Taking the Circus Out of the Boy: Looking at Robin’s Changing Past in Comics

Hurricane Irma cancelled our flight home in early September. Since we couldn’t go to Miami, and our house was in an evacuation zone, my older siblings thought it would be best if the family went to Philadelphia until the next flight back. Jay, my older brother, showed me how one could use ChromeCast to show YouTube videos on the big screen. This proved to be a delightful experience.

My younger brother enjoys the old KidSongs videos. For those who don’t know, KidSongs was a series in which children and adults covered music centered around themes. You could see a video about the circus, for example, about a theme park or about silly events. My brother liked watching the circus video, which features a lot of footage of elephants dancing and clowns juggling.

Times Are A Changing

Circuses have since gone out of fashion, for various reasons. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey have announced they are closing up shop, due to dropping admissions and controversy about animal rights. The Cirque de Soleil displays the most expensive performances one can see, which creates a cost barrier for the average American. We also have theme parks, home movies available by clicking a button, and technology that can entertain.

I only realized a strange trend while coming home from vacation. (For those wondering, Hurricane Irma led to dozens of flights being cancelled, but we returned home in one piece and found people who can remove the fallen trees from the yard. It’s not fun to run smack into fallen branches.) Dick Grayson, the first Robin in the Batman comics, has had more out-of-comic appearances where he sheds his origins as a circus boy, than he has before.

The Origins

Dick Grayson is a legacy character. He’s been allowed to grow up, to grow old in some instances, but to remain a Boy Wonder. By that I mean that he never loses the sense of adventure or delight that he had as a child. While some comic writers have made a few incarnations less sympathetic than most glares at the mean writer that assumed Dick would be a philanderer, he remains the first Robin. If a subsequent Robin didn’t have that delight, or if the delight was written out of them (I will always hate you for doing that to Jason Todd, Jim Starlin), then they would receive the boot. Damian Wayne has so far proved the exception, where he remains a brat in tights but also one of the funniest children.

Dick Grayson comes from the circus, from a family of acrobats. His family dies due to a mob boss’s sabotage, and Bruce adopts him before the mob boss can finish off Dick. They find they enjoy fighting crime together, and Dick finds a new father in Bruce.

The various ages of Batman showed that you could take the boy out of the circus, but you couldn’t take the circus out of the boy. Dick would function as a performer when crime fighting, wearing a colorful outfit and doing fancy acrobatics. He would steal the show at times, and move into the spotlight. Frederic Wertham accused Bruce of taking advantage of his ward, but the truth is that they are father and son.

Valuing animal life

I grew up loving the circus. A KidSongs video displayed the fun of being able to watch elephants dance, dogs run, and clowns dabbing on makeup. I even performed as a clown during a week in summer camp. It was utterly delightful to watch live performances with trapeze artists, to pretend that you could be the Ringmaster for a day.

The twenty-first century changed this. Animal rights groups came out with evidence that circuses abused their animals. Further evidence revealed that elephants are quite intelligent creatures that have feelings and would rather not parade around a ring, thus losing their dignity and gradually getting worn down. You only realize in hindsight that the chains around their legs were quite cruel.

Media has also changed. In the 1930s, the circus had less entertainment competition. As Ray Bradbury would describe in Something Wicked This Way Comes, when referring to a traveling fair, such entertainment promises magic. Television would come soon after, as would video games, smart phones, and alternate reality games. How could the big top compete?

John Blake in Dark Knight Rises

The Christopher Nolan films certainly handled the Robin legacy story differently. They take away the more surreal comic aspects that don’t translate to screen, and ground the Dark Knight in reality. This fresh take added more tragedy and hope to the saga. Unlike certain films that I could mention, they make sure that Bruce remains a decent human being. (More on that in a future article once I get to the Nolan films in the “Heart of the Bat” series.)

Robin John Blake, like the first two Robins, is an orphan, but he has also decided to become a cop, and has deduced Batman’s identity. He has physical skills and the ability to kill, but would rather have alternatives to shooting in self-defense. You can see no trapeze acrobatics in his fighting style, just intellect and police training. This doesn’t make him a bad character; I love this take on Robin that doesn’t need a colorful outfit to stand out.

Besides which, circus boy Robin doesn’t work in Nolan’s Gotham. Bruce doesn’t go to the circus, for one. He rarely sees kids or relates to them. John Blake, as a cop who figures out Bruce’s retired identity, speaks on the same level as an orphan who fights on the right side of the law, realizes the police can’t do enough, and eventually takes on Batman’s legacy.

Lego Batman

As a LEGO figure, Robin is technically as old as Batman, the Joker and Alfred are. Alfred references previous films, and Joker claims that he and Batman have fought for 78 years. Despite all this, we only get one Robin and one adoption story. This Robin happens to be Dick Grayson, who now resembles Carrie Fisher and has light brown rather than dark hair.

Dick doesn’t come from the circus. He doesn’t reference seeing his parents falling from the trapeze thanks to a corrupt mobster. Instead, Batman encounters him first at the Gotham orphanage and then at a local gala. Dick manages to convince a distracted Bruce Wayne to adopt him, because he wants a parental figure in his life. Alfred admits that he’s grown fond of Dick, and hopes that Bruce will treat the young man as his son. Bruce comes to find that he cares for the boy, and wants to keep him safe.

Taking the circus away from Dick’s backstory reduces his angst, where he only tries to brood to “save his friends” and act like Batman. It also grounds him further in the twenty-first century, where Bruce happily takes a selfie with him and has Siri offer backup via the Batmobile. Barbara Gordon and Batman comment that Robin needs pants, referencing his classic leotard outfit, and he claims to know gymkata from the ’80s rather than circus acrobatics. We see little to no trapeze trappings here.

What does it mean?

Changing Robin’s origin is not necessarily a bad thing. Taking him away from the circus means that we are taken away from the moral ambiguity of supporting controversial entertainment. The more we know, the more our comic characters’ history shows holes in leadership. Of course, that question then becomes if we need to always make these changes to keep characters relevant and sympathetic.

On the other hand, when you take the circus away from Robin, you take away his showman personality and good cheer. Dick represents the innocence that Batman lost, staying positive despite his parents dying horribly. You can have that innocence without the big top, but there is a marked difference.

Time will tell if downplaying Robin’s origins will impact his story. For now, we can watch a boy fly through the air, on a high trapeze.

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