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ONCE WE WERE MACHO:

Reflections on Dick Grayson and Masculinity and Sexuality in Comic Books

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Wish fulfillment is one of the appeals of the comic book. How many times, as a young comic book reader, does a boy want to be Superman, Batman or Green Lantern? Such desires were rational: what is there, in a superhero's life, which is not to like? Even now, any adult male should want to own a Green Lantern power ring, which could make emerald cars, swimming pools, bicycles, power tools, hang gliders and other useful consumer items with only a little will power. And what of the benefits of Flash's super-speed? Think of the saved travel time, going back and forth to work, to college, to the supermarket!

Say Titans!

Apart from the obvious appeals of the superhero life, there are the deeper, more complicated sides of wish-fulfilment. As a teenager, and a pubescent child, the New Teen Titans and the X-Men overwhelmed me: they were glimpses into a mysterious adult world; they gave me my role models and my ideas of what adult life would be like. Cyclops and Robin-Nightwing represented a clean-cut male sexuality which had more appeal than Batman's and Superman's - Cyclops and Robin were younger, more sensitive, and more emotional. As I grew into my late teens, I saw the pair - and most comic book male characters, excepting tough guys like Judge Dredd and the Punisher - as choir boys; they didn't seem to be real people or real men. Thankfully, as an adult, I outgrew that and learned to appreciate softhearted comic heroes again. (Unfortunately, though, many fanboys nowadays are overgrown adolescents who only like "tough" characters and "grim and gritty" stories).

But, sadly enough, Dick Grayson in the late nineties is no longer Dick Grayson; Roy Harper is no longer Roy Harper. Like many other clean-cut, self-assured males in the DC and Marvel stables, they've been replaced by strange impostors who look like them but don't act like them - at least, not in the way they acted in the past forty or sixty years. They've become what I call the Clinton Male: the neutered, vaguely androgynous and adolescent male of the Clinton Era, embodied by the movie "stars" of the nineties - Ben Affleck, Leonardo Di Caprio, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, the men from Friends, the nebbish David Arquette (Courtney Cox's husband) and others. Next to them, the 'Brat Pack' stars of the eighties - which included Charlie Sheen, Matt Dillon and Tom Cruise, among others - personify macho glamour and are great actors.

Teen Titans

Throughout the sixties and seventies, Dick had been a teenager-youth. His age was indeterminate, but that didn't matter. As the leader of the Teen Titans, he was classic Dick Grayson - an escape artist, a brilliant detective, an acrobat, and a leader of (teenaged) men and women. I own hardly any of the Titans books of the Neal Adams/Nick Cardy/Don Heck era of the Titans; but, from what I've seen, the Titans even then had that peculiarly appealing group dynamic: Aqualad, Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, Speedy and Robin were right together. One can read these books, and surprise, surprise, enjoy them as much as Perez-Wolfman's New Teen Titans. (In the only Teen Titans book I own - #51 - there is a subplot where Wally angles for a romance with Donna - subplots in the Bronze Age?).

Aside from his tenure as leader of the on-again, off-again Teen Titans, Grayson was most prominent in the Batman books and the tie-ins, like World's Finest. (He also appeared in Batman back-up stories, e.g., the Irv Novick-Bob Rozakis run which featured the famous first appearance of Duela Dent, the Joker's Daughter). In these books, Grayson went to college and met his first serious (to my knowledge) girlfriend, Lori Elton, the daughter of a police chief. At the time, Grayson drove a van with the Robin cycle in the back. Strangely enough, he also used the van for intimate romantic encounters with Lori in the woods - although this was only hinted at, in the subtle Comics Code-approved way. (Comic book characters weren't allowed to be shown having sex back then, and still aren't, it seems).

This was the Bronze Age Robin: he retained this Teen Wonder persona - separate from the Boy Wonder of the thirties, forties and fifties - for nearly thirty years. But he was still recognizably Dick Grayson and possessed all the conventional attributes of a Bat character (viz., a Bat character before the nineties). His origin story, too, still involved Boss Zucco, the mobster responsible for the death of the Flying Graysons. (Nowadays, of course, his origin has been "retconned" half a dozen times). Up to the nineties, the life of Dick Grayson was part of a seamless whole: each stage of its development blended into the next.

Robin

In the early eighties, Dick entered a transitional period. At the same time as he became the leader of the New Teen Titans, he appeared regularly in the Batman books, which were drawn by Gene Colan, Irv Novick and Don Newton. The most important of these stories were those of the Vampiri Arc. In this, Dick became infatuated with a strange, pale brunette college coed called Dala. She was older than Dick and reduced him to a state of tongue-tied uncertainty. He went out with her regularly, and Bruce Wayne's circle - including Bruce's pesky girlfriend at the time, the photographer Vicki Vale - poured cold water on the relationship: Dala was much too old. Little did anyone know, but Dala was also a vampire. (There were strange, scary hints, though: Vale took pictures of Dala and Dick together, but Dala failed to show up on film once the pictures were developed). Dick obsessed over Dala when she finally dumped him, and he followed her to her spooky Gothic mansion in the outskirts of Gotham. Once inside the building, Dala gave him the bite - in what, I recall, was an erotic sequence - and turned him into a Vampiri. After that, he tried to bite Vicki Vale (which would have been a blessing). Batman succumbed to the Vampiri, too, but eventually defeated them in battle with the help of a priest. A blood transfusion turned both Dick and Batman back to normal.

This was the last major appearance of Robin in the Batman books. From the eighties on, Robin became a Titans character - that is, a Bat-detective in Titans-type adventure stories. Most importantly, he became his own man (how often is that phrase heard now in connection with his solo career in the nineties!). From the first New Teen Titans issue, Dick groused against Bruce's influence on his life; he found the idea of fighting alongside the newly-reformed Titans liberating.

He retained his warmth, compassion or morality; he could still be playful on occasion. But he was a firmer, more paternal individual, even an authoritarian. He showed a tough side, but he displayed this toughness in a good, upstanding and moral way, like John Wayne or Bogart. He seemed to know more, and be more mature, than the other Titans. At first he treated Starfire like an overgrown, emotionally unstable teenage girl, despite her looks and her obvious passion for him. (This was, of course, before Dick and Kory became an item after the Titans rescued her from Komand'r and the Citadel). Like many other great comic heroes, he was handsome, masculine and attractive to women, but seemed uninterested in sex and romance. (Cyclops, Batman and Superman seemed practically celibate, despite their frequent romances. The only mildly salacious hero was Green Arrow). Like all true superheroes, Dick's view of sexual life and the family was deeply conservative. This, and other aspects of his character, suggested that he was becoming an adult superhero character who was independent of Batman. Again, Dick's conflict and tension with the Bat mentor is a theme which has been played out in the nineties; but in the eighties, it meant something. In the Titans/Outsiders crossover, Dick and Bruce officially dissolved the Batman/Robin partnership, quarreled, and then reconciled. Bruce came to respect Dick as the superior team leader.

As for the Dick and Kory romance, it was extremely well done. At times, it was as passionate, lyrical and moving as the short-lived and ill-fated Scott Summers and Jean Gray romance in the X-books. After Dick's initial brush-off, it gained steam when Komand'r kidnapped Kory and took her to the Citadel homeworld. The normally cool, calm and collected Dick became increasingly agitated at the thought of the danger Kory was in. His fellow Titans, who were more perceptive as to his true feelings for Kory, ribbed him over it. (Just as they ribbed him over his feigned indifference to her early romance with Franklin Crandall). At seeing the tortured and mangled Kory in the Citadel, Dick exploded and made an impulsive attempt to rescue her. After killing a few Citadel Branx warriors, he cradled the semiconscious Kory in his arms and declared his undying love for her. It was one of the finest of romantic moments in the series. After that, their great adventure began.

X'hal!

It's fairly accurate to say that Kory was the love of his life. Peculiarly enough, the ups and downs of the romance mirrored the turmoil in his life as a superhero and the continuing development of his character. He had his first spat with Kory early on; this reflected the enormous strain he was under, working with the Titans, Batman, a circus and as a solo hero. In response, Kory showed one of the annoying but endearing sides of her character: her clinginess, which often verged on masochism, as Dick became (entertainingly) rude and terse. (Like all things Titans in the Wolfman era, the emotions in these stories are upfront and affecting: these are no ordinary subplots - the reader is forced to take them very seriously indeed). Eventually, things came to a head when Dick quit being Robin: he explained that he had outgrown the role - he no longer felt like the Teen Wonder partner of Batman. Dick and Kory reconciled and then the Nightwing identity emerged - in response to a particular crisis, this time, the kidnapping of the Titans by Terra, Deathstroke and the HIVE.

Judas Contract

Dick's romance with Kory went fairly well afterwards, and at some point they moved in together. The romance shattered when Kory returned to Tamaran and wed a fellow Tamaranean, Karras, in a Marriage of State. Dick went out of his mind with jealousy: he couldn't stand being near Kory while Karras - a nevertheless decent man in many respects - enjoyed a husband's rights with Starfire. (Sadistically, Wolfman's story showed one of Kory and Karras' conjugal encounters in a detailed way; with Dick and Kory, he was never as explicit). Kory hinted to Dick that he could still maintain a relationship with her, even though she was married; but, in a fit of morality, jealousy and rage, Dick returned to Earth. There, he grew a beard and went off the deep end. He quarreled bitterly with Donna - who nearly beat him to a pulp - and disbanded the Titans. After searching for Raven, he ended up in the clutches of Brother Blood and was brainwashed into becoming a worshipper of Blood. Blood explained that Grayson had been captured by the Church of Blood twice before (which was true) and brainwashed. This explained Dick's aberrant behavior, both during the time he quite being Robin and during Kory's marriage to Karras. (I don't really know what to make of this. It's true that Dick never showed any instability in his character until he was captured by Blood; but I had always put this down to Dick's newfound maturity - all adults go through periods of depression and emotional turmoil).

End of the Titans?

Once Dick was rescued from Blood and deprogrammed, he and Kory reconciled for the second time; her marriage to Karras was conveniently forgotten. The pair of them lived a rosy life until the advent of the Titans Hunt/Lord Chaos/Dark Raven saga. In a bizarre turn of events, Dick inadvertently slept with the shape-shifting leader of the Team Titans, Mirage, and the Dick and Kory romance fell into ruins. Dick tried to patch it up with a hastily-arranged wedding, but this was stopped when Dark Raven gatecrashed the event and murdered the priest (!). After that, Kory was infected with one of Dark Raven's demon-seeds and grew hostile and more distant - when she was conscious - to Dick. Eventually, she ended up leaving the planet and returning to Tamaran without saying good-bye. Dick left the Titans afterwards and concentrated on becoming a generic, lightweight "Bat" character.

Many aficionados of the romance would say that the pair could have continued; but clearly they harbored many ambivalent feelings towards one another, as was revealed in several dream and fantasy sequences. This was what gave the relationship spice. Nevertheless, they spent 15 years together, despite the tensions. I have little doubt that, in some Kingdom Come-style scenario set in the future, they will be shown as being a couple again.

In hindsight, the Dick and Kory romance - like most comic romances - strikes me as being unreal. I suppose that, as part of growing up, a male gets used to talking (preferably with one's male friends) and thinking of sex and women in the crudest and cynical way imaginable. No doubt many of today's young women talk and think of men in almost exactly the same way. This isn't to say that romantic thoughts and feelings pass away at adulthood - it's to say that these become balanced with realism. These Tristan and Isolde romances between Dick and Kory, Scott and Jean, or Donna Troy and Terry Long, seem way over the top. But that, paradoxically, is part of their appeal: most comic book readers, deep down, want to be swept off their feet by these volcanic, Wagnerian emotions. It's hard, for any serious and attentive reader, not to respond those romances and their overtones of tragedy. No-one wants to read about contraception or abortions or adultery or wife-beating or alimony payments; no-one wants to read of the day-to-day, dull motions of any ordinary marriage or de facto relationship: that would seem too much like real life. A note of realism was injected with Dick and Kory's breakups and quarrels, but overall, the relationship was dreamlike, ephemeral and fantastical. If Dick and Kory had existed in real life, they would have had children and divorced, and Dick would be paying her alimony - maybe Kory would have taken up smoking and run to fat…

Til Death Do Us Part

Marv Wolfman had the monopoly on the Grayson character for fifteen years and was a hard act to follow. How hard was proved when Devin Grayson, Denny O'Neil and then Chuck Dixon began writing books in the Nightwing solo series. In these, Dick bore no resemblance to the Dick of the past fifty or sixty years. Like Batman, he had lost his detective skills and escape artistry - which had made him a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Miracle. He also lost the characteristics which had developed in the Wolfman years - the clean-cut masculinity, his leadership skills, and above all, the sense of independence from Batman. He has become dependent, completely dependent, on Batman and the Bat Family in an ugly neurotic way; indeed, all his friendships, romances and social life take place within the confines of the incestuous Bat Family. (One would never guess that Dick's "best friend" is meant to be Wally West - someone who isn't a Bat character).

In Devin Grayson's Titans, Dick, alongside all the other Titans characters, became grotesque parodies of themselves. (Starfire, for instance, is shown killing someone - in the first time in twenty years! She's portrayed as an out-of-control Wolverine character). Roy Harper changed: in the old Titans series, he was something of a sleaze, but a man of character who had a good heart. (His transformation into the gimmicky Arsenal was ridiculous, however - but that happened in the dark days of the final series). Under Wolfman, Roy and Dick barely tolerated one another: they quarreled, and even came to blows - but Roy was likable enough. But now Roy is a neurotic, overgrown adolescent sniveller who doesn't shave and looks like Shaggy from the Scooby Doo cartoon. His heroin addiction - once a brave innovation in comic book characterization - is referred to at every possible moment, as his one-night stand with Cheshire, and his responsibility as a father to Lian, etc., etc. Today's writers have tried to capture what made Roy special in the past, but have failed. Roy is, like many of the younger heroes in comic books nowadays, a smirky, overgrown, self-absorbed and neurotic juvenile. The worst thing is that Roy, like Dick now, is bland. The Clinton Male has arrived.

I would like to acknowledge Drew R. Moore, Vu Van Nguyen, John Prill and Barry Keller for the scanned art in this article. You can find their respective websites at:

http://members.aol.com/DuelaDent/
http://members.nbci.com/mozzer/perez/index.htm
http://titans.simplenet.com/titan.htm
http://donnewton.com/Default.htm?main.htm&1

 
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