Today’s popular image of Batman and his alter-ego Bruce Wayne paint the Dark Knight as, well, dark. Orphaned and raised by his butler, it’s hard to imagine a loner like Bruce having a large extended family of quirky rich WASPs. But why shouldn’t a mega-wealthy industrialist family be a dynasty? Enter Van Wayne (Alan Tudyk), Bruce’s cousin and son of Bruce’s uncle Philip, who is a one-percent Michael Scott who heads the Charm City branch of Wayne Industries in the new NBC sitcom Powerless. Though he’s a little smaller than the chair he sits on, Van Wayne has his own weird comic book history that Powerless is sort of drawing from.
Well into the Silver Age of comic books, Batman #148 by Bill Finger and Sheldon Moldoff introduced 12-year-old Vanderveer Wayne to the Wayne family tree. In “The Boy Who Was Robin,” Vanderveer spends a week at the Wayne Mansion because of — as Bruce puts it — “family obligations.” Immediately, Vanderveer starts acting like a Vander-dick and tries to show up Dick Grayson, aka Robin, even though literally nobody cares.
What follows is the most Silver Age story you can think of: Alfred takes the Batman and Robin costumes out of the Batcave to do laundry when Vanderveer finds them (Bruce tells him they’re for a costume party). Later, when a charity event held by the — get this — Read-a-Good-Book Committee has a fire, Vanderveer and some dude named “Jumpy” Reagan save the day dressed as Batman and Robin, to the ire of Bruce and Dick. Regan, whom Vanderveer found through a talent agency, is actually a criminal and steals the costume to rob an ice cream factory.
Suddenly, a superhero sitcom like Powerless looks legitimately realistic.
But Vanderveer isn’t entirely useless: While still dressed as Robin, Vanderveer saves the day by stopping Reagan, allowing comic book readers their first glimpse of a “Batman vs. Robin” fight.
In Powerless, Vanderveer is now Van Wayne, and he’s still the over-eager showman hoping to be bigger than he really is. He’s incompetent and without question a total buffoon. But if his random comic book appearance back in 1962 proves anything, it’s that maybe there’s a hero in the heart of a loser. It just might be awhile before Powerless can get there.
Powerless airs Thursday nights on NBC.