by John Wells
The Flying Graysons
June 27, many years ago -- High above the hushed audience, Mary Grayson waited for her husband to complete his triple flip. With her legs curled around the trapeze bar, she swung forward and clasped her hands in his. "Nicely done, John." Before he could reply, there was a sickening snap. The trapeze ropes had snapped and the Flying Graysons, operating without a net, had only enough time to scream out each other's names (1940's Detective Comics # 38, by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson).
The junior member of the Flying Graysons was a boy named Richard John (otherwise known as Dick), born into the family some ten years earlier on March 20. Dick could only watch in horror as his parents fell to their deaths. He would be haunted in later years by the oddly reflective mood that his mother had been in on that summer evening. The family of acrobats, already dressed in their red, green and yellow tights, had been approached that evening to pose for a picture with a visiting couple, Jack and Janet Drake and their son Tim. Afterwards, Mary wondered aloud if she might be depriving Dick of a more normal childhood.
"I keep thinking what it would be like to stay in one place like a real family," she told her son. "Your grandfather ran away to the circus when he was nine. I never had a home of my own oh, ignore me, honey. A girl can't keep from wondering, can she? I love you, Dick" (1989's Batman # 436, by Marv Wolfman, Pat Broderick and John Beatty). Mary briefly dabbled in a life outside the circus, working as a dental assistant until a meeting with John, "a real full-blooded gypsy" drew her back to her roots (Nightwing Annual # 1). Unknown to Dick, Mary was also troubled by a disturbing incident -- a murder, she feared -- that she and John had witnessed while the Haly Bros. Circus was touring the European country of Kravia (1995's Nightwing mini-series # 3, by Denny O'Neil, Greg Land and Mike Sellers).
Dick's last conversation with his father had been portentous as well. The youngster had overheard circus owner Garrison Haly being threatened by thugs demanding protection money and he had a dark expression on his face when he re-entered the family trailer.
"Hey, Dickie, you been checking on the world?" Father smiled and winked. "The old world still a'spinning, is she?"
"Dad, is there really a bat-man?"
"Like I'm always saying, son, if you believe a thing hard enough, it's true. You believe in a bat-man?"
"I don't know. If he did exist, would he be good or bad?"
"I'd kinda like to think good."
"Your father would like to think everything's good," Mary chimed in.
"I'll tell you something I don't believe in, I'm certain about, and that's that our young world-checker here is going to hit that arithmetic book" (1990's Secret Origins # 50, by Dennis O'Neil and George Perez, partially reprised by O'Neil and Dave Taylor in 1997's Legends of the Dark Knight # 100).
School books weren't all that Dick hit, of course. More than once, John found the youngster shining a flashlight under the covers as he read about the mysterious bat-man of Gotham (1991's Legends of the Dark Knight # 23, by Mike W. Barr, Bart Sears and Randy Elliott) or the astonishing Man of Steel in Metropolis (1998's Legends of the DC Universe # 6, by Kelley Puckett, Dave Taylor and Kevin Nowlan). Imagining himself a mystery-man, Dick often played tug-of-war with strongman Sando, who generally bowed to the boy's "superior" strength as John and Mary giggled in the background (1960's Batman # 129, by Bill Finger, Sheldon Moldoff and Charles Paris).
Dick had been initiated into the high-flying world of his parents on his fifth birthday. After a good amount of practice, the youngster grabbed a low-hanging trapeze and prepared to go "flying without a net for the first time." Buoyed by his father's encouragement ("If you're sure of yourself up there, you've got nothing to fear."), Dick made an impromptu attempt at the famous triple flip -- and nearly plunged to his death. Some fast acrobatic work on John's part knocked the boy onto a nearby mat. "Your old dad isn't about to lose his boy wonder on the first time out." Mary was in a panic but Dick's proud papa couldn't help grinning. "He's a Grayson through and through" (1987's Secret Origins # 13, by Dan Mishkin, Erik Larsen and Mike DeCarlo).
Ensuing years would find Dick learning more such lessons. "Sure, it's about bravery, son," John explained. "But that's only a part of it. For the rest you need a strategy. You need a plan, Dick. It's not the next bar. It's the bar after that and the one after that. And so on to the other side." Swinging forward, the youngster pushed his hands forward and was caught in his mother's loving hands. "I've got you -- Mommy's here, little Robin. You did great!" she cheered. "You're learning so fast" (1997's Nightwing # 7, by Chuck Dixon, Scott McDaniel and Karl Story).
On occasion, John's fatherly concern crept through, as on the day when Dick over-reached in a practice session, missing the trapeze and falling into the safety net. His father's scolding left Dick in tears, the boy crying that "You alway said we've gotta keep reaching 'cause that's the only way we can grow!"
"What your father meant," Mary explained, "was only that you should make absolutely sure of your abilities, Richard. Keep reaching but when you reach, know what you're reaching for. Be sure of yourself -- and you can never reach too far."
"Listen to your mother, Richard. She knows what I mean -- even if I don't."
"Dad was right," the adult Dick Grayson would recall. "He taught me to be careful, to know my limitations and never over-reach myself and Mom taught me to keep on trying to extend my reach, by learning about myself my skills my potential. They made it safe to work without a net" (1981's Batman # 339, by Gerry Conway, Irv Novick and Bruce Patterson). John and Mary Grayson were, in a sense, Dick's real safety net (1999's Nightwing Secret Files # 1, by Devin Grayson, Phil Jimenez and Mark McKenna).
In the wake of his parents' deaths, Dick Grayson was uprooted from the circus he loved and found himself in the custody of a Gotham City millionaire named Bruce Wayne. Wayne's request to adopt the youth was rejected by a judge "but since you've obtained the consent of his nearest relatives, I hearby appoint you his legal guardian" (1969's Batman # 213, by E. Nelson Bridwell, Ross Andru and Mike Esposito). Revealing himself as the Batman that the boy had idolized, the Dark Knight offered Dick an opportunity that he'd never had -- the chance to avenge his parents' deaths.
On the eve of the Graysons' funeral, Dick had a dream -- a dimly-remembered memory of a high dive off of a pile of toys when he was only two-years-old. Mary consoled the tot, assuring him that "it's okay, little Robin. Mommy's got you. You were trying to fly so high like Mommy and Daddy, huh?" Responding to John's own concerned entrance, she told him that "our little Robin tried to take off. He's going to be a professional aerialist before he's out of diapers." Gazing back at Dick, she added, "I call you Robin because you came to us on the first day of spring. I didn't know you'd want to BE a little bird "
After six months of training, Dick Grayson was finally deemed ready to fight alongside The Batman. Alfred and Bruce suggested a plethora of names for his masked alter-ego but he was horrified by them all: "'Bat-Boy.' "Bat-Teen.' 'Bat-MITE'? Uck." Recalling his mother's pet name for him, Dick made another suggestion (1995's Robin Annual # 4, by Chuck Dixon, Jason Armstrong and Robert Campanella). Somewhere, John and Mary Grayson were smiling
The Grayson Family Tree
Dick Grayson had adjusted to the deaths of his parents as best he could. He had a loving father figure in the form of Bruce Wayne and a thrilling double-life that other kids his age could only dream about. In Autumn of 1943, however, his happy life came crashing down around him.
The dark period was heralded by the arrival at Wayne Manor of a fifty-ish couple, a balding man named George and his grey-haired, spectacled wife Clara. As the man and woman began to hug him, Dick was sent reeling by the revelation that this was John Grayson's brother and his new wife. "Dick's coming home with us," George announced. "It's only fitting that the boy live with his blood relations. After all, he is my brother's boy and my nephew."
Bruce, already skeptical of the couple's claim to have been stranded in war-torn Europe for four years, would hear nothing of it. "You can't take Dick away now! Not after all these years. He's like a son! I won't let you!"
In a custody battle, Bruce pleaded from the witness stand that "Dick is like my own son. I've even changed my will so that in case of my death, Dick will get my entire fortune. Your honor, I I love that boy. Please don't take him from me!"
Unfortunately, Bruce's previous efforts to mask his Batman persona proved to be his undoing. George Grayson's attorney gleefully declared that "I will prove Mr. Wayne is not a fit guardian. I submit in evidence these newspaper clippings all reporting Mr. Wayne's activities as a nightclubbing, shiftless, cafe society playboy!" In the end, the judge felt compelled to award custody of Richard Grayson to his uncle.
The next morning, Bruce and Dick took a last walk around the Manor and Batcave. Choking back tears, Dick suggested that Bruce check the Batmobile's motor ("It it didn't sound t-too good yesterday") and finally began sobbing. "Easy, Dick " Bruce murmured, hugging him one last time. "Be a good soldier."
A downhearted Alfred left Bruce alone in his study. "In order to cover up my Batman work, I had to pretend to be a playboy. And now it's made me lose the person I love the most! It isn't fair! It isn't fair!" The faithful butler returned in the evening with the master's cape and cowl, insisting that "the show must go on, and all that sort of thing."
The scourge of Gotham's criminal element was not at his best that night. Distracted and disconsolate, The Batman struggled to capture members of the "Fatso" Foley gang. Unexpectedly, a ray of sunshine entered the picture when a voice called out behind the Dark Knight: "Hello, Batman. Mind if I stick my two cents in?" Robin was back!
The reunion was short-lived and Dick had to slip back to his bedroom before Uncle George noticed his absence. Nonetheless, a spirit of optimism swelled in The Batman's chest. "Robin Dick stick this out It won't be long I promise you."
Indeed, dear old Uncle George finally decided to play his hand that evening. As Clara pulled off her wig, let her red hair fall across her youthful face and put on a revealing dress, George phoned Bruce Wayne with a startling proposal: "How would you like to buy back Dick Grayson? For just one of your few millions, Clara and I will put on an act that will make us look so wicked, the judge will be glad to award Dick back to you."
An appalled Bruce related the story to Alfred, who had a simple suggestion: "Why not let The Batman act for you?"
Returning to the Grayson household, the Dark Knight ordered George and Clara to sign a confession and "get out of town -- but quick!" George had no intention of backing down without a fight. In the hour's grace period that Batman had given him, George contacted Fatso Foley and an ambush took the Dark Knight down for the count. While the hero was imprisoned in an air compression chamber, Dick's uncle phoned Bruce Wayne to gloat that his intermediary had failed.
It had been Alfred who answered the phone, however, and Dick awoke that night to find the butler rapping on his window with an umbrella. Together, they raided Foley's stronghold. The thugs who weren't defeated by Robin were sedated by Alfred, wielding the Penguin's gas umbrella, which he'd taken "the liberty of carrying from the trophy room."
Batman accompanied the police to the Grayson residence, taking great satisfaction as the "loving couple" turned on one another.
"You worm!" screamed Clara. "You got me into this with your talk of a million dollars!"
"Shut up before I push your face in!"
Matters were quickly rectified and the judge informed George and Clara that "fortunately for you both, your nephew, Dick, prefers to drop any charges because he wouldn't want to send his father's brother to jail. Now, you two vultures Get out of my sight!"
"Mr. Wayne, Dick is yours again. Incidentally, I'm inclined to agree with The Batman. He visited me before and said that in spite of your playboy activities, you were really a good man."
"Well," stammered Bruce, tugging at his collar. "Of all people, he should know eh, Dick?"
Father and son left court arm in arm as a beaming Alfred walked behind them. "Well, the mawsters are back together again. Everything turned out to be a bit of all right, after all eh, wot?!" (Batman # 20, by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson).
Fortunately, other members of the Grayson clan had greater strength of character. In February of 1942, The Batman had discovered that Charles "Chuck" Grayson, a close friend of the All-Star Squadron's Robotman (first seen in Star-Spangled Comics # 7), was actually Dick's cousin, albeit "a couple times removed." The delighted Boy Wonder arranged for a personal meeting with Chuck and revealed his alter ego to him (1983's All-Star Squadron # 24, by Roy Thomas, Jerry Ordway and Mike Machlan).
And then there were Dick's "nearest relatives," the people who granted Bruce permission to take the boy as his ward (1969's Batman # 213). These were evidently the "relatives upstate" whom the young man was visiting while Batman was having his historic meeting with Superman aboard the cruise ship Varania in 1952 (Superman # 76, by Edmond Hamilton, Curt Swan and John Fischetti).
Harriet Cooper had doted on her younger brother, John, and worshipped Dick as well. Tragically, however, Harriet's husband had been left an invalid after suffering a grave injury and Mrs. Cooper became the breadwinner for the household, working two jobs to make ends meet. Unable to care for Dick herself, the offer by Bruce Wayne to serve as the youngster's guardian seemed to be a godsend. Bruce, for his part, offered to provide Harriet with enough money to live a more comfortable life but the proud woman wouldn't hear of it. Fortunately, she never connected the generous checks related to Mr. Cooper's injuries with a certain Gotham millionaire.
The death of her husband left Harriet Cooper at loose ends. She was no longer obligated to work two jobs to pay for medical treatments but the unexpected time on her hands and the emotional void in her life were taking their toll. It was around that time that she received tragic news from Gotham City.
(The account of Harriet's invalid husband, as many of you have probably figured out, is my own invention, inspired by the character of Summer Olson from Milton Caniff's legendary Steve Canyon comic strip.)
When Julius Schwartz became editor of the Bat-books in 1964, he shook things up with a more realistic art style (personified by Carmine Infantino in Detective # 327), added a circle around Batman's chest emblem (all the better to trademark), updated the Batcave (with an elevator replacing the steps behind the grandfather clock, plus a hotline to police headquarters) and Batmobile, introduced a prospective romantic interest (the GCPD's Patricia Powell) and launched a new recurring series (the Mystery Analysts of Gotham City).
And, to break up the all male household in Wayne Manor, he ordered the death of Alfred, who heroically died while shoving Batman and Robin out of the path of a falling boulder. Arriving on the scene within days of Alfred's death was Dick's Aunt Harriet, who announced her intention to take care of the boys in the manner to which they'd been accustomed. "You youngsters are so helpless you'll need someone to see to it that you take care of your health." While Bruce stammered, Dick could only grin. When Aunt Harriet made up her mind, there was no changing it (Detective # 328, by Bill Finger, Sheldon Moldoff and Joe Giella).
Almost immediately, she began tumbling onto odd details in the Wayne household. Answering the phone at mealtime, Harriet heard nothing but "a peculiar buzz," a detail that alerted Dick to an incoming call on their "hot-line" from Commissioner Gordon. As her nephew rushed off, a disgusted Harriet wondered "why I bother cooking for you and Bruce. Neither of you eats enough to keep a bird alive" (Detective # 331, by Gardner Fox, Carmine Infantino and Joe Giella).
Paranoid that Aunt Harriet might suspect the truth, Bruce began to read double meanings in the woman's comments to him and Dick. "I still can't shake the feeling that Aunt Harriet knows that we're secretly Batman and Robin . She seemed to insinuate something in her remarks" (1965's Batman # 170, by Finger, Moldoff and Giella).
The continuing telephone buzz (Detective # 340 and Batman # 184) and flashing lamps (World's Finest # 168) only heightened Harriet's suspicions. In March of 1966, she seemed to get the answers she was seeking. While cleaning the wall in Bruce's study, she unwittingly triggered the hidden panel that revealed the elevator to the Batcave. "But what's the Batcave doing under the Wayne Mansion -- unless -- unless Bruce and Dick are Batman and Robin! Oh, but that's ridic -- I mean, they couldn't be -- yet -- it would explain -- "
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the approaching Batmobile. She rushed back to the study, then paused. "Hold it, Hattie! Don't panic. You can't leave the car up here. Better send it down as it was originally -- or they'll suspect what I've found out."
The sound of the elevator setting down, combined with the lingering scent of Harriet's perfume, was enough to alert Batman and Robin and they immediately went into spin control. "She'll have to prove her suspicions first," Bruce asserted. "And we're going to make it tough on her by giving her plenty of room for doubt."
When Aunt Harriet inquired about the secret elevator that night, Bruce asked her to show it to him. The door opened to reveal a closet. ("A newly installed electronic remote-control device will still let US work the elevator -- but nobody else," thought Dick.) Harriet was undeterred. "The boys think they've fooled me, but I'll have the last laugh yet!"
The next few days became a battle of wits between "the boys" and Aunt Harriet. Outside the disguised Batcave entrance, Dick discovered that "she's coated our exit road with wet pitch. If we'd driven over it, she'd know which road we took and maybe find this entrance to the Batcave. I'll bet she's done the same thing to all the roads around the estate." Using a hydrofoil attachment, the Batmobile was slightly elevated off the ground by compressed air and glided right over the pitch. After they were a mile out, the Dynamic Duo dropped the car back onto the highway.
Batman and Robin's evening patrol brought them into contact with the latest villain to menace Gotham -- the Cluemaster. Secretly coating the Batmobile's tires with "a special chemical," the mastermind imagined he could trail the heroes back to the Batcave. He imagined without the tire tracks stopping abruptly in the middle of the highway. While the Cluemaster's gang wondered if the Dark Knight and his squire were "aliens from another world and the Batmobile is really a spaceship that suddenly took off," Batman and Robin took satisfaction in the fact that they'd outmaneuvered Aunt Harriet once again. If they only knew
The battle of wits continued when Bruce and Dick found a hidden camera trained on the elevator. Dick found a second one by the highway exit but, curiously, it's film was fogged "by some radiation." Batman quickly deduced that the radiation must have come from the painting/clue that the Cluemaster had left after his latest heist. "That means the Cluemaster could use it to seek out the Batcave!"
Moving quickly, the Dynamic Duo established a secondary cave "some miles from Gotham City" and allowed the villain's gang to "discover" it. Trailing the thugs back to their own hideout, Batman and Robin brought the entire group to justice.
No less disgusted than the Cluemaster was Aunt Harriet, who developed her film the following morning to discover Batman and Robin stepping from the elevator to greet Bruce and Dick. Satisfied that he'd fooled her with the trick photography, Batman admitted that she'd averted disaster in the Cluemaster caper. "I suppose someday we'll tell Aunt Harriet the truth," predicted Robin, "just as we did with Alfred" (1966's Detective # 351, by Fox, Infantino and Sid Greene).
About that time, the "Batman" TV show came along, revealing for the first time Aunt Harriet's last name and status as a widow (by way of the reference to her as "Mrs."). Belatedly, the details were added to the comics (Detective # 373).
Alongside Aunt Harriet in the series was dear old Alfred. Julius Schwartz felt he had no choice. Alfred had to return to the comic book and the mysterious villain known as the Outsider would be his vehicle. In the summer of 1966, Detective # 356 (by Fox, Moldoff & Giella) revealed the "Inside Story of the Outsider," finally seen on-panel as a hairless albino covered with white lumps clad only in purple briefs.
The final pages restored Alfred to normal. A heartbroken Aunt Harriet was prepared to pack her bags and leave but Bruce and Dick insisted she stay. Alfred himself added "that I -- need you most of all -- since I'm not entirely well yet, and your cooking will speed my recovery."
"Oh, bless you all!" Harriet exclaimed. "I'll go and prepare a dinner to celebrate our reunion." Indeed, when Alfred was stricken with fatigue in March of 1967, Aunt Harriet was delighted to take over ("We must make sure you stay well, you know."), even rejecting Dick's offer to help with the dishes. "No, no! Goodness! It will give me something to do. Now you two just run along" (Detective # 364).
On the TV series, Aunt Harriet was reduced to a pair of cameos in its third (and final) season, appearing in the Batgirl premiere (September 14, 1967) and the London three-parter (Nov. 23-Dec. 7, 1967). The move was a response to actress Madge Blake's ill health and, sadly, she died on February 19, 1969.
Coincidentally, Aunt Harriet's diminished film presence was reflected in the comics, where she also fell ill. A recurring health problem (mentioned in late 1967's Detective # 371) blossomed into a full-scale crisis and Harriet was rushed to Gotham General for emergency surgery in early 1968. Doctors used cryosurgery on Mrs. Cooper and, when the device failed, Batman and Robin made a desperate flight to retrieve Mister Freeze's cold gun and cannibalize it to save the woman's life (Detective # 373).
She recovered at Wayne Manor, with Alfred now playing caretaker for her (appearing for the last time in 1968's Jimmy Olsen # 111 and Detective # 380, plus mentions in Batman # 201 and Detective # 383). Not wanting to be a burden and regarding herself as redundant alongside Alfred, Harriet moved out. She continued to stay in touch, though. Characteristic of her eclectic taste in art (as in Detective # 358), she sent a unique housewarming gift when Bruce moved into his Wayne Foundation penthouse -- an Oriental gong (mentioned in Batman # 226).
Harriet's last recorded visit with Dick, Bruce and Alfred was over the 1975 Christmas holidays (Batman Family # 4). Now associated by many fans primarily with the TV series, Aunt Harriet is regarded as a reminder of that campy chapter in Batman's history and has been banished from the comics because of it. I like to think she's still out there, travelling abroad, finding romance and having the time of her life. Dick Grayson's beloved aunt deserves no less.
John "Mikishawm" Wells, the pride of Batavia, Iowa, is a lifelong comics fan, working his way forward from Disneys in 1969 to newspaper strips in 1973 to SHAZAM! and the rest of the DC Universe in 1974. During the 1980s, he began compiling a lists of DC character appearances, a massive database that he's tapped into when writing articles for publications such as the DC Index series, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer’s Guide, Comic Effect, Comic Book Marketplace, It’s A Fanzine, The O‘Neil Observer and, of course, Fanzing. He is Kurt Busiek's unofficial reference guide, as the keen-eyed may have noticed in Power Company #2.
This article is © 2000 John Wells.
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