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.