13 June 2010

Tom Wilson on Robin

Superhero metaphors permeate Tom Wilson’s memoir Zig-Zagging. Which isn’t too surprising since he’s a second-generation cartoonist, carrying on the Ziggy comic strip that his father started.

Wilson describes how he was a Batman fan as a little boy—around the time of the hit TV show or even earlier. After he snuck into the basement to watch his father work, he got a little drawing room of his own, labeled “Batcave.” Wilson contrasts his childhood favorites with his sons’ preference for Spider-Man (and he’s such a DC fan that he doesn’t remember the hyphen). The book contains several Ziggy cartoons and a few verbal metaphors contrasting the Wilsons’ shlubby round everyman with Batman and Superman.

But most often Wilson writes of his father as “my favorite superhero.” Aside from one reference to Andy and Opie, it’s the metaphor Wilson uses for their relationship.

On the other hand, there’s a costumed comic-book hero Tom Wilson really doesn’t like. Describing how he created a comic strip (called UG!) in his twenties, he writes of himself as a “Boy Wonder,” but then says:

What guy wants to be Robin, the Boy Wonder, anyway? If Batman wasn’t with him, it’d be a wonder the boy didn’t get the guano knocked out of him on a daily basis. The suit was a joke. It looked like Peter Pan’s Underoos. Batman had the cool suit. Batman had the gadgets. Hell, Batman probably had Catwoman! But did you ever see Robin get any of the cute chicks?

And when it came to the Batmobile, Robin was never in the driver’s seat. He was just a kid in a dorky outfit going along for the ride. He was there to make Batman look good. Robin was a wannabe superhero trapped in a boy’s body. . . .

Yet like Robin to Batman, I never grew jealous of Dad; I felt only admiration, respect, and a kind of hero worship. . . . [Looking back on a publicity photo,] I realize it’s the last time I can remember seeing Dad heathy, happy, and full of the passion, the exuberance he so generously shared and that naturally drew people to him.
That occasion was in 1985. Two years later, the older Wilson’s health started to fail (lung cancer after lots of smoking), and the younger went to work on the Ziggy cartoon full-time.

As his father declined, Wilson wrote gags and then drew cartoons, silently helped out at appearances and then did them himself. “Most people never realized the transition had taken place,” Wilson writes. “In private I was doing the comic strip, but in public I receded into the shadows while Dad met the audience he so loved and needed.”

With both men named Tom Wilson, the transition probably looked seamless from the outside. (There are five cartoons in the book signed “Tom Wilson + Tom II,” one dated 2001.) By now the son has been handling the strip longer than the dad, and during that time he was also looking after his dad, raising his sons, and enduring the death of his wife from cancer.

Wilson insists that he still thinks of his dad as his superhero, but clearly his own shoulders are carrying the family and the business. At many points in Zig-Zagging, I sensed unacknowledged conflicts and tensions in the author’s situation. And Wilson’s attitude toward Robin might exemplify those. The book quotes Herman Hesse:
If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.
Wilson’s image of Robin was formed in the 1960s: a symbol of youth who never grows up, who always has something to learn, who falls down a lot—“a wannabe superhero trapped in a boy’s body.” Clearly Wilson doesn’t want to be that.

As a business owner and parent, Wilson has definitely grown up. Yet as Tom Wilson, Jr., carrying on his father’s job, that growth may be hard to see—is he just a wannabe? Throughout Zig-Zagging he compares himself unfavorably to his childhood image of Batman, and his childhood image of his father.

Wilson might find more inspiration in a hero who’s grown up and taken over for his fallen father figure, though he can’t let the world know. A hero dealing with grief while raising a kid (a really difficult kid at that). A hero who still admires his predecessor, knowing he can’t match that man in some ways but has surpassed him in others.

A hero like Dick Grayson, who right now is Batman. Because the story of Dick Grayson since 1980 is that even Boy Wonders can grow into superheroes themselves.

(Thanks to Tom Angleberger for alerting me to Zig-Zagging.)

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