If you’ve read Superman: Space Age #1, you’ll know that the first issue of Mark Russell and Michael Allred’s out-of-continuity prestige mini-series contains a dark revelation about Pa Kent. This isn’t the first time DC has portrayed one of its most prominent father figures in a negative light, either. On the contrary – over the past decade, the publisher’s comics (and the movies, TV shows, and video games inspired by them) have presented other high-profile dads like Jor-El and Thomas Wayne as more morally compromised than ever before. And while it’s a trend I’ve previously pushed back against, lately, I’ve started to embrace DC’s “dark daddy” obsession – not because it’s always well-executed, but because of the lesson it has to teach us.
If nothing else, there’s a certain creative daring on DC’s part to rethink the characterisations of some of its greatest parental paragons.
Transforming Superman’s biological father Jor-El into a supervillain with the blood of thousands on his hands was a big risk, not least because for the past 80+ years, Jor-El’s sense of right and wrong has been portrayed as unimpeachable, divine even. Heck, even the Smallville television series – home to one of the least flattering portrayals of the Man of Steel’s dad – depicted Jor-El as Machiavellian yet still essentially benevolent. The same doesn’t hold true in post-DC Rebirth canon, though, as Krypton’s greatest scientist is recast as at best an anti-hero, at worst a scheming, mass-murdering monster.
By comparison, Pa Kent’s revised backstory in Space Age is far less sensational, but no less difficult to swallow for that. Russell and Allred reveal that during World War II, Superman’s adopted father accidentally shot and killed a 12-year-old boy on the island of Saipan. This atrocity is couched less as a war crime than it is the tragic by-product of Jonathan’s combat-related PTSD, and it’s clearly something that haunts him decades later. Even so, killing a child is a terrible, terrible thing that forever changes the way we look at Pa Kent, despite it not being part of mainstream DC continuity.
Then there’s Thomas Wayne’s recent run of form to consider. As with Jor-El, DC Rebirth reimagined the Wayne family patriarch in decidedly more sinister fashion. Now, he’s a composite character made up of the Thomas Wayne who died in Crime Alley and his alternate timeline counterpart who survived and went on to become that reality’s more ruthless Batman. Bruce Wayne’s dad doesn’t fare much better in recent Bat-adaptations, either. Movies like Joker and The Batman, as well as episodic video game Batman: The Telltale Series, portray Thomas as just another callous, even corrupt, Gotham City gazillionaire.
Like I said earlier, all this bothered me at first – and to some extent, it still does.
Admittedly, my initial reaction was steeped largely in emotion and nostalgia. Let’s face it: when a bunch of people (even fictional ones) you grew up admiring turn out to be less wholesome than you believed them to be, that’s tough to deal with. Often, it’s more comforting to reject this new information than it is to confront it and try to make sense of it. Why accept that Pa Kent, Jor-El, and Thomas Wayne aren’t the saintly figures you remember from your childhood when you can cry “character assassination” instead, right?
But not all my objections are quite as irrational. One of my key concerns about Superman and Batman’s fathers being depicted as deeply flawed individuals is that it dilutes the archetypal power of both characters’ origin stories. The Man of Steel and the Dark Knight Detective pursue justice in large part thanks to the example set by their dads, which plays differently once you know that these men weren’t quite the moral exemplars their sons thought they were.
I’m not suggesting that superhero comics should always function in purely black and white terms, however, there’s no denying that heroes and villains with clear-cut motivations are a core appeal of the medium. Certainly, there’s little value in adding layers of complexity to two of the most potent superhero origins of all time unnecessarily – yet that’s arguably what’s happened to Batman, particularly in other media. Although the urge to call out the Wayne family for its unfathomably big bank balance is understandable given today’s social climate, Joker, The Batman and (especially) Batman: The Telltale Series arguably take this a step too far.
Painting Thomas Wayne as a shady silver spoon chomper is a simplistic over-correction that not only equates all wealth with obscene wealth but also ignores the escapist fantasy roots of the Bat-franchise. After all, if we can believe that Bruce Wayne can dress up like a bat and fight crime every night, surely we can stretch our imaginations to include a mega-rich family with a standing tradition of using its immense privilege for good, not evil.
So why have I finally made peace with DC “ruining” all my favourite superhero father figures? It’s simple: I realized that there’s tremendous value in re-evaluating seemingly perfect people from the past, regardless of whether they’re real or made-up. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should jump to the conclusion that they were really baddies all along. It just means that we should get in the habit of interrogating our idols and, when applicable, acknowledging their faults even when it makes us feel uncomfortable. This is an important lesson we all need to learn – so it’s only fitting that a trio of legendary dads like Pa Kent, Jor-El and Thomas Wayne are the ones to teach us.