Marvel Studios made headlines this summer for a single scene in the new Disney+ series “Loki” in which the eponymous character confirms he is bisexual. This week, DC Comics has published its own, even more impactful glass-closet-shattering story, in which Robin, long considered by readers to be the not-so-straight sidekick to Batman, has a moment of self-acceptance — and then agrees to go on a date with a very nice boy he just fought the bad guys with.
Allowing Robin to rescue a male love interest instead of a female one and otherwise have all the same romantic tropes play out shows people that these stories are universal.
Despite the jokes and headcanons of fans since the 1960s-era Adam West days of televised “Batman” episodes, Robin has never been actively portrayed as queer or bisexual in the comics themselves. Requests from readers and fans were ignored by DC Comics, which continued to write Robin as a straight character. That ended with the current run of “Batman: Urban Legends,” a monthly anthology series. This recent story, titled “Sum of Our Parts,” had clearly been building toward a reveal of this nature in its first two installments, which culminated in Part 3, published this week.
With this move, Robin joins the limited ranks of a handful of DC comic book characters, including Batwoman and Midnighter, and a slighter longer list of Marvel heroes (Loki, Iceman, Wiccan and Northstar) as part of a small but growing LGBTQ+ pantheon. But this is a household superhero name being shown coming out of the closet. With the comic finally catching up to the character that the audience has seen for decades, it shows how the genre has finally recognized that it needs to be responsive to the demands of diverse readers rather than stay closed off to them.
In the new comic, the current Robin’s alter ego is Tim Drake. (Batman may eternally be Bruce Wayne, but his sidekick position has been held by multiple people since the Robin character was introduced in 1940.) This particular anthology run is a Robin-centric story featuring his circle of acquaintances, including Bernard, a longtime friend who nonetheless has no idea of Drake’s secret identity. That follows the same trope as most traditional love interests in the comics, like Batman’s Vicki Vale or Superman’s Lois Lane.
When Bernard is kidnapped by the comic’s current baddie, Chaos Monster (just go with it), it necessitates a rescue by our titular hero, now in Robin costume. As they take on the Monster together, Bernard confesses his feelings for the suddenly absent Drake and his wish, should he survive, to get another chance at love. The comic then ends, post-rescue, with Drake back in his street clothes going out with Bernard.
Despite the hoopla of Loki's coming out this summer, Robin’s story is far more boundary-breaking. Unlike the TV screen, where Loki’s identity was revealed, the comic books are where the stories first develop, meaning the impact going forward can be far larger. Just as significantly, Loki wasn’t allowed to act out his bisexuality in the Marvel TV production. The single gesture it included was of Loki saying he likes both men and women — the rest of the series stayed staunchly traditional, even handing the character a female version of himself to rescue and fall in love with so the heterosexual status quo could be maintained.
The DC Comics issue of Robin, on the other hand, hands this queer couple the full trappings of a traditional romance, allowing them to have a developed superhero story just like any other. Allowing Robin to rescue a male love interest instead of a female one and otherwise have all the same romantic tropes play out shows people that these stories are universal and apply to everyone. A character’s making a passing reference to being bisexual before ending up with an opposite-sex partner doesn’t do that.
The development of Robin’s character is particularly significant given that comics until how have overwhelmingly been written as white-cis-male for decades, even as other cultural formats have increasingly diversified and adapted to modern audiences. Despite the dominance of the superhero genre in TV and movies, the comic books from which these stories are drawn have only a fraction of the audience that the on-screen adaptations get partly because for decades there was no move to broaden their appeal.
Marvel started a sea change (on the page, mind you) in recent years, with new iterations of old favorites, like a gender-flipped Thor or a Korean American Hulk in Amadeus Cho, some of whom are now coming to the screen via Disney+. But until now, DC – which arguably has the bigger names in Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – has lagged behind. Other than Batwoman, who wasn’t generally a household name until her recent CW show, any and all superheroes who were written as LGBTQ+ were ones mainstream audiences wouldn’t have heard of. By taking an iconic character known to all, like Robin, and giving him a bisexual storyline, DC Comics is showing fans they are seen.
This is particularly interesting timing because the Tim Drake version of Robin was also just announced as joining “Titans” Season 3 on HBO Max, which features a number of younger sidekicks banding together to save the world. That doesn't mean HBO Max's version of this new Robin will be bi. But it will raise interest in the character and perhaps help the series find an audience if it is willing to follow the comics.
More importantly, this move by DC Comics continues the trend for comic books to try to diversify their offerings and hopefully the audience along with it. Not just for the big and small screen adaptations to come, but for the comics industry itself, which now sits in the shadow of what has been spawned from it. The willingness to embrace how audiences already see these characters is the first step. Hopefully the comics will continue to evolve as the decade goes on.