We walked into the comic-book store a block and a half from the beach, the seven-year-old and I, as we’ve been doing for three or four years now. The child headed toward the trade paperbacks of Marvel and D.C. superhero titles on the side wall, leading the way, a few steps in front of me.
Is he with you? a clerk asked me. I said he was. You know, the clerk said, we have a kids’ section. The clerk gestured backward, at a few shelves near the entrance. I said, Thanks, we know and tried throwing in a little shrug, as the kid kept going.
You can’t just turn a seven-year-old child loose in a comic-book store to look at the superhero comic books. Just like I couldn’t take him to the last big Avengers movie, to see which of his favorite heroes might have gotten un-murdered, after they got murdered in the big Avengers movie before that, which I also couldn’t take him to. My seven-year-old really wanted to see that last Avengers movie, and he really wanted not to see it; that is, he wished it were a movie he could see, but he understood that it was, instead, a movie designed to scare and sadden him—a movie actively hostile to people like him.
I loved superheroes when I was his age. Now I’ve gone back to reading and watching superhero material to keep him company. The only problem is that the superhero industry hates children. It’s the most childish thing about the genre—not the musclebound people in tights, but the insistence that the musclebound people in tights should be grim and mature.
Comic books—and, maybe worse yet, comic-book movies—are caught in a trap where phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny, trapped in their imagined audience’s own awful passage from childhood to adolescence. A seven-year-old has a clean, first-order appreciation of superheroes. They like hero comics because the comics have heroes: bold, strong, vividly colored good guys to fight off the bad guys and make the world safe.
But seven-year-olds stop being seven. Like so many mild-mannered scientists, they are bombarded with culture and hormones until a fearsome transformation overcomes them. They become 13-year-olds, defensively trying to learn how to develop tastes about tastes.
The 13-year-old wants many things from comics, but the overarching one is that they want to prove that they’re not some seven-year-old baby anymore. They want gloomy heroes, miserable heroes, heroes who would make a seven-year-old feel bad. (Also boobs. They want boobs.) They want friends turning against friends, girlfriends dead in fridges, bad feelings piled on bad feelings in ever-more-apocalyptic plot lines. They want Spider-Man weeping and begging for his life before being annihilated, along with half the life in the universe, in the culmination of dozens of hours of cinematic world-building.
Or they think they want these things. And the seven-year-olds, or the adults who want to share with seven-year-olds, are stuck with this stunted impersonation of grownup sensibilities.
A few birthdays ago, the kid who’s now seven got two sets of action figures, each packaged with a reprinted Marvel comic book. The figures of Spider-Man and the Rhino came with a 1966 Spider-Man comic in which Spider-Man meets, fights, and defeats the Rhino; participates in a running argument between John Jameson and J. Jonah Jameson about his heroism; buys a motorcycle; breaks up with his first girlfriend, Betty Brant; flirts with Gwen Stacy; and reluctantly agrees to let Aunt May take him to meet her friend Mrs. Watson’s niece, Mary Jane.
The figures of Thor and Iron Man came with a 21st century comic book in which Thor, brooding in a Katrina-destroyed New Orleans, beats up Iron Man. He also yells at Iron Man a lot about some incomprehensibly convoluted set of grievances, including involuntary cloning, that he believes Iron Man perpetrated against him while he was dead(?), and then summons some other Norse god from the beyond somehow for reasons having something to do with real estate. I think. Where the 1966 comic is zippy and fun and complete, the whole contemporary one is muddled and lugubrious and seems to constitute a tiny piece of a seemingly endless plot arc—simultaneously apocalyptic and inert. At least the action figures were good, although Thor’s hammer got lost right away.
Suffering and death are no great discovery. The old comic books had death right up front, too: Uncle Ben Parker, Thomas and Martha Wayne, the entire population of the planet Krypton. It is the organizing fact of the superhero’s existence. The superhero is the alternative to it. Wallowing in death isn’t a sophisticated leap beyond the superhero concept; it’s the failure to imagine what it means not to die.
This was my favorite joke, or thread of jokes, woven into Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the superhero movie I could and did happily take the children to see. Miles Morales, the new Spider-Man, was who the seven-year-old loved most, but my hero was his underachieving, middle-aged interdimensional mentor, Peter B. Parker—my own childhood Spider-Man, all grown up, the worn-out recipient of decades’ worth of personal and emotional damage. The high-key gag was that he had to schlub around in sweatpants over his tights, to cope with his softening body, but the low-key gag was that he also just wandered around with a jacket flapping open over his Spider-Man shirt, because nobody would believe this guy had any superhero identity to protect.
Outside the Spider-Verse, the most effective antidote to this misery that we ever found wasn’t in the kids’ section of the comics shop. It was a title called Batman ’66, which started five years ago and ran through five collected volumes, now followed by assorted spinoffs and crossovers. The premise is that the stories exist in the world of the old Adam West Batman TV series—the goofy, brightly-colored BIFF! POW! universe, where Batman isn’t a grim and despairing vigilante but an optimistic crimefighter, using his wits and gadgets, and the help of Robin, the Boy Wonder, to protect the good citizens of Gotham City from a rotating cast of bombastic supervillains.
Like the TV series itself, Batman ’66 is written with a carefully considered corniness, the kind of gee-whiz kid stuff that only adult craft can produce. The gags are precisely timed; the dialogue holds up under repeat readings; the story lines unfold on a coherent level of ridiculousness. Nobody dies, even in the most elaborately crafted deathtraps, and the heroes win in the end.
Who is too old for this? Keeping Batman square and idealistic, when teenage visions of mature content rule the marketplace, is the real heroism. At one point, the series even confronts the alternative head-on: Batman and Robin are dismayed by the appearance of a new television show, in gritty black and white, called The Dark Knight Detective, in which a brutal Batman terrorizes criminals by “giving them the Bat-Business.” The show is a hit, but it’s really a ruse by the villain False Face to draw out the Dynamic Duo, by cynically undermining their public image, so he can try to kill them on live TV. The plot fails, as all plots fail, foiled by good clean fisticuffs.
A television show—the old-fashioned one-story-a-week kind, not the prestige kind—understood what the old comic books understood: that this world goes on indefinitely, episode after episode, without needing to artificially heighten the stakes or appeal to some larger, more serious storyline. There would always be crime, and it would always require a crimefighter. Same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel.