I’m downstairs taking care of the baby, and I’ve left my 4-year-old daughter, Eliza, in her room. I’m the only adult in the apartment, outnumbered. Eliza is in the awful liminal state of the new older sibling: Her special magic has been usurped, but she’s still too young to have any authority. The only thing she has gained is the freedom that comes with neglect. She decides to use it to explore the adult world behind her parents’ bedroom door.
Being able to open the door by herself is new; it feels like power. She climbs up on the huge bed and surveys the territory, and there on my nightstand she finds a small stack of books. Most of them are grown-up books with no pictures, impenetrable to her, but one is big and colorful and has someone she recognizes on the cover. And that’s how I come to find her 20 minutes later, sitting on my bed, reading Volume 2 of Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham’s Batman Incorporated.
She knew about comics already, from me. Eliza and I have read a lot of picture books together. Some were clever and some were lovely and some were tiresome, but all of them told stories with words and pictures, and eventually, from boredom, I got the idea to try reading comics with her. We started with some of Carl Barks’ great midcentury Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge stories.
As a comics fan of long standing, I had gotten used to defensively asserting that comics were not just for kids—the now-familiar argument that series like Watchmen and Love and Rockets possess the seriousness and complexity of literature. But it turns out that, whomever else they’re for, comics are for little kids. My daughter loved the characters and the old-fashioned adventure-story tropes—deep-sea diving! panning for gold! hunting for rare stamps!—but she also loved the fact that the stories were told in pictures. When I wasn’t reading Donald Duck with her, perhaps because I was showering or asleep, she would sit by herself and follow the stories from panel to panel. She was too young to make sense of the alphabet, but here were books that she could read! I loved reading Barks, and I loved being able to introduce her to something I cherished, and I loved watching her develop this form of literacy, and the whole thing made me feel like a terrific parent, until I found her reading Batman Incorporated.
Batman Incorporated is in some ways an exceptional superhero comic. Like all of Morrison’s work, it’s almost Modernist in its intricate system of references and its disregard for readerly comforts like exposition and linearity. From the perspective of an illiterate person such as my daughter, though, Batman Incorporated is exactly like every other superhero comic published since 1993: a series of lurid, grisly pictures in which men and women in skin-tight clothing subject one another to acts of violence.
“These comics are not for you,” I said. “These are grown-up comics.” I felt dumb saying it, since she recognized some of the characters from her preschool classmates’ backpacks.
“I like them,” she said. “I like Batman.”
I’ll admit that I was moved by this. Comics had been part of my identity since I was only slightly older than she is, and my attachment to them was as confident and thoughtless as hers. But recognizing oneself in one’s child is never an uncomplicated pleasure. I already knew that she had inherited my discomfort with my own ignorance, my tendency to pretend that I know more than I do, my anxiety in the face of the implacable adult world. Now she had found a book about Batman and thought, That’s Daddy’s and then I like that, and in so doing had affiliated herself with the story of a little boy in a world beset by madness and loss, who makes himself into the strongest and smartest man in the world and then goes around hitting people.
“There are superhero comics for kids,” I said, because there must be. “I’ll get you some.”
* * *
There are some superhero comics for kids. Every few years Marvel and DC take another shot at an “all-ages” line of comics, although such lines never last long because the comics industry is entirely organized around sales to adult hobbyists. The first one we got was a reprint of some Batman Adventures comics from 1992, inspired by the TV cartoons from the same period. It’s drawn in the cartoons’ appealing neo-Deco style instead of the stiff hyperrealism of most contemporary superheroics. The on-panel violence is mostly confined to fisticuffs. It’s not Carl Barks, but we enjoyed it.
Most of the stories revolve around members of Batman’s rogues’ gallery trying to steal jewels from museums. She liked learning who the villains were: That’s the Scarecrow, he wears a scarecrow costume and scares people. The only exception is “The Third Door,” a whodunit. The big reveal—the moment when Batman identifies friendly David Crenshaw as the murderer—hit my daughter pretty hard. “You mean he’s a bad guy?” she said with alarm. She asked to stop reading at that point. It turns out that a man who wears a scarecrow costume and scares people isn’t scary, but a bad guy who seems like a normal person is really scary.
A few days later, she asked if we could go back to “The Third Door.” We started over from the beginning. When David Crenshaw appeared, having a friendly chat with Bruce Wayne at a party, she pointed at him and smiled, as though she was letting me in on a secret. “He’s the bad guy,” she said.
Tiny Titans, a series by Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani that began in 2008, is also about superheroes, but it’s not a superhero comic. The Tiny Titans are little-kid versions of DC stalwarts the Teen Titans. Instead of fighting crime or saving the world, they attend elementary school and play freeze tag. The problem is that, although it eschews the narrative structures of the superhero genre, Tiny Titans recapitulates that genre’s narrow-minded continuity fetish: None of it makes any sense to a reader who lacks a working knowledge of Titans history.
The Titans sit in an elementary school classroom. The principal announces they’ll have a substitute teacher today. The sub walks in, and … it’s Deathstroke the Terminator! (He’s not named—you have to recognize him from his costume.) “This is so embarrassing!” says Rose Wilson, because Deathstroke is her father, as everyone knows, or at least everyone who’s read Teen Titans Volume 3 Issue 34, i.e., not my 4-year-old daughter. That’s the end of the story.
But my daughter loves it. She wants me to read it over and over. She asks me to explain the jokes, and the next time she makes a point of laughing, to show that she gets it. On the bus, apropos of nothing, she asks me if Speedy (Green Arrow’s sidekick, created by Mort Weisinger in 1941) has any powers. (He doesn’t, he’s just really good at shooting arrows.) She thinks this stuff is important—just like I used to, until it struck me what a weird kind of information it is to teach to one’s children.
A 4-year-old is just starting to realize how much she doesn’t know. Her mother and I have taught her the very first things, This is a square and You’re allowed to be mad at your baby brother but you’re not allowed to hit him, and left her to figure the rest out for herself. And now I’ve introduced her to the DC Comics universe, 80 years of secret identities and arch-nemeses, endless false detail about a fabricated world in which nothing happens but crime and crime-fighting, and for a child hungry for information it functions as a kind of cognitive narcotic, lighting up her brain’s centers of curiosity and comprehension without providing anything of value. I didn’t want to read Tiny Titans to her anymore.
So we tried one more: Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil by Jeff Smith, who’s better known for the massively popular fantasy series Bone. Shazam! is about Captain Marvel, a character who perfectly encapsulates the sordid history of the American comic book industry: a blatant rip-off of Superman, the subject of years of litigation, progenitor of assembly-line spinoffs like Captain Marvel Jr., Uncle Marvel, Hoppy the Marvel Bunny …
But in pop culture as in Darwinism, imperfect copies sometimes produce useful mutations. Captain Marvel has the same powers as Superman, more or less—he’s a big strong guy who flies. His unique selling proposition is his alter ego: He’s a 12-year-old boy who turns into an Übermensch when he says the magic word Shazam! (It’s an acronym for six mythical figures: He has the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, etc., etc.)
And so his female counterpart, Mary Marvel, is actually a little girl. Smith depicts her origin story in Monster Society of Evil. Mary gets struck by Captain Marvel’s magic lightning and blasted into a parked car 10 feet away. She emerges unscathed. “I think you should sit down,” Captain Marvel says. “You probably shouldn’t move until we make sure you’re all right.”
“I wonder …” says Mary, and in the next panel she’s hurtling straight up into the sky. She hovers there above the city. “Whoa,” she says. My daughter has asked me to read this sequence to her at least two dozen times. We sit down on the couch and she hands me the brightly colored book; we skip straight to Page 99 and watch the little girl touched by magic lightning, unhurt, suddenly wise and strong and powerful, soaring above the world.
See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.
Sign up for the Slate Book Review monthly newsletter.