopes you don’t realise.
Then DC had one of their reality shattering events, as they are wont to do, and Jason was rewritten. Rather than being a cheery Dick-clone, he was now an angry young street tough, caught trying to steal the wheels off the Batmobile (so not particularly smart either). Jason quickly became an incorrigible git and strangely this annoyed readers more than him being a hollow replacement for Dick. In 1988 Jason was killed off by the Joker and is, I think, still the only comics character ever to have been killed off by decision of a public phone vote.
As is often the case in comics, death wasn’t the end for Jason and another reality shattering event resurrected him (refunds to original callers were not offered). He took to becoming a violent anti-hero, The Red Hood, in an attempt to show up Batman’s lenient ways, as well as posing as Nightwing to ruin Dick’s reputation and attempted to become Batman when Bruce died.
Aliases: Robin, The Red Hood, Red Robin, Nightwing
Robin #3 – Tim Drake (1989 – 2009)
With Jason dead, Batman got a bit mopey and depressed. He hung up the Robin costume in a display tube in the Batcave and decided that he no longer needed a sidekick.
Enter Tim Drake, child genius. Noticing that Batman had become a bit more violent since Robin “disappeared”, he offered to become the new Robin, to help moderate Batman’s dark vengeance. It helped that he’d worked out the identity of Batman and the original Robin years earlier and also that he had black hair. Think of all the savings on hair dye!
Tim was Robin throughout the 90s and half the 00s and became immensely popular with readers. He supported his own solo series for most of that, co-founded Young Justice and was part of a successful reboot of the Teen Titans. He also got a better costume that covered his legs, which is handy. Not as acrobatic as Dick or as tough as Jason, Tim was more a successor to the detective side of Batman, using his brains, tools (such as his bo staff) and dry sense of humour to fight crime. Elements of Tim’s Robin have filtered into mainstream adaptations and he’s the template Robin when Nightwing is also used.
Since the (temporary) death of Bruce Wayne a few years ago, Tim has become Red Robin and struck out on his own. The name does rather make him sound like an off-brand knock-off of Robin, not helped by the DC New 52 reboot erasing his time as proper Robin. Because there’s nothing like screwing over the history of your popular characters to get a comics publisher giddy. Sigh.
Aliases: Robin, Red Robin
Robin #4 – Stephanie Brown (2004)
While Tim was Robin he got involved with a very amateur superheroine called Spoiler. Spoiler was Stephanie Brown, daughter of sub-Riddler supervillain The Cluemaster. See; Cluemaster, Spoiler. Haha, wordplay! Tim and Steph’s relationship was that timeless tale of boy meets girl, boy and girl fight crime, boy refuses to reveal real identity, girl goes off and gets knocked up by someone else. Rather than become a teen mother, Stephanie gave up the kid for adoption.
Tim and Stephanie later drifted apart. When Tim’s father found out about him being Robin, he was forced to quit. Batman, left without a Robin, decided that the best course of action to get Tim to come back was to hire his ex-girlfriend as his replacement. Obviously. I hope Bruce doesn’t run Wayne Enterprises like that.
Steph was only Robin for a brief time and technically never progressed beyond being a probationary sidekick. Batman quickly fired her for arbitrarily harsh reasons, so she went back to being Spoiler and, in an attempt to impress Batman, accidentally started a massive gang war. Whoops. Steph died in the course of this, except not really. Batman’s family friend and confident Dr Leslie Thompkins faked Steph’s death in an attempt to um… er… something.
Later returning back from the ‘dead’, Steph carried on as Spoiler before literally having the mantle of Batgirl thrown at her, in the wake of Bruce’s short-run death.
In the DC New 52 though, Steph possibly doesn’t exist, which has (quite fairly) annoyed a hell of a lot of readers.
Aliases: Spoiler, Robin, Batgirl
Robin #5 – Damian Wayne (2009 – present)
Much like a Dickens’ character, much can be learnt about the fifth Robin from his name. First off, look, he’s a Wayne! Whereas Dick and Tim (and briefly sort-of Jason) would eventually be adopted by Batman, Damian is Bruce’s natural born son. His mother is Talia Head, the daughter of Ras Al Ghul (you might remember her from The Dark Knight Rises and Arkham City), which gives him a doubly insane lineage to carry on.
And then there’s his first name, Damian, which is not a name chosen lightly. Damian Wayne is a psychotic 10 year old raised by a cult of assassins. He is a very different Robin. Not bright and cheery like Dick, not moral and determined like Tim, not especially righteous and jaded like Jason and not desperate to impress like Stephanie. Instead, Damian is an entitled little git who sees being Robin (and eventually Batman) as his birthright. He has utter disdain for all those who came before him, including Dick Grayson, who played Batman to his Robin while Bruce was dead. He even doesn’t like Alfred! You can tell a guy’s no good when he insists on calling Alfred by his surname.
Damian’s the current Robin and who knows how long he’ll keep the job. A few years like Jason or decades like Dick? Only time will tell…
Although, yeah, probably for a long time.