It’s a Bird, it’s a Plane, or Maybe Just Stupid!
By Patrick F. Cannon
As a kid, I read my share of comic books. Early on, they tended to be about Disney characters, or Bugs Bunny (a particular favorite), or any of a number of cartoon characters. Increased age and sophistication led me to Superman, Batman, Rubber Man (or was it Plastic Man?), and characters like Terry and his pirates and the Lone Ranger. Finally, my literary bent was satisfied with something called Classic Comics. One of them, Ivanhoe, painlessly introduced me to Sir Walter Scott.
I remember being jealous of a classmate who lived in a vast apartment on South Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. His room included a closet devoted to his comic book collection, each title neatly stacked on floor to ceiling shelves. This, I thought, was what it meant to be truly rich! (I wonder if he kept them and eventually sold them at auction, becoming even richer.)
Whatever meager collection I might have had probably didn’t survive my family’s move back to the Pittsburgh area in the early 1950s. We lived in McKeesport, which had a Carnegie Library. Once I had a library card, I don’t think I ever read another comic book. Compared to books like Dick Stover at Yale (and the like), they seemed like pretty childish stuff.
Eventually, I graduated to more serious literature. Even in high school, we were required to read Shakespeare, Dickens, Longfellow, Whitman, and Twain, among others. A university education added more modern writers, like Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Elliot, Cummings, O’Neil, Wilder, and many, many more, from both sides of the Atlantic. As an aside, I took a course in the British Victorian novel, where we were required to read 10 novels. When the course began, the professor informed us that the final exam would have questions on only six of the ten. Feel free, he told us, to try to decide which six! If only there had been a Classic Comic of Vanity Fair!
At any rate, imagine my surprise when it occurred to me a few years ago that actual adults seemed to be buying, reading and collecting comic books. And were being aided and abetted by a film industry that spews forth an endless stream of “super hero” movies that pile up immense sums of money at the box office. They are typically full of violence and are clearly not meant for the little kids that read comics in my day.
Instead of the simple good guys verses bad guys stories of the old comic books, our heroes are now full of angst and demons. Bruce Wayne (Batman for the uninitiated) dwells endlessly on the death of his parents, while spending their hard-earned money on fancy cars, caves and English butlers (once the redoubtable Michael Caine, and most recently Jeremy Irons, out for some of that cash). Most recently, the comics moguls have doubled down and released something called Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. The implications of this for the future of civilization are frightening to contemplate.
To make even more dough out of this phenomenon, a series of conventions are now held around the country to feed the frenzy. The largest is held in San Diego, but Chicago has its version called “The Wizard World Comic Con.” I know this because a few years ago I was driving past the Stevens Convention Center in suburban Rosemont and thought I had entered some kind of parallel universe. All around me were strange creatures dressed like the usual super heroes, but also others impersonating characters from Harry Potter and the like. These were not children, I hasten to say, buy young (and not so young) adults.
I don’t want to make too much of this, but I do see this preference for a fantasy world as part of a general vulgarization of American taste, and a turning away from the sometimes difficult realities of every day life. But when faced with a race for president that includes candidates like Batsman (Donald Trump), Elastic Woman (Hillary Clinton), Iron Head (Ted Cruz), and Marxman (Bernie Sanders), I’m not sure I can blame them for fleeing from reality.