When it comes to sidekicks, no one has a better collection than Batman. It’s actually gotten quite difficult to keep them all straight. Tim Drake, the third Robin, is my personal favorite, probably because I began reading comics about the time that his character was undergoing some interesting transitions. Dick Grayson was, of course, the first Robin; he grew up to become Nightwing. Jason Todd, the second Robin, was eventually killed by the Joker, and even more eventually came back to life as a bad guy (or, at best, a really messed up good guy, after the Punisher tradition). There’s also Barbara Gordon (Batgirl 1/Oracle), Cassandra Cain (Batgirl 3), Stephanie Brown (Spoiler/Robin 4), Helena Bertinelli (Huntress/Batgirl 2), Bruce Wayne’s biological son Damian, and a string of Batwomans (which is about where my attention begins to wander), just to name some of the more prominent figures. If this all isn’t confusing enough, everyone’s identities have recently been shuffled around once again in the wake of Bruce Wayne’s “death” in January 2009: Dick is now Batman, Damian is Robin, Tim is Red Robin, and Stephanie is the fourth Batgirl.
All clear? No? Well, the point is just that Batman has had a lot of sidekicks.
Lex Luthor, among others, has observed the irony in the fact that Batman, “who has such a reputation for being a lone wolf […] surround[s] himself with children” (Superman/Batman #5). It’s an interesting observation, one that could lead to all sorts of fascinating discussion about the character of Bruce Wayne and his need for companionship. For now, though, I just want to consider why for me, as a reader, Batman’s sidekicks really work for me.
I’ve said before that Batman is a difficult character to relate to. He is an enigma; he is a force of nature. You’ll never come across anyone quite like him in your real world associations. It’s not just that you can’t understand him as a person, it’s that you can’t even believe that one man could be so disciplined in body and mind, that one man could even keep up with the hyperbolic challenges that Batman regularly faces. But gathered around him we find characters we can believe in and relate to, men, women, girls, and boys who are awestruck by the power and control and intelligence embodied in this masked crusader, who are motivated to join the mission the cape and cowl have come to represent. We see the hero through the sidekick’s eyes, and in their eyes his incredible, fantastic quest retains its reality and relevance.
The sidekicks represent us, we who are too small, too weak, and too human to be superheroes in our own right, we who nevertheless aspire, with a little hard work and homespun moral fiber, to save the world someday in our own small ways. In them we see the qualities that we hope will be inspired in us: a driving thirst to be better, to do better, to make a difference. To stand among the good guys.
Seeing the sidekicks striving to be heroes makes me want to be more heroic, too. Maybe that’s goofy, but it’s true. This is why, despite a general preference for Spider-man, the “Bat Family” comics are the ones I really look forward to these days.