Mindy Newell: Truth, Justice, And The American Way
I read John Ostrander’s column yesterday with interest. (I always read John’s columns and love them.) Then I went to the Wall Street Journal’s website and read Chuck Dixon and Paul Rivoche’s essay.
Well, John, to a certain extent I have to agree with Chuck and Paul. It’s one thing for us, as adults, to read comics with an adult slant – meaning moral ambiguity in both our heroes and our villains. But I do think that for younger readers, the children and pre-teens (and, I suppose, depending on their maturity, some teenagers), it’s important that the heroes do act ethically and morally. They (Superman, the X-Men, Captain Marvel, Batman, Green Arrow, Wonder Woman, Daredevil, et.al.) are, not to put too fine a point on it, cultural icons…and besides, all kids need heroes to look up to – with a sense of wonder, with awe, with a desire to “be just like him/her when I grow up.”
And when their heroes fall, children are upset; they don’t understand adult haziness, they live in a black-and-white world. I remember when Lawrence Taylor (of the New York Giants and considered the greatest linebacker in NFL history) was arrested for cocaine use. “L.T.” was one of Alixandra’s heroes, and when she heard the news – we were in the car listening to the radio – she said to me, “How could he do that, Mommy?” And in her voice there was confusion and hurt and the sound of her hero crumbling into dust.
And I was angry. At that moment I hated Lawrence Taylor. In one second he had destroyed a part of my daughter’s innocence. And I thought of all the other kids out there who had looked up to him and now, just like Alix, were asking their parents how and why and I bet those parents felt just like I did.
Now I am not one to hide the facts of life from children. I always tried to be as honest as I could be with my daughter when she asked any and all questions. And certainly, Alixandra, as a child of divorced parents, already knew that the world was not a bed of roses.
But I also believe that in a world that grows uglier by the minute – I just saw a statistic on MSNBC’s Up with Steve Koracki that there have been 74 school shootings since Newtown in 2012 – it’s more important than ever that kids have heroes.
It doesn’t matter if their heroes are fictional creations. Harry Potter, Buffy Summers, Katniss Everdeen, Percy Jackson, Matilda Wormwood, Lyra Belacqua and characters from the pages of books have captured the imagination of – and have served as inspirations to – children around the world. And it not as if their originators had fashioned perfect idols – all carry some resentment of being thrust into the hero’s role, but all also rise above their individual desires and accept the responsibility that fate has thrust upon them. Harry Potter realizes it is up to him alone to conquer Voldemort. Katniss Everdeen faces up to her leadership of the rebellion against Panem. And Buffy Summers comes to understand that “death is my gift” in her fight to save her sister and the world from the god known as Glory.
The writer has the responsibility to know his or her audience, to know for whom s/he is writing. As the cast of Buffy got older, and as the fans of the show aged along with them, Joss Whedon allowed the stories to become more complicated, to reflect the journey into adulthood that the characters, and the fans, were experiencing. Whedon also did this when he spun off Angel from Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Aiming for a more mature (read: adult) audience, the show nuanced both the main character and its perspective; there was less black-and-white, and a lot more grayness, especially as the show progressed through its five seasons. On Buffy having a soul equaled good, not having a soul equaled bad – but on Angel, having a soul didn’t necessarily make the vampire “good” – in fact, as the show progressed, Angel’s goodness became more and more a matter of degrees, became more “adultly” ambiguous. The support cast, Cordelia and Gunn and Wesley (especially Wesley!!) and the others also shifted from simple classifications to complex characterizations.
As a writer I have always been aware for whom I’m writing. I like to write for what the publishing industry calls “YA,” or the young adult market – teenagers and those in their early twenties. Certainly I have written my share of “dark” stories – in fact, that’s where my story inclinations tend to take me – but I’ve always tried to put something in there that indicates hope, even if it’s only a sliver of light, i.e., the characters have progressed to a better place. In what I think is my blackest tale (Lois Lane: When It Rains, God is Crying), a story of child abuse, abduction, and murder, and one in which there is no “happy ending,” Lois learned to let down the walls she had built around herself, learned to let her friends and family in. And in Catwoman: My Sister’s Keeper, Selena’s “sister,” the child prostitute Holly, is taken off the streets and into in locos parentis custody by Selena’s real sister.
But I’ve also written stories for younger people in which heroes have no feet of clay. One such story was “With Love, From Superman, a back-up in Action Comics Vol. 1, No. 566 (April, 1985). In the story, preteen Molly Richards wants Superman’s autograph and dreams that she is Supergirl and Lois Lane – until the real Superman shows up to give her a surprise.
Of course I get that the world has changed drastically even in the short time since Alix was a child. Today’s kids are inundated with 24-hour news and factoids on the television and on the web; even when their parents do their best to shield them, their children will still hear about something at school or at their friends’ houses – it just seeps into the zeitgeist. I get that the parents have to talk to their children about things that are ugly and scary and way too “grown-up” for them…
I just believe that it’s incredibly important to keep “once upon a time,” along with “truth, justice, and the American way,” in the mix, for as long as possible.
There’s plenty of time for the corruption of their values.