A Year Called Comics, part 6: Hey, Comics! Kids!
(The sixth in an eight-part year-end analysis of the A Comic A Day challenge!)
If the kids in your neighborhood haven’t begun school yet, they soon will – a sign that, despite the heat and whatever else the calendar might say, summer is effectively over. I work with children at an on-campus after school program, so I have the pleasure of sharing many kids’ first day of school, and of finding the niche that will help them transition out of the humdrums of summer more successfully. Sure enough, inquiring about their favorite summer movies did the trick. “Transformers!” one of the children excitedly (and expectedly) exclaimed. “Spider-man 3!” offered another, disproving the stereotype that kids can’t remember what they had for breakfast, let alone a movie that came out three months ago. The Simpsons and even Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer were among the others mentioned, whereupon I realized . . . this generation is inheriting the cartoon and comic book standards of my generation.
Even though comic books really aren’t for children anymore, when repackaged and marketed as big screen special effects fodder, even the Silver Surfer can still make a seven-year-old all wide-eyed. Is this the phenomenon truly keeping contemporary comic books on life support?
Before I explore that question, I feel compelled to elaborate on its validity. Some may insist that comic books, specifically the superhero variety, are still all-ages friendly, particularly because of its protagonists’ incessant needs to dress up in pajamas and hang out in clubhouses all day. (Yes, the Justice League Watchtower is the coolest cosmic clubhouse ever. Don’t get me started . . .) While comics still cling to many of their juvenile trappings, and rightly so, their subject matter no longer caters to the elementary school set, creating some of the most contrived and controversial paradigms in literature’s history. Consider Identity Crisis, penned by New York Times best-selling author Brad Metzler and responsible for DC’s latest crisis-turned-countdown du joir, the catalyst in which is the implied rape and eventual, brutal death of Sue Dibny and her unborn child. These sequences are challenging behold, yet almost chuckle-worthy in context: “the implied rape and eventual, brutal death of Sue Dibny,” wife of a superhero dubbed the Elongated Man. His nose twitches at the thought of danger, for crying out loud! What kid didn’t love a classic Carmine Infantino Elongated Man story? What kid really could now, knowing how the stretching sleuth’s story ends?
Don’t get me wrong. I completely understand how and why comics have matured, and as a seven-year-old with an inconvenient twenty tacked on the front, I appreciate a story with some elements to which I can relate. The fact that comics had a Mrs. Elongated Man made the malleable manhunter a little more believable – not to mention similar (and more prevalent) directions in the Superman and Spider-man titles. Like marriage, death is an understandable adult variable, as well; acknowledging the consequences of superheroes’ exaggerated bravery and vigilantism makes these icons even stronger. The challenging dichotomy is, similar to the trappings of capes and tights, these “real world” elements that make comics grown-up are mired in a juvenile context, too. Regarding death, nobody stays dead, implying that a loved one (if sidekicks can be considered “loved ones”) can return from the grave if you only really wish it so. Batman can shrug off a broken back like Wile E. Coyote shakes off a two hundred foot cliff drop. What’s the point of making comics adult if its grown-up embellishments don’t have the stick-to-itiveness of adulthood?
No wonder comics need the freshness of a new medium! In film, whether on television or the silver screen, popular legends are unencumbered by decades’ worth of continuity or emotional baggage. Clark Kent can love Lana Lang again, Elektra can die again, and the Silver Surfer can be a threat again – yet all for the first time. Sixty years and dozens of incarnations later, Batman can begin . . . again (and again). For all of the inconsistencies we diehard fans criticize in these adaptations, we often fail to recognize that these rebooted franchises are really the only gateway to these characters for a new generation, and if the essence is captured properly, the rest will take care of itself. Kids will find their local comics shop, because they can only watch their Hellboy DVDs so many times. They’ll want more.
Further, these heroes’ transition to adulthood is an able model for maturity! Consider Batman, the ultimate man-child, still reveling in those tragic moments of his youth but transforming them into an adult mission of justice. (Incidentally, his wealth is the failsafe between fantasy and kids in the real world jumping around our rooftops – not that the latest All-Star Batman and Robin gets that.) Heck, perhaps the comics-to-film phenomenon handles this unavoidable element better than comics can; by watching Tobey McGuire, and consequently Peter Parker, grow up, children inevitably recognize that the responsibilities of going to college and getting an apartment are just as important as fighting Dr. Octopus or the Sandman. The Spidey film franchise accomplished in three installments what the comics did in twenty years. Time is of the essence when actors cannot remain sixteen-years-old forever.
It’s funny when the kids at my work think they’re teaching me something new about comics. A child will see Spider-man 3, flip through a graphic novel at Borders, then tell me, “Did you know that Eddie Brock is actually supposed to be older than Spider-man? Or that the Sandman really had nothing to do with Uncle Ben’s murder?” I’ll smile and nod knowingly, not so much at the information, but because I can rest assured that this generation will eventually embrace these summer blockbuster icons as the humble funnybook heroes I’ve always loved, in their native medium. We adults aren’t always so open-minded about such things, shaking our walking sticks when things change around us too quickly and suddenly the Hulk’s father becomes the Absorbing Man, or something. No matter the time of year, we always have something to learn.