Monday, March 8, 2010

Why sidekicks worry me ... and why I totally would have been one

Sketch by Derrick Fleece

Sidekicks are a great blessing and bane of the comic book industry. The first kid sidekicks started running around with superheroes shortly after the superheroes themselves got going—witness Robin, debuting in 1940, only a year after Batman. They gave kids a chance to imagine themselves in the thick of the adventure; after all, if Robin and Speedy and Aqualad could keep up with the big boys, why couldn’t we? No wonder Jimmy Olsen had his own comic book for 20 years.

But the sidekick idea has been controversial at least since Frederic Wertham suggested, in print, that Batman was a pedophile. (For the record, I don’t agree with Wertham’s conclusions—but I think the fact that people keep bringing up his ideas means the question is not being fully addressed.) What American parents in their right minds would let their elementary-schooler jump off rooftops? The superhero sidekick is in many ways a cheerier version of the child soldier—a juvenile, theoretically with less-than-adult judgment, being indoctrinated to a cause (war on crime, mutant rights) and expected to bear arms in its defense, yet remaining subordinate to the indoctrinating adult. We worry about our kids playing first-person shooter video games; why are we okay with kid heroes throwing razor-sharp Batarangs and shooting optic blasts at supervillains?

The psychological explanations that have been offered for the popularity of sidekicks are many and complex, but they basically fall into two categories. Wertham, and some of his less execrable ideological kin, hold that mentor-sidekick relationships are analogs for sexual relationships. This seems especially true when partners are of opposite sexes and close in age; maybe Batman and Robin aren’t getting up to anything in the Batcave, but Hawkman and Hawkgirl have had a kid, which leaves little to the imagination. Then there’s the other side of the debate, which holds that mentor-sidekick relationships are stand-ins for other kinds of family relationships—usually those between older and younger siblings, or sometimes between parent and child. Of course, that brings us back to what kind of family would expose their kids to Dr. Doom.

But as I look at my favorite sidekicks, I find that they also address one of the fundamental, uncomfortable truths about life—that as much as we want to shield children from the nasty bits sidekicks encounter, it’s not always going to work out.

Take Bucky Barnes, created during World War II as a sidekick to the patriotic hero Captain America. Even before Ed Brubaker’s magnificent retcon, Bucky was the kind of sidekick you worried about—a teenager with a machine gun who followed the grown-up heroes around like a puppy. But as Brubaker had one character point out, “We both know he’s not the only sixteen-year-old in this man’s Army.” Bucky came into being during a world war where it wasn’t really possible to conceal violence from most kids. As an orphaned Army brat maturing out of the Great Depression, he didn’t have a lot of options in life, and fighting the Nazis was probably the least destructive use of his time and energy. God knows there were teenagers in resistance movements across Europe; why should America be excluded? In extreme situations, sometimes this kind of character represents the “least bad” option. If you can’t stop the war, and you can’t protect the kid, a responsible guardian might well decide he’s better off prepared than not.

And even when there isn’t a war on, sometimes sidekickdom seems the best possible fate for some kids. I have a soft spot for the Silver Age version of the Flash, a police scientist named Barry Allen who was struck by lightning, doused with some unspecified chemicals, and supercharged to fight talking gorillas and mad scientists. A few years after his debut, his writers introduced Wally West, the nephew of Barry’s girlfriend (whom he later married, making Wally Barry’s nephew, too), and the kid accidentally got the same treatment. Were I writing the Flash, I would probably have to point out that if you can’t protect the kid from freak lab accidents, it’s only responsible to teach him how to deal with their results before his adolescence gets even more miserable and crazy-making. Wally West as a juvenile delinquent is not a pleasant thought, so bully for Uncle Barry.

Okay, smart girl, I hear you saying, so what about your sidekicks? You’ve said about a dozen times that Trevor was adopted and raised by a superhero, but he doesn’t have any powers, and there’s nothing in your writing to suggest there’s a threat on the horizon on the scale of Nazi Germany. So what could possibly justify Trevor’s guardian in putting a kid in mortal danger? And who let this psycho adopt a child, anyway?

Well, that brings me to my third raison d’etre for sidekicks … the one that worries me, and therefore interests me, most.

In Masks, Trevor is an orphan—his parents killed in a car accident on the Eisenhower Expressway in Chicago when Trevor is six. Because his only living blood relation is a grandfather in Ohio with advanced Alzheimer’s, Trevor is adopted by his godfather, a longtime family friend and seemingly stable bachelor identified only by his first name, Jude. (I haven’t yet decided whether Trevor’s last name, Grey, will be his birth name, his adoptive name, or an alias he has assumed in his years on the road.) Jude didn’t see adopting Trevor as a perfect solution, but rather as the only way to keep a six-year-old kid out of a horrific foster-care system. Trevor represents a huge complication to Jude’s career as a masked vigilante, but as he adjusts to the life of a single father, he manages to keep Trevor out of that part of his world.

But Trevor is a badly traumatized little boy, and well aware that Jude is all that stands between him and some very unpleasant social workers. He quickly figures out Jude’s secret and blackmails him with it, threatening to tell the authorities about Jude’s alter ego … unless Jude takes him on as a sidekick. Jude grudgingly accepts, and trains the kid for four years before he finally runs out of excuses and lets him tag along, in secret, on missions.

Jude takes Trevor on as a sidekick because he has to, and because in a weird way it brings him closer to this child who has been forced unexpectedly into his life. But I’m more interested in Trevor’s motivation, which is much more basic. As I said, Jude is, effectively, Trevor’s only family … and he’s jumping out of windows and getting shot at every night. As a child, Trevor is terrified of losing Jude, and appoints himself a sidekick as much to bodyguard his adoptive father as out of any thirst for adventure or love of justice. It’s a side of Trevor’s personality that presents itself over and over again in Masks, this burning desire to protect the few people he loves. Irrational? You bet. But love makes people irrational. Being four feet tall doesn’t excuse you from wanting desperately to keep your loved ones alive.

So when Trevor allows Rae into his carefully guarded personal circle, he quickly finds himself willing to go to remarkable lengths to protect her, too. By the end of the novel, he’s willing to go to his death if it means she gets to live … which gets rather complicated as she’s busily trying to sacrifice herself for him. (The fight between them over this is one of my favorite scenes in the book.)

And that’s what makes sidekicks make sense to me. They’re a little crazy, by definition … but there are things out there that make people crazy. War makes people crazy. Freak accidents make people crazy. Love makes people crazy. And what’s fiction for, if not exploring the crazy-making corners of the world? If all I had to do to keep my loved ones safe was put on a stupid outfit and run around in the dark, I’d have a costume hanging in my closet as fast as I could sew it.

Tom Smith had it right in his song “Sidekick”:

"When the villain has us where he wants us in the end,
I’ll do something stupid against which he must defend,
Leaving him wide open for a shot from my best friend;
I’m the hero’s sidekick, or so I pretend."

Besides, who wouldn’t take a chance to drive the Batmobile?

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