Who Was The First Superhero Sidekick? (RESEARCHED OPINION)
Who is the first superhero sidekick? When I say “sidekick,” what springs to mind? Someone in tights, perhaps short and young, tagging along beside a great hero? If you’re anything like me, you think immediately of Robin, boyishly swinging alongside Batman, making puns and helping when he can.
If you research this topic, you might come to the conclusion that Robin is, in fact, the first superhero sidekick. He was introduced in April 1940 as a teen-aged companion to Batman, and as a ploy to ensnare younger readers. The ploy was extremely successful, and Batman and Robin, the Dynamic Duo, would grace comic book pages for 44 years, before Dick Grayson would leave Robin behind in favor of the superhero moniker “Nightwing.”
So that’s it, right? Superman was the first superhero, then came Batman, and Robin was the first sidekick. Case closed.
Not so fast.
The first comic book superhero was indeed Superman, who debuted in Action Comics #1 in June 1938. But he was far from the first comic book hero. He was the first who was overtly super-powered. The cover of Action Comics #1 features Superman, complete with flowing cape and over-the-top-of-his-pants red underwear, lifting a car over his head. But there had been heroes featured in comics before this. As much as 100 years before this.
The first known comic book in the world is “The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck,” which was published in 1837. Looking at it today, you might consider it more of a picture book, as it lacks speech bubbles and words describing the impact of punches (BAM! POW!). Nevertheless, this Swiss creation, more humorous than swashbuckling, is considered the first comic book. So that makes stodgy, suicide-prone gentlemen Mr. Oldbuck the first superhero?
As you may have figured out, the more we look back into history, the more we find examples of larger-than-life heroes in literature: Gandalf’s magic, Sherlock Holmes’s wit, Lancelot’s valor and Achilles’s strength. How far back does it go?
If you want to go all the way back, you have to go to Mesopotamia, around 2000 BC. That’s when historians estimate the Epic of Gilgamesh was written. (Actually, any time between 2150 BC and 1400 BC, but who’s counting?) Gilgamesh is the first known written story of any kind, anywhere, and is considered the first piece of western literature. And what about its hero?
Gilgamesh is larger-than-life. He battles demons and mingles with gods. Gilgamesh spurns the love of a goddess and boats across the water of death. He metamorphizes from a wicked king, to a noble ruler, to a mourning friend, and finally into the king Uruk needs (but maybe not the king Uruk deserves…?)
Gilgamesh is, without a doubt, a total rockstar, and the world’s first superhero. And by his side is Enkidu, the world’s first sidekick.
Who’s This Enkidu Character?
Enkidu is a wild-man. Literally. He was formed from clay by Aruru, the goddess of creation. The other god’s feared that Gilgamesh was too powerful and no living man (or woman) could stand up to him. Enkidu was then raised by animals, and got sustenance from grass and sucking the milk of wild beasts. He was hairy and completely uncivilized, not even aware that he wasn’t an animal.
Enter the gods, ready to tame Enkidu and send him on his way to become Gilgamesh’s sidekick. The gods send a holy temple prostitute to tame him. (Holy Temple Prostitute, Batman!) If the phrase “holy temple prostitute” throws you, remember that in ancient Sumerian culture, prostitutes were priestesses, and were highly respected. Having relations with them was not considered dirty or low, but an act of submission to the gods, many of whom were females. Women represented home and hearth, and, in this epic, the idea of mortality.
So they send this prostitute, and Enkidu has sex with her for 6 days straight. (Dude is straight up gangsta.) His lusts finally satisfied, he rolls off and realizes that the animals no longer recognize him as one of their own. By having congress with a woman, Enkidu is becoming civilized. Though today sex is often seen as degrading or basic, then it was considered a sign of higher self-awareness. He is now an awakened man, and he soon learns about, in addition to women, music, food and festivals, all the things that make society civil.
His transformation from beast to man is completed when he and the prostitute visit a farmer and Enkidu drinks beer and has his first taste of cooked meat. He immediately bursts into song, grabs a sword, puts on some people clothes, and makes his way to the city to meet the mighty Gilgamesh, tyrant king of Uruk.
So, just to recap: if you’re a hairy man-beast, all you need to become civilized is to bang a hooker, gnaw on a hunk of grilled animal flesh and down a cold one. I think I’m starting to see why this tale has stood the test of time.
Anyway, Enkidu’s time as a sidekick is just about to start. Over in Uruk, Gilgamesh, as king, is preparing to take a bride to bed before her new husband can, because, you know, he’s the king. Despite the townsfolk being appalled and generally thinking Gilgamesh is a douche, no one stands up to him. Enter Enkidu.
What Makes a Sidekick?
Before we go further, it’s helpful to point out that not anyone who tags along with a hero is a sidekick. That could easily be a groupie or a fan, or even a villain. There are some distinct characteristics that make a hanger-on a sidekick.
The epic (literally) story of Enkidu and Gilgamesh begins with conflict. Enkidu stands in the doorway of the bride’s chamber, defying the king and challenging him to a fight. Gilgamesh, meanwhile, is the model of a tyrant king; strong, uncontested, and accustomed to raping and oppressing to his heart’s content. He and Enkidu duke it out, wrestling out into the streets, causing buildings to shake and door frames to shudder. When it becomes apparent that Gilgamesh is stronger, and he finally pins Enkidu to the ground, the two suddenly decide they aren’t so different after all, and what’s this fighting all about? They literally kiss and make up, and become besties on the spot.
Herein lies the first principal of sidekickhood: inherent tension in the mentor/mentee relationship. Gilgamesh is stronger than Enkidu, but how much stronger? If he works really hard, can Enkidu someday beat Gilgamesh? Does he even want to? It is this contention-turned-companionship that typifies the sidekick/hero relationship.
Allow me to expand on this idea using Batman as an example. Why? Because he’s the best. And you deserve the best.
The Boy Wonder, aka Dick Grayson, was introduced as a snare for young boys who may have had a hard time identifying with Batman, a full-grown man in a cape who was smart, buff and ruthless. Robin represented the young reader, and how he might feel if he was there alongside the Dark Knight himself.
Dick Grayson filled this role for 44 years, before finally moving on to head his own team of heroes (The Teen Titans) using the name Nightwing. This began a cycle of Robins, including Jason Todd, Tim Drake and Damian Wayne. (There were a couple of girls, too, but their Robin careers were short-lived.)
Batman’s relationship with each of his sidekicks had an adversarial feel to it. You can easily picture the meme of Batman slapping Robin, with their speech bubbles saying various things. That’s an actual panel from an old comic, and not an uncommon occurrence. Batman slaps Robin all the time, and not just in times of old, either. In DC’s recent New 52 reboot, Batman discovers that Dick Grayson is related to someone in the Court of Owls, and that he likely has a tracker in his tooth that would prove his theory correct. Instead of telling Dick and carefully checking his tooth, Batman backhands Dick with his fist, then picks up the tooth and shows him the proof. How’s that for a loving father figure?
The story is no different with any other Robin. Jason Todd, after his death and resurrection at the hands of R’as al Ghul, becomes a kind of villain known as Red Hood. He fights both against and beside Batman, as his former teacher struggles to decide how to react to Jason’s new gruesome crime-fighting tactics. Tim Drake, the whiniest and least interesting of the Robins, leaves the Bat Family because he’s so upset with Batman. And Damian Wayne, Bruce’s son, tries to kill his father countless times, all in the name of testing him, of course.
Gilgamesh vs Enkidu is just like Batman vs Every Robin Ever. If you work closely with someone who matches or nearly matches your skill level, there are bound to be problems. There are periods where everyone gets along, and other times when death blows are thrown. That’s just how sidekickery is.
Love and Companionship
Enkidu becomes a companion for Gilgamesh. Some scholars say they are gay lovers, and homoerotic imagery is definitely present in the poem. Others say this is not the author’s intention. There is no denying, however, that the two are brothers. They become actual brothers when Gilgamesh’s mother, a minor goddess, adopts him by placing an amulet around his neck and blessing him.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu go on a quest to slay the demon Humbaba who guards a sacred cedar forest. Along the way to the demon, Gilgamesh begins to realize the stupidity of his hubris and the likelihood of his own untimely death. But, Enkidu to the rescue. He reassures Gilgamesh repeatedly that he is the bossest king in all the land and that no demons stand a chance against him. Three times Gilgamaesh has a prophetic dream depicting his death, and three times Enkidu bolsters his friend, telling him not to fear. When they finally reach the demon, it is Enkidu who encourages Gilgamesh to have no mercy on the beast, but to seek immortality through fame by slaying the monster.
A closeness is required in a sidekick/hero relationship. Bruce Wayne adopts Dick Grayson, though not until after he is Robin and knows what he is getting into. He is also a surrogate father to Jason and somewhat to Tim, whose parents are alive and well, not murdered like the rest of present company’s forbearers. Then, of course, Damian is Bruce’s literal son, the result of a tryst with R’as al Ghul’s assassin daughter Talia. In each case, familial love strengthens the bond between teacher and student.
Enkidu is a little shaky on this one, as half the time he’s encouraging Gilgamesh not to rape and plunder his own people anymore, and the other half he’s telling Gilgamesh to murder things the gods love, like demons and the Heavenly Bull, a huge bull whose rampage causes famine and death to mankind. Arguably these killings are ultimately good, but the gods don’t seem to agree. For Enkidu’s role in Gilgamesh’s crimes, the gods curse Enkidu to die an inglorious death that will deny him the immortal glory he and Gilgamesh were after in the first place.
Gilgamesh is punished only by having to suffer the pain of losing Enkidu, which he doesn’t do well. He reverts to a wild man himself, much the way Enkidu was at the beginning of the story, and ceases to be any kind of worthwhile ruler as he rampages around bemoaning his fate and telling everyone who’ll listen what a waste life is without his buddy Enkidu. Gilgamesh does eventually make his way back to acting kingly again, but only after a figurative death and rebirth, and meeting an immortal who tells him there is no heaven, so he might as well get the most out of life while he can.
Dick Grayson is a strong candidate for a moral compass to Batman, but I’m going to throw a new contender into the ring on this one: Alfred Pennyworth. Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler, has been there the man’s whole life, shaping him into the man he would become, and often advising him against various things that would kill him, or against things that are wrong, and that Bruce would certainly regret later. Batman doesn’t always listen, but I’d say he listens to Alfred more than he listens to anyone else. And, since he’s been there since Batman’s inception, isn’t Alfred really Batman’s first sidekick?
Gilgamesh never forgets Enkidu. When they learn, through a dream, that Enkidu is doomed to die, Gilgamesh announces that he will erect a statue of solid gold to his brother-in-arms, so that everyone can honor him. Similarly, Batman keeps a shrine in the Batcave to Jason Todd, the second Robin, who was murdered by the Joker. Gilgamesh’s mother also refers to Enkidu as “the friend who has the power to save Gilgamesh.” Certainly, if anyone could save what’s left of Bruce Wayne’s tattered soul, it would be Dick, Alfred, or some member of the Bat Family, devoted as they are to Batman and his cause. Almost as devoted as Gilgamesh was to Enkidu, the world’s first sidekick.