American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Trusty Teens: Reading American Adolescence through the Superhero Sidekick

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies

First Advisor

Jeffrey Brown (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Jong-Kwan Lee (Other)

Third Advisor

William Albertini (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Jolie Sheffer (Committee Member)


Though the field of comics studies has seen rapid expansion in recent decades, and numerous characters from this subset of American literature have received pointed attention, the field has largely ignored the portrayal of adolescent figures. Yet the portrayal of teenagers in comic books reflects the primary readership of the medium, especially in the popular genre of superhero comics, teaching important if informal lessons to consumers about their present and future roles in society. This dissertation analyzes the most enduring adolescent figure in American comics and one of the most widely-known adolescent figures in all of American literature: Robin, sidekick to Batman. Through close reading and textual analysis of comics featuring Robin, I find that depictions of Robin reinforce an image of idealized maturity inextricably linked to white heterosexual masculinity, while simultaneously shoring up the youthful or childish connotations of queerness, non-whiteness, and femininity. The ways in which comic creators have depicted adolescence intersecting with other social identities reveals an investment in establishing a sense of heroic inheritance for white male teen characters and a pattern of exclusion for non-white or female adolescent characters. This dissertation marks an intervention in the field of comics studies, which often focuses on adult-oriented comics and adult figures while ignoring or eschewing the largely juvenile roots of the medium. Instead, I lean into the youthful associations of superhero comics in order to make the case that these depictions provide insight into what mainstream adult culture believes adolescence is and ought to be, and in turn what adulthood is and who is granted its rights and privileges.