Guest Essay: The Absent Father

My friend David Oakes sent along these thoughts, taking off from an infamous comment I made previously. I found them thought-provoking, so he granted permission to share them with you.

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I keep coming back to “Many Creators have/had Absent Father Figures”. Because while it explains nothing, it explains so much. Even the most face-value, Freudian interpretation, where only the emotionally stunted need adolescent power fantasies, and only the most broken among them would dedicate their lives to the medium. (OK, genre.) That only begs the question as to why superhero iconography seems to resonate with the (presumably less broken) public at large.

I had been working on a hypothesis of the Absent Father not as a metaphor but as a physical fact. Superman is created in 1938, after a decade of Depression fathers had left to find work. Supers rose to their height during the War, when fathers were overseas, and collapsed pretty quickly in the 50s when they returned, and as previously young men became fathers themselves. Another spike in the 60s, Korea or Viet-Nam? And how much of Toby Maguire’s success is due to Geek Chic, and how much is Gulf War I? The numbers are vague and imprecise, but there is more there than not.

But then I was reading Newsweek (hey, I am allowed) and they were looking at the current popularity of the Nativity story. They focused on the usual suspects, but they also looked at Joseph. He was ignored in the Gospels, but Newsweek was looking at 1st century Jewish views on family. They pointed out how in the 12th century (Rise of the Popes?), the Church turned to Joseph as the Ideal Father, willing to raise a child he knew was not his own.

The biggest story we have, the myth that is the cornerstone of Western Civilization, is a tale of an Absent Father. It explains so much, it explains nothing.

And the counterpoint is, at least for gender politics, what is your story? Boys get to be the saviour, with powers far beyond those of mortal men, though our fathers are ultimately distant. But what do women get? Nothing more than the two Marys, the Mother/Whore dichotomy? Does Manga have power over (for?) women not in its diversity, but in its Orient-ation? (The conflict of Oriental and Occidental has often been framed in terms of gender, with the Rational Male West facing off against the Inscrutable, Slippery, Duplicitous, FEMALE East.)

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Me again. David doesn’t have answers so much as questions, but I’ve always enjoyed this kind of free form, free association exploration. I wrote a Superman piece for Kryptonian Cybernet way way back that worked similarly … I should look for that.

Similar Posts: DC Names Top Ten Super Superman Moments, Most Modern § Good Comics at the Comic Shop November 27 — Lois Lane: A Celebration of 75 Years § Another View of the Justice League — Gender-Flipped Cosplay § Superman: Peace in the Balance § An Excellent Explanation of Sailor Moon


9 Responses to “Guest Essay: The Absent Father”

  1. roche Says:

    Well, that’s a neat work, David Oakes

    The idea of the absent father has a few more layers to it. Men in late 20th century* America weren’t taught to identify, express, or talk about feelings. (ref Garrison Keeler, passim) Having an emotionally unavailable father is a problem for both males an females from that slice of culture. Granted, a physically absent father is different, I know that, I’ve experienced that. But it probably leads to the same kinds of stories. (Or does it? Somebody should follow that up.)

    It’s kind of striking how many manga (shonen and shojo) feature an unavailable/dead father figure.** At first it seemed a cliche – how many stories about young boys with dead/missing fathers who left them a giant mecha/magical sword/baking career can there be? I’ve thought a bit about this and I think the life of the salaryman after WWII has a lot to do with this: Get up early six days a week, go to work, leave late (only after the higher rank people leave), go along with the (socially required) late night drinking, arrive home late, rinse, repeat, occasionally until death. (See the entry on Karoshi.)

    Meanwhile mom (usually younger) stays home (somebody has to) and plays the role of the saintly mother. It’s like a curiously over-amplified version of 1950′s America. Probably no accident, then that you get such great heroic/romantic stories about kids making their way in the world sans parents (or sans competent parents.) It’s certainly more palatable to write a escapist story about a dead or missing father than an emotionally unavailable one.

    *I’ll limit myself to talking about the culture I grew up in. Your mileage will definitely vary. The label-less-ness problem probably goes back to the later part of the 19th century or earlier.
    **Or dead mother with incompetent father, e.g. Ichigo’s family in Bleach. Or both are gone, e.g. Inuyasha, Fruits Basket, Kenshin etc.

  2. ~chris Says:

    Interesting thoughts. So why did I switch form superheroes to indy comics after my dad passed away? (Note: I’m not offended by any implications. And individual differences don’t disprove general truths.)

    BTW, I wish journalists would stop incorrectly using the term “begs the question” when they mean “raises the question.”

    BTW2, thanks for adding the comment Preview and Notify buttons!

  3. Ed Sizemore Says:

    I will offer here a couple of quick and incomplete thoughts. I have a problem with most things Freud, but especially this absentee father hypothesis. First, during WWII, heroism and patriotism were widely praised. Superhero comics were riding this cultural wave. Remember there is no television and most news coverage of the war was by newspaper accounts. Comics offered boys pictures of men being brave and fighting for justice against the odds. It is easier to do a playground reenactment of a comic book scene then a newspaper story. After WWII, we get the rise of movie serials and then television. Comics are a static visual medium going up against these a dynamic visual medium. Why read about Superman, when you can see him on a thirty foot high screen. Why comics are successful during one period of history and not another is a very complex question and we have to look at a lot of data before we can begin to really understand the forces that effect comic sales.

    Equally complex are why superhero comics embody certain gender roles and social attitudes. I have a feeling that there is no one prevalent personality type among superhero comic creators and bureaucrats. We are going to find the superhero comic industry personnel are a diverse lot. Plus fans are as much to blame and as creators. Don’t forget history and tradition have inertia of their own. I don’t think we are every going to find one meta explanation for the current state of superhero comics. The best we can do is keep asking questions that cause us to go beyond surface phenomena to deeper motivations and influences

  4. Allan Harvey Says:

    I know nothing about psychology, but it may be relevant that Jerry Siegel’s father was as absent as it gets: he was shot and killed during a robbery while Jerry was still a youngster. It was following this traumatic event that Siegel came up with the notion of Superman, a hero who could not be taken from those he loves by bullets.

  5. Roche Says:

    No offense Johanna, but I’m thinking this hot topic for discussion might be a little outclassed by the two hot topics kissing two posts above. :) Maybe you could bring it up again next week when the guys scroll off the bottom of the page?

  6. Johanna Says:

    Hee hee hee. A picture’s truly worth a thousand words, I guess.

  7. Matthew Says:

    Miss, Jopanna, I think this is the bvest time to state how much I really dislike that infamous comment of yours, because I find it offensive.

    Saying that the people who work in comics have “absent father figures” is like saying that all feminists have mental disorders. It’s offensive, overgeneralizing, stereotypical, and wrong. I’m sorry if this is offending you in any away…does thiat make sense? ^_^

    And Freud was a sexist jerk who sublimated his own sexual fantasies into his ‘psychology’ theories.

  8. Johanna Says:

    You’re slightly misquoting me — I said that all the men I met while working in comics either had absent fathers or were sick as kids or both. Note two important distinctions: I was talking about my personal experience, and I had an important OR in there.

  9. Matthew Says:

    Oh. Nevermind. My bad.

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