Sunday, September 30, 2012
YEAR 1986: CARRIE KELLEY
Year 1986 remains most noteworthy in the annals of American comics for having simultaneously introduced two superlative graphic novels: Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons WATCHMEN. WATCHMEN generally enjoys the better critical reputation in the circles of comics-book elitists. But there's one department where the Moore-Gibbons work, with its rather shallow superheroine Silk Spectre, falls short. That's the department of the femme formidable.
In 1986 Miller had yet to start the downward creative spiral that recently culminated in the abysmal HOLY TERROR. He was at the top of his game, and with TDKR he showed protean playfulness in re-inventing the somewhat staid Batman mythos of the time. Arguably the Batman franchise was re-energized across the board thanks to Miller, and the influence of his depiction of his new Robin was a major exemplar of that energy.
To my recollection, up until 1986 no one had ever suggested that it could be desirable that the role of Robin should be essayed by a teenaged female. Today, certain comics-forums are replete with fans who bitterly resent that the character of Stephanie Brown, who briefly essayed the role in a few Batman stories, wasn't chosen to be an ongoing Robin. (She did get to be a new Batgirl for a few months, though.) I suggest that the idea of a female Robin might not have occured to anyone were it not for Miller's take.
Carrie Kelley isn't a particularly deep character, having been designed only for that Miller miniseries. Nevertheless, back when Miller had a great ear for the "voice" of his fantasy-characters, Kelley's voice had the resonance of youth, of eternal innocence born again in the dark world of the Batman. Kelley's Robin wasn't portrayed as especially tough, for she wins her only physical conflict in the miniseries through luck more than skill. Nevertheless, she was a good athlete, and she looked great in the Robin costume, whose splashy colors aren't being donned by the male versions of Robin these days.
I'm not quite so crazy about her later incarnation as "Catgirl" in Miller's follow-up series THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN, so I probably won't cover that here. However, I'll admit that it's a logical development of the original idea, given the dark and perverse nature of the Miller imagination.