You describe a number of recent texts which have drawn implicitly and explicitly on the figure of Robin. I wanted to get you to comment on a few of these. I was surprised for example to see that Dexter had made such significant references to Robin. What do you think is going on there?
Heaven knows! The references to Robin in the Dexter books and TV series are one of the most interesting recent uses of the Robin figure, simply because they’re so removed from our ordinary understanding of Robin as a pop figure. Out of all the fantasy figures a serial killer could potentially imagine himself as, why does he return again and again to Robin imagery? It may partly be because Dexter’s vigilante training by his adoptive father is such a crucial element in who he is: without that education, he wouldn’t be able to thrive in the world, just as Robin is defined by Batman’s influence.
It may also relate to the fact that Dexter’s origin story is a dark mirror to Robin’s: both are orphaned as children and taken in by a crime fighter. Comics to this day experiment with ‘what if’ scenarios: what if baby Kal-El’s capsule had crashed in Russia, things like that. The Dexter novels are almost a what-if of what could happen if Robin’s childhood trauma created a sociopath rather than a child hell-bent on stopping bad guys.
What aspects of Robin did Eminem evoke in his “Without Me” music video?
Primarily the daredevil-trickster-troublemaker aspects; he’s made a career out of being the village fool who’s not scared of saying that the emperor has no clothes. Eminem most obviously borrows Robin’s costume and some of the 60s TV show’s set pieces — walking up walls and things like that — but on a deeper level, Eminem borrows Robin’s eternal boyhood, and the freedom that youth brings with it. I think it’s really interesting that three of the current musicians whom I cite as drawing most heavily on what Robin represents and offers — Eminem, Pete Wentz, and Gerard Way — are all in their thirties, and yet all three are still seen very much of being the voice of a generation that’s only just over half that age. Eminem’s got a teenage daughter and yet he’s not yet percieved as a ‘grown up’ himself. How does he manage that? I think the answer lies partially in the way he employs tropes like Robin in his persona. He’s a boy who never grows up.
Given your analysis of the character, which writer do you think has offered us the richest, most nuanced depiction of Robin and why?
This is a tough one to answer, because the nuances of Robin come about because of the opportunity later writers have to build on what earlier writers laid down as foundations. So I could rattle off an answer and say Devin Grayson’s Nightwing/Huntress series was an excellent depiction of the way Robin’s sexuality might develop when he reaches adulthood, and what
qualities he ends up attracted to in a partner or Andersen Gabrych’s grasp of what qualities Batman is drawn to in Robins, and why those are exactly the worst qualities for a Gotham vigilante to have, is the stuff of epic gothic tragedy — but Grayson and Gabrych’s especial genius in their work isn’t simply telling great stories; it’s taking the disparate pieces of such a disjointed history and melding them into a coherent, nuanced whole.
There have been, of course, many attempts to depict Robin outside his/her relationship to Batman — as a member of the Teen Titans or as an adult figure on his own right. What impact have these efforts had on the public perception of this figure?
I’m not sure that Robin’s able to remain Robin all that well once the relationship with Batman is pushed to the back. I love the whole Teen Titans concept, but it and ‘Robin’ as a role seem to inevitably become mutually exclusive: it was in Teen Titans that Dick Grayson quit being Robin and instead became Nightwing. The Robin of the Teen Titans cartoon became Nightwing, as well, in a storyline set in the future, and there’s a strong narrative thread throughout the cartoon of Slade acting almost as a surrogate Batman for Robin to clash with.
Robin with Batman is the protege, the squire, the ward: the student, essentially. Robin with the Teen Titans is no older than Robin with Batman, but with the Teen Titans he’s the leader, rather than the student. There’s too much cognitive dissonance between the two roles, and so time and time again it breaks down: either Robin quits the Teen Titans, or quits being Robin. Both outcomes have happened numerous times in the comics.
Mary Borsellino is a freelance writer in Melbourne, Australia. She has published essays about subjects such as the shifting portrayals of Batman’s childhood family, a feminist critique of the TV show Supernatural, and gender in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics. She is currently working on a series of YA novels which will begin release later this year and which have been described as ‘Twilight for punks’. Mary is the Assistant Editor of the journal Australian Philanthropy.
You can download her book, Boy and Girl Wonders: Robin in Cultural Context here.