The Sons of Silenus – The Sidekick HeroesThe Dark Herald
The Sidekick hero.
Frequently thought of as the lowly sidekick. Yet he is the hero’s “shield on shoulder and right-hand man,” his monkey wrench in a bad fight when most he needs one. The guy the hero knows will always be there no matter what. The son he never had and more brother than any sibling of his own flesh. Holmes without Watson is unthinkable. You can’t conceive of the Lone Ranger without Tonto at his side. Jim West always had Artie covering his back. And while Batman without Robin happens on occasion, the first question the audience always asks is, “when will we see Robin?”
So, what is a Sidekick hero?
What is his function?
And why does any hero need one?
The answer to the first question depends on what does the main hero need that he lacks? The type of sidekick a hero needs generally falls into two broad categories. The Protégé and the Best (and often only) Friend.
However, there is one universal trait that both categories share. They act as a go-between, either between the hero and his audience or the hero and his world.
An adolescent Robin seems like an incomprehensibly irresponsible choice of sidekick today, but you have to remember there actually was a time that young boys read comic books. Now, it’s a market (if it can even be called that) dominated by middle-aged men but comic books used to be for boys. Boys always like to pretend they are their favorite hero, but twenty years age difference is a monstrous gulf for even the most imaginative of children to overcome. It creates a gap for them. But 1940s Dick Grayson filled that gap. He was their age, it was no real stretch to put themselves in his shoes and fight crime alongside Batman.
And let’s be clear, Robin was immensely popular when he was introduced. Suddenly every hero had a boy wonder battling evil with him. So, Robin acted as an intermediary between Batman and his core audience, at first. However, as time went on, he began to fill the narrative as Batman’s go-between with humanity. He could make the darker versions of Batman see the light of regular people. He could show Batman that he was doing good in the world even when it felt like he wasn’t. Eventually, Robin became his own man as Nightwing fulfilling the other function of a protégé which is to grow up and become a hero in his own right, taking what character traits he wants to emulate from his father-figure and rejecting those things he doesn’t want to be. Sometimes this clears the decks for a new sidekick that can conform to what his hero needs from him in his current incarnation. Tim Drake (unlike his immediate predecessor) fulfilled this function magnificently.
Eventually, the Protégés had to change with the times. In the ensuing decades, an adolescent sidekick became unacceptable to modern sensibilities so past a certain point they were never younger than sixteen years old. Legally a minor, but generally viewed as an acceptably capable one. These older Protégés still filled the function of being a pseudo-offspring, although they now came equipped with teenage problems. This let comic book publishers pretend they were attracting a teenage audience when they weren’t. However, in the 80s and 90s, there was some success in this regard with teen protégés banding together as their own team.
But there was one thing that a Protégé could never be…
The Best Friend:
The Detective Hero in particular always needs the go-between function from his Sidekick. Because as I have stated before, the Detective Hero is always a defective hero. Holmes needed Watson for a lot more than exposition to his audience. He needed Watson simply to connect with people in general. Emotional outreach was always impossible for Sherlock Holmes, he desperately needed John Watson to keep in touch, not just with the human race but his own humanity as well.
Although, being a doctor, Watson brought a few more things to the table. Primarily a knowledge base that Holmes doesn’t have regarding medicine.
This is often the function of Best Friend Sidekick. Take Tonto for instance. He brought with him extensive native knowledge, lore, and abilities. However, Tonto was also a lot more. The Lone Ranger is unusual in being both an Explorer hero and a Detective hero. The Explorer is always a man with one foot in two worlds, the realms of Law and Chaos, and he enforces the border between them. However, the Detective hero is always firmly planted in the realm of Law. Which put the Lone Ranger mostly on one side of the border he must guard. He needed Tonto as his inseparable best friend to balance this out.
The go-between function of the Sidekick is his most important trait.
So, if the Sidekick is so badly needed by his hero, why is viewed as the “lowly sidekick.”
Because everyone sees himself as the hero of his own story.
And we see just a little too much of ourselves in the Sidekick.
This post would not have been possible without the invaluable resource that is Professor Geek’s podcast. The Dark Herald Recommends with Enthusiasm.