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03 December 2006 @ 09:39 pm
Children of Innocence  
Meta commentary has always been a critical weakness of mine, and this essay just pounced on me while I was trying to head off to sleep. Lots of babbling about fantasy versus reality, children with power, loss of innocence, and the effect of a costume herein.


Recently I’ve been linking around and watching the discussion of the article on Stevie Long, the four year old who attempted to scare off robbers in his Mystic Force Red Ranger suit. It’s been interesting to see the reactions, but what caught my attention were those whose feathers were seriously raised by the assertion that Stevie was in no way a hero, but a child with no real concept of the difference between reality and fantasy. Why are people so angered when a person, in one case the voice of a parent, states their sincere worry at such a situation?

The question of children given great power is a multifaceted issue. Can children truly understand and appreciate the magnitude of danger they’re faced with? Is it heroism when they stand up to it powerless, or misguided naiveté due to immaturity? And most importantly, how much of the ardent defense of Stevie’s choice, and of child heroes in general, is born out of one’s own childhood dreams of being a hero, never realized?

The quintessential example is Billy Batson (pre and post Trials of Shazam). Billy is a child, innocent but brave who is given immense power and responsibility. Unlike Stevie, Billy can stop bullets. His muscles are real, not foam. But reality crashes on the fantasy still.

In First Thunder when Billy faces down the assassins as Captain Marvel with Scott looking on, Billy doesn’t consider that Scott could be harmed. Billy doesn’t even think of the immense danger Scott’s in; he is in the fantasy of power, the superhero mindset. He realizes tragically that even if he is invulnerable to bullets, Scott has none of his superpowers or invulnerability. This fantasy come to life is also his pain, anger, anguish. It is his burden.

Even this pain and anger he, as a child, cannot fully grapple with. When lashing out he nearly takes a step that would put him into fully adulthood: murder. He attacks and holds Sivana by the throat. “I’m trying to find some reason to let you live. But I can’t. I know if I let you live, you’re going to keep hurting…keep murdering people…I’m not…I’m not sure I can live with that…” Billy has the power to kill, and he knows it. In fantasy, enemies simply disappear, magically exploding into a choreographed fireball while the stunt actors pose heroically in sentai (and by extension, Power Rangers). In no sense of the word have they fully “died.” In reality, there is death in all its many and various forms.

Billy fails to protect his friend, even with all his powers. He, as a child, is not able to understand the very stark divide between reality and fantasy until he is faced with death, both those he can’t prevent and those he has the power to cause. This moment ends his innocence. This, I think, is what people are missing. Those who advocate that Stevie is a hero fail to see how easily his life could have ended.

Even Billy has acknowledged the great loss of innocence that comes with being Captain Marvel. In “The Great Divide,” a one-shot by Pat McGreal, Billy crosses over into an alternate world where an alien boy is faced with the same fate as him: Driven by the death of his parents, he ascends to great power. However, as Billy sees this prophetic vision, he knows that the power is no consolation for dead parents, for a life unfulfilled. He destroys the power orb and while flying home notes that “some things will never be worth the price you pay…”

Yet while Billy is the ultimate childhood fantasy realized, the Bat family is in large part childhood innocence shattered, facing a loss that drives them to become heroes. Each one handles the situation quite differently. Bruce lives eternally with the survivor’s guilt, driven first by revenge and later by mission. Unlike the others in the Bat Family, Bruce is unable to fully move on from his loss, kept sane only by those around him even as he pushes them away. Each Robin, marred by their own loss, is a grasp at healing Bruce's inability to deal healthily with his own parents’ death. Yet being Robin leaves behind negative effects that further scar them, and thus Bruce’s loss is passed on to the next generation. Dick Grayson, as Bruce’s ward and Batman’ partner, is left emotionally stunted. Post-Crisis Jason Todd acts out his anger and frustration on those he hunts, unable to fully bury the axe of abandonment. Tim subsumes his grief over his mother’s death in stalking Batman and Robin, but becoming Robin ultimately leads to the death of his father. Stephanie Brown’s loss is by far the most abstract: She lives with the betrayal of her father in his failure to uphold the idealized father image. Faced with more of her father’s lies, she takes up the mantle of a hero to stop him. Yet during her brief tenure as Robin she is left under-trained and prepared in comparison to Bruce’s other charge. Considering the importance placed on the guilt he feels for the death of Jason Todd (due to Jason’s lack of training), Bruce’s subsequent lack of a reaction and the implication views her worth as a means to an end: to get Tim back as Robin.

The Batgirls are by extension another attempt at healing. Before committing the essential act of adulthood, murder, Cassandra Cain views her training as a game, still in a world of innocence. But in the act of taking another’s life she is profoundly changed, interpreting death not in words but emotion: “Terror and then... nothing.” Having prematurely crossed the line into adulthood, her innocence is gone and for years she lives in shame, but it is in the shattering of her innocence that forms the first steps toward becoming a hero. As Bronze Tiger says, “We made you a warrior. You made yourself a hero.” Helena Bertinelli, like Jason Todd, acts out her anger at her parents’ brutal murder on each criminal she targets, putting aside Batman’s rules for her own. The only Bat to escape the shattering of innocence, Barbara Gordon, instead experiences a transformative tragedy that changes their entire perspective. Once paralyzed by the Joker, Barbara has to rebuild her life from the ground up, finding new meaning in her position as Oracle.

There’s also to consider the very opposite of the loss of innocence: a concerted attempt to gain it. The most obvious example would be the recent addition of Sin, de facto daughter of Dinah Lance. Sin was raised to be not a hero but an assassin, protégé of Lady Shiva. As Dinah herself takes on the training of Shiva to improve her own skills and possibly replace Shiva, she is faced with her own possible “loss of innocence” (if she takes Shiva’s path) together with Sin’s lack of child innocence. It is this lack that drives Dinah to return home with Sin, coupled with her own maternal instincts. Dinah wants to return the innocence that training to kill stole from Sin, but there’s an event horizon. No matter how much Dinah attempts to integrate Sin into daily, mundane life, she is forever to be influenced by her earliest formative teachings: the concept of taking another’s life, honor before all things. Unlike Billy’s tragic loss, Sin never had innocence except for her earliest formative years.

One could argue this is partially symptomatic of DC’s systematic darkening of their universe, most recently embodied in the explicit use of rape as a plot device in Identity Crisis. Yet, lest this be considered exclusive to the DC universe, one of Marvel’s biggest icons, Spider-Man, is a perfect example of the classic loss of innocence. Peter, always protected from hatred by his aunt and uncle, receives his powers by accident. Yet when he childishly uses, or chooses not to use, them for his own personal gain, he indirectly causes the death of the uncle, who had only had Peter’s interests in mind. In anger he, like Billy, chases down his uncle’s murderer and nearly takes his full step to adulthood, only holding back when he remembers the iconic phrase: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Each of these examples is tied together by three elements: Fantasy, reality in the form of death, and a subsequent a loss of innocence; in Sin’s case, they are reversed with death and loss of innocence before the fantasy. And given the real-life choice, who would chose these fates for a child? Superman barges straight in on Shazam in First Thunder, appalled by Shazam’s choice to essentially rob Billy of his innocence. “This is wrong. No boy should have the responsibility of the world on his shoulders. It is a fate chosen by men…He’s just a boy.” Stevie could have been blown away in a second, and people hail him as a hero. This kind of through process reflects a mentally immature standpoint, I feel. Stevie is a young child, not having yet developed the lines to see the difference between a fight on television and the barrel of a gun in front of his face.

To take the situation a step further, postulate the incident ended identical to that of Bruce Wayne. Stevie attempts to be a hero, but his attack leads to a slip of the trigger finger and his sister is shot. In shock, the robbers shoot the rest of the family and run, skipping Stevie. What kind of mental anguish is this going to create? Stevie was supposed to be a hero and scare off the bad guys, but his magic, his powers did nothing but indirectly cause death. As this is hypothetical, one couldn’t say if therapy might have helped Stevie deal with the situation. But there is the story of Bruce Wayne. While the mentally immature reaction to Batman is that he’s scary yet cool, if one examines his psyche it becomes apparent Bruce’s mental health is often questionable. Unlike other heroes who step outside, develop lives, Bruce Wayne is consumed by his mission and the guilt that always lurks in the back of his mind. To take a quote from the excellent series Batman Beyond, “Second, The voice kept calling me Bruce. That's not what I call myself.” Batman is always threatening to overtake and subsume Bruce Wayne fully. From a pure psychological standpoint, there is absolutely nothing healthy about living dominated by burdens of responsibility and guilt. But the immature mind doesn’t see this, only the so-called courage of blind childhood.

Also to consider is the essential element of the costume. Without it, there is no transformation into an idealized hero figure. Examine two quotes from pre-Criss Jason Todd: “I’m Robin, and being Robin gives me magic.” “Being Robin lets me take a shortcut to maturity.” While some of these statements’ naiveté can be chalked up to the relative absurdity of pre-Crisis Jason Todd, one cannot discount the meaning behind it. Is it the costume that transforms a relatively impulsive teen to maturity, or is he still a child, not fully understanding his role? Someone had to write these words, had to consider them accurate for a teenager. How much does being in the costume really change?

The most recent example of a costume creating an aura around a hero would be Misfit. While her origin is not fully understood, she has made clear attempts at fully taking on the Batgirl mantle. In putting on this costume, she attempts to remove herself from her life and take on that of another, transform herself into the first, iconic Batgirl. However, it is a simply a child playing the role of her elders. Misfit is easy for a reader to identify with in her desire to use her powers for good, but mentally immature. An ill-trained teenager attempting to stand alongside her elders, she wants the elders’ adoration and respect while craving the uninhibited, impulsive excitement of a teenager. Barbara knows and understands the feeling of wanting to be a hero, to be included among those ranks, but she also knows the price that comes with it: the Bat legacy of tragedy. Misfit knows no tragedy, and only when Barbara holds up both herself and Stephanie as examples is there any indication Misfit understands the gravity of what she is committing herself to. Even so, she continues with her determination, saying to Barbara as she leaves, “I promise to put the cape ‘n’ cowl away. Of course…I never said I would stop being a superhero.”

Considering her attitude, it will be interesting to see what Misfit will do with the power she has been given, especially so as it has been postulated Gail Simone created Misfit as a reader avatar. Robin was first created as a reader avatar for the average comic reader, a school-age child, to connect to the darker Batman. Yet given the tragedy each Robin has experienced, how well can a reader connect to being emotionally stunted by your guardian’s obsessions?

There are many other elements at play here, each one interesting as the last. Yet it comes down to the same issue. Why do adults with wisdom to know better willingly endanger relative children, or hold them up as heroes for foolhardy decisions? Comics are, after all, simply a fantasy world themselves, where very few of these situations could be replicated in the real world. Where then, for readers, does the line between fantasy and reality end?
(Anonymous) on December 6th, 2006 06:17 am (UTC)
Tim subsumes his grief over his mother’s death in stalking Batman and Robin,
canon note - unless there's been recent retcon this is wrong. The stalking was before the death.
(Anonymous) on December 6th, 2006 06:23 am (UTC)
also it fits your thing - trying to be Robin, then mother dies, then father dies. Mother maybe a coincidence, father definitely a consequence.
Changing social attitudes change the nature of Robin?
Oh, If Only  It Were Witty...: Hibiki - Keep Your Beatarionhunter on December 7th, 2006 03:11 am (UTC)
Thanks for catching that; I'll fix it now. Admittedly, I'm much more informed on the female side of the Bat family over the males, so I was working with a general idea and second-hand knowledge from friends.

And the idea of changing social attidues is interesting. I could defintely see it, considering how much the role of children has changed. In the 50s (I want to say that's when they brought out Robin), the amount of assumedly unintentional subtext was huge, yet it was generally treated as misinterpretation.
(Anonymous) on December 7th, 2006 11:24 pm (UTC)
IIRC, Robin appeared in 1940. I know I've heard fanwank about Batman being a fictional surrogate father to kids whose fathers were going off to war, since those kids were meant to identify with Robin, which, I guess, is another different kind of creepy.

cheshireempress, not logged in due to work.
Gummo Bergman's "Silent Strawberries"marginaliana on December 6th, 2006 06:18 pm (UTC)
Here via metafandom. This is a really powerful essay and while I am not in comics fandom, I think it is easily generalizeable to a wide variety of media with the child-hero trope. Lots to think about.