Superman and The Goldfinch

For Christmas, all my two-and-a-half-year old wanted was a “bad guy.” At first we thought it was a phase, but he persisted so that I eventually had to ask him: “What is a bad guy?” “He’s the bad guy,” he answered, simply as if there’s just one and is if I was certainly supposed to know who he is and what he looks like.  So I went to a few toy stores and found what I imagined he might imagine as a bad guy. I got two, just in case I was off the mark a bit (which I was with one of them, so I’m glad). But this rolling out of superhero-speak awakened in me the writing of Michael Thompson in It’s a Boy. Thompson maintains that boys around ages three and four develop a fascination with superheros and their counter-parts “bad guys,” because “they do not have to deal with the reality of a living thing.” In other words, boys this age (and girls, I’d argue) have all the power to to decide how bad a bad guy will be, in what way he’ll be bad, and perhaps even how he’ll be punished. In aligning themselves with superhero mentality, they are, in a sense, empowering themselves.


Recently we took a trip to the local Barnes and Nobles to kill some time – these stores are really just as much play-spaces/libraries these days. I told my son he could pick out a book, and of course he chose instead a small Superman action figure, motorcycle and accompanying book called Superman: The Man of Steel. Later at home, he asked me to read the book to him. Well, in fact the book read like a Wikipedia entry – marching through Superman’s history, lineage, his enemies, partners, and of course his weakness: Kryptonite. I tried to “read” this to him by summarizing each dictionary entry, but I found myself interested, too. I knew the basics about Superman, but had never seen it laid out so neatly, so clearly. Superman is clearly a good superhero who chooses to use his powers to help people. He is not perfect; he has a weakness, but he does not use that weakness to hurt anyone. It seemed so innocent as we now live in the age, really, of the anti-hero.


We’ve begun to see antiheroes in television with characters like Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Walter White, to name just a few, but the literary antihero goes back hundreds of years. Today it seems impossible to read any literary fiction that does not provide us with a formidable antihero. Most recently, I read The Goldfinch (which I highly recommend – as Stephen King explained in his awesome review for The Times, you keep waiting for this book to lose its footing, and it never does.) Theo Decker, the book’s protagonist, is irrevocably altered with the tragic death of his mother. What follows is Theo’s desperate attempt to find a home and/or someone to love him the way his mother did. Without any real guidance, he succumbs to deviant behavior, and befriends a fellow lost soul named Boris -the type of person your mother would -if you had one – steer you away from. And though we read about the unimaginable travails of Boris- the awful way he treated by his own family, the awful way he treats other people, you are still rooting for him. They are both really unforgettable characters.

I kept thinking about The Goldfinch – about Theo and Boris – as I read about Superman and thought about the superpowers people often create for themselves to live through certain unimaginable scenes. They have amazing strength, the ability to see through things, to shoot fire from their eyes – all of course, metaphorically speaking, but you get the idea. I think that’s what makes The Goldfinch such a knockout book. The author, Donna Tart, takes these lives – that, sure aren’t so ordinary, but infuses them with such ordinary details that you feel like you are right beside them. And back to Michael Thompson’s ideas: he explains how young boys explore identity rapidly throughout the day – expressing strength and fear in equal parts. Even my son’s little book about Superman includes a note in the conclusion about his fortress of solitude, where he houses his weapons and artifacts. “This monument is both a reminder of his home planet and his duty to the people of his adoptive home.” So even Superman needs reminding. He still has fear that can cause him to be weak. There may just be a part of him that wants to be selfish, to take care of himself sometimes, though that’s not an option for him.

After mulling all this over and writing out these thoughts, I decided to revisit the topic with my son last night and here’s how it went. Of course by the time we, as parents, start to get a handle on a phase, it’s time to move on to the next…

Me: What do bad guys do?

Him: Whoa!

Me: What?

Him: Roar!

Me: Oh

Him: But I don’t like Bad Guys anymore. I like them outside, but not inside. Not here. I want a dinosaur. A big dinosaur and a little dinosaur.

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  1. Ha ha ha-I can totally relate to this. Great writing Liz!

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