Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The Dynamic Duo, '50s-Style

One of the conceits with the Golden Age (and the old days of Earth-2) was that those adventures took place virtually in real time. If a comic was cover-dated June 1954, the story within was presumed to occur in June 1954. (This informative timeline was derived using just such a methodology.) Under this theory, the 24-year-old Batman first appeared in 1939 and the 12-year-old Robin in 1940.

Most fans know that the Batman stories of the 1950s and early 1960s contained heavy doses of science-fiction and fantasy. This was a bit of self-censorship, reacting to the public's fears about comics' evil influences. The trend ended when editor Julius Schwartz took over Batman in 1964; and by and large it has not returned.

If these "atypical" stories are part of the Batman canon at all, they're part of the character's Golden Age/Earth-2 incarnation. However, since at least the 1970s, that Batman's history has been viewed through a more modern filter, in order to make sure that the dark, gothic elements of the character predominate. That's all well and good, but if we know that Batman and Robin were active into the 1960s, what were their adventures like if not what was published?

I'd love to see a period piece covering the post-war adventures of Batman and Robin, especially focusing on the changing relationship between the two. If Dick was 12 when he became Robin, he would have been 18 in 1946 and 30 in 1958. (Bruce is about 13 years older.) Dick's "modern" counterpart famously dropped out of college and had a semi-public split with Batman -- why didn't the original version? What happened when Dick reached "playboy" age himself? Did Bruce's 1948 confrontation with Joe Chill help him let go of the "grim" Batman? If the rest of the Justice Society was driven into retirement, how were the globe-trotting Batman and Robin viewed? Did they evolve from mysterious vigilantes into pillars of the community, as the comics of the period suggest? (I wouldn't entirely discount the weird sci-fi or time-travel stuff either.)

Some of this ground has been covered by John Byrne's Generations stories, but Byrne has Bruce marrying earlier and retiring earlier, with Dick taking over as Batman (which he never did on Earth-2). Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier is closer to what I'm picturing, but his version of Robin started much later than 1940.

The way I see it, here are two orphaned men whose lives were changed forever by very similar tragedies. Each was able to help the other focus his grief into a personal crusade which led to a lifetime of adventure. During a period of over 20 years, while the world changed around them, their relationship progressed from paternal to fraternal, and eventually they saw each other as equals. It's a story that perhaps could only be told with the Golden Age/Earth-2 backdrop, and I think it's worth telling.

11 comments:

iamza said...

I think Dick's taking over the role of Batman was one of the few things I didn't like quite as much about John Byrne's Generations. Probably because I'd been coming at these characters from their most recent incarnations, where Dick and Bruce are isolated/distanced from one another to a degree. I've not read many golden-age Bat-adventures, and from that perspective, it does make perfect sense for Dick to take over the 'family business'.

I'd love to read a story about golden-age Bruce and Dick as contemporaries. Golden-age Bruce was a much more cheerful seeming individual--I'd like to know how that would influence a thirty-year-old golden age Dick Grayson. For one thing, one would hope that Dick would have had a happier upbringing, and so, possibly, wouldn't be quite as emotionally needy as the current incarnation?

Tom Bondurant said...

I actually think that Modern Dick helped Modern Bruce get over some of the grimness, and that in turn contributed to Dick's good upbringing. The Batman of today's comics is grim in part because of Jason's death, Barbara's shooting, Bane, etc. Alternatively, he could have been just as grim, and Dick's good upbringing is due to Alfred and Leslie Thompkins.

Of course, one could also argue GA Bruce was happy because his editors wanted him to be, not because it was a logical progression for the character....

Slightly OT, Iamza, I commented on your site about the two Jason Todds. Did that help?

Tom Bondurant said...

Never mind about the Jason thing, Iamza, I just went to your site.

iamza said...

See, for me, Miller's Year One Batman didn't seem all that grim. But, by the time Dick came to live with him, Bruce seemed to have closed himself off and lost his sense of humour. To me, anyway. I mean, I'm basing this interpretation on the few Batfamily books I've read, and most of those have been TPB collections and mini series, so it's *entirely* possible I'm getting this all wrong. :-)

Alfred seems to me to be the best thing that ever happened to the modern incarnations of both Bruce and Dick. Alfred certainly strikes me as the sanest/least tormented of the bunch, at any rate. Leslie is a newer character to me--I don't really know all that much about her. (That she was friends with the Waynes, that she hates what all the Batclan are doing, and that she and Alfred were once an item about covers my knowledge of her).

I think some of GA Bruce's level of happiness was due to editors and also to a very different vision of what superheroes and superhero stories were supposed to be about back then. In fact, the few golden age stories I've read have all had a sense of optimism about them that I think Busiek's AstroCity books echo nowadays. I do know that reading the second volume of the Batman Archives was an interesting experience, because Dick and Bruce seemed so much more like real family, laughing and joking with one another. That's not something I've observed in modern portrayals of Dick's younger years.

Matthew_Rossi said...

Alan Brennert's Earth-2 stories touched upon this: have you read them?

Tom Bondurant said...

I have read Brennert's Earth-2 stories. Aren't there just two, "The Autobiography Of Bruce Wayne" and "Interlude on Earth-2?" (I have lost my copy of the latter.) "Autobiography" is a great subversion of the whole "grim" approach. Of course, Brennert had Bruce question whether the crusade had gotten in the way of his personal life, something which DC wouldn't have Batman do today on a bet.

See, my "Fantastic Adventures of Batman & Robin" would fit right into your Batman-through-the-decades Hypertime proposal, Matt!

Iamza, Leslie Thompkins first appeared in the '70s story "Appointment in Crime Alley." (It was adapted for the animated series.) She wasn't Bruce's guardian or Dr. Wayne's colleague, just a woman who was kind to him the night his parents were killed. In 1986, Mike Barr updated her as we know her today. She played a prominent role in "Batman: Year Two" and was introduced in the issue which preceded it ('Tec #574, I think).

Alfred actually wasn't around for the first few years. I think he first appeared in 1943. In fact, I want to say that "Year One" retconned him into being the Wayne family butler; until then, he came along after Dick.

My theory on the "grim cycle" is that Bruce was grim in Year One, but Dick lightened him up starting in Year 3. When he and Dick split up, he backslid into grimness. Jason helped this a little (Bruce was concerned that Jason was too grim), and we all know what happened since then.

Matthew_Rossi said...

I actually have 'Interlude on Earth Two" scanned and ready for dissection if I ever get back to my Batman stories deal.

And Brennert wrote a Batman story that's set on an Earth that is 20 years behind Earth-1 that I mistook for an Earth-2 story.

Tom Bondurant said...

Yeah, "To Kill A Legend," from Detective #500. Shame that Brennert didn't write more Batman.

One thing about the source material I'd want to adjust for this hypothetical "Fantastic Adventures" idea -- Dick didn't really age in the comics, but he would here. (Wonder if the Karkull radiation would have affected him differently?) I figure he would have ditched the short pants at least by age 20, but I don't think he would have adopted the hideous gray half-Batman costume until Bruce retired. That thing looked like Dick lost a bet.

Shane Bailey said...

Also if Dick was 18-24 or so wouldn't he be elligible for the draft in the 40's or 60's depending on when he grew up.

Tom Bondurant said...

If you go by that timeline, Dick (b. 1928) would be 18 in 1946 and 34 in 1962. Too old for WWII, too young for Vietnam, but he would have been draftable for Korea. Earth-2 Dick went to college and law school, so he may have gotten a deferment.

I have never had to deal with the draft, so I don't quite know how it works or would be avoided, but it would be an issue here.

Anonymous said...

OK, Dick did not age much in the Golden Age, I know he turned 14 sumtime in the early 40's,(I think 42') but that is pretty much it. I dont read any modern (after 1960) stuff, but if you listen to the Superman radio shows out of the 40's, Batman and Robin come on lots, and Robin was 14 for at least three years running (1945-48). He's just lucky that way. I also think Bruce is way too grim today. He was pretty grim before Robin too. Everything is more fun with a friend, and Robin's jokes made the stories lots more fun.