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End of Summer

The Importance of The Teen Sidekick

by Mathew D. Rhys

No one can deny that crime-fighting is a dangerous occupation. Doubtless, any time one places oneself at odds with ruthless individuals, a perilous situation has been created. Even more so when said ruthless people stand to lose money, face incarceration, and are well armed. Given the life-threatening nature of the game, how is it that any remotely responsible adult could even consider placing a child into that situation?

Quite simply, he could not. But this is Comics, and the logic and rules of the real world do not apply. If you balk at this, try to remember the last time you saw a man in spandex leap from the ground and not come down (heck, think of the last time you saw a guy wearing a cape and didn't think 'dork'). In the world of Comics, rules are different; and while both the threat and the number of insane metahumans is higher, the laws of probability and chance play favor to the valiant. Nevertheless, what is the reason, or reasons, for the teen sidekick?

First let us examine the standard template of a comic book superhero likely to have a sidekick--a wealthy and/or famous bachelor who is either too bored or utterly dedicated to justice (e.g., Batman, Green Arrow, Sandman, et al.). Additionally, most superheroes fit into dynastic archetypes that require progeny-- nobility and protectors of the realm. In nearly all of these cases, however, our hero is most unlikely to produce any offspring. In order for the continuation of their heroic line, an heir must be acquired, and this the sidekick fills perfectly. In some cases, such as Mr. Scarlet and the original Red Tornado, the literal offspring fulfill both roles.

The sidekick also serves as a partner. He allows for the hero to both teach and learn. The hero can be fallible, yet serve as an inspiration and a mentor, to both the sidekick and to the reader. In terms of problem solving and deduction, two heads are better than one; and it always helps to have an extra pair of fists in a fight. The sidekick also facilitates narrative exposition, allowing the plot to be flushed out in an entertaining, conversational style.

All of these functions can be accomplished by adult sidekicks and partners (e.g., The Crimson Avenger, Hawkman, Star-Spangled Kid). If this is so, than why is the teenage sidekick so vital? The key is in the target audience. Comics were originally marketed almost exclusively to children ages eight to fourteen (when the cares of emerging adulthood often squelch the rampant imaginings of youth). The sidekick is often the mean age of the intended readership. His life experiences and pressures shadow the readers. This association is a means to both attract readers and to tell relevant, vivid stories.

As a child, I looked up to Batman. I wanted to be Batman, but I was Robin. When Tim Drake debuted as Robin in 1991, I was a thirteen year-old nerd with fairly advanced computer skills. Apart from my status as a total klutz, I could have been Tim's reflection. And it was awesome. Every month, it was me swinging through the city. I learned to drive as He did. He Broke-up with his first girl friend when I did. Everything He went through I related to on a personal and emotional level. And that was why Robin was created. And Speedy. And Aqualad. The hero is inspiration; the sidekick is identification. I really think that is why Nightwing has such a strong following. The sidekick that grew-up along with the fan.

If we assume as absolute the mirror-type relationship between the sidekick and the target audience, then as all sidekicks age to adulthood and beyond, so do the readers. No characters are left for young readers to adhere to. Thus, without the teenage sidekick, there are no new readers. (Now I must admit the preceding is, by its very character, a hyperbolic circumstance. It is not absolute, but I do think it holds some validity).

Marv Wolfman's Batman: A Lonely Place of Dying makes the assertion that Batman needs Robin, that the need to look out for somebody on a personal level is what keeps Batman from being too obsessed and too dark. I think this is true in comics as a whole. It does not seem it can be mere coincidence that the same period that saw the virtual end of the teen sidekick is also called the "Dark Age" of comics. In the early Nineties, many teen sidekicks where killed off or allowed to grow-up and vanish. I cannot think of a single new teen sidekick during that whole period of time apart from Robin III (I am unfamiliar with the Milestone books, but I believe Rocket may also qualify). Conversely, as the teen sidekick was reintroduced (e.g., Impulse Wonder Girl, et al.), we have seen a "brightening" in comic themes and stories. Without a certain amount of levity, stories cease being escapist, and become merely depressing and unentertaining, which I think was the great downfall of the "Dark Age". After all, Life is depressing enough without fiction.

Teen sidekicks have long been the catalyst for enjoyment and great fun for thousands of comic fans, myself included. I cannot with any honesty state that they are an absolute necessity, but it only fair to say that, while not necessary, comicdom would be the less for lack of the teen sidekick.

The highly odd Mathew D Rhys is an obsessive storyteller and family man whose wife graciously allows him to prattle aimlessly, and gives him no end of joy in life. He hopes to one day write comics his son can read. You can read his original character fiction at

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