Batman’s now had many partners and apprentices that have taken on the codename “Robin.” But it all started with Richard “Dick” Grayson, a circus acrobat who today is known as Nightwing. So where did Dick’s original alter ego come from? What brought about the Dark Knight’s original squire and where did his name and costume come from?
AN APPRENTICE IS BORN
Just months after Batman’s first appearance in 1939, the folks at Detective Comics discussed the possibility of expanding his supporting cast. At this point in time, there is no Alfred, no Batcave, no Catwoman, no Joker even. 1939 Batman’s supporting case includes Police Commissioner Jim Gordon and love interest Julie Madison. But Jim Gordon, at this time, is just an acquaintance of Bruce Wayne rather than a trusted comrade-in-arms of the Batman. Likewise, Julie Madison is kept in the dark, unaware that her love leads a double life and that he is the same vigilante who once saved her from vampires. Bill Finger, co-creator of Batman and the writer of his early adventures and mythology, thought that Batman needed a confidant in the same way that Sherlock Holmes needed Dr. John Watson.
Batman was a hero created in the same vein as several pulp fiction and radio vigilantes such as Zorro, the Shadow and the Green Hornet. Even in his first story, Zorro had his aide and confidant Bernardo. In the pulps, the Shadow acted through many agents, and often directly worked in the company of one named Harry Vincent. On radio, the Shadow didn’t have agents but did fight crime with the help of his confidant and love Margot Lane, and later they were often accompanied by well-meaning cabbie Shrevvy. The Green Hornet fought crime alongside his trusted valet and bodyguard Kato.
Bill Finger argued that Batman should also have a helper and confidant. It allowed the character’s personality to come out more clearly by giving him someone to speak with rather than only using omniscient narration and the occasional thought bubble, or even sometimes having Batman voice his thoughts aloud for its own sake. It would remind readers how impressive Batman was by literally having someone in the scene to point it out. What’s more, a sidekick could give the readers, particularly the younger ones, someone more human to relate to than the somber vigilante who not only spent years training to be an expert in so many fields, but was also lucky enough to have the best genetic traits to make his prowess possible.
In these days, superheroes got cool codenames that you could trademark and put on covers, but sidekicks were sidekicks. You didn’t take them quite as seriously or expect them to spin-off into their own series, so why waste a trademarkable codename on them? Sidekicks got used their real names or got simple nicknames. The Lone Ranger’s partner Tonto was just Tonto. Likewise, the Green Hornet’s valet Kato did not have a codename when he dressed in black and put on a mask, criminals just knew him as the Hornet’s driver and enforcer in black. So there was no discussion about giving Batman’s young sidekick a name like “Nightwing” or “Red Hood” or “Raptor.” Some of the suggested names were “Tiger” and “Socko.” Apparently “Wildcat” was a suggestion at one point.
Eventually, the name “Robin” came up. According to then Batman artist Jerry Robinson, he came up with the name as a way of indicating that this character would be a swashbuckling Robin Hood style daredevil, someone who would be a contrast to the somber, dark Batman in style, personality and color. Errol Flynn‘s film portrayal of the famous archer hero in the classic film The Adventures of Robin Hood served as the artistic model.
Thus we got Dick Grayson, an adolescent circus aerialist who is given the opportunity to bring his parents’ killer to justice and then stays on as Bruce Wayne’s legal ward and the Dark Knight’s squire, described in the story as a “young Robin Hood.” Debuting in the comics only eleven months after Batman’s first appearance, Robin is part of the very foundation of Bruce Wayne’s mythology. He was readily accepted by readers, inspired a deluge of imitator sidekicks in other comic books, and even got his own solo adventures in the pages of Star-Spangled Comics.
Many years later, Robin and a few other DC Comics sidekicks became the founding members of the original Teen Titans team, with Dick as the leader. In the 1970s, comic books allowed Robin to start aging, sending him off to college and shaping him into someone who now clashed with Batman on occasion, before finally stepping out of Bruce’s shadow and adopting the identity of Nightwing in the 1980s.
Dick was succeeded as Robin by Jason Todd, a circus orphan later revised to be a troubled street kid orphan. He was killed before the end of the decade, then resurrected in the 21st century. In the 1990s, Tim Drake became the next successor and became popular enough to have his own series, Robin, starting in 1993 and lasting well over 100 issues. During that time, the role was adopted for a few months by Stephanie Brown, who is more widely known as Spoiler and for a time also acted as one of the Batgirls. Nowadays, Tim is called Red Robin and the role of Batman’s young partner is filled by Bruce Wayne’s son Damian.
SWASHBUCKLER OR BIRD?
Over the years, Errol Flynn and his style of Robin Hood faded from public consciousness. Dick Grayson was no longer someone whom readers associated with the swashbuckling archer of legend. Due to the red shirt and the fact that birds, like bats, are winged creatures, readers started assuming that Dick’s codename was a reference to the red-breasted animal often associated with spring. In 1993, Tim Drake (then serving as Robin) even gets a Batmobile-like car that he calls the Redbird.
It makes you wonder what would have happened if Dick Grayson had assumed the name “Hood” instead of Robin. Likewise, I think the Robin Hood homage would have remained clear in people’s minds if Dick had worn green trousers instead of shorts or a green shirt or even if his cape had been green (as it was occasionally depicted in Golden Age comic book covers and promotional materials). Today’s Robin, Damian Wayne, wears a hooded cape, as does Tim Drake in the video game Arkham City.
IN-UNIVERSE NAME ORIGINS
In-universe, it was clear in the early days and in some flashbacks that Dick adopted the name “Robin” because he emulated Robin Hood. But as that idea vanished, the writers came up with other in-universe reasons for why Dick would associate himself with a red-breasted bird. In one Silver Age story, readers are told that Bruce Wayne himself creates and uses the Robin identity briefly as a teenager, modeling himself on Robin Hood, and Dick simply inherits the name and suit years later.
In 1989, Batman #441 shows that Dick and his parents wore red and green outfits complete with yellow capes during some of their performances at Haly’s Circus. So the later Robin costume design is clearly a reminder of Dick’s happy childhood. Many comics since then have used the idea that either Dick’s Robin suit or the later Nightwing suit or both are based on circus outfits that he and/or his parents wore. In Batgirl Year One, Batman remarks to Alfred that Dick’s bright costume is also to mark him as the “good cop” of Gotham City’s dynamic duo.
In 1995’s Robin Annual #4, the story claims that Dick’s mother nicknamed him “Robin” because he was born on the dawn of spring.
That same year, the movie Batman Forever proposed a different story, giving us a Dick Grayson who has a brother and doesn’t adopt the Robin identity until his late teens. In that film, Dick remarks that the red-breasted bird is his nickname and self-appointed symbol because of an incident years earlier: “My brother’s wire broke once and I swung out and grabbed him. My father said I was his hero. I flew in like a robin.”
In 2000, the comic book limited series Batman: Dark Victory said that Dick’s mother had nicknamed him Robin since he was so active and curious that it reminded her of the song “Rockin’ Robin,” describing a bird who kept “hoppin’ and a-boppin'” along. A cute but very odd story since the song is very clearly not literally about a bird who can’t sit still.
In 2012, Nightwing #0 proposes that Dick’s mother simply had a deep fondness for robins and occasionally called her son “my robin.” Furthermore, Dick gave his mother a bracelet decorated by two robins on her last birthday, the same day she and her husband died.
Personally, I wouldn’t mind if the comics simply said that Dick Grayson is a fan of The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn and simply wanted to emulate that when he was a superhero. Perhaps even add that his parents loved watching it with him. But that’s just me.