Monday, April 4, 2011

The Kids in the Hell


Brat Pack, written and illustrated by Rick Veitch (1990-91; this edition 2005): When Veitch started work on Brat Pack back in late 1989, DC's ridiculous phone-in campaign to determine whether Robin would live or die was fresh in everyone's memories. Of course, this wasn't the Dick Grayson Robin, but Robin II, Jason Todd, who'd been rewritten after the company-wide Crisis on Infinite Earths to be a maladjusted teen-aged jerk...almost as if killing Robin was always on someone's mind (his original origin was pretty much the same as Dick Grayson's -- circus performer, daredevil, nice kid; after the Crisis, he was a street punk whom Batman selected to be Robin because...wait for it...Jason Todd stole the wheels off the Batmobile).

Kid sidekicks sorta worked in the 1940's, when child labour was still at least partially acceptable in the U.S., and when superhero comic books didn't strive for quasi-realism. Ostensibly, child sidekicks (Robin seemed to be about 10 at the beginning) worked as wish-fulfillment/identification figures for the child readers of superhero comics, though great American cartoonist (and once-upon-a-time comic-book sweatshop artist) Jules Feiffer once noted that he never met anyone, including himself, who identified with Robin -- kids want to be Batman.

In any case, kid sidekicks proliferated once Robin was introduced into the Batman canon in 1940; the most notable were Green Arrow's Speedy, Captain America's Bucky and, much later, Wonder Woman's Wonder Girl and the Flash's Kid Flash, though the latter two generally appeared on their own or with other teen superheroes, only teaming up rarely with their mentors (ditto for Supergirl). The first kid sidekick to die in action was Bucky, as revealed in Captain America's return to comic-book action in the early 1960's, though more than 40 years later Bucky would (like most comic-book characters) un-die.

Brat Pack meditates, sometimes horrifically, sometimes offensively, on both sidekicks and their changing meanings within comic books and the culture at large. 1950's psychologist Frederic Wertham saw in Batman and Robin an offensive homosexual couple (yeah, I know -- technically Batman would be a pedophile, given Robin's apparent age, but Wertham, like a lot of later bigots, doesn't differentiate); in Wonder Woman, a lesbian bondage queen; in superheroes an endless parade of offense to the morals and minds of America's youth. Oh, Wertham.

Veitch's thorniest problem lies in his characterization of Batman stand-in Midnight Mink as Wertham's version of Batman. Many critics characterized this as homophobia, missing the point, I think -- Veitch's commentary is on just that sort of thinking applied to children's books by adults. There's also a strong sense of disgust at how the adultification of superheroes in the 1970's and 1980's made child sidekicks logically untenable but commercially ever-necessary: corporations almost never willingly lay down a copyrighted character so long as there may be more money to be made.

Even the Robin phone-in is thrown in, as the citizen's of Veitch's Slumburg phone in to a radio show to voice their desire to see the kid sidekicks of Slumburg's four remaining major superheroes die (Superman-alike Maximortal left ten years earlier, plunging the city and the world into a crime-filled depression that they've never recovered from, and causing the remaining superheroes to become debased, ultraviolent parodies of themselves. Yep, just like mainstream superhero comics in the 1980's!).

And so another blisteringly satiric ride through superhero tropes and histories begins, along with a climax that crosses over into Maximortal. This is great, angry work. Highly recommended.

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