Monday, March 23, 2015

When Little Kids Wear the "S" and do it better than anything in the comics

Today this video made it across my path via social media.  It's a video about a kid in Detroit who has started a charity that provides food, clothing and necessary articles to the people of his city.  He's a kid who puts on a cape and the Superman "S" when he's at work.  The adults (and kids) who are helping him are similarly decked out in Superman gear, an easy and inexpensive get these days.

The video was part of a recent student film festival at the White House.  The video is short and it's worth a view.

Unrelated, these little girls were part of the Science Fair at the White House.

Here's what's on the White House website about why the girls are there.

Emily Bergenroth, Alicia Cutter, Karissa Cheng, Addy Oneal, and Emery Dodson, 6 (Tulsa, OK)After chatting with their school librarian, the “Supergirls” Junior FIRST Lego League Team from Daisy Girl Scouts’ troop 411 discovered that some people have disabilities that make it difficult to turn the pages of a book. They came up with the concept of a battery-powered page turner that could turn pages for people who are paralyzed or have arthritis. The Supergirls sketched out a design concept and culled through motorized Lego components and gears to figure out how to build a working prototype. They discovered that the friction from rubber Lego tires could be used to lift and turn the pages of a book. They honed the device with a second motorized component that forces pages to lay flat after being turned over. The Supergirls’ creation was selected by the statewide FIRST program director to be the only project exhibited at an educational conference for librarians and educators in the region.

These are some amazing kids, and I think it's not a mistake that their parents and families, no doubt a bit insulated from the fact that DC Comics has launched a "New 52" (that even now they're backing away from) wanted to put the capes and the shield on these kids.

DC itself has launched a "Superman Hall of Heroes" to celebrate local heroes in communities of all types and sizes.

Not just pop culture, but for 75 years people have known of Superman.  They may not know the specifics beyond that he's a guy who dresses in a red cape and flies around saving people and that he has a secret identity as a person who blends in looking like you or me - and that's okay.  Everything doesn't need to be a comics-lore trivia smack down.  The broad strokes are enough.

For little kids to know that there's someone, even a fictional someone - who is a good guy who does the right thing and does with with a smile on his unmasked face - is far from the worst idea to sell a kid.  And if that red cape and that shield make them feel bigger than life when they're doing it, it's all part of the package.  It's not a bad idea to summon symbols we've had of truth and justice and tell our American kids that's the American Way.

Growing up and understanding that grown-ups are imperfect is part of everyone's maturity (I hope).  Sooner or later we realize that our folks aren't just hassling us and making us do things we don't like, like, I dunno, mow the lawn (one day I will forgive you, Dad, but not today).  At some point we find out Mom and Dad aren't necessarily bearers of all knowledge and can be wrong.  And so can cops, and teachers and politicians and pastors and...  oh my god, people are imperfect and we're all people.  And part of what has been part of growth for comics readers since the 1980's has been that evolution as we kept comics with us as we grew older.  It wasn't changing into fans of underground comics or seeking different material, as of the 1980's, superheroes were asked to grow up with us, and somewhere along the line, we decided that meant some of those caped do-gooders reflected that dissatisfaction with learning adults seem to have snookered us, and some of them seemed to embrace how we felt about it.

We spent a few decades kicking around Superman for being cheesy and old-fashioned and maybe a bit like Dad when we knew what things were really like.  You know, dark and whatnot.

I didn't really get into Superman myself until pretty late.  I liked the movies growing up, and I liked Superman on Super Friends, but when I came to superhero comics, it was via X-Men, Spidey and Batman because it was the 1980's.  I can't say exactly when I turned on to Superman, but it was as early as high school - an unfortunate time to want to check out Superman as they were killing him off and, even today the tone of a lot of 1990's Superman just doesn't work for me.  But, certainly the 90's also brought the Waid/ Ross Kingdom Come story that really sealed the deal for me in many ways when it came to the DCU with Superman remaining Superman, and Morrison's take on Superman seen as an aspirational/ inspirational figure even among dieties, less so for his power and more for being the good guy you could count on like a rock in a storm.

And, certainly, for what was going in my life and what I responded to then (and now), the notion of leaping into action to stand between the world and calamity - anyway, it registered with me like crazy in much the same way the social message under Uncanny X-Men had locked me in well before the soap opera.

There's a period in your life when you want the cape and the secret identity and to be able to fly and shoot beams out of your face and to throw boulders into volcanoes to keep them from dripping lava (look, it works in the comics), and then there's that period where you also need heroes that look more like Dirty Harry.  And I think there's room for both.  I like both.  I even really, really like Batman despite the fact I'm pretty sure he's an oligarchian uber-capitalist power fantasy the same way Superman was (and should be) a progressive populist fantasy.

What's weird about DC is that they have these things to maintain as viable, sellable IP, and at the end of the day, it's those same adults you realized when you were 16 or 17 maybe didn't know what they were doing as much as you thought...  they're the ones steering the ship.  And they're going to do some things that maybe don't make a terrific amount of sense.  And, of course, they are a for-profit wing of a massive multimedia telecomm conglomerate.  The model will be to chase the money, and in the past three decades, that's been Batman money.

I think we may be on the verge of some change there, and it'll be interesting to see if DC can keep up as the success of superheroes in pop culture means an audience more diverse than the one they'd been seeking.

Despite the popularity of Captain America, Spidey, Hulk, Batman and even Tony Stark - all characters I love in one form or another - at the end of the day for kids, it's the bright red cape and the promise of being something bigger.  Whether the kids actually know much about Superman or not, the symbols of Superman are totemic in the power they've wielded for 75 years.  It's a tragedy that DC has struggled so much with what's right there in front of them, be it Super-Ewan doing good locally in the red cape, a squad of young girl scouts trying to help people or folks in the community who surely understand a Superman award in a way almost no other name would quite mean the same.

I don't know.  Maybe these things don't make for good splash pages or whatnot.  And the target demographic of comics certainly shifted away from what made Superman a solid seller for 50 years.

But I also think DC will see value in the red cape and S in the way it's understood by your folks and these kids.  Doing good never really goes out of style.

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