I. Shoot For the Star(fire)s
My daughter loves comics. As I write this she's reading from The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes, out loud. I gave her her first comic, Tiny Titans and I've continued to buy comics for her like Fairy Quest, Fiona and Cake and Princeless. For the most part, I've played it safe, positive age-appropriate female characters from things she knows (cartoons) and loves (fairy tales). Now, things are changing.
I'm a believer in coincidence-spotting — those moments when you make a half or maybe three-quarter turn, crane your neck, pin your eyes to the heavens and ask: "Is this some kind of sign?" I might put it off to paranoia. Should I? No (?), for now, let's say these coincidences are innocent (and coincidental), however; the cumulative effect brought me here … so there's that.
The first coincidence happens when my daughter was watching Teen Titans Go! on Cartoon Network. She had discovered the show on her own; no doubt from the ads CN tacks onto the end of its other programming like Adventure Time and Regular Show, two of her favorites. She was digging Teen Titans Go! laughing and mimicking the character's voices and actions and then she asks me two questions:
Daughter: Dad, can I ask you a question?
Daughter: Next time you go to the comic shop, can you get me a comic with Starfire in it?
I think my initial response was, "well" followed by a long pause as, desperate, I tried to explain why the Starfire she was watching looks a lot different from the Starfire who stars in the comic. So I defer, I take the coward's (?) way out and say I would see what I could do.
Different audience, different Starfire, I get it. And yet, where does a young girl (a young consumer) turn when she watches a cartoon based on superheroes and wants more of her favorite character?
The second coincidence happens while I listen to a report on the radio about Girls on the Run, a nation-wide non-profit prevention program that encourages pre-teen girls through running. My daughter is enrolled in the program. The reporter says: "at age ten, body image starts to become all-consuming for girls and studies show it's when many girls begin to view their self-worth in terms of their sex appeal." My daughter is nine.
The last occurs when I read the feature in the New York Times about Karen Berger's departure from Vertigo. In reference to how Vertigo (now) fits into DC, Dan DiDio, DC Comics co-publisher, talks about "being more profitable" and how "servicing a very small slice of our audience" would be "myopic." DiDio adds: "We have to shoot for the stars with whatever we're doing. Because what we're trying to do is reach the biggest audience and be as successful as possible."
The haughty cynic in me says, "DiDio's definition of "biggest audience" doesn't seem to include nine-year-old girls or their (nearly) forty-year-old fathers." To be fair DiDio was addressing Vertigo and accurate or not, my response is a dead end, not to mention, my daughter is going to continue to watch (to consume) Teen Titans Go!. Point DC, its parent company and their subsidiaries.
So, a nine-year-old girl on the cusp of anxiety about body image who loves comics and wants to read more discovers a superhero — who a year-and-a-half ago became the epitome of the male gaze. This unfortunate girl's overbearing or weak-willed (take your pick) father is unsure of how to proceed. So what? A first-world problem to be sure, I'm aware. TV, toys and just about everything makes parents feel like there are a lot of wolves in the woods, a lot of things to confuse and confound as their daughters and sons begin to move through life.
One of the "joys of parenting" is getting to take part in your kid's life, their games, their play and their fickle pursuits. So when one of my daughter's interests happens to intersect with one of mine, I choose to cherish it, if for no other (selfish?) reason than because my daughter's interest in comic books and/or superheroes (I assure you) is fleeting.
As a dyed-in-the-wool fan of creator-owned comics even I happily admit mainstream superheroes are (perhaps) the fastest delivery system to get kids interested in comics. The approach has been working for the last seventy-five years so why wouldn't it still work today? A more diverse marketplace makes comics about new licensed properties (Adventure Time) or old (My Little Pony) a side door into comics and independents like Bone are game-changers, but superheroes are still a mighty lot. Let's not forget the elephant in the room, comic book superhero movies and TV which continue to, as DiDio puts it "reach the biggest audience possible."
Like daughter like father, cartoons and licensed properties (G.I. Joe and Star Wars) got me into comics and superheroes soon followed. Now, my daughter is asking about superheroes. I've got a few ideas of how to pique her interest and what to give her and (with a light touch) how to guide her and let her develop her own tastes.
I'll get to one way I've come up with, so far, that's gained some traction, but I also wanted to hear from a writer I hold in high esteem and someone who reads a lot more mainstream superhero titles than me. If you want to know about kids, comics and superheroes, you want to go with someone with the Twitter handle "Moms Read Comics". She is a superhero, she is Jessica Boyd.
II. And They Say You Don't Tug on Supergirl's Abs
Jessica Boyd: The following conversation took place between the hours of 5:00 p.m. Central Time and 6:00 p.m. Central Time. No superheroes were hurt in the following incident:
< p class="p3">Daughter (4 years old): Do you know who the superhero is with my toys, mommy?
Me (Detective): Who, baby?
Daughter: The girls are the princess and the boy knights rescue them.
A warning bell went off in my brain. This suspect was potentially hanging around the wrong crowd. A crowd that made her feel like she had to act a certain way; be a specific type of person. So, I questioned further:
Me: Can't the princess rescue the boys?
Daughter: Yes, but I want the boys to rescue them.
Blast! The princess mania that had been consuming her life for the past four years was finally getting to her. I wanted to make sure:
Me: But don't Captain Marvel and Storm rescue boys?
Daughter: Yes, and Wonder Woman and Supergirl and Amethyst, but that's not how I want to play… today.
I let the suspect go free, but I'd be keeping tabs on her, and the crew of flouncy-dressed helpless beings she played with… even if they were dolls.
It's amazing how one clarifying question put my fears at ease. To be honest, she listed more than three female superheroes when talking to me, but for now that's all I remember. I was filled with too much relief that she knew that she could play the powerful hero. I should have already known she had been wearing a fairy play-dress, a Supergirl cape, a Wonder Woman headband and Flash gauntlets (calling herself Amethyst) for the past two weeks calling her little brother "Krypto" and fighting her older brother to save the universe. I'm raising a girl who knows she can be the hero, if she chooses.
However, I would have never known that if I hadn't asked her. If I had not clarified I would have continued working about the house and going on with my life constantly concerned with what my daughter was thinking female superheroes are capable of doing.
Perhaps that is the key: asking, talking, conversing, babbling, lecturing and all around nagging. Or, in better terms: communication.
Like Keith, I have introduced my daughter to a score of female superheroes. I probably have not been as thoughtful in my selection of them, showing her DC’s current Wonder Woman and Supergirl along with collections of Princeless, Superman Family Adventures and My Little Pony. I've probably read her every issue of the 1980s run of Amethyst along with the modern Sword of Sorcery. She’s so young, and yet part of me feels like she has to see the problems and talk to me about them to understand what they are, what is wrong with them and how to identify them.
Think I'm being an irresponsible parent? Perhaps. Of course, I also know when my daughter saw Supergirl’s outfit from Superman: The Animated Series, without any hesitation disapprovingly said, "She needs to cover her belly!" It was yet another moment I knew she's understanding the situation. After I immediately tweeted out her statement, I talked to her about it. Why did Supergirl need to cover up? She said that showing off her tummy had nothing to do with fighting bad guys… and that she could actually get hurt more (we're still working on learning everyone's power sets.)
Also, as a side note, she thought Supergirl was too skinny to be a real teenager too.
So, even when the perfect heroines are not at your fingertips, girls still have something they can learn from modern female comic heroes. Even if it's lessons in just what is not going right.
III. TekWar and Other Necessary Evils
Keith: Damn, kids grow up too fast (cue Cats in the Cradle). My house is lousy with Disney princesses. I think they multiply by budding, one Ariel or Cinderella becomes six. If you were looking for unsolicited advice, be vigilant and push "active" princesses like Merida or Mulan and ride it out. Take solace it's a princess instead of one of those Bratz dolls, I guess? Dunno.
It's clear to me Jessica that your strategies for parenting as regards "superhero introduction" (indoctrination?) has paid off; whereas my choice — to adhere to the "ignorance is bliss" approach — to leave (most) superheroes out of the mix has failed. When my four-year-old daughter was confronted with a belly-bearing superhero, It Girl, her immediate response was "I'm going to be It Girl for Halloween." Now, as gob-smacking indie as that would be, I'm guessing our seasonally cool (and rainy) New England Halloweens (and my wife) will tone down any belly-bearing should my four-year-old follow through; however, it would be so cool if she did dress as It Girl sans midriff, of course.
Someday, Jessica, I hope to possess your aplomb for cutting to the quick. The transcript of your conversation with your daughter is exactly the point: conversation. It seems simple, yet, there it is. Ask, talk, and hope to explain. As a parent, it is way too easy to sweep in (helicopter-parent-like) moralize and banish Supergirl to the Phantom Zone for inappropriate superhero role models. Starfire's not a nymphomaniac she's just drawn that way, right? As parents, we are aware of how easy it is to label large swathes of our culture as inappropriate, to hide it away and "to think of the children." At one time or another we all bear brands and march with the other villagers to the monster's castle. The only bulwark is talk. I shall now step off this "high horse."
This reminds me of some sage advice from a beleaguered public educator: Principal Seymour Skinner. Facing an inevitable teacher's strike, Skinner is confronted by teacher's union organizer, Edna Krabappel. She contends the Springfield school library is in desperate need of new books. She points at a shelf and says, "The only books we have are ones that were banned by other schools." Picking up a book by noted science-fiction enthusiast, William Shatner, Skinner says, "Well, the kids have to learn about TekWar sooner or later." And so it goes with superheroes, exposed flesh and all.
To see " if" and "how" my oldest daughter would take to superheroes I did the nerdiest thing I could like of … I asked her to write a book report… on a comic book. I grew up Marvel and so, if it's superheroes she wants she might as well learn the same sales slogan I knew by heart as a kid: Make Mine Marvel. And I knew exactly where and to whom to turn: a mansion on 1407 Graymalkin Lane in the tawny community of Westchester County. The newest caretakers, Mssrs. Wood and Copiel and their all-female X-Men, would answer quite well.
The strum und drang brought up by a small (but incessantly vocal) gaggle in the comics community as regards Brian Wood and Olivier Coipel's X-Men was laughable — a tempest in a very small Sentinel-sized teapot. If fanboys were really torqued off, the sales certainly didn't demonstrate their hue and cry. Oh, and before any haughty cynics out there say: "of course you're going to make your kid read the "all-girls" X-Men book;" my response is to reread to second "graph about coincidences. Sometimes all it is is timing.
Here was a comic by one of my favorite writers — who with artist Ryan Kelly created Local, one of the most amazing indie slice-of-life comics about growing up I've ever read. After an encouraging tweet from Wood, I decided my daughter and I would read X-Men together. She would tell me what she thought and I would write it down and post it on my blog. And even though my wife brought up the specter that I was exploiting my daughter to increase traffic and score more Twitter followers, I demurred and soldiered on.
What I really wanted to know was if a nine-year-old girl with little interest in superheroes (but with a healthy appetite for comics) would get the X-Men i.e. relationships. I didn't know it at her age, but the appeal of the X-Men since Claremont and Byrne has been family and relationships. The "comic book stuff," the action and the adventure are de rigueur — come for the snikt stay for hanging out in a well-appointed digs with your friends and surrogate family, it was Hogwarts before there was a Hogwarts.
I don't want to come off as "one of those parents" telling you how smart their kid is because she figured out the inter-personal dynamics of a comic book, but she got it, all of it, the whole X-Men thing. She got how Storm is "pretty cool and hardcore," she got how the characters care for one another and "why" Jubilee wanted to be "home" with her "family." My daughter got it because Wood (and editor Jeanine Schaefer) know the X-Men to their core, they know what makes X-Men X-Men. If a nine-year-old girl catches on, they must be doing something right.
IV: Postscript: Discuss
After I emailed my response to Jessica, I asked her what we were missing. I also told her "don't worry I'll clean up those questions at the end." Truth be told, I wanted to see if I could wheedle some more bon mots out of Mrs. Boyd to cover the gaps in my argument. Her response was (of course) smart on both counts: leave "em in, give the reader something to think about, get a discussion going. What?!? Shouldn't the previous 2400+ words serve as a "jumping off point" for a discussion? Ah yes, I almost forgot, women are more open to discussion and communication whereas men want to make sure no question is left unanswered. Damn, me and my second-rate "Y" chromosome. If you've made it this far…
Whither Starfire? To borrow a sports cliché: "Marv Wolfman is not walking through that door. George Perez is not walking through that door." Can conversation "cover up" for comic's more sexualized female superheroes? Should we stand pat and just be glad (at least) there is a comic like Supergirl and X-Men for young female readers? There's plenty of inequality to rail against out there and when it comes to superheroes even those in charge of the tiller know things need to change.
When I was trying to search for an ending for my review of Jeremy Whitley's Princeless, I asked my then eight-year-old daughter what I should say about shifting social paradigms, the imbalance of portrayals of female superheroes in popular culture and so on. She gave me great advice then which still holds today: "So what? It doesn't matter. She rides a dragon and saves herself. She's cool, Dad." Yep, she's cool.
Keith Silva exploits his children on his blog, Interested in Sophisticated Fun?, which also contains an alarming amount of R-rated reviews for comics by Howard Chaykin. Follow him @keithpmsilva.
Jessica Boyd is a columnist for Comicosity and the majordomo for their podcast, The Hangout. Her Twitter feed, @charmingred, is a must for the XX set, but especially for XY troglodytes who love comics.