The Heroic Orphan – Early Childhood Trauma and the Development of Superheroes

Readers of GEEKPR0N cannot be unaware of the fact that a great many comic book super heroes and villains have awful family back-stories  On one level, this gives the writers a great deal more flexibility to work with the character – orphans do not have to be home in time for supper, after all. On another level, this trope continues a long and semi-mythic history of emotionally isolated protagonists. However, the childhood stories of many comic book characters also provide an interesting commentary on their later lives. From Batman’s brutal attempts to turn the death of Dick Grayson’s parents into heroic motivation, to Tony Stark’s attention-seeking, many superheroes are clearly indelibly marked by negative parental experience.

The lasting effects of childhood trauma

Domestic violence and familial trauma can have deep and lasting effects upon children. Indeed, it seems that the activities of many comic book characters are driven by unhappy formative experience during early family life. Licensed Prescriptions state that children “…can be harmed by witnessing violence and indeed, as a result can often end up abused and neglected themselves.” Much like superpowers, the harmful effects of domestic abuse on children are wide ranging, and manifest in many different forms, yet all can ultimately be attributed to the same cause. In much the same manner, the attitudes, drives, actions, and even powers themselves of superheroes and villains can in many cases be traced back to early childhood trauma. A vastly disproportionate number of comic book characters are isolated from their families, and disconnected from relational support networks. While this on one level makes it much easier for the writers to work with the character – a hero not tied to a domestic unit makes for a hero with much greater independent scope – the stories explaining their comparative isolation also provide an interesting window into their psyches.


Bruce Banner’s suppressed rage

Bruce Banner is a classic example of a child damaged by early domestic abuse. Banner’s childhood was characterized by the state of terror in which he and his mother were kept by his violent and abusive father – who ultimately beat his mother to death. Banner eternally fears that he has inherited the uncontrolled rage of his father, vowing never to have children in order not to pass on these ‘monster genes’. The violence of his father leaves a deep impression on him, and is a major contributing factor to underlying mental health issues which render his Hulk form utterly terrifying. Banner, for fear of becoming his hated father, tries to suppress any angry impulses he has. Suppressed rage without a controlled vent has a tendency to build up and erupt quite spectacularly – as it does fairly early on in Banner’s career. Before being exposed to the gamma rays which would give his rage its full, green, and devastatingly violent form, Banner arguably has his first ‘Hulk out’ when he encounters his father at his mother’s grave. Overcome with anguish and fury, Banner lashes out at his father and kills him. Thus the Hulk was born within the mind of Banner, before being given super powered expression by the gamma rays to which he was exposed. It is notable that, when Banner gets psychological help for his issues, the Hulk becomes controllable.

Tony Stark’s attention seeking

Tony Stark struggles with the legacy of his father’s dismissive and overwhelmingly negative parenting style, turning to a reckless lifestyle and alcoholism to cope. As a child, he suffered from lack of attention, and as an adult he often goes out of his way to gain the attention of the world. He courts the media, leads an extravagantly outrageous lifestyle, and is constantly trying to prove himself through bigger, faster, shinier robotics, and louder explosives. Lacking early tuition in turning to others for emotional support, he instead relies upon alcohol for solace and comfort. In the 2008 Iron Man movie, Tony’s relationship with his real father seems to have its ghost in his relationship with Obadiah Stane. Tony clearly has a lot of respect for Stane, perhaps even subconsciously considering him a surrogate father figure. However, like Howard Stark, Stane is ultimately more interested in the company than in supporting Tony. Indeed, Stane’s brutal efforts to destroy Tony – including ripping out the reactor preserving his heart – could be construed as an external depiction of the internal damage done to Tony’s psyche (his ‘heart’) by his real father.


Batman as Robin’s abusive father

Some of the heroes even seem to understand the effect a traumatic and abusive childhood has on those who live in a comic-book universe. Batman frequently treats Robin in much the same way as an abusive father would treat his son. Indeed, ‘Batman slapping Robin’ has become a popular and eminently recognizable meme. In Frank Miller’s ‘All Star Batman and Robin’, Batman behaves appallingly towards the newly recruited Dick Grayson, with the overt motive of toughening him up into hero material. He gasses Grayson, whom he has kidnapped mere moments after the boy witnessed the death of his parents, slaps him, deposits him in the Batcave, and is utterly furious with Alfred when he tries to give the boy a blanket and some food. Batman would prefer that Grayson catch rats to feed himself, as this is what he did as a child. His objective is to turn Grayson into a superhero, and he knows that, in Gotham City, the best way to do this is through sustained childhood trauma and abuse.


The world as a parent

One could see the world or the cities in which superheroes live as vastly extended parental figures for these orphaned and abused figures. Batman struggles to save Gotham from the shadowy characters he could not save his parents from. Bruce Banner, who hated his father and ultimately beat him to death, beats and tries to destroy the world when he ‘Hulks out’. Superman’s parents were lost to him, so he does his utmost to preserve the world he lives in. Tony Stark was ignored and dismissed by his father, so seems to be on a mission to impress and gain the attention of the world with ever shinier gadgets. Harry Osborn is a fascinating case study. He walks a fine line between respectful love for the world, and a burning need to take a violent and unarticulated vengeance upon it. This accurately reflects his relationship with his overbearing father, whose memory torments him. Harry has immense respect for his father, at times seeming to verge upon worship – yet behind this lurks a scared and resentful child who fears his overbearing and often psychologically abusive father.

Humanizing psychology

The influence of parents and unhappy childhoods on superheroes renders them interesting and human characters, relatable as well as awesomely powerful. Batman is popular as much for his scarred psyche as for his awesome utilities, and Tony Stark is one of the most loved Avengers for his witty, attention-seeking character, not for his world-saving suit. The formative experiences of these comic book characters have given them the coping mechanisms that fire their world-saving or world-destroying impulses. Unfortunately, in many cases the traumas of early childhood have left too deep a scar to be easily erased – and most superheroes carry a deep burden of unhappiness.

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