“The Avengers,” Comic Book Superheroes, and Raising Boys Without Men

On Friday night we arrived at the movie theater almost a full hour in advance of the show. We bought some disgustingly unhealthy items from the snack counter and went to wait in front of the door to the theater where The Avengers was set to play.

Zeep has been doing fairly well recently. He was aching to see the film and felt deprived that we couldn’t go see the local premiere at 12:01 am on Friday. His favorite teacher was to be away on Friday. I briefly considered inflicting a sleep-deprived Zeep on the sub but thought better of it. #FirstWorldProblems.

Nerd Creds: The Wonder Woman action figure that stands on Sissy's bookshelf. (Image filtched from her cool Instagram stream.)

Comic books are a thing in our house. I was thoroughly humiliated in the library elevator once when a dusty curmudgeon stranger scanned the titles piled in my boys’ arms—we’ll just call them their future library fines—and said dryly, “Maybe one day you’ll graduate to real literature.” Of course I wanted to jump in with a list of titles, recently read “real literature,” but I didn’t, even as my face grew warm.

There were two people in line ahead of us at the theater door. They were probably the only people in the theater who were geekier about comic books (er… graphic novels) than our family.  Sissy once wrote a research paper about how the evolution of Superman reflected and reinforced cultural and political shifts in American history. Yes, she did.

Last weekend we watched Holy Musical B@tman—twice. It is StarKid’s latest offering posted in sequence on YouTube. It’s hilarious and at various times last week each of us were caught humming the tunes. (Warning: curse words.)

Act I, Scene 1:

Now you will be humming, too.  You’re welcome.

We waited for a long time at the theater door and the camaraderie of fellow devotees had time to blossom. Those in line heatedly debated which superheroes would win in fights against each other, revealing much about the content of their own characters by their positions. Theatergoers warmed around the fires of their mutual interests. This wasn’t just a group of moviegoers, this was a group of superhero lovers. Hulk would win, rational parties finally conceded, he is invincible. It was a nerd-gasm.

The Incredible Hulk holds special appeal for kids who feel as though they are at the bottom of the social dogpile just like I was on the elementary school listserv over the weekend. The idea that the anger and rage of injustice can transform a mild-mannered person into an invincible beast—that’s pretty cool. It’s satisfyingly cathartic, not unlike when your team is a bitter underdog and wins.

Throughout graphic novel history, thousands of nerds have disappeared into pages to avoid difficult and painful situations and the often awkward and sometimes painful social realities of adolescence and of life. It is what my sons often do. There are worse things. Comic book stories can reinforce ideals of morality and ethical behavior and help kids develop a sense of justice. Superheroes are archetypes which often reveal what we collectively consider the ideal man or a woman. For my boys especially these ideas ignite conversations about male honor and about depictions of men and women that we might not otherwise have. Plus, graphic novels are fun.

“Comics are a true American art form,” one of our fellow moviegoers said, “like blues or jazz.” I am increasingly inclined to agree.

I’m not usually an action movie-loving kind of gal but the film itself was thrilling. There is lots of what my son described as “witty repartee” and there is some compelling psychological conflict/tension, especially with Scarlet Johansson’s character Natasha Romanoff and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. I’ll admit, I was nervous as we watched the theater empty and I realized that fully three-quarters of those who had seen the previous show were men. The film does not pass the Bechdel Test. There are two named female characters, but they don’t talk with one another at all, let alone about something other than a man. I was fully prepared to experience buyer’s remorse over the ticket-price for a family of four. I didn’t. Not one bit. In fact, I would go again.

We are not the only ones who thought the film compelling either. Opening weekend The Avengers grossed more than any other film EVER. Comic book stores everywhere held special events, giving away free stuff.

Not, however, the comic book store we visited on Saturday.

That was a <cough> interesting experience. If there were a comic book shop in Diagon Alley, it would probably have looked like this one. (No doubt the comics would have been different, even more magical.) The shop we visited was opened in 1974, which may be the last time it was thoroughly cleaned. It looks like it is right out of an episode of Hoarders. You have to climb over piles and/or one another to access much of the merchandise. The place is crammed with boxes on shelves floor to ceiling, full of dusty, yellowing comic books, organized alphabetically by series and then by date.

The shop doesn’t only sell comics either. It also sells exotic plants, many of which are barely alive. The proprietor is a thin man who looks as though he is fifty-something, going on sixteen. We were the only customers and he didn’t already know us. I got the impression he is acquainted with most of those who push open the squeaky shop door.  He watched us nervously as we flipped through boxes. It was a first date. Little Man wanted a comic featuring Hawkeye, the true-aimed archer. The proprietor directed him to the exact box where he would find West Coast Avengers comics and the exact section of that box that held issues featuring individual Avengers in prominent roles. The fellow was sharing his passion with a fresh crop of enthusiasts and he could barely contain himself. He thanked us enthusiastically. “Come back again,” he called wistfully as the door closed behind us.

We will, even though a friend pointed out that the shabby building that houses the shop appears to be racking. I made a mental note to leave quickly if ever a storm approached.

We will be back because we have a passion for quirky and interesting things, and come to think of it—quirky and interesting people, too. It would seem we aren’t alone either.

6 comments to “The Avengers,” Comic Book Superheroes, and Raising Boys Without Men

  • I haven’t seen the movie yet, I’m waiting for a friend to visit this weekend. I started collecting comics in 1992, and at that time I think I was the only girl buying comics at the only comic shop in my small town. Now as the comic book movies come out I’m educating my boyfriend on both the Marvel and DC universes (and multiverses).

    West Coast Avengers is one of my favorites, I found quite a few of them years ago at a flea market. If your Little Man has gaps in his collection, I’d be happy to rummage thru my boxes for another Hawkeye fan.

    Like it? Thumb up 1

  • Tyler Durden

    It’s pretty telling, I think, that your analysis of the role men play in raising boys is built around comic books and superheroes. Yep, it’s no more complicated than that. Fathers are just overgrown boys, aren’t they? We like comic books, and when our boys get bigger, we teach them to love tits, cars, beer and sports. Being a father is pretty easy, isn’t it?

    Like it? Thumb up 1

  • I’ll have to admit, I flinched in my seat when Loki called Natasha a “quim”, but that was just my geeky literature nerd peeking out: I considered it strong language for a PG-13 flick, the equivalent of an F-bomb! but fortunately none of the children w/me (my boy & 2 of his friends) and probably none of the adults caught the reference.
    I had to explain my reaction to my boy later – great, now I’ve taught him another curse word ;-) ! Way to go, Mom…

    Like it? Thumb up 0