Writer Bill Willingham, who at one time penned Tim Drake’s adventures as Robin, is speaking out about DC’s decision to retcon a character he created, Tim’s “boyfriend” Bernard Dowd, as gay in the new series.
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In a Substack post, Willingham reveals he did not envision Bernard as interested in men. “As originally conceived, Bernard Dowd was many things, but he wasn’t gay,” he wrote.
He continued, “I can know this for a certainty because, unlike living historical figures, it’s possible to know the secret inner workings of a fiction character, because they are whatever the author wrote them to be.”
As crafted by Willingham, Bernard’s first appearance was in Robin (Volume 2) #121 in 2003. Willingham presented a page from that issue demonstrating that Bernard, while cocky, was originally into girls.
The writer cites creative liberties taken by the legal owner of the character, DC, through their Work-For-Hire policy as the reason for the creative shift.
“Yes, I know, when dealing with Work For Hire it means DC Comics actually created him, as I admitted above,” Willingham said.
“But, before the retroactive reality imposed itself, I conceived the character, wrote his first appearance, wrote many subsequent appearances, and decided who he would be and who he wouldn’t be,” he added.
The former Robin writer further explained, “Only then, by submitting those stories and accepting DC’s paycheck, the magic kicked in and it turns out DC created everything all along.”
To illustrate his point better, Willingham used a moment of Bernard fawning over Tim’s attractive stepmom as another example.
“And in this case Bernard Dowd liked girls. He had a crush on Tim Drake’s hot stepmother, and that’s about it for the romantic/sexual front. There were no other deep hidden secrets to uncover. No big deal,” he said.
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As for why he’s bringing this up, Willingham gave two reasons. “First, in Tim’s big coming out scene, not one but two fictional characters had to be retconned to make it happen,” he said.
“More than one beloved funnybook character had to be repurposed, and yes, this may be pride of authorship rearing its ugly head, but I liked Bernard,” he added.
Willingham wants Bernard’s unnecessary retcon to get more attention. “Would it be too much to ask all of you crusading journalists of text and video to dig a little deeper in your investigations?” he asked.
“Sure, Tim is the uncontested headline of the story, but Bernard’s parallel transformation deserves at least a mention, right?” he continued.
His second reason is he aims to show us how easy it is to revise a canon so a publisher or creative team can do what they want.
“Second, unlike historical living people, fictional characters can be changed at a whim, and you can even go back in the past to do it. You can add evidence that wasn’t there before. You can remove evidence that was there before,” he points out.
Using a fan edit of the previous panel, Willingham proves Bernard’s history can be altered with a few words. One dialogue bubble is changed to make it look like he has a crush on Tim.
“You can do anything you like, because these characters don’t actually exist and never did,” he admits. At the same time, however, Willingham sees that serious questions are raised about Work For Hire.
“This does however open up a larger discussion on the advisability of doing Work For Hire, knowing (or at least you should have known) that the new legal creator can do anything it wants with your creations. Maybe we’ll explore that someday,” he wrote in closing.
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