I’m always hearing people saying these are tough times in which to be a child. Honestly, though, every generation says this same thing; people were saying it when I was a kid decades ago. It’s tough to be a kid, period, no matter what era you live in – I’m not disputing that. But I will propose the notion that the late 1930’s and early 1940’s were a tough time to be a parent, for one simple reason.
In order for a child to become a Golden Age comic hero, it was a requirement that his or her parents first had to die.
I’ve gathered a passel of examples, but I’ve deliberately excluded sidekicks (they’re kind of a cheat) as well as Superman. He’s a definite exception; while his natural parents died, his adoptive parents were still on the scene for literally decades after the Big Blue Boy Scout’s first appearance in 1938. And, as Clark himself says in the 1940 Superman movie serial, the Kents were every bit as good to him as his real parents would have been.
While we’re on the subject of DC Comics characters, though, let’s have a look at the three most momentous comic book panels that you’re probably never seen, taken from Detective Comics #33, cover dated November 1939 (as always, right-click on a pic and open it in a new tab for a larger view):
That’s little Bruce Wayne, watching his parents gunned down in cold blood right in front of him – the turning point which propelled him on a legendary monomaniacal career of fighting crime under the guise of The Batman. While this incident has been told, redrawn, and expanded upon endlessly in the decades since Detective Comics #33 was published, these three simple panels are the first time the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne were shown in a comic. It’s a powerful sequence which constitutes far more than just another run of the mill character origin – it’s The Batman’s entire reason to exist. These panels constitute the core of what the character is all about.
While the idea of a child orphaned by criminals was just too good for it to not be copied, it was never again utilized as effectively. In the case of Lev Gleason Publication’s character Daredevil, the trope was tossed off in a single splash panel and then never mentioned again (in fact, Daredevil’s origin was later changed completely to eliminate all references to the tragedy). We’ve seen the following panel previously in The Big Blog o’Fun, but here it is again, from Silver Streak Comics #7, January 1941:
The same publisher used the identical trope again just over a year later, in Boy Comics #3 (April 1942):
After his father is murdered by Nazi sympathizers, Chuck Chandler adopts as his costume a variation of his hockey uniform to become Crimebuster. It was a shameless crib job by a writer/artist who was usually wildly creative but, say what you want about the swipe, Charles Biro’s Crimebuster had a really long run, lasting thirteen years. He often even appeared in multiple stories each issue, until Crimebuster had his final adventure in 1955.
Sometimes the parents’ death wasn’t directly shown in the story; in fact, it could just be a prior incident mentioned in passing (or even merely implied). Here’s an example from Whiz Comics #2 (March 1940):
That’s Billy Batson; we presume he’s orphaned, because he lives in the subway and we never see his parents. He’s a trusting soul – he follows the mysterious stranger down to a side tunnel, where a magic subway car takes Billy to his first encounter with the wizard Shazam. This benevolent sorcerer bestows amazing powers upon Billy: by saying the wizard’s name, Billy is instantly transformed into the adult superhuman Captain Marvel.
Even if a child were only to travel to a surreal fantasyland, his or her parents got the works. Here are some panels from the first adventure of Maureen Marine, from Blue Circle Comics #1, cover dated June 1944:
The ship carrying Maureen and her father is torpedoed by a German U-boat, and her father is viciously gunned down by the Axis sailors. Maureen is herself rescued by the god Neptune, who gives her the ability to breathe underwater. Maureen becomes queen of Atlantis, and has many exciting (not to mention bizarre and surreal) adventures thereafter.
So why all the bloodthirstiness toward parents in Golden Age comic books? I’m sure that someone with a graduate degree in psychology would blather on about Freudian ya-da ya-da wish fulfillment blah blah blah subconscious desires natter natter natter, etc. But the real answer is far simpler.
It’s pretty tough to have amazing adventures when you have to go home when the streetlights come on.
Croaking mom and pop is nothing more than a narrative device. If you want the primary character of an adventure tale to be a child or young teen, the presence of the parents will be a boat anchor that just weighs down the tale. It’s not unique to comic books, either; making a young protagonist an orphan is a venerable, tried and true literary device – just ask Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Dickens (among others).
While the idea worked well enough as a narrative device through the Golden Age, it wasn’t perfected until two decades later, and as the core concept of a TV series instead of a comic book:
When Doug Wildey created his revolutionary adventure series he gave the “dead parents” trope a slight twist and wound up hitting one clean out of the park. In Jonny Quest it’s only Jonny’s mother who is dead; his father is a famous scientist performing top secret government work. Because of the sensitive (and often dangerous) nature of his research, Dr. Quest requires a bodyguard, the agent/adventurer Race Bannon, who ultimately becomes a surrogate second parent to Jonny and his adopted brother (and best pal) Hadji. This “boys club”, which is also a family unit, enjoys thrilling, hair-raising adventures around the world throughout what is arguably the single greatest adventure series in television history, a timeless classic which still plays as fresh today as when it was first aired in 1964. (When my twins were on the way and my wife and I were deciding on baby names, I campaigned pretty hard for “Jonny” and “Hadji”, but my pleas sadly fell upon deaf ears.)
Still and all, if you read a large number of Golden Age comics in a short time, seeing the repeated phenomenon of giving Mom and Dad the dirt nap just to get them out of the story can be a bit alarming at first until you realize that it’s just a narrative device to either jump start a tale or keep it from stalling – it would kill the story if Jimmy had to stop chasing Nazi saboteurs because it was time to come inside and do his homework.
Have fun! — Steve
Copyright 2013, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.