On Superhero Trauma

The other week there was yet another kerfuffle over a variant cover, this time in the DC camp. I’m sure you guys know all about it by now. I’m not really gonna talk about it mostly because it’s been dissected so hard it blossomed from internet arguments to full on death threats. I think everything about the cover itself that could be said, has been said by now. But it got me thinking.

In the criticism of the image, I see a reoccurring criticism of Batgirl/Barbara Gordon herself as a character: she’s defined by her trauma. That got me thinking about all the superheroes whose core identity is centered around traumatic events. The comic industry is awash with superheroes who are defined, if not consumed, by their trauma. Barbara Gordon as the Oracle is defined by her paralysis resulting from her assault at the hands of the Joker. Batman exists because he can’t get over the death of his parents. Jason Todd became the Red Hood because he can’t forgive Batman for letting the Joker kill him. Daredevil is defined by his accidental blindness. Spider-­man has his guilt in facilitating Uncle Ben’s tragic death to thank for turning him into a hero. Great power and all that. The entire plot of the Fantastic Four is centered around their collective cosmic ray induced trauma. The point of the X­-Men is the trauma of being different. And that’s just the heroes. The list of villains who are who they are because they suffered some trauma they can’t cope with is legion.

Mind you, I’m not trying to say that having your parents shot to death in front of you is the same as being tortured, raped, and paralyzed. They’re not the same. I’m not going to even try to play the game of “whose trauma is worse,” because that is possibly the worst kind of one-­upsmanship I can imagine. My point is that far, far too many superheroes, characters that we should be able to look up to and admire and want to emulate, are defined by the shitty things that have happened to them. As if doing the right thing was only possible after the world has broken your legs.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man is a tool until he suffers directly from his own actions, and then realized “shit guys, I fucked up” and tries to do better. Thor has to get his teeth kicked in before he learns a dose of humility and starts fighting because it’s right/necessary instead of because he can totally crush his opponents. Legitimately, I’m not sure what Black Widow’s and Hawkeye’s deals are. Something to do with Budapest, which just doesn’t sound like it was that good a time. Also, they’re paid to be superspy/heroes, right? Only Captain America does the right thing because… it’s the right thing to do, and even he can’t escape being defined by his trauma: he’s the man out of time! Don’t even get me started on the Hulk.

Trauma in the real world leaves a mark. It always does. It’s hard to not have trauma, of any sort, shape who you are as a human being. We carry our darker moments with us far longer than we do our happier ones, and a fair bit of science has been done to figure out why that is. But it does not need to define us, nor our heroes.

There should be more to a superhero than the bad stuff they’ve been through. They don’t have to have reached the bottom before they can be a decent human being. Their parents don’t have to have died. They don’t have to be disfigured. They shouldn’t be required to know pain before they can be a hero. All they and we really have to do is be aware that such things happen, and make the choice to do what we can to prevent them from happening.

Empathy and compassion are all we need to do the right thing. No trauma necessary.

About Garth

Born in Known Space, raised by the likes of Lazarus Long, Dr. Susan Calvin, and Lt. Miles Vorkosigan, Garth Graham has only ever partially shared the same reality as most of us. Fascinated by what might be and what isn't, rather than weighed down by the drama of what is, he has forged a tenuous bridge made of ink and paper between our world and some strange unknowable scape where improbable dreams are born. Perhaps it has driven him a little mad. Yet such madness has born fine delectable fruit for our eye organs. His previous works include the webcomics Comedity and Finder's Keepers. In his spare time Garth likes to laugh maniacally about the abstract and fictional concept of “spare time” and does his level best to refute entropy.