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Bruce, Billy, and Family-creation

Certain characters really hit home with certain readers. And certain characters really strike a nerve with a lot more people than others. I’ve been thinking for a while about this in relation to superhero comics. Captain Marvel (the real one, Billy Batson) has always been a favorite of mine. Something about him really clicked. And it was only in the past couple of years when I started thinking more seriously about comics that I began to wonder why. And I truly didn’t have a worthy answer until some post or question had me thinking about him in relation to Batman.

And that’s when it hit me. At first it’s a little over-obvious: they’re both orphans. Orphans have always been very identifiable characters. Nearly everyone goes through at least a time in their life when they feel alone or abandoned. Literature and myth are filled with orphans that make their way to the top for a reason. So, yeah, no big deal, what character isn’t an orphan, really?

No, what really struck me is what’s happened in the sixty-some years since these orphans were first put out there to delight folks. Bruce Wayne and Billy Batson have both built families around themselves in the process of their published “careers.” I, tonight, just mentioned this theory to a non-comics-reading fan of Batman and she was surprised. She had seen Batman as someone who constantly pushes everyone away. And, no doubt, a lot of folks see him like that. It’s an easy portrayal, and one that’s worked for some stories.

But what really inspired me to think about this again was Brian’s reposting of Warren Ellis’ sublime Batman synthesis. Batman is a guy who’s family was taken from him and has worked his entire life to keep that from happening to anyone else, even providing a family for those it had happened to. In the process, this lonely man built a family around himself. He’s got a father in Alfred, sons in the Robins, nieces, sisters . . .the Bat-“family” is sometimes just an easy way to talk about a group of characters with similar ties, but in many ways they are a family. They are the family hurt, lonely Bruce Wayne built around himself when the world took his own away.

Billy Batson’s family-making is perhaps less deliberate, but no less cathartic. He finds a sister he didn’t know he had, the big brother he always wanted, cousins, father figures, etc. So, yeah, we have these two examples of orphans getting new families, either through action or luck. There’s a lot of comic fans, and just people in general, this is really going work for. Only children, like me, for instance, often spend their years developing their own family system through a complex and deep network of friends. People with siblings never seem to quite understand just what every single friendship means to us. It’s easy to see oneself as a Bruce or a Billy. Yes, though we still have parents, there is this larger family structure that we’re often presented with yet never quite experience.

It goes beyond only children, though. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t experience some sort of emotional disconnect in today’s world. You don’t have to listen to a Radiohead album twenty times straight to realize there is often a real, deep problem with lasting emotional relationships with other human beings these days. And so there’s an innate appeal to being able to create your own relationships, real and binding and difficult and meaningful, no matter the difficulties.

In our own way, we’re all creating our Bat families and Marvel families. Thankfully, we don’t run the risk of some shitty writer screwing it all up after we build it all.

12 Comments

I’ve always thought some criminal should go after Billy Batson convinced that he’s Robin because of the thinly veiled alias “Bat’s son.”

FunkyGreenJerusalem

November 30, 2009 at 9:27 pm

Thankfully, we don’t run the risk of some shitty writer screwing it all up after we build it all.

I’d be pretty pissed if some writer tried to inject ‘reality’ into my life.

I’ve always thought it ironic that comicdom’s most famous “loner” in fact has the largest network of partners, proteges and support staff. And more importantly, Batman as a character needs these characters (at least since Year One redefined the character) to ground him. They are his tethers to reality

Omar Karindu, with the power of SUPER-hypocrisy!

November 30, 2009 at 9:47 pm

Billy is also unusual in that he’s an orphan child who both needs and becomes a father figure himself. While this was literalized by Jerry Ordway — his Cap was described in-story as a ringer for Billy’s late father — it was of course there in even the codename of Captain Marvel, Jr. And Jr.’s civilian ID as Freddy Freeman was, if I remember rightly, older than Billy at the same time. There’s a lot there about family and about the fluidity of interdependence among kids separated from their parents.

Batmanj eventually arrived at some of this, but it took decades for Alfred to shift from comic relief to noble valet and finally, sometime in the 1980s, to surrogate father. And even as that was happening, Bruce was written away from his original fatherly role for the Robins, so it arguably took Grant Morrison and Paul Dini writing the comics to really get where the Marvel Family were at their formation.

This is one of my favorite aspects of Bruce Wayne/Batman (my favorite character) that he is in one way seen as pushing people away, and he does, but he still ends up with his bat-family, because he needs them and because they need him. I always liked this element as it’s developed over time.

Superman was very big on the orphan front, too: he lost his entire home planet. Then his parents died while he was an adolescent (and this was the established back story until the Post-Crisis reboot). His established network of friends, cousins, Kandorian doubles, “LL” girlfriends, co-workers and Super-Pets was referred to as the “Superman Family” as far back as the early 60’s. Though a Batman annual of the same period had a nice Bob Kane studio pin-up of the original Bat-Family, with Ace, Batwoman, Bat-girl, Bat-Mite, etc.

Orphans were never more popular as protagonists as they were in the 1930’s, (Little orphan Annie, anyone). In the Depression, many families were uprooted and even scatted to the four winds. Thousands of children whose parents couldn’t feed them were put on the “orphan trains” and sent to the farm fields, mostly to be “adopted” as workers.

That orphan train continues, in modified form: Peter Parker, Matt Murdoch, not to mention those whose parents are killed after they put on the costume, like Tim Drake and Kyle Rayner.

I didn’t really mention Superman because a) he never really clicked for me outside of Morrison’s work and b) I kind of feel like all his family-building was after DC killed the Big Red Cheese and poached Binder, who then went on to duplicate a lot of his family ideas.

Interesting about Batman that this Bat-family has accreted around Batman over the years, largely for marketing reasons, when the character he was originally based on/ripped off from, the Shadow, had his network of operatives built into the root of his mythos.

(I was really trying to find a word other than “mythos” to end that sentence, since I realised I don’t really know what it means. Oh well).

Side note: Batman is my favourite comic character, and I have very little interest in anything involving his “family” beyond Commisioner Gordon and Alfred. Carrie Kelly and Damian are my two favourite Robins. I usually find that Dick Jason and Tim add very little to the stories I like.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

December 1, 2009 at 3:56 pm

I didn’t really mention Superman because a) he never really clicked for me outside of Morrison’s work and b) I kind of feel like all his family-building was after DC killed the Big Red Cheese and poached Binder, who then went on to duplicate a lot of his family ideas.

Unlike the other two, although Superman was an orphan, he did have an adopted family to raise him in a stable home, up until he was a grown up.
Interestingly, he had a lot of friends, but they were never ‘family’ like Robin is to Batman, or Mary to Billy.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

December 1, 2009 at 3:57 pm

That orphan train continues, in modified form: Peter Parker, Matt Murdoch, not to mention those whose parents are killed after they put on the costume, like Tim Drake and Kyle Rayner.

There’s a difference between those who being an orphan is an integral part of the character, and those who are orphans because a writer injected ‘reality’ into their stories.

Interestingly, he had a lot of friends, but they were never ‘family’ like Robin is to Batman, or Mary to Billy.

What about Supergirl? I know they had a weird relationship, but she was family.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but Supergirl was a Binder addition.

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