Comic Book Dads

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This is the fifth installment of an ongoing series written for the blog by Richard Graham. Richard is an associate professor and media services librarian at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he studies the educational use of comics and serves as the film and art history liaison. His posts examine UNL’s, Nebraska’s, and the larger literary world’s connections with the comics medium.

In light of Father’s Day I’ve found myself contemplating one of the staples of conflict often found throughout the arts and humanities: father-and-son-relationships. While my own family dynamics certainly have had, and continue to experience, moments of drama, it is not nearly dysfunctional enough to prove as compelling as some of the depictions I’ve encountered vicariously.

As a student of literature during my early college years, I found I could relate with Homer’s epic poems, The Illiad and the Odyssey. Through the relationships of Priam and Hector and Odysseus and Telemachus, I saw fathers proud of their promising sons and conversely, sons likewise proud of their established fathers. Both father-son pairs in the epic poems spend more time apart than they do together, and it is because of this that they develop admiration and love for one another. With my own father serving in the Army as I was growing up, I appreciate how the father-son affection in both poems is achieved only through distance, since my old man would serve long deployments and frequently miss some of the milestones of youth. Years later, I came across Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze, a comic book retelling of the Trojan War, and found the scene when Odysseus says goodbye to Penelope and his newborn son to be incredibly realistic and touching.

Sad, sure, but growing up, I also had some other fathers to look up to: Pa Kent, who represented a version of “nature-over-nurture” and instilled Midwest values into the future Man of Steel, and Uncle Ben, who, while not the biological father of Peter Parker, was still the pivotal male role model responsible for Spidey’s mantra, “With great power comes great responsibility.” That’s the kind of caring, intelligent conversation that one welcomes from an involved dad, even if it came from a funny book.

Of course, there are many comics and graphic novels that depict a less-than-ideal family situation. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home comes to mind. But perhaps one of the greatest comics to focus on a depressing father-son-relationship would have to be Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, which revolves around divorce and an absent dad. Ware has the ability to awe you with his pristine artwork, but demolish your exuberance for life with his depressing take on a boy and his imaginative ways of filling a parental void. After reading this, one should vow to be a better parent than those depicted in the book.

But it’s my two young sons’ recent discovery of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes that gives me an opportunity to best contemplate fatherhood. Like many others, I grew up reading the exploits of Calvin and Hobbes in my newspaper, and readily identified with Calvin and his imaginative mis-adventures. Now, going back and reading them with my little guys, I’m relating to the adults. In fact, Calvin’s dad has become frighteningly similar to me. Aside from a slight superficial physical resemblance (I have short dark hair and wear glasses), his frequent rants about crazy car drivers could be coming out of my own mouth. I make my own kids do things in the name of character-building. I even tease my sons about things, occasionally to the point of extreme irritation, and I love explaining how things work (although usually truthfully). And that occasional sarcastic streak which shows through usually during Calvin’s report cards from school is something I share, too. Thankfully, Watterson himself has defended Calvin’s dad, remarking that in the case of parenting a kid such as Calvin, “I think they do a better job than I would.”

There are many portrayals of dads one can find in literature and comics – some are clichéd, some have horrible outcomes, but hopefully this blog post will get you to look at fathers in comics a little more closely in the future.