Sidekick

Sancho Panza by Antonio Saura

A sidekick is a close companion who is generally regarded as subordinate to the one he accompanies. Some well-known fictional sidekicks include Don Quixote’s Sancho Panza, Sherlock Holmes’ Doctor Watson, The Lone Ranger’s Tonto, and Batman’s Robin.

The origin of the term is unknown. It was originally ‘side kicker’ (as seen in the short stories of American writer O Henry), having grown from the 1850s term ‘side partner.’ Contrary to popular folk etymology, it is unrelated to the early-20th century British pickpocket slang ‘kick,’ referring to a trouser pocket. One of the earliest recorded sidekicks may be Enkidu, who adopted a sidekick role to Gilgamesh after they became allies in the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ (an epic poem from Mesopotamia). Other early examples include Achilles’ Patroclus from the ‘Iliad,’ and Moses’ Aaron from the Bible.

Sidekicks can provide one or multiple functions, such as a counterpoint to the hero, an alternate point of view, or knowledge, skills, or anything else the hero does not have. They often function as comic relief, and/or the straight man to the hero’s comedic actions. A sidekick can also act as someone that the audience can relate to better than the hero, or whom the audience can imagine themselves as being (such as teen sidekicks). And by asking questions of the hero, or giving the hero someone to talk to, the sidekick provides an opportunity for the author to provide exposition, thereby filling the same role as a Greek chorus.

Sidekicks frequently serve as an emotional connection, especially when the hero is depicted as detached and distant, traits which would normally generate difficulty in making him likable. The sidekick is often the confidant who knows the main character better than anyone else and gives a convincing reason to like the hero. Although Sherlock Holmes was a difficult man to know, his friendship with Dr. Watson convinces the reader that Holmes is a good person. In the original ‘Star Trek,’ this pattern is reversed since it is Kirk who convinces us that his cold and logical sidekick Spock is likeable.

The apparent stupidity of some comedy sidekicks is often used to make a non-intellectual hero look intelligent, such as Deputy Barney Fife to Sheriff Andy Taylor in ‘The Andy Griffith Show.’ Similarly, a flamboyant or effeminate sidekick may make an otherwise unimposing hero look more masculine. And a strong, silent and modest hero may have his fighting qualities revealed to the other characters and the audience by a talkative sidekick. While many sidekicks are used for comic relief, there are other sidekicks who are less outrageous than the heroes they pledge themselves to, and comedy derived from the hero can often be amplified by the presence or reaction of the sidekick. Examples include Porky Pig, who is more sensible and calmer than Daffy Duck in later short films; similarly, Sancho Panza is more rational than Don Quixote.

It is typical for the character and sidekick to be of the same gender — otherwise, the term ‘partner’ or ‘companion’ is generally used. Whenever there is a team of more than two characters, the term sidekick is reserved for another team member of the same sex. It is rare for the relationship between a character and an opposite-sex sidekick to lack romantic or sexual overtones of any kind — though there are examples, like Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin, and Encyclopedia Brown and Sally Kimball.

While unusual, it is not unheard of for a sidekick to be more attractive, charismatic, or physically capable than the supposed hero. This is most typically encountered when the hero’s appeal is more intellectual rather than sexual. Such heroes (usually fictional sleuths and scientists) are often middle-aged or older and tend towards eccentricity. Such protagonists, either due to age or physical unsuitability may be limited to cerebral conflicts (such as those based on conversational interplay) while leaving the physical action to a younger or more athletic sidekick. This type of sidekick is rarely encountered in fiction, because the hero runs the risk of being upstaged by them. The Green Hornet’s sidekick, Kato, has traditionally (especially since the 1960s television series with Bruce Lee) been depicted as a capable man of action, such as with martial arts. The earliest ‘Doctor Who’ serials, particularly during the First Doctor era had young male companions who were capable of the physical action that the elderly William Hartnell was not. This especially became more crucial as Hartnell’s health declined during his tenure as The Doctor. This was not an issue with the following Doctors as they were cast with significantly younger actors.

It is possible in certain cases for sidekicks to grow out of their role of being a second fiddle to the hero and become independent heroes in their own right. Dick Grayson is one such example, having outgrown the mantle of Robin when he was under Batman and taken up the new identity of Nightwing. Grayson later temporarily succeeded his mentor and took on the costumed identity of Batman himself. Another example is the popular comic-strip soldier of fortune Captain Easy, who started as the two-fisted sidekick of the scrawny eponymous hero of the strip Wash Tubbs.

A villain’s supporters are normally called ‘henchmen,’ ‘minions,’ or ‘lackeys,’ not sidekicks. While this is partially a convention in terminology, it also reflects that few villains are capable of bonds of friendship and loyalty, which are normal in the relationship between a hero and sidekick. This may also be due to the different roles in fiction of the protagonist and the antagonist: whereas a sidekick is a relatively important character due to his or her proximity to the protagonist, and so will likely be a developed character, the role of a henchmen is to act as cannon-fodder for the hero and his sidekick. As a result, henchmen tend to be anonymous, disposable characters, existing for the sole purpose of illustrating the protagonists’ prowess as they defeat them. Nevertheless, some villains do have sidekicks, including the Joker’s Harley Quinn and Dr Evil’s Mini-Me in the ‘Austin Powers’ films.

The sidekick was a regular presence in westerns, where Fuzzy Knight, Al ‘Fuzzy’ St. John, Smiley Burnette, and Andy Devine had longer careers than some of the heroic singing cowboys for whom they took pratfalls. In science fiction the sub-type of the alien sidekick has been established. Examples of alien sidekicks are Captain Kirk’s Mr. Spock and Han Solo’s Chewbacca. One of the roles of the alien sidekick is to act as a mouthpiece for social commentary on the human condition from an outsider’s point of view.

Conversely, many of the early comic book sidekicks were used for comic relief, and many perpetrated ethnic and cultural stereotypes of their era. The Spirit’s sidekick Ebony White (debut: 1940) was depicted with facial features — including large white eyes and thick pinkish lips — that were typical of the era’s interpretation of blacks. As he was routinely the height of a small child, he resembled a stereotypical ‘pickaninny.’ The Blackhawks’ Chinese sidekick Chop-Chop (debut: 1941) was depicted as more of a highly-exaggerative caricature amid the realistic art style that otherwise surrounds him. Fat, buck-toothed, and orange-skinned, he spoke in broken English, wore a queue hairstyle complete with a bow, and dressed in colorful coolie garb.

In 1940, DC Comics introduced comics’ first teenage sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder, created to soften the dark tone of the ‘Batman’ comics and make the Batman more attractive to younger readers. Robin’s instant popularity spawned a host of imitations, including such iconic characters as Captain America’s Bucky. The prevalence of so many adult male superheroes and their teenage ‘wards’ caused some observers to look askance at the trend. Psychologist Fredric Wertham decided that the phenomenon was a landmine of hidden and repressed Freudian issues, and that a sidekick’s involvement in violent acts with his hero masked a sexual subtext. In 1954, Wertham’s book ‘Seduction of the Innocent’ coincided with Congressional hearings on (among other topics) the negative influence of comic books. For a time, superhero comics lost their popularity, and many teenage sidekicks faded into obscurity.

In the early 1960s, at the advent of comics’ so-called Silver Age, a new round of superhero sidekicks made their debuts. The superhero group the ‘Teen Titans’ (first appearance 1964) was originally made up entirely of sidekicks: Robin, Kid Flash, Aqualad, Wonder Girl, and Speedy. Silver Age Marvel Comics mostly got around the teen sidekick quandary by creating a selection of super-powered teenagers — heroes in their own right, such as Spider-Man, the second Human Torch, and the X-Men. Most of the Golden Age and Silver Age sidekicks have subsequently evolved into mature heroes or have been killed off; and in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, some new sidekicks have come into being.

Certain heroes seem to attract serial sidekicks, notably Batman, Captain America, and The Flash. There have been at least five iterations of Robin; while Captain America has had a diverse array of sidekick successors to Bucky, including the Falcon, Demolition Man, Free Spirit, and Jack Flag. Conversely, the character Rick Jones is virtually a ‘sidekick-for-hire,’ having assisted a number of different heroes during his career, starting with the Hulk, moving onto Captain America (when he briefly became the second Bucky), then the first Captain Marvel, Rom Spaceknight, and finally the third Captain Marvel (Genis).

TV sidekicks usually play a supporting pivotal role to the star. Examples include Ed Norton to Ralph Kramden (‘The Honeymooners’). Duos of equal importance on TV, such as Oscar Madison and Felix Unger (‘The Odd Couple’) or Laverne De Fazio and Shirley Feeney (‘Laverne & Shirley’), are sometimes both called sidekicks to each other, although the usual sense of the term denotes inequality. Many television talk shows make use of a sidekick as a co-host who anchors a show with the main star. Ed McMahon played this role famously to Johnny Carson on ‘The Tonight Show,’ as does Andy Richter to Conan O’Brien.

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