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Friday, August 26, 2011

Batman 80 Page Giant: Batman Fights Autism, Strikes Blow For Sentimentality



The recent Batman: 80 Page Giant makes the unlikely intersection between Batman and autism. In the story written by Joe Caramagna, a nonverbal autistic boy is reading a Batman comic when his mother takes the book away from him. She's bitching about how he can't differentiate between fantasy and reality (apparently unable to get her stereotypes straight, as most of these morons say that autistic people are too literal to be imaginative), while his father talks about how comics are just harmless fun. After getting upset by the bickering, the boy looks out the window, and either has a fantasy that he sees Batman and Solomon Grundy fighting, or actually witnesses Batman and Grundy duking it out. But in the end, this enables the nine-year-old to say his first word, to the delight of both his parents; "Batman".

The story is slightly better than most fictional representations of autism, in that the autistic by is the actual protagonist instead of a plot device to make his parents sympathetic, and the "warrior mother" stereotype is as much a pompous blowhard as a tireless champion for her child's development. The story isn't exactly deep, but given how it's a back-up strip in an anthology magazine, we can't expect too much. On the other hand, this is the only place where we'd see the autism "issue" in a Batman comic, and it's used in a revoltingly sentimental fashion, right down to the "everything's going to be okay" ending. And if the kid can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality, he's got problems that are far more debilitating than the autism spectrum-- it's Sucker Punch all over again..

But the problems with the book are severely exacerbated when you take This Article into account, in which Caramagna tells his local newspaper about his creative process. I'm sure that Caramagna is well-intentioned, but those intentions are expressed in a very condescending manner towards autistic people. Because autism is such a horrible fate, the language surrounding it tends to focus on treating (if not outright curing/erasing) the disorder. In fact, Caramanga talks about how he designed the story to potentially "unlock their imagination"

I wanted to tell a story where comics can make a difference in someone’s life and get their creative juices going. I don’t want to make it sound like if you give a kid a comic, he’ll be cured. But I think they can be used as part of a creative therapy or artistic therapy. With autism, no one knows what might be the thing that unlocks their imagination.

I totally agree that a Batman comic can unlock a child's imagination. Because it's BATMAN. He's already a character with near-universal appeal, evidenced by the fact that he maintains a transmedia presence stronger than pretty much any other comic hero, and has his backstory etched in the public imagination. Using him as an autistic kid's fantasy/delusion isn't going to stir those creative juices any better than a straightforward Batman story. In fact, it's probably going to be less effective, because A.) people who buy Batman would likely rather read about Batman than a "special needs" sob story stereotype, and B.) the autistic character might outright offend some of us on the spectrum.

Aside from that one comment, Caramagna doesn't say anything too infuriating. Most of the problem is the way the interview frames the comic, as "fighting autism". Of course, these articles never see autism as part of an autistic person, the neurological identity that shapes them into who they are (albeit with a lot of trials along the way, but the trials of the autistic individual are rarely dealt with as something that causes THEM suffering; it's usually shown as the burden on their families); they treat it as a bogeyman, a Jokeresque villain that steals a normal child's soul.

Coincidentally, there is quite a bit of the Batman mythos that relates to autism. Bruce Wayne isn't on the spectrum because he's too multi-talented in his masteries, but the drive in which he trained at martial arts/criminology/invention/breathing in space definitely resonates with Asperger's-style obsessions. The villains he faces are often tragic figures, prisoners of their own madnesses, and can be sympathetic to those who have difficulty controlling their emotions. Hell, there are two characters that may well be on the autism spectrum (albeit by fantastical circumstances) -- Cassandra Cain, the former Batgirl and current Black Bat, has tremendous martial arts skills but struggled with basic language and literacy. And Bruce's artificially-conceived son Damien Wayne may also fit; he was built to fight, he was never given social skills, he's extremely temperamental, and while he wants to do good he has little to no idea how to do so.

Of course, this all requires critical thought, and stereotypes are so much easier to digest.

2 comments:

  1. As well-intentioned as Caramanga may be, it'd be nice if he had the self-awareness to recognize that this enterprise was doomed from the start. The fact is, it'd be near-impossible to tell anything but a sentimental sob story about autism within the constraints of an 80-page giant. You've only got four to six pages, tops, to tell a story, which is why most of 80-page giants I've read tend to focus on character pieces.

    I'm not saying that this couldn't have been a better fictional examination of autism against the backdrop of the world of Batman; I'm saying that to pull it off would have required a lot more thought, experience and research than I think Caramanga put into the story.

    (And I don't care what DC says. Cass Cain is Batgirl, Steph Brown is her light-hearted BFF, and Barbara Gorden is her mentor. If DC doesn't have to move past their preferred status quo, I don't have to move past mine.)

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  2. UGH. Batman himself would not have approved. I recall one episode of the 1990's animated series in which the holidays had arrived again, and Robin asked Batman if he wanted to watch "It's a Wonderful Life," and Batman said, "I couldn't get past the the title." So yeeah, I don't think the Caped Crusader would waste his time on this. :/

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