Monday, September 04, 2006

Motherhood in Comics

I'm still feeling rotten and overworked, but I need to get some thoughts out into the open for sanity's sake. For a while the posts will be coming out in their "Formative Stage" as opposed to the completed and structured form that regular readers are used to (spoiled by). This one is the first, struggling thoughts of a post I've been wanting to do for months, but I've been unable to turn off Rant Mode long enough to get a coherent set of paragraphs out.

I wasn't originally going to comment on this post because, to be brutally honest, complaining about pathos in Gotham is like complaining about idiocy in Green Lantern. Still, this comment, and how it relates to a pet peeve about comics, stuck out at me:
So apparently, Babs can't be a strong woman who wants to try to help make gotham a better place, she's merely trying to connect to the men in her life. Right. That's us told then.
This is a natural turn of the character of Babs Gordon, yes, she has always had very strong paternal ties. But it still is an underlying problem with a lot of superheroines. This particular one, the daughter fixation on her father wouldn't be a problem if Batgirl had been created with a substantial maternal presence in her household.

As it is, I can think of very few heroes (Black canary II, Wonder Woman) with mother fixations, and quite a few (Zatanna, Power Girl, Oracle, Stargirl, Cameron Chase, Manhunter, Black Canary I, Arisia) with father fixations. That's not to say I don't like the character, or the dynamic, but damned if the imbalance isn't sending a nasty message about the value of motherhood.

It gets even worse when you try to think of male characters with female role models, or even mothers who had nearly as much of a positive impact as their fathers did. I can't think of any, actually. Maybe the new Zatara in teen Titans, if his mother is Zatanna (I hope it is).

And then, look at the hero-villain couples that produce a child. How many of those are heroic/semi-heroic fathers with villainous/semi-villainous mothers? Arsenal and Chesire? Batman and Talia? Alan Scott and Thorn?

Hell, one of the reasons I like the very same writer that the linked comment is complaining about is because he took Hal Jordan, a character with standard superhero father issues, and added a strong maternal influence (I think his mother's death has been referenced in three storylines since the last series restarted? And I'm sure it'll lead back to his romance problems). He couldn't make her a role model with the setup, but at least he made her count which is more than the previous writers had.

And I know that DC Comics is generational, and that First Generation of Heroes was overwhelmingly male. However, it doesn't help that the few women in that generation have been killed off (Hippolyta, Dinah Lance I), aged (Red Tornado, Sandra Knight), pushed to the background (Sandra Knight), and not many heroes have picked up their legacies, and everywhere I look I see the overwhelming important of Fatherhood over Motherhood even the newly created characters tend to have Father issues or Fathers to live up to or Absent Fathers they constantly angst over (though the ones with Absent Mothers barely bring them up) and are just inspired by their Fathers while their Mothers bake apple pie in the background--

And that's when the fledgeling thought pattern descends into inarticulate blind rage...


  1. It requires a move outside DC (and perhaps a shift in what you mean by influence/impact) but certainly Peter Parker has had an iconic and central mother figure from the creation of his character. And though Uncle Ben's "great responsibility" quote is certainly key to Peter's character, a number of writers over the years have portrayed Aunt May as being just as important to her nephew's development - and having a lot more internal strength than her appearance might suggest.

    I'm not intending to imply that what you're talking about isn't a problem - I agree that it is - just that there's a major (Marvel) character who doesn't quite fit the trend.

  2. You forgot another character with a mother fixation -- Jesse Quick! And, from all the rumors, she will be taking up her mother's mantle, which is awesome.

    But, back to your post. Once again, you've got me thinking about things I might have never noticed before.

    I would imagine that it would also have to do with the writers and who they had a bond with as a child and how women were regarded in the family. I'm a bit of a Mama's boy :) I grew up with very strong women in my family and that's how I view the world. But, I can imagine if it were vice versa, the world must look differently.

    I would LOVE to see more characters show those kind of bonds with their mothers. I know that I would not be the person who I am today without my mother. She is the greatest woman alive.

    This, I would imagine, would be another test to see how committed DC is to diversifying their universe. It isn't just about adding people with different body parts, skin color or affectations, it's about genuinely embracing all the concepts. Great read!

  3. I was going to bring up counter points (Dinah was a much better influence on Roy than Ollie was, Red Tornado and Phantom Lady I were never exactly A-listers to begin) but the thing is I agree to pretty much everything.

  4. You see this in Disney and other kids' movies as well (and comics were, earlier, far more of a kids' medium than they are today). A number of traditional fairy tales as well use this model. The only mothers in sight are evil stepmothers :).

    I've always thought that it had to do (at least on a subconscious level, although it may have been intentional) with the adventures and dangers the kids in these movies go through, and the common perception of what makes a good mother vs. what makes a good father. A mother who would let her childten go wandering in the woods, take on hazardous quests, fight dragons and so forth--that's a bad mother. A father isn't expected to be as protective.

  5. Well, I think Disney leaving out most characters' moms is more than balanced out by the sheer number of TV commercials showing husbands/fathers as complete dorks who don't know how to open a child-safe medicine container or cook a frozen pizza.

  6. Legionnaires, and which parent they're most associated with:

    Lightning Lad, Light Lass: never mind the parents; the sibling relationship is the important one

    Saturn Girl: mother

    Phantom Girl: mother

    Dream Girl: mother, I think

    Brainiac 5: mother, I think, but obviously he has some famous male ancestors more distantly

    Colossal Boy: mother

    Projectra: father

    Cosmic Boy: both, really, and also his brother

    Sun Boy: father

    Mon-El: pseudo-sibling relationship with Superboy

    Chameleon: father

    Invisible Kid: father, most recently

    Timber Wolf: father

    XS: maternal grandfather

    Monstress: father

    Thunder: close to her parents, but obviously the important relationship is to her sponsor and predecessor Captain Marvel

    Not sure about the others. There are some Legionnaires (Shadow Lass, Kid Quantum II) where their most prominent relationships are with their cousins, and some more (White Witch, Ferro Lad, Magnetic Kid) where the sibling relationships are the most prominent ones.

  7. For a while in the eighties (during WIllaim Messner-Loebs' run), Wally West's mom was a major force in Flash.

  8. Dave -- Aunt May's a decent one, depending on the writer (some writers make a point of making her a strong influence on Peter, some jsut make her an old lady to be protected and emphasize that the heroism was learned from Ben), but msot people handle her well. I missed her last Mother's Day.

    Flidget -- Yeah, this is one where no matter how many exceptions I can think of, all they are is "Exceptions" and they're rarely used by the actual writers. The Fatherhood dynamic, howe4ver, is everywhere.

    Brainfreeze -- I think it leads back to Fairy Tales and all of those evil stepmother stories. It's just annoying, you have to dig and dig to find a good story with a strong mother-daughter or mother-son relationship.

    Mark -- The domestically inept Father thing in sitcoms and commercials is annoying as hell (and why aren't Father's Rights people protesting THAT rather than trying to weasel out of child support?), but it's different from my problem. I'm looking at who the kids look back on as Moral Influence here, and in most heroic fiction it's the Dad.

    Anon -- While every once in a while there's a decent portrayal (Smallville, Lois and Clark..etc.. Mostly TV stuff), Martha Kent is pretty much the definition of "In the background, baking apple pie."

    Loren -- Liberty Belle, that's right. I was going to include her in the list of women who've been slowly phased to the background in recent years even as the JSA and Golden Age characters are growing in prominence. I tend to ignore Jesse, as she's on my "annoyance" list because she's in the "Only girl is less powerful than the guys in her power class" list when it comes to speedsters. They never let her shine before. I'm excited at the thought she'll be Liberty Belle II instead of a Quick or a Flash, because that means her other set of powers get emphasized and not the speed.

    Matthew and Rob -- So this is one of those cases where comics are actually getting worse as time goes on when it comes to portraying women, isn't it?

  9. That really depends, Ragnell. Yes, Mary West only rarely appeared in Wally's book after Messner-Loebs's run. At the same time, when she was there, she often came off as an annoying shrew.

    It's pretty much a wash for the portayal of mothers in comics, but the Flash books were better with her gone.

    But when she did leave, Wally's Aunt Iris came to take her place -- and from the moment Waid took over, he portrayed her as one of the strongest influences on Wally's life.

  10. I think one of the reasons that so many new superheroes have "Father Fixations" is because the authors were latchkey kids, or at least their mother stayed at home but their father was always working very hard at whatever job he had and didn't come home very often, plus it's only the new generation (mine and the next--born in '88) where fathers have really become a large and important part of the family structure in roles other than being the breadwinner. I will just assume that that's why a lot of characters angst over their fathers. It's not necessarily that motherhood is being taken for granted as that there's less to angst over. It should be given more attention, though.

    And on a completely unrelated note, I had a mini-epiphany when I was walking my dogs this afternoon. The worst thing that can happen to a comic book woman is to be raped, as if the death of a loved one or contracting a horrible disease weren't worse. (And don't get me wrong, rape is an incredibly bad thing, but if you really want to hurt a character, surely there are other things to do.) But the best thing that could happen to her is that she gets a mate, particularly a superhero. So there's a blinding double-standard, and the only thing a woman is good for is sex, even in a world where women can be just as superpowered as men. This is something you've known and thought about for a long time, I'm sure, and it's something I understood self-consciously, but I never really realized it until now.

  11. Well, Martha Kent is a good mom, and isn't Kyle Rayner close to his mom? Hal's mom raised him after his dad exploded, and Guy's mom was freeloading off of him for a while. Don't know about John's
    mother. I don't think that Bruce
    Wayne favors his father over his

  12. Rob -- I'd call it an Evil Stepmother thing with Wally's mom, but his Dad did't come off very well either.

    So, we get Wally (through Aunt Iris), Peter (Aunt May), and Kyle (Maura Rayner) for heroes with extremely strong maternal influence.

    Sandi -- Then I need to break in and write. I had a present at home father, and a working mother...

    Sally -- There's more to it than that. How often does Clark reference moral lessons learned from his mother? Or does she talk to him?

    Kyle's an exception. Guy's mom was written by Beau Smith, who, as a writer, is a living exception.

    And Bruce favors his mother subtly. We've only really seen Martha Wayne step up and show a personality in one Greg Rucka written story. Usually, she's like a porcelin doll. She's this voice he references, this beatiful woman, a string of pearls and a scream in the night. We do get a very clear picture of Thomas, though. He was a Doctor, a humanitarian. He's where Bruce got his moral backbone from. It was by watching Thomas.

    That's my problem... Mothers are delicate fragile dolls, while Fathers are the real inspiration.

  13. The fatherhood thing is a trait of other media, as well -- "father" is a sort of generic stand-in for "God" or "proving yourself" or something. The absurd shoehorning of Daddy-related therapy plots into simple adventure stories like, say, Pirates of the Caribbean or A Knight's Tale is irritating, too. Mum usually dies when our hero is only small.

    Andrew Rilstone once suggested that what we're seeing is male writers approaching middle age and worrying that they don't spend enough time with their kids. Maybe.

    I have the impression that villains often have mother issues, but that may just be my memory, and anyway is probably just derived from Psycho.

  14. I was just coming to ask how you saw Bruce, but I was beaten to it!

    I kind of see what you're saying, but my interpretation has been that he was trying to live up to the memory of his father ("Yes. Father. I shall become a bat."), but by way of the morality his mother instilled in him. Daddy Wayne gave him a work ethic and obsessiveness, while his mother supplied the culture, desire to learn, imagination and kindness (wasn't she the one who liked opera, and reading, and fantasy, etc?) that drives him and allows him to protect others. Kind of a 60/40 relationship favoring the mom.

    I'm trying to remember which story it is where I saw/read Martha Wayne playing idealist to Thomas's realism, but can't remember which it was. I do remember a scene where Martha was reading fiction to Bruce, and Thomas wanted to know why she was filling his head with that junk, and she responded something like, "Because imagination is important, isn't it Brucie?" I dunno. It's an interesting subject.

  15. Things like this make me so angry. But things like this only fuel my desire to write. In the semi-superhero novel I'm working on now, I'm exploring a motherhood/mentor type of relationship, something like Bruce and Dick, only with women.

  16. For another example, Cassandra Sandsmark has a close relationship with her mother, and an absent father who she seems not to think of much. She also has a superhero-surrogate-mom in Wonder Woman (and previously had Artemis and Donna Troy as strong influences as well). Though, of course, there is the Ares thing going on...