I’d been waiting years for my daughter to show an organic interest in superheroes, video games and the other stuff I write about as a professional nerd. It’s happening, at long last… but it’s taking us to some unexpectedly poignant places.
It started, unsurprisingly, with Batman. While getting ready for bed more than a month ago, my six-year-old excitedly told me about hearing the “Batman smells” variant of “Jingle Bells”. A few nights later, she giggled through a version that ended with “and Robin does ballet!” and asked me why, in the song, the Joker got away. When I repeated the lyrics about the Batmobile losing a wheel, she responded by saying, “Couldn’t Batman just fly and catch him?” I answered that while Batman is an “incomparable athlete” (per the old DC Who’s Who entries), he’s still a normal human who doesn’t have superpowers. That led to a discussion of Superman, his origin story and powers and, ever since then, her questions about any and all superheroes have been a part of our nighttime routine.
My daughter always wants to know two things about Marvel and DC’s most recognisable characters: Where they come from and what they can do. She’s seen some cartoons at school that have featured the Justice League and some of the characters have gotten all mashed up in her brain; I’ve been painstakingly trying to separate the Martian Manhunter from Green Lantern. The Flash is a standout for her — she got the coolness of his superspeed immediately. I had to disabuse her of the notion that Iron Man comes from another planet, as well as differentiating that Thor is a different kind of god than the one people pray to in church. These superhero sessions come as I’m figuring out my own work in the genre and have been good reminders about the primal emotional energy that these characters can tap into.
As I’ve been recounting the backgrounds and power sets of all these crimefighters, I’ve had to frantically figure out just how much origin story trauma to recount. She’s a sensitive kid and any kind of dramatic tension can wig her out. Fast-forwarding past the scary parts of Frozen and other movies has been a frequent request. But I’ve not excised the destruction of Krypton or the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents from my answers to her questions. Two days ago, we revisited the Free Comic Book Day issue of DC Superhero Girls, which has a flashback to Supergirl’s high school days on Krypton. My daughter asked, “But where’s her mum now?” and my heart broke a little as I reminded her that everybody on Krypton died. (Please, no corrections about Argo City. I wasn’t about to get into all that.) It’s my job to let her know that evil and tragedy exist in both our imaginations and the real world, as much as I’d like to tell her otherwise.
She’s been learning those lessons in a very different way at school. Last week, she came home asking, “Are those bad people still around? Are they in Texas?” This came out of nowhere so I prodded her to figure out exactly what she was talking about, eventually learning that it connected to “the man who gave us no school on Monday”. I stammered through a few age-appropriate examples about the kinds of injustice that Dr Martin Luther King, Jr fought against and how his arrests meant something different than when the police take bad guys to gaol for stealing stuff. I then explained, as best I could, how things were very different for black people in America a long time ago and we couldn’t go everywhere we wanted and do the same things as everyone else because of some bad laws.
One thing that’s wondrous and mystifying about children’s brains is the way that they keep churning away quietly on ideas. After we talked about Rev King, she had one of her signature non-sequitur follow-ups: “Why did the bad people kill Martin Luther King, Jr’s parents?” I didn’t mention anything like that to her in my carefully worded talks and was flummoxed as to where she got that notion from. It wasn’t until hours later that I realised she was conflating our discussions about MLK with the superhero origin stuff, imprinting Batman’s childhood loss on the civil rights activist.
It makes sense in a way, seeing as how she’s a kindergartner with broad notions of good and evil. She has a fair sense of what’s real and what’s pretend but, nevertheless, she knows that the dangers faced by King and the ordinary men and women who fought for civil rights happened in the same world we live in. “Was Ms Rosa Parks scared when she decided to sit in the front of the bus?” she asked me. “Everybody gets scared. Even Supergirl got scared of taking her Finals tests in that comic book, right?” I replied. She answered by saying, “Yeah, but she learned that she had to be brave because doing her Finals was the right thing to do.”
All childhood fascinations wax and wane so I’m trying to enjoy this moment of intense superhero curiosity while it lasts because it plays to my obvious strengths. But, more important than that, I’m hoping that our talks over the last week are teaching my daughter about the different kinds of personal bravery that have made real people into superheroes. She knows that she’s not going to get bitten by a “special” spider and get Peter Parker’s powers. I just want her to also know that she can be just like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.