Poll Position: Sidekicks

I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion in last week's Poll Position regarding the greatest comic-book villain of all time (you voted for The Joker by a wide margin), so I wanted to continue it this week, albeit in a lighter vein:

{democracy:166}


I had a hard time defining for myself what a "sidekick" really is. Some of the other lists I looked at included people like Abe Sapien from the Hellboy series, or Frozone from The Incredibles. But they seem to be more in the "teammate" role than "sidekick". I thought it should be limited to the "Boy" or "Girl" type of character, like Wonder Girl or Aqualad, an alternate, weaker, younger version of the main character. But that would leave out people like Kato or Tonto, secondary characters who weren't modeled after the lead, and who weren't younger. And I can't honestly argue that Kato and Tonto aren't sidekicks.

So finally I just said to heck with it, and put up the ten most recognizable names I could think of that primarily starred in comic books alongside a more popular or powerful character, whose role was primarily that of support. And this is what I came up with.

  • Aqualad: Aqualad unquestionably fills the role of superhero sidekick -- he's got a subset of the main character's powers and name, is younger, and routinely gets his butt kicked by the villain, requiring rescue. What makes him interesting in my mind is that he's a sidekick to an already completely useless main character, so he's like, useless squared. I also used to wonder how an underwater white guy got an Afro. If that's not super, I don't know what is!
  • Bucky: Easily one of the most influential early sidekicks, Bucky fought alongside Captain America not only as they battled super villains, but the entire armed might of the Nazis. That's impressive. He's had several incarnations and I probably should have specified which Bucky I was talking about, but I like that while Cap had a bulletproof shield, poor Bucky had only a domino mask and some floppy boots to protect him. Perhaps he should've been called "Ducky" instead.
  • Bulletgirl: Bulletgirl makes the list because I have a well-known love of all things Bulletman. You could certainly argue that she fits more into the "Abe Sapien" type of secondary role to a main character rather than strictly as a sidekick, but I think the shared outfits, powers, and name qualify her. I mean, it's not like Abe is running around in shorts with the name "Hellfish". I love Bulletgirl because she's just as effective (or not) as her husband, and is darn close to being a full partner.
  • Jimmy Olsen: On the one hand, he's not "Superlad" and he doesn't usually run around at Superman's side directly fighting crime. On the other hands, he's had even more super identities and powers than anyone this side of Rick Jones. He's younger than Superman and constantly getting into trouble that requires rescue. A good argument could be made that he doesn't really qualify as a sidekick, though.
  • Kato: Perhaps the only sidekick in history to outshine his partner, as the television version (starring Bruce Lee) of the TV show was known as "The Kato Show" in parts of Asia. That's pretty awesome.
  • Kid Flash: I always liked how, even though he's a "kid" version of The Flash, his costume was not exactly the same. The alternate colors and design set him apart while still maintaining consistency, which is cool. Plus, he eventually stepped up to the starting role himself, taking over as his namesake in every way. Dick Grayson eventually became his own super-hero, but not The Batman. It seems to me that is the ultimate goal for a sidekick, to take over as the main guy's identity at some point.
  • Rick Jones: Like Jimmy Olsen, Rick Jones has had a plethora of identities and roles. He's been a sidekick multiple times (to The Hulk and as Bucky). He was an honorary Avenger just as himself. He's even been a full-fledged hero himself (Captain Marvel). It might be that he's "overqualified" for the position of a sidekick, but no one else on the list has served under two different main characters as Rick has. Or released a groovy music album.
  • Robin (Dick Grayson): The original Robin is pretty much the template most people think of when the term "superhero sidekick" arises. Much younger, weaker, and prone to capture than Batman, he provides comic relief and plot points galore while still kicking butt. Eventually he'd "graduate" to full-fledged superhero status on his own as Nightwing, but even before that he led the Teen Titans as Robin. On the one hand, that's all very impressive. On the other hand, you could say he abandoned his sidekick duties twice. Who wants to hire a guy who's constantly trying to start his own business, you know? Plus I never understood how a Robin and a Bat went together. Bats are nocturnal mammals while robins are diurnal birds. They don't exactly hang out in the same circles. And while Bats is creeping around dark alleys in black and gray, Robin's flitting around in neon red, green, and yellow. Way to be inconspicuous, pal, how on Earth did they ever sneak up on anyone? Of course, if you accept Frank Miller's explanation for Batman's bright yellow chest logo (it gives the villains a visible, but well-protected by Kevlar, target), maybe there's a more sinister reason Bruce dressed Robin up in all those bright colors ...
  • Speedy (Roy Harper): What does "speedy" have to do with a Green Arrow? This has to qualify as the most random sidekick name ever, even more absurd than Robin for Batman. At least both of those fly. The first time I heard "Speedy" I remember thinking "Did the Flash get a new sidekick?" Lame.
  • Wonder Girl: If you have a character who, let's be honest, was created by someone in Editorial saying "We need a female Superman", I guess it makes sense to exercise even less creativity on their sidekick. All the same powers, and you just need to change "Woman" to "Girl" and you're good to go.

If we were plotting the Platonic ideal of "Superhero sidekick", it should probably include the following:

  • Subordinate status to another, more mainstream character;
  • Complementary costume;
  • Derivative name;
  • Complementary or derivative power set;
  • Younger or otherwise socially inferior status.

I'm not saying you have to have ALL of those attributes to qualify as a sidekick, but rather that the ideal candidate would include them all. If we use that as our guide, it seems to me the qualifying members of the list would be Aqualad, Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, and Bulletgirl (who, given her status as a female in 1941, barely qualifies as "socially inferior status"). And out of that list, I'd probably go with Kid Flash, for the reasons I outlined originally.

But looking at the list as a whole, there's no way I can rank Kid Flash over Robin or Bucky. He hasn't had nearly the cultural impact as those two, nor did he play as prominent a role in the main character's history. Robin and Bucky were with Batman and Cap almost from the beginning; they were major players on their own; and they feature prominently in the popular conception of the main. I mean, you can't think "Batman" without thinking "Robin".

So if I put aside all the clever logic and aforementioned internet nerd argument spittle, and just go with my gut, it has to be between Robin and Bucky. And at the end of the day, I have to go with Bucky, because eventually he took over for his mentor to become the actual Captain America. Robin never became Batman, he just became Nightwing.

That's how I'd vote and why, but I would love to hear what you think about it. So fire away!

(Image and characters above ©DC Comics.)

20 Responses to Poll Position: Sidekicks

  1. My god, what’s wrong with their eyes? Do they have Youngblood Disease or something?

  2. Having recently watched Young Justice on CN, I think they made Aqualad and Robin both pretty cool characters. Looking forward to the rest of the cast they add on later.

    But I think I’d have to vote with the classic; Robin.

  3. Bulletgirl is the only choice here for true Heromachine devoteés.

  4. Watson Bradshaw

    I expect Robin to win this by a landslide. He is a character that has endured since the early 40’s and did it all in shorts! I remember being a kid and coming up with my own Robin costume (by ruining two T-shirts to have green sleeves on a red shirt) and day dreaming about hanging out at the bat-cave, kicking the crap out of scarecrow, and setting Atomic batteries to power. Turbines to speed.

  5. I couldn’t vote. It gave me this “Error 0” message.

    But my vote would be Bucky. In my opinion, the most telling sign of a great sidekick is whether or not they were able to continue the legacy of their mentor.

    Let’s look at some of the most notable sidekicks:
    First the five Robins:
    Robin (Dick Grayson). Nightwing, then eventually the new Batman (but we’ll see how long that sticks).
    Robin (Jason Todd). Killed, as per the demands of the fans.
    Robin (Tim Drake). Forced to retire by his daddy, later Red Robin.
    Robin (Stephanie Brown). Stripped of her name by Batman, mistakenly believed to be killed, became Batgirl.
    Robin (Damian Wayne). New Robin (again, we’ll see how long that lasts).

    Speedy. Really? What is his greatest legacy? He was a drug addict, which helped break the grasp of the Comics Code Authority. Legacy fail.

    All other crappy DC sidekicks. Here’s the formula: Take the superhero, reduce the IQ to double digits, change the name to include an age-appropriate gender-based word, naivety +1000, usefulness -1000.

    So now that we have addressed the DC bias of this poll, let’s look at the Marvel sidekicks.

    Bucky. Began as a DC-style useless sidekick. Died, reborn as the Winter Soldier, now the new Captain America. Unlike Dick Grayson, this one is actually going to stick it looks like.

    Rick Jones. I like Rick Jones, but he’s bounced from hero to hero and never moved beyond that. And no, he was never Bucky. He tried to be Bucky and Cap chewed him out and told him never to put on the outfit again. That kind of damages a relationship. But mostly, where is he now? No one knows.

    Now for the Marvel sidekicks omitted from the list.

    Wasp. Many forget that she was the sidekick to Hank Pym up until the time they joined the Avengers. In fact, if you look at the cover of Avengers #1, you’ll see four names at the top of the cover: Thor, Ant Man, Hulk, and Iron Man. Wasp was an afterthought. She soon became a hero in her own right, even serving as chair of the Avengers. Tony Stark would later describe her as the best Avenger ever. She later died in the final battle of the Secret Invasion, a death that many would describe as the most devastating loss of the Marvel Universe (at least, among those who stuck).

    An unlikely mentor to a trio of teenage girls was Wolverine.
    Kitty Pride, Jubilee, and X-23. Of the three, the greatest is undoubtedly Kitty Pride, who sacrificed herself to save the world. What more could you ask of a one-time sidekick?

    Jackpot. I don’t even know where this chick came from? All I know is that she appeared in Amazing Spider-Man during Secret Invasion and Spidey didn’t. In fact, I don’t know if they really interact at all…

    So there, my vote goes to Bucky, with Dick Grayson coming in second.

  6. Why am I suddenly having flashbacks of Tiny Toon Adventures with Plucky Duck as “Batduck” and his plucky sidekick “Decoy”?
    http://th08.deviantart.net/fs71/150/i/2010/364/a/b/batduck_and_decoy_by_fattimon-d360bdt.png

  7. Dear Mr. Hebert:

    I am disquieted and saddened to hear this continued anti-Aquaman screed. It fills me with anguish.

    That said, I still voted for Bucky. 😀

  8. This remind’s me of Sam Clay’s character on Michael Chabon’s novel. He was a gay-in-the-closet comic book writer in the 40s and 50s, and following Dr. Wertham and the Comics Code, he was called to testify before Congress about the sidekick phenomenon – which he led. That part of the novel was hilarious.
    “Describe to me the relationship between the character Batman and his so-called sidekick Robin… an older man and a young boy living together alone in a mansion, correct?”
    “Uhhh… I think there’s also a butler.”
    Hilarious.

  9. Jeff, I find it funny that you go to the length of qualifying Robin as being Dick Grayson because when I think Robin, the first name that comes to my mind is Jason Todd or Tim Drake , and yet you don’t specify whether Wonder Girl refers to Donna Troy or Cassie Sandsmark (or, for that matter, you don’t immediately specify Bucky as being James Buchanan Barnes as opposed to Jack Munroe or Rikki Barnes, both of whom more recently took the name Nomad).
    Anyway, your reasoning is flawed, given that you dock Dick Grayson points for not becoming Batman, when in fact, he has (since the Blackest Night event, when Bruce Wayne was thought dead), despite the fact that Bruce has been a stubborn, crotchety old bastard that refuses to give up his cowl (mark my words, Bruce will return aq Batman, relegating Dick back to being Nightwing). In essence, you picked Bucky because Steve Rogers has the understanding to take a non-Captain America role so he can let his former protege flourish. Dick Grayson is being penalized for having a worse mentor.
    Well, I will not have it. My vote goes to Robin.

  10. I like Tim Drake Robin better than Dick, but of this list, Dick’s number 1

  11. Myro (9): I defend myself on the Batman/Dick Grayson thing on grounds of ignorance — I had no idea he’d taken over, since I haven’t read Batman in forever.

    Knowing that now thanks to you guys, I would probably change my vote to Dick Grayson.

  12. @CPrime: There were actually six Robins; you forgot Carrie Kelly from The Dark Knight Returns

  13. No, Jeff, no! Don’t let them suck you in! Go with Team Bucky! Not Team Robin!

  14. Team Robin, Jeff! Besides, it’s very well likely that once First Avenger: Captain America is released we’ll see a return to the status quo. Here’s to Steve Rogers returning as Captain America (…though I do prefer Ultimate Captain America–who, at least, remains Steve Rogers over there.)

  15. I just read my comment and am saddened that my sarcasm tags never stuck to my statement:

    “…because when I think of Robin, the first name that comes to my mind is Jason Todd or Tim Drake…”

    That would be a ridiculous comment to be taken at face value.

  16. Myro, I find your comment, “That would be a ridiculous comment to be taken at face value” too ridiculous to be taken at face value. But then, I am a stubborn, crotchety old bastard.

  17. I finally went with Bucky. I see him as Robin’s equal, capability-wise. Maybe Grayson’s learned more martial arts, but Bucky has the excuse that he was kinda busy fighting Nazis! Extra points for surviving much of World War II and coming back from the dead, plus points for wearing pants, none of which Dick/Robin did. Bucky worked without benefit of a utility beltfull of high-tech gadgets. Plus, when Robin was off-duty, he got to hang around Wayne Manor eating Alfred’s cooking (whatever Frank Miller may say); Bucky went back to a barracks or trench in some shell-scarred hellhole and ate Army rations. So Bucky paid more dues. Equally stupid names, orphan status, and tiny masks: tie. Bucky gets props for seniority/longevity, too. I’m not saying I could whup Robin in a fight or anything, but on balance I think Bucky takes it.

  18. has anyone else realised that kid flash is the only sidekick that can use his costume as an adult!!! i voted roblin i love the Damian Wayne version

  19. I voted for “Kato” because he’s got his own franchise… which I contribute to.

  20. As a true-blue Batman fan, I have to go with Robin, but only because that was a super hero name shared with the fantastically awesome Tim Drake. I mean, so far, Tim has been the only Robin who didn’t get himself fired/ beaten with a crowbar/ destroy a city through an unintentional gang war… etc(well, except for Damian, but everyone knows it’s just a matter of time with that kid). Plus, Tim was actually useful! He was smart, and, in my opinion, a much better detective than bruce was at that age.

    So, to make a long story short, I vote for Robin not because of the original, but for his awesome replacement.

    ps: even though he is nowhere near as cool and awesome as Bruce is, I still think Grayson is a pretty good Batman. And for all of you uneducated bat-fans out there, Bruce Wayne has returned, and has approved of Dick being Batman and chose him as the Batman for the Gotham City position in his brand new Batman inc.