Who Needs a Sidekick?

The concept of a sidekick is a slippery one in today’s storytelling climate. Traditionally, at least as far as superheroes go, sidekicks have been junior partners to a hero—usually adolescents (yikes!), training under the tutelage of the titular hero of the book in question. Many were introduced to relate to the presumed audience of young, adolescent males.

Sidekicks have been—ahem—kicked to the curb lately in superhero media. Traditional sidekicks have been either aged up to make them equal partners with their heroes, such as Captain America’s friend, Bucky; or implied to have been killed off-screen in some vague point in the past, and never given a second mention (thanks for that, Batman v Superman. You’d better give us a Red Hood or Nightwing film now…). To some extent, this is understandable. It’s a little bit terrifying if you really think about a 13-year-old fighting in the streets of Gotham City, or the front lines of WWII.

But is there still any place for the concept of sidekicks in comics and genre fiction today? I think there is.

Simply from a storytelling perspective, sidekicks serve some very important purposes. Especially for very powerful, and very iconic heroes, sidekicks give the reader an “in-character”—someone they can relate to. Most of us don’t have superhuman strength, incredible mental capacities, or unlimited social stature and capital. So, it’s the sidekicks that really get us invested in the stories.

In addition, by their very presence, sidekicks humanize their heroes. They give them people to talk to, relate to, and care about. They up the stakes due to their comparative disadvantage in whatever skill or power the hero possesses. No one exists in a vacuum. Sidekicks give us a chance to see the way our heroes practice teamwork and interpersonal conflict.

As speculative fiction and comics continue to move away from and individualistic model of character development, I expect to see the importance of sidekicks and supporting cast members increase. The movie Black Panther was a good example of community-based storytelling. T’Challa was far from the only fleshed-out character in the story. He and his family and friends relied on each other to protect the innocent, and overcome the villains.

Superhero sidekicks may have moved away from 13-year-olds in tights saying “gosh, yes!” to everything their hero says; but I believe they are far from obsolete. Even the most lonely, brooding characters need someone to bounce off, because we, as readers, need to see people in established relationships working together, just as we see in real life.