Friday, March 24, 2017

Lessons From a Comic Book: Rising From the Shadow

My first entries in this series focused on two of DC Comics' Big Three (Superman and Wonder Woman), so the natural assumption would be that the next one would examine Batman.  However, I came of age reading comics when Batman was pretty uninspiring as a hero.  Certainly, he was cool (and still is), but he was being depicted in the comics as something of a sociopath with a dark and unwelcoming personality.  There was little kindness in him, no sparks of warmth that would take the edge off his more intimidating characteristics.

I've written about this portrayal before, and I still say it damaged the character most noticeably in how it limited what could be done with him in the comics.  Fortunately, such has not been the case with the supporting characters of the Batman mythos.

Although I never read any of the core Batman comics on a regular basis, in the 1990s I found myself reading two books that were considered part of the Batman-family of books: Nightwing and Birds of Prey.  Nightwing was the first solo book for Dick Grayson, who had long since dropped his Robin identity to forge his own way as Nightwing.  Birds of Prey focused on two female leads (a rarity even in today's comics), one of whom was Barbara Gordon aka Oracle.  At the onset of each title's run, the books were being written by legendary writer, Chuck Dixon, who took the characters in directions that carved distinctive identities for each of them.

Nightwing had long been considered the most popular super-hero to not have his own book.  DC Comics seemed noncommittal to the idea of giving the character a solo book until a costume change and a successful mini-series effectively poised the character to carry his own series, beginning in 1996.  Immediately, the series distinguished itself from the core Batman books through its look and content.  In Scott McDaniel, the book had an artist that highlighted Nightwing's acrobatic movement and a fighting style shown from angles that made the action look truly death-defying.  All of this was placed within the context of a story about a young man making his way in a strange city, determined to forge his own path.

In contrast, Oracle was a character born out of tragedy.  Barbara Gordon had her career as Batgirl ended when the Joker shot a bullet through her spine, turning her into a paraplegic.  From this horrific experience, she created the identity of Oracle, a computer and technology expert who functioned as a powerful information broker for DC's metahumans.  Still, she was little more than an occasional supporting player until a succession of one-shots and minis paired her with the equally under utilized Black Canary.  The popularity of the pairing paved the way for an ongoing series in which Oracle functioned as mission coordinator while Black Canary was the field agent in their partnership.

My reading life has taught me that sometimes certain books find you when you're ready to read them.  I've come to believe that such was the case with Nightwing and Birds of Prey.  I was reading both books at time when my life was stalled - I had left college, was working some dead end jobs, and had no clear prospects to get on track to a real career.  Obviously, my choices were very much in contrast to what Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon were accomplishing with their lives.  And, on a certain level, their active stories served to highlight how mine was going nowhere.

I won't be so melodramatic as to say that reading these comics galvanized me into taking some drastic action with my life and finally getting it into gear.  It took a series of circumstances and a lot of much needed life experience for that to happen.  However, I think I can honestly say my reading these books kept me from becoming too complacent in what my life had become at that time as well as helping me not lose focus on my long-term goals, even though many were telling me to give them up.  

Like Dick and Barbara, I, too, felt the pressures of living up to the expectations of my parental figures and wanted desperately to be accepted on my own terms and for what I wanted to be.  At times, I understood all too well what it was like to be part of an all-encompassing family that left little room for individuality and where there was an expectation to fit into the common narrative of the other members regardless of whether or not that narrative fit into the one I was writing for myself.  The balancing act that Nightwing and Birds of Prey achieved on a regular basis taught me it was possible to have one's own space while also fitting into a larger context.  One doesn't necessarily have to reject one in order to have the other.

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