That title totally sounds like something out of an episode of the 1966 Batman TV Series, doesn’t it?
“…but the Riddler’s clue, Robin. When is a door not a door?”
“When it’s ajar! He’s going to strike at the jarred fruit exhibit at the Gotham Pavilion!”
“I don’t think so, Robin. That’s too obvious. No, his devious mind works like an onion. You must peel back the onions to get to the core of his twisted scheme.”
“Ajar. Ajar…wait, Batman! Isn’t millionaire explorer Thaddeus A. Jar showing off his priceless collection of souvenirs at the Gotham Millionaire’s Club this afternoon?”
“Precisely, Robin! Good work, chum! Let’s race there fast!”
And yet, it’s all I could really come up with.
When is a door much more than a door?
When it gets me so darn excited, that’s when.
We’ve been making a lot of trips recently to what will soon be our son’s new elementary school for a series of Kindergarten nights designed to get the kids used to the environment, to the lessons (lots of tactile activities, games tied into words, letters, etc), and getting to know their soon to be teachers and classmates.
But you’re going to laugh when I tell you that one of the things that got me the most excited during one of these kindergarten prep nights was…just a door. Sure, the nostalgia of a small school, the same hallways, decorations and smells of the ones I remember as a kid sent me swirling into a delirium of reminiscence. But it was when the little guy asked to use the bathroom and I showed him where it was that I had my mind blown.
Look, they’re still little and they’re still figuring things out, and that includes things we take for granted as adults, like knowing how much/little to show in a public bathroom.
So, yeah. I got so excited about a bathroom stall door, I had to write about it.
I should get out more often. Who knows what I’d find.
Our son has been, I’m not sure what the word would be…categorizing, perhaps? Compartmentalizing?
There’s been a lot of “You a good guy” or “he a a bad guy.” There’s even been some “Me have to fight you, dada,” to which I ask simply, ‘why?’
“Cuz you a bad guy,” he tells me.
Some things I’ve read refer to this as “Power Play,” when children start to play in power roles such as superheroes.
According to Preschooleducation.com, this kind of play crosses all backgrounds, economic statuses and is something many, many children go through.
The article states that while characters change, the common characteristics are:
- There is always a good guy and bad guy. It’s always good vs evil. You’re one or the other. No gray areas.
- There’s always a conflict. It’s the responsibility of the good guys to fight the bad guys.
- Control or power is the issue, always – who will win.
But they also say that children go through it between the ages of four and six. Our son is 2 1/2. And I’m worried that I bear a lot of the blame.
For so long, I’ve been sticking to PBS and Disney shows for him. Sesame Street has been a longtime favorite, and he’s recently jumped into a train phase making Thomas the Tank Engine all the rage at the moment. The toys he plays with the most are stuffed animals, Legos, cars and trucks, a wooden train set, and his Fisher Price Little People. Some of the Little People are generic – a cook, an astronaut, an alien, a farmer, a cow, etc, but some are little smiling versions of characters like Batman, Wonder Woman, The Joker, etc that he received on his birthday. That teamed with my own stuff around the house, he’s seen and recognizes these characters.
So when he saw the box of Adam West 1966 Batman DVDs I got for Christmas, he recognized Batman immediately and went INSANE begging to watch it.
There was plenty of hemming and hawing, until finally I gave in, telling myself ‘well, it’s innocuous enough, right? if I watch it with him, it’ll be okay.’
With its giant props, ridiculous and cartoonish scenarios, I felt like it’s as over the top at times as a Donald Duck cartoon. And I say this all in an endearing way. After all, I’m a huge fan of Batman ’66 myself.
I’ll admit, however, that I have started wondering if this ‘bad guy/good guy’ and ‘me have to fight you’ stuff kicked into high gear because of my allowing him to watch it (always with us there, talking about what’s the bad thing to do, the good thing to do, etc).
Car rides now have him asking me to list off ‘the bad guys from Batman’ or him doing it himself, mumbling “The Joker, The Riddler, Catwoman, Bookworm…” in the backseat and me sitting in the front wondering if I’ve made such a huge slip-up that I’m severely altering my son’s development.
However, it’s also very possible that he might have started doing this anyway, and the names for ‘bad guys’ being rattled off in the back seat could just would have been something else, or something generic otherwise.
I’ve talked to other parents who say their children started these phases early too, but it doesn’t mean I don’t still question my own decisions. So, for better or for worse, I decided to look into this type of play a little more.
In this PBS Parents Expert Q & A, Dr. Michael Thompson, Consultant, Author and Psychologist Specializing in Children and Families, responds to a mother asking about her child often playing the role of the villain when he pretends. She is concerned about him and what it might mean. Thompson’s response is interesting.
“I’m not worried about your son’s gun play as long as it really is play. Children’s play is just play. Play and real violence are two different things. If your son hits people, gets real angry at them, pokes them in the eye, or does scary things to them, that’s a bad sign. If other boys don’t want to play with him; if they leave your house crying, that’s not good. If , however, he is playing with toy guns, running around the house using his imagination, pretending to be someone big and powerful — even a villain — but only only pretending, then I am NOT WORRIED AT ALL. He’s just playing.
You haven’t told me your son’s age, but I think these questions might work for most boys under ten. Is he a loving boy most of the time? Do the teachers at school or preschool tell you that he behaves in class? Does he curl up next to you when you’re watching television? Is he respectful of you and his grandparents? Does he like being read to at bedtime? Does he have good freinds? If the answer to all of those question is “yes” then I am pretty sure that he’s not going to grow up to be a dangerous boy.
Psychologists know that children need to play out many things in their imagination. Boys seem to love to play at being bad, or having super powers. It makes them feel strong and masculine. It is exciting. If you are a good boy in real life, pretending that you are a bad guy can be exciting, because we all have a few villainous fantasies in our minds, don’t we? (Come on, haven’t you ever had a fantasy of breaking the law, or getting even with someone you hated? ) Little boys work these tensions out in their play. And I repeat: It is just play.”
Just as interesting was this research out of the University of Maine that I came across, where children in a preschool environment were observed as the scripts and scenarios for their play was changed over time. Even play that started out as just kids playing with dolls in the corner, over time would have moments of ‘It’s an emergency! My baby has a boo boo!’ and even evolve to children assigning who would be ‘the bad guy’ and ‘take the babies.’ A slightly uneasy teacher went along with it for the sake of the research and found that whether she was assigned as ‘the bad guy’ or if it was to another child, the children always seemed to know and reassure the teacher that it was ‘only pretend.’ It also caused the children to rally and work together to rescue their babies back. I’m paraphrasing, of course, what is a very interesting read, so check it out at the link for something a little more in-depth.
When I first wrote this blog post, it was nothing but self-doubt and self-criticism about my decision and how I felt like a terrible father. With a little perspective from my wife, and more research, I’m finding that the scenario I’m experiencing is not all that uncommon.
Does it still make me uneasy at times? Absolutely, but that doesn’t mean that the worst-case scenarios playing out in my head are coming to fruition and that I’ve started our son down a path of being a criminal.
It means he is learning how to pretend, he’s categorizing.
He’s not getting violent or even real aggressive. He does seem to be truly playing make-believe. And while I would like it to always be the sort of make-believe like being animals on the farm, or something a little more tame, I’m beginning to understand that in growing up comes the need to feel useful, to feel courageous, to feel you’re being brave and helping others.
And that’s not a totally bad thing. If this kind of play can be turned into examples of ‘doing the right thing,’ then maybe I need to stop looking at it as a potential disaster. Instead, maybe I can look at it as an opportunity to take his creativity and new ways of playing and deepen it, understand it, and talk to him about what he’s getting out of it, observe what he’s learning from it, and be a little less restrictive, until reason shows me I need to truly step in.
I’m going to try, at least. After all, I’m learning about all this just as much as he is as we go along.
I’ve gone on and on previously as to why my comic book reading is few and far between these days, likely taking me the full gamut from childhood comic fan to young adult comic aficionado to now being that parent who will one day tell my son that those funnybooks were ‘better in my day!’
With that said, and in all fairness, I thought I should at least give a shout out to the few comic books that I do love to purchase and read, notably because they hold a connection to all the timeless features of comics and characters from my childhood.
Batman ’66 – I’m glad to see the Adam West and Burt Ward era of Batman finally getting a little well-deserved respect. For the longest time, artists, writers, filmmakers, comic readers – they all cringed at the mere mention of the 1966 Batman TV series. I have some friends that still do. But you know what? THEY didn’t make Batman lighthearted, they merely reflected (and accurately, I might add) the Batman comic books of the time period. And catching reruns as a kid (when the Michael Keaton film was coming out, so reruns were everywhere) I loved it. I still do.
Every month I get a comic I can pick up and count on to deliver some whiz-bang-pow fun with very colorful villains just as I remember them. It tells great, done-in-one-issue stories that are like they walked right out of the 60s. It’s a wonderful throwback to simpler times of comic books. I even submitted a proposal for a Batman ’66 story I wrote myself featuring Louie the Lilac and The Minstrel, but alas, any comic with “Bat” in the title these days is big business and small writers like myself are usually not let into the club. Thus, I will continue merely as an entertained reader.
Adventures of Superman – It’s true when I say they just don’t publish Superman comics like they used to. As I’ve mentioned in my lament about comics these days trying to be more evergreen and ready to launch into movies and TV shows, everyone is young, unattached, with very little history to draw upon. This book, however, is different.
And that’s just why I love it.
It’s classic Superman. The Superman we all know, whether we watched George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, Dean Cain, Tom Welling, or just Supes cartoons, you can pick up this anthology, with anywhere from 1-3 stories per issue, and just get classic tales of Superman, the way we all remember him in our memories.
I remember the first time I heard that catchphrase “Who Knows What Evil….Lurks in the Hearts of Men?” or that sinister laugh. I was hooked. Still am.
While the first few issues of this new comic series were more bloody than I would like (I prefer my Shadow a bit more cerebral, like the Orson Welles-era radio plays), the fact that the series keeps itself set in the 1930s is enough to keep me reading.
Another side note on my writing career – I also sent a proposal pitch to Dynamite Entertainment for a Shadow: Classics series, which would adapt some of the old radio scripts to comic form. Alas, once again, it went unanswered. Maybe someone else will pick up on it and do it. Heck, I’d just like to read it. Some of those old radio plays were downright eerie.
Life with Archie – I was never a regular reader of Archie growing up, but sporadically, as a kid, I’d pick up an issue to see what that red-headed ladies’ man was up to. This book intrigued me when I came across it in the grocery store because it’s Archie and his pals all grown up.
On top of that, each book is actually two books. You get one story set in a hypothetical universe where Archie has married Betty and another set in a world where Archie has married Veronica. Yes, Archie apparently gets to have his cake and eat it too.
Either way, he and the gang deal with very adult issues and problems and I love seeing the chances taken by placing these characters in a new, grown-up environment.
So, there you have it. What my comic reading is up to these days. In between these occasional reads, I’ll usually try to sneak in a novel or non-fiction book here and there, or an old comic hardcover or collected edition off my bookshelf, something from the past that I know I enjoyed and will continue to love.
And see, I even was willing to spill the beans to you all about my hopeless attempts at comic pitches that are just out there in the ether. I haven’t quite admitted those to anybody, so there you go. Two for the price of one. 🙂
No, no, no. I don’t mean that. (Get your mind out of the gutter.) I mean many moons before that, when some of you picked up your first comic book to give it a read. Chances are that if you’re like me, it stuck and you’ve been reading them ever since.
Everyone has a different story to tell of a different tale read.
I remember mine quite well. I was probably around 5 or 6 years old and was out of school, sick. Both my parents working, I spent most of the day under a blanket at my grandmother’s house. I remember it being very gray outside, the blanket of the clouds and lack of lights on in the house making it seem as gloomy inside as it was outside.
The day would have been pretty boring and forgettable if it weren’t for one moment – when my grandmother reached into the closet and pulled out a stack of comic books and plopped them in my lap to read. There was a wide array in that pile that I would eventually make my way through – a Richie Rich whose cover had him riding in a giant roller skate, a The Brave and the Bold featuring The Flash and Batman at the Disco of Death, but it was that one on top of the pile that would open the door for me.
It was a copy of Uncle Scrooge #124 from December 1975. Titled “North of the Yukon,” and was a reprint of a Carl Barks classic long before I would know who Carl Barks was. (For those of you wondering, he was a cartoonist who actually created Uncle Scrooge and you can read more about him here.)
Little did I know it at the time, but the story was the last that Barks would write of Scrooge’s adventures in the Yukon. It involved sled dogs and was inspired by a real life article Barks had read about a dog named Balto, who participated in the 1925 Great Race of Mercy in order to deliver an anti-toxin that could halt an epidemic of diphtheria.
From that one Uncle Scrooge book, I would dive into the vast world of Disney’s Ducks, making my way over the years from Ducks to do-gooders, as Batman tangled with the Joker, Superman’s Lex Luthor went from Mad Scientist to Bald Billionaire, and me loving every minute of it.
It was my gateway drug into a lifelong love for comic books, and before long, I was forcing my family to stop by magazine kiosks in the mall or any bookstore where I caught a glimpse of a spinning comic rack in the window. This was all before I discovered my first comic book store, of course (an entire store devoted to comics?! A story of discovery for another time).
My reading list is pretty small these days when it comes to comics. Maybe it’s the simple joys that made for more discerning tastes as I got older. I expect to have a story that instills me with that same awe and wonder I did I had on that first read so many years ago.
It isn’t often (J. Torres’ The Copybook Tales did it, Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier did, much of Sholly Fisch’s work on Batman: Brave and the Bold sure did, as is Batman 66′), but every now and then I’ll come across a book in my adulthood that brings about that pure sense of enjoyment I remember feeling as a kid when I sifted through the pages of a fresh new comic off the rack and in my hands. In other words, it makes you feel like a kid again.
On a recent trip to the store, I came across a copy of a Sesame Street comic book by Ape Entertainment and brought it home for my son. It was partly a joke – ‘hey, honey, look, a comic for him!’ – but it turns out that every now and then he’ll pull it off of his bookshelf and flip through the pages, pointing and laughing at his favorite familiar and fuzzy Muppet characters. Sometimes he’ll hand it to me, indicating he wants it read to him, and I’ll break out the Sesame Street voices I can manage (Grover, the Count, Cookie…I can’t get a handle on Elmo…) and we laugh and have a good time.
Maybe the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I don’t want to force anything on him, and I try to always restrain myself from going too far when presenting him with something because I liked it. But, who knows. Maybe one day he and I will be making a trip to the comic store together and looking through the racks for age-appropriate books he may find fun. Because that’s what comics SHOULD be about – fun.
Decades later, it’s pretty amazing to think that such a big part of one’s life all started with a single sick day on the couch and the richest duck in the world. Sifting through a box in my basement recently, I lit up when I discovered I still have that old book. It’s a little more yellow and a little worse for wear, but it’s still around. It’s probably been more than 25 years since I peered through those pages.
Maybe it’s time to give it another read.
Whether you started age 5, 15, 25, or 45, everybody’s got a first book that started them on their comic path. If you’ve got one, please don’t be afraid to share it with me in the comments. I’d love to hear about it.