In 1940, Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson decided to add a new character to their already popular BATMAN feature in DETECTIVE COMICS, one that would alter the character forever, and fundamentally change the nature of the series: Robin, the Boy Wonder.
From all accounts, the idea to introduce Robin into the strip was Kane’s, who was looking to broaden the series’ appeal by lightening it up a bit, and by giving young readers a character to even more directly identify with. (Although I always tended to agree with artist Jules Feiffer’s take on Robin. I could never identify with Robin because Robin was already stronger, faster and smarter than I was. If I started training and put my mind to it, maybe someday I could be Batman, but Robin? Not a chance…) Although National editors were skeptical at first of the idea of having a child in harm’s way fighting alongside Batman, when sales doubled after Robin’s introduction, they soon changed their tune. Reportedly, Finger was all for the idea of giving Batman a partner, for the simple reason that it made his job easier as writer, since Batman now had someone to talk to.
Robin made his debut in DETECTIVE COMICS #38 (April 1940) in “The Sensational Character Find of 1940 … Robin, the Boy Wonder.” The story opens with young circus acrobat Dick Grayson overhearing the circus owner being threatened by local gangsters who are demanding “protection money.”
Later, at that night’s performance, Dick’s parents, “The Flying Graysons,” are performing their trademark trapeze act, “the triple spin,” when suddenly the ropes on the trapeze snap, and John and Mary Grayson fall to their deaths, all before the eyes of their son, in a shocking and deliberate echo of the Bruce Wayne origin sequence from just five months earlier.
Later, Dick overhears the gangsters return, gloating over the “accident,” and is about to go to the police when he’s stopped by an unexpected figure – the Batman. Batman explains that the whole town is run by the organized crime kingpin Boss Zucco, and that if he went to the police with what he knew, “[he’d] be dead in an hour.” When Batman explains that he was the victim of a similar circumstance, Dick insists on joining his crusade.
Eventually Batman acquiesces, and the two swear an oath:
Wayne begins the lengthy process of training Grayson, and after many months of preparation, the two are ready to take on Boss Zucco.
Disguised as a newsboy, Grayson is able to track Zucco to his hideout, and get Batman information on Zucco’s plans to drain the city dry with his extortion rackets. Batman continually busts up Zucco’s operations, infuriating the gangster to the point that he gets personally involved, drawing him out.
Robin goes into action for the first time when he and Batman face off against Zucco and his men at the top of a high-rise construction site. When Batman strongarms a confession out of one of Zucco’s men, an infuriated Zucco pushes the thug off the girder, which Robin catches on film, sealing Zucco’s fate and sending him to the electric chair for murder.
The Dick Grayson character was hugely successful addition to the series, so much say that it became a constant for nearly five decades. And along the way, a strange thing happened: he grew up.
As time moved on, there seemed to be a realization at DC that it was getting harder and harder to have Dick Grayson, now established as a 19-year-old man, continue to run around in green short-shorts and pixie boots and a yellow cape.
In addition, a new sidekick for Batman had been introduced in the pages of DETECTIVE COMICS, a young boy named Jason Todd, whose parents had been killed in a manner strikingly similar to Dick Grayson’s. Accordingly, writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez, in the pages of their top-selling series THE NEW TEEN TITANS, got permission to have Grayson retire his Robin uniform, and not long after introduced Dick Grayson’s new costumed identity – Nightwing.
The name was taken from an obscure Superman character (when Superman and Jimmy Olsen would shrink down and visit the bottled Kryptonian city of Kandor, occasionally circumstances would compel them to take on their own superhero identities: Nightwing and Flamebird), and Grayson attributed the identity as a tribute to his two greatest inspirations: Superman and Batman. Although the costume was a little rough at first, (particularly a gigantic disco collar that made Lex Luthor’s purple ‘70s number look subtle in comparison) the Nightwing identity was an unquestionable success, leading to a long run in TITANS, several miniseries, and eventually a number of successful solo series of his own, originated by writer Chuck Dixon and artist Scott McDaniel. The Nightwing identity has even made its way into the mainstream media, having been heavily featured and merchandised in THE NEW BATMAN ADVENTURES, the second series of the successful and critically acclaimed Batman cartoons by the award-winning Dini/Timm/Burnett production team, and most Batman animated series since.