Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Off-Panel Discussion 2: Orphans

In the beginning -- the first sentence of Action Comics #1 -- Jerry Siegel's prose refers to Krypton, Jor-El, and Superman, in that order, using generic descriptors: "a distant planet", "a scientist", "his infant son." By virtue of Siegel's choice of sentence structure, the first character in superhero comics is thus the later-to-be-named Jor-El, who is dead before the second panel begins. We may psychoanalyze Siegel and suppose that the early death of his own father led to his creation having a similar detail in his biography. Whatever the case, Superman's life story eventually came to include a double orphaning, with his birth parents dying on Krypton when Kal-El was a baby and his adopted parents dying on Earth as he came to maturity. While some renditions of Superman let the Kents (or just Martha) live on into his career, the first and longest-running account had Superman as a man who had lost four parents. In the earliest history, Superman was unaware of his Kryptonian origins until adulthood. By Action #500, memories of the Els' deaths bring him to tears. As far back as Superman #53, it is a deathbed speech by his adopted father that directs him to use his powers for the cause of justice.

Long before Superman's life story had been fleshed out, the first snapshot origin of Batman appeared in Detective Comics #33. In the case of Bruce Wayne, the death of his parents was not just a haphazard detail, but foundational in the psychology of the character, who vowed war on crime precisely in response to the murder of his parents taking place in front of his very eyes.

In the wave of superheroes who followed, the typical hero is first shown as an adult man, and there is simply no reference to his ancestors. An exception is Doctor Fate, who was first said to have been created as an adult, having never been a child. In a retcon, a later origin had him obtain his powers after the achingly tragic death of his father. And when Batman acquired his sidekick Robin -- one of the most enduring of those early characters -- their lifelong association began precisely upon the occasion of the deaths of Dick Grayson's parents. To a man, the earliest superheroes had no fathers, either because the stories did not mention them, or because their fathers had died. This tendency generally held true with superheroes created by other companies (Billy Batson and Peter Parker were both orphans), and when Hal Jordan was given a more detailed backstory long after his creation, he too became a man who was shaped by the early death of his father. We may also note that Wonder Woman, for very different reasons, never had a father at all. Whether or not Jerry Siegel started the ball rolling, it is clear that a number of later creators took the inspiration and found it compelling -- almost unavoidable.

By and large, superheroes have been without families -- particularly without parents, and most especially without fathers. And while this is a fact of many real people's lives, it is not nearly so common in the world as it is for superheroes. As a variant on the typical pattern, maybe as a token "normal" superhero, Barry Allen was bestowed, though not at at the time of his creation, with a wife and with living parents, a living father whose name was Barry's middle name. But his parents were initially margin characters, little more than props with a couple of speech balloons when they were introduced in Flash #126. And in time, Barry's world came tumbling down, with the death of Iris, and then his own death which was followed, the next Flash series mentioned in passing, by the deaths of his parents, too. In the current Barry Allen revival, his mother has been retroactively (perhaps, because time manipulation was involved, not permanently) killed by the Reverse Flash, and Henry Allen died in prison as a result.

And so, not a single member of the original seven JLA members has a living father, with Wonder Woman never having had one, and Superman having lost two. We may certainly review the ranks of hundreds of mainstream superhero characters and find a few who have living parents, but the fact is hard to deny -- superhero comics are systematically patricidal and not, so to speak, family-friendly. When Identity Crisis killed off the father of Tim Drake, readers should not have been surprised so much as greeted the seemingly inevitable. Although heroes' personal lives run the gamut from billionaires to high school students, perhaps the single most defining aspect of them, besides their crimefighting prowess, is that they have little to no family in their lives.

Comics are fond of imagining things otherwise, and so dead fathers have lived again. Superman has seen the Kents as part of his adult life in the post-Byrne continuity and on the television series Lois and Clark. But writers have also portrayed living parents as a symptom of dystopia, with the whole world going wrong as seen in glimpses in Alan Moore's For The Man Who Has Everything, Jeph Loeb's Absolute Power, and Grant Morrison's Last Rites. Stories like these make out that it is not just window dressing that the heroes have lost their fathers, but essential, an unpleasant fact that makes the hero, and therefore the world, as they need to be.

I've discussed before the family-less nature of Batman before and proposed that it probably excludes him from appeal on the highest levels of popular serial drama. While Smallville gives young Clark Kent people filling relatively normal roles around his abnormal life (and yet, his two fathers also died), Batman is inherently a man without a wife or parents, and so he appeals to the audiences of animated shows targeting more or less the demographic that comics target. As The Dark Knight showed, all the world may want to look into Batman's life for a couple of hours every three years, but it's not a world that every demographic wants to visit weekly.

Do superheroes really need to be fatherless? Does a father inherently belittle the son, shadowing his brilliance? Sherlock Holmes had no father, nor did Gilgamesh. Were the creators of Batman lazy in copying Siegel's fatherless Superman, and the creators of Hal Jordan following suit? Is this pattern a matter of necessity? Clearly, it has been integrated irretrievably into the Batman story, but Hal Jordan and Barry Allen have lighter characters, with origins bestowed upon them from beyond. Can a mainstream superhero have a father? Why don't writers think so?


  1. Good to see you post again. Batwoman, (the current one at least) has lost her mother and her father a military man is helping in her means in defending Gotham. Writers just aren't happy without causing some misery to the hero somehow so he/she becomes more driven instead of just a person with special abilities.

  2. I guess you are keeping with the Year One notion that Bruce traveled the world without Alfred? Otherwise, Alfred was pretty much a father to Bruce.

    I said it in my last comic, but the key to super heroics is not having to deal with everyday life. A quest for kleos is always destructive to the home. All super hero drama plays out on a cosmic scale with very few exceptions. Obviously, devoting ones's life to fighting crime is a lot eaiser when you don't have family and don't have to worry about the trivialities of everyday life. Alfred covered for Bruce, but when Bruce needed to deal with Jason, he didn't and diaster resulted. Talia grew Damian in a test tube and never saw him during all her theatrics. Having a family weakens a character - people grew to hate a married Spider-Man; hence, the whole lost marriage thing.

    I mean all characters in popular culture share this - Harry Potter, Frodo, Luke Skywalker (early on), all of the X-men, Disney characters, Cartman, Moses, and the list goes.

    I think the answer is that the only people you really owe anything to and can't get out of your life are your parents. Losing them is sort of giving people a free slate that can allow one to truly live how they want.
    -They are free from indoctrination by their parents.
    -One inpretation of Jung is that instead of a specific connection to a small group of people, they have a wider connection to all of mankind, but I think this is weak logic.
    -Losing one's parents makes one less able to be a good parent and continues the trend of a single hero.
    -Losing one's parents is the worst possible things - intense suffering is a result and this forces people to do extreme things.
    -Growing up without parents causes one to not share in the banal experiences of everyone else. People not in society tend to see society's ills much more.

    Do you think losing his parents ultimately a good thing for Bruce?

  3. John, Batwoman is a good counterpoint. Being of the non-dominant gender, maybe losing her mother fills the same role. She has also had major family trauma regarding her sister. Aside from that, her father fills much the role for her that Alfred fills for Batman.

    I think a common story element in serials is to give a character or relationship a defining trait and then little by little "bleed" the defining mode away, making a plot point out of instances that run counter to the defining mode. Sometimes in the long run, this inverts the relationship to the other pole. For example, unrequited romantic tension in a television show, which turns into a full-blown relationship around the same time the show is ready to go off the air. Or, the tension is maintained indefinitely. In this light, I would say that Alfred's initial role as an employee has been chipped away by instances where he is firmly paternal. When the chipping away is complete, there is no more story left in the chipping away. With Alfred and Bruce, that's not quite complete; Morrison began his run with Alfred stepping up a bit, and he revisited, briefly, in Last Rites the time in their lives when the transition was underway. But for the most part, the Bruce-Alfred relationship is in a stable place. And in that, Alfred is not really a father; he still takes orders from Bruce that would be hard to imagine passing from son to father.

    This answer blends in to the topics that darkside raises, so I'll continue the point in a separate comment.

  4. darkside, not having to deal with everyday life is definitely part of it. That's why superheroes are (and to a greater extent, used to be) single much more often than the average actual adult. A major voice in fandom rails against the Superman-Lois marriage, and Spider-Man had his marriage done away with, as the "Superman 2000" proposal would have done to the Man of Steel.

    In the Golden Age, it was common for the superhero male to have one woman as a recurring major character, and there was a sort of commitment there even when it was unrequited. This has roots in the pre-superhero comics such as the Jerry Siegel strip "Spy", whereas another Siegel character, Slam Bradley, had a different damsel in distress almost every month -- long before James Bond and Mike Hammer came along. But Sandman had Dian Belmont, Hawkman had Sheira Sanders (this relationship was implied to be sexual), Doctor Fate had Inza in every story (in the Golden Age, this relationship was chaste, and also pretty weird), Jay Garrick and Starman had their molls, and of course, Superman/Clark had the love triangle with Lois -- a plot point that was shamelessly ported to Green Lantern in 1959 and numerous other characters over the years. Wonder Woman had the gender-reverse situation with Steve Trevor. Batman, however, has not had one consistent leading lady over historical lengths of time.

    But girlfriends and later wives are a bit of counter-evidence to the notion that the hero can't have a "life". A wife is much more of a daily pull towards the mundane than a father would likely be. Some of the leading women were constantly getting into trouble. Others added significant father-IN-LAW figures to the hero's life (Flash, Sandman).



    In a case like that of Batman (later mirrored, with less originality, by Spider-Man and Green Lantern), the death of the father is a core motivation. But for characters like Aquaman, Ray Palmer (whose father has met with misfortune very recently), and Barry Allen, there seems to be no need whatsoever to "motivate" the character with darkness.

    During the post-Byrne era, Superman had a living father who gave him pep talks and other counseling from time to time (Action #775 and Final Crisis: Last Will and Testament). Did these weaken the Superman character? Being 1000 miles away, he didn't complicate Superman's daily life. Superman has also, in some incarnations, had a significant backstory as a boy or Superboy (whereas Ralph Dibny's adolescence doesn't stir up equivalent attention), and there is vast documentation of the foundational role that Jonathan Kent *had* on basically every rendition of Superman. Jor-El has been an influence on some renditions. It makes sense for plot reasons that Jor-El is dead, but Jonathan Kent only "needs" to die if Superman needs to have no father. And in post-IC continuity, Geoff Johns first made Jonathan Kent a bit of an antagonist before killing him off (at almost the same time that All Star Superman did the same, and in almost the same setting that Superman The Movie did, but with the significant addition of Brainiac).

    Sherlock Holmes and the rank-and-file superheroes who simply have no attention given to their backstory seem to indicate that a father is just a distraction from the hero legend. It's not that a father can't be alive, but that every word spent narrating that distracts from the godlike role of the hero. In the original Superman story, Jor-El was a father by biology alone, and the Kents were given no story space as influences on Clark in the first year, and very little until Superboy became a major feature. It is worth noting that Superboy was a more popular feature from 1945-1965 than just about any non-Superman character, and may even have surpassed Batman in popularity at one point. This forced a father character onstage, and Jonathan Kent has had some big moments over the years, in various media.

    All of that said, I think the key character to the fatherless thesis is Dick Grayson, and as I see it now, he will be the center of the wrap-up post that I have in mind. But I'm sure that there's a lot more illumination on the topic that people can provide in the comments here first.

  6. I don't know that super-heroes "need" to be fatherless. (Although one could argue that Aquaman's father is alive, at least in the form of Atlan the Wizard, who in Peter David's run claims to be Aquaman's real father - recently being repeatedly rescinded in Brightest Day, thank god).

    But I think there is a very classic bit of storytelling involving loss of fathers, that is deep, deep rooted in the human psyche - ESPECIALLY regarding young male protagonists.

    What could possibly spur a son to be motivated to the point of super-heroism? Or even just to be a protagonist, whether good or evil?

    I've often offered myself hypothetical queries (as want-to-be-writers do) regarding autobiographical storytelling. Most people, whether they've suffered orphaning or not, I imagine, don't have the proper motivation to be anything less than boring as a protagonist.

    But something about a son losing a father - especially young, with all the missed opportunity, the missed chances for "life lessons" (Naturally except for that one last one they give you on their death bed), and never being able to come to terms with the man on "equal" status - as two men. You're forever trapped in the same relationship with your father as a boy and an authority figure ... there's definitely a tendency toward reckless behavior later that seems to lend itself to crime-fighting, or epic quests. Trying to fill the void, perhaps? Or find faith in humanity? Or provide the security you no longer feel? There's a myriad of tropes associated with this.

    The Silver Age Aquaman's father didn't die until immediately prior to him setting out on his career as Aquaman. And it was his father's direct advice to "do the right thing" that spurred the super-heroics. But Aquaman, despite later horrific family tragedy that was indicative of the "times", always did have better family values than the rest of the original seven Justice Leaguers.

    Barry Allen's parents, hopefully, will return.

    And notably - somebody just attacked The Atom's father, and it'd be nice to see him actually save his father and repair his thin relationship with the guy. Talk about subverting expectations ...

  7. I find it interesting that the current line-up of the Teen Titans all technically have living fathers except Beast Boy. But, Raven's father is Trigon, Superboy's fathers are Lex Luthor and Superman, Kid Flash's father is from the future so he's absent, Wonder Girl's father is Zeus if I remember correctly, Ravager's father is Deathstroke, and Robin's is Batman. I think that brings up another interesting a thing. Three out of the five have villains for fathers(and Zeus isn't always helpful). Only Robin has a father on the side of good that he can still communicate with.(Superboy seems to view Superman as more of a big brother but I guess you could count that too.)

  8. Retro,

    Great comments. Clearly, death-of-father is used as a story element to drive a story which might be as small as a single one to three issues or as big as the character's whole mythology. And I think there's something very uncreative going on when Hal, Arthur, and Barry all get minor doses of the Batman origin. Especially when Hal's so closely resembles Top Gun.

    But when I look at Jor-El's death, and that of the Graysons, I also see the factor of convenience. You need to get those parents out of the way so the superhero life *can* happen. Barry Allen doesn't need his parents out of the way to be the Flash. But Dick Grayson needed to be parentless in order to live in Wayne Manor. (Tim Drake was used to show that a Robin didn't *have* to... but it sure made it easier.)

    The Bruce-Dick lifestyle that became somewhat notorious for its nonconventionality was a big part of the Batman story for thirty years. And this is where I see some other use of the parental death trend -- it allows normality to be replaced by something else. Something tragic, but far more interesting from a narrative standpoint. And perhaps wish fulfillment for readers -- not patricidal, one hopes -- but for those boy readers with no great interest in their own life, and dreams of something more exciting.

    So for Clark Kent, it means taking off the glasses (and once, historically, leaving Krypton and his dead world behind) and showing off his powers. For Dick Grayson, it means leaving a family (which was already more exciting than anybody else's) and going into a hyper-interesting life. Exit mom and dad. Enter Batman.

  9. ian, neat set of contrasts. Of the original Titans, Aqualad, Dick Grayson, and Roy Harper were all fatherless and Wonder Girl had no evident father (I'm not even sure what the continuity was at the time). Wally was alone in having a father. Of the current Titans, the fathers are absent from their lives in most cases, but it's interesting that there was such a total change. My grasp on Titans history is limited... I'd like to read the original Titans run to see how parents were handled, at least for Wally (who was also in the "Flash sidekick" role in "Flash" for many years before I started reading it).

  10. Aqualad and Dick Grayson both, on that note, have shifty, untrustworthy uncles. In Dick's case, it's George Grayson, a total sonuvabitch ... in Garth's case, it's Slizzath, a necromancer who did undersea Blackest Night a decade and a half prior to Blackest Night.

    Obviously it would be much more sensible for an orphaned boy to live with an uncle rather than a super-hero ... but what came first? The storyteller writing about the wicked uncle? Or the need to make an uncle wicked to explain the situation in-story?

  11. I think one also has to consider the stereotypical parental roles of the mother vs. father, the mother being the homemaker vs. the father being the breadwinner. If one loses a father, it has much different implications. Children taking over the homemaking role I don't think is viewed as connotating the same maturation that taking over the bread-winning duties do. Essentially getting rid of the father could be seen as a catalyst to the maturation needed for vigilantism while getting rid of the mother would only make the person more home-bound.

    Obviously this all depends on stereotypes from an old sexist world, but given that most of these characters are of the older variety with many years of back-story, one could see the stereotypes holding in comic-book-based-reality.

  12. Retro, Eddie -- your comments bring up a wider context of how family is used in these stories. Aunts and uncles, Spider-Man withstanding, are usually introduced as vehicles for add-ons to the main mythology or to drive very specific stories. Mothers, however, are just as core as fathers, but tend to be handled differently, reflecting some sort of gender role difference which seems hard to get at. Dick Graysons' parents died quite equally. Jor-El and Martin Jordan seem like prototypes for their sons. Mothers, in dying, are used as emotional fodder. One Aquaman origin made his separation from his mother as a tragedy that defined the aquatot's earliest experience. Hal's mother has become the non-understanding authority against which he rebelled. Ma Kent has sometimes been Jonathan's equal (or "similar"), at other times the widow.

    Bruce's Aunt Harriet / Agatha were comic foils who showed one side of family that superheroes by definition are meant to overcome -- the nattering, domestic entanglement. Once it had been established that Bruce Wayne had no such encumbrance, those aunts were used to confront him ironically and comically with just such a mother stand-in who tries to drag him back into being a non-superhero. Of course, these aunts are laughable, something one wishes not to have in one's life. In Morrison's second Batman issue, he took a jab at the aunt as a bad cook. And in ROBW, when Bruce got to meet his own grandparents, the encounter was anything but warm.

    Oddly enough, Superman is one of the most prone to receive parenting in his adult life, with the resurrected Kents serving at times as comic fodder: think of Byrne's "Maaaa!" And Johns's reimagining of Jonathan Kent as a more emotionally distant figure.

    Eddie's right: the era has a role, and the fact that some of these characters were defined long ago creates mothers trapped in the past. We'll never see Martha Wayne as the doctor and Thomas as the stay-at-home dad. For the male superheroes, their fathers are often them without the opportunity to be a superhero. Is that why the two generations can't live side by side?

  13. Batman inc is really good. I think you would have a lot to say about issue 3, a good portion of it was written in Spanish

  14. please start posting regularly on batman again. Like johnny said,Batman Inc is dense.

  15. Hey folks,
    DC message boards has for the second time shut down my account without a word of explanation. So if "they" really don't want free advertisement, so be it. It's too much work to do this thing AND fool with an unexplained animus on the other side of a nameless, voiceless moderator account.

    As a word of promotion, the next thing I'd like to post is, by way of taking the "orphans" theme to my wrap-up, I've got in mind an out-and-out piece of fan fiction covering one day in the life of Dick Grayson from early in his Robin career. I'm happy with some parts of it, but the rest is just an outline; I'd like to have the time to stick to firm deadlines, but I'll just have to get to it when I get to it. I still have yet to wrap that Sopranos piece I'd had in mind about a year ago, and a totally different Superman project. I am not fantastically good at estimating in advance the effort required in a writing project...

  16. what kind of moron is moderating the dc boards. I was eagerly waiting for your analysis for batman inc #3 and #4 that what I found out. Please don't loose heart dude ,they shutdown your account its their loss. You dont want to review grant comics anymore I respect your choice do what you like to do best I am eagerly waiting for your fan fiction piece on Dick grayson. btw dude you should consider a career in comics I will first one to buy your comic :) or atleast try a career in reviewing and literary analysis I always found your review and analysis way better than ign or cbr reviews thanks for all the great articles. best of luck.

  17. I agree with R - only after reading Batman Inc. #4 , I would say take a second look at Grant's Batman comics. Tons of Silver Age stuff to talk about this week. The return of Kathy Kane, Ace the Bathound, even Lou Moxon is referenced! I am loving this series :-)

  18. Doctor Dedalus seems to be a pretty awesome villain in the making. His brief appearance in Inc #3 hinted that he may be an incredibly powerful adversary. Glad we got another fascinating glimpse in #4. And is Sombrero talking with a Stephen Hawking-esque voice synthesizer now? The font being used for his dialogue is very computery, in a grey balloon, and he appears crippled.

  19. Hey all,

    Batman Inc got a lot more fascinating with #4. Many panels in that issue take place in sequence with flashbacks in "Last Rites"... it's a good idea for people to check in with those. I think legwork recapping the old stories is also in order (at least interesting, if not a path towards understanding the mystery). And, hey, Bruce was involved with his uncle's widow; who knew?

    As I've mentioned, the double banishment on DC Message Boards is as inconvenient as it is unexplained. If they don't like free advertising, they don't like free advertising. I'm not going to work twice as hard to give it to them.

  20. Fucking DC nazis, but I always expected bullshit after they deleted all those RIP threads.

    I think Inc #4 definately deserves a commentary post!