Superdads — Fatherhood in Superhero Comics

The 1st of September is Father’s Day in Australia. While I find it weird that we placed it so far away from the rest of the world’s usual date, it is what it is. So, in honour of Father’s Day, I want to take a look at fatherhood in superhero comics.

The idea of characters being “aged” by younger characters around them is a concern of the comics industry. Indeed, a lot has been done to ensure that characters like Spider-Man and Batman remain at a vague age where they can be considered at least somewhat young. Many in the industry have spoken out against allowing characters to grow and age, in fear that this would also age their paternal figures — the most recent example I can recall would be X-Men editor Jordan D. White mentioning that the younger X-Men cannot be allowed to age, as this would make the core group of Cyclops, Wolverine, Rogue and the like older. I think this fundamentally misunderstands superhero comics and their appeal, the stories they can tell and some of the best works in the superhero genre, and how children are vehicles for further development of characters. While comics like Saga and Birthright have excellent portrayals of parenthood, superhero comics lend a greater weight to everyday struggles, to everyday emotions and relationships.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll be looking at specific characters and specific runs on those characters (to a degree). This is just meant to look at the different kinds of fatherhood presented in superhero comics, while focusing on specific works where possible. Anyway, let’s have a look at our superdads.

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Eddie and Dylan Brock

Donny Cates’ Venom run is an excellent run that has done wonders for the characters. But one aspect of it that I don’t think gets enough respect is how well Donny Cates writes relationships. Cates hones in on the abusive nature of the relationship between Eddie and the Venom symbiote, which is excellent, but he also introduced the character of Dylan Brock, the son of Eddie Brock and Anne Weying. While Dylan, at the moment, doesn’t know he’s Eddie’s son — he thinks Eddie is his half-brother — the relationship, combined with Eddie’s “break-up” with the symbiote, is a great portrayal of a single father wrestling with his own demons and making himself better for his child.

Dylan is the son of Anne Weying and Eddie Brock… somehow. He was secretly born after she bonded to the Venom symbiote, with Anne leaving the baby Dylan with Eddie’s father, Carl. She made him promise to not tell Eddie about the boy and said she’d return to raise Dylan, but would end up committing suicide. In the wake of the revelation that the symbiote has been altering Eddie’s memories and implanting fake ones, it leaves Eddie and Dylan, and Eddie is, for the first time in a long time, on his own. But he also learned that Dylan is his son and decides to take care of him. The result is a situation where a troubled man has just left an abusive relationship and now has to take care of his son while wrestling with his own anger lest he become like his abusive father.

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Keep in mind: Eddie doesn’t even have the symbiote at this point as an excuse for his anger.

With what Donny Cates has established in his Venom run, with the looming threat of Knull, Eddie’s relationship with his symbiote and his past with his father, Dylan is in the perfect place to play off all of that and give Eddie a reason to grow as a person. Dylan’s strange birth ties into the symbiotes and thus their god Knull, while Eddie’s need to be a father allows Cates to explore Eddie’s anger and relationship with Carl. It’s all interesting and taps into that idea that a son is a vehicle for the parent’s character growth and self-exploration.

Where this one goes, I don’t know. Dylan’s nature is no doubt going to be important to Absolute Carnage, and I have a feeling like Dylan won’t survive past Cates’ run. But I hope he does, because he’s a good tool for writers to use for actually developing Eddie Brock in natural ways without shocking changes to his character.

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Bruce and Damian Wayne

Peter J. Tomasi seems to have a particular fondness for incorporating themes of fatherhood into his work. While all of his work is humanistic and emotionally resonant, his most well-known and acclaimed works involve larger than life characters acting as paternal figures. I’m of course referring to Batman and Robin and Superman, two runs by Tomasi that humanised otherwise mythical, stoic figures into caring, nurturing fathers and established relationships that have resonated with fans. While Tomasi didn’t create Damian Wayne, the son of Bruce Wayne and Talia al Ghul, he certainly has defined the character. With Batman and Robin, Tomasi focused on Bruce and Damian learning to be complete people.

The journey is tumultuous and isn’t easy because neither of the two is especially open or sentimental. Damian’s view of Bruce is of a mythological figure, a great hero only told of in stories — literally, his mother Talia told him stories about Batman — while Bruce views Damian in terms of his skills and appetite for violence, as a violent Robin he needs to train. However, a toxic influence enters their lives in the form of Nobody, who is all too eager to encourage Damian’s darker tendencies and undo the work that Bruce, Alfred Pennyworth and Dick Grayson have done in undoing Talia’s abusive parenting. However, eventually, Damian and Bruce come to terms with the idea that Damian is trying his best, even if he doesn’t show it at times… which is hard with Damian outright killing Nobody at one point. However, Damian does grow more comfortable with being a child, represented by him lowering his guard when he sleeps, from grabbing his father when Bruce approaches him to allowing himself to fall asleep at ease.

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This is infinitely more satisfying than it looks.

Eventually, a spanner is thrown in the works — Damian’s death. Once Damian died in Grant Morrison’s Batman, Incorporated, the Batman and Robin title, strangely enough, truly hit its stride. Bruce’s journey through the stages of grief is an amazing piece of writing that incorporates the Bat-family in the best ways and allows Tomasi to depict how each person relates to Bruce. Tim tries to get him to move past things but too soon, Jason’s unstable relationship with Bruce and troubled history causes the two to come to blows, Barbara — someone who joined the family without his permission — fittingly has her own problems and projects them onto the situation and Catwoman is there as a shoulder for him to lean on and a bit of an escape. But, of course, when the “Requiem for Damian” story began, everyone knew that it would be Dick Grayson who would bring Bruce back from the brink while making it clear that Damian wasn’t only Bruce Wayne’s son, but Batman’s. While Bruce’s journey with Damian had been about becoming more human, about distancing the idea of Batman and Robin from Bruce and Damian, int he end he is able to reconcile the two halves of his life.

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Just in case there was any doubt in your mind that Dick Grayson is the best Robin.

Then Damian would be resurrected and his relationship with Bruce has since been a stable one, and I feel like going back on any of Tomasi’s work is a real disservice to both Tomasi himself and the characters. Damian has since maintained his role as Robin, but probably will eventually gain another identity once the need for a new, fresh Robin arises. Honestly, with how well Tomasi has developed him and used him to develop Bruce, I think Damian has filled his role as Robin quicker than any other Robin, and it’s high time we see what comes next for Damian and his father.

Oh, and yeah, for the purposes of this post, I’m only going to have one Robin. Otherwise this would just be a lot of Bat-stuff.

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Clark and Jon Kent

While Batman’s journey as a father was concerned with his learning to be more complete, human and patient with Damian, Tomasi’s work on Superman was focused almost exclusively on Jonathan Kent growing up to embody the values that his father does — after discovering himself a bit, of course. But Clark Kent does get one big hurdle — he needs to allow his son to be Superboy.

Peter J. Tomasi is once again the main architect here, focusing on the Kents as a family not unlike any other. There’s just more punching and flying than usual. Jon is an innocent, idealistic kid who is eventually confronted with the more complex parts of Superman’s life, such as not hurting his enemies and keeping a secret identity. Tomasi doesn’t go to deep into this, probably in part because his run was cut short, but it’s an interesting idea, while Clark’s thing is mostly being overprotective.

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All this potential doesn’t go anywhere, sadly.

The hurdles that Clark faces as a father comes from outside forces. Clark has to deal with Jon’s powers malfunctioning which could’ve been very interesting, but this ended up just being because of Manchester Black. Black does a good job playing the corrupter to Jon, but the overtly… superhero nature of it prevents it from really being applicable to general parenting, given the mind control and power-altering drugs. I mentioned that Jon had to deal with not hurting his enemies, and here he seemed to be butting heads with his dad — I think this would’ve been an excellent way to get Black to have a real influence on Jon, as someone who pushes him to do what Black himself wants (possibly as a callback to Black’s first appearance)… alas, that didn’t happen.

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Neither does this.

Other than Black, some other characters become a big part of Jon’s life, but these relationships aren’t very complex. Damian plays a good role as “that friend my parents don’t like”, but not much focus is put on it, aside from a crossover where a future with Damian Wayne as Batman somehow resulted in Jon killing himself and millions of people… something that’s swept under the rug once said crossover is done. Kathy Brandon is Jon’s girl-next-door and there’s more to her than meets the eye… but the Kents never have anything but affection for her (although Lois does have a good moment when Jon turns down hanging out with her). In the end, Tomasi’s Superman run was just about the Kents… being a family. They didn’t have too much upheaval in their lives and it’s strangely wholesome, if a bit lacking at times. Jon Kent is the boy who has his adventures, punches bad guys and hangs out with his friends before going home to a stable mum and dad who tuck him in at night. The biggest hurdle really was just Clark and Jon deciding to work together.

And then Bendis had Jor-El return to be a bit of a weird grandpa, but it was extremely out of character for anyone to even trust him by that point. And then Jon was aged up to be a teenager and we missed all that potential development because Bendis wanted him to be a teenager in the Legion of Super-Heroes. Time will tell if this was worth it, but I can only lament what we could’ve had and the missed opportunities of Tomasi’s Superman run.

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Alfred Pennyworth and Bruce Wayne

Of all of Batman’s relationships, and he has a lot, I think the most important one is with Alfred Pennyworth. After the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne, Alfred essentially became Bruce’s father. Really, some of the best Batman moments are ones where the father-son nature of their relationship is acknowledged. For decades Alfred has taken care of Bruce and been there for him emotionally and physically, being Bruce’s closest confidante and the one who patches him up after a long night of punching poor people. Alfred’s role is just that — he is the best example of a paternal figure supporting character.

While the other relationships on this list are biological, Alfred isn’t even legally Bruce’s adopted father (I think). However, even Bruce recognises Alfred as his father, and it’s never not a great moment when he openly acknowledges this. Alfred truly is the archetypical paternal figure in fiction. In steep contrast to the other fathers on this list, Alfred isn’t the main character of the story — he’s a supporting character, the father the protagonist turns to, and that’s what makes him great. He doesn’t really develop, his character revolves around Bruce, but he’s an authority for even someone like Batman and is often a source for emotional scenes. He is a constant who — like Clark for Jon — is there for Bruce after a long day. But more than that, he’s there for when Bruce goes too far, when Bruce is grieving and when he needs warmth.

This is a role Alfred has played for decades to numerous characters, but I think it is most important for Bruce. While some stories claim that Dick Grayson is the one who provided light in Bruce’s life and is the heart of the Bat-family, I think Alfred deserves an equal share of that role. I can’t even specify which writers really focus on this, because the idea of Alfred being a fatherly presence in Bruce’s life is just a firm part of the mythos by this point. However, if I had to pick a writer who’s done this really well, I’d again point to Peter J. Tomasi, who wrote the excellent Alfred scenes in Batman and the Outsiders.

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I cry every time I read this.

It speaks wonders that Alfred is still around and actually still feels interesting without DC cosntantly retreading ground with his character — such as with Aunt May for example — with writers instead trying new ideas, such as when Bruce was amnesiac in the aftermath of “Endgame”.  The nature of his character means there are rarely any long-term arcs for him, but as it stands, I’m fine with that. Just a strong moment here and there is enough for Alfred.

All of that said, Alfred is currently dead in the DC Universe. In Tom King’s Batman run, as a way to punish Damian for breaking his rules, Bane snaps Alfred’s neck. I in no way think it will last, not least of which because it is not given that much gravitas, but I figured I should mention it. Oh, but if it’s not undone by, like, the end of the year just assume I’m crying.

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Reed, Franklin and Valeria Richards

Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four run is a run that expertly blends high-concept sci-fi with sentimental family moments, and the character undoubtedly focused on the most is Reed Richards. Reed Richards’ relationship with his children is the emotional core of Hickman’s Fantastic Four run and is what gives it some of its most powerful moments. While Sue, Ben and Johnny play their parts, this is about fatherhood, and so I’m focusing on Reed and how he finds balance in his pragmatism and humanity through his children.

At the beginning of Hickman’s run, Reed is faced with a choice: Join the Multiversal Council of Reeds and help save the multiverse, or reject their offer in order to be a family man. Reed has been told that every Reed Richards in the multiverse eventually joins the Council after finding their way to them — strangely enough, the Maker (Ultimate Reed Richards) does not ever seem to find the Council, which is a missed opportunity — and that the price is the loss of their families. In one Reed’s words: Reed will work too much and love too little. In the end, Reed picks his family over the Council in a powerful, heartwarming moment that hits home who Reed really is.

During Hickman’s run, Franklin Richards feels disconnected from his father because of their clashing interests compared to Reed and Valeria — who is just as intelligent as her father, if not more so — who we frequently see talking science. Meanwhile, Franklin is often neglected while Reed faces the raising stakes of Hickman’s run, ironically putting Reed in the same position as what the Council had done; if Valeria represents Reed’s scientific side and pragmatism, Franklin represents his humanity and sense of family. That he allows Valeria increasing control after the death of Johnny Storm speaks volumes of what that did to him, while Franklin is neglected even more. However, in the end, in a really powerful moment that was built towards expertly, we find that Franklin’s imagination and heroism are much closer to his father than the amoral Valeria and her pragmatism — Valeria, in a heart-wrenching scene, reinforces her belief that Reed made the wrong choice with the Council. While on the surface Valeria is more obviously Reed’s daughter, she’s the daughter that other Reeds would want, while Franklin has the imagination and altruism that is key to his father’s success.

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This is heartbreaking.

I think Reed’s disappointment in Valeria’s statement and decision to spend more time with Franklin — not necessarily picking him over his daughter, just not neglecting him as much — is where he realised who he was becoming and how to change for the better. While he doesn’t throw away his scientific side, he’s more willing to embrace humanity and his family after the events of Hickman’s run have put him through the ringer. I think Franklin and Val perfectly encompass the inner struggle that Reed faces between science and the greater good, and humanity and heart. His children are two sides to him and rather than pick a favourite, he loves them both in his own way and embraces both sides of himself equally.

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This moment is worth the set-up from… like, 40 issues ago.

Reed and Franklin would go on to do amazing things for the multiverse after Secret Wars (2015). It was a touching conclusion to their story, at least for the moment, where Reed is able to bond with his family while embracing science. I wish Val was given a better scene with her father, but Secret Wars was already overstuffed. For what it was, it was a fitting end to the Fantastic Four, at least for the moment.

Dan Slott would eventually undo pretty much all of Secret Wars (2015)‘s ending, while aging up Franklin and Val. I actually like the aging up, however, since a more hormonal Valeria has done a good job of letting her grow out of pure pragmatism and almost sociopathic tendencies. Said pragmatism has been heavily toned down which would have been nice to see come about on the page, but maybe we’ll see how/if her parents were involved in her change in attitude, because it’s a story that deserves to be told.

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