Super Heroes as Caricatures of Grown-Ups

I normally don’t quote children’s book based on popular movies, TV shows or Super Hero cartoons unless they are particularly profound or are pulled from the original text (e.g.: the show is based on this book – not the other way around). I am making the exception in the case because it illustrates an interesting trend in characters.

The book is I Am Aquaman (written by Kirsten Mayer), which is an I Can Read book based on the DC Comics Justice League Super Heroes. Here is this selection of dialog that caught my attention:

“Aquaman greets Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman on the surface of the water.
“Welcome, friends! Welcome to the sea!…
“I can’t wait to meet Mera!” says Wonder Woman.
“And to see your castle,” says Superman.
“What sort of power source do you use under the sea?” asks Batman.
Aquaman chuckles. “Come see for yourselves!””

That is the actual text – here’s the breakdown in terms of adult interaction. Wonder woman wants to meet Aquaman’s wife (Mera), Superman wants to see the castle, Batman wants to talk science and Green lantern stands around saying…well…nothing. In fact, Green Lantern says nothing throughout the entire book – he just does what he’s told to do.

My first reaction was to the Wonder Woman dialog because it seemed like the author was trying to make the character say things that a child would see or hear among the adults in his or her life. While there is nothing wrong with a woman wanting to meet another woman, the juxtaposition of Wonder Woman’s desire to meet Mera (whose sole reason for existing in the storyline is her marriage to Aquaman) next to Superman’s statement about seeing the castle just grated on me.

That one section of text seemed to lay out all of these super heroes in two-dimensional caricatures of mundane overused stereotypes. It was like someone took pictures of these characters, stuck them to a whiteboard and placed high-school style labels underneath each picture. Wonder Woman = girl (yes, that is one LOADED statement), Superman = jock, Batman = cool rich smart kid (probably tinkers around with hot cars or high-end computers), and Green Lantern = semi-invisible super-brainy geek who everyone treats like a doormat.

I was not liking the way this story was moving; but, the child who requested this book simply loved it. I read it aloud several times. Comparing the child’s reaction to my own, it was clear the interpretation was based on experience (mine) or lack of experience (the child’s), which got me to mulling over the difficulty that comes with trying to represent complex characters in the simple language (and short stories) required when writing books for children – particularly children who are learning how to read.

Obviously, there is only so much that can be done. Yet, this blog is full of children’s books that manage to represent characters (both human and non-human) with a wide array of complex human traits in simply amazing ways. In fact, I (currently) have many months of Tuesday afternoon posts just waiting to be presented to the world at large, which illustrates this very fact. The diversity, complexity and imaginative storytelling that has been done within the context of children’s literature is astounding. Why should I expect any less from these super hero based characters?

Sadly, I do not have a definitive suggestion or statement of firm opinion. This commentary is simply the expression of something I noticed, mentally chewed on, and continue to hold in the back of my mind. Those with thoughts to add are welcome and encouraged to post them to the comments below.

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