Teen Sidekicks

Robin, Bucky, Sandy, Kid-Flash, Dan the Dyna-Mite, Toro, Aqualad, Kid Devil, Speedy, Captain Marvel Jr., Squire, Wonder Girl (ish)... We've been talking about superhero derivatives lately and the very earliest is the boy/teen sidekick (specifically, Robin the Boy Wonder). It seems like a quaint idea today, and often gets wrapped up in the issue of child endangerment, but back in the Golden Age of comics, this was a watershed event. The idea at the time - and it seems to have worked - was to give young readers someone to identify with. Batman had adult problems and responsibilities (well, as much as any millionaire playboy might, so let's call it an adult "outlook"), but Robin was someone you might BE, not someone you could only LOOK UP TO. This was an extremely popular idea, and led in Robin's case to his starring in his very own solo feature (in Star-Spangled Comics). Other sidekicks started popping up as heroes became intent on sharing their adventures with someone.

At its purest, the teen sidekick is a simple derivation of the lead character's core concept. Robin wasn't Batboy or Batty or anything like that, but he was given another flying creature's name, was also an orphan, and shared Batman's abilities and utility belt. The difference was that in making him younger, his creators Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson gave him a more youthful outlook. He was a more positive version of Batman, a creature of the day, not of the night. And indeed, his presence lightened Batman's adventures right up. Unlike Robin, most teenage sidekicks wear a costume substantially similar to their father/mother figure, and are born of the same question as other derivations: What would the hero be like if he/she were young/the opposite sex/an animal?

Once you have a formula, it's time to introduce twist. The Star-Spangled Kid, for example, was teen with an adult sidekick, Stripesy. Superboy was a teen version of Superman, but not a sidekick, just retroactively introduced adventures of Superman at an earlier age. Wonder Girl was the same until she was repurposed as a separate character in Teen Titans. I would be remiss if I didn't also talk about adult sidekicks who, for some reason, are often from minority groups. Kato is probably the prototype, though Tonto precedes him by a few years, but the idea of giving a lead white hero a minority sidekick was reproduced several times - Wing, Stuff the Chinatown Kid, the Falcon, even Rhodey (the way he's used today). Their status as sidekicks means they are perceived as secondary to the white lead, and through the history of the sidekick archetype, made equivalent to immature teenagers or children. A better name for them would be Partners, but unless they share the billing (which the Falcon did, at one point), it's hard to see them as equals.

But is the adult "partner" the future of sidekickery? Are we too cynical and p.c. to accept teenage sidekicks anymore? Have comics moved away from children's escapism and into a faux-realism where violence is too real for underage characters to be put at risk? These are questions readers and writers are struggling with today. What do you think?


SallyP said...

Child endangerment issues aside...I rather like sidekicks. It was another point of view for the reader. Although I wonder how many kids wanted to be sidekicks as opposed to being say...Batman.

Would you call Jimmy Olsen a sidekick?

Siskoid said...

He's part of that civilian brand of sidekick I didn't talk about, like Rick Jones and Doiby Dickles.

Wriphe said...

"Child" sidekicks seem to be a problem for the modern industry. You can't have vigilante children (that violates plausible realism) and you can't ignore them (anything that once sold books might still sell books). Certainly, the Big 2 don't seem to treat legacy side-kids well at all in modern times. They're as old-fashioned and frowned upon as through balloons!

How much of this is the industry and how much is Western society's changing appreciation for child safety? I remember reading comics on playgrounds made of metal and rock. These days, if your playground isn't soft plastic and molded rubber, you're getting sued back into the Silver Age!

Siskoid said...

Yeah, I still have scars.

I don't know if eliminating kid sidekicks will save lives, but writers seem to have the most literal understanding of the word "eliminate".

Wriphe said...

I seem to have a real problem with mis-typing and proofreading my comments here just before bed. That last comments should include "thought balloons," not "through balloons."


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