“Daddy, tell me a Superman story.”
“Is Spider-Man a villain?”
“Starfire likes Nightwing.”
“I like the Flash.”
These are all things my daughter has said. It all started at the super hero shelf at the Chapel Hill Public Library.
As soon as she enters the children’s section, she starts picking through the shelf, looking at all her options before making a selection.
“This one!” she’ll say. It’s usually Superman or Batman. Occasionally, it’s Wonder Woman. Or the Flash. She’ll go through phases. For a few days it was Green Lantern.
She likes these beginning chapter books that contain around 6 or 7 pictures. She’ll stare at them, trying to figure what the characters are doing and who they are.
These books were Walden’s introduction to super heroes. She had seen some of my old comic books, but these library books got her attention.
The books usually have the same story, there’s some villain that needs to stopped. In many of them, the villain poses as the hero.
I like super heroes, so I was charmed by Walden’s interest. But I’ve always been a little concerned with how super hero stories portray women – damsel’s in distress, old mothers, the troublemaker…
Sometime’s I would cheat and tell the story as if Superman were the one being saved by Lois Lane.
“There’s Lois Lane,” I’d tell Walden, “She’s pretending to be trapped by the Parasite. So when Superman distracts him, she can make her move!”
In another string of Superman stories that Walden would demand me to tell her, I’d always have the ending involve Superman being stranded somewhere and Lois Lane picking him up in her old beat up car.
Then there’s the women’s costumes–they usually look a lot, well sexier, than the men’s–which always made think that the comics I loved so much were spiced with a dose of sexism.
I mean Wonder Woman wears a bathing suit and heels. None of the women characters ever look comfortable. I’m not certain, and it’s not my place to ask, but despite all the leaping tall buildings, I don’t imagine any of them are wearing sports bras. The costumes just look like ways of showing off the female body, which isn’t worrisome in itself–but it just seems like it’s a male version of what women should look like.
In comparison, Superman, Batman–even Aquaman! and he swims all day–are completely covered.
Here’s a bunch of super heroes Walden likes, only two women played parts in creating them:
- Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) – Gardner Fox (writer) and Carmine Infantino (artist) Note: Co-writers John Ostrander and Kim Yale made Barbara a lot more interesting by giving her computer skills when she became “Oracle” in 1990.
- Black Canary – created by Robert Kanigher (writer) and Carmine Infantino (artist)
- Cat Woman – Bob Kane (artist) and Bill Finger (writer) Bumblee Bee (aka Karen Beecher) – Bob Rozakis (writer) and Irv Novick (artist)
- Hawkgirl – Garnder Fox (writer) and artist Sheldon Moldoff (artist)
- Katana – Mike Barr (writer) and Jim Aparo (artist)
- Spider-Woman – Archie Goodwin (writer) and Marie Severin (artist – costume creator of SW)
- Starfire – Marv Wolfman (writer) and George Perez (artist)
- Supergirl created Al Plastino (artist), Jim Mooney (artist) and Otto Binder (writer)
- Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston (writer) and Harry G. Peter (artist)
I guess the easy thing is to take these books away. But I don’t think that’s fair. They are a lot of fun: super powers, secret identities, fantasy. And they’re everywhere. But beyond that, this is something that Walden’s interested in.
She found them on her own. She can rattle off their names–how did she learn about Nightwing and Starfire?
There’s some good discussions we’ve had about anger and feelings while reading a book about the Hulk. There are some useful parenting tools in these stories. And she’s really interested in what’s going on in books, what the words are saying, what the stories are about. I can see her brain coming alive as she asks question after question about these characters. A few of them even sound like friends of her’s the way she talks about them. I can’t take that away.
Plus, super heroes are everywhere. If I had a no super hero rule, we wouldn’t be able to go outside or open up a computer.
These thoughts led me to talk Karen Michel who’s in charge of the children’s collection at Chapel Hill public Library Ashley Mattheis, a Ph.D candidate in Communication who specializes in gender, and I also had a brief e-mail exchange with Kiersten Hargroder a costume designer who worked on the TV show Supergirl.
Between Michel and Mattheis, there’s a consensus that the best way to deal with books that may seem problematic is to read them with the things and ask questions about what the child thinks.
That’s a blow to parents, like me, who like to pass books off as “still screens” hoping that they can distract little ones while I make dinner or take a ten minute secret ice cream break.
Note: The data I used to tabulate the staff at Marvel and DC is right here: http://www.parentsandcomics.com/dcmarvelstaffdata/
I’m happy to make changes if there’s any inaccuracy. I went through each name and used educated guesswork and internet searches to determine if an individual was male or female.