The Literary Phenomenon of Parentless Children

Have you ever stopped to consider how many child heroes and heroines from childhood stories (past and present) were either orphaned, abandoned, or raised by only one or the other of a parental unit?  It’s an enormous theme.  My roommate and I compiled an off-the-top-of-our-heads list via text one day and it’s crazy, really, to think how many of the children from the stories that shaped my life didn’t come from two-parent homes.

The Orphaned or Single Parent Child Hero List:

Alice in Wonderland / Alice Through the Looking Glass
Nancy Drew series
Dorrie the Little Witch
Half Magic / Magic by the Lake
Anne of Green Gables
The Wizard of Oz series
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory / James and the Giant Peach / The Witches
The Harry Potter series
Oliver Twist
David Copperfield
Charlotte’s Web (Wilbur, not Fern)
A Wrinkle in Time
Pollyanna
The Secret Garden
A Little Princess
Great Expectations
What Katy Did
Madeline

Disney, of course, is so rife with this phenomenon that it requires its own list.  Though when you think about it Disney isn’t truly to blame since almost all its stories come from fairy tales, books, or myths.  Still... here’s the Disney version of the list:

Aladdin and Jasmine from Aladdin
Ariel from The Little Mermaid
Cinderella
Mowgli from The Jungle Book
Snow White from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
Belle and Chip from Beauty and the Beast
Bambi
Dumbo

Oliver from Oliver and Company
Prince Philip from Sleeping Beauty
Pinocchio
Peter Pan and the Lost Boys from Peter Pan
Toulouse, Marie, and Berlioz from The Aristocats
Pocahontas
Tarzan and Jane from Tarzan
Lilo from Lilo and Stitch

Why is this?  

My roommate noted, quite rightly, that “a child who has suffered loss immediately gets our sympathy” and further added that parentless children “have a void that needs filling and a deep curiosity to figure out who they are without the guidance of a parent.  They have a freedom that we as young readers crave.”  Never has the freedom issue been so evident as in Nancy Drew wherein Nancy, at eighteen years of age, prowls America (or the globe, even) in her Mustang convertible getting in and out of scrapes while solving mysteries without any objections from her attorney father Carson Drew because he is very busy either working or fobbing off aspects of his cases that involve bizarre mysteries to his teen daughter to look into.  There is definitely something about the absence of parent that makes the narrative much easier to propel forward.  Not only are these parentless children often unsupervised but they’re spunky, driven, curious, sometimes rebellious.  They are unafraid to open the door to see what’s behind it partly because they’ve already suffered the worst a child can suffer - the loss of one or more parents - and partly because there’s nobody around to tell them it could go badly if they do open it.  That sense of loss is also a keen part of the trope.  These kids seemingly have less to fear because of the fear they’ve already endured.  The security and sense of belonging that comes from being ensconced in the protective circle of a two-parent family is void if the young hero/heroine first endures the shattering loss of one of those parents.  And yet it isn’t that they fear less, it’s that they’ve already stared down the fear and understood its depths.  They know what lies at the end of the fear.  So it either makes them unceasingly curious and bold (Alice in her Wonderland) or withdrawn and guilt-ridden (Simba in The Lion King).  Either way much can be done, narratively speaking, with that sort of motivation.  The reader is already deeply sympathetic to the child and now gets to live through adventures they wouldn’t be permitted to embark on by stepping into the child character’s shoes.

I understand the motivation.  It’s narratively sound.  After all, children are meant to be protected.  And properly guarded and raised children really shouldn’t be able to tumble down rabbit holes or magic themselves onto a pirate island or run away with giant bugs, etc.  Where’s the fun in that?  Children dream of doing these things all the time so why shouldn’t books and films show them what it would be like?  Why not indeed?  I certainly am not of the opinion that our fantasy needs to strictly echo our reality on every level.  Fantasy and fiction should be an escape.  

And yet... there is also something awful about continually dealing with the parent issue at all by killing one or more of them off.  Why can’t the adventure happen without the necessary explanation that the child hero is an orphan?  Why can’t the adventure just happen without mention of the parents at all and let us, the reader, believe that the parents are around but simply not involved with this particular event?  Even better, why not write the child hero as having two loving and involved parents (either or both genders) who simply allow their child the freedom to find their own way?  In some ways it’s lazy to write the parents out of the equation.  It’s easier to have an abandoned child getting into scrapes and as readers we really want that child to succeed, certainly, but what message does that send?  That you must suffer a great loss - perhaps the greatest loss possible in a young life - in order to achieve greatness?  Loss does shape you and define you.  Suffering does school you.  But there is equal value in writing children who are able to define themselves in spite of safety.  Child heroes who embark on adventure and follow dreams and achieve greatness because they choose to, because they find inner strength and are encouraged by family.  Learning to become your true and best self in spite of security is a harder ask and a harder narrative to write but a necessary story to tell.  

I mean let’s not forget that The Incredibles adventured together as a family and they were each superheroes in their own right.  The Pevensie children had two parents that loved them enough to send them away for their own safety during the war; to a vast home full of eccentric curiosities where they found their way into Narnia.  And Hermione Granger had two Muggle parents who were sensible enough to recognize their daughter’s talents and let her go to Hogwart’s.  A lot can be achieved with the proper support.

 

- Corinne Simpson

 

Pick of the Week – April 21-27, 2014

What if Harry Potter was a real person?  I don’t mean that there is a real wizarding world and Hogwarts and all of that.  I mean, what if JK Rowling knew a boy named Harry Potter and decided to write a series of books using him as the main character?

That’s the basic set-up of my pick for this week, The Unwritten, the comic book series written by Mike Carey and drawn by Peter Gross.  The series follows Tom Taylor, the son of Wilson Taylor.  When Tom was young, Wilson used him as the model for the hero in a series of wildly-successful fantasy novels.  Ever since then, Tom has lived in the shadow of his fictional counterpart.

With his father gone (and presumed dead), Tom is making the best of it appearing at conventions and making other public appearances.  A series of events soon has Tom questioning his origins and fearing for his life.

At its core, The Unwritten is about the power of stories and what those stories mean to the people who read them.  It’s both exciting and literate (not that the two have to be mutually-exclusive), and the artwork is gorgeous.  The series also takes full advantage of the comic book medium.  One issue is written as a “Choose Your Own Adventure,” directing readers to pages throughout the book based on their choices. 

The Unwritten is published under DC Comics’ Vertigo  imprint, which means it is for mature readers.  They aren’t kidding.  The first 49 issues have been collected as a series of eight trade paperbacks with a ninth coming in July 2014.  There is also a standalone graphic novel, The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship that Sank Twice.

-Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter

The Bleeding Edge

A few weeks ago in THIS POST, I talked about my hopes that the new Cosmos television series would spark new interest in science.  I also described my first run-in with an approximation (but not a very good one) of the scientific method.  That event, however, wasn't really what got me interested in science.

For that, I have to leap forward in time to elementary school.  I was in 6th grade, I believe.  My family was living in Memphis, Tennessee, and my father was on the faculty at Memphis State University (Yes, I know it’s the University of Memphis now, but it will always be MSU to me).  The Mississippi River flows borders Memphis to the east, and in the river just a short distance away from the bluffs on which downtown Memphis sits is a spit of land called Mud Island. 

Mud Island is home to a…I wouldn’t really call it a theme park.  It’s more of an attraction dedicated to the Mississippi River.  Along with eateries, a gift shop, and a decent playground, there’s a museum that I used to love as a kid and a scale model of the river that runs the length of the park into a large fountain representing the Gulf of Mexico. 

One weekend Mud Island hosted an event only for the faculty of the university and their families.  I’m sure there were lots of activities going on that particular day, but the only thing I remember is a demonstration by a faculty member from the Physics department.

I’ve seen several science demonstrations in classes and on television over the years, but I can’t think of any that were on the level of scale and showmanship as what I saw that day. 

He pulled me in to help show that a pendulum will never swing back at high as it was at its starting point (Neil deGrasse Tyson demonstrated this very principle in the 4/13/2014 episode of Cosmos).  It’s a fairly basic scientific fact, but it’s a bit more impressive to see it done with a bowling ball attached to a two-story high metal cable.  He placed the bowling ball up to my face and then let it go.  I watched as this heavy orb the size of my head arced away from my and then swung back. 

I’d heard the explanation.  I trusted him and the science.  But still that thing was coming at me so fast.  There was no way it was going to stop in time.  I couldn’t help but lean back a bit. 

This happened twice before he finally decided to turn me around, so I couldn’t see what was happening.  He touched the bowling ball gently to the back of my head and let it go.  Fortunately, I stood still that time, and the audience got a wonderful proof of this aspect of the motion of the pendulum.  It’s certainly something I will always remember.  How many people have had the experience of seeing a bowling ball flying right at their head without instant death or serious trauma immediately following?

The finale of the show beat the bowling ball, though.  The man running the demonstration had a guillotine.  A real, full-sized guillotine, complete with a large and very sharp blade.  To show us just how sharp said blade was, he used it to cut a couple of watermelons neatly in half.  The next thing to go into the guillotine, though, was his own neck.

Before that, though, he attached electromagnets to the guillotine’s frame just above where his neck was soon to be.

Looking back, I’m still impressed that this man was willing to put his life on the line to show his belief in science.  But he did.  He put his head into the guillotine, turned on the power to the electromagnets and sent the blade plummeting toward his exposed neck.

The magnets did their work and stopped it just short.  All the man received was the slightest cut on the back of his neck. 

I really don’t think he was getting paid extra for that.  It was just MSU Day at Mud Island, after all, and he was faculty.  However, he feel strongly enough about his work and showing us the wonders of science that he put on a show that has stuck with me to this day.

I’m just glad there wasn’t a badly-timed power outage.

Once I got to high school, physics was by far my favorite of the sciences.  I can’t say for certain that seeing that demonstration years earlier was why, but it certainly didn’t hurt.  At the very least, it laid the ground work for my interest.  Physics, equations and all, just made sense to me.  My high school physics teacher, who gave me a wonderful grounding in the subject and taught a course that was far more rigorous than the ones I ended up taking in college, encouraged me to look that direction for my career.  I didn’t, but my love for the subject never went away.

Each week as I watch Cosmos with my son, I’m reminded of the wonders of the scientific world.  I hope the show is sinking in with him.  But if I could get my hands on a time machine, I’d take him back to see that guillotine demonstration.  Now THAT he’d think was cool. 

-Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter

An Easter Story

“Essentially the peeps defected, sire.”

“The bunnies or the chicks?”

“Both.  The chicks went first.”

“To where?”  HRR was shrouded in shadow but his voice was clearly annoyed.

“Christmas, mainly.”  The advisor cleared his throat nervously.

“Is nothing sacred?”  HRR stamped the floor, a resounding angry thud that echoed through the chamber.  

“Yes.  I mean, no Your Majesty.  Apparently not.”  The advisor looked vaguely ill.  “Uh...”

“There’s more?”

“One or two notes, ah, more.  Yes.”  

“Get it over with.”

“The hollow bunnies are on strike.”

“Wha--!  Why?”

“They’ve been demanding filling but, well... at any rate, they’re striking until caramel concessions can be made.”

“We have eggs for filling!”

“The bunnies feel unfairly maligned by the eggs.  They protest that they can do as good a job as the eggs if not better.”

“Uhhgggghhh.”  HRR buried his face.  “I hope that’s it.”  His voice was muffled.

“Well...”  The advisor fidgeted.

“JUST TELL ME.”

“There was a bit of an uprising.  A small, er, fracas if you will.”

“Between who?”

“The jellybeans and the mini eggs.”

“War?”

“A bit of what you might call a battle, I guess, all things considered.”

“Over what?”

“Dominance of the small oblong sugar market.”

“................. who won?”  HRR bit back several other things that came to mind and asked the obvious instead.

“The jellybeans.”

“And the mini eggs are...?”

“Annihilated, mostly.  Some fled and are being sheltered by the turkish delight.”

“How many jellybeans were lost?”

“All the yellow, half the blue, a good portion of pink, scatterings of purple and green.  It’s not good.”

“Where does that leave us?”

“The solid bunnies are still, if you’ll forgive the pun, thick as thieves.  Unbreakable really.  Sturdy.  Concrete.”

“I won’t forgive it.  Give yourself five lashes later.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”  The advisor hung his head.  

“Is there anyone else left?”

“The creme eggs, of course.  They’re very loyal.”

“This is not good.”

“No, Your Majesty.”

“I don’t have enough to complete The Hunt.”

“Likely not, Your Majesty.”

“I really didn’t want it to come to this but I’m afraid I have no choice.”

“Back up?”

“Yes.”

“Halloween?”

“Who else has the manpower to spare?”

“Candy corn?”  

“Lord no.  See if the solid wrapped pumpkins will come.  And check with the black and orange jellybeans.  If they’ll agree to leave the surviving mini eggs alone and work with us, we can use them.”

“I’ll get right on it, Your Majesty.”  The advisor bowed low and backed to the door where he waited with respectfully downcast eyes.  HRR stood and smoothed his chest hair pensively.  He hopped slowly off the dais.

“Do you think it’s salvageable?”

“I do hope so, Your Majesty.”

“If we fail they might... look elsewhere.”  HRR furrowed his brow.  “You know, for another meaning.”

“Surely not, sire.”

“Indeed.”  He straightened, drew a breath, and nodded to the advisor.  The advisor threw open the door of the Throne Hutch and thousands of eyes turned in unison.

“The Singular, the Distributor, His Royal Rabbit, the Easter Bunny!”  The advisor swept into a low bow after the announcement as HRR emerged into Good Friday amid thunderous applause.


The End

- Corinne Simpson

 

Nathan's Laserium: Comics 101 Issue 3

I completely forgot the whole reason the Vampirenomad herself invited me to write for her site - I was supposed to be the Comics 101 guy, sharing my love of comics to the masses. I did two posts, which were surprisingly hard, and then my contribution to this site morphed into my Laserium and I tossed Comics 101 into the Drawer of Forgotten Things.

Writing about comics is hard for me for a couple of reasons - the first is that, my whole Comics 101 course would go like this: "Comics are awesome. You should read some." The second is that, there are many fine comics websites and podcasts and who am I to set myself up as some sort of grand guru of sequential art? Do you even draw, bro?

My only credential is that comics have been part of my life since before I could read, and I have loved them (if not always completely faithfully) ever since. Indeed, one of the first words I remember reading is from the cover of ROM #2, which said "Lethal Laserium!!" Or maybe there were three !!!s. I wondered what it was, a laserium. And do you say Lay-ZEER-e-um or Lay-zer-EE-um? Well either way you now know the secret origin of Nathan's Laserium.

Back in those days everyone got their comics from the spinner racks at drug stores and gas stations. "Hey kids, comics!" they said. Sadly those racks are pretty much extinct. Nowadays you can get your comics anytime, in a plethora of formats physical or digital, but you can't get them at the 7-11. Hey kids, the future!

If you want to take part in the weekly festival of New Comic Book Day (ie Wednesdays- #NCBD on Twitter) you pretty much need to have what's called a pull list at a Local Comicbook Shop. That is, if your town or city is lucky enough to have one. A pull list is like a subscription service- you tell them what comics you want to buy and they pull one out and put it aside for you every week. I love my LCS, and the community it provides. When I recently took my daughter to the emergency room for dehydration, it was my comic shop guy who texted me to see if everything was ok. You don't forget stuff like that. There are downsides though- some comic shops are not friendly to new customers, or women, or I dunno people who might like to give them money so they can stay in business.

The biggest downside for me is what to do with all the comics that accrue week after week. Most serious collectors ritually "bag and board" them - put them in collective mylar bags with cardboard backers to keep them from flopping over - and then store them in longboxes, special cardboard boxes made specifically to keep comics in. And there they sit, year after year. I still have that copy of ROM #2 that I mentioned- and all the other comics I've bought over the years. They're not worth anything, and I'll never have time to reread them, but I still can't bring myself to get rid of them.

An obvious solution is to go digital. I actually do read comics digitally, and I can say that it's a pretty decent way to go. Although on phones it's not as great- you read one panel at a time which is alright but not ideal. Perfect for tablets, however. If I had the attention span to actually sit and read on my desktop I would, since comics look amazing on a huge hidef screen, but all my open tabs keep beckoning me away so it takes forever to read one comic on my iMac. Anyways, the Comixology app and website is my preferred digital comics service for new comics. New issues are released same day as physical comics (floppies) and they cost the same. Downside is DRM management and you don't really own a file like an mp3 on your hard drive. This for me is actually a plus but it does bother some people. Most publishers have their own apps, but Comixology carries the biggest selection. Dark Horse Comics being one major exception, they are only available on their own app.

Another digital service that I really like is Marvel Unlimited, which is a sort of online archive of over 14,000 Marvel comics covering everything from the dawn of the Marvel Universe in 1961 to books that are roughly 6 months old. Bit of a lag but if you can wait, you don't even really need to buy new comics. There's a small monthly fee, but as long as you use it regularly I think it pretty much pays for itself. Downside - since it is a paid service I find the occasional slow load times and downtime to be a major frustration though this doesn't seem to be happening lately. It would be nice if DC had a similar thing, but as of this writing they do not.

If digital isn't for you and you also don't want to have hundreds of floppies cluttering up your living environment, you could go with collected editions, typically soft cover collections of 5,6 or 8 single issues. There are also fancier hardcovers which typically collect 12 issues, and then all sorts of Collector Omnibuses and Super Expensive Editions and so forth. Comic shops sell them and the major online retailers like Amazon do as well. They look nice on a bookshelf, and even better- many libraries carry them in their collections so you can read them for free and not have to keep them.

Lastly I want to mention Comic Book Movies and cartoons as a perfectly legitimate way to enjoy comics. There's a lot of great cross-fertilization going on there, with new fans hopefully being drawn into reading the source material. It might only be 1/1000 or 1/10000 but anything that brings in new readers is ok by me. Because comics are awesome, and you should read some!

- Nathan Waddell