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Sidekicks and Protégés

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Boy Comics #35 © 1947 Lev Gleason. COVER ART BY CHARLES BIRO.

After Superman's debut in DC Comics' Action Comics #1 (June 1938) set off an explosion of comic-book allies and imitators, cartoonist Bob Kane realized that these colorful caped crusaders were all adult men—including his own creation, the Batman—while young boys were comics' target audience. Just one month shy of Batman's first anniversary, Kane introduced the sensational character find of 1940 in Detective Comics #38, April 1940: Robin, the Boy Wonder! Robin was circus aerialist Dick Grayson, who witnessed the murder of his parents. Sympathetic Batman took the youth under his wing and trained him to be his crime-fighting partner. I visualized that every kid would like to be a Robin ... a laughing daredevil, Kane said. It appealed to the imagination of every kid in the world. Not the entire world, perhaps, but certainly American boys during the Great Depression. Detective doubled its circulation, thanks to Robin—and the superhero sidekick, comics' ultimate vehicle for wish fulfillment, was born.

Robin's uniqueness was short-lived. Other creators and publishers took notice of the sales punch packed by comics' first sidekick, and before long boy wonders abounded. Six months after the premiere of Robin, Marvel Comics unveiled Toro, the partner of the Human Torch. Toro was, like Grayson, a circus performer—a fire-eater—who could, without explanation, combust into living flame. In its fervor to copy Robin, Marvel sacrificed originality for timeliness—not surprising, as the company's original name was Timely Comics.

Appearing in the same month as Toro was Roy, the Super-Boy, the protégé of Archie Comics' the Wizard. The Official Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide 32nd edition speculates that Roy, not Toro, may be comics' second sidekick—Roy's first appearance was Top-Notch Comics #8, September 1940, while Toro debuted in The Human Torch #2, cover dated Fall 1940—but falls short of making this a definitive statement since both comics appeared at roughly the same time. Ace Magazines' Magno, the Magnetic Man was joined by the magnetic boy named Davey in November 1940, and Archie Comics' the Shield teamed with Dusty, the Boy Detective in January 1941.

When Marvel's Captain America was first seen in March 1941, he was not alone. In Captain America #1, writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby unite Cap with Bucky Barnes, the mascot of the regiment with which Steve Rogers, Captain America's alter ego, is stationed. The lad stumbles across Rogers changing into his patriotic garb, muttering, Gosh ... gee whiz golly!! I ... I never thought! After threatening to tan his hide, Cap gives Bucky Barnes a mask and ushers him onto the front lines as ... Bucky!

Curiously, this first wave of post-Robin superhero sidekicks—Roy, Davey, Dusty, Bucky, even Toro—used their first names while in action. One might speculate that the creators of these characters wanted to strengthen the appeal of their sidekicks by assigning them names familiar to their readers. While it's unlikely there were many boys named Toro reading comics during the early 1940s, Captain America co-creator Simon claimed that Bucky was named after an old school chum. These earliest sidekicks share another characteristic: They were orphans, and needed the guiding hand of a caring mentor. In each of these relationships, the senior member was always in charge, with the junior member learning the ropes of superheroics from the seasoned pro.

No publisher was more enamored of junior heroes than DC, the company that started the trend: Green Arrow, like Captain America, debuted with a junior partner, the young archer Speedy (whose real name was not Speedy, incidentally, but Roy Harper). DC overhauled its once-mysterious Sandman, hatboxing his Shadow-inspired fedora and cloak and dressing him in extravagant yellow-and-purple tights, with his protégé Sandy by his side; similarly, the Crimson Avenger—a Green Hornet–like midnight man who preceded Batman's Detective Comics #27 debut by five issues—was redesigned in 1941 and appointed a protégé named Wing.

Fawcett Comics followed suit with Mr. Scarlet and Pinky, and the publisher's Captain Marvel was accompanied by two sidekicks: Captain Marvel Jr. and Mary Marvel. Captain Marvel wasn't the only Golden Age (1938–1954) hero who socialized with girls: Holyoke's Cat-Man gained the homeless pre-teen Kitten as his companion. Observes historian Mike Benton in his book Superhero Comics of the Golden Age (1992), By the end of the series, the coquettish and fully developed Kitten and her Uncle David (her pet name for Cat-Man's alter ego) could certainly provide rich fodder for small-minded gossips. Society was more innocent during those simpler times, however, and improprieties between adult and junior superheroes, regardless of their genders, were never implied by their creators or considered by their readers. Parents of readers also never seemed bothered by the threat of child endangerment faced by these junior heroes when they blazed into danger with their costumed big brothers.

Nor were they concerned when superkids went solo. Young heroes headlined their own titles or strips, like Golden Lad, Kid Eternity, and Merry, Girl of a Thousand Gimmicks. Some formed teams, like the Young Allies (sidekicks Bucky and Toro with a group of nonpowered boys known as the Sentinels of Liberty), the Boy Commandos, and the Newsboy Legion (the Commandos lacked superpowers, but compensated with an abundance of patriotism and attitude; that goes for the Newsboys too, though their strip tuned the tables by having a grown-up superhero, the Guardian, as both mascot and mentor). And Lev Gleason Publications made no secret of its target audience by releasing Boy Comics, starring a teen titan named Crimebuster. Robin the Boy Wonder continued to work with Batman but moonlighted in his own series in Star-Spangled Comics, the comic book that also featured the Star-Spangled Kid, the only teenage superhero with an adult sidekick working under him: Stripesy. And while DC didn't give its flagship character, Superman, a junior partner during the Golden Age, it did the next best thing by publishing stories starring Superboy, The Adventures of Superman When He Was a Boy.

An interesting variation on the sidekick theme also occurred during the Golden Age: the partnering of adult male superheroes with adult female superheroines. In April 1941 Susan Kent learned that her boyfriend, Jim Barr, was actually Bulletman, and demanded that he make her a superhero, too. Thus Bulletgirl was born. Her confidence and verve made her a valuable ally to Bulletman, despite the fact that her superheroic title did not suggest her maturity. Even their names told the reader who was the stronger and who was the weaker of the pair, observed historian Trina Robbins in her book, The Great Women Superheroes (1996). With Hawkman's Hawkgirl, the Flame's Flame Girl, Lash Lightning's Lightning Girl, and Doll Man's Doll Girl, the woman was banished to a secondary role, often being rebuked by the male for her impetuousness, or for just putting on the costume in the first place. Most of these sidekick superheroines also doubled as damsels in distress, but Hawkgirl enjoyed the ultimate revenge: In the 2000s she has flown the coop, serving as a popular member—without Hawkman!—of DC Comics' Justice Society in the JSA comic book and of that group's counterpart on the Cartoon Network's Justice League animated series.

After World War II, however, when superheroes were no longer required to help bolster the nation's patriotism, kid sidekicks started to disappear, along with their adult cohorts. By the mid-1950s only a handful of superhero comics remained in print. Robin stuck around with Batman, Speedy and Green Arrow remained in backup series in various DC anthologies, and newcomer the Fighting American was joined by Speedboy for a very brief stint on the stands. Jimmy Olsen was elevated from supporting cast status to a pseudo-sidekick role with Superman, getting his own long-running title, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen. Olsen became Superman's actual sidekick in a number of adventures inside the Bottle City of Kandor when the pair fought Kryptonian crime as the Batman-and-Robin-inspired Nightwing and Flamebird.

In his contemptuous book Seduction of the Innocent (1954), real-life psychiatrist Dr. Frederic Wertham charged that the comic-book industry was morally corrupting impressionable young readers with graphic depictions of violence, gore, and sexual impropriety. The original superhero sidekick was also besieged, as the author impeached Batman and Robin's relationship as a wish dream of two homosexuals living together. Wertham helped fuel the U.S. Senate's attack on the comic-book industry, which as a result homogenized its content under the auspices of the watchdog guild called the Comics Code Authority. Wertham, however, proved an unintentional ally for the kid sidekick in comics: In the mid- to late 1950s more superpowered protégés were introduced, to strengthen the lead heroes' paternal (or maternal) roles. Superman got Supergirl, Aquaman got Aqualad, Batman's new ally Batwoman got Bat-Girl (DC made sure it sidestepped the gay allegations by adding not one but two females to Batman's cast), and Wonder Woman got Wonder Girl (and Wonder Tot, to boot!).

The role of the superhero sidekick underwent a transformation throughout the Silver Age of comics (1956–1969). The traditional sidekick was still in action at DC Comics, with Kid Flash joining the Flash as the publisher's newest protégé, but Marvel Comics pushed young heroes into autonomous roles. Marvel's Fantastic Four #1 (1961) introduced a new Human Torch, an adolescent named Johnny Storm, clearly characterized as an equal member of the team, not merely an exuberant add-on—the Torch even solo-starred in Strange Tales. A free-spirited teen named Rick Jones became the voice of reason to Marvel's rampaging Incredible Hulk, and the publisher's Amazing Spider-Man—its runaway sensation who premiered in Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962)—was an introverted high-schooler overburdened with personal problems ... just like his readers.

Marvel audaciously charted new territory with its young characters: X-Men #1 (1963) introduced a band of mutant teens, genetic flukes that represented the next step in human evolution. Of course, most of Marvel's heroes were adults, but its new breed of independent superteens stood their own alongside the grown-ups instead of following in their footsteps. DC's bravest and boldest move with its sidekicks during the 1960s was to ally them as a team: Robin, Kid Flash, and Aqualad were first united in The Brave and the Bold #54 (1964), then picked up Wonder Girl in two more tryout appearances before being awarded their own title with Teen Titans #1 (1966). As the 1960s drew to a close, DC had continued to follow Marvel's lead by creating new teen heroes—like argumentative brothers the Hawk and the Dove and the prehistoric hero Anthro—who were stars of their own series, not toiling under the shadow of a big brother.

Changing social and political climes throughout the 1960s and 1970s changed the American teen, and as kids matured, so did superhero sidekicks. By the early 1970s the members of the Teen Titans had graduated out of their mentors' titles, now fully on their own, and Robin had become the Teen Wonder, having left Batman's tutelage for college. Spider-Man's alter ego of Peter Parker was also a college student. More relevant themes crept into comics, affecting some teen characters: Both Parker's friend Harry Osborn and Green Arrow's ex-sidekick Speedy wrestled with (but overcame) drug addictions, and in the early 1980s, it was disclosed that Speedy had also fathered a child out of wedlock. Grayson hung up his red Robin tunic in 1984, adopting the new guise of Nightwing. Before long, his fellow Titans also discarded their sidekick identities: Wonder Girl became Troia, Aqualad became Tempest, Speedy became Arsenal, and Kid Flash became the Flash. The superhero sidekick had grown up.

Only one sidekick has remained in that traditional role: Robin the Boy Wonder—a new Robin, that is. Jason Todd became the Boy Wonder in 1983, in a move largely inspired by DC Comics' desire to merchandize its famous character. This second Robin fared poorly with readers, and in 1989 was killed in the comics as the result of a 1-900 phone-in vote with readers choosing between the character's life or death. DC promptly replaced him that year with Tim Drake, who has endured into the 2000s as Batman's new protégé, also starring in his own successful comic book (running uninterrupted since its 1993 premiere).

While teen heroes have been and continue to be popular in comics since the 1970s—Nova, Firestorm, Cyborg, Speedball, Impulse, and Spyboy are just a few of the adolescent characters appearing in print—they have been presented either as solo players or members of a larger (usually teen) team. As a changing and demanding world continues to expect youngsters to grow up faster, it is unlikely that the traditional superhero sidekick will ever return to prominence. —ME

 

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