Rethinking It: Robin, Year One

How about something a little different? Robin, Year One. This is another one of my “Hey, if I could get my hands on a Franchise – Doctor Who, Space Force, Stargate, etc., here’s the cool thing I would do!”

Yeah, it’s never going to happen. But they’re fun ideas to play with. The thing with being a writer is everyone asks you ‘where do you get your ideas.’ But the thing is, ideas are only the start. It’s what you do with them, where you take them, how you develop them. Behind any story, any novel, there’s this whole background. The story is like the tip of the iceberg, or the front of the stage. But there’s all this stuff underneath the water, or behind and below the stage, premises and assumptions, choices, arcs directions. There are all these elements which give the story shape, structure, energy. It’s all this backstage stuff that gets worked out, which really makes a story interesting… or uninteresting.

Call it backstage at the writers mind. The thing I like about these sorts of exercises, is that the reader actually knows the end product or at least the shape of it. People know Doctor Who, or Godzilla, or Stargate. People know who Batman is. So I can take that, spin, work it, and say “Here’s an interesting line of ideas, premises, arcs.” And I think that you can relate to it a little better than some random idea, you’re closer to being able to see what the end result would be.

So, Robin,Year One. Or Batman and Robin, Year One.

Here’s something I’ve been kicking around.

In the comics, Robin came along in 1940, a year after Batman debuted. And his inspiration was very simple. Most of the readers of Batman comics were kids. So why not have a kid accompanying Batman on his adventures, give the readers someone to identify with. There’s also the fact that Batman as a solo act was talking to himself a lot, and that got creepy fast. That’s a lesson we’ve all taken to heart. The hero who talks to himself a lot is probably going to be weird and off putting. That’s why Superman had Lois Lane, and the Doctor has companions.

The thing is though, that looked at carefully, it just seems like a catastrophically bad idea. Batman? Batman of all heroes? The dark knight? Mister grim and serious? The Anti-fun crusader? A guy with no superpowers except the stick up his butt? The guy whose enemies are all extroverted serial killers?

That’s not really a good candidate for Superhero mentor. I mean anyone else, Captain America, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Arrow? Sure.  But Batman? Jesus H. Christ on a Crutch for the sheer love of god, no!

But somehow, Batman and Robin started the whole thing rolling, and Robin’s been key. Alright. We know the marketing logic. But how would this make sense in story terms?

The official origin by Bob Kane and Bill Finger is that Robin starts off as a circus performer. He and his parents are Trapeze Artists, the Flying Graysons. Unfortunately, the circus is being blackmailed by a gangster named Boss Zucco. He pours acid on the trapeze ropes, mom and dad are killed, and Dick is an orphan. As Dick is having a good cry, Batman shows up and enlists Dick in his war on crime.

Yeah. I think Child and Family Services might have something to say about this. The circus folk might have something to say. Relatives. Pretty much everyone on the planet would be objecting to a man who dresses like a bat abducting a traumatized child. Seriously, how would this be a good idea?

Tell you what. Let’s strip this down to bedrock, and build it back up in a way that is not horrible.

Let’s start with Dick Grayson. Let’s say he’s thirteen or fourteen. Who is Dick? He’s a circus boy. What sort of life would that be, growing up in the circus. Let’s assume loving parents, Dick is growing up stable, well adjusted, sensible.

But it’s a transient life. The circus is always on the move. Dick isn’t going to regular school, there’s no regular neighborhood, he’s probably disconnected from relatives or extended family. It’s not a Norman Rockwell childhood.

It’s a circus childhood. The outside world constantly changes, a new town or city every few days, constantly packing and unpacking. There’s probably not a lot of other kids around, if there are any at all. Sort of, Dick sees new kids his age everywhere he goes, but he never forms a lasting relationship. He becomes very good at making friends instantly, or sussing out trouble fast, and dealing with it. There’s no time for anything else, and he does it over and over every town he stops at… simple trial and error means he gets good at it.

He is probably the only child in the circus. Which means in a sense, he’s everyone’s child. His peers, his friends and neighbors, the people that raise him up, that hang out with him, they’re all circus people. Dick’s growing up with magicians, jugglers, fire eaters, fat ladies, acrobats, midgets, clowns, circus performers of all sorts. His ‘uncles’ and ‘aunts’ are lion tamers, escape artists, and horse trick riders, escape artists…. and possibly pickpockets and minor scam artists. It’s a totally insular world.

And you know, you’re hanging out with all these people doing all these cool things. You watch, you learn, you instinctively pick up skills, and because everyone loves the Grayson’s little boy, they teach him. Dick learns to be an escape artist, a knife thrower, a gymnast, a horse rider, a high wire act, a ventriloquist, a clown, a pickpocket, a card sharp. Basically, any skill floating around the circus, Dick’s probably picking it up.

So this is the kid who at thirteen or fourteen loses his parents in the worst possible way, watching them die. That’s kind of a quandary – the circus is the center of the biggest trauma of his life, but it’s also the only life he’s ever known.

So what happens? No close relatives at the circus, so Child and Family swoops in, decides that poor young Grayson needs stability, and gets him into a foster placement.

The circus is no place for an orphaned teenager! I can just see some very concerned social worker saying that.

Then the problems start. Because Dick has probably never spent three nights in the same town his whole life. He’s never lived in a house. Every single thing that we take as normal is alien to him. So he decides to leave the foster placement.

Child and Family goes out, grabs him, brings him back to a new placement.

Rinse and repeat that a few times. He keeps running away. So they keep moving him into higher and higher security, until he’s practically in lockdown. Except that for a fourteen year old boy who has a lifetime training in acrobatics, escape, pickpocketing, misdirection and a few other things… There’s no place in Gotham that can keep Dick Grayson when he doesn’t want to stay there. Literally, no matter what they do, he’s getting out. It can get comical, he’s so good at escaping custody.

He’s just never going to do what the system wants him to do. All other things being equal, Dick is well on his way to being an incorrigible street person, or eventually winding up back at the circus.

Except his parents were murdered.

So you have this kid who can’t be contained, who escapes from any place you put him almost as fast as you can lock the door, who can scale the sides of buildings like he’s walking down the street, who can juggle knives, and do a hundred other circus things, consumed by grief, with this paradoxical trauma rooted in the only world he’s ever known. His parents are murdered. What’s he going to do? He’s going to figure out who killed them and hunt them down.

And so Dick begins his odyssey through the Gotham underworld, searching for his parent’s murderer. Now this gets interesting, because Gotham’s underworld is filled with some very weird characters. He’s not a detective, and he’s not a fighter. So he just bumbles around.

* He encounters Catwoman, a thief, hangs out, but she’s amoral and indifferent, she’s about living for the moment and looking after herself. She could use a disposable pawn.

* He goes to the Penguin, building his empire, who clues him into the Gotham underworld, and shares his world view. He could use a henchman.

* He ends up with the Riddler, and his world of egotism and game playing, to help assemble the clues and solve the puzzle. He could use an assistant.

* He grew up with clowns and trusts them and so when he wants help for revenge, he goes to the Joker, and imbibes his nihilism. What could turn a teenager into.

And with each one, he encounters not just the character, but the paths they have chosen, how they see the world, the futures they offer him, madder and madder. It’s like a progress through stations.

It brings him closer and closer to Boss Zucco… And that is a dangerous thing. Dogs like to chase cars, but they have no idea what to do when they catch them.

Let’s take a thirteen or fourteen year old boy, whose mother and father is murdered, no one can contain or control him, and he’s crawled through some of the darkest places of the Gotham underworld, hung out with some of its maddest denizens, to find the man who killed his parents?

There’s kind of a knife edge.

What would he do?

What would you do if you were that extraordinarily talented, grief stricken, vengeful boy?

The choice he makes, or could make, will shape the rest of his life.

It would be so easy to murder Boss Zucco. But once he crosses that line, if he crosses that line, he’s lost. His future is gone. He’s gone to the dark side.

He’s on the track to be Gotham’s youngest supervillain.

Where’s Batman through all this? He’s investigating the Grayson murders. Maybe he interviews Dick at some point. Discovering from Batman that it it wasn’t an accident but murder, could be what sets him off on his own path.

But as the investigation proceeds, he keeps running across Grayson. Indeed, Grayson’s constant escapes might be an unwelcome distraction. Batman keeps apprehending the kid, putting him someplace safe and stable, and the boy keeps escaping. The boy keeps making waves through Gotham’s underworld, breaking into places, getting into fights, seeking out dangerous people, needing to be rescued, and creating trouble, messing up the investigation and causing chaos.

Dick Grayson is a talented kid. But he’s not a detective, and he’s not a fighter. He needs help, and it’s not the help that the system is going to give him. Social Workers and police officers are just going to keep locking him up. So he hangs out with Catwoman. He interrogates the Penguin. He goes to the Riddler for puzzles. And to the Joker, reminiscent of his clown pals from the circus, for help with revenge. That would make for a fascinating series of conversations.

Which puts the Batman in the position of fighting, either directly or metaphorically, for Dick Grayson’s soul. Batman has to put his own philosophy, his own ethics, his own life out there.

So Batman, reluctantly, has to work with Grayson. It’s the last thing he wants. Ideally, what he wants for the boy is a roof over his head, a room of his own, all the amenities and comforts, safety and security, hot and cold running therapists…. But that’s not going to work. Dick’s skill set means he can’t be contained, he’s going to run wild, and he’s going to be seeking out these villains.

So really, the only option is to keep trying to talk the kid down, which means trying to earn his trust, which means actually working with him. And to his surprise, Grayson actually has useful contributions, he honestly likes the kid, and the only thing to worry about is keeping the boy alive.

It’s not like Batman wants a teenage sidekick. That’s insane, considering the lifestyle Batman leads. But here’s the beauty of it, he doesn’t have a choice.

Because Dick Grayson is going to be going out there no matter what. It’s not like he can be controlled. You can’t lock him up. You can’t make him live a normal life, he doesn’t even know what a normal life is. You can’t make him do anything he doesn’t want to do. All you can do is try and offer him a better life, a safer life, a stable life. But you can’t make him choose it, he has to choose it for himself. I think the big constant with Bruce Wayne is that he doesn’t want Dick Grayson to become another version of him. He wants him to be better.

So really, the only choice is to keep going out with the kid, let him be your sidekick, and make sure you drop tons of Harvard Scholarships all over his room, and hope and encourage him to grow out of it.

I’m pretty sure Batman’s greatest wish is for Dick Grayson to grow out of superheroing and live a normal happy life.

But there’s also a really fun angle here for Batman. Bruce Wayne is a traumatised, lonely, focussed guy. He’s all about the war on crime and that’s his whole life. The unattainable goal of avenging his murdered parents. It’s futile. Nothing he does can change that trauma or bring his parents back.

This makes for a pretty grim, dark guy. It’s a lifeless, colourless existence, and ultimately despairing. There’s a pull to fall into the dark side.

But actually having to deal with another human being, to look after Dick Grayson and keep him alive, actually having a partner, someone to talk to, that might force Batman to evolve. Suddenly, it’s not all about grim revenge, but it’s about protecting and supporting someone, trying to help them to grow up and have a real chance at life. Batman lost his parents, he understands what Dick has gone through. That’s going to bond them. Wouldn’t he want to try and help Dick heal? To overcome traumas that he can’t? And wouldn’t the effort of helping Robin, help Batman himself heal, or at least cope better with his obsessions.

So they form a working superhero partnership. And hell, Dick has a lot of weird skills, including some that Bruce doesn’t have, and some he might be better at. Dick, for instance, might be a lot better at sweeping around on a batline, at least until he can teach Bruce his circus tricks.

As a final note, I think that Batman’s superhero colleagues would be pretty weirded out by Batman having a sidekick. I can see Superman showing up at the Batcave. That’s a fun story all by itself. I can see fun stories of Dick and Alfred’s budding relationship, and teaching Dick to have a secret identity as a ‘normal’ person.

So that’s Robin, year one. This isn’t the story of course. But I can see it in my mind. What this is, is the premise, the background details and ideas that shape the story, together with a few arcs. I’d love to write this comic. But it’s not like I know anyone in the comics industry, have any connections or experience.

So in the meantime, it’s just a fun idea.

2 thoughts on “Rethinking It: Robin, Year One”

  1. From what I read: Yes, yes, yes!
    I love your careful, benevolent and loving development of the characters … Did you study psychology as well as law?

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