One of the obvious truths about the superhero genre is that adults overpopulate. These adults average between the ages of 25 and 35 and tend to be usually single. If you devote yourself to a life of dressing up in tight costumes to beat up bad guys, a social life will not survive the stress. Looking into the histories of the various heroes of Marvel and DC Comics, the vast majority are raised as foster children. Whether losing their parents or guardians to freak accidents, to old age, or to some overzealous super-villain, it seems that having a super-powered child is often a death sentence. Most comic representations of the family narrative rarely appear to be inspiring. However, are these representations truly the majority?

Whether you look to Batman, Spider-man, or the myriad of teenage superheroes out there, their narratives are driven by their family. What fascinates me about this concept is that our favorite superheroes are starting to have kids. Batman and Superman have sons in the main DC continuity. An alternate universe Spider-man has a daughter. Heck, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage’s stories revolve around their dual roles as hero and parent. Different writers approach parenting in comics differently. Some of these characters were born to be parents; others had to teach themselves. Still, others probably should have learned to use protection. Below are five different ways the family narrative is expressed in the Superhero genre.

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The Supervillain

Family Narrative
Image Courtesy of Marvel Comics

As I said, some of these parents should not have had kids. One of the growing populations in comic books stems from the loins of the various super-villains. The most famous example is probably Magneto and his three children (Polaris, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver), but he is not alone. In DC’s Rebirth, Kid Flash is now dealing with the revelation that his father was a murderer. Damian Wayne’s mother, Talia al Ghul, and grandfather, Ra’s al Ghul, trained the boy to be a killer. Even Star-Lord comes from a manipulative space emperor. These are only a few examples of bad parenting in comics, and these are relatively tame.

This narrative was developed into its own series with Marvel’s RUNAWAYS. Originally written by Brian K. Vaughan, the comic stars a group of children from L.A. that discover their parents are super-villains. They were led to believe in the goodness of humanity by people who perform live sacrifices in the basement. The Runaways escape onto the streets of L.A., traumatized and confused. They develop an innate distrust for all adults. Because of what they witnessed, they can’t bring themselves to ever encounter another “postcard” family structure again.

Now, the parents of the Runaways raised their children well. Likewise, Magneto has attempted a reconciliation with his children. Still, this does not make up for the trauma left behind. Walls go up around the kid’s emotions. Many of Scarlet Witch’s mental breakdowns can be attributed to her upbringing. The bottled emotions just festered until they exploded. In many ways, these children were forced to encounter the imperfections of their parents too early, and that left them with a great deal of uncertainty. At the end of the day, the parent’s goal of world domination was always going supersede their own children.

At Arms Length

Family Narrative
Image courtesy of DC Comics

Superheroes warrant super-villains in their lives. As such, constant anxiety dogs every hero. Because of this, a unique family narrative develops that I call “At Arms Length.” This family structure takes many forms. Some turn to helicopter parenting at a distance, keeping a watchful eye without their children noticing. One example of that is Black Lightning and his super-powered daughters. He will actively take care of their problems outside of their notice. However, this is not limited to parent-to-child relationships. It often works both ways. Peter Parker as Spider-man has spent his career hovering over his Aunt May to ensure the villain of the week doesn’t hurt her.

This form of parenting in comics has deep extremes. One example comes from an alternate universe Harley Quinn. In the INJUSTICE comics, based off of the fan-favorite video game series, we learn that Harley has a daughter — a daughter that Harley has never met outside of the hospital room. When the girl was born, Harley gave her away to her sister whose life was far more normal. Harley’s daughter would have a good life outside of the Joker’s world, even while Harley is trapped in the Joker’s grasp.

While heartbreaking, Harley’s decision was a moment of clarity. Even with her obsessive love for the Joker, she knew the girl would never be safe close to him. However, she also knew she could never leave the Joker on her own. While extreme, it helps to summarize this family narrative. In the end, the consequences are obvious. In spending all of their time looking out for their family, the hero spends none of that time with their family. The hero loses that real bond. They simply fade into the shadows.

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The Ghost

Family Narrative
Image courtesy of DC Comics

Being absent doesn’t necessarily mean being physically gone. Two people can stand in the same room and find no common connection. A subset of “At Arms Length,” a Ghost family narrative burrows into the emotional distancing of some heroes. This mirrors descriptions of families exposed to trauma. A parent goes off to war, and sometimes they don’t come back as themselves. They are unable to build strong connections.

Batman is the best example of the ghost, especially with his blood child, Damian. Before Damian, a number of adopted sons filled the role of Robin. Fate exposed Batman to a battle that constantly saw his family endangered. He even watched one of his sons die. Every day, Damian witnesses a deep emotional distancing from his father. While this is played off as lighthearted eccentricity (“Batman doesn’t eat pie”), this is a deep-seated issue. Batman cannot connect because he has seen what happens when he gets attached. He distances himself from his son to keep himself devoted to work.

Batman includes Damian in crime-fighting to rebuild this relationship. However, Batman can’t blame his poor parenting skills on his lack of blood relatives. Bruce had Alfred, a man devoted to him. Batman has a role model, but his trauma keeps him from growing attached. In TEEN TITANS REBIRTH, the first story arc has Damian trying to build some bond. Although they are villains, Ra’s and Talia al Ghul raised and cared for the boy. While Batman didn’t know about Damian for ten years, he still chose to invite him into the Batcave and raise him as more than an assassin. Batman tries to connect through crime-fighting, but Damian still has to choose between being Batman’s son or the heir to the League of Assassins.

Some Assembly Required

Family Narrative
Image Courtesy of Marvel Comics

One genre trope that has always been a popular fall-back is the work-in-progress family structure. This narrative is wide-ranging, but it stems from family structures not built on blood relation. As I mentioned at the start, many superheroes are orphans. From a young age, fate thrusts them into a world they don’t understand, but someone always comes along to guide them through it.

The most famous examples include Peter Parker being raised by his Aunt May, Bruce Wayne by Alfred. and Kal-El by the Kents. Alfred is Bruce Wayne’s father, Kal-El takes the Kent name, and Aunt May raises Peter as a son. The assembled family does not need to mirror a traditional family structure. However, a group of similarly-aged people can form this type of family. The Runaways all escaped their super-villain parents, but they were never alone. They bonded and built a family. The Fantastic Four best exemplifies this atypical structure as they continue to set precedents as the First Family of comics books.

This family narrative digs deeply into the common human need to bond. The Runaways recognized that they would not survive alone. It wasn’t their physical selves they worried for, but their inner selves. By connecting with others, they were able to save themselves and those around them. Finding that common, connecting thread gave them purpose. The Runaways were all lost, so they bonded together to find their way. The Fantastic Four knew nothing about their powers, so they discovered them together. It isn’t just about safety. It is emotional support, and this family structure is so powerful because the participants chose it.

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Family Narrative in Comics: The Loving Mentor

Family Narrative
Image Courtesy of  DC Comics

I left this for last for a few reasons. Firstly, this narrative fits a typical family structure. “Typical” here means mutual love and respect, not “heterosexual parents and child.” A new “typical” example in comics is America Chavez’s relationship with her mothers. They devoted their entire lives to teaching America to be a strong woman first, a strong superhero second, and that led America to become one of the strongest multi-versal superheroes in the Marvel Universe.

The other reason I left it for last is that this can encompass so many superhero stories. While Jonathan Kent is a foster father to Superman, he is also one of the best representations of a loving mentor in comic books. You can say the same of Aunt May for Peter Parker. What is fascinating in looking at these two relationships is how both Superman and Spider-man develop into fathers themselves. Of these two, Superman has the most interesting arc, encountering the same difficulties with his super-powered son, Jonathan. There is this period of uncertainty, where Clark feels that he needs to keep his son isolated from the world. However, he realizes that he needs to foster his son’s true potential.

Some may think the “perfect” parent is boring and unrealistic. No one is perfect. The Loving Mentor, though, doesn’t mean that parents involved cannot fail. However, their underlying motivations are perfect. What I learn from Superman in his most recent arcs is that, no matter what, family comes first. I don’t mean to belittle Lois Kent’s role as Jonathan’s mom because she does a kick-ass job. However, the particular family narrative between Superman and son is uniquely interesting because it parallels Clark’s own childhood.

Final Thoughts: The Family Narrative

Looking at comic’s different family structures, one thing never changes. The sole point of a family is to help push each member to be the best they can be. The only difference between each is how they go about that process. Batman keeps himself distant from Damian because he believes that he is saving them both from heartache. Clark Kent, on the other hand, talks to his son. He tries to understand the boy’s issues, and he fosters Jon’s passions.

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While it may seem that the vast majority of family relationships in comics are unhealthy, the truth is that the unhealthy ones are the most obvious. The first instinct is to diagnose a failing relationship rather than acknowledge the one that works. However, many writers present some admirable family narratives, and many don’t reflect the ideals of the 1950s. Whether one parent or two raises a child, or whether someone has to find their own family, the point of importance is that they have support to fall back on. Families are rarely perfect in the world of superheroes, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something there to learn from.

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