Sidekicks have existed in stories for as long as there have been heroes. There’s Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes, Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, Tonto and the Lone Ranger, Iolaus and Hercules. But the idea of the kid sidekick is a relatively modern concept, a 20th Century invention used to get the attention of a generation of children whose families were escaping the clutches of the Great Depression and living through World War II. Comic books provided a cheap alternative to going to the movies. They were widely read but few were aimed at children outside of cartoon books reprinting Sunday newspaper comic strips. That started to change in 1938 with the debut of Superman and the dawn of superheroes. Millions of kids were devouring the adventures of four-colored crusaders. Seemingly overnight, publishers had gained the attention of the nation’s youngest citizens.
That’s when Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson hit upon their next big idea. April of 1940 saw the sensational debut of Robin the Boy Wonder in Detective Comics #38. He helped set off a tidal wave of characters aimed at cultivating young readers by giving them an accessible entry point. Why wait to grow up to be Batman when you can be Robin right now? After huge fanfare for the Boy Wonder, a slew of sidekicks were unveiled to varying degrees of success. The most notable were Bucky for Captain America and Speedy for Green Arrow.
Sidekicks found an audience that yearned to just be kids again and could enjoy the simplicity of stories about characters doing the right thing. Caped crusaders gave them hope. The same could be said for the other HUGE character that was tearing up the market, outselling both Superman and Captain America. That was Shazam (known at the time as Captain Marvel) and the kid with the ability to become a superhero was also popular because it made an effort to reach out and include children in the fantasy.
The end of the love affair with the kid sidekick had three main contributing factors. The first was the publication and public hearings based around Dr. Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, a scathing account of how comics were contributing to juvenile delinquency. Wertham’s crusade and public hearings on the subject led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, a self-regulating body that created rules for publishers that changed the face of comics. Characters who were presented as minors could no longer be depicted in situations that had realistic violence. This why Batman spent a lot of time in space in the ‘50s.
Then the first sidekick got a new face in the 1966 Batman TV series. While it’s understandable due to logistics, casting the adult Burt Ward as Dick Grayson changed the nature of the character. Around the same time Marvel was revolutionizing the industry with new adolescent characters like Johnny Storm, Spider-Man and the X-Men who were full heroes rather than sidekicks. Marvel also began pushing continuity, making comics part of an ongoing narrative set in one world. That changed everything. When characters started growing over time, it became time for some characters to grow up.
It’s important for any medium to show growth and maturity. The idea of the sidekick has fallen by the wayside in the last few decades as part of the growing need to see our four-colored heroes age and progress with us. But the result is that a generation of children have been left out of one of the biggest drivers of pop culture. Sure, they can still enjoy the action and spectacle but that’s not the same thing as making them feel like they’re part of the adventure.
Adventure is the purest form of escapism, and kids crave it too. Especially now. The kid sidekick was used to expand the audience for comics to all ages and make children part of the fandom instead of just showing them heroes they should emulate. Comic books should be for kids too. Our nostalgia-driven efforts to apply maturity to concepts of the past in order to validate our current tastes has erased what first drew us to comics as adolescents. By asking junior heroes to grow with us, we have left behind the original sense of wonder and adventure that comics have historically conveyed. It’s this cynicism that pervades modern thought on sidekicks. Sidekicks should be revered for their contribution to culture, rather being treated with contempt in modern incarnations like Robin on Titans saying, “Fuck Batman.”
Luckily the idea of the sidekick isn’t dead, it’s just changing. The Umbrella Academy comics and Netflix show use imagery rooted in sidekick stories in the costumes of its super-powered kids to deal with the emotional fallout of being a child hero. DC Superhero Girls and Marvel Rising are bringing comic book characters to younger audiences without a touch of cynicism. Shazam has returned to the big screen with a wonderful all ages film.
But the film that really epitomizes this new model is Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. There is a poignant and comforting mantra that runs through most of that film: “You’re like me. I thought I was alone.” It crosses the generational divide, especially with Miles Morales and Peter Parker. The first Peter recognized he had to give as much info to Miles as he could, because he knew Miles needed guidance. Peter B. Parker knew he couldn’t leave this kid behind. The filmmakers knew they couldn’t leave kids behind. By including them in the story they made it clear that comics, comic movies, and these heroes are for everyone.