First and foremost, you should go read this excellent piece by Meg Downey which gives some historical prospective on Dick Grayson with regards to his current incarnation. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this is a response to that column.
While reading through that piece and nodding at pretty much everything, I came to one bit that pushed me out of the narrative, because it wasn’t what my experience with reading about Dick Grayson had been. That’s not to say that it’s wrong, just that it was at odds with what I knew.
It’s the section on hypermasculinity.
I disagreed with most of what is written there about Dick and his evolution into a man’s man, whose “heartthrob status became contingent on his ability to prove his masculinity through sexual, romantic, and physical conquests.” But why did I disagree with it?
This led me to this column. As a straight, white male, I wondered what it was about Dick Grayson that I found so appealing. Yes, I love the legacy aspect of Dick Grayson, but I don’t think that’s necessarily contingent upon my world view as part of the controlling demographic. I realized that one aspect sprung directly from the issue I had with Downey’s piece, which in turn led me to another point which grew from that.
So what is it about Dick Grayson?
He’s Not a Tool
As I mentioned, I’m a straight, white male. I have been keenly aware of what a man’s man is supposed to be like for my entire life and I have always loathed the concept. I’m tall and thin and not particularly athletic. I prefer books to fists. I’d exclusively respond to things emotionally if I didn’t learn to suppress that feeling growing up. I spent most of my teen years being terrified of the opposite sex because I never wanted to be “that guy.” I was so scared of being a stereotype that I was often unable to function.
I hated the testosterone crowd. I was born in 1975, so reading comics was never cool when I was a kid. Yet I kept reading them, through high school, into college, even now. And maybe comics reinforced my dislike of what our society thought masculinity was. Maybe Spider-man is to blame. Or maybe I just saw how much damage “men” could do to the world and wanted nothing to do with that.
All of this led me to Dick Grayson.
In my eyes, Dick Grayson wasn’t hypermasculine. He was anything but.
His physical prowess came not from brute strength, but from his gymnastic skills. He was a leader who cared deeply about those who followed him. He had a circle of close friends that he actually opened up to. And he was in a long term, committed relationship for years; Dick met Kory in 1980 and they were together almost exclusively for 13 years. Yes, there were on again, off again times when he would have a brief fling with someone else, but even then his “sexual conquests” were surprisingly limited given how frequently his attractiveness was commented upon.
Pre-New 52, you could make the claim Dick had been with 7 women, that’s assuming he’d actually had sex with his college girlfriend and counting his rape at the hands of the Tarantula…and his rape at the hands of Mirage. The remaining four include the aforementioned Starfire, Barbara Gordon, Huntress, and Cheyenne Freemont, the last involving a rather uncharacteristic one night stand.
This was a guy who, based on all the evidenced laid out in nearly all of his appearances, could have been out there sleeping with the whole world, but he didn’t. Because he wasn’t a d-bag.
Yes, you can make the case that his relationship with Starfire was meant to transform him from a boy to a man. We’re talking about a scantily clad alien warrior woman who had literally just been a slave – the number of stereotypical male power fantasies in there is off the charts. Dick even goes so far as to give Kory credit for helping him decide to give up the mantle of Robin, in case we needed less subtle proof that she had made him into a man.
But even while Dick was hopping into bed with a character who would, sadly, be pigeon holed as a pin-up model, their relationship never felt entirely concrete simply because Barbara Gordon existed. In fact, in the end (of the post-Crisis, pre-Flashpoint DCU), Barbara is who Dick ends up with. Throughout Dick’s entire post-Crisis life, Barbara Gordon has been there, and the question as to the extent of their relationship never went away. If anything was at odds with Dick being ‘roided up for the masses, it was his will they/won’t they dynamic with Babs.
That’s not to say that Barbara Gordon was a homely young woman; this is comics, after all. But she was more than that, to an extent that Starfire never could be. She was smart, resourceful, and determined, more so on all three counts than Dick himself. And that was the beauty of their relationship: they complimented each other, but each was clearly better at certain things than the other. Barbara was no one’s gateway to masculinity and Dick’s love for her underscored the type of man he truly was.
This was the Dick Grayson I knew. He was the character who never loaded up on pouches and firearms. At his most “extreme,” he grew a pony tail. This was a role model for those who didn’t believe that muscles and sex made you a man. This was a guy who openly admitted to Starfire that he was scared about dating her, not because settling down worried him, but because she made him want to open up to her, to let her in. That is not something a manly man admits.
You’ll also never see Dick Grayson be cruel, which from my understanding as a kid, was something that all “men” did.
Dick Grayson was abused as a child.
You can try to pretty it up all you want, but that’s the case. I am a huge Batman fan, although I’m probably more of a fan of the mythology than of the specific character. But even I will admit that was Dick Grayson went through as a kid was abuse. Denying that is ignorant.
Imagine the things he’s seen, the things he’s been exposed to, solely because of Bruce Wayne. Think about how he had to have been treated to turn him into the perfect vigilante and unquestioning partner. Batman IS that man’s man. He is the scary father figure who will make his son do things that he shouldn’t have to do, force his son to see things that will haunt him forever. And that’s all AFTER seeing his parents die.
Dick has got to have PTSD on top of PTSD.
But Dick survives his childhood. No, he doesn’t just survive, he overcomes. He becomes everything Bruce Wayne could never be. He is Batman 2.0, a better version in nearly all ways, and smart enough not to involve children in his crusade. He has friends, he falls in love, he refuses to be alone even if it might be the safer option. Dick was raised by perhaps the most shut off man in the DCU, yet he didn’t follow him down that road.
Yes, there have been countless stories detailing Dick’s issues with his father figure. We saw him try to fill in for Batman on numerous occasions, each time failing at something he was ostensibly built for. We saw the weight he carried trying to live up to Bruce’s standards and his fear that Bruce’s path was the right choice, while his will ultimately ruin him.
But just before the New 52, we saw that change. Dick Grayson took over as Batman and it was glorious. Yes, he had a pre-teen sidekick, but let’s at least admit that Damien is a special case. Dick was a greater liability to that team than Damien was because fighting was the only thing Damien knew. Dick became Batman and, as much as it pained me, walked away, because that’s not who he is. He’s not going to follow in the footsteps of a man who abused him for years. Dick might have accepted what Bruce did and, to a certain extent, forgiven it, but that doesn’t mean he’ll embrace it.
That time just before the New 52 was pivotal for Dick; not only did he step into the cowl, but he got engaged to Barbara. Those two things seem like contradictions, yet not to Dick.
Grayson is a fantastic book and everyone should be reading it. The DCYou initiative may be credited to the success of the revamped Batgirl title, but Grayson is what set that up. Grayson is the type of book that should have happened when the New 52 launched, a book that manages to feature a straight white male as the lead, yet is also inclusive. Imagine that.
Contrary to what the 90s might have told us, hypermasculinity was not inclusive, and this is why Dick Grayson’s fan base has remained vibrant over all these years. He has never shut anyone out. He’s never pandered, never been the Punisher or Batman. He has always been the version of a vigilante that appeals to those who can’t stand the stereotype.
It’s the fact that Dick Grayson doesn’t hide behind testosterone that makes him so appealing, and I think it’s what draws fans to him in the first place.