Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. - The Wonderous Threads of ROBIN

 

In May of 1939, the Batman made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27. One year and one month later in Detective Comics #38 (April, 1940), he was given a young apprentice, a laughing boy daredevil modeled after Robin Hood. He was Richard “Dick” Grayson AKA Robin, the Boy Wonder, one of the first kid sidekicks of the comics book superhero genre.

After he turned 19, Dick decided he needed to follow a new path and left behind the Robin costume, choosing the new identity of Nightwing. Since then, others have taken on the identity of Robin and acted as apprentice and partner to the Dark Knight. Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown and Damian Wayne have all served as Robin in the mainstream reality. There have also been other Robins in other universes, but we won’t be focusing on those except for the inhabitants of Earth 2.

Now let’s examine the uniforms of these many heroes and the legacy that Dick Grayson started.

ROBIN 1: DICK GRAYSON

 

When Batman’s initial creators decided that the Darknight Detective needed a young assistant, they considered a few names. Some possibilities were Pepper, Socko, Tiger and Wildcat. Eventually it was decided to take a nod from Robin Hood and so young Dick Grayson was given a costume that would fit in with the superhero environment but would have a touch of medieval Britain to it.

When you take that into account, several elements of this outfit make sense. The suit isn’t far off from the green tights and tunic-over-a-shirt look that Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn would wear when they played Robin Hood in popular films of the time. The scaled shorts give a sense of chain mail and the laced shirt resembles something that might be worn by the film version of Robin Hood or a medieval squire. Most artists gave Dick Grayson a shorter cape than his cowled mentor, which makes sense for someone regularly doing backflips and somersaults.

 

In Dick Grayson’s first appearance, we saw that he and his parents had worn similar outfits when they operated in the circus together. This idea remained in various revisions of Dick’s backstory, keeping the idea that the Robin identity was an homage to his roots and even to his family’s circus colors.

The major weakness of this design today is the combination of tight shorts and bare legs. We have to remember that this outfit is a product of the times. During the Golden Age of comic books (roughly 1935-1951), it wasn’t unusual for superheroes, be they male or female, adult or child, to have bare legs rather than skintight colored leggings like their friends. But they operated in the 40s and then went away, so readers tend to forgive them, and the few who were rebooted or reintroduced in later decades usually got themselves some trousers.

Robin, on the other hand, did not go away. He stuck around and was adapted into other media and for decades those adaptations didn’t alter his design. As a result, he doesn’t get as much of a pass from later generations of fans for being a product of his time because he was never seen as a figure of the past.

 

We accept professional swimmers wearing Speedos without being embarrassed, but seeing similar shorts on a guy who spends his nights fighting serial killers and mobsters seems, at best, strange and, at worst, laughable. The silliness of the shorts is only enhanced by the presence of Robin’s pixie boots. Do those boots really have the best grip for scaling buildings?

Some have questioned why the Dark Knight would allow his apprentice to dress as a brightly colored target. First of all, it’s a comic book, so let’s throw out an expectation for 100% realism. Spider-Man doesn’t look as dynamic web-slinging in a t-shirt and jeans and Batman never trips over his cape despite the fact that its length seems to alter whether he’s moving, lurking or posing. It’s an exaggerated reality where the costume is meant to look striking and to inform us of who the character is.

A colorful, circus-like outfit reflects Dick’s personality. He’s the laughing boy daredevil. He understands the dangers of the world and agrees with Batman that sometimes vigilante justice is necessary to stop horrible crimes and save lives. But he’s not as cynical and still laughs at life as often as he can. He enjoys his life and work (usually) and the bright colors let us know that immediately.

The other thing that’s come up a few times is that Robin is playing a complementary role to Batman on a psychological/operational level. While Batman does his best to convince criminals and super-villains that he’s a vengeful, merciless, potentially supernatural force for good, Robin is there as “good cop.” He’s the guy a terrified witness or nervous criminal might feel more comfortable confiding in, hoping he’ll be more reasonable than his demonic mentor.

 

In a few early comics, the covers showcased Dick Grayson with a green cape instead of a yellow one. This is an interesting tweak. It seems to bring more uniformity to the costume and enhances the idea that he’s Robin Hood and not a kid named after a bird.

That covers the guy who invented the Robin identity and wore it for 44 years (Dick gave up the identity of Robin in February, 1984 and began operating under the name “Nightwing” a few months later). This outfit was also worn by Jason Todd, the second official Robin. Now let’s step sideways and examine another version of Dick Grayson.

WELCOME TO EARTH-2

When DC revised and updated its characters in the Silver Age of comics, it was generally decided that stories printed before 1956 were no longer considered continuity. Later on, DC decided it all did happen, just on the parallel world of Earth-2 where Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson began their heroic careers before the U.S. entered World War II.

 

While the mainstream Batman and Robin were still young, DC occasionally showed the Earth-2 Batman and Robin as older characters who had to evolve and change. The Earth-2 Bruce Wayne eventually retired from being Batman and became commissioner of the Gotham City Police Department. Eventually, he had a daughter Helena, who in time became a costumed vigilante known as the Huntress. And the Earth-2 Dick Grayson got himself a new costume to show that Robin had grown up.

Unfortunately, Dick’s fashion sense in this reality was terrible. He basically took the Batman costume, stamped an R monogram on the bat-symbol, and switched the cloak and cowl with a yellow collared cape. It looked ridiculous. Fortunately, Earth-2 Dick Grayson went back to embracing his own identity rather than trying to look like a drunken redesign of his mentor. His second outfit gave a clear message: “Robin grew up and got trousers.”

I personally think that the trousers should be green all the way down rather than have yellow leggings, but what the Heck.

TIM DRAKE

 

After the death of Jason Todd, Batman no longer wanted a partner. But when it became clear that he was becoming consumed by guilt and vengeance, teenage Tim Drake stepped into his life. Tim was a gifted detective with a prodigy-level intellect and had deduced Batman’s identity. He approached Dick Grayson and later Bruce Wayne about his belief that the hero needed a partner, someone to remind him that he wasn’t alone and to keep him in check. Eventually, Dick convinced Bruce that Tim would make an excellent choice as the new Robin. Bruce conceded, but insisted that the boy have better protection than Jason had.

Unlike the traditional Robin suit, Tim’s uniform here covers most of his body and has some visible padding that lets us know this is body armor. By making the outside of the cape black, he is able to more effectively hide in the shadows yet maintains the look of the classic Robin. This cape is also armored, like Batman’s, and is not simply the decoration of a circus performer. It all tells us that this Robin, while still bright and optimistic, also seems to take himself more seriously and that fits perfectly with Tim’s personality.

Tim was brighter than Bruce, yes, but he was not a laughing daredevil who cracked jokes while he did somersaults. He was a detective in his own right and was well aware that this was a job that could get you killed. Jason’s death made him more somber than Dick had been in the role.

Tim also had some personalized weapons. Rather than always using batarangs, he also had R-blades. And in case of emergency, the emblem on his chest was actually an extra R-blade that could be detached for quick use. A couple of times, Tim had his hands bound and was able to cut the rope by simply bringing the rope up to the R-blade on his shirt and cutting.

 

In the 1990s Batman: The Animated Series, Dick Grayson was initially seen as Robin. But rather than dress him in his original suit, the animators gave him Tim Drake’s uniform, which was more in keeping with the dark aesthetic of the program. Later on, the show moved forward in time by a few years. Dick Grayson became Nightwing and then Bruce recruited a young Tim Drake as the new Robin.

The program skipped over Jason Todd’s existence and made Tim a much cockier, more reckless youth. The animators also gave him a new costume to distinguish him from the animated version of Dick Grayson. This suit was red and black, completely eliminating green from the color scheme.

 

Years later, after the story Infinite Crisis in 2006, the comic book incarnation of Tim adopted this animated costume as his official mainstream uniform. The changes he made were adding scallops to the gauntlets and to the cape, creating a stronger visual connection to Batman. In the comics, it was explained that Tim adopted red and black as his colors now because he was remembering his friend Conner Kent AKA Superboy, who had seemingly died during Infinite Crisis.

Later on, Tim put aside this red and black costume and the Robin identity entirely. He adopted the new identity of Red Robin and continues using that to this day.

STEPHANIE BROWN

Stephanie Brown was initially introduced in the early 1990s as a vigilante in purple called the Spoiler. Her father was a criminal known as the Cluemaster and Stephanie became a costumed crime-fighter for both altruistic reasons and as an act of teenage rebellion. She quickly impressed Batman and then teamed-up with Tim Drake on several occasions, openly making romantic passes at him usually. The two became trusted friends and even had a relationship of sorts later on.

 

When Tim was temporarily forced by his father to abandon his Robin identity, Stephanie stepped into the role. Though there had been a female Robin named Carrie Kelley in the story The Dark Knight Returns, that story had been outside of continuity. Stephanie became the first official female Robin in the mainstream DC Comics canon.

First of all, the red hair band? Kind of adorable. And fits with Stephanie, who always fought crime with a smile and a joke. The tunic extending into a skirt is a nice feminine touch and also gives a little nod to Dick Grayson’s extended tunic.

Dick Grayson is not Stephanie’s model of Robin, Tim Drake is. So it makes complete sense that this look is primarily based on Tim’s first uniform. Depending on the artist, Stephanie also had hands around her elbows. With or without them, this look works.

DAMIAN WAYNE

 

For years, the terrorist cult leader Ra’s al Ghul has attempted to make Bruce Wayne his heir, believing he is the only one worthy. He hasn’t gotten that wish, but his daughter Talie fathered a son with Bruce and raised him with the aid of Ra’s al Ghul’s League of Assassins. When the boy Damian was about ten years old, mother introduced him to his father, who had been completely unaware of the child’s existence beforehand. Although he had been raised by assassins and warriors who taught him to show no mercy and take what he wanted, something in Damian recognized the value of his father’s morality and he chose to stay in Gotham, eventually becoming the new Robin. He got a new suit with a new hooded cape.

In one way, this seems like it needs a tweak here or there to really seem like a uniform and not something thrown together. Making the outer-lining of the cape black to match the hood would be nice. Or maybe removing the laces from the boots. On the other hand, Damian is still figuring things out. He thinks the previous Robins were weaker and less formidable than he, but he can’t deny the respect they earned from the superhero community. He’s no doubt wrestling with how much he wants to prove to others that he is Robin and yet be his own person. I can see a bit of that in this costume.

It’s a bit odd to me that the hood is black but the cape is yellow. I’d think it would make more sense to make the entire exterior of the cape black with the interior yellow, as Dick Grayson had done it.

OTHER RECENT TAKES

 

In the 21st century, there have been a few other redesigns of Robin in other media. The Teen Titans cartoon featured Dick Grayson in a costume similar to Tim Drake’s first one, but with simple green trousers that had no red shorts over them and thick black boots. A very similar costume, with a reverse color “R” badge was seen in the WB cartoon The Batman.

More recently still, the animated series Young Justice premiered gave us a version of Dick Grayson with no green coloring at all. The red coloring going down the sides of the trousers are a nice nod to the extended tunic look. And the short boots are a darker, more practical update on the pixie boots. It’s a good design and fits with the look of the whole show. Personally, I would prefer green trousers still, but it’s not a deal breaker.

 

A very popular version of Robin has been seen in the new video game Batman: Arkham City. Dick Grayson appears as Nightwing in this game and Tim Drake appears as Robin. This version of Tim is a little sterner than his comic book counterpart. Likewise, his uniform is obviously padded body armor that matches the aesthetic of Batman’s own design in the game. The visuals of Arkham City are a halfway point between the exaggerated reality of the comic books and the practical, grounded look of the recent films by Chris Nolan. This version of Robin definitely works in its atmosphere.

This version of Robin could definitely work in a live-action film. The colors are there but it still looks practical and utilitarian. The canvas pants are loose and the red line down the sides is a nice touch. The addition of the black hood also works nicely. It brings Tim back to a Robin Hood idea and enhances that he belongs in Batman’s world, but the red and green remind us that this is a daredevil and someone who doesn’t take himself as seriously as Batman. Great look.

THE NEW 52

 

Recently, DC Comics rebooted its superhero universe. Much of the past has been altered or completely thrown out (although there seems to be some disagreement now and then about which is which). In flashbacks, we’ve seen that apparently the original Robin costume may not have existed in this new continuity. In the series Red Hood and the Outlaws, Jason Todd (he was later resurrected, by the way) recalled his early days taking over the Robin mantle from Dick Grayson and the costume he wore resembled the animated Teen Titans uniform. The biggest differences were that the cape was entirely yellow and the whole suit has various seams and visible padding showing that it’s body armor, which is a big thing with many of the new costume designs in DC’s “New 52” reality.

Part of this involved bringing about a new version of Earth 2. Like before, this is a world where Superman, Batman and a few others operated years before their mainstream universe counterparts began their costumed careers. And just as in the past, this older Batman had a daughter named Helena Wayne. But this time, Helena didn’t take on the Huntress identity until events led to her being transported to the mainstream DC Earth. While she lived on Earth 2, she operated as that world’s Robin, specially trained for the role by her father.

 

This take on Robin involves a body armor look similar to the Arkham City design. The shoulder pads seem a bit cumbersome, but otherwise it’s a very nice look. It is odd, personally, to see the Robin symbol as a clasp rather than a badge over the heart. But that’s a personal preference. It’s a great look and these differences can be said to be ways of Helena making this her own look rather than simply resembling a female version of Dick or Tim. And I rather like the red mask.

And that concludes our look at the many Robins. Hope you enjoyed this. Until next time, this is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off.  Note, if you are going to GEEK GIRL CON in Seattle, I will be there, speaking on panels and selling books. Feel free to say hello!

And if you haven’t heard, August is the final month I’ll be doing Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. for Newsarama. Hope you enjoy the next few entries!

Alan Sizzler Kistler is an actor and writer who regularly jumps between New York City and Los Angeles. He is the author of The Unofficial Batman Trivia Challenge, The Unofficial Spider-Man Trivia Challenge and The Unofficial Game of Thrones Cookbook. He believes Isaac Asimov should be required reading in schools and misses seeing Stephanie Brown in comic books.

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