Robin in Media
So if you checked our site yesterday faithful readers, you know that the CW has given the green light to a new live action series to replace Smallville (or join it if it continues for a ninth season). This series, The Graysons, woud focus on the life of young Richard John Grayson (called DJ in the show), who many of us know will grow up to become the first hero called Robin.
Whether you think such a show can work or not, it’s undeniable that Robin is a household name, partly due to his contant appearances in various media. And that’s not even considering the fact that he’s gone through quite an evolution in comics, uniquely so compared to many other super-heroes.
In DC Comics, Richard John Grayson, known to everyone as "Dick", was a circus acrobat along with his parents. The Flying Graysons were a famous act in the traveling Haley Circus. But during a stay in Gotham City, a protection racket organized by mobster Tony Zucco tried to get money out of the circus owner. When he refused, the trapeze was sabotaged and Dick’s parents fell to their deaths in front of a live audience. The audience included Bruce Wayne, secretly the Batman, who took in the adolescent boy and aided him in bringing Zucco to justice.
Dick was a natural due to his inherent talen and years of training in athletics and acrobatics. This, along with his heart and determination, allowed him to pursuade the Batman that he was worthy of staying on as a full-time apprentice and, later, a partner. Wearing a costume that emulated his old circus outfit, Dick called himself "Robin." Originally, it was said this was because he was styling himself on Robin Hood. In later years, it would be said that "Robin" had actually been his mother’s nickname for him, either because he was born on the first day of spring or because as a child he never sat still and was constantly "bop-bop-boppin’ around." Part of the reason he was called Robin and not given a serious super-hero name was because back in the 1940s, sidekicks were only given nicknames so that the writers would be able to save any cooler titles only for more serious super-heroes.
Over the years, Dick proved himself to be a formidable hero and a gifted detective, becoming leader of the original Teen Titans. As he entered adulthood, he was no longer satisfied being viewed as Batman’s kid sidekick and believing that the Dark Knight did not give him enough credit, he left Gotham to carve out his own life. Eventually, inspired by a story Superman had told him of a Kryptonian hero, Dick returned to his super-hero role under the new name of "Nightwing", an identity he has kept for nearly twenty five years now. He is well-respected in the hero community and was even made leader of the Justice League for a short time. And whenever Batman needs him, this black-clad acrobatic avenger is willing to return to Gotham to help out.
That’s the comics. What about his appearances in film and television?
Silver Screen Teen
The first time Robin broke out of the medium of comics was in the 1943 Batman movie serial. In this black and white production, Robin and Batman were already partners and apparently had been for some time. The circumstances of their partnership wasn’t delved into. One major difference from their comic book counterparts was that Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson acted as special government agents in their costumed identities, going on missions to help Uncle Sam fight Axis spies hiding in America.
At this point in the comics, Dick Grayson was portrayed as being somewhere between eight and ten years old, further proving that Batman does not give a damn about child endangerment charges. In the movie serial, he was portrayed by Douglas Croft, who was fourteen. Although he was significantly older than the comic book character, it’s interesting to note that after the history-revising Crisis on Infinite Earths story, it has always been said by DC that Dick was no younger than fourteen or thirteen years old when he began his career as Robin. To this day, Croft is the youngest person to portray Dick Grayson in live action media, as the role is usually given to an actor in their twenties.
Despite his youth, Robin was treated as an equal partner in the serials. Batman never spoke down to him and the two were very much like siblings rather than teacher/mentor. When they went into battle, they watched each other’s back and Robin saved Batman’s hide as often as the reverse happened. This wasn’t a sidekick, this was a colleague.
Adventures of Superman was a popular radio program during the 1940s and actor Bud Colyer did a wonderful performance as Clark Kent and the Man of Steel (he also protrayed the character in the Fleischer and Filmation cartoons decades apart). But occasionally, Colyer would need to give himself and his voice a vacation. Since the program was an every-day gig, you needed to explain to audience why the star was suddenly missing for a week or so. Not a problem! When Colyer was headed out on vacation, it was simply written into the program that Superman had a case that was going to take him away from Metropolis for a while. And to make sure things weren’t left unprotected, he called Batman and Robin to watch over things for him. Thus, radio audiences still got to listen to a super-hero adventure and the rest of the cast were still able to work every day.
Batman and Robin periodically showed up for several adventures between 1945 and 1949. In these adventures, Robin was again a good natured sidekick, smart and talented but occasionally rash and foolhardy. He was voiced by actor Ronald Liss.
Back In Pictures
In 1949, another movie serial was presented to American audiences. In Batman and Robin, the young acrobat vigilante was portrayed by twenty-six-year-old actor Johnny Duncan after the studio was unimpressed with the crop of teenage actors who were auditioning. Johnny Duncan was a fan of the comic book series and was happy to play the role.
In these movie serials, Robin was again seen as a colleague and younger brother. He was also noticeably more agile and athletic than Batman (whose actor Robert Lowery had to wear a girdle). Whereas the old serial had him and Batman operating as special agents, this production was closer to the comics, with the Dymanic Duo as masked vigilantes who helped out the Gotham City Police Department. Robin was a devil-may-care adventurer but was also good at his job and quite capable. Although he was referred to as young man at times, the character’s exact age was never said or harped on.
The man who truly made Robin a household name was Burt Ward. In the 1960’s, the live-action Batman television show portrayed a tongue-in-cheek version of the Dynamic Duo. I would say it was a parody except that this show was actually fairly true to the spirit of the 1950s comics. The series showed Batman and Robin operating as officially deputees of the police force, called in whenever a strange or fantastic criminal was baffling normal police. Robin was athletic and a good fighter, able to take down multiple attackers by himself, but was also quite naive and so he would occasionally wind up captured or used as bait in some sinister trap.
What marked Burt Ward’s portrayal of Robin was his regular use of puns. Whatever situation they were in, Robin would shout "Holy -" and then use a word having to deal with the matter at hand. One of my favorite moments was when a villain trapped Batman and Robin behind a wall of bulletproof glass and Robin shouted "Holy showcase!"
This version of Robin was also often looked at as a kid partner or apprentice. Batman was very much a teacher and father figure, reminding Robin about seatbelt safety and having an awkward conversation with the lad on the delicate subject of girls. While the show was meant for laughs, many audience members took this as what they believed to be the real way Robin behaved and was handled and so, to this day, there are many who won’t give the character in comics a chance because they still remember Burt Ward.
Burt Ward continued to portray the voice of Robin during the 1970s in the New Adventures of Batman cartoon. Radio DJ Casey Kasem voiced the character in Superfriends and the times when Batman and Robin showed up on Scooby-Doo.
When Tim Burton was directing the 1989 Batman film, he considered adding Robin into the picture but later decided to cut him out entirely. Later, there was talk that Marlon Wayans would portray the character in the film Batman Returns, but this idea was also discarded.
Robin finally did show up in the movies when Joel Schumacher directed Batman Forever. Portrayed by Chris O’Donnell, he was a kid in his late teens whose parents and brother were killed while trying to thwart the plan of the criminal Two-Face. Dick Grayson was taken in by Bruce Wayne (exactly why was not quite explained) and he later accidentally discovered the Batcave.
Already a skilled acrobat and a fair combatant, he demanded that Batman help him kill Two-Face. He also suggested numerous super-hero names, including "Bat-boy" and "Nightwing" before settling on Robin, a nickname his parents had given him. Alfred made him a suit and he became the Dark Knight’s new partner. No training was involved in preparing him to become a super-hero and Bruce was in charge of the team due to his experience, not because he was actually teaching Robin anything. He seemed to rely solely on his fists and whatever gadgets were available in his belt, with no real thought towards strategy or detective work.
O’Donnell’s suit was designed to emulate what was born by Tim Drake in the Batman comics, who wore pants and a darker cape, which the film makers felt were more "realistic" and functional than bare legs and pixie boots.
Chris O’Donnell also portrayed Robin in the movie Batman and Robin, this time wearing a costume that was nearly identical to the Nightwing uniform from the comics except that its chest design was red rather than blue and he had a cape. In both films, Robin was seen as arrogant and prone to thinking with his fists. He had no real detective skills to speak of, relying on his acrobatic skills, athleticism and luck to get him out of any situation. He also often argued with Batman, who he believed was too stuck in his ways. For this reason, and for the fact that his costumes had nipples on them, many criticized O’Donnell’s portrayal.
In the 90s, Warner Bros. produced the critically-acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series. The series took place well into Batman’s career and it was said that Dick Grayson was attending college. As such, he was only seen occasionally. A two-part episode delved into his origin and how he was an acrobat who had been orphaned at around age 10 or so due to the schemes of Tony Zucco. Seeing that the boy was determined to fight Zucco and those like him even if it killed him, Batman took him in as an apprentice.
Robin was seen as a sarcastic, fun-loving fighter who was very skilled at what he did but was also more prone to mistakes than his mentor. His personality and sense of humor was very faithful to his comic book incarnation. Though he was around 20-years-old now, he still let Batman take the lead and seemed to look at him as an old brother who had taught him much.
This version of Robin was portrayed by actor Loren Lester. In the show’s final season, Robin became a regular on the series. Like the filmmakes, the animation team decided to portray Robin in the costume that was worn by Tim Drake, believing he wouldn’t be taken seriously by audience members if he had his legs exposed and wore a bright yellow cape.
When the series altered to The New Batman Adventures, the timeline of the show jumped ahead a couple of years. Dick was now operating as Nightwing and Tim Drake became the new Robin. It was shown that Dick had taken up the identify of Nightwing after becoming convinced that Batman was heartless and manipulative, caring more about his war on criminals than what effect it had on innocent lives or people he was supposed to care about.
As the series went on, he relaxed on his opinion of Batman but still only showed up occasionally, preferring to work on his own. His costume was similar to the Nightwing outfit he had in the comics, except with a clearer bird design on the chest. He also had small wing attachments which allowed him to glide on air currents.
Tim Drake was portrayed as a happy-go-lucky kid with natural talents towards crime-fighting but also a high level of reckleness. He did his job half out of a desire for fun and action as much as for the pursuit of justice. This was very different from Tim in the comics, who was a much more analytical person and whose strongest talent was in computers and detective work. Tim was voiced by Matthew Valencia. He wore a black and red outfit that the animation team designed specifically for the show. Over ten years later, Tim would adopt this same costume in the comics.
In the Teen Titans cartoon series, the team was led by a Robin who wore a costume very similar to Tim Drake’s original outfit. Voiced by Scott Menville, this Robin was in his late teens and more than a capable leader. He was smart, good at detective work and excellent in combat. He was so formidable in fact that he was seen a few times as being able to fight the rest of the team to a stand-still, even with all their super-powers.
This Robin was a little more withdrawn than many other portayals and was not above hiding things or misleading his teammates if he thought it was for the best and was necessary for a plan to come to fruition. Although he could certainly joke with the team over pizza and video games, he was a determined vigilante and extremely focused in his mission. In many ways, he was closer to the comic book incarnation of Tim Drake in terms or personality rather than the comic book Dick Grayson. Eventually, it was confirmed that this Robin was indeed Dick Grayson after a time travel adventure showed that his future self would become Nightwing. Although Batman never appeared on this show nor was ever mentioned by name, Robin did refer to him as his "father" in one episode.
In the new cartoon series The Batman, Robin was not around for the first season and was preceeded by Batgirl. In this series, the Graysons wind up helping the Batman against mobster Tony Zucco. Later, Zucco kills the Graysons out of revenge and Batman takes in the young boy to watch after him, feeling responsible and seeing his own tragedy mirrored in the boy’s life.
Robin became the Batman’s partner and has been seen as very talented and capable but also quite young, prone to mistakes and brash judgements. He is a student of Batman’s and almost a son. Like many kids his age, he has a chip on his shoulder and often mouths off before he fully considers the situation.
In the cartoon series Krypto, Ace the Bat-Hound once met a red-feathered bird named Robbie who insisted on being his partner, much to the canine’s chagrin.
And that about wraps it up, folks. Hope you learned something today. As for how The Graysons will be in comparison to all this, we just have to wait and see. Until next time, cheers!
Alan "Sizzler" Kistler thinks Robin may have been more popular and more identifiable as a Robin Hood analogue if he called himself "Hood." Ah, well. Alan Kistler has been recognized by Warner Bros. Pictures and mainstream media outlets such as the New York Daily News as a comic book historian, and can be seen in the "Special Features" sections of the Adventures of Aquaman and Justice League: New Frontier DVDs. His personal website can be found at: http://KistlerUniverse.com. One of these days he’d love to write for DC, Marvel or Doctor Who.