On the way home from the bookstore yesterday, I ruined a nice morning out with the Mannion guys by going to town on Batman, comic books, comic book writers, and the readers of comic books who are not my sons.
Young Ken and Oliver were discussing one of the Dark Knight’s adventures in which he went up against a villain named Shiva and defeated him with true Caped Crusader awesomeness.
Except Shiva isn’t a him.
I heard them talking and assumed Shiva was based on the Hindu god, the destroyer of worlds. That’d be one tough villain for Batman to take on.
Turns out her name is Lady Shiva.
She’s also one of the martial arts experts who trained the troubled and questing young Bruce Wayne.
She and Batman know each other’s moves.
She’s big trouble.
In this particular adventure, Batman takes her down with a single punch while he and Superman are fighting off a gang of super-opponents.
Like I said, true Caped Crusader awesomeness.
But when I heard this, I erupted.
“Batman’s beating up women?”
“Dad, he had to. It was self-defense!”
“He didn’t have to punch her. That’s what his utility belt is for. He has his bat-rope. He has his bat-gas pellets.”
“She’s the ultimate ninja, Dad. She’s too quick for him to use those things. He had no choice!”
“No,” I agreed. “He didn’t. Because he’s a character in a comic book! He does whatever the writers and artists want him to do. They have a choice. And they chose to have him punch a woman.”
“You’re taking this too seriously.”
“Yeah, it’s just a comic book.”
“We know not to hit women.”
“I’d rather you didn’t hit anybody. But that’s not the point. I mean, it’s a point. But it’s part of a larger point.”
Ok, I knew I was losing them. I could feel it. But sometimes---all right, a lot of times---once I get started I can’t stop.
“You have to remember who comic books are written for these days.”
“Lots of people read them,” I was informed in a grumble.
“I know lots of people read them. But not all of them are the target audience. The target audience is young men in their teens and twenties, not kids, men. Think about that. Think about what most young men in their twenties are doing. They’re going to college, they’re getting jobs, they’re getting married and starting families. How much time do you think they have to spend reading comic books?”
“They read them for fun, Dad.”
“The ones who read them for fun aren’t the target audience,” I said. “The target audience are the ones who take them seriously. We’re talking about men who haven’t grown up yet. And what I want you to notice and think about when you’re reading comic books---“
“Which we do for fun.”
“I know that.”
“We don’t take them seriously.”
“I’m not saying you do. But that doesn’t mean that certain things aren’t getting through. When the writers and artists write and draw for their target audience they are writing and drawing things that are meant to appeal to the fantasies of adults with immature attitudes about---“
I went on a little more in this vein but I could feel the sullenness in the back seat. I had a lot more to say about the way comic books portray women, about attitudes towards sex and violence and how the two are entwined.
I wanted to tell them that the world is full of young men who are afraid of everything. They are afraid of women, of sex, of their own urges and desires. They are afraid of other men. They are afraid of what they might be themselves. They are afraid they are weak, useless, powerless. And when people who are this afraid dream, they dream of not being afraid, but their dreams aren’t of achieving self-command and of gaining mastery of over their fears. Their dreams are of instilling fear. They dream of gaining power over what makes them afraid.
I wanted to warn my sons that a lot of what’s going on in comic books is indulging the fantasies of these weak and frightened men. The stories that are aimed at this audience are not stories of heroism and noble deeds, romance and adventure. They are fantasies of power and dominance.
I didn’t know where to begin with the issues of masochism, guilt, and self-loathing that also suffuse these stories as complements to the sadism, anger, and narcissistic contempt for the inferior other the stories inspire and exploit.
I stopped myself.
I stopped mainly because the guys were making it clear I was being a spoilsport and a bore.
But I stopped for a couple of other reasons as well.
The first of these being that I realized I didn’t really know all this about comic books.
This is stuff I suspect, have inferred, have read about, have been told, and, mostly, worry is true.
But I don’t know it because I don’t read their comic books.
All I know is what I glean from what the guys tell me or tell each other when I’m within earshot and the panels they got a kick out of and show me and the important scenes they hand to me to read without the expectation that I’ll go on and read the whole book.
I only know what they’ve liked or disliked about particular stories, and neither seems to include the stuff I worry about.
Their favorite scenes seem to be ones in which the heroes are joking around with each other.
They especially like it when one hero gets off a good zinger at another hero’s expense.
But the point is that I don’t know, at least I don’t know enough, and I shut up when I realized that.
Not because I felt bad for spouting off about things I didn’t know, though.
Because I suddenly felt out of touch.
When Ken and Oliver were younger, I could join in their enjoyment of certain books and TV shows and games and comic books because I had enjoyed the same books and shows and games and comic books (or ones very similar) when I was their age and I remembered what it was like to be a little kid descending into the Batcave or taking a station on the bridge of the Enterprise for the first time.
But I didn’t read comic books when I was in high school. There were no comic books for high school kids to read. Sorry. No graphic novels. Not that I knew of, at any rate. Comic books were strictly for little kids. I’d given them up even before I gave up collecting baseball cards.
I didn’t read the sort of fantasy and adventure novels the guys prefer either. My favorite writers were Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain. They think of Twain as homework and Vonnegut as some boring writer their father likes and has a lot of books by, which, believe it or not, is pretty much how I felt about John Updike.
I can’t tell you who their favorite writers are.
Besides Terry Pratchett.
What I’m getting at is that there is a large part of my sons’ imaginative lives that I am completely cut off from.
Now, given their ages and the way life goes, that’s as it should be. And it doesn’t---or shouldn’t---surprise me.
It’s just that the feeling that shut me up yesterday on the ride home was a foretaste of the feeling I expect to knock me off my feet some day in the not as distant as I wish it was future when I come home from a wedding or a college graduation and find a Star Wars action figure on the floor of an empty bedroom.
There is one more thing that did it, made me shut up and drive the rest of the way keeping my thoughts to myself.
Like I said, I don’t know that any of that stuff I worry is there is actually there.
But I don’t believe it is.
At least I don’t believe it’s as prevalent as I worry it might be.
If I did believe it, I’d have banned comic books long ago.
The reason I don’t believe it’s there is that I trust Oliver and Ken.
If comic books were only what I sometimes worry they are, Ken and Oliver wouldn’t read them.
They wouldn’t like them.
No, wait. I’m sure.
At one point in the conversation, before I realized I was being a pompous old fuddy-duddy and put a lid on it, Ken asked, “Dad, you don’t think we’re like those guys, do you?”
“No,” I was quick to reply, which was easy, because I don’t.
“You think we’re going to turn into them just from reading comic books?”
I wasn’t as quick to reply to this one.
But there is no but.
It’s not up to me anymore.
The blonde and I did what we could to mould their tastes. We tried to teach them to recognize and reject junk. When it came to art and culture, we weren’t of the No Sugar For You school, but we never let them gorge on potato chips and candy washed down with Jolt! We worked to offer a happy medium that involved lots of fun ways to enjoy vegetables.
But we no longer control the whole menu.
There are still things we won’t let in the house. There are places on the Internet that if we catch them visiting will get the computer taken away. There are words and ideas we better not hear coming out of their mouths.
But our ability to police their thinking and their dreaming, which has always been more limited than parents like to believe, has shrunk and is still shrinking.
They aren’t like those young men, but they are young men.
Their intellectual and imaginative lives are their own to shape now. Even if they were reading nothing but Twain and Vonnegut I’d have to trust that they were getting the right things out of Huckleberry Finn and Slaughterhouse Five.
Batman, the guys assure me, doesn’t make a practice of beating up women. That’s good to know. But what does he do? What does he stand for? What kind of man and hero is he these days?
What does he symbolize?
Where does he fit in their senses of who they are and how the world is?
What does Batman mean?
That’s all up to them to figure out.
They’ve grown up and left me behind.
I’m stuck in time, way back here---