Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
The other day I finished reading the first trade paperback of Phonogram (Rue Britannia.) It has this interesting ending which got me thinking about how comics help us to grow and keep moving forward, even when we’re unaware of it. The protagonist wraps up everything, pretty much, then decides to tie up one final loose end. He has to take a ghost of a girl’s memories and help that ghost to commit suicide, to let go of her non-life. In that way he allows the real, live person to move on.
It’s a metaphor for letting go of old pain that you’ve committed so much of yourself to, that you can’t bear to let yourself remember it anymore. At least I think that’s what the book is saying. In the end, that act allows the woman to remember her past and how much she loved that music. You can tell from just two panels that she is warmed by those memories and feels more like a whole person by letting go of the hurt enough to remember how much she loved that music and that time. It wasn’t even the main story of the book, just a side story, but it left me feeling light and open, it reminded me of the moments in my life when I’ve benefited from similar experiences of transmutation.
Last week I saw a new reason why I like the origin of Astro Boy so much. I watched the movie and I was surprised that they kept his origin story somewhat intact because it’s actually pretty bleak. They really didn’t pull any punches in depicting the grim, morbid aspects of it, which was quite refreshing to see in a children’s movie, (instead of the usual sweet, empty affair that so many cartoons can be.)
If you don’t know Astro Boy’s story, in short; a brilliant scientist (Dr. Tenma) loses his young son in an accident. In his grief he builds an invulnerable replacement robot son. Obviously this is an unhealthy response to death, and in the movie the people around him are appalled, saying that he’s gone mad with the loss. Once he’s activated this new son, he realizes that (of course) nothing can replace his son, and this robot is a sick reminder of his loss. He cannot deal with it and rejects his robot son entirely. Quite reasonably, Astro Boy (who’s not yet Astro Boy) feels rejected by the man he sees as his father. He is distraught, it’s terrible. Artificial Intelligence: A.I. and Caprica wish they were this raw.
In the film, the Dr. Tenma finally begins to see and love the incredible qualities of this new son he’s created. While the animation style of the film is the usual overly 3-D-looking stuff they always do in cartoon movies now, the voice acting is quite realistic and unfussy, (appropriately, given the subject matter), and it hit me hard as I played it over and over again in my head.
According to some, Osamu Tezuka originally wrote Astro Boy for the unprecedented number of orphans in post WW2 Japan. Astro Boy had no one, yet he was built to take care of himself and others, to be unflinchingly good and loving. In the context of it’s time, this is such a touching story, that until now I’d never looked at it from the point of view of Dr. Tenma.
It’s important to examine how we deal with the untimely loss of a loved one, and to acknowledge that even the authority figures in our lives may not be able to deal with it in a healthy way. In retrospect, I can see that I was drawn to this character because of the losses that I’ve experienced. When everything was going pear-shaped, I was drawn to this character who made me happy. People rarely teach children how to deal with death but Tezuka found a way to approach this. There I was, reading about Astro Boy, unaware that I was quietly healing myself through the shared experience of this seemingly innocuous story.
At another time in my life, I found Elektra Assassin to be similarly helpful. It’s something I’ve written about before a few times, so I won’t go into the story too much here. Suffice to say, like the comics mentioned above it was an enormous a help to me but unlike Astro Boy, I knew it right from the moment I read it, I just couldn’t see the depth of it at the time. Growing up as a small, tense, quiet girl I felt powerless, at the whim of the adults around me. As I grew older it only got worse, and I couldn’t see a way out. In Miller and Sienkiewicz’ Elektra, I found an icon of power so raw that it would give me an entirely different idea of femininity to aspire to – I saw the most superficial aspect of the character. Many years later, as I reread it again, I saw that her moments of vulnerability and unwilling introspection (when she describes her past, sees that she’s trapped, and begins to remember who she is) were another way I had been framing the events in my life when I felt coerced into situations. Outside of her power, I see now that I relate to her struggle against the dulling effects of the miasma around her. Once I saw it, I realized how much the metaphors of Elektra’s story supported me through situations that I couldn’t even acknowledge as being painful at the time.
I’m starting to realize that for me, comic books are better than psychoanalysis. It’s remarkable how deep something seemingly superficial can go. Perhaps it’s precisely because it’s such an innocuous medium that these stories can sneak up us and get in so deep. I realize now that I need to trust my gut instinct; When I’m inexplicably drawn to a comic book, clearly it is important. This is my unconscious mind telling me “You need this. Here is someone documenting how to deal with a situation you are dealing with. Let them share their story with you. Allow their characters to guide you and support you as you heal, learn, and grow from this pain.”
Many people don’t want to face the hard, difficult moments in life. Paraphrasing the Dalai Lama, if you can’t accept that pain is a natural part of life, then your pain will be multiplied by expending energy railing against that reality. If you can learn that in life there is inevitably pain, then you can be accepting when it comes, and move through it quickly.
Too often in our modern life we deny the existence of pain and suffering, leading to insanity when confronted with the reality of the situation. How blessed we are then to have access to a medium whereby writers can help us work through the tough times by sharing stories in such a non-threatening way. The comic book medium uses imagery to create an entirely new world for the stories, allowing us to believe that we aren’t reading about pain, loss, fear and suffering, but instead about delightful robots and fearless action heroes. Our unconscious, primitive, child-minds soak it all up and we are sustained by the shared experiences.
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