Imagine swooping from the rooftops and rushing into peril alongside a dark-cloaked crusader, crushing criminals while having the time of your life. Such is the appeal of Robin the Boy Wonder, Batman's death-defying junior partner, who epitomizes the designation
sidekick more so than any other comic-book superhero. Touted as
the sensational character find of 1940 in his inaugural appearance in Detective Comics #38, Robin, premiering a scant eleven months after the debut of his cowled mentor, was envisioned by Batman creator Bob Kane as a hero with whom juvenile readers could identify. Kane's hunch was correct: the Boy Wonder's introduction not only instantly elevated the already-popular Batman's sales, it also spawned a legion of imitators, including the Shield's Dusty, Captain America's Bucky, and Green Arrow's Speedy.
Robin the Boy Wonder was actually Dick Grayson, the youngest of a family of circus aerialists, who witnessed his mother and father plunge to their deaths from a sabotaged trapeze. This murder was also observed by millionaire Bruce (Batman) Wayne, who as a child had similarly watched his own parents die. Batman took this vengeful youngster under his wing, training him as his partner. And thus the most famous of superhero teams—Batman and Robin, the Dynamic Duo—was born. But while both Wayne and Grayson's childhoods were shattered after seeing the executions of their parents, the heroes' parallels ended there. Batman was brooding and grim, demonically clad in shadowy hues. But Robin was buoyant and robust, ostentatiously outfitted in a red tunic; green shorts, boots, and gloves; and a yellow cape. With gymnastic flash and the crime-fighting arsenal in his utility belt, the Boy Wonder laughed in the faces of his foes, punning while pummeling. Before long, the line dividing the Dynamic Duo's styles began to blur, with Batman's attitude becoming more jovial and Robin learning detective skills from his teacher.
Robin accompanied Batman on a host of 1940s and 1950s escapades in Detective, Batman, and World's Finest Comics, protecting their home of Gotham City against routine thugs and a growing contingent of colorful psychotics including the Joker, Catwoman, and the Penguin. The characters' acclaim became so immense that their comic-book adventures soon spawned a short-lived newspaper strip, a guest sequence on the Superman radio program, and two movie serials, Batman in 1943 and Batman and Robin in 1949. Robin the Boy Wonder was even awarded his own series in Star-Spangled Comics, beginning in 1947 and continuing for several years thereafter.
During those innocent times, no one pondered the threat of child endangerment facing young Dick Grayson each time he leapt into action as Robin (although the theme would be addressed in 2000 in the flashback miniseries Robin: Year One). Real-life psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, however, perceived a different menace to the Boy Wonder and to the boys reading Batman and other comic books. In his 1954 indictment of the comics industry, Seduction of the Innocent, Dr. Wertham labeled the relationship between Batman and Robin as
homosexual, and the resulting backlash sparked U.S. Senate hearings that nearly put comics out of business. Batman and Robin limped along through the late 1950s and early 1960s, plagued by mundane, often ridiculous stories and by the inclusion of the
Batman Family (Batwoman, Ace the Bat-Hound, Bat-Mite, and the original Bat-Girl, the latter of whom was Robin's sometime-girlfriend, devised to erase the notion of a gay partnership between the Boy Wonder and his adult companion). Sales dropped precipitously and the Batman titles teetered on the brink of cancellation.
In 1964, editor Julius Schwartz revitalized the Batman franchise with a movement called the
New Look. Robin was now clearly a teenager, and while still an enthusiastic juggernaut of justice, he began to come into his own, joining other powerful adolescents as the Teen Titans. In 1966, ABC-TV's wildly successful, campy Batman series made the Dynamic Duo pop icons and catapulted actor Burt Wart into instant stardom in his role of Robin. Ward's earnest portrayal of the Boy Wonder birthed a national catchphrase:
Holy [insert your favorite noun here], Batman! Millions of boys wanted to be Robin, masquerading as the young hero for Halloween and playing with the plethora of Robin (and Batman) merchandising that permeated the mid-1960s retail market. And millions of girls went ga-ga over the groovy Boy Wonder—Ward was a teen idol, his masked visage gracing the covers of 16 and Tiger Beat fan magazines.
By late 1968, the television series sputtered out of steam and the comic books were returning Batman to his darker roots as a
creature of the night. Robin emerged from Batman's shadow: He became the
Teen Wonder and Dick Grayson vacated the Wayne mansion and the Teen Titans for Hudson University. In the early 1970s, Robin appeared in a series of relevant (for the times) backup stories in Batman and Detective, fighting corporate fatcats and student unrest instead of supervillains. After a decade of sporadic appearances, Robin the Teen Wonder fronted a new incarnation of the Teen Titans that launched in 1980, and fell in love with teammate Starfire. In February 1984, Dick Grayson permanently shed his red tunic, ultimately adopting a new superhero guise as Nightwing. Despite these changes in the comics, television and movies preserved Grayson in the role of Robin: Via a variety of Batman animated programs from the late 1960s through the early 1990s; in the long-running Super Friends TV series; and twice on the big screen, with actor Chris O'Donnell playing Grayson/Robin in director Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997).
Even though Dick Grayson sported a new heroic name, the legend of Robin the Boy Wonder lived on, fueled by tradition and copyright protection. Succeeding Grayson as Robin in 1983 was Jason Todd, a troubled teen who, after a largely unpopular stint as Batman's aide, was slaughtered by the Joker in a 1988 event stemming from a DC Comics–sponsored phone-in contest where readers decided the new Robin's fate. A new, female Robin appeared in writer/artist Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns in 1986, although this four-issue series occurred outside of the regular DC Comics continuity. In 1989, a tech-savvy teen named Tim Drake entered the life of Bruce Wayne—having cleverly inferred Batman's true identity—lobbying to become the new Boy Wonder. Reluctant to mentor another partner for fear of repeating Jason Todd's ghastly demise, Batman resisted, but eventually Drake adopted the Robin identity, albeit in a new, modernized uniform. The Drake version of Robin has, as of 2004, twice made the leap into animation: first in The New Batman/Superman Adventures (1997), then in the Teen Titans series airing on the Cartoon Network in 2003. In his subsequent comic-book adventures with and without Batman, the new Robin has begun to question his commitment to crime fighting, and realizes that it's probably not his life's work. If Tim Drake ever hangs up his mask and cape, it is inevitable that another Robin will take his place.