The representation of fatherhood in American comic narratives reflects the representation of fatherhood in America canonical literature. Neither medium completely represents fatherhood in a substantial way. For some reason (which we will explore later) most American authors, including comic authors, avoid the use of fatherhood as a theme. In order to discuss fatherhood in American literature, a working definition is in order. What is fatherhood? William Shakespeare once wrote, “It is a wise father that knows his own child. ” Decent fathers show a sincere interest in their child’s life.
They pay close attention to their child beginning as early as possible and extending into later life. Good fathers understand that every child is unique in physical, emotional, and cognitive ways. And, an aware father knows that every child has his or her own personality and is concerned with the development of their children according to their children’s individualities. First, to fully explore the fatherhood theme (or lack of) in American literature a brief history concerning the cause of lack of father-figures in American fiction is necessary.
The reason the father is absent in American writing is explained by David Pugh in his Sons of Liberty: the Masculine Mind in Nineteenth-Century America (1983) as being closely connected with the American Revolution. His view describes the American Revolution as a symbolic battle between Father-England and his unruly American sons. Freedom for these young Americans means that they could build a new life and nation free from the institutions and customs of authority of the English father (Pugh, xvi).
The father figure of King George was replaced with George Washington, the first father of a new nation. Ironically, the young Americans replaced an authoritarian father-figure with a politically distant father-figure. It is no wonder that fatherhood in American literature reflects a distant or absent father incapable of sustaining a personal relationship. Josep Armengol-Carrera’s article Where are Fathers in American Literature? cites several classics that note missing fathers and portray the protagonists as self-made individuals.
In the nineteenth century, Nathaniel Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) depicts the life of a single mother and her daughter, who is neglected by the father. Likewise, father-figures are missing from much of Melville’s work. His well-known protagonists, from Billy Budd to Ishmael come from unknown parentage. In other works, such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the father is portrayed as an obstacle to the protagonist. For instance, “Pap” is an abusive drunk who pops in and out of Huck’s life for his own selfish purposes.
Other prominent American authors such as Harriet Beecher Stow and Louisa May Alcott of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Little Women respectively, include father-figures, but they are represented as weak and secondary characters. Little Women focuses on female characters where men play minor roles. Carrera surmises that novels like Little Women not only avoid the theme of fatherhood, but seem to establish a connection between the “father-figure’s lack and the daughter’s progress” (Armengol-Carrera, 212). Similarly, Augustine St.
Clare, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is represented as resentful and bored of his responsibilities to his family and plantation and ends up leaving the work to Uncle Tom. Lack of fatherly representation continues in American literature through the twentieth century. Fitzgerald creates a protagonist who leaves his parents in pursuit of his American dream. Likewise, Hemmingway excludes fatherhood from his literary work. According to Carrera, Hemmingway considers fatherhood a “hovering threat to the more idyllic friendships between men” (Armengol-Carrera, 213). Interestingly, Hemmingway and Fitzgerald were contemporaries and friends. ) David Minter in his A cultural History of the American Novel defends Hemmingway’s exclusion of fatherhood based on the fact that Hemmingway’s father was mentally ill and an authoritarian who dealt out physical punishment with a razor strop (Minter, 139). Absentee fathers in American Literature continue with contemporary fiction like Naked Lunch (1966) by William Burroughs and Stephen Wright’s Going Native (1995).
In chapter one of Going Native, the main character, Wylie, abandons his wife and children. He walks out one night during a party. In his book, Naming the Father, Terry Caesar makes this observation about Going Native: “Everyone is divorced, on the move, full of fantasies or self-invention” (Caesar, 277-278). In Naked Lunch, the absence of fatherhood is noticed when the actions of the character create their identity rather than their place in the family or society (Caesar, 278). Contemporary Chicano fiction follows the patterns set down in classic American literature.
Sandra Cisneros, for example, in her House on Mango Street (1991), through the voice of Esperanza, the heroine of the novel, tells of a father as someone who, “Wakes up tired in the dark, who combs his hair with water, drinks his coffee, and is gone before [the children] wake” (Cisneros, 57). Likewise, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Drown, by Junot Diaz tells of Dominican children whose fathers’ absence makes them grow up feeling insecure and indifferent developing personalities that lean toward drugs and crime. Thus, the characters in Drown end up feeling orphaned and hating the father who is weak and untrustworthy (Armengol-Carrera, 221).
Finally, in her short story “I Never Even Seen My Father,” Nicholasa Mohr depicts a young woman who despises and resents a father she has never known. She is plagued with psychological problems and drug addiction. Alonso and Dominguez in their Performative fathers and the inessential macho: Fatherhood in Contemporary Latino/Latina Literature (2000) conclude: “When psychiatrists try to find a connection between her acts and her infancy, they suggest that her self-destructive behavior is a way to express her hatred toward her father” (Alonso/Dominguez, 90).
Interestingly, statistics from The Father Factor, a website that lists data on the consequences of absent fathers, support Alonso and Dominguez’s findings. Statistics show that children living in a two parent household who have a poor relationship with their father are 68% more likely to smoke, drink or use drugs. And, teens in a single mother household are at a 38% higher risk than those living in a two-parent household. In addition, an INTERPOL study of crime statistics of thirty-nine countries found that single parenthood ratios were strongly correlated with violent crimes.
Finally, according to the U. S. Census Bureau, 24 million children in America—one out of three—live in a father-absent home (fatherhood. org). It would seem that literature reflects the life of a culture. An interesting contrast, according to Armengol-Carrera, in American and British literature, is that British literature provides strong father-figures. For example, English nineteenth-century fiction like Dr. Thorne by Anthony Trollop and Silas Marner by George Eliot present fathers who struggle to rear children on their own. European novels place the protagonist in his social and family background.
In contrast, Carrera notes that American fiction begins the exposition with dislocated individuals who desire to make their own way in the world—those who seek to live their dream and life their way (Armengol-Carrera, 215). In summary, the above examples present fathers who do not fit the definition of a good father. These protagonists of American fiction have fathers who are weak and ignorant of their children’s development. Fatherhood is represented (if at all) by hedonistic or mentally ill individuals who are not concerned with forming a relationship with their progeny.
Unfortunately, not much scholarly research is available in the field of fatherhood as represented (or not) in comic literature. Nevertheless, the rest of this paper will attempt to juxtapose the theme of fatherhood (or lack thereof) in American comic narratives with the previously cited literature and explore how comic authors have characterized the father-figure. In the superhero comic, Superman, Jorel is represented as a father who wishes to preserve the life of his infant son by sending him to Earth.
The father stayed on a dying planet and sent his son to save their race. Superman’s father is presented in his backstory as brave and intelligent. However, the father and adoptive father are, for the most part, absent from the Superman story. Like Superman, Batman’s father is presented as a good father. Bruce Wayne’s parents are killed in front of him when he is a boy. Yet, his family provided him with a sense of right and wrong, a fortune and a guardian who helps him become a hero against the enemies of Gotham.
However, the father and the loyal butler, for the most part, are absent from the Batman story. So, while both Batman and Superman were deprived of a father, both were provided with replacements—adoptive parents for Superman, and Batman was provided with a loyal and wise butler. Yet, in the end, the butler and adoptive father are, for the most part, absent from the super hero stories. In contrast, in the graphic novels we read for class, the father is shown as absent or as a self-absorbed presence. An egocentric father is presented in Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.
And even though he is preoccupied with his own interests, Alison Bechdel desired a relationship with him when she dreamed of a “glorious sunset” and raced to her father so she could share it with him, but he ignored her until it was too late (Bechdel 123-24). At first thought, readers might be tempted to accept that fatherhood is a theme in Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. However, when they take a closer look, they will understand that the book’s protagonist cannot effectively discuss issues related with fatherhood. Bechdel discusses her childhood and relates issues that she, as a daughter, experiences with her father.
However, she is not the father/protagonist dealing with the concerns of fatherhood. Like Bechdel, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan also desired a personal relationship with his father—even though his father abandoned him. Near the end of the book, Jimmy apologizes to his father in a “stream of thought” just before the father dies: “. . . I just wanted to say that I’m not mad at you anymore…and that I-I forgive you…and I’m sorry for messing everything up … (Corrigan). Jimmy has no reason to apologize. In fact, the father is the one who should be apologizing.
Was the absence of a father the reason for the insecure, pitiful protagonist? Like in Bechdel’s narrative, a reader might be tempted to believe that the theme of fatherhood is addressed in Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, but the protagonist is the abandoned son and therefore, cannot fully discover issues associated with being a father. Remarkably, the concept of an ideal father is explored by Bechdel and Ware. Both desired relationships with fathers that fit into molds that contain standards of what their ideal father looked like. Bechdel considered her father a “sissy. She measured her father’s masculinity against “the grimy deer hunters …with their work boots and shorn-sheep haircuts” (Bechdel, 96). Bechdel describes her father’s interest in gardening as a “deeply disturbing bent” She says, “What kind of man but a sissy could possibly love flowers this ardently? ” (Bechdel, 90). Her desire for a father who behaved like and looked like “The Rifleman” is noted on page ninety-five (Bechdel). Jimmy Corrigan’s ideal superman jumped from a building near the beginning of the book, just before Jimmy leaves to visit his father.
The reader is left to interpret the death of superman as the death of the ideal of what he dreamed his father to be. No longer did Jimmy have to imagine that his father was someone great—he would soon be face-to-face with the man who abandoned him. Again, at first, one might be tricked into believing that Bechdel’s father cares and is aware of her needs. After all, he is concerned with her literary development and concerned with how she dresses. However, upon closer examination, the reader can see that his concerns with her reading material are a reflection of his own tastes.
Also, his desire to make her dress appear more feminine reflects his disregard for her desire to express herself as an individual. Did he wish to suppress her homosexual tendencies as he did his own? Further, with her attraction to all things manly, did she want to portray the masculine traits she found missing in her dad? In the Hernandez brother’s Music for Mechanics, Maggie Chascarillo is one of the main characters. She comes from a large Mexican-American family. Her mother and father divorce when she is a young child, and she has little contact with her family.
She thinks she is responsible for her parent’s divorce and suffers a lifetime of guilt. Her life moves along a string of love affairs. She is insecure and drinks and eats too much, but everyone likes Maggie (Comicvine. com). Her problems in life appear to mirror the statistics associated with growing up without a strong father presence: poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, issues with self-esteem (fatherhood. org). Another main character of the Hernandez brothers, Hopey Glass, is Maggie’s on and off lover. Her parents divorced while she was a child—under the age of fourteen.
She and Maggie share similar lifestyles—drinking, sex and food. She is usually outspoken and careless with other’s feelings. However, she is insecure about her job as a teaching assistant (Comicvine. com). Like Maggie her problems in life appear to mirror the statistics associated with growing up without a strong father presence: poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, issues with self-esteem (fatherhood. org). In Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Walter Joseph Kovacs, alias Rorschach is a most memorable character who never met his father. He only knew that his name was Charlie.
His mother, a prostitute, said the father and she would argue about politics, so Rorschach imagined his father to be a kind of aide to President Truman. He was physically and emotionally abused by his mother and ended up in foster care at age ten. Rorschach sees the world in black and white and dislikes most of the people around him (Watchmen. wikia. com). Clearly, American literature, both prose and comic, fail, to a large degree, to tell a story from the American father’s perspective. Indeed, one could argue that this research shows that interesting characters and story lines exist because of the lack of a father-figure.
One might even conclude that an important characteristic of American literature is its lack of fatherhood representatives. Perhaps the time has come for an American author to explore the issues and concerns associated with being a father in these complicated times. How else can Americans better explore what it means to be a father except through literature?
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