Robin the Boy Wonder – the Spinal Tap drummer of comic books…

Robin the Boy Wonder – the Spinal Tap drummer of comic books…

            DC Comics is killing off Robin the Boy Wonder.
            Happy 1988 everyone!
            No wait, it’s happening AGAIN. NOW!
            This isn’t the first Robin to be killed off. The first Robin killed wasn’t even the first Robin.
            Robin the Boy Wonder, the Spinal Tap drummer of DC Comics. The first Robin was Dick Grayson, Bruce Wayne’s ward. This was the Robin from the 1960s TV show and the cartoons up until about 1990 or so. When his character grew into manhood, he was replaced by Jason Todd. Jason was killed by the Joker as a gruesome publicity stunt. We the people called a 900-number and voted whether to off the Boy Wonder. We the people responded with a resounding yes.
            Then came Timothy Drake – a more likable character who was eased into the role. Dick Grayson was shown in the comics mentoring Tim, so that we the people would learn to like him in case of another telephonic publicity stunt.
            Tim Drake also grew up and became Red Robin – he was replaced by his fiancé.
            Then came Damian Wayne. He is the child of Bruce Wayne and Talia Al-Ghul, Ra’s Al-Ghul’s daughter. I didn’t read many comics with Damian Wayne as Robin. What little I read of him came from his appearances in other comics. Much like his father (or at least the personality of his father over the past 20 years or so), he was a smart-ass dickwad. He told Wonder Woman to put on some clothes, called her a “harlot”. That sort of thing.
            Lots of other people have dressed as Robin over the years – including Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend Julie Madison and Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen.
            According to the DC press machine, Damian grew from a brat into a noble and honorable hero.
            So, of course they kill him.
            Is it a sales boost in a bottle? You bet. Will Damian be back? Sure, Jason Todd came back, Damian will to. “No, sorry,” say the DC press machine, “this one is permanent.” They lie.
            My friend Clyde Hall discusses his frustration at this publicity stunt in his blog here: http://playmst3kforme.blogspot.com/2013/03/dc-marvelstop-before-you-kill-again.html
            I applaud his letter and would sign on to it as well! But killing off Robin got me thinking in a different direction.
            Death has been a part of comic book history since the explosion of Krypton. Death can create a hero and mold their personalities and motives just as it can in a traditional story. The trouble is it can also be a cheap way to boost sales and a shortcut for real storytelling and character development.
            It hasn’t always been that way. The three most familiar characters in comic books had their origins mired in death. Superman was orphaned twice. “With all my powers,” he would opine at the gravesite of his adopted parents, the Kents, “I couldn’t save them.” His first parents, along with the billions of inhabitants of Krypton, didn’t give him the moral base that Jonathan and Martha Kent did. In later years, when the powers-that-be retconned his mother back to life, it did not seem the same. His internal moral compass became an external one. Superman would save the world from Throgg the Omnipotent, then have a slice of pie at his mother’s farm.  Eh…
            Imagine if someone retcons Batman’s origins so that parents lived. The murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne (by Joe Chill, the future Joker, or anyone – personally I preferred it to be always unknown – a random killer; the one case Batman couldn’t solve) is vital, VITAL, to Batman’s origins, motives and personality.
            Likewise the murder of Ben Parker, Peter’s uncle, was vital to Spiderman’s origins, motives and personality. Had Ben Parker lived, Spidey would have been a sideshow attraction/stuntman. After his uncle’s death, Peter had his now-famous epiphany, “with great power comes great responsibility.” This is more dry-eyed then Superman’s epiphany, and more famous, but just as effective. “Thus a superhero was born.” Can’t you hear that in Stan Lee’s voice?
            Sometimes a death mid-series can be done without shock value or for the sake of a sales boost. And that death can affect motive and personality as much as the death of the Kents, Waynesand Ben Parker.
            Gwen Stacy was Peter Parker’s main squeeze and was killed in a battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin. Her death shadowed the Spider-Man books for decades.
            The most famous example was Bucky. When Captain Americawas brought back from post-WWII obscurity into the 1960s in the pages of the Avengers, we learned that his side-kick Bucky had been killed in an explosion just before Captain was frozen for nearly twenty years. Bucky’s death permeated everything Captain Americadid for the next 45 years. They brought Bucky back eventually, which (although well done) diminishes Cap’s mortality. During the excellent JLA-Avengers miniseries, Captain Americaand Batman worked together in the Batcave to find a solution as to what is causing all the other heroes to thrash each other. Cap stared at a mannequin of Robin’s outfit. “You lost a partner too?” Batman replied with something like a “let’s concentrate on our work” or some such. It would have been worth a panel or two later to show them drinking coffee and each discussing losing their sidekicks.
            Which brings us back to Robin. It seems most deaths in comics over the past three decades have been publicity stunts and sales boosts. Once in a great while, though, the stunt grows into an interesting few years of comic book tales.
            Take the death of the first Robin, for example. A stunt? Sure, some fan-boys probably maxxed out their credit cards calling the “kill Robin” number. But over the next few years the death of Jason Todd haunted Batman. Tim Drake’s taking over of the Robin mantle developed slowly – Batman did not want to lose a partner again.  Oh sure it was also done slowly to ingratiate him with those same fan-boys with the 900-number on their speed-dial, but it wasn’t BAD…
            Bringing Jason back to life, however, nullified any literary gains made. It turned the whole thing into the old chestnut – “No one stays dead in comic books.”  We used to say, “except Bucky.” Not even THAT is true anymore.
            I give DC comics the benefit of the doubt over the death of Superman twenty years ago. I believe DC planned to make this a year-long line-wide event.  Looking back, it was very well done after all. It created some new villains and heroes that are still around today. But even the creators admit that when the mainstream news got a hold of the story on a slow Friday and ran with it – they saw money signs flash before their eyes. “Superman dead!” screamed headlines and newscasts, as if he were an actual person. The powers-that-be knew they had a publicity blitz on their hands and milked it. Oh yes, he’s dead! No doubt about it! This is for real!
            Yeah right.
            Within days the powers-that-be were backsliding. “Well, death for a Kryptonian isn’t the same as death for we earthlings.” Ah, he’ll be back. It WAS all a stunt…
            And the bloodbath didn’t stop there. Within a few years we saw the deaths of Greens Lantern and Arrow after big build-ups. They came back eventually too.
            So did the Flash. He was killed in 1985 along with Supergirl and a few secondary characters by a universal threat that enveloped the entire line of DC comics (the “Crisis on Infinite Earths” to you comic book-types).
            The original heroes of DC/National comics – the members of the Justice Society – were DC’s whipping boys all through the 1990s and on. Golden Age heroes were killed nearly annually. Dr. Midnight, Dr. Fate, the Atom, the Sandman, the original Superman, all were killed off for its shock values.  Whereas, the original Batman was killed off in the 1970s in a well-done (if not widely read) series of stories that still affected the characters involved for the next eight years (until the “Crisis…”).
            How many times has Spider-Man’s Aunt May been killed?
            So I roll my eyes when I hear news of “the Human Torch is to be killed off!” Remember that a few years back? It’s okay if you don’t… because they will all be back.  Maybe not within the year, but soon. It’ll happen when the editor runs out of ideas and needs another sales boost. After killing everyone off – the only thing left to do is bring them back.
            Marriage in comics is the same way. Superman and Lois Lanemarry. Spider-Man and Mary Jane marry. OK, what next? Umm, un-marry them. It never happened. That’s what they did. To both marriages.
            “Robin is to be killed!” Mmm-hmm. He might not be Robin when he comes back, but he’ll be back. If Bucky and Martha Kent can come back, so can Damian.
            Will anyone care? Well, was his death and eventually resurrection a good story ala Bucky? Did his death make a difference in the Batman universe? And will his return make an equal difference? If so; if it makes for quality reading and enthralling entertainment, then the answer will be yes!
            In other words, no.
Copyright 2013 Michael G. Curry
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