The first Boy Wonder was Richard “Dick” John Grayson. A member of the famous acrobatic family “The Flying Grayson’s”, Dick and his family traveled America as members of Haley’s Travelling Circus. Together, the family would stage harrowing acts of acrobatics without the benefit of harnesses or safety nets. The family had become legendary and always drew in the crowds; by all accounts, for the Grayson’s, life couldn’t be more perfect.
However, like so many before and some many after, that all changed one night in Gotham City.
Prior to the performance under the Big Top, two Gotham gangsters attempted to strong-arm the owner of Haley’s Circus into paying them protection money. Dick witnessed the conversation. Haley refused, but everyone knows … you can’t say ‘no’ to the Gotham City mob, especially during the reign of Tommy Zucco. The two thugs sabotaged the Grayson’s trapeze equipment, sealing the family’s fate.
Sure enough, when the Grayson’s took to the air their trapeze equipment failed, sending Dick’s father and mother to the ground, and their deaths, below.
Before Dick could gather himself enough to contact the police, Batman pays him a visit. The Dark Knight told Dick who and how dangerous Zucco is and that reporting it to the police would only wind up with the young boy being hurt, or worse.
This meeting takes place in Detective Comics #38, was published in 1940, and is without a doubt one of the most consequential comics books published by any comic book company in America. It is truly a moment of legendary importance to the comic industry and American pop culture, because within it’s pages are the first appearance of Dick Grayson, and Robin, the Boy Wonder.
Not only was the boy a naturally gifted acrobat and aerialist, he was also brash. He got the job as Batman’s sidekick simply by asking for it. Of course, Batman is Bruce Wayne, the billionaire orphan, and so seeing another child orphaned by a crime he failed to prevent, well …. he made the boy his “ward”. I choose to believe that was a bit greasy even for the 1940’s.
Unfortunately, any discussion of Dick Grayson and Robin has to contend with what is probably still the most popularly known depiction of Batman and Robin; and that is, of course, the homoerotic spin put on it by the Batman ’66 television show. I know that Batman ’66 was an ironic, counter-culture skewer of Batman, but even for the writers and artists working on the comic book at the time hated what was being broadcast to millions of Americans every week.
Kevin Smith’s podcast Fatman on Batman has a great interview with long time Batman scribe and editor, Dennis O’Neil. In one of the podcast interviews with Dennis O’Neil, and another with long time Batman artist Neal Adams both railed against Batman ’66. They referred to it as an embarassment, and even a mockery of their life’s work.
It didn’t matter, though. The homoerotic relationship that existed between Batman and Robin in Batman ’66 is itself an indelible mark on American pop culture. That take on Batman and Robin was revived and re-enforced by the ‘Ambiguously Gay Duo’ featured on Saturday Night Live in the early 1990’s. And, while Chris O’Donnell tried his hardest to overcome a serious case of the man nipples, Joel Schumacher couldn’t resist throwing some flare into the Dynamic Duo in 1997’s flop that nearly killed the Batman movie franchise, Batman and Robin.
It’s unfortunate. As DC fans are well aware, as is anyone that collects comics seriously, the relationship between Batman and Robin and Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson is very much one of a father and son dynamic. And like sons do for their fathers, they bring unimaginable happiness and joy into their lives; and this is exactly how their era as the Dynamic Duo has been written and drawn in the comic books.
Unlike the other Robins who would travel their own paths, Dick became more then merely Robin, Batman’s kid side-kick. (Although, the popularity of child superheroes like Robin, or Superboy, or Supergirl, lead to the creation of the others: Speedy, Aqualad, Wonder Girl, and Kid Flash, In 1984, George Perez and Marv Wolfman created the Teen Titans, a superhero team comprised of all teenage superheroes, and everyone on that list – with the exception of Superboy and Supergirl – became members of the group. It would be the boy trained by the Batman that would become the Teen Titan’s fearless leader; first as Robin, and then as his adult superhero mantle: Nightwing.
The decision to take up his own superhero identity was never a bone of contention between Bruce and Dick. It was almost certainly understood between the two that Dick might be the heir apparent to the mantle of the Bat however, Bruce wasn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. Nightwing became Dick’s declaration of independence and the start of his own mythology within the DC Universe. While that mythology was largely confined to Batman, Detective Comics, and Teen Titans for more than a decade, Nightwing did get his own self-titled, solo book in 1996. It also ran for more than a decade ending with issue #154 in 2009.
Dick Grayson has the benefit of seven decades of super-heroic fables having been written about him either as Robin, or Nightwing, or Agent 37, or even as the Batman himself. The relationship has always been one of deep affection and respect. They are father and son in spirit, if not by blood; Dick has always been the light to Batman’s darkness. He is as essential to the Batman himself as he is to the Bat-mythos.
That there must always be a Batman and Robin is ordained by the Source itself, is without question. The next to wear the mantle of Robin would also be an orphan, but a true Gotham street kid: he has the balls to jack the tires off the Batmobile. Batman finds him in the act, and takes him in on some sort of scared straight, tough love foster home situation. That street kid is of course, Jason Todd.
To read about Jason Todd, the second Robin and first to be killed on the job, read “Jason Todd, DC’s first fan-killed character”.