Monday, June 18, 2012

I Am Superman (and maybe your kid is too!)

I say it without apology-- I grew up on comic books.  When I was ten, my  dad married my stepmom, and she brought with her loads of Archie comics.  Archie's misadventures with his stereotypical friends Betty (Nice Girl), Veronica (Queen Bee), Reggie (Kingpin), Moose (Dumb Jock), Jughead (Class Clown and possible Geek) and the whole crew... even if I didn't understand the jokes, like Veronica talking about bathing in a pool full of lanolin, I understood the social pecking order.  This was perfect instruction for a soon-to-be middle schooler who was figuring out the social hierarchies around her. That, and I got a kick out of the ads for Bendix brakes, X-Ray Glasses (they see through clothes! not!) and Sea Monkeys, which I never got but later was told were plankton or krill or something. 

A while, not too long, later, I went to Honolulu to visit my grandparents. My uncle had a treasure chest (okay, a foot locker) full of comics. Sure, there was the familiar Archie gang, but then, I met Superman. 

My life would never be the same. 

Not really-- it would totally be the same. I'd actually met Superman before, with the Superfriends. We had been keeping a Saturday morning rendezvous every time I'd visited my dad. At mom's house, we got about .5 seconds of tv a week. At Dad's house, we binged on tv. In fact, for several years we set the alarm clock for six in the morning, always forgetting that "Town Hall" would be on for the first half hour or hour or so. You'd have thought that I would have remembered after the umpteenth time  of getting up too early, but we were so excited for cartoons, even after we'd stayed up until 10 or 11 on Friday nights watching the two hour extravaganza that was Love Boat and Fantasy Island. Not that I even understood either show. I just thought Julie was awesome, Gopher was cute and hey, Fantasy Island in was my home state, baby! In any case, Superfriends was kind of cool, but later, I'd think it was kind of lame. All these Super Friends---couldn't they split up and solve more problems with their superpowers on their own? I liked Aquaman, but the Wonder Twins? I would mock them for years to come...

So, back to discovering Superman comics-- in my uncle's collection, I was also introduced to Lois Lane comics (with amazingly freaky fantasy stories, including one where she wears a hat full of fruit like Carmen Miranda, which I believe made me love Carmen later when I first saw her in a film with Groucho Marx, 'Flying Down to Rio'), Jimmy Olsen comics (which usually contain some story of Superman freaking out on Jimmy or saving his live because Jimmy has lots of pluck but not a lot of luck when it comes to bad guys) as well as Bizarro Superman (he's from Bizarro world, of course-- where did you think he came from?) and the very clever and witty Lex Luthor stories. Ah, Kryptonite, you are so accessible-- just keep putting it in that lead-lined box, Lex... All of these stories inspired me to begin creating my own superhero. 


Do I remember what name I gave that female superhero? No more than I remember the stories I wrote for the family newspaper, The Gnu News. What I do remember, besides learning how to draw reasonably-sized boobs and a princess-cut super-outfit, was that I really enjoyed it. I didn't think I was a good artist by any means, but it was something interesting, something to do. She, the Unnamed Superherione, had cool powers. I'm pretty sure she didn't wear glasses and she wasn't short and she didn't feel unpopular. She could kick your ass with a single look, she didn't have to raise her knee-high boot to do it. She could run fast, run far-- I had bad ankles and barely made the 1.25 mile "jaunt" (ha.) we had to do in PE. I came up short. So short. My heroine had no problems stopping the bad guys. Not me. I was bullied by a girl named Candice, who threatened to throw my off the bleachers.  She had feathered hair, wore buckle-back jeans and had squinty, hard mean eyes. She looked like she did things with boys and like she could kick my ass. Why couldn't she leave me alone and let me read my Trixie Belden books, for heaven sake? Trixie was one of my many girl superheroes, along with Meg Murray, Jo March, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, Menolly and Jane Eyre. These characters were, in some ways, my guiding angels as a kid and my hope when the world wasn't offering much.   A girl's literary superheroes, if you will. My superhero wasn't handsomely crafted, but she had the collective knowledge of my heroines and was willing to step into darker places than I could. Into real good girl/bad guys stories with endings more inspired by Alfred Hitchcock than the Brady Bunch. Creating gives a kid space to work out problems and permission to hope for something better.


All of this came to mind today when I listened to Terry Gross's interview with writer Larry Tye today.  He's written a book on Superman as a cultural American icon and what, exactly, Superman means to us.  So refreshing and revealing to me was that the very original writer of the Superman comics, Jerry Siegel, created him as an outlet to his own young angst at being the picked-on Jewish boy who suffered the indignities of authoritarian schooling and the mocking from his peers. Siegel and later, artist Joel Schuster, gave Superman the powers they didn't have. (That X-Ray vision? Well, Schuster was very nearsighted with coke-bottle glasses way back in the day...) Like a lot of guys we'd think of as geeks, they created the antithesis of themselves, someone who could master the problems and get the girl. Superman comics have a very interesting place in American history, and I look forward to reading Tye's book this winter, when it finally gets down to my place on the Holds list at the library.


And what I really want to talk about is our kids today... yours and mine. Comic books and graphic novels are no longer a novelty, they are a fact of life. I love graphic novels; I have ever since my freshman year in high school, when I was floundering in honors English and came across a graphic novel of Romeo and Juliet. Unless you have taken a class in Shakespearean England, which I did my senior year, most of Shakespeare's work has Zero Context for the modern teenager. Graphic novels saved my butt and my grade, bringing a very histrionic play to life and putting a world around the characters and their words. I've since read Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice as well as Oscar Wilde's  A Picture of Dorian Grey in this format and found it very helpful. If your kid is struggling with a book for English, do consider finding out if there's a graphic novel of the book-- it can be a great help in more thoroughly understanding classic literature.

Also--let your kids create their own comics,  then read them without judgment, and with curiosity. Keeping in mind that this work is sometimes whimsy and sometimes subconscious wish-fulfillment, really see what your kids are thinking about and saying. Don't be too alarmed by superhero violence or fantasy drawing-- adolescents are often frustrated by social conventions and this is a very harmless way to express their feelings, be it anger or desire or their wish to have more control and authority over their lives at home and at school. Inner conflict can be drawn out on the page; so can just plain silly stuff.  Instead of telling them what we see in their stories, ask questions: why did your superhero decide to do X? Why did the bad guys decide to pick on so-and-so character? Tell me about the woman with the big boobs riding the dragon?* (The less obvious question is 'why does she ride a dragon? Where are they going? Tell me about the dragon, does it have powers too?'... you'll get better answers if you ignore the crazy-outrageous proportions and focus on the story itself...) 


I'm all for kids reading, and I don't go in much for just reading junk, but I also think that there are some comics that aren't junk. Some are wish fulfillment at its finest. Certainly, there's a lot of crap out there in the illustrated world, but don't forget, we have Jackie Collins  and Danielle Steele. Tension, drama and fantasy have a variety of stages to play themselves out on. It's our job to find good comics for our kids and point them in the right direction, and to read their work -- be it comics, poetry, artwork or writing or other form of self-expression, with an open mind. We just might learn something. 

*Please know this is written with a chuckle. It was my opinion in 7th grade that all boys thought they had to draw every woman with big boobs. Apparently, too, on nearly everything.  

And if you haven't read Micheal Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay", please do yourself a favor and pick it up.  You'll be glad you did.

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