How Dick Grayson Almost Killed Comics


by Jeremy DeFatta

Happy new book day, everyone! Stemming from last week’s piece touching on Batman R.I.P., I would like to shift focus for two or three posts to Bruce Wayne’s original and longest-serving heir apparent, Dick Grayson, the original Robin.

For a few years after Bruce’s apparent death, Dick served as Batman with only a few people who had been in close proximity to the original for extended periods of time (such as Commissioner Gordon and the Joker) able to tell the difference. We will return to this period in the near future, but this post  will focus on Dick Grayson’s early history, and the reasons for his creation and persistence in early Batman stories.

Dick Grayson has been around nearly as long as Batman himself; he first appeared as Robin in Detective Comics #38 in April 1940, making the character 74 years old this month. Much like his legal guardian and adopted father, Bruce Wayne, Dick’s childhood was defined by personal tragedy. At a young age, Dick saw his parents murdered by a crime lord named Tony Zucco, an event that forged a nearly unbreakable connection between Dick and Bruce. Dick would go on to become Bruce’s ward and partner is his war on crime in Gotham City.

Grayson was originally created for a couple of reasons. First of all, it was believed that Batman as a title and as a character was becoming too dark and violent and needed an innocent/light side forced into his character development. As such, he ended up with Robin, one of the first sidekicks in comics, many of whom were created specifically for this sort of purpose. Further, the introduction of Robin into the Batman story was a shrewd marketing ploy. It was believed that children would be more likely to spend their hoarded dimes on comics that featured child characters.

Regardless, many writers over the years have left their stamp on Dick/Robin and what he means within the Batman mythos. Some have seen Robin as a sort of second chance for Bruce. Although he could not save Dick’s parents, Bruce tries to give him a good, privileged life with strong parental figures in it, with Bruce and Alfred acting as father and grandfather or in some capacities as dual fathers. Dick also represents Bruce’s lost innocence and that such innocence can be preserved in others, being as Dick remains fairly lighthearted even after his own tragedy.

And then there was Fredric Wertham, the Satan of comic books.

Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (1954) craze very nearly killed off comics as a medium. He either honestly believed or desired the publicity enough to espouse the belief that comic books were filled with all sorts of subversive messages aimed at corrupting the youth of America. One of his prime targets was the relationship between Batman and Robin, one he viewed as laced with homoerotic and pedophiliac undertones.

Even today, a simple Internet search will turn up all sorts of websites aimed at proving whether or not Batman is gay, as though it matters. On this note (if not many others), I side with Frank Miller in his assertion that Batman is far too busy and absorbed in his war on crime to even have that much of a sex life. But, as Miller says, perhaps the great gay Batman story will emerge from a future generation comfortable enough with it to not simply shoehorn it into stories otherwise devoid of sexual content.

Returning to Wertham, it really is unsettling how close the world of popular culture came to losing an entire medium, or at least seeing it stripped down to almost nothing. Imagine if the only movies coming out were all family-friendly Disney/Pixar animated musicals. To some people, that might sound all right, even preferable, but would it still feel that way after a few years?

The comics industry effectively neutered itself by establishing the Comics Code Authority, which was a brand of self-censorship aimed at getting Wertham’s witch hunt off its collective back. As such, true freedom of expression and narrative evolution in comics were held back for decades. Where once comics held something for everyone—romance, fantasy, science fiction, detective/crime stories, superheroes, war tales, westerns, even horror—they were reduced to only stories appropriate enough for young children to enjoy, a stigma still believed in by many today. And so much of this stemmed from a young boy named Dick Grayson.

I hope you have all enjoyed this mixture of history, character analysis, and opinion. Whether you did or not, please let me know your thoughts below. Next week, I will focus on Dick growing up, entering his rebellious phase, and striking out on his own to become Nightwing.

Don’t forget to support your local comic shops; I guarantee they carry lots of old and new stories about Dick Grayson. Tweet me @quaintjeremy.

My comic picks for this week:

Batman Eternal #1

Daredevil #1.50

Nightcrawler #1

All-New X-Men #25

East of West #11

image: Detective Comics #38 Cover, Art by Bob Kane (pencils) and Jerry Robinson (inks), Apr. 1940. Via Wikimedia.

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