||[May. 25th, 2016|05:38 pm]
My reading group has been discussing sidekicks. Although we are a library-based reading group, we are anomalous in that what we read is graphic novels / comics. Whether because these are more expensive than the average paperback or for some other reason, the library isn't able to supply us with multiple copies of the same thing. So instead of all reading the same book and discussing it at a single meeting, we take a theme, and read whatever we can find that is relevant to it, either from the library's collection or from our own, rather richer, resources: people are immensely generous about lending out their comics. And for the past several sessions we have been looking at sidekicks, which has proved immensely more rewarding than I expected. Worth trying to pull together some of the discussion notes I've been jotting down...|
I closed my previous post with the question 'Who puts a 16 year old boy in the line of fire? and only as I typed it realised how neatly it brought me into this topic. Because superhero comics do, that's who, it's a motif that we take so much for granted that - well, as I say, I wasn't expecting how much we would find to say about it once we stopped to look at it. Louise asked, yesterday, "Why is it that when we talk about sidekicks we always come back to Batman and Robin?"* Because they are the classic model of hero plus sidekick. Who, having decided that, given their particular abilities, what they need to do is put on a skin-tighht costume and fight crime (OK, I do see that that's a big leap of the imagination right there) would follow on with the decision that what they really need by way of an assistant is a keen but not otherwise qualified child companion? But Robin is very far from being the only Boy Wonder: there's Kid Flash, Speedy, Bucky Barnes, Young & Kid
The reader is indoctrinated, in other words, to treat the sidekick as no more absurd than the rest of the narrative, because however problematic they may be, they are so convenien to the storyteller. They serve two obvious functions: they give the hero someone to talk to (the confidant of French classical drama)
and they give the reader someone to identify with, either a) as a younger character for younger readers or b) as a non-super character for non-super reader. I thought I'd summarised that pretty neatly, until I discovered that Neil Gaiman had put it better in his introduction to Rick Veitch's BratPack: "Innocent kids out there swinging from tall buildings with their vigilante mentors so the kids reading would have someone to identify with, so the heroes could have someone to explain the plot to".
BratPack was my one piece of dedicated reading around the topic. I suspect that I have seen it around but not actually read it: it's very unpleasant, in a MAD magazine sort of way, and I would probably have shied away from it. To be fair, it's deliberately unpleasant, taking as its point of departure the death of Jason Todd, Dick Grayson's replacement as Robin whose life or death was the subject of a readers' poll. Denny O'Neil, Batman editor at the time, is name-checked in BratPack's radio host Neal Dennis, who conducts an acual phone-in poll on whether the kid sidekicks of the local superheroes should live or die - and the vote for extermination is implemented by Doctor Blasphemy. The recruitment of replacements allows the narrative to use the fresh viewpoint of the new sidekick to look at the 'heroes', all of whom are grim and gritty in the way that only immediaately post-Watchmen characters could be. But BratPack does also have something to say about what sidekicks are for, whick is [redacted]SPOILER
Sidekicks don't have to be kids. An adult sidekick can also add the possibility of identifying with someone who is, like the reader, not super-powered. The obvious starting point is Doctor Watson: but who else? On the basis of discussion in the group, I need to return to Bryan Talbot's Grandville series, to consider the character of Ratzi. Who is superman's sidekick? Is it Jimmy Olsen, Superman;s pal, or is he part of supporting cast?? If the sidekick is the non-super companion, is Clark Kent Superman's sidekick? Sometimes the alter ego Yis genuinely without powers, like Don Blake (for those who read Thor back when) or Mike Moran or, in the case of certain iterations of Captain Marvel, Rick Jones, serial sidekick.
And if we weren't now coming in to London, we could compare these to Peter Parker, who integrates the two aspects, hero and alter ego, in one.
* We also keep coming back to Britten and Brülightly, but they are pretty much a one-off.
**And look how well that turned out!*** Which leads to the question whether it is possible to write sidekicks straight any more, or whether there will always be a layer of irony? Or, if not irony as such, some form of self-consciousness, awareness of precedent, interpretation, something?
***We didn't, in fact, spend as long as we might have considering how well
MarvelMiracleman turned out, because so many of the group hadn't read it, and those of us who had tried not to spoiler them. It was a surprise, and a useful reminder, that even in this brave new world in which comics are not ephemeral and remain available, there are exceptions.
SPOILER D'uh! They are just there to sell merchandise.