"I would love if DC Superhero Girls were really alive." "Why?" "Because I really like them. I'm their biggest faaAaaAan."
Over the past few months, my daughter surprised me. When I went to San Diego for Comic-Con, her superhero fascination had cooled. Sure, she was inhaling as much Teen Titans Go! as various streaming services could serve up, falling in love with the comedic shenanigans of DC Comics' young superhero team. I'd expected her to keep on talking about Robin's temperamental blow-ups, imitating Starfire, or singing the show's songs about leg workouts and snack foods. When I got back home from California, she proudly said, "Guess what?! I like DC Superhero Girls now!"
In her mind, the Starfire, Cyborg and Beast Boy on DC Superhero Girls are the same ones as on Teen Titans Go!. But she's also able to call out how they look different and fight bad guys in a different context on the different shows. That's also true of her experiences with the clips from the older Teen Titans cartoon and comics that she's seen and read.
So what is it about her engagement with these shows that makes me think she's following in my nerdy footsteps? Couldn't she just be a kid who likes Raven, Star Sapphire and Kid Flash in the same way that she watches Elena of Avalor, Princess Sofia or Shopkins? For some reason, her engagement with superhero-centric material is different. My daughter parses things to peel away questions about plot twists and data points. For example, she doesn't go quoting chapter-and-verse from the Big Book of Boo-Boos to recall which toy suffered a specific ailment on Doc McStuffins. But, when she first saw the "Orangins" episode of Teen Titans Go!, she recited the mixed-up origin stories and was able to tell me that Raven's getting-powers story was an homage to Spider-Man's.
She's in Year One and, at this point, I suspect that giving her a bunch of comics from the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s would lead to more explanations than entertainment. But she continues to be hungry for lore. The other day, with no preamble or context, she blurted out, "Anyone can be Batman. Anyone without powers, a human can be [Batman]. But not, like, Supergirl." She'll periodically ask me who's the Black Widow's greatest enemy (her phrasing), how fast the Flash can run around the world, or if the Hulk can lift a whole skyscraper over his head.
My kid knows that, depending on the story, Poison Ivy can be either a good guy or a bad guy. (Or she can wind up with a horrifying fate at the end of a children's book, as in the picture below.)
Grimmer and grittier than anything from the late '80s. Image: DC Comics/Golden Books.
We've made up plenty of bathtime adventures featuring Aquaman, Aquagirl and Tempest, and she gets that all these characters are simply meant to move through stories. I feel a swell of pride when she remembers Tempest's powers and comes up with clever ways for him to use them to save the day.
She's understanding these characters and their multivalent existences with a lot more flexibility than I did as a younger nerd.
Part of that is because the fandom I grew up in was more embattled. My generation and those that preceded it got teased for reading comics or enjoying video games, and a defensive reflex grew up in reaction to that. For decades, there've been several cycles of fans and pros wanting superhero characters and nerd culture to be "taken seriously", and that's affected discourse and engagement. It's the reason that Batman's many cinematic iterations — with the exception of the LEGO versions — have been predicated on the brooding aspects of the character. Those Bruce Waynes are "serious" in a way that Adam West's "Bright Knight" Batman wasn't.
You even see that reflex around Teen Titans Go!, which gets bagged on by fans who have fond memories of the less goofy Teen Titans show that came before it. To be totally honest, my nostalgia for the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited cartoons created some wariness on my part for Justice League Action. But then I saw these clips while trawling YouTube...
…and I can't hate on that stuff at all.
Like Teen Titans Go!, Justice League Action leans more toward comedy than its predecessors. But my daughter's experiences have led me think about the shift in tone in a different way. When I was in my late teens and early 20s, a preponderance of superhero entertainment was impossible to imagine. Cape comics' constant struggle for marketplace survival and artistic validation always made it seem like superhero fare would just disappear one day.
I watched a clip of LEGO Marvel Super Heroes: Avengers Reassembled with my daughter the other day and it dawned on me: This is what happens after that collective anxiety over extinction subsides. We're in a era of plenitude now. The party-dude Cyborg on the animated shows is, unintentionally, a symbol of that shift. This Victor Stone doesn't have any angst over whether he's still human or not, making him way better than the mopey iteration I grew up with. He simply revels in his hybrid existence, talks trash, and kicks butt.
As I've gotten older, I've become less interested in what the "real version" of a character is. There may be interpretations of, say, Superman that I strongly dislike, but watching my daughter's burgeoning fandom has helped drive home an idea that I've always enjoyed about superhero fare. There's likely another version of Superman out there that's just right for me, for her, for almost anyone. And if there isn't one, she can make up one in her head that works for her. My biggest hope for her is the hope I had for myself, that she can grow up in a fandom that doesn't tear itself in half when a black man becomes Captain America, a woman lifts Mjolnir, or a Korean-American teenager transforms into the Hulk.