Monday, September 28, 2015

Happiness: A Hero's Worst Enemy?

I still have Batman on the brain.

Between Saturday's Batman Day, and tonight's second season, second episode of Gotham (Harvey Dent really should make an appearance), I'm thinking of last week's Gotham season premiere.  Specifically, I'm thinking of the end, when --

(I'd say spoiler alert here, but Gotham is a prequel to Batman, so you should know this stuff is going to happen.)

-- Bruce and Alfred find an entrance to Thomas Wayne's secret underground study, soon to be the Batcave.  In a prophetic letter to Bruce, Dr. Wayne knows his confused son is struggling between finding happiness and the truth.  He begs of Bruce to choose happiness, "unless you feel a calling . . . a true calling."

Those words have resonated with me, for many reasons . . . but in the context of my beloved superheroes, I wonder: Is forsaking happiness essential to heroism?  Is perpetual personal sacrifice one of the lessons to be learned from superhero mythology?

If Superman's first adventure in Action Comics #1 is the basis from which to judge the genre's original intentions (and I do believe it is), happiness is truly an ever-elusive concept to a vigilant hero.  In just a few pages, Siegel and Shuster establish the tragic childhood, the bumbling secret identity, and the unrequited love that come with almost every superhero's story.

Of these three, the secret identity seems the most controllable concept.  Just imagine, in those first few pages of Action Comics #1, if Clark Kent didn't hide his double life.  He could break news stories as Superman, confront criminals with full disclosure to the police, and ask out Lois Lane with confidence.  Imagine how less tense his life would seem, without that ongoing need to act like a klutz and cover his uniform.  More Flash Gordon, less Zorro.  I daresay the entire superhero concept would be completely different today.

Yet, Siegel and Shuster introduce the Clark Kent concept without explanation, nor does it seem that the readers required one.  Superman shares no melodramatic inner monologue about his motives.  It's just an accepted trope, along with the trappings, insistently implying that the good deeds are not enough.  The message is clear: you can't be a savior without sacrifice.

Despite being the first example, Superman may be a bad example, because his origin and powers are a truly alien concept.  Witnessing a loved one's murder is tragically yet undeniably much more down to earth, yet Bruce Wayne's choice "to become a bat" was just as accepted by readers.  In the same way we imagined an integrated Superman, imagine a young Bruce Wayne, with all that grief and rage, grown to become a policeman and philanthropist.  I'm sure those "what if" tales have been told, and Batman as a force of will always finds a way to resurface, but, in real life, orphans don't have that luxury.

Indeed, I'm concluding that superheroes exist as the unrealistic personification of survivor's guilt, which doesn't make for a happy ending.  So, consider this . . .

I celebrated Batman Day by reading some of my favorite comics starring the Caped Crusader, which includes Batman: Full Circle.  In it, Batman essentially confronts his parents' killer's son, who indeed uses survivor's guilt to trap and nearly defeat the Dark Knight.  When Robin arrives and is imperiled, Batman snaps out of it, frees himself, and saves the day, effectively setting aside his grief to help his friend.

That's the lesson.  Despite the inevitable tragedies of life, find purpose.  Find partnership.  Try to save yourself and you'll end up saving others, too. We accept our heroes' eccentricities because of the extremity of their mission, to save as many people as possible.  The mask isn't a denial; it's a badge that proves their capability to help, and offer hope.

Behold how effectively Gotham establishes that you don't have a Batman without Jim Gordon, proving that the potential of grief is helping to relieve others of it.  The end of the show won't be a kid donning a cowl, but a man paying it forward.  It may not make him happy, but it offers contentment, and that's more than many people have.

When Siegel, Shuster, and their successors created these characters, they placed their readers' hardships in those golden pages as prevalently as the heroes trying to overcome them.  They could've written happy endings, but they chose truth instead.  They must've felt a calling.  A true calling.

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