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:
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.)