Monday, September 28, 2015

Happiness: A Hero's Worst Enemy?

I still have Batman on the brain.

Between Saturday's Batman Day, and tonight's second season, second episode of Gotham (Harvey Dent really should make an appearance), I'm thinking of last week's Gotham season premiere.  Specifically, I'm thinking of the end, when --

(I'd say spoiler alert here, but Gotham is a prequel to Batman, so you should know this stuff is going to happen.)

-- Bruce and Alfred find an entrance to Thomas Wayne's secret underground study, soon to be the Batcave.  In a prophetic letter to Bruce, Dr. Wayne knows his confused son is struggling between finding happiness and the truth.  He begs of Bruce to choose happiness, "unless you feel a calling . . . a true calling."

Those words have resonated with me, for many reasons . . . but in the context of my beloved superheroes, I wonder: Is forsaking happiness essential to heroism?  Is perpetual personal sacrifice one of the lessons to be learned from superhero mythology?

If Superman's first adventure in Action Comics #1 is the basis from which to judge the genre's original intentions (and I do believe it is), happiness is truly an ever-elusive concept to a vigilant hero.  In just a few pages, Siegel and Shuster establish the tragic childhood, the bumbling secret identity, and the unrequited love that come with almost every superhero's story.

Of these three, the secret identity seems the most controllable concept.  Just imagine, in those first few pages of Action Comics #1, if Clark Kent didn't hide his double life.  He could break news stories as Superman, confront criminals with full disclosure to the police, and ask out Lois Lane with confidence.  Imagine how less tense his life would seem, without that ongoing need to act like a klutz and cover his uniform.  More Flash Gordon, less Zorro.  I daresay the entire superhero concept would be completely different today.

Yet, Siegel and Shuster introduce the Clark Kent concept without explanation, nor does it seem that the readers required one.  Superman shares no melodramatic inner monologue about his motives.  It's just an accepted trope, along with the trappings, insistently implying that the good deeds are not enough.  The message is clear: you can't be a savior without sacrifice.

Despite being the first example, Superman may be a bad example, because his origin and powers are a truly alien concept.  Witnessing a loved one's murder is tragically yet undeniably much more down to earth, yet Bruce Wayne's choice "to become a bat" was just as accepted by readers.  In the same way we imagined an integrated Superman, imagine a young Bruce Wayne, with all that grief and rage, grown to become a policeman and philanthropist.  I'm sure those "what if" tales have been told, and Batman as a force of will always finds a way to resurface, but, in real life, orphans don't have that luxury.

Indeed, I'm concluding that superheroes exist as the unrealistic personification of survivor's guilt, which doesn't make for a happy ending.  So, consider this . . .

I celebrated Batman Day by reading some of my favorite comics starring the Caped Crusader, which includes Batman: Full Circle.  In it, Batman essentially confronts his parents' killer's son, who indeed uses survivor's guilt to trap and nearly defeat the Dark Knight.  When Robin arrives and is imperiled, Batman snaps out of it, frees himself, and saves the day, effectively setting aside his grief to help his friend.

That's the lesson.  Despite the inevitable tragedies of life, find purpose.  Find partnership.  Try to save yourself and you'll end up saving others, too. We accept our heroes' eccentricities because of the extremity of their mission, to save as many people as possible.  The mask isn't a denial; it's a badge that proves their capability to help, and offer hope.

Behold how effectively Gotham establishes that you don't have a Batman without Jim Gordon, proving that the potential of grief is helping to relieve others of it.  The end of the show won't be a kid donning a cowl, but a man paying it forward.  It may not make him happy, but it offers contentment, and that's more than many people have.

When Siegel, Shuster, and their successors created these characters, they placed their readers' hardships in those golden pages as prevalently as the heroes trying to overcome them.  They could've written happy endings, but they chose truth instead.  They must've felt a calling.  A true calling.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

When Comics Believed In Kids (part 2): Happy Batman Day!

Apparently, it's Batman Day.  I'm not sure what that means.  For me, everyday is Batman Day.

When I was a sophomore in high school, my speech and debate coach loaned me his copy of The Dark Knight Returns.  (His first and middle names are Alan Scott, the alias of the Golden Age Green Lantern, who has often been tied to Gotham City, so, kismet, perhaps.)  I read the story twice in a single sitting, and, really, nothing's been the same since.

Last week, I started this essay called "When Comics Believed in Kids," and, without remembering that today is Batman Day, I planned on concluding those thoughts with a heavy emphasis on the Caped Crusader.  See, Batman's story is one heavily mired in the mores of youth, from the young Bruce Wayne's witnessing his parents murder, to the legacy of Robins and Batgirls that have followed in his footsteps.  Arguably, the very core of Batman's character is the unabashed embrace of a child's potential.

Through this lens, you'd think Batman comics could be an endless source of encouragement for kids, yet today's Batman books seem less for a younger audience than ever.  Some would trace the "grown-up Batman" to The Dark Knight Returns, with its heady socio-political subplots and "grim-'n-gritty" violence.  I even read an article this week that blames the mature themes in ABC's new The Muppets on Frank Miller's Batman!  So, did TDKR hastily grow up comics, and all of pop culture?

My answer is simple: yes and no.  I don't think Miller meant to ostracize young readers. Actually, I think his intention was quite the opposite.  He brought comics back to their roots as a reality-mining medium, utilizing culture to tell a story about gods among men, as all good mythology does.  When comics did this at the cusp of World War II, the enemy was easy to identify; superheroes could punch any swastika-wearing villain in the face without criticism of being "too real for kids."  The image's violence was overshadowed by the nation's agreement that it was right.

In the mid-'80s, following the moral ambiguity of Vietnam and in the midst of the Cold War, what was right was less agreeable in America.  That didn't stop Miller's Batman from doing what he thought was right; the cultural context was just much more complicated.  (The swastikas were in different places, for example.)  This complexity has been repeatedly misconstrued as "for mature audiences only."  Again, I don't think that was Miller's intention; that's just how the audience, and Batman's subsequent creative teams, understood it.

Despite its "more realistic" approach, Miller's Batman work (including Year One) doesn't exclude the sidekick concept at all.  In fact, it ups the ante with a young girl as Robin!  In the end, Batman effectively saves Gotham from itself with an army of impressionable youngsters; Miller's Caped Crusader sees even the wayward Mutant Gang as an asset in the midst of chaos.  Kids can be heroes!

So, to answer the question, The Dark Knight Returns didn't grow up comics, but our interpretation of it did.  The mainstream Batman comic book effectively tested the waters with Jason Todd, dismissing Dick Grayson for a snot-nosed rebel, then asking the readership, via telephone poll, "Is this what you want?"  This pre-social media meta-conversation with fans sealed the deal: comics weren't for kids anymore.

Don't misunderstand: I know Miller's Jason Todd died, too. In that context, he was dubbed "a good soldier."  In A Death In the Family, Jason died bound and beaten, an apt allegory for how comics then perceived their young audience.  Think about that -- comics weren't a whimsical parent's purchase, like gum and candy in the drug store check-out line.  Comics had their own shops, and cover prices grew exponentially to sustain this new retail industry. Comics locked kids out, just as Jason was, when the Joker's bomb blew up.

Thankfully, comics-inspired media has kept kids' interest in superheroes, without dumbing down the material.  From Batman: The Animated Series to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, parents and children alike find cape-and-cowl adventures that can be enjoyed on multiple levels, many times over, like my disintegrating copy of The Dark Knight Returns.  It's the comics themselves that have kept kids at arm's length.  Many worthwhile attempts exist to recruit young readers, and today's Batman Day is surely among them, but few efforts are more powerful than simply handing a kid a comic book, even an allegedly mature audiences only comic book, like my mentor did for me in high school.  Just imagine, celebrating Batman Day by handing The Dark Knight Returns to a child today . . .

A child!