The Golden Age’s First-Born
The wild and vast DC Universe started as a group of 1940s adults trying to right the wrongs of the world by fighting against other adults that chose to be corrupt and abusive. Superman fought landlords, greedy businessmen, prison wardens, and other figures of twisted authority as both a superhero and a reporter. Batman made his crusade against crime in reaction to losing his childhood innocence in a dark and fateful alley. In the Golden Age, the two of them were wish-fulfillment characters meant to serve as role models for children who hungered to see justice done in real life.
This is what makes Robin as a concept so important to both our love for these comics and the foundation of the DC mythos as a whole. He (and she in Stephanie Brown’s case) was the childhood superhero dream made real in every generation. Not only does he grow up alongside the Caped Crusader, but readers grow up with him, seeing the wonders of the universe with the same wide-eyes
With every age, there is a new Robin and in Detective Comics #38, Dick Grayson gracefully landed onto the scene as the first with Batman as adoptive father and an entire universe as co-parent. He was the first Robin, the first teenage sidekick and the first child of DC Comics. It’s that last title that really ties into his character development and the variety of roles he’s taken on over the decades.
Green Tights and Growing Pains
Robins are a very different creature to bats. They are small and very cheery birds that can fly in the sky at any time of day. Their bright-colored feathers are also much more pleasing to look at compared to the dark leather wings of cave-dwelling rodents, whose black, beady eyes and sharp fangs even scared Batman as a child. Both of these creatures serve different roles in both nature and symbolism. The way Dick learned and embraced both of those roles led to his personal strength and his long history as a character. Dick Grayson experienced the same childhood trauma as Bruce Wayne, but never completely fell into despair precisely because he had Bruce to lead him through it. He gets that closure that his father will never have. As a result, he is able to smile through all the horrors and crimes of Gotham City as Robin.
However, instead of battling evil for vengeance, he does it for the sheer joy of adventure, which is what Batman comes to accept (and turns out to need) as they continue to work side-by-side. Robin serves to brighten up the dark world of Gotham and take the Caped Crusader out of his cave to interact with all the other Golden Age greats. That usually means hanging out with the big blue boy scout Superman, who teaches Dick the greater meaning of heroism. Clark Kent also proves to be a great companion whenever the young Boy Wonder needs a more hopeful friend to talk to.
Another thing Robin has over Batman is deep friendship with other heroes his age. Ever since the 1960s, Dick Grayson had the Teen Titans, whose members reached into every corner of the DC Universe and sometimes the multiverse. Comparing the social networks between Batman and Robin, only one conclusion can be reached: Batman needs a Robin to give meaning to his war on crime but Robins don’t really need a Batman to lead fulfilling hero careers. In Grayson’s case, his horizons grew wider and stranger, with some of his greatest adventures happening outside of Batman’s shadow. This eventually led to a breaking point where he’d need to leave Batman’s side entirely to take on a new identity. Enter: Nightwing.
Leaving The Nest
While the name Nightwing does sound like something Batman would come up with, Dick actually got it from the Dark Knight’s polar opposite: Superman. He took the name from a Kryptonian legend who was cast out from his family but still decided to fight for his planet and people. The story goes, Batman fires Dick Grayson from the role of Robin after he disobeyed too many orders and, frankly, became too old to even follow them in the first place. These were probably similar feelings young readers had as they reached the edge of adulthood and chafed under the authority of parents and school. Grayson decided to take a break from super-heroics after that, choosing to serve as a mentor for the new generation of Titans until the “Judas Contract” storyline where he needed to re-enter the fray as the new hero Nightwing, complete with the dark blue colors, the disco V-neck and that crazy popped collar.
Dick Grayson isn’t at his strongest when he’s under Batman or whenever he’s wearing a different costume. Nothing great about him comes from just one person either. It’s all his own heroic heart and jovial personality that allows him to be as great as he is, and it is all thanks to everyone he’s met in his life. Being himself is even the solution when he faces his greatest challenge, which is taking on the role of this universe’s greatest father: Batman.
The Allegory of the Cape
On any Earth, Dick Grayson usually takes on the cape and cowl whenever Bruce Wayne is out of commission, whether that means a broken spine or straight-up death (or time-lost in the case of Grant Morrison’s run). Whenever he does, he is faced with the heavy burden of legacy and the expectations of Gotham City, always embroiled in darkness and criminal empires. He also always hates it. To quote the man himself, “The whole idea of replacing Bruce was insane … And I hate the cape, Alfred–the cape was the first thing I ditched when I got out on my own. I’m way off balance.”
Dick Grayson was never trained or expected to be Batman, not even by Bruce himself. He’s meant to grow beyond Batman and into his own person, but being the good son and kind-hearted hero that he is forces him to see that Batman can, and should, never die. The problem he and everyone else sees is that he’s not serious, tortured or angry enough to match the original. He’s incapable of becoming that, always choosing to be the nice guy, which is why he becomes himself, incorporating new gadgets and the classic escrima sticks into his take on the Dark Knight. Showcasing his sense of fun and adventure into the role allows him to connect with Damian and gain trust with Gotham’s community and police force. Dick knows he may not be as great as Bruce, but he realizes that he doesn’t have to be. All the cape and cowl asks is that you bring your best into fighting against evil and solving the mystery, and when the Grayson style is mixed in, it leads to some fun results. He does have a lot more fun doing his own thing though, always reminding himself he’s so different from Bruce. That means he joyfully returns to Nightwing after being the Batman of Gotham for so long. He’s not Batman, and, if anything, the title Nightwing seems to just be a placeholder until the next change in status quo. Through and through, he’s Dick Grayson, and he’ll become whatever is needed in order to help people.
Dick Grayson is a character anyone who grew up reading DC Comics can relate to. He’s met heroes from around the world. He’s explored every corner of the universe and formed connections with everyone he meets. Just like anyone else, he’s also taken on different roles and tried out new things, both in costume and in his regular life. He’s been an urban vigilante, a sidekick, a Justice League reserve, a Titans founder, a circus owner, a museum curator, a super spy, a Talon, a husband, a father, and even something as mundane as a policeman. Above all else though, he’s still the smiling acrobat trained to be a hero; the first and greatest son of DC.