Batman and Robin

Sidekicks have a rather strange history in comics, dating all the way back to Robin’s first appearance in BATMAN #1 (1940). They began life as a marketing tool, meant to reach out to the intended youth demographic of the funny books. As time passed, though, sidekicks became a bit uninteresting. As readers grew up, comics grew up with them. Those same youthful foils were no longer necessary to sell the book. In fact, some found major issues arose with children fighting criminals alongside adult heroes. Unless your character’s name is Batman, the idea of the sidekick has become a bit passé.

However, there’s still something striking about sidekicks in general. For one, there are still young readers out there that want characters like them on the page. More importantly, though, they still carry the same narrative worth as their adult counterparts. They can explore themes that affect younger people in a way that feels canned with adult heroes. However, the strongest element of the sidekick comes from the concept of mentorship. Often, due to the skills and connections made through their relationship with their superheroes, the sidekick is better able to face life’s challenges and grow as a human being. With that in mind, here are several important DC Comics sidekicks that have benefited from their time with their mentors.

Dick Grayson: The First Sidekick

Batman and Robin
Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

In many ways, Dick Grayson epitomizes the sidekick archetype. His backstory closely mirrors that of his mentor, Batman, and he has many of the same skills. His utility as a young foil largely inspired the massive trend of sidekicks that would follow after his appearance in 1940. Based on any number of Batman’s psychological analyses, the Caped Crusader is a broken human being. His inability to move past his parents’ deaths has led to a lifelong disassociation from society at large. He has no room for anything outside of his war on crime, and that makes him largely incapable of any real human connection. It seems strange, then, that Bruce Wayne is also responsible for the largest youth population in comics.

However, Dick Grayson shows how that obsession can be a boon. Batman recognizes his failings as a human being. In a number of stories, he has delved into the depths of his trauma and, in Dick’s case, Bruce refused to let the boy succumb to the same mental poison. No matter the origin story you look at, whether it be pre- or post-Flashpoint, Bruce helped Dick investigate his parents’ murder. Batman lets his ward catch the bad guy, something Bruce had never done.

By doing so, Batman allowed Robin a modicum of closure that he hadn’t achieved. As such, Dick had an out. He still chose to be a superhero, but in a very real way; he stepped outside of Batman’s shadow. Dick became more than a secluded shut-in. By taking on the Nightwing moniker, he became a leader and beacon of optimistic superheroics that Batman could never be. All of this because Bruce refused to let Dick sink to the same low.

Jason Todd: On Death and Trauma

Jason Todd Red Hood
Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

When exploring positive examples of DC mentors, it seems odd to include a relationship that resulted in the sidekick’s death. However, that’s exactly what happened to Jason Todd, the second Robin. Viciously murdered by the Joker in one of comics’ most famous moments, Jason eventually returned to life to deal out a very brutal brand of justice to Gotham’s criminals. All of this only occurred because Batman brought Jason into superheroics. As far as sidekicks go, this should be one of the most unhealthy relationships in comics. For the first several years, it was. Not until recently did these two reconnect, and it’s only through this relationship that Jason could finally heal from those old wounds.

Before FLASHPOINT, Jason and Batman were completely at odds, and the introduction of the New 52 barely saw the pair working together. However, by Rebirth, a sense of trust had finally developed. I attribute this more to Batman’s stubbornness than anything else. After his death and resurrection, Jason felt betrayed by the Bat because Bruce never avenged Jason’s death. However, after the New 52 began, during major crises like NIGHT OF THE OWLS, Batman still called on Jason. Working together again, protecting each other, renewed that mentor-sidekick bond.

Through this forced partnership over years, the pair could finally look past their failures. As such, by the time RED HOOD AND THE OUTLAWS rebooted in Rebirth, Jason is a far more humane and rounded character. Much like with Dick, this could only occur because Batman refused to give up on his former sidekick. He loved Jason so much that he did whatever he could to help the boy heal.

Wally West: Villainous Ancestry

TEEN TITANS #1. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

What if, one day, you discovered that one of your parents was a supervillain? By now, a number of writers have explored this theme, but few characters are as compelling as Wally West. Here, I am talking about the second Wally West. While the original Kid Flash did become one of the most iconic legacy characters in comic book history, his role as a sidekick mirrors all of the positive points that Dick Grayson’s did. However, the new version of the character needed the Flash in a very different way. Wally West’s father became the Reverse Flash during the New 52, and went on a killing spree with his newfound powers. However, even before that time, Wally had never met his dad. He’d grown up with his mother, never knowing who his father might be.

With that said, discovering that his dad became a psychopathic speedster wasn’t easy on the boy. Without Flash, Wally would have fallen into a pit of uncertainty, questioning whether he’d go down that same path. After all, his father was a normal man before he gained his superpowers. Under the Flash’s tutelage, though, Wally managed to ease into his powers and learn to control himself. Barry Allen did make one major mistake, though. He lied to Wally about his father’s history until later in Rebirth, which badly damaged their mentor-sidekick relationship. Thankfully, though, the original Wally West was there to pick up the pieces. No matter where Wally looked, he had positive examples of what the Speed Force could do. He need only to choose those paths in order to live a good life.

Donna Troy: Remolding the Weapon

Donna Troy
Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Donna Troy might not be as well known as some of the other sidekicks on this list, but she has one of the most interesting backstories. After all, she’s one of the founding members of the original Teen Titans both before and after FLASHPOINT. However, it isn’t until after FLASHPOINT that we truly get to see the power of her bond with Wonder Woman. Before the reboots, she was saved from a fire by Diana and raised amongst the Amazons to become a proud warrior. This is still largely true when Rebirth hits, but in TITANS ANNUAL #1, her story gets retconned. We learn that, like Diana’s original backstory, Donna had been formed from clay and brought to life through magic. Her purpose, however, was to destroy the Amazons by infiltrating their ranks.

Donna Troy
TITANS #17. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

This revelation has torn Donna apart in the recent installments, and it hasn’t yet been fully resolved. However, consider the finer points of this backstory. Wonder Woman, knowing full well Donna’s intended purpose, took the girl under her wing and allowed her to have a somewhat normal life. She didn’t let the darkness of her history muddy Donna’s future. By accepting Donna, Diana allowed the girl to choose her own future. In many ways, this epitomizes the mentor-sidekick relationship. Diana opened doors for her ward, giving Donna new chances at life.

Cassandra Cain: So Much More Than Her Upbringing

DETECTIVE COMICS #939. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

You might be surprised that Barbara Gordon doesn’t make it into this analysis as Batgirl. Despite being the first female sidekick in the Bat-Family and one of the best, she excels more as a solo hero than she ever did as a sidekick. She didn’t need Batman to be great. Cassandra Cain’s Batgirl, on the other hand, had a very different upbringing. Do note that this will largely focus on the pre-FLASHPOINT character. The backstory for Cassandra is a bit different in Rebirth, no matter how cool Orphan may be in DETECTIVE COMICS.

Cassandra Cain was born into the League of Assassins and was raised to be the perfect killer. Her parents denied her any auxiliary interests, like reading and speech, so that she could focus solely on learning to kill. After her first murder, though, she quickly fell into a sorrow over the pain she had caused and joins Batman in defeating the League. From there, he gave her the moniker of Batgirl and introduced her to his growing family.

Cassandra’s relationship to Batman is interesting. Her whole existence before meeting him could only be described as lonely. She had no personal connections, and her lack of speech or literary skills limited her social abilities to that of a toddler. Still, she desperately needed a home and people to care about her. Batman gave her that, as well as a true purpose. She didn’t need to be a killer anymore. She had options thanks to Bruce’s tutelage and, under his wing, Cassandra Cain became one of the most loyal Bat-Family members.

Raquel Ervin: To Inspire a Hero

ICON #35. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Raquel Ervine began her comic book existence in the African American led DC imprint, Milestone Comics. As the sidekick to their equivalent to Superman, Icon, Raquel went on several space-faring adventures alongside the hero. However, she has a much greater role in this series. Wanting to become a writer, Raquel idolized a corporate lawyer named Augustus Freeman IV. Despite idolizing him, though, she and her friends broke into his home and began stealing from him. To stop them, Freeman showcased his amazing powers, and Raquel was the only one who stayed behind.

Before she showed up in Icon’s life, he was content to simply live his life as a lawyer. However, their meeting led to major changes for both of them. Unlike all of the sidekicks discussed thus far, Raquel is the only one to actively inspire her mentor to become a superhero. Yet the relationship isn’t one way. In fact, it’s the purest form of give-and-take in the superhero world. While Rocket pushes Icon to become a better hero, Icon helps Rocket become a better person. He inspires her to actually pursue her literary dreams and live a life worth living. Together, they each have the courage to grow past their former lives and move beyond Dakota.

Roy Harper: Superheroic Networking

Roy Harper
Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Another strange character to discuss in the context of positive sidekicks; Roy Harper was the focus of one of comics’ greatest controversies. The sidekick to Green Arrow from the character’s debut, it was revealed in GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW #85-86 that Roy had become addicted to heroin. This facet of the character would haunt him for the rest of his superhero career. Even today, forty-seven years after the original story, these themes continue to follow Roy. As such, it probably appears at first glance that Green Arrow doesn’t know what he’s doing. In all fairness, this isn’t incorrect. Oliver Queen never actually did anything in the comics to help his ward heal from his addiction. Not directly, anyway.

I may be the only person to argue this point, but Roy Harper’s relationship with Oliver Queen gave the boy the tools necessary to fully recover from his addiction. It wasn’t anything that Queen did, per se. Rather, it was simply introducing Roy to the superhero community. All of Roy’s healing had been done with the love and support of his Teen Titans teammates. Every time he fell, every time he turned back to his addiction, they were there for them.

However, Roy would never have met those teammates if not for Green Arrow. He wouldn’t even have joined the superhero community. Sometimes, a person doesn’t have the right tools to give their loved ones the help they need. During these times, they have to turn that person to those people that can actually get the job done. This is what Queen did for Harper by turning him to the Teen Titans.

Conner Kent: The Superboy Dilemma

Conner Kent
Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

I include Superboy on this list because he differs greatly from the other sidekicks. Based on the time period you look at him, his mentor-sidekick relationship changes. Before FLASHPOINT, Conner Kent was a clone of both Superman and Lex Luthor. With his dualistic genetics, Conner dealt with a lot of self-doubt. He constantly feared becoming like the villainous Lex Luthor, and he often made brash or stubborn decisions to assuage these fears.

However, as Superman takes Conner under his wing, Superboy begins to change. He has a loving family in the Kents to support his personality development, and he discovers the positive change he can affect in the world through Superman’s example. He even willingly sacrifices his life to save the multiverse in INFINITE CRISIS. This relationship is again mirrored when Jonathan Kent, the newest Superboy and Clark’s son, comes into his powers. The strength of his bond with his father leads him to be a hero that the world deserves.

SUPERBOY #1. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

During the New 52, though, that wasn’t the case. While Kon-El and Superman met on a few occasions, that mentor relationship never developed. The pair didn’t come together like before, and that led Conner down a very different path. Now, I do realize that the character still became a hero. This is largely due to the influence of his teammates on the Teen Titans. Still, he constantly makes ill-advised and aggressive decisions, simply because he doesn’t know any better. By not having a mentor to show him right from wrong, his mistakes happened more frequently, and sometimes at devastating costs.

The Importance of Sidekicks

The sidekick may be a dying concept, but it shouldn’t be. Locked within these young heroes are stories of growth and positive change that aren’t possible with adult heroes. More importantly, though, that mentor relationship represents one of the most interesting and powerful themes in comic books. Whether it be the give-and-take relationship between Rocket and Icon, the constant support Batman gave Dick and Cassandra, or the outside connections that Green Arrow gave to Speedy; these young heroes grew and healed under the attention of their mentors. So I implore all aspiring comic book writers, please don’t forget the sidekicks. They have so much potential.

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