Christmas with Robin!

It's Christmastime here at the castle, which makes it the perfect time to talk about the first appearance of Robin, the Boy Wonder, for reasons which are so obvious that I needn't bother mentioning them. Or making them up, in point of fact.

That's a bold way to advertise a new character on the cover of a comic. The most important find of the entire year? Isn't his also the year that Flash Comics were first published? And maybe it's a little pedantic, but how do you classify something you created as a 'find'? I suppose the idea was 'found' in the sense that someone pitched him to an editor and the editor said yes, but that's something of a stretch.

The year 1940, when the concept of 'surprise' apparently didn't even exist in storytelling. The first panel, the first text of the story informs the reader that not only does Batman have a new partner, but that he's acrobatics-themed and takes his inspiration from Robin Hood. All of this information will be imparted to the reader over the next couple of pages, but someone couldn't risk the possibility that even a mild surprise might upset their readers, so they decided to lay the whole thing out before the story even starts.

I understand the historic precedent for this kind of storytelling - you open a story with a statement about how it concerns the most amazing people at the most important time doing the most thrilling things in history, thus insuring that people will want to continue hearing the rest of the story. That's not an issue here, however - this is a Batman story. Kids want to read it already - desperately, in fact. Perhaps it's an attempt to place this origin story amongst the most important tales of western literature, a veritable Scarlet Pimpernel of its age. If so, that's kind of presumptuous.

Then the story moves through the well-known paces. Gangsters demand protection money from a popular circus, the manager refuses, with predictable results-

Dick, traumatized by his parents' deaths, goes to talk with the circus manager, and winds up overhearing him agreeing to the payoff in hopes of preventing any further deaths. Quite sensibly, the young man resolves to contact the proper authorities, only to be stopped... by Batman!

This is the first interesting turn in the story, one that I honestly wasn't suspecting. I'm familiar with the Robin origin, of course, and have seen a variety of retellings, but I was curious to see how Batman originally justified bringing Robin into the world of crime-fighting.

Yikes. That's right, Dick will be inside of an hour. Not only is this a great reason to take the kid back to the Batcave, it's the first mention of systemic police corruption in the world of the Batman. Up until now criminals have shown up, Batman has viciously beaten (and sometimes killed) them, and then he simply let the police sort it out. With this one panel a whole new set of potential storylines is opened up in Detective Comics. If the police can't be trusted, then maybe there's a need for a Batman after all. Of course, we're not supposed to think that Gotham is this bad - this story is set in a 'Rising Young Town' near by, perhaps the later Bludhaven - but still, given the major role that police corruption will playing in the narrative in years to come, it's interesting to see it crop up this early.

Oh, and for the record, Bruce Wayne just happened to be at the Circus that night, watching the show, and he had the bat-costume in his car, because he always does, apparently. Hopefully no one saw Batman driving around town and back to Gotham in Bruce Wayne's car - although that's a fairly small risk.

That very night Dick decides to devote his life to crime-fighting, largely because Batman's parents were also murdered, and it seems to have worked out pretty well for him. One oath later, the training begins!
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Robin - he's like Robin Hood, only without all of the archery or social justice or concern for the poor! So basically just the swinging from chandeliers while laughing.

After many months of training (I'm not sure how this timeline works - I guess some of the Batman adventures we've already seen happened during the training period, and Robin just wasn't on the streets yet?) it's time for Batman's plan to go into effect! He's going to take boss Zucco down by starting at the very bottom of his operation and working his way up. Literally the bottom. Robin goes undercover as a newsie so that he can be shaken down by the other, older newsies looking for the mob's cut.

Robin then tails the pint-sized thugs to Boss Zucco's hideout - that's right, everyone, from the lowliest paperboy right up to the top capos bring the protection money straight to Zucco's house. Which has no security to speak of, allowing Robin to eavesdrop outside a window, and discover that the writers and artists of this comic were very excited to deliver the most stereotypical mob boss imaginable.
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Armed with something resembling a collection schedule, Batman heads out the next night and roughs up all of Zucco's goons, then attacks a mob-run casino! I'm not entirely sure how he knew where it was, since it has nothing to do with the protection racket they've been investigating. Maybe it was an open secret in this crime-ridden town? Anyhow, here's Batman crippling/killing a guy by whipping a 200-pound roulette table into his chest.

The strategy is pretty clever for Batman, who until now has restricted himself to punching crooks while they're committing crimes. Also one time he shot a couple of vampires. This, however, is on a whole other level - beating up Zucco's goons without any concern for law and order, simply reminding the public that the guy they're living in fear of isn't as untouchable as they'd assumed. Then, in what might be the least subtle thing Batman's ever done, he smashes a slot machine with a baseball bat.

He's not even close to finished with the humiliation, however, saving the ultimate humiliation for boss Zucco himself!

I love to imagine the setup for this scene. Batman catching a bat, quickly stuffing it into a shoebox, wrapping butcher paper and string around it after carefully poking holes in the side... then turning it all over to a courier to be delivered to the deadliest mob boss in town. Fantastic. Here's the question left unanswered by the story: How exactly did the package get there? I see three possibilities-

A) Batman disguised himself as a courier and dropped it off.
B) Batman disguised himself as a regular Joe and hired a courier.
3) Batman hired a courier while wearing the Batman costume.

I don't know about you, but I sincerely hope it's the third option on that list.

The box contains a letter, specifically daring Zucco to try and extort money from the owners of a new skyscraper being built in town - it's under the Batman's protection! Angered at the slight, Zucco grabs a crate of dynamite and five of his best men - he's going to blow up the top few floors of the building, then demand payment - or the rest of it goes! I feel like blowing up the tops of building might not be that precise a job, but not being a demolitionist, I can't say for sure.

Robin knocks out the guard Zucco left downstairs, then follows his posse up to the roof. He's spotted almost immediately, because his costume seems designed to preclude the possibility of stealth, but that doesn't bother him in the least. No, Robin had always planned to get into a scrap atop an unfinished building with five armed men.

Step 1:

Brain a guy with a lead sling shot and have him fall off the roof. To his death.

Step 2:

Use jiu-jitsu to throw a guy off the roof. To his death.

Step 3:

Let a guy think he's got you cornered-

Then swing and kick him off the roof!

To his death.

With Robin solely responsible for bringing the odds way down from a shocking 5-1, Batman finally steps in to even things up-
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The guy in the green suit sees the way the tide is turning, and tries to make a getaway - but just winds up dangling from the end of a rope, with Batman threatening to burn it through with acid, so he'll die in the same manner as the Graysons - who he killed!

Exactly how Batman knows that this particular goon is responsible for the deaths of Robin's parents isn't super-clear, but it turns out he's right, and the goon agrees to sign a confession implicating Zucco as the man who gave the order. They spend the next few minutes writing up and signing the confession, and since Batman didn't bother securing Zucco in any way, shape, or form, he awakes just in time to witness the signature! Not in the legal sense, just observationally. Angered, he shoves his final henchmen off the roof!

Say it with me - to his death!

But everything's okay! Robin was waiting on a nearby girder with a camera, giving him a chance to document the hot-blooded murder! So did Batman not tie Zucco up on purpose, hoping he'd do something like this? That's a pretty cavalier game to play. I'm not entirely sure why he doesn't just shove Zucco off the roof at this point, if only so they can scratch a line across the other notches.

The plot is then quickly wrapped up - Zucco's off to the chair, the governor pledges to clean up nameless corrupt town (hey, what state is Gotham in, anyhow?), and Robin's going to stay on as Batman's sidekick rather than go back to the circus! The operators of which, come to think of it, are probably fairly worried about Dick Grayson - you know, the child who mysteriously disappeared on the night his parents were killed, and hasn't been seen or heard from since? I wonder if they've ever gotten over worrying about that mystery?

Also left unexplored, the legal hoops that Batman has to go through in order to formally adopt Robin. Not a huge surprise, since this isn't an issue of She-Hulk.

Then things close out with another ad, continuing this story's desperate attempts to convince the reader that they've enjoyed themselves-
There's the hard sell, and then, on a whole other level, there's the first appearance of Robin.

Happy Christmas, everybody!


busterggi said...

Goes to show that the Punisher & other quick-to-kill heroes aren't anything but a return to comic hero roots.

Vardulon said...

And that early superheroes' feelings about the death of criminals were largely informed by the pulp heroes that preceded them.

busterggi said...

Except for Doc Savage of course!