Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The "Boy Wonder"...of 1903

In 1955, DC Comics began publishing a title that would become an evergreen for them: The Brave and the Bold.

That first series lasted until 1983—impressive in and of itself. In the 1990s, DC published two miniseries with that name, unrelated to one another and the original series. The phrase was used for the title of a 2002 episode of the animated series
Justice League. DC revived and reinvented the series in 2007. An animated series called Batman: The Brave and the Bold debuted in 2008 and was soon followed by a companion comic book series. (As of this writing, rumors are swirling about the possible demise of both the 2007 series and the cartoon.)

I just learned that pairing “brave” and “bold” in an adventure title predates DC. A dime novel series that began publishing in 1902 was called
Brave and Bold. In 1907, it became Brave and Bold Weekly and continued until 1911. I don’t know if it had anything to do with the inspiration for the original DC comic book series.

The March 2011
Comics Buyer’s Guide runs a letter about Brave and Bold #49 (November 28, 1903). That issue featured a story entitled “The Boy Wonder, or Dick Gray’s Marvellous Pump.” The 18-year-old Dick is “athletic in figure and singularly agile in his movements...handsome in person and modest and refined in demeanor.”

Thirty-seven years later, writer Bill Finger would give Batman a sidekick named Robin. Nicknamed “The Boy Wonder.” Real-named Dick Grayson.

Fluke? Subconscious lift? Or was Finger knowingly ripping off this dime novel?

The similarities are indeed wild. But I think this is nothing more than a wild coincidence.
There were dozens of pulp titles and I don’t think Brave and Bold was one of the big ones. As voracious a reader as Finger was, I feel it’s unlikely he would have heard of a pulp that ended in 1911 (three years before he was born). Even if he had heard of it, I feel it's unlikely he would have had access to an issue from 1903 (11 years before he was born).

More to the point: by Finger's own admission, Grayson was pulp-inspired
—only not this pulp.

The Steranko History of Comics, Volume 1, Finger is quoted as follows: “Dick Grayson came from the pulps. Frank Merriwell had half brother Dick, and Grayson came from book I was reading, edited by Charles Grayson, Jr. The name sounded good.”

Dime novels were a style of hastily produced adventure or romance books popular in the latter half of the 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th; they were not known for their literary quality. Though definitions can be amorphous, they are commonly considered precursors to pulp magazines (which, in turn, partially spawned comic books).

Finger wasn’t coy about revealing influences for Batman and other characters. In this case, as shown above, he
did credit the pulps for elements of Robin, and the Frank Merriwell stories were more widely known and more recent than the 1903 Brave and Bold story. Therefore, if he had taken inspiration for Robin from the Brave and Bold rather than (or even along with) Merriwell, it seems he would’ve just said so. For one thing, it would’ve looked more original than citing a character that 1939 readers would be familiar with.

Other elements of Dick Gray and Dick Grayson do align rather curiously, but you can take that only so far. Of course “Dick” and “Gray” were fairly common names. The description of Dick Gray’s appearance and personality also recalls Dick Grayson—and dozens of other heroes/protagonists. Generic Boy.

The oddest overlap is “Boy Wonder,” but in those days of carnival freak shows and the like, many posters shouted such attention-grabbing sobriquets, and that reduces the oddness.

I know of no “marvellous pump” in Robin lore...except perhaps with regard to Burt Ward's behind-the-scenes “adventures” during the making of the 1960s Batman TV show.

And the less said about that, the better.

Thanks to John Wells for alerting me to this topic and to Brent Frankenhoff for sending me the cover scan.

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