Corruption of the Innocent

Young Kal-El with his adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent - DC Comics

Young Kal-El with his adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent – DC Comics

Of all the forces that guide and shape who we are and who we grow up to be, the most significant is that of our parents. They are of course important in the very literal sense that without them each of us could not exist, but their influence obviously extends beyond the composition of our genes. In fact, one could argue that biological parents are actually agents of both nature and nurture. Not only does their genetic material contribute to our physical existence, but also the degree to which our personality can be genetically encoded. Whatever those genetic predispositions may be – being easy to anger, being intelligent, being compassionate – they must exist to some degree in our parents, and would therefore likely surface in their relationship to us, reinforcing those behaviours and traits externally as well. But beyond the contribution of DNA, our parents teach us, guide us, provide us with the foundations of a moral compass, and most importantly, lay the groundwork for our own mental and moral processes: we either continue down the path forged together with our parents or we reject it and strike out completely on our own. Our nature may be inherent, but it is the way we are raised that determines whether or not we choose to become something beyond our genetic programming.

The same is true of superheroes. The role that parenting plays in the DC universe is crucial to the mythology of many of its central characters. Superman’s incredible powers come from his biology as a Kryptonian but his morality and his defining characteristics of compassion and hope come from his upbringing by the Kents. Aquaman is half-Atlantean, but the time on land he spent with his father fostered his love for humans and his desire to bring his two backgrounds closer together. For many heroes, however, the absence or loss of a parent is as defining a force – the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, the death of Hal Jordan’s father in a plane crash, and the murder of Barry Allen’s mother and the incarceration of his father. All of these events impacted the lives of the heroes in two main ways: they were robbed of whatever upbringing their parents would have offered them, but they gained, in many cases, a surrogate parent. From Alfred Pennyworth to Carl Ferris, these surrogates assumed the mythological role of parent and their influence would reshape the lives and paths of people already in progress. In essence, even those heroes who lost their parents had a parental figure in their lives.

In all cases, the parental role is undeniably important to the development of the superhero. Why should it be any different for supervillains? The answer, of course, is that it is not different. There are many instances of villains following in the footsteps of their villain parents – Deathstroke’s son and daughter both followed him into the mercenary trade, and Owen Mercer took up his late father’s mantle and became the second Captain Boomerang, for example. But there is a mythological allegory for corrupt parenthood in the DC universe, and it is far more sinister a perversion than children simply following their parents’ example. On the planet Apokolips, Granny Goodness corrupts the notions of parenthood, surrogacy, and child care in her “orphanages”, where she raises and trains the elite acolytes of Darkseid.

"Granny's discipline" involves torture and brainwashing - DC Comics

“Granny’s discipline” involves torture and brainwashing – DC Comics

Granny Goodness was once one of the “lowlies” of Apokolips, a peasant underfoot of the tyranny of Darkseid. She was forcibly taken from her home and trained to become an elite soldier. As part of her regimen, she was instructed to train a dog, and then ordered to kill it as a final test of loyalty. She instead killed her instructor, informing Darkseid that she had trained the dog to serve her second only to him. Darkseid ordered the dog to kill Goodness, who was forced to kill the dog to defend herself. Darkseid rewarded Goodness by placing her in charge of training his soldiers and acolytes, and Granny Goodness was born. As one of the eternal race of New Gods, she possesses the same nigh-invulnerability and strength of her compatriots, but she is also an expert military tactician, a brutal trainer, and a master of torture and brainwashing, all of which she employs to turn her orphanages into the training grounds for the Female Furies and other elite soldiers at the disposal of Darkseid.

Granny Goodness' orphanage - DC Comics

Granny Goodness’ orphanage – DC Comics

Granny Goodness represents a dark perversion of parental influence and of child care. She abuses a position of dominance to impose her will on the children she trains, rather than to guide them to the same end. In place of advice and counsel, she offers hypnotic suggestion and orders. In place of love and compassion, she fosters hatred and rage. Most disturbingly, she replaces a child’s open destiny with a single possible fate: serve blindly in the name of Darkseid, or die. Even the name of her institutions – the “orphanages” of Apokolips – are a perversion, as the children were either made orphans by the despotic rule of and constant warring of Darkseid, or they were forcibly taken from their families and made orphans. The irony of her name should not go without note either: Granny Goodness is a name that evokes a certain sense of safety and loyalty which she subverts through her use of brainwashing, torture, and brutal physical and psychological training.

However, what is especially interesting about this perversion of parenthood is not how it differs, but rather how closely it resembles the real thing. For the residents of Apokolips, being oppressed and serving Darkseid are a constant way of life. It isn’t a stretch to imagine that over time, those who managed to survive long enough to have children were the ones genetically predispositioned to subservience. Successive generations of this kind of artificial selection would lead to a population more likely to accept, or at least to expect, the sort of treatment and training they would receive at the hands of Granny Goodness. And just like a parent who shares a disposition or a common personality with their child, raising them in the way you see fit would be relatively easier because of that shared disposition. So too was the case for Granny Goodness – her orphanges produced the best and most loyal warriors Darkseid has ever known, and the rare dissenters never escaped or lived to tell the tale. By contrast, Scott Free, aka Mister Miracle, is the biological son of the Highfather, Darkseid’s mortal enemy. He came to Apokolips as a child in exchange for Darkseid’s son as part of a peace treaty. Unlike the citizens of Apokolips, despair and servitude were not bred into the genes of Scott Free, and so Granny Goodness did not have so easy a time employing her contrary methods of child-rearing. As any parent will surely tell you, trying to force a child onto a path for which they do not already have some inclination is not simple, if not nearly impossible. Scott Free is proof of this within the mythology, constantly resisting his training and the methods of Granny Goodness and eventually becoming the first escapee of her orphanage. In his wake, Big Barda – one of Granny’s best Female Furies – also escaped, following the man with whom she had fallen in love and becoming a hero herself.

Granny Goodness raging over Scott Free, aka Mister Miracle - DC Comics

Granny Goodness raging over Scott Free, aka Mister Miracle – DC Comics

Granny Goodness perverts the role of parenthood, but in a strange way manages to fit into the established mythological paradigms of that role. All that Granny Goodness does is corrupt existing paradigms. Parents go to extreme lengths at times to persuade or dissuade a child from certain acts and behaviours. Granny Goodness does the same. Granted, her tortures, physical and psychological, are horrifying acts committed against children, but they are not out of context with the role she has assumed, merely exaggerated. These allegorical similarities allow us to perceive the differences much more starkly, and through that we are able to see the moral of Granny Goodness’ mythology. Her corrupted version of parenthood mocks the persuasion, loyalty, and compassion of the real thing, but it completely lacks the understanding. Parenting is not about the imposition of will, it is about the guiding hand. Even with good intentions and the best of methods, no parent can make a child perfectly conform to what they want. After all, the genetic make up of a child is the product of two separate parents, and the unique combination thereof means that for all their similarities, they are someone totally different from either parent. So the real trick to parenting is establishing safe parameters within which a child can pave their own way – our parents guide us in a certain direction, but it is up to each to choose his or her own road.

Granny Goodness exposes this moral to us by allowing us to contrast her methods with those of “good” counterparts like Alfred or the Kents. She serves to remind us that nurture does not trump nature and that parenting is about striking a balance between the two.