"A lot like Robin if you close your eyes."
Displacement of meaning in the Post-Modern Age
By Mary Borsellino
By Mary Borsellino
You are cute but I am in love with Robin. I like to dress up like Robin. I put on my leotards, then my bathing suit, a towel and my pajama top. My towel looks like a cape.
I look a lot like Robin if you close your eyes.
Malden, Mass. 1
Television and sequential art are two media where the image is intrinsic to conveying the intended meaning. Lunch-pails and action figures and movie rights all rely on a brand remaining static, and in Robin's case this has come to mean remaining within an increasingly narrow space of depiction.
But, as Stephanie G put it, there are other ways of seeing Robin, if you close your eyes. The things which a Robin-like figure can contain, but which are cut off from being embodied by Robin himself, lose none of their importance simply because they are rejected by a restrictive, corporate-controlled status quo.
Looking with one's eyes closed can also be a useful critical tool. It'sworth inspecting what was excised from Robin, and charting where theseelements instead found articulation: in those from lower socioeconomicbackgrounds; non-White people; young single parents; and HIV positivepeople. And, especially, girls and women.
The Golden Age of comics, particularly in relation to DC Comics, is typically defined as beginning in the late 1930s with the publication of Action Comics #1, the first Superman story. Batman followed a year later, and Robin a year after that. The Golden Age was the era of World War II and of huge popularity for comics. The stories presented demonstrated all the anarchy, messiness and joy of a creative medium discovering its potential. Following Robin's lead, kid sidekicks turned up in droves. Captain America had Bucky, the Human Torch had Toro, the Sandman had Sandy the Golden Boy, and Green Arrow had Speedy.
Green Arrow's creation as a whole earned few points for originality. A playboy millionaire by day, urban vigilante by night, he drove the "Arrowcar" or "Arrowplane" and could be summoned by projecting the "Arrowsignal" into the sky. The only thing saving the character from copyright infringement lawsuits was the fact that he, like Batman, was owned by DC Comics.
The end of the Golden Age is a matter of contention, with some commentators placing it circa 1954, tied to the publication of Dr Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent and the establishment of the Comics Code Authority, when sales dropped by 75% 2. Others place the shift into the Silver Age as occurring in the early 1960s with the advent of Marvel's iconic but humanly flawed heroes 3.
The Silver Age was a period of downward sliding for Batman and Robin -- in comic books, at least. The energy earlier storylines had been sustained by was replaced by an uneven tone and dull plots. The 1966 television show created a separate and enduring legacy for the characters during this same time, but it was a legacy the comic's creators chafed against.
By the end of the decade Robin had been removed from Gotham City in order to get Batman back to what writer Denny O'Neil described as the character's roots, in which the Caped Crusader was a "vengeful obsessive-compulsive." 4
Robin's adventures over the next decade took place at Hudson University, where he sometimes worked as an aide to the politically aspirant Barbara Gordon. Barbara's "liberal record" 5 eventually damaged her future as a senator, and Dick Grayson's own ideological affiliations were faring no better with the character lamenting that "both the radical left and the reactionary right consider me an enemy." 6
Dick's problem was part of DC's larger dilemma. Compared to Marvel's hip new breed of heroes, DC was "trying to shake off its own unquestioned irrelevancy." 7 The heroes were treated by their keepers as too iconic, too static, to change with the times. Alex Ross' observation that Robin would never die because he was a figure from television 8 is not incorrect so much as too narrow. Robin couldn't do anything new or innovative, lest the established brand be tarnished.
Green Arrow and Speedy, as second-string also-rans of the faded Golden Age, suffered no such constraints. In the same year that Robin went to college, Green Arrow was rebooted into the Robin Hood-style liberal vigilante his archer gimmick lent itself to. He was charged with "shouldering the burden of relevancy" 9 which was proving so elusive to characters such as Batman and Robin. Speedy became a heroin addict, and the storyline garnered publicity and a commendation from the Mayor of New York City.
When the Teen Titans, the superhero team which included both Speedy and Robin, tackled the issue of drug awareness, Robin was not present for the storyline. The special issue of the comic had been funded by the cookie company Keebler, and Robin-related cookie items were licensed to Nabisco 10. Robin's usefulness as a commodity restricted the limits of what could be done with him creatively, and Speedy had begun to claim that space left silent as his own.
The Silver Age's end, I would argue, took place in 1985-86. These years saw the publication of three DC texts which redefined its continuity, characterisation, and context respectively. Marv Wolfman and George Perez's Crisis on Infinite Earths eliminated all continuity from prior decades, allowing more frivolous and outlandish plots and concepts to be wiped away in favour of a more dour tone. Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns has been described as "the fountainhead and origin of the reversionary superhero narrative" 11, incorporating as it does all the versions of Batman who have come before into a coherent-through-admitted-incoherency singular figure.
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen , completing the trio of new-era texts, defined the fledgling Post-Modern Age (this term was suggested to me by feminist media commentator Karen Healey. Others have called it the Iron Age, Bronze Age, or the Difficult Age) through its then-audacious idea that the world of superheroes would quite possibly be a very unsettling place to live. As with the other artistically rich works referenced by this study, to sum the story up as having one particular aspect which impacted on the industry is to reduce the book's myriad strengths and do them a disservice, but for the sake of this discussion a pertinent example of Watchmen 's message can be found in the title itself, quoting as it does Juvenal's Satires -- "Qui custodiet ipsos custodes (who watches the watchmen?)". In the post- Watchmen era, super-men, vigilantes, and caped heroes were no longer automatically trustworthy, with a text best read as a commentary on the genre ending up as part of the template by which the genre was redefined.
It is the first two of these three texts which had the most direct impact on Robin in the early years of the Post-Modern Age. Crisis reset the DC universe, allowing for any reinterpretation the characters' owners saw fit to create, while Dark Knight began the process of articulating what Robin 'could' and 'could not' be.
Dark Knight 's utilisation of Robin was important in three major ways. First, Robin was there . After the banishment of Dick Grayson to college, Robin's place as being outside of the 'true meaning' of Batman had become common opinion; a subsequent sidekick/ward introduced, Jason Todd, had been met with ambivalent fan reaction (letter columns of the time dubbed him a "quiche-eater" 12, then slang for an effeminate male 13 ). But, in Dark Knight , there Robin was, bright and bouncing and impossible to discount. Miller had re-established, and cemented, Robin's place in Batman's mythology, explaining in later years that he "just loved the contrast between this stocky, tough, dark adult, and a colorful little pixie running around." 14
The second key aspect of Miller's use of Robin was that Robin had become mortal. The threat of such a fate for Robin had certainly been played with in earlier stories, but never before had the death stuck. Dark Knight opens with a Bruce Wayne who has long retired his Batman role, and it was Jason's death which prompted him to give up the cape and cowl. The Robin costume hangs empty, suspended mid-air by some invisible method, inside a glass case in the Batcave. Miller gave the bright suit a renewed importance and relevancy within the Batman story, but he also made the children wearing it painfully human.
The third groundbreaking element of Miller's Robin redefinition was the fact that this Robin was a girl. Caroline Keene Kelley, usually called Carrie, is a thirteen-year-old who is good with computers and who spends her pocket money on a Robin costume when Batman returns to active duty. Setting a precedent for the other Post-Modern Age Robins who will follow her, she assumes the role by presenting herself to Batman in-costume and offering 'Robin' as the answer when he asks her name.
Much of the writing on Carrie centres around the ways in which her gender can be read as a commentary and critique on possible queer interpretations of the Batman/Robin partnership 15. While I feel it is vitally important that Miller's troublesome gender and sexuality politics are explored more thoroughly by academics than they have been thus far, this is not my focus in this essay. Rather, I am interested in the ways in which Carrie's appropriation of the Robin role contributed to the ongoing debate concerning Robin's gender boundaries.
Though she was the first female to take up the name of Robin, Carrie was not the first girl to grasp at a piece of the legacy. Real-world girls, as the 1966 letter beginning this chapter illustrated, have sought in Robin a hero-avatar for themselves just as boys have. When figures such as Bionic Woman and Wonder Woman were on-offer, in 1981, preschool girls would appropriate them as play identities along with Superman and Batman 16, their desire for idols of like gender secondary to their wish for a diversity of possible roles.
Given such a long history of instances of girls displaying an interest in Batman and in Robin, it is more than slightly absurd that Denny O'Neil, when asked in 1991 about whether those working on the Batman titles considered their female readership, responded with "Wonder Woman appeals to women" 17. If an equivalent remark were made in a world where DC's biggest and brightest were a Super Man, a Wonderwoman and a Batwoman, it would be laughable. To suggest that any and all male readers would be content with a single hero of their gender is preposterous.
'Preposterous' has also been used to describe the character of Betty (sometimes spelled Bette) Kane, Bat-Girl, introduced into Batman comics in 1961. Andy Medhurst's 'Batman, Deviance and Camp', the essay describing the character in this way, objects to her on the same grounds as those which give rise to discomfort about Carrie -- that is, the existence of a girl in pointed pixie boots swinging across Gotham's skyline somehow negates any possible Batman/Robin homoeroticism. Considering the endless parade of female characters who have acted as love interests for Bruce Wayne, and Robin's own robust romantic history, it is remarkable that Robin and Robin-related roles become such a perceived threat when inhabited by girls.
Though calling herself Bat-Girl, it is "pretty clear" who it is that Betty is emulating. 18 Like Robin, her costume is bare-legged (though she opts for a short red skirt rather than the green shorts) and features a green cape and a red mask. Her yellow hair completes the familiar colour ensemble. Later elaborations on the character's history would include that, in her childhood, Betty made herself a Robin costume and played at being him 19. She represents the in-panel/on-paper voice of those real-world girl children who choose the Boy Wonder as their play-selves.
Betty, like the letter-writing Stephanie G. quoted at the start of this chapter, both wants to be Robin and to be near Robin. The puppy-love hijinks her crush gets her and Robin into are the main reason Medhurst reacts to strongly to the character, but vehemence in his argument is also directed to the way that the "shadowy vigilante" Batman became "an upholder of the most stifling small town American values" 20. As Medhurst spends considerable time in his essay outlining the reasons why he cannot possibly take a shadowy vigilante Batman seriously, this is an odd reason to object to Betty.
Medhurst describes the actions of Fredric Wertham's young gay participants as a form of bricolage which has to "undertake a corrupt decoding for the purposes of satisfying marginalized desires" 21, and (rightfully) complains that "homosexuality, for Wertham, is synonymous with misogyny" 22. Yet Medhurst's scathing dismissal of "Bat-Gidget" 23 does not really support the indignation which Wertham's suggestion of misogyny apparently prompts in him.
If Medhurst understands the necessity for one group to gain access to the text for their needs then we should see that this accessibility should be possible for other parties also. His area of focus is the camp and queer readings of Batman, but it's unfortunate that his method of supporting his own area involves discounting any importance or validity Robin's female counterpart might have.
Girls are required to perform their own "corrupt decoding" and bricolage on the majority of Batman texts if they wish to place themselves into the story. Like the little girl searching out a young female face in crowd scenes in order to put herself into a storybook, and her triumphant cry of "there I am!" 24, female children will sometimes create radical reworkings of stories in order to place an avatar on centre sage. Tina, one of the subjects of Anne Haas Dyson's Writing Superheroes: Contemporary Childhood, Popular Culture, and Classroom Literacy , does not find a female role to take as her own even in the margins of the Batman texts she is exposed to; she must instead appropriate a minor, non-powerful character from another youth-hero text (the film 3 Ninjas ) and re-write her into someone who can "whip some butt" 25. Tina then tells a story in which the new, improved girl character marries Batman. As with Betty, the desire in Tina's story is to be of equal power to, and romantic partner of, the hero of the story.
One doesn't have to venture as far as Medhurst before encountering a tearing-down of Betty. The comics themselves have characters who will tell her that she is "pathetic" 26, and her appearances are few and often years apart.
To return to the birth of the Post-Modern Age: in the years immediately following Crisis , Jason Todd was re-written as a street kid who meets Batman after attempting to steal the tires off the Batmobile. Though Dark Knight was not an in-continuity story, its impact upon the ongoing Batman and Detective Comics titles was unarguable, and the second Boy Wonder's mortality was high in the minds of creators and audience alike
Jim Starlin became the Batman writer in 1987, and quickly began to look for ways to eliminate the Boy Wonder:
At one point DC had this AIDS book they wanted to do. They sent around memos to everybody saying 'What character do you think we should, you know, have him get AIDS and do this dramatic thing' and they never ended up doing this project. I kept sending them things saying 'Oh, do Robin, do Robin!' 27
Starlin and Denny O'Neil -- now Batman editor -- began a campaign to make the audience dislike Jason as much as possible, then orchestrated a storyline which left his fate as a cliffhanger. Inviting the audience to phone one of two 1-900 numbers and vote thumbs up or down, their stunt result in Jason dying by a margin of 72 out of over ten thousand calls.
As well as generating negative press all over the world, the gimmick created a status quo which put the creators involved at odds with the owners of the Robin trademark. As Starlin remembers:
So we did this and the book came out, Denny was on all these talk shows across the country that day saying, it's kind of funny because he was taking credit for the whole project. But as soon as the book came out and Robin died, the executives up at DC started going "Whoof!" because they had all these lunch pails with Robin's picture on it - suddenly it was all my idea again. 28
DC Comics needed a new Robin, and fast, but they had successfully convinced the majority of their audience that they did not want Robin and, in fact, preferred the character dead. They had to create a Robin liked by people who didn't like Robin; a Robin for the Post-Modern Age. Enter Tim Drake.
Before I go any further, I feel it's worth acknowledging that the concerns explored by this essay require me to construct Tim Drake as something of a straw man. He is a character whose interactions with peers, mentors, and foes are themselves worthy of study, and I hope such explorations are undertaken by others in the future. However, I am here interested not in the things Tim Drake is, but rather those things he isn't ; the elements of Robin which Robin could no longer contain.
When the story detailing Jason Todd's demise was collected in a trade paperback, it was prefaced by a faux essay on the subject of Robin. One of the footnotes to the work reads, in part, "They were, let us remember, uneducated children." 29
Rumours at the time suggested that Carrie would take up the now-empty role 30, but such an event was most likely prevented from occurring for the same reasons that Robin could not simply be left as dead: those lunch pails needed selling. DC Comics needed a Robin who looked like Dick Grayson and Jason Todd had -- dark hair, white skin, male -- and equally importantly, he had to be obviously distinct from the "uneducated children" which the readers had been coached into disliking. On his first visit to Wayne Manor, Tim gazes around, wide-eyed, before remarking
"Gosh -- you know, I've seen pictures of this place, but it's even bigger and better than I thought.
Oh, my -- there's the Renoir Mr. Wayne bought last year. I read about that in Art World Today .
He's got an Erte ? Oh, I love his stuff. My dad bought an Erte litho last year... But this is a statue . Mr. Pennyworth, Dick, please, can I see the rest of the house?" 31
When Urricchio and Pearson, in the closing chapter of The Many Lives of the Batman , refer to the differences between the "often clearly ethnic" thugs who menace Gotham and the "Graysons, Todds and Drakes, with their blue eyes, firm chins, straight noses, noble brows, and Anglo names" 32, they write without a knowledge of the less immediately evident (but deeply textually ingrained) class distinctions between the Robins.
Denny O'Neil described Jason as "an arrogant little snot" 33 on more than one occasion, citing his rough, slangy speech and abrasive personality as reasons why the character had earned himself such a grim fate. Contrast this disruptive, unruly force with the well-spoken character of Tim. Where Jason was homeless and orphaned, Tim is from a wealthy family -- his father can afford to buy an Erte lithograph. And Tim is very much an educated child: he reads Art World Today .
Tim became Robin in 1990. Very soon after this, other characters began appearing, containing the parts of Robin which this intense, serious, black caped "Little Bat" 34 (Tim's code-name for himself) was not capable of incorporating into his version of the Boy Wonder.
Stephanie Brown was introduced in 1992, a blonde teenage daughter of longtime Batman villain the Cluemaster. Calling herself Spoiler, Stephanie fought crime in Gotham City's outer suburbs and often teamed up with Tim on adventures.
In a flashback to Stephanie's childhood, she is shown (like the letter-writing Stephanie of the beginning of this chapter) with a towel tied into a cape around her shoulders. The little girl cries "I'm Soooperman!" 35, but otherwise adheres to a stereotypically feminine personal identity: she plays with Barbie dolls and wears her hair in pigtails. She does not invent a 'soooperwoman' for herself; like the girls in Dyson's observed group she is "more concerned about gaining access than critiquing images; [she is] more concerned about [her] right to appropriate an available role." 36
Like Betty, Stephanie's desire to be Robin's match in skills and role is coupled with a wish to be his match romantically. Chuck Dixon, co-creator of the character, described her motivation thusly:
"Her whole reason for becoming the Spoiler was to get back at her dad. Her reason for continuing to put on the mask and cape is to be near Robin. She's a teenager. That's enough motivation for her...for now." 37
The second Robin-reflection, introduced a year after Stephanie, was a fifteen-year-old girl by the name of Raquel Ervine. Raquel was rather a character in the 'Dakotaverse' title Icon . The Dakotaverse, so named for being set within the fictional American city of Dakota, was the world in which the titles put out by Milestone Media (a group distributed by DC Comics) took place. There was some crossover between the Dakotaverse and the DC Universe; Raquel, like Stephanie, could be found bantering with Superboy.
Icon , described by one effusive critic as "an exemplar of Afrofuturism that sweeps antebellum memories, hip-hip cultures, and cyberpunk into its compass" 38, is the story of a superpowered alien in the form of a Black man, Icon/Augustus, and his sidekick, Rocket/Raquel. Raquel, unlike Stephanie, is not content to merely appropriate roles outside her own race and gender identity; she wants to be "a writer like Toni Morrison" 39.
Raquel meets Augustus when she and several other teens break into his house to rob him. Socioeconomically and morally, she is positioned in a way highly evocative of the 'unsuitable' Robin Jason Todd -- she is poverty-stricken to the point where property theft seems the only viable option. Rocket's link to Robin is made plain on the cover of Icon #31, which recreates the cover of Batman #1 with Icon in Batman's place and Rocket in Robin's.
The cover of Icon #1 also plays with mirroring and commenting on the covers of early Batman comics. On the first Icon cover, both hero and sidekick are present in full costume, with Rocket at the fore. The tagline reads "She's got your hero right here!" 40. This is a reversal of the cover to Detective Comics #38, where Batman is depicted as introducing Robin to the reading audience. Robin is shown to us by the hero, while Rocket is capable not only of introducing herself but of showing us the hero as well.
Both Raquel and Stephanie are forced to temporarily abandon their crime-fighting alter egos when they discover that they are pregnant. Both girls choose to carry the child to term, with Rocket becoming "the first unwed teenage mother to don the costume of a superhero" 41 and a page of preliminary costume sketches for Stephanie in a Batman book describing the artist's process as "try[ing] to imagine what a teenaged single mother could do to impress the World's Greatest Detective" 42.
Juxtaposed beside the chaste Tim Drake (whom Stephanie describes as the "Boy Virgin" 43 ), this evidence of sexual maturity is perhaps the most obvious site of the difference between the Post-Modern Age Robin and his counterparts.
Also in the ranks of young single-parent heroes by this stage was Green Arrow's old sidekick, now going by the name Arsenal. The Speedy mantle, temporarily uninhabited, remained a viable possible outlet for that which Tim Drake wasn't and couldn't be.
At the same time that Jim Starlin was pestering DC to give Jason Todd AIDS, Green Arrow was being applauded for its depictions of gay people 44. A decade later, the book was helmed by a new generation of creators but the liberal-leaning freedom afforded to the title remained. These new writers began to create stories which referenced not only the death of Robin, but also addressed the gaps and silences present in the narratives of those earlier comics, including the unused AIDS storyline.
Kevin Smith, well known for the abundance of pop-culture references in his work, has utilised imagery of the death of Jason Todd in his films 45, small-press comics work 46, and on his website, where a chance for readers to choose the characters included in an upcoming line of action figures carried with it the comment that "You can't vote for any of them to be beaten by a crowbar and blown up by the Joker (although what you do with them at home is your own business)" 47. The tone of the references -- especially in the short-lived comics series Bluntman and Chronic , where the death is described by the cover copy as "inevitable", and is jarring and out-of-place in the story -- is one of cynicism and critique.
Smith gave the Green Arrow title yet another reboot in 2000, with his story Quiver. Quiver contained a conversation which combined the comparative histories of Speedy and Robin and the death of Jason. Visiting heaven with his friend Green Lantern, Green Arrow catches sight of Jason in the distance.
Green Arrow: Oh, my God -- is that Robin ?!
Green Lantern: One of them.
Green Arrow: Spooky [Batman] didn't even mention it to me.
Green Lantern: It was a long time ago. He's got a new kid now.
Green Arrow: It wasn't drugs , was it? I mean, him and Roy hung out a lot and I'd hate to think that he... 48
Quiver , which features Spoiler/Stephanie in the role of Batman's offsider and does not include Tim Drake at all, also marks the first appearance of Mia Dearden, a blonde teenage runaway working as a prostitute. Halfway through the storyline Mia offers a commentary on a cartoon she's watching, obviously meant to be Cartoon Network's "Powerpuff Girls".
"It's about time they made something that tells little girls that they don't have to be cute or nicey-nice or domestic . They can make just as much difference as any stupid boy." 49
Smith's choice to use the Powerpuff Girls as the example Mia references underscores the ways in which this character, as the eventual new Speedy, will act as an embodiment of that which Robin can no longer contain.
The Powerpuff Girls can be seen as playing a similar role in popular television as Speedy does in comics; taking up discourses once carried by Robin but which are now no longer articulated by that character. The Powerpuffs are contacted by the Mayor of their fictional city via a "Batman-style hotline phone" 50, and the show is designed to have the double-address form for both adult and child audiences which was pioneered by the 1960s Batman program. It is kitsch and sly. The Powerpuff Girls are some of the new carriers of the torch of pop and camp abandoned by a post-sixties Robin.
Another important aspect of the Powerpuff Girls, even if it is one which Mia dismisses with her remark, is that they're cute. To quote Donna Potts' study of the Powerpuff Girls as positive female media images,
The show also challenges the notion that stereotypically feminine qualities like sweetness and innocence cannot coexist with toughness. One viewer writes that, "[w]hile Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup retain an ingenuous childish charm, they are by no means pushovers; these little girls could and would whoop the stuffing out of you if you ever threatened Townsville. They're cute, but dangerous. As a cute person, I greatly appreciate having such positive role models. Buttercup is my hero." 51
This need for female characters who are both cute and tough can also be found in Stephanie, of whom comics commentator and journalist Katherine Keller observed the following:
Steph made a point of putting glitter gel in her hair, and they showed Steph making the costume with a skirt, and what I got out of it was Steph saying, "Yeah, I'm a girly girl -- and I'm going to kick your ass." 52
Smith's choice to include Stephanie in the story introducing Mia is worthy of remark. As outlined earlier, Stephanie has, at this point, not yet gone through the same process of seeking out pop-culture role models/heroes of her own gender in the ways Mia is with the Powerpuffs and Raquel has with Toni Morrison.
Jason and Stephanie's mothers were both drug addicts, and Mia -- a street kid, driven to crime, taken in by a vigilante mentor -- carries in her echoes of both the Robin-who-died and of Spoiler.
The next writer to take up a sustained, multiple-storyline run on Green Arrow was Judd Winick, who took over the book in 2002. Among Winick's most well-known and critically acclaimed works is his graphic novel Pedro and Me , a non-fiction account of the death of one of Winick's close friends from AIDS. This, combined with a subsequent story in the Green Lantern title dealing with homophobia, led to the writer earning a reputation as "the soap-box guy" 53 in comics.
In 2004, Winick -- a self-professed fan of the Jason Todd Robin 54 -- did with the second Speedy what Jim Starlin had been unable to do with the second Robin. The Associated Press broke the story of Mia's HIV positive status in October of that year.
When questioned if this was the most appropriate way to tell a story of this type, Winick was quick to point out that "[Green Lantern and Green Arrow] have a very long history of telling stories that have some sort of social conscience." 55
This suitability extends beyond the specific title, and is in fact embedded in the basic structure of the medium. As Richard Natale, writing in The Village Voice , described, the difficulty of AIDS narratives in cinema is that "movies generally deal in closure and resolution. AIDS has thus far resisted making itself accessible in that way." 56 Green Arrow is a monthly comic, and must therefore avoid any real closure and resolution; if it were to find them, it would simply restart itself again and begin the cycle anew. And, as Winick himself points out, DC Comics has a stable of "characters that have been around for 60 years and haven't aged a day." 57
Interviewed by CNN, Winick described Mia as "unafraid of death 58 " and explained that "It isn't about death and dying. Young people, for good or for bad, are still pretty fearless 59." These statements, coupled with Winick's declaration that "She will never die of AIDS related causes on my watch and hopefully on anyone else's watch 60 ", create a situation in which Mia's diagnosis can be read as the tensions present in all sidekick figures writ large. She may never grow any older, or become sick, but the threat which time's progression represents to her current status -- as both healthy teenager and vigilante protege -- is evident and named.
Mia, then, has become the embodiment of the possibilities not allowed to Tim Drake (or even to Jason Todd, who pushed the boundaries of Robin so far that they snapped), just as the Silver Age Speedy could be relevant in ways unavailable to the Robin of that era. She is a teen whose mortality is, through the HIV storyline, put on display; a situation which ties her to the deconstruction and reconstruction Frank Miller performed on Robin in The Dark Knight Returns .
Carrie, Raquel and Mia defined the Post-Modern Age Robin as a White, dark-haired, wealthy male teenager as much as Tim Drake did, because they were created with characteristics deliberately other to Robin's traits in order to define them as separate figures. The killing-off of Jason had drawn the lines edging Robin as firmly as any narrative act could; only those who fitted the now very specific Robin criteria could play the role.
A key feature of these requirements is the need for the Robin of any given text to successfully connect to the merchandise bearing his image. Quite simply, Time Warner's Robin is a boy.
As soon as the necessities of branding are removed from the equation, the possibilities expand. Spoiler, though serving the same narrative functions as Robin in numerous storylines (such as the aforementioned Quiver ), had no mandate to fit a certain pre-established mold even as she drew on the tropes and motifs of the Robin legacy. Many writers and storylines made it abundantly clear that the Spoiler was a Girl Wonder: she, like Dick, Jason, and Tim, surfs on the tops of trains as a mode of transport 61 ; she chatters brightly to Batman as they track supervillains made of bugs 62 ; she even uses 'Robin' as her name when working undercover 63. But, as well as being the all the same things as Robin was, she was the things which the carefully built Post-Modern Age Robin couldn't be.
In 1996, DC Comics published a many-title crossover event called 'Legends of the Dead Earth', the conceit of which was that in a far-flung future all the now-current heroes have become folk legends. The protagonists of the Death Earth stories appropriate the figures which they need to believe in or be. The Detective Comics issue of this series was the tale of three children, named Dealy, Bruggo and Geela, who create an elaborate game for themselves in which they are Batman's helpers.
The storyline recalls that of 'The Batman Nobody Knows', a 1973 story examined by Will Brooker in the introduction to Batman Unmasked , in which three boys explain who Batman is to them. Brooker feels that the Black child who imagines a Black Batman is not truly impacting upon, or contributing to, the mosaic of possible Batman interpretations -- "freedom to construct meanings specific to one's interpretive community should not necessarily be seen as having any power in itself to transform society" 64. He does, however, acknowledge that this status quo would undergo a "fundamental shift" should DC Comics and Time Warner cease creating 'canon' for Batman. Then Batman stories would be "remembered, misremembered and retold alongside new ones in the contemporary equivalent of a folk tale" 65.
Such is the situation in Dwayne McDuffie's unpublished Batman comic Legend of the Black Bat , the script of which is available to download on the internet. McDuffie, creator of Rocket/Raquel, imagines a future in which an old man tells some children the story of a Black Batman. The children question if the tale is real. The man offers several answers:
"It doesn't matter if it's true, boy."
"What matters is it could be."
"A good story needs a moral, how about this: You can be anything you want to be. Never let anybody ever tell you different. Now go play." 66
Dealy, Bruggo and Geela also live in a time when there is no longer any 'official' Batman text. One day, as Dealy and Bruggo go to play with the junkyard robot they have designated as their Batman, they encounter Geela -- the only female member of their trio. She, like Dealy, is dressed in a home-made Robin costume. Dealy has been explaining to Bruggo that Bruggo can't have a costume because "There's only one Robin". Geela, smirking, objects, and the following exchange takes place.
Geela: "There was too more than one Robin! One of them was even a girl !"
Dealy: "There was never more than one Robin at one time ! And who says there was a girl Robin?"
Geela: "There coulda been! You don't know!" 67
With no 'true' text to contradict them, the children are able to shape the Robin figure to suit their own needs and circumstances. There can be more than one Robin at once, if they want, or a girl Robin, or a Black Batman, or anything else which they might imagine.
The Robin issue of the Legends of the Dead Earth crossover also featured a female Robin. Even DC Comics' own texts acknowledge that an era when Batman and Robin are no longer owned by individual entities or companies will be an era in which girls will be among the groups opting to access and appropriate the Robin figure. The 'Legends of the Dead Earth' stories demonstrate that though current media may withhold Robin from those who might wish for emotional ownership, a day will come when the characters are owned by none and all.
However, that day has not yet arrived.
When Tim was forced to give up being Robin in 2004, Stephanie created a costume for herself (one with a short red skirt, conjuring memories of Betty's earlier outfit) and, like Carrie, told Batman to call her Robin 68.
It seemed so wildly unlikely that Tim Drake could do anything but return to the role of Robin that little fan energy was spent worrying about his fate. Stephanie's, however, was a matter for concern, especially when the issues featuring this new, fourth Robin directly and overtly referenced the storylines which had led up to Jason's death 69. Within the text itself, two of Tim's classmates articulate the equal excitement and pessimism of the time:
Darla: "I'm just glad to see a girl finally got the job."
Bernard: "Well, don't get used to her. She's doomed." 70
In the real world, newspaper articles cheerfully mused on upcoming possible storylines - "two Robins going to prom together" 71. Could it be that Geela and Bruggo's imagined world of multiple Robins working together (one of them "even a girl!") would come to pass? Or would the Post-Modern Age -- an era, let it not be forgotten, characterised by meanings found in the relationship with earlier eras and stories -- bear down on Stephanie and, through her death, once again eliminate and displace the things Tim Drake wasn't?
In the closing months of 2004, after three months' worth of issues featuring the Stephanie Robin, the Gotham-wide crossover story War Games incorporated all the Batman-related titles into one narrative. Stephanie's major function in the storyline was to be captured and tortured by a supervillain, sometimes with a power drill. She did not survive.
As a member of the online Batman fandom at the time of Stephanie's stint as Robin, I saw firsthand the anger and distress her fate caused in many readers, including many women and girls. As such impassioned reactions are not uncommon among internet fan groups, I allowed twelve months to pass before asking fans to offer their opinion on what had happened.
Like Rhiannon Bury in her study of women in the online X-files fan culture 72, I actively participated in the community-making and discussion processes of the group I observed. My interactions with the fan-group I looked at took place primarily through the internet site LiveJournal, a hybrid of the weblog and messageboard formats. Posts containing fan-art or fanfiction were equal to, and intermingled with, updates and musing on the participants' daily lives. As with the children in Dyson's study, these people used their stories about shared cultural icons -- in both instances, superheroes -- as a site of establishing and managing social connections 73.
Some of the replies to my call for comments on Stephanie are quoted below, attributed to the names which the respondents opted to be listed as. Bracketed ellipses indicate where I have edited for length.
"The entire Steph situation disgusts me beyond words. [...] It makes me literally sick, to the point where I don't even know how to start talking to people who don't understand why it's so horrific. A character who's been around for over a decade gets killed as a result of bad, bad writing, in a completely gratuitous way, and is promptly blamed for it. If there's a better way to drive me from comics... well, I'm sure they'll find it soon." -- LC
"They might as well slap one of those Yorkie Bar wrappers on the covers of the Batbooks: "Batman: Not For Girls!"" - Notpoetry
"I am *absolutely* disgusted with canon [...] I still read fanfic, and lots of it." -- Katarik
"She had so much potential as a character and the editors and writers threw it away for a crappy, forgettable story. Fic and fandom make it a little better." -- riah chan
"Writing Steph now is an act of defiance and denial -- but it's also an attempt to redeem the morass of bad intentions and bad writing which canon gave us. [...] There was a lot of good, meaty potential in the concept of having Stephanie Brown be Robin IV, and if it's up to us to do something with it, well, then, we *will*." -- Te 74
The feminine forces connected to Robin -- both within the text and without -- won't and can't be made quiet. If the comics eliminate the Girl Wonder with a power drill some fans will simply disregard the comics entirely (and, when dealing with a situation influenced by matters of corporate control, few small acts are as pointed as simply ignoring the product) and write their own stories and draw their own art.
Still, the texts exist. Batman and Robin are not yet a part of the folkloric public domain, and Tim Drake is once again wearing the mask and cape.
As stated earlier, this chapter's focus has necessitated positioning Tim Drake as constraining Robin's liminal potential by forcing the character to be a wealthy White male in a black cape with a grim look on his face, more Batboy than Boy Wonder. Such a position is obviously, as with any reductive summation of a text as large as each of the Robins' back-issue catalogue, unfair to the nuances of the character within the narrative, but the same could be said of any of the young heroes explored in this chapter. Rocket is not Spoiler is not Speedy, but all function as distinct alternatives to the Post-Modern Age Robin and share with one another significant character and situational features.
Whether this is enough -- whether those who plead for those in power to let them "have Robin" will be content instead with a Robin-reflection -- remains to be seen. Resistant and negotiated readings will always be undertaken by some branches of the audience group, be they children at play or fanfiction writers, but it is hard to remain wholly optimistic about a situation where girls are told that attempts to access Robin as a character for them to play at being will result in death-by-power-drill.
In one study done of superhero play among young children, a Batwoman role was especially created (the researchers had, unsurprisingly, not heard of the very-rarely-used character by this name from the comics) as a like-gender option for the girls to appropriate if they chose to do so. One of the male students offered a succinct answer as to why it would have been unfair to for his classmates if the game had been left with only Batman available as a role: "They'd think it's not for girls" 75. As demonstrated by examples cited above, girls are often capable of disregarding whether a text is "for" them or not -- they will still play at being "Soooperman", they will still dress up as Robin -- but it takes a particularly stubborn textual negotiator to stare down a story which so thoroughly obliterates their point of identification.
But the female half of Robin is never fully removed. At the end of 2004, the Teen Titans title ran a storyline in which the current team members find themselves in the future. In this new world, Tim Drake has become a ruthless murderous Batman, and Stephanie Brown and Carrie Kelley are both dead. And, at this moment when the female Robin legacy seems obliterated, Mia is depicted for the first time in her Speedy costume 76 and Betty makes an unexpected return from disuse as a crime-fighting, Batman-opposing Batwoman 77. Attempts to remove female Robin or Robin-type characters continually result in another return of the figure through another channel.
And perhaps one day the end to the story of Stephanie Brown will be forgotten, and the more important part will be retained by children who want to play Batman games: There was too more than one Robin. One of them was even a girl.
1 Adler, Bill Funniest Fan Letters to Batman , Signet Books, New York, 1966, p.120
2 Daniels, L. DC Comics: A Celebration of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes , Virgin Books, London, 2004, p.114
3 Klock, G How to Read Superhero Comics and Why , Continuum, London, 2002, back cover
4 Daniels, p.157
6 Wright, B.W Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2001, p.235
7 Sorrentino, C "The Ger Sheker" in Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers! , Pantheon Books, New York, 2004, p.66
8 Batman Cover to Cover , DC Comics, 2006
10 "Titans Tower: The Protector", viewed 08 September 2005, < http://www.titanstower.com/source/whoswho/protector.html >
11 Klock, G How to Read Superhero Comics and Why , Continuum, London, 2002, p.47
12 Scruggs, K (letter), printed in Detective Comics , issue 530, DC Comics, New York, 1984
13 See Feirstein, B Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche: A Guidebook to All That Is Truly Masculine , Summit, New York, 1982
14 " Frank Miller Talks All-Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder", Newsarama.com, viewed 08 September 2005, < http://www.newsarama.com/dcnew/Batman/AllStar/MillerBatmanRobin.html >
15 For examples see the Medhurst and Klock texts cited elsewhere and Leverenz, D "The Last Real Man in America: From Natty Bumppo to Batman" in Fictions of Masculinity: Crossing Cultures, Crossing Sexualities , New York University Press, New York, 1994
16 Brooker, Will Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon , Continuum, London, 2000, p.12
17 O'Neil, D quoted in Pearson and Uricchio The Many Lives Of The Batman, Routledge, New York, 1991, p.30
18 Daniels, Les and Kidd, Chipp Batman: The Complete History , Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1999, p.93
19 "Titans Tower: Flamebird", viewed 08 September 2005, < http://www.titanstower.com/source/whoswho/flameb.html >
20 Brooker, Will Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon , Continuum, London, 2000, p.153
22 ibid. p.151
23 ibid. p.51
24 Ragan, Kathleen Fearless Girls: Heroines in Folktales From Around the World , Bantam, Sydney, 1998, p.xxiv
25 Dyson, A.H Writing Superheroes: Contemporary Childhood, Popular Culture, and Classroom Literacy , Teachers College Press, New York, 1997, p.107
26 Grayson, Devin Titans: Secret Files , DC Comics, New York, 1999, p.5
29 "Dr. Socrates S. Rodor", foreword, Batman: A Death In The Family , DC Comics, New York, 1989
30 Dullea, G "Holy Bomb Blast! The Real Robin Fights On!", The New York Times , November 10, 1988
31 Wolfman, Marv Batman: A Lonely Place Of Dying , DC Comics, New York, 1990
32 Uricchio, W and Pearson, R "I’m Not Fooled By That Cheap Disguise" in The Many Lives of the Batman , Routledge, New York, 1991
33 Daniels, L. DC Comics: A Celebration of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes , Virgin Books, London, 2004, p.201
34 Wolfman, M, Batman, issue 499, DC Comics, New York, 1990
35 Dixon, C. Secret Files And Origins Eighty-Page Giant , DC Comics, New York, 1999
36 Dyson, A.H Writing Superheroes: Contemporary Childhood, Popular Culture, and Classroom Literacy , Teachers College Press, New York, 1997, p.146
38 Dery, M "Black to the Future" in Flame wars: the discourse of cyberculture , Duke University Press, United States, 1994, p.182
39 McDuffie, D Icon , issue 1, Milestone Media, New York, 1993
41 Brown, J Black superheroes, Milestone comics, and their fans , University Press of Mississippi, United States, 2001
42 Scott, D (illus.) Batman: War Drums , DC Comics, New York, 2004
43 Dixon, C Robin , issue 36, DC Comics, New York, 1998
44 Franklin, M.E. III, "Coming Out in Comic Books: Letter Columns, Readers, and Gay and Lesbian Characters" in Comics and Ideology , volume 2, Peter Lang, New York, 2001
45 Smith, K (dir.) Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back , Miramax Films, 2001
46 Smith, K Bluntman and Chronic , Titan Books, 2002
47 "News Askew: [News Archives]", viewed 08 September 2005, < http://www.newsaskew.com/archives/news-archive-5-2003.shtml >
48 Smith, K Green Arrow: Quiver , DC Comics, New York, 2001 (original issues), 2002 (trade paperback)
50 Potts, DL "Channeling girl power: Positive female media images in "The Powerpuff Girls"" Studies in Media & Information Literacy Education, Volume 1 issue 4, November 2001 ( http://utpjournals.com/jour.ihtml?lp=simile/issue4/pottsfulltext.html )
52 Keller, K. Comment in the blog ‘Designated Sidekick’, < http://girl-wonder.org/designatedsidekick/comments.php?y=06&m=06&entry=entry060616-205106 > site accessed June 20 th 2006.
53 "Winick on "Green Arrow", Mia's HIV status and more", Comic Book Resources - CBR News, viewed 08 September 2005, < http://www.comicbookresources.com/news/newsitem.cgi?id=4298 >
54 "Spoiler Sport: Hello Again", Newsarama, viewed 08 September 2005, < http://www.newsarama.com/DC/Countdown_more/Batman_Hello.htm >
55 "Winick on "Green Arrow", Mia's HIV status and more", Comic Book Resources - CBR News, viewed 08 September 2005, < http://www.comicbookresources.com/news/newsitem.cgi?id=4298 >
56 Quoted in Pastore, J (ed) Confronting AIDS through Literature: The Responsibilities of Representation , University of Illinois Press, 1993
57 "Winick on "Green Arrow", Mia's HIV status and more", Comic Book Resources - CBR News, viewed 08 September 2005, < http://www.comicbookresources.com/news/newsitem.cgi?id=4298 >
58 "The HIV-positive superhero sidekick", CNN.com, viewed 14 October 2004, < http://www.cnn.com/2004/SHOWBIZ/books/10/14/hiv.positive.superhero.ap/ >
60 "Winick on "Green Arrow", Mia's HIV status and more", Comic Book Resources - CBR News, viewed 08 September 2005, < http://www.comicbookresources.com/news/newsitem.cgi?id=4298 >
61 Trainsurfing examples: Dick and Tim: Dixon, C Nightwing , issue 25, DC Comics, New York, 1998. Dick and Jason: Beatty, S and Dixon, C Nightwing: Year One , DC Comics, New York, 2005. Stephanie: Dixon, C Batgirl: Fists of Fury , DC Comics, New York, 2004
62 Grayson, Devin Gotham Knights , issue 22, DC Comics, New York, 2001
63 Dixon, C Robin , issue 82, DC Comics, New York, 2000
64 Brooker, Will Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon , Continuum, London, 2000, p.28
65 ibid. p.31
66 McDuffie, D "The Black Bat Pitch", viewed 09 September 2005, < http://homepage.mac.com/dmcduffie/site/BlackBatpitch.html >
67 Dixon, C Detective Comics: Legends of the Dead Earth , DC Comics, 1996, p.20
68 Willingham, B Robin , issue 126, DC Comics, New York, 2004
69 Gabrych, A Detective Comics , issues 790 and 796, DC Comics, New York, 2004
70 Willingham, B Robin , issue 127, DC Comics, New York, 2004
71 Pry, W "Tune in next time for fate of trusty sidekick", The Dallas Morning News , 28 July 2004
72 Bury, Rhiannon "'The X-files', Online Fan Culture, and the David Duchovny Estrogen Brigades" in Muggleton, D (ed.) The Post-Subcultures Reader , Berg, New York, 2004
73 Dyson, A.H Writing Superheroes: Contemporary Childhood, Popular Culture, and Classroom Literacy , Teachers College Press, New York, 1997, p.34
74 Responses collected 29 August 2005
75 Marsh, J. ""But I want to fly too!": Girls and superhero play in the infant classroom", Gender and Education , vol. 12, no. 2, 2000
76 Johns, G Teen Titans , issue 17, DC Comics, New York, 2005
77 Johns, G Teen Titans , issue 19, DC Comics, New York, 2005
Copyright Mary Borsellino 2006
Girl-Wonder.org thanks Mary for graciously allowing us to reproduce her paper.