Spoiler Alert: If you’re reading this and you haven’t seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier yet — or, for that matter, any Captain America comic from about 2010 onward — well, you really should go do that. They’re pretty good.
Ah, poor Bucky. You don’t have to convince comic fans that Cap’s sidekick has had a rough go of it over the years, what with him getting caught in a mid-air explosion, plunging to his apparent death into the Atlantic and then spending decades as a brainwashed (and one-armed) assassin for the Soviets who gets cryogenically frozen between assignments. But let’s face it, being a superhero’s sidekick is rarely a picnic for anyone who takes the job. Take Roy Harper, Green Arrow’s erstwhile partner in crime-fighting. Bad enough he was orphaned at an early age when his park ranger father died in a forest fire; the good times as a billionaire’s ward ended when Queen’s fortune dried up and he hit the road, abandoning Speedy to a nasty heroin addiction. Harper cleaned himself up, but then he slept with an international assassin, got shot in the chest, had his throat slit, found out he fathered a child with that same assassin, got his arm cut off with a poisoned blade, and awoke from a coma to learn his young daughter was among the thousands killed in a super-villain’s attack on Star City. Oh, and he also went a little nutso when Green Arrow killed the guy responsible for the attack, depriving him of his revenge. And if suffering all that pain and trauma weren’t enough, DC drafted him to star in Red Hood and the Outlaws. Harsh.
2. Robin (Jason Todd)
Speaking of the Red Hood. Dick Grayson took his lumps in life, starting with the fact he was only eight years old when he watched his entire family die right in front of him. But he lived the life of Riley compared to Jason Todd, the first Boy Wonder to die in the line of duty. Todd was rolled out in the mid-’80s as a replacement Robin when the grown-up Grayson became Nightwing; Todd’s story was almost an exact copy of Grayson’s circus origins until a reboot cast him as a street punk whom Batman caught trying to steal the tires off the Batmobile. Todd later suffered an agonizing beating and death at the hands of the Joker, courtesy of fans who phoned in enough votes to off the kid. He then spent the next 15 years as a grim reminder of Batman’s greatest failure… until he came back in one of the most contrived return-from-the-dead reveals ever conceived. That resulted in him waking up inside a buried coffin, digging his way to freedom, spending a year in a coma, spending another year as a homeless amnesia victim, and then falling in with Ra’s al-Ghul’s League of Assassins — not the best role models for a confused and angry kid just back from the dead.
3. Robin (Damien Wayne)
Truth be told, the odds were against this kid from the start. First, he was the love child of Bruce Wayne and Talia al-Ghul, so you know right away he’s going to have major issues. He spent his gestation in a laboratory and his toddler years learning how to kill before he’s presented to his father, who was previously unaware of his existence (and likely cursing the lack of a Bat-condom dispenser on his utility belt when he found out). He first donned the Robin mantle to work with Dick Grayson (who temporarily took over as Batman when Bruce was missing in action) and continued to serve as Robin next to his father until a 2013 story in which he died at the hands of the Heretic, his own artificially aged clone. Um, okay. On the bright side, no one is talking about punching time to bring him back (yet).
Known as “Garth” to his friends, Aqualad’s troubles started when he was born with purple eyes, a portent of bad juju to the superstitious Atlanteans who sentenced him to death by coral reef abandonment. The young lad survived that inauspicious start to team up with Aquaman for groovy Silver Age adventures before nearly losing his arm and getting ditched by his grieving mentor after Aquaman’s son was killed by his greatest enemy. Later, Aqualad’s girlfriend died during that Crisis on Infinite Earths thing, he nearly got killed shattering most of his bones in a fall, learned of his mother’s complicity in his abandonment, then died for real during 2009’s Blackest Night event, becoming a zombie Black Lantern who didn’t even rate a reset button at the series’ end to rejoin the living. At least they gave him a nice statue.
5. Wonder Girl
Maybe we should just go ahead and rename Titans Tower the Sidekick Rehabilitation and Trauma Counseling Center. Donna Troy (a.k.a. Wonder Girl a.k.a. Troia a.k.a. Darkstar a.k.a. probably a few more I’ve forgotten) may not have the most traumatic life story among DC’s younger heroes, but it’s certainly one of the more confusing. She started out as the younger version of Princess Diana in “before she was Wonder Woman” tales from the 1950s before someone (probably accidentally) made her a separate person who teamed up with Wonder Woman for fun and adventures. Since then, she’s been given a number of origin stories, almost all of which come with major psychological baggage. She’s a human orphan brought to Paradise Island! She was raised by the actual Titans of myth! She’s a magical duplicate of the young Princess Diana! She’s the gateway to the multiverse! But her ongoing identity crisis pales in comparison to the moment during DC’s Blackest Night event when she came face to face with the rotting corpses of her husband and infant son (both of whom died years before in a car crash), the latter biting her to “infect” her with the Black Lantern’s power.
6. Dan the Dyna-Mite
Almost immediately after Robin’s debut sent sales of Batman books through the roof, hundreds of junior-sized sidekicks reported for duty, ready to battle the forces of evil alongside their Golden Age crime-fighting partners. One of the minor ones, Dan the Dyna-Mite was at least one of the more imaginatively named; he partnered up with the adult TNT after a high school lab accident gave both teacher and student super-strength and energy generation powers (but only if they touch each other to trigger the chemical reaction inside their bodies… I know, I know). In a 1993 Elseworlds story titled The Golden Age, TNT’s death causes a depressed Dan to volunteer for a government experiment that transforms him into the powerful Dynaman. However, the story’s climax reveals the mad scientist known as the Ultra-Humanite removed Dan’s brain during the experiment and replaced it with the brain of (no fooling) Adolf Hitler, leading to an all-out battle between Hitler and the remaining members of the Justice Society. Say what you will about how crappy your day might be; chances are “my brain was replaced by Hitler’s” is going to sound a lot worse than whatever happened to you at the office.
7. Sandy the Golden Boy
Fun Wikipedia fact: typing “Sandy the” into the site’s search bar gives you three options: Sandy the Golden Boy, Sandy the Seal, and Sandy the Reluctant Nudist. Feel free to do whatever you want with that information. Another Golden Age sidekick, Sandy partnered with Sandman right around the time the older hero traded in his gas mask and three-piece suit for a more conventional superhero look. Like Bucky, Sandy found a way to survive the decades without aging too much… only in Sandy’s case, he did it by being the unlucky victim of an accident involving his mentor’s “silocoid gun” that exploded and bombarded him with radioactive particles, turning him into a mindless sand creature that had to be kept in suspended animation while the Sandman searched for a cure. Sandy and Bucky share a similar “man out of time” story arc, but at least Bucky’s handlers let him wake up occasionally over the decades. True, they only did it so he could go kill someone, but at least there was the possibility of him picking up some magazines and getting caught up on current events before they put him back on ice. Forcing a 1940s-era kid to wake up in today’s reality TV-infested present? That’s gonna leave a mark.
8. Kid Devil
There was a time in the early 1980s when DC allowed its writers and artists to have a bit of fun, such as creating new characters who (gasp!) weren’t gritting their teeth and suffering terrible, life-altering tragedies every other Tuesday. Blue Devil was a great book from that era starring a movie stuntman who gets mystically trapped inside the mechanical monster suit he’s wearing when he tussles with an actual demon. Kid Devil was introduced as a spoof on the whole sidekick/wunderkind concept, using his “prodigious knowledge of electronics” to create his own suit and go help Blue Devil, whether he wanted it or not. But because the ’90s arrived and Blue Devil had to get “gritty,” Kid Devil did, too — by renaming himself Red Devil (which: un-creative much, guys?) and literally selling his soul to a demon who gives him the look and powers of an actual devil. Yeah, I’m… not really sure how that’s a good deal for the kid, but whatever. Add in the death of a beloved aunt in one of those that’s-why-you-never-trust-the-devil twists, on top of a heroic death to prevent anyone else from inheriting his curse, and you have all the makings of Exhibit A in the case for forbidding kids from getting into the superhero business.
9. Stuff the Chinatown Kid
Don’t remember this fellow? Don’t sweat it; few people do. He was the plainclothes sidekick to the original Vigilante, the country singer and expert marksman who fought for justice with his motorcycle, Western-themed outfits and trusty six-shooters. Not only did young Jimmy Leong have to suffer a slightly racist codename (can you imagine a sidekick named “Random Objects the Upper East Side Kid” getting past the editors?), he also had to suffer the indignity of getting killed twice: first by Vigilante’s arch-nemesis the Dummy (a criminal mastermind who looked like and was the size of a ventriloquist’s dummy), and then by real-life gangster Bugsy Siegel when DC rewrote everyone’s history.
10. Black Kitten
The majority of Golden Age superheroes with sidekicks were men who took on younger boys as apprentices. Occasionally, a male superhero would take on a female sidekick around his own age (like Bulletman and Bulletgirl); rarely were adult male heroes teamed up with young female sidekicks. Rarer still were young male sidekicks paired with adult female heroes, probably because the young boys who formed the majority of comic readers in the 1940s weren’t keen on reading stories in which young men took orders from older women. And I’m not suggesting there’s anything inherently wrong with the older female superhero/younger male sidekick dynamic, just that… well, let’s introduce Black Kitten as Exhibit A. First appearing in Harvey’s Black Cat in 1951, young Kit Weston is a former circus acrobat taken in by Black Cat’s alter ego after an arsonist killed his parents. Faster than you can say “DC’s lawyers on line 1,” Kit figures out his benefactor is the Black Cat, helps her defeat some home intruders, and scores himself a sweet gig as… the fearsome Black Kitten! His sidekick career lasted two issues. See if you can figure out why.
11. Pinky the Whiz Kid
If I’m being honest, my original plan was to make a list of all the moronic sidekick names that came out of the so-called Golden Age of comics. Because believe me, there were a lot of them. I’ve already discussed my feelings about “Robin” and “Bucky” turned out to be problematic when a black man took on the role, but those two sidekick monikers were nothing compared to some of the others. You had your sidekicks who just stuck “boy” or “kid” to their employers’ names (Rocketman’s Rocketboy, Mister Muscles’ Kid Muscles), your somewhat racist names (Captain Aero’s Chop Suey, the Spirit’s Ebony White), your they-weren’t-even-trying names (Tim, Ace, Roy the Super-Boy), and the overly cutesy names that made it clear which heroes they belonged to: Black Lion’s Cub, Airmale’s Stampy, Gunmaster’s Bullet the Gun Boy, and so on. Into this last category we can add Pinky, loyal sidekick to Mr. Scarlet. Was he called “Pinky” because he fought crime in pink tights? Of course not. He just was, that’s all. I’d love to be a fly on the wall the day the two of them decided on that name.
Mr. Scarlet: So, son, we’ve completed your training and you’re ready to fight crime by my side. Have you given any thought to a name?
Pinky: Golly gee, Mister Scarlet, I sure have! I’m going to call myself Pinky!
Mr. Scarlet: Um… really? You don’t want something a little more… fearsome?
Pinky: Gee willikers, Mister Scarlet, you prance around town in red tights and a yellow cape and call yourself Mister Scarlet! You really think you’re in any position to judge how butch anyone else’s name is?
Mr. Scarlet: Good point.