The other day, working at the comic shop, I had a conversation with one of my teenaged customers about the early years of Batman. and he reiterated something I've heard for decades. Jules Feiffer groused about it in The Great Comic Book Heroes, insisting that he'd felt this way since childhood, so the complaint's been around pretty much as long as the character.
It's the idea that the introduction of Robin the Boy Wonder was a Bad Idea and Ruined The Whole Batman Concept.
After reading the first few volumes of The Batman Chronicles, however, I think it's just the opposite.
Before Robin, "The Bat-Man" was just another pulp character.
Oh, those early stories are nice, tight little packages of action and suspense, just like the pulps that inspired them -- but there's the key. They were just like the pulps that inspired them; a bit more compressed, perhaps, and with the exotic appeal of the new medium, but the protagonist was interchangeable with any of the lesser mystery men of the Street & Smith line.
Unoriginal, undistinguished; a guy in a bat costume with (eventually) boomerang. He didn't have the intricate network and multifarious identities of The Shadow; he didn't have the small army of geniuses that followed Doc Savage; he didn't even have the exotic Old California setting of Zorro, the character he really most resembled in those early years.
It was only after the introduction of Robin that Batman really started to come into his own, started to develop his own distinctive motif and theme, started to evolve what could rightfully be known as a mythology. Even Miller recognized that, when The Dark Knight Returns has Bruce reminiscing that Dick named The Batmobile -- "a kid's name."
Before Robin, he was just Zorro in New York. Not The Shadow, mind you; despite what the revisionists of the latter day would have you think, the obsessed devotion to the War On Crime wasn't a major part of the character in those pre-Robin days. Bruce Wayne's effete disaffection with everything around him was misdirection, no doubt, but nonetheless, those early stories convey the impression that, on some level, he put on the costume to fight crime because he was bored.1
It's tempting to assume that Robin just happened to be introduced at the same time as the elements that make Batman so distinctly Batman, but I don't think so. I think that the new character dynamic of the duo was a key factor that shaped a truly mythic character.
Before Robin, Bruce had a social life. Bruce had a fiancée. The Batman was something Bruce Wayne did. It wasn't yet who he was... until he took on a partner.
With a confidante, someone who knew both sides of his life, Robinson, Finger and Kane could let Bruce Wayne immerse himself in the role of Batman.
The conventional interpretation is that the introduction of the brightly-clad wise-cracking kid sidekick was a distraction that pulled the Batman away from his Holy Mission. If you really sit down and read the stories, though, the opposite is more the case. The idea that everything Bruce Wayne does is really just to serve the needs and goals of his alter-ego only emerges post-Robin.
The modern Batman, the revisionist Batman, the grim, obsessed avenger, lurking in the shadows, devoting his entire life to his personal War, is intriguing today only because he's an anachronistic example of a once-profligate phylum. In that time, in that place, he would never have stood out enough become the iconic archetype that we know today -- if he had ever really existed in that form back then.
It's not Superman who's the last survivor of a lost race.
1This is not, in itself, an unacceptable motivation for a fictional crimefighter; Sherlock Holmes got a great deal of mileage from it.