(A)Round Robin – An Interview with Lauren O’Connor

As a Robin fan (Tim Drake is the best Robin I will not be taking questions at this time), I was very excited to hear about Robin and the Making of American Adolescence, a new book that will be released August 13, 2021 as part of the Comics Culture series being published at Rutgers University Press. I was even more excited to learn that its author is Lauren O’Connor, a past WWAC contributor with one Robin-related article So, Why Don’t We Have a Robin Movie?: Teen Sidekicks and the Relegation to Relation, and one sidekick-related article Aiming for the Proper Target: Kate Bishop, Mia Dearden, and the “Good Girl.” One of WWAC’s goals with Comics Academe is to demystify the publishing process, since, for many graduate students and early career scholars, book (and article) publishing often appears a mystical, random thing that only happens to other people. My many thanks to Lauren for this interview, which was conducted by email.

Cover of Robin and the Making of American Adolescence

WWAC received a copy of this manuscript in advance for review purposes.

Congratulations on your book! What inspired you to write about Robins?

Thank you so much! I think there were a couple of vectors that pointed me in this direction when I first started working on my dissertation. I was primarily interested in youth studies, but I had also recently become hooked on comics. I saw a sort of natural connection between the two, and it seemed best embodied by this very well-known adolescent figure. As I started poking around, I realized there was very little criticism or analysis out there on Robin, and that further sparked my curiosity. Why is that? I wondered. What does it mean? Is it worth exploring? Obviously, I answered that last question with a “yes!”

Can you share some insight into the process? Since this is based on your dissertation, I’m curious about how that process happened. Did you approach the publisher or did they (their editors) approach you? How would you explain this part of the process to folks who might be looking to turn their dissertations into books? And did you add anything that wasn’t in the dissertation?

I’d be happy to. Full disclosure: I worked very hard on this book, but I have also been the lucky beneficiary of very generous mentors. In the final year of my Ph.D. program, I received a dissertation writing fellowship, meaning I did not have to teach or work for the university in any way–I was given funds to simply write. I got to spend an entire year with almost nothing but this project, and I really fell in love with it. By the time my dissertation defense rolled around, I was seriously bummed out at the thought of not working on it anymore! I hit the absolute jackpot when choosing my dissertation committee, and they all helped start the process of transforming the project into a book the day of my defense. My chairperson mentioned the Comics Culture series from Rutgers University Press, and he helped connect me with one of the editors there. I sent the editor a full proposal, including sample chapters, about two months after my graduation, which she then sent out to a couple of peer reviewers. Both of them recommended RU Press pick up the book, and the press ultimately agreed, so six months after my graduation, I had an initial contract. For me, at least, it was really helpful to roll with the momentum of finishing the dissertation. It’s such a high to finally graduate, and although it was tempting to take time off, getting that proposal out as soon as possible helped me maintain some of that momentum instead of feeling like I was starting a new project.

For the next year and a half or so I did quite a bit of revision to the original dissertation. I received truly excellent feedback from the reviewers, and that helped me improve the text a lot. I also researched and wrote a brand new chapter about images of Robin in television and film. It doesn’t have the same academic roots as the other chapters, since it was in large part driven by selfish curiosity and enthusiasm, but I like to think that my excitement over the subject matter comes through and makes for an entertaining addition.

One of the things you write about in your introduction is the fact that comics studies has gone to great lengths, since the beginnings of the field, to distance itself from anything to do with kids. I appreciate your criticism of the field because I think it’s spot on. Beyond the necessity of this kind of work, why did you (and the book) gravitate towards adolescence as a theme?

Let me start off by saying I do think this is changing and has been for about 15 or so years. There is so much fascinating work being done at this intersection now, and I am honored and humbled to be part of it. But indeed for a long time, it seemed the only way comics got any recognition was via arguments about how they can be, in fact, mature, complex, “real” literature–the whole “comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” take. The mainstream focus on comics being cheap entertainment for children, which is reductive at best, baked this sort of defensiveness into the field in its early decades.

My frustration, and I hope this comes across in the book as a sort of long-suffering tiredness and not aggressiveness, is that even this defense, which again is based on false premises, feels unjust. So what if comics are cheap children’s entertainment? Does that make them not meaningful to us as a society? Even those comics that are indeed meant for kids are still worthy of study and critical engagement. If anything, I think these more accessible comics are more vital for us to study since they likely reach a larger audience and one that is on average more impressionable.

I started my career not as an academic or a writer, but as a high school counselor. The more I got to know my students, the more I realized that our models for “understanding” adolescents are deeply informed by white cisheteropatriarchal ideals. I wanted to do something that would help reveal why many of our assumptions about teenagers exist, where they came from, and, crucially, how they marginalize teenagers and perpetuate power imbalances amongst adults. I felt like my work with adolescents as a counselor prepared me to look at Robin from a unique angle.

Let’s talk about Dick.

I am obsessed with the dry hilarity of that sentence.

Thank you! We like our puns here at WWAC. And Dick.

 

You write at the beginning of the chapter that “those within comics fandom often find themselves defending the character’s heterosexuality, which many writers have bent over backwards to portray.” Do you think that fandom attitude has changed in the past 10 years?

Yes, to a degree. From my perspective, as largely an outsider of comics fandom (I consider myself a fan, but I am not particularly active in collective fandom), it seems like the composition of the fandom is itself changing and bringing with it lots of different ideas and perspectives. There are a lot more voices seeking diverse representation, putting forth or embracing alternate readings of texts, and generally rejecting a lot of the cisheteropatriarchal tendencies of traditional superhero comics fandom. Certainly not everyone feels that way, and even a recent Twitter dust-up about Batman’s sexuality saw some pretty fierce defenders of the status quo, but in general, I feel like I am seeing more openness to queer characters and queer readings of ambiguous characters. However, it also seems like some fans may be ready for more than what a lot of writers are offering. I think it is still mostly true that writers in the past ten years have been invested in Dick’s heterosexual relationships and hook-ups.

Nightwing balancing on a Pride flagpole
Nightwing #81 Pride variant cover by Travis G. Moore (DC Comics, June 2021)

So in the chapter with Dick and queerness, you’re not talking about whether Dick is queer or not. Can you explain a little bit about how you are using queerness and queer theory and applying it?

Correct — I’m not trying here to make an argument one way or the other about Dick’s sexual orientation. Dick is not a real person, Dick does not actually have a sexual orientation, Dick just behaves, however, a given writer wants him to behave. What I am trying to do is map the ways in which writers of this fictional character have used his story to tie together maturity and heterosexuality, and therefore also queerness and youthfulness. There is a strain of queer theory that identifies and explores those theoretical pairings, exemplified well in the work of Lee Edelman, Kathryn Bond Stockton, and Jack Halberstam. In particular, these and other scholars have observed the ways in which being perceived as “mature” is often reliant on reproduction. Think about the old refrain of “becoming a woman” when a girl gets her first period, for example, or how we privilege motherhood in particular as the ultimate manifestation of womanhood. What we are really doing here is connecting adulthood to reproduction and parenting, most often heterosexual parenting. In turn, youthfulness can be construed as a sort of queerness, in that it exists outside of heterosexuality. Although society assumes most children will be someday heterosexual, in general, we do not sexualize children (though if the proliferation of bizarre baby onesies that say something like “Ladies’ Man” is any indication, (hetero)sexuality is swiftly coming to an infant near you).

So when I was reading through reams of Batman, Detective Comics, The New Teen Titans, Batman and Robin, and more in order to trace the trajectory of Dick’s story, I started to notice these key moments in his life almost always using sexual activity–heterosexual activity–as a sort of shorthand for growing up. Dick transforms from Robin, still attached to Batman in name and costume, to Nightwing, a leader and young adult hero, at essentially the exact same time he is portrayed in a sexual relationship with Starfire. His stints as Batman draw on his ability (or inability) to parent another Robin as evidence in favor (or against) his suitedness for the role of Bat-family patriarch. In other words, I saw writers reinforcing the notion that maturity and heterosexuality go hand in hand, thus also reinforcing the notion that youth carries a trace of queerness, by marking Dick’s progress toward adulthood through heterosexual relationships and parenting.

You end your chapter with Dick becoming Batman, but as we know, Bruce Wayne did come back as Batman, which sent Dick off into his own series, Grayson, working with a spy agency called Spyral–which you mention in passing a few times. I was wondering if you had read Mason Downey’s article about Dick Grayson, “In Defense of Dick Grayson: Objectification, Sexuality, and Subtext.” I’m asking because Downey writes about Dick’s time as Agent 37, and about his friendship with DC’s only gay male superhero, Midnighter. I’m curious how that time in Dick’s life does/does not fit into this timeline of Robin-inal adolescence and queerness?

It’s true — I end the chapter by analyzing Dick Grayson’s role as a parent, the ultimate marker of maturity (I realize he is not the biological father of Damian Wayne, but he nonetheless serves as a father in terms of behavior and mentality). I have read Downey’s article and really liked it. I think his observations about the intended audience and how Grayson purposefully welcomes in readers who do not fit a “traditional” comic reading demographic are spot-on. I don’t personally read any of the kind of “shorthand” I described above in Grayson, in terms of the creators working hard to link heterosexuality and maturity. I wonder if it’s because, by the 2010s, Dick’s maturity wasn’t really in question (and neither was his heterosexuality). He had already moved out, gone to college, been a team leader, been a solo hero, been Batman, slept with a lot of women, parented a child…By that token, I think we can read Dick’s friendship with Midnighter as not at all a comment on his maturity or sexuality, as something completely outside of those considerations. I guess we could argue Seeley et al. finally freed Dick from the kind of “no homo,” hyper-heterosexualized characterization into which he’d so often been slotted.

I wanted to ask you about your choice to include Carrie Kelley, since The Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight Strikes Again are standalone books outside of the main comics continuity. A lot of Robin fans have never read Miller, myself included. Would you recommend them?

Thank you so much for this. I think it’s an important question to address, so I’m grateful for the opportunity to discuss it.

There are two key reasons I felt it was important to look at Carrie Kelley in this book — first, while some Robin fans may not have read Miller, many comics and non-comics readers actually have. I remember a friend of mine, who took one comic book class in college, trying to argue with me that the first Robin was a girl, because she read TDKR for the class (never mind the fact that other Robins are mentioned in the book). To a lot of casual comic readers or those who only read comics that show up on The New York Times bestseller lists, Miller’s book is canon and is one of, if not the most, important Batman stories. In turn, the influence TDKR has had on the comics industry is huge, and a lot of what came after TDKR was responding to it, in some way, shape, or form. So, to write about Robins and not include the Robin from one of the most famous Batman books of all time would have felt counterintuitive.

The second (and to me, more important) reason I wanted to include Carrie here is because I think both she and Stephanie Brown, who was Robin in continuity for a hot minute, together tell such an important story about what comic book readers–mostly teen and young adult males, when these stories were first published–“learned” about adolescent girls from their comics. Analyzing all the male Robins certainly tells a story, too, one in which girls are not really important at all. But when we do look at these brief glimpses of girl Robins, the story becomes less about ignoring girls and more about manipulation and violence towards girls. It’s a crucial distinction, and one I couldn’t bear to leave out.

Would I recommend TDKR? It depends on your goal. If you are looking for entertainment, I would say no. There are much more fun and interesting stories out there. If you are looking for a detailed time capsule of white male anxiety–anxiety about masculinity, media manipulation, nuclear war, etc. — in the 1980s, then by all means pick up TDKR. I cannot in good conscience recommend the sequel, DK2, and I can’t really even speak articulately about DK3 because of my (negative) emotional response to it.

I guess I should also point out here that I have already gotten some pushback about my criticism of Miller’s work. I anticipated that, though I’m certainly hoping “pushback” doesn’t turn into “vitriol.” You may read it and draw completely different conclusions than I did, and that is a-ok. If you do read it, hit me up for another chat about it sometime.

You have a lot of praise for the goals of the writers for the creation of Duke Thomas and the way that it seems, taking what they have done in good faith, they examine the way that Black teens are denied adolescence, and how this cultural attitude often leads to police violence against Black children. Duke ends up giving up the role of Robin to Damian and then went on to essentially fill a “Batman” role in Batman in the Outsiders, like Nightwing did. What do you think about that in terms of Duke’s maturing from adolescent to adult in the Bat Family?

I do appreciate the work of Duke Thomas’s early writers, though yes I acknowledge it requires reading with a sort of benevolence that I have not afforded to, say, Miller or Andersen Gabrych. I love Duke Thomas as Signal, and I think he has always been written as a born leader. He served that role in We Are Robin as well, despite being a late addition to the crew and dealing with all kinds of personal stuff at the same time. What I find myself thinking about often when pondering Duke Thomas is how we can portray reality without reinforcing the status quo or replaying Black trauma. The reality is that, if Gotham City is anything like our messed-up world, Duke Thomas would probably not have access to the same resources and privileges as Dick Grayson. He would be treated differently by the police. But does showing that in a story reinforce it or make it appear “natural?” This is where I think the creators have both hit and missed–sometimes their critiques of society are thoughtful and potent, but sometimes their attempts at making Duke his own person seem like estrangement or alienation from sources of safety and cultural capital.

In terms of Duke’s maturation, I think it’s again a really fine line. In We Are Robin and Robin War, Duke is just a teenager but he often appears already mature–his parents are nowhere in sight, and unlike Dick or Jason he is not taken in by any parental figures. He seemingly runs his own life and makes his own decisions, as someone in his situation likely would. But does that mean he was forced into a premature adulthood? And if so, are creators simply reinforcing the all-too-frequent assumption that Black teenagers–especially boys–are older and more capable (and more threatening) than they are? There’s a lot happening here, and I am certainly not equipped to disentangle it all. My goal with Duke’s chapter was to highlight how complicated this all is; ideally some scholars who are better versed in critical race theory and Black representation in popular culture will join me in the conversation. Black Panther has attracted a lot of attention lately, which is fantastic and worthwhile, and I would love to see Duke Thomas given the same close examinations.

I haven’t addressed Damian yet, but I have some questions about his appearance in the chapter about Duke Thomas, which is called “Mixed Signals: Adolescence, Race, and Robin.” You mention in a footnote that “tracing Damian’s lineage through his estranged mother, Talia Al-Ghul, reveals uncertainty as to Damian’s racial identity.” But it’s only kind of uncertain. Although her ethnicity is not plainly stated, she’s not white. As you note, the Al-Ghuls are Asian and/or Arab depending on what the DC writer is feeling that day, but they are always Orientalized, and racialized, which means that Damian is a mixed-race superhero. Why argue that Damian is (or at least should be read as) white? How would a reading of him as a character of color affect the chapter?

Another excellent question, thank you for this.

The short answer to this question is that I believe creators have largely downplayed the non-white aspect of Damian’s identity and coded Damian as white. It’s true that his mother, Talia, is Asian–and has, as you note here, been portrayed as hailing from opposite ends of that massive continent depending on the creators’ choices. She has been coded as such visually, in different ways and to varying degrees, as well as culturally (yes, often in a very Orientalizing fashion). However, Damian’s appearance has from the outset born a striking resemblance to Bruce Wayne’s. Damian’s function in Batman stories is to be Bruce Wayne’s heir, and I think creators have chosen to emphasize his genealogical relationship with Bruce Wayne in visual terms. Although Damian is thus a mixed-race superhero, creators have presented readers with a Damian who can “pass” as white; this “passing” subtly reinforces his link to Bruce Wayne and therefore his inheritance. Whereas Duke, on the other hand, has been written with a more tenuous relationship to Bruce Wayne than any other Robin — for example, Duke is not taken in by Bruce Wayne for quite some time, and even when he is, it is framed as a job opportunity rather than an adoption.

Damian Wayne squashing a bat, Batman and Robin, Patrick Gleason, Grant Morrison, DC Comics
Damian Wayne squashing a bat, (Batman and Robin, Patrick Gleason, Grant Morrison, DC Comics)

In terms of the second part of your question, I think because of the past fluctuations in Ra’s and Talia’s racial identity, for creators to explore Damian more deeply as a character of color would require solidifying the Al-Ghuls’ origin in a way that they have resisted up to now via uncertainty and ambiguity about the Al-Ghuls’ past. Creators have mobilized the trope of the “mystical Asian” (with Ra’s especially), which reduces and flattens Asian cultures into a monolith (among other harmful effects). I wonder if more contemporary creators are resistant to coding Damian as Asian because they do not want to perpetuate the use of this trope? The alternative, again, becomes coding him more distinctly as white, which obscures his identity. Regardless of the motivations of creators and their choices to code Damian more clearly as white, the impact remains that he is visually very strongly linked to Bruce Wayne, which in turn shores up his claim to the Bat-legacy.

As a Tim Drake fan I want you to know that I had a really difficult time not making the first question of this interview, “why do you hate Tim Drake?” While Tim, Jason, and Damian don’t have their own chapters, it feels like he is mentioned the least. So why do you hate Tim Drake?

I love Tim Drake! Really I do. He’s actually the Robin with whom I identify the most, and I think the way his story developed as a sort of comics analogue to “The Wonder Years” or “Boy Meets World” or other classic 90s stories about teen boys is fascinating. The thing is, I couldn’t write about every Robin in a book meant to be only about 200 pages. I had to make some difficult decisions, and ultimately I felt that looking at the Robins who deviated the most clearly from hegemonic ideals would make for the most compelling narrative. But I think it’s incredibly significant that Tim is the first Robin to receive his own title, and I would love to dig into why that is and what it means someday.

Sure, Lauren. Be honest — who is your favorite Robin and why?

Don’t @ me, but my favorite Robin is Jason Todd. Followed by Damian Wayne. I guess I like bratty Robins? I also appreciate how both these characters have wildly different approaches to morality and violence than Bruce Wayne; it makes for compelling stories.

I knew you were a Jason person.

To wrap up this interview, do you have any upcoming conference presentations, publications, or other projects you’d like to promote?

Sure, thank you so much! I’ll be presenting on adolescent fantasy in The New Teen Titans at the annual Comics Studies Society conference on August 7. That’s a pretty hardcore academic event, but you can also catch me talking more casually about the Robin book on The Functional Nerds podcast at the end of August. Finally, if you are interested in content that is about 10% comics studies and 90% screaming about BTS, you can find me on Twitter @Lroconn15.

Thank you so much for your time, Lauren, and your honesty. Best of luck with your future academic comics studies endeavors.

Robin and the Making of American Adolescence is available for pre-order now.

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Kate Tanski

Kate Tanski

Recovering academic. Fangirl. Geek knitter.

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