DC FLASHBACK: Dick Grayson, Pt. I

Thu, December 18th, 2008 at 7:58am PST | Updated: December 18th, 2008 at 10:21am

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Brian K. Eason, Guest Contributor

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Robin debuted in 1940's "Detective Comics" #38

With the disappearance of Bruce Wayne at the end of Grant Morrison and Tony Daniel’s "Batman R.I.P." storyline, DC Comics fans have been left a world without a Batman. Coinciding with the conclusion of “R.I.P.,” DC announced the cancellations of “Robin” (with issue #183), “Nightwing” (with issue #153), and “Birds of Prey” (with issue #127), and will launch in March “Battle for the Cowl,” a three-issue miniseries featuring Batman’s many protégés and associates fighting it out for the mantle of the Bat.

Could Dick Grayson be the new Batman? Come along with CBR for part one of a two-part examination of the life of the original Boy Wonder, the heroic Nightwing, and the man called Dick Grayson.

In the beginning was the Batman. He was a dark figure that struck fear in the hearts of evil. The Dark Knight was a millionaire, a vigilante, and a detective without peer. The character was an instant success, but the Caped Crusader needed something to make him more human and to appeal to a younger audience. Batman needed a light to balance his darkness. Batman needed youthful vitality to balance his pathos. Batman needed Robin.

Created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane, Dick Grayson made his first appearance in the pages of "Detective Comics" #38 (April 1940). The look and the name for Robin were, according to Bill Finger, an amalgam of Robin Hood and the American red-breasted Robin. This was accentuated by details that tied the character to the name. Dick Grayson was born on the first day of spring, and the Robin is traditionally considered the herald of that season, hence the red-breasted costume. The character of Robin was an aerialist and acrobat with a swashbuckling style, echoing the medieval hero, Robin Hood.

It all began with the C.C. Haly’s Circus. Dick Grayson and his parents, John and Mary, were acrobats performing as "The Flying Graysons." Little did the family know that crimelord Anthony "Boss" Zucco had a mind to lean on the circus owner. One night, before a show, young Dick overheard Zucco threatening some of the performers in an attempt to extort money from Haly. When Haly refused, Zucco tampered with the trapeze ropes to show the carnies he meant business. That night, as John and Mary Grayson performed their act without a net, the rope broke and the pair fell to their deaths. Dick could only look on in horror as the lives of his parents were snuffed out. This story of tragedy might have gone a number of different ways, but in the audience was millionaire Bruce Wayne, the Batman.

After the death of his parents, Dick found himself removed from the circus by the authorities and adrift in the juvenile care system. However, Bruce Wayne, who had also lost his parents when he was a boy, moved to have Dick placed in his custody, as his legal ward. While Wayne hoped to shelter Dick from the loneliness that he experienced as an orphan, his nocturnal activities as the Batman took much of his time away from his young charge. Frustrated by the lack of attention and driven by the need to avenge his parents' death, Dick would sneak out of Wayne Manor at night, seeking the justice that he craved.

On one such night, Dick Grayson encountered the Batman, who also worked to close the case of the Graysons’ murder. Together, Batman and Dick confronted Zucco, but justice was denied when Zucco appeared to have a fatal heart attack.

The errand of justice completed, Batman revealed to Dick his identity as Bruce Wayne and explained that he, too, had lost his parents at the hands of a murderer. Wayne offered the boy a chance to make a difference and become the Batman's partner. Dick made his decision quickly and accepted the offer. Dick trained in the skills of hand-to-hand combat and criminology beside his mentor and created another winged creature to join the Bat in the skies of Gotham, Robin the Boy Wonder.

Burt Ward portrayed Robin in the popular 1960s "Batman" TV series and movie

After his initial appearance in the pages of "Detective Comics," Robin became a regular fixture in the life of the Batman. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the Dynamic Duo were inseparable. Rarely was Batman seen without Robin, though the Boy Wonder did appear in solo stories from 1947 through 1952 in "Star-Spangled Comics." Robin, like the Batman, was a hit. While Red Ryder's sidekick, Little Beaver, predates Robin as the first boy sidekick, the Boy Wonder was easily the most popular and most recognizable in the long line of sidekicks that followed. Robin held a unique role in the Batman stories, acting as an everyman for young readers that could identify with or fantasize about being the sidekick to the Dark Knight.

Like Batman, Robin branched out into other media. In 1943, Batman made his first foray to the big screen with a 12-part serial simply called "Batman," and Robin came along with him. In the story, the part of Robin was played by Douglas Croft. In a second 12-chapter serial in 1949, Johnny Duncan replaced Croft as the Boy Wonder. Even on the big screen, Robin played a more positive counterpoint to the dour Batman.

In the early 1960s, Dick Grayson took on a role that separated him from other sidekicks and allowed him to step from the out of the shadow of the Batman, taking on the role of leader. With the success of the Justice League of America in "The Brave and the Bold #” 28 (February–March 1960) and their later ongoing series, it was decided that the sidekicks of those heroes would make a good team. In the pages of "The Brave and the Bold" #54 (July 1964), Robin, Kid Flash and Aqualad teamed up to fight the villainous Mr. Twister. While the team had no name, they continued to adventure as a sort of Junior Justice League until Wonder Girl was added to the roster in "The Brave and the Bold" #60 (July 1965). From then on, the youthful group was known as the Teen Titans. While other team members would come and go, Robin stood at the center of the team for nearly two decades, remaining the leader of the team until they disbanded in "Teen Titans" #53 (February 1978.) Dick Grayson had proven that he was no longer a supporting character, but a star in his own right.

Chris O'Donnell played Robin in the 1990s films "Batman Forever" and "Batman & Robin"

In 1966, Batman and Robin made their debut on the small screen with the twice-weekly "Batman" television series. Burt Ward portrayed the part of Dick Grayson, who attended Woodrow Roosevelt High School and lived in Wayne Manor with Bruce Wayne, their butler Alfred Pennyworth, and Dick's Aunt Harriet. The show was very popular and ran for two-and-a-half years, counting many Hollywood luminaries as guest stars. The Dynamic Duo was played for laughs on the show, which was high camp. Ward's dialogue as Robin was no exception and often punctuated the humor with one-liners that made the character famously quotable. In each episode, it was a guarantee that Robin would spout off with an oath beginning with the word "holy." Memorable quotes included "Holy Benedict Arnold," "Holy semantics," and "Holy astringent plum-like fruit!" To this day, such oaths are used by pop culture magazines in reference to the character of Robin. The “Holy-fill-in-the-blanks” oaths were even lampooned in 1995 film "Batman Forever" by Chris O'Donnell (as Robin) and Val Kilmer (as Batman) :

Robin: Holey rusted metal, Batman!

Batman: Huh?

Robin: The ground, it's all metal. It's full of holes. You know, holey.

Batman: Oh.

Burt Ward also played Robin in the 1966 "Batman" feature film that spun-off of the series and went on to voice the character in the 1977 "The New Adventures of Batman" cartoon series, as well as a 2002 episode of "The Simpsons." The camp nature of the 1960s “Batman” series spilled over into the Batman comics, helping to boost sales to all time highs. With the cancellation on the television series in 1968, sales of the comic books tanked and a new direction was called for.

Robin led the Teen Titans to great success in the 1980s

In 1969, Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams took over as the creative team behind the Batman. The pair decided that in order to reinvigorate the character, Batman needed to go back to his roots as a creature of the night. Such a hero would have no need for a brightly colored sidekick, so Dick Grayson was allowed to finally grow up and was shipped off to Hudson University. Fortunately for Robin fans, beginning with "Detective Comics" #394 (December 1969), Dick received his own solo feature in the back of every issue, written by Frank Robbins and illustrated by the legendary Gil Kane. While Dick did get his own feature, this spelled the end of Bruce and Dick as a regular team.

With "The New Teen Titans" #1 (November 1980), writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez were tasked with giving the team of young heroes a new lease on life. The pair had no idea the level of success they would achieve. The book re-introduced the Doom Patrol's Beast Boy as Changeling, and three new creations by Wolfman/Perez: an alien named Starfire, an empath named Raven, and a cyborg named, well, Cyborg. Added to this roster were Wonder Girl, Kid Flash and Dick Grayson as Robin. The Titans' storylines were layered, dealing with complex villains, romantic relationships, teen angst and even the deaths of teammates.

The Titans were a success, both critically and financially. The only problem was that the leader of the team, Dick Grayson, was still known principally as Batman's sidekick. Wolfman and Perez approached DC with an unprecedented idea: to give Dick Grayson a new costumed identity.

Nightwing debuted in 1984's "Tales of the Teen Titans" #44

In “The New Teen Titans" #39 (February 1984), Dick Grayson hung up the Robin costume for good. What first looked like a sales stunt turned into one of the greatest pieces of character evolution in superhero comics history. While Dick Grayson was no longer Robin, that didn't mean his career as a superhero was over. "Tales of the Teen Titans" #15 (November 1985) featured a cover with Grayson sporting a new costume and name: Nightwing.

"Crisis on Infinite Earths" made major changes to DC continuity, and Nightwing was affected as much as any other character. Prior to the Crisis, Dick had named himself Nightwing as a combination of two heroic heritages. The image was reminiscent of the Batman, but it was also the name of a Kryptonian hero named Van Zee that Dick and Bruce had met upon visiting the bottled Kryptonian city of Kandor with Superman. Post-Crisis was a different story. In the new continuity, Superman was the sole survivor of Krypton and there was no Kandor. To correct this change, a new origin had to be written for Grayson's darker persona. In "Nightwing: Secret Files & Origins" #1 (October 1999) and "Nightwing: Year One" (March 2005–August 2005,) DC refined the origin of Nightwing. In this version of the story, Grayson resigned as Robin and considered ending his crime-fighting career to take up a career in law. Unsure where to turn, Dick approached Superman for advice. The Man of Steel related a story of a man on Krypton who was abandoned by his family. It was the new story of the Kandorian hero Nightwing. In tribute, Dick renamed himself after the after the Kryptonian legend.

What followed the debut of Nightwing was the end of a 44-year career as the Boy Wonder, but also a the beginning of a new life for a new hero; the first in a long line of legacies to follow as DC Comics broke the mold and allowed their characters to grow up and take on the roles held by their mentors.

In the next edition of DC FLASHBACK: DICK GRAYSON, we follow Dick from his transformation into Nightwing to his overwhelming success as a mainstream star, and finally to the events of "Batman: R.I.P.”

TAGS:  nightwing, robin, dick grayson, dc flashback, dc comics

 
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