20 January 2008

Superheroes as Escape Mechanism and More

This panel appeared in Bill Griffith's Zippy the Pinhead comic strip last month. In the next panel, Griffy (the voice of the cartoonist, or at least the more intellectual side of him) elaborates:

"Sick in th' sense that escape & fantasy only prolong th' avoidance of trying to figure out th' real world in all its fascination & complexity! Fantasy equals permanent adolescence!"
This from a man still working out his issues with a father figure who takes the form of a giant toad. But that aside, Griffith is on target in treating superheroes as merely one form of fantasy popular with adolescents and younger children. They just happen to be a form first sold and still associated with cheap, thin magazines rather than thick, expensive books. Which brings me to a story.

When our hero is young, his mother and father are murdered by ruthless, power-hungry people. He escapes the same fate, but must leave his family home for a harsh, unloving environment.

As our hero approaches adolescence, he meets a powerful mentor, a bachelor who acts both paternally protective and frustratingly distant. This man welcomes the hero to a new home, a rambling castle-like building with hidden spaces and extraordinary resources.

The boy develops his innate powers and dedicates himself to fighting the evil that killed his parents. He also finds friends his own age who have their own powers; they are in some ways stronger than he, but they recognize him as their leader in the fight.

The hero's new life brings dangers and pain, sacrifices and annoyances, yet also excitement and a sense of purpose. He moves beyond his hunger for personal revenge to use his abilities to aid his society, growing up into a full hero.

Modern fantasy readers will recognize this as the basic story of Harry Potter. It's also the story of Dick Grayson, the first Robin, as told in Robin Annual #4 (1995).

(That comic book is one of several overlapping versions of Dick Grayson's beginning as a masked hero. It added details to Detective #38 [1940], Secret Origins #13 [1987], and Batman #436-439 [1989], among other notable accounts. There were subsequent retellings in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #100 [1997], Batman: Dark Victory [1999-2000], and elsewhere. But all versions agree on the core story: orphan, mentor, new home, powers, yada yada.)

We can also find elements of this story in the tales of Jason Todd and Tim Drake, the later male Robins. A lot of other young fantasy heroes have traveled part of this path, too, even Dorothy Gale.

What does that similarity say about Griffith's complaint that "superheroes are an escape mechanism"? In depicting a world where people--particularly the protagonist--can do far more than readers can, all fantasy is essentially escapist. (So is much strictly realistic fiction in that it depicts a world with more order than our own, but I digress.)

It's no surprise that stories about heroes with extraordinary powers appeal to readers who are feeling "powerless and unimportant." And when it comes to those feelings, well, kids are like that. But is wishing not to feel powerless and unimportant really "a sick need," or a natural human desire?

More important, does reading fantasy literature in any form necessarily "prolong th' avoidance of trying to figure out th' real world"? Isn't it often a way for readers to tackle just that task? In particular, fantasy literature that takes the form of a hero's journey, as traced above, makes readers think about the nature of heroism. Which, after all, ain't a bad thing.

[Oz and Ends is mighty proud that Occasional Superheroine noted the last weekly Robin posting. Valerie D'Orazio brings a valuable inside-outside perspective to superhero comics as a female fan and former editor.]


Sam said...

A Batman/Robin Syndrome to go with the Wizard of Oz Syndrome? Fascinating.

Do you have any idea abut the progenitor of this set-up? Perhaps the Sorcerer's Apprentice?

Could these be kin to the "Goldenhair" fairy tale about the youth who takes up residence in a dragon's castle? (Which is similar to Bluebeard's Castle as well.)
Although in those stories the powerful figure seeks to withhold knowledge and power from the newcomer.

J. L. Bell said...

For today's storytellers, the info-withholding mentor might not be so much an archetype as a necessity for drawing out the story. If the mentor provides all knowledge and power to begin with, the story is over mighty quickly. That could have been a factor for traditional storytellers as well, of course.

As folks have pointed out, most of the Harry Potter books would have been much shorter if (a) Harry had simply gone to Dumbledore and asked for help and advice, and/or (b) Dumbledore had simply told Harry all that he eventually would anyway. But the books would have been less exciting as well.

On the Batman and Robin side, since Crisis on Infinite Earths the writers have been emphasizing Batman's psychological quirks. He was always Robin's mentor, of course. Since 1986 he's also been a difficult mentor, both demanding and withholding. A lot of the interpersonal drama in that period for the Robins and former Robins has been coming to terms with Bruce's craziness.