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Boy and Girl Wonders: An Interview with Mary Borsellino

by Professor Henry Jenkins

Originally published: here and here.

Boy and Girl Wonders

Robin didn't start with Robin. Robin won't end when Robin ends. In fact, it's arguable that Robin's already begun to move on from Robin.

In less smartypants language, what I mean is that the ingredients which were brought together to create the character of "Robin," Batman's red-and-green-and-gold-wearing sidekick, were ingredients which already shared numerous common elements. And once Robin could no longer embody these elements, other pop culture arose to take over the character's place.

Or so goes the opening paragraphs of Mary Borsellino's fascinating new work, Girl and Boy Wonders: Robin in Cultural Context. The self-published text, which can be downloaded here, explodes with new insights and information about Batman's oft-neglected and marginalized sidekick, the kinds of information that could only come from a dedicated aca-fan. I will be honest that despite being a life-long Batman fan, I had never given that much consideration to Robin's cultural origins, his contributions to the series, or his influence on our culture. Works like William Uricchio and Roberta Pearson's The Many Lives of the Batman or Will Brooker's Batman Unmasked have made significant contributions to our understanding of the mythology around the dark knight, but most of them given short shrift to his "old chum." Borsellino argues that Robin's marginalization, sometimes in response to homophobia, sometimes in response to a desire for a "more mature" caped crusader, is part of his message. The character has special appeal, she argues, for "those readers and viewers who are themselves marginalized."

I checked in with Borsellino recently, asking her to share some of her insights with my readers.

This project emerged in part from your own very active involvement in Project Girl Wonder, which responded to what you saw as DC's neglect of Stephanie Brown. Can you give us some background on this controversy? What were the issues involved? Why was this character so important to you? What was the outcome of the campaign?

Actually, Project Girl Wonder came about out of the project. I was so immersed in the potential meanings of all the stuff going on with Robin in comics, and so tuned in to the rapid decline of relevance with DC's mandated interpretation of Robin. The idea of Stephanie Brown as Robin was so fresh and strange as a direction, but was handled so clumsily and with such obvious institutionalised sexism that it was pretty vile to witness, both as a cultural observer and as a fan who's also a feminist.

Essentially, for those not familiar with the character or with Robin's larger back story: when the second Robin, a boy named Jason, died, Batman created a memorial out of his costume in the Batcave. Stephanie was the fourth Robin, and her costume was different to the three boys who'd had it before her in that she sewed a red skirt for herself. Just a few months after her first issue as Robin was released, Stephanie was tortured to death with a power drill by a villain, and then died with Batman at her bedside.

The sexualised violence alone was pretty vomitous, but what made it so, so much worse for me was that Batman promptly forgot her. DC's Editor in Chief had the gall to respond to questions of how her death would affect future stories by saying that her loss would continue to impact the stories of the heroes -- how sick is that? Not only is the statement clearly untrue, since the comics were chugging along their merry way with no mention of her or her death, but it was also an example of the ingrained sexism of so much of our culture. Stephanie herself was a hero, and had been a hero for more than a decade's worth of comics, but the Editor's statement made it clear that he only thought of male characters as heroes, and the females as catalysts for those stories. It was a very clear example of the Women in Refrigerators trope, which has been a problem with superhero comics for far, far too long.

Long story short, I got together with a few like-minded comics fans and set out to petition DC Comics into giving Stephanie a memorial like Jason's -- to acknowledge that she was just as much a hero, and just as much Robin, as any of the boys. It made such a clear and striking image: a costume in a memorial case, just like Jason's now-iconic one, but this time with a little
red skirt on it as well. We couldn't have asked for a better logo for our cause.

We were lucky enough to have some invaluable help, both outside comics and inside. Shannon Cochran wrote a wonderful, in-depth article about the situation for Bitch magazine; we were a Yahoo site of the day; the webcomic Shortpacked ran a sharply funny strip about it all; and several comics writers working for DC -- Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison, in particular -- dropped references to the absence/potential presence of a memorial case for Stephanie into comics.

In the end, DC glossed it all over by having a storyline where Stephanie shows up, miraculously alive this whole time, and having the current Robin say to Batman "oh! you always knew she was alive! no wonder you never made her a memorial case!". Despite the fact that stories in the interim had featured Stephanie's death, autopsy, burial, and appearances as a spirit in the afterlife. Nope, Batman knew she was alive the whole time! Good job with the damage control there, DC.

Still, a live heroine's better than a dead one any day, so I count the whole thing as a victory in the end.

Critics have written a fair amount about how Batman's persona was inspired by earlier popular heroes, including Sherlock Holmes and the Douglas Fairbank's version of Zorro. What popular figures helped to inform the initial conception of Robin?

Within comics, the most direct inspiration was Junior, who was Dick Tracy's young offsider. Robin was the first time that boy helper figure was put into a superhero costume, but Junior was playing the detective's assistant role years before, and screwing up in all the same ways Robin so often does, ending up as a hostage and things like that. More widely, you've gone halfway to answering your own question -- Sherlock Holmes had Watson there, to listen to his theories and help solve the mysteries. The sidekick role has been around a long time, and provided the template for Robin's role.

Culturally, the figure of the daredevil boy hero is an ancient one, dating back through epic literature of the middle ages to the statuary and myths of Greece and Rome. Robin just gave the archetype a new costume.

You suggest that the marginalization of Robin as a character has helped to make the sidekick a particularly potent point of reference for other groups who also feel marginalized. Explain.

The two examples I use in my book are queer fans and women, though I also know readers who've used this same framework for class and race. As a queer person, or a woman, or someone of a marginalised socio-economic background, or a non-Caucasian person, it's often necessary to perform a negotiated reading on a text before there's any way to identify with any character within it. Rather than being able to identify an obvious and overt avatar within the text, a viewer in such a position has to use cues and clues to find an equivalent through metaphor a lot of the time.

A recent example of this is Spock and Uhura in the new Star Trek movie. Uhura has always been vitally important as a role model to women of colour -- even Martin Luther King Jr thought so. And she still fulfils that role in the new movie. The narrative themes of racial discrimination and of the conflicts which dual cultural heritage can bring with it are in the movie as well, but they're not the story of Uhura, because Gene Roddenberry was committed to the idea of a future where the crew of a starship could be mixed-race without remark. The character who offers these is Spock: he's the one with all the 'outsider' cues in his makeup, which I think goes part of the way to understanding why the recent Star Trek movie has seen a massive re-emergence of Kirk/Spock slash on the fannish landscape: female fans and those seeking a queer reading are drawn to that sense of marginalisation, of the ongoing fight to be recognised as present and worthy.

I got off-topic a bit there, sorry -- my reason for bringing up Spock and Uhura was to demonstrate that 'otherness' as part of a character's construction isn't necessarily bound directly to traits such as race or gender. It can stand for them, but does so obliquely. And Robin, by being put down and rejected by wave after wave of commentators and creators, has
come to embody anything that's been sidelined or disregarded, anything that's rejected in the relentless quest to make Batman as heteronormatively masculine and dour as possible. Just as those who fight against personal discrimination can find an avatar in Spock, those who struggle to re-establish their voice in dialogues where they've been silenced can find an avatar in the way Robin is pushed out of the way by official texts.

Many know of the ways that DC has struggled with the homophobia surrounding the relationship between Batman and Robin. How has this concern shaped the deployment of Robin over time? Are there any signs that in an era of legalized gay marriage, our culture may be less anxious about these issues?

We also live in an age of Prop 8, alas. I live in Australia, and both Australia and America recently switched from a longstanding conservative leadership to a potentially more progressive government -- but both Prime Minister Rudd and President Obama have gone on-record as saying that they believe marriage should be between a man and a woman. Progress hasn't yet progressed as far as I'd like to see it go, frankly.

And I think DC Comics is an absolute trainwreck mess at this point, to be even more frank. You only have to look at All Star Batman and Robin, by Frank Miller and Jim Lee, to see what a disaster the company's current concept of a flagship book is. The writing's incredibly sloppy, sexist, homophobic, and unengaging. "That is so queer" is used by Robin as a slur.
Batman calls Robin "retarded" and declares himself "the goddamn Batman". It would be hilarious if it wasn't so awful.

It hasn't always been that bad, of course, but right now it appears to me that DC is more anxious than ever about potential gay readings. And then there's Christian Bale, who has stated outright that he'll go on strike if anybody tries to incorporate Robin into the movie franchise. His Batman is so joyless that it's no wonder everybody went starry-eyed for the Joker -- the guy may be a psychopath, but at least he seems to know that running around Gotham City in a stupid outfit is meant to be fun.

You argue that Robin is in many ways a "transgender figure." Explain.

Robin crosses all sorts of imposed gender boundaries, both literal and figurative. Carrie Kelley, for example, the young girl who becomes Robin in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, is referred to by a news broadcaster as 'the Boy Wonder'; she looks completely androgynous in-costume, and so is assumed to be a boy. Dick Grayson and Tim Drake both assume female identities to go undercover in numerous stories -- Dick even played Bruce's wife on one occasion back in the forties -- and Stephanie Brown's superhero identity before she became a Robin, the Spoiler, is thought to be a boy even by her own father.

Those are just the literal examples of gender transgression. There're also a lot of background cultural cues coming into play, in the way the Robin costume looks, the way different backstories for the Robins are structured, and how sidekicks function in adventure narratives -- all these elements work against the notion of pinning Robin down as definitively male or female as a character; the only classification which really fits is that of being constantly in-motion between options and unclassifiable.

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.