Every Group Needs a Ringo
by Travis Hedge Coke
So, why doesn’t Batman use his fortune to solve the world’s problems?
Somewhere between Batman not being Richie Rich, that being pretty useless as a superhero adventure story, and all the times Batman has tried that and it has blown up in his face or been relegated to color so as not to impede the kinds of stories people actually pay for Batman comics to read.
Because, nobody who asks that in a high profile article for the Paris Review or fresh into getting their Twitter blue check on the back of a comedy special is actually going to ever buy the comic where Batman uses his fortune to rehabilitate recidivists and better publicly-available medicine. They would have bought it already.
Now, that I have annoyed people who simply are not going to buy a Batman or Richie Rich comic in the next twelve months, you and I can talk real: We do this too.
We pigeonhole characters based on a limited range of familiarity. Our range of knowledge may be broader or deeper, but our range of familiarity is different from a cache of facts.
I know the Thing, for example, from the Fantastic Four, has advanced graduate degrees, is a combat veteran who flew secret missions for the United States Air Force, has been both independently wealthy and lived on a stipend which would seem extravagant to the average New Yorker, and has a working knowledge of technologies that would confuse and bewilder all of us.
The Thing who is familiar to me, however, is the less smart corner of the room. The Thing familiar to me grew up poor and is working class. He is not worldly and can be a little naive.
Neither of these is untrue or unreal. They are both canon, just as there are canons of Batman who is more savvy and concerned about social welfare programs and societal advancement and canons of Batman who is less-concerned or even classist and ableist. There are literally thousands of Batman stories across multiple mediums.
The Thing’s brother and teammate, Johnny Storm is canonically a Twin Peaks fanatic, a fan of the Bruce Springsteen. To him, in his life, those probably feel as significant as his engineering skills and his knowledge of classic cars, but for comics readers or movie watchers, he is the young impetuous guy who catches fire.
Even if they are cooked down to a type, to a slogan you could fit on a t-shirt and still have room on the shirt for a large comedic picture, all characters develop multiplicity, as all people are multifarious. The cast around any character also shapes that character, redirects the character, especially in the sense of our audience familiarity. We judge Norm by the regulars of Cheers. We pin a character into a place in their group, not by the levels and bevels of their individually prismatic life. We judge Thing by the Fantastic Four. Batman by Gotham. Niecy Nash by Ryan Murphy in whatever form a Feud revival takes in 2043.
When someone selects their cast, the cast is selected for the dynamics between the characters, not simply for character types, but in having those dynamics, types are reified. Not formed. The form can be there already. But, what the dynamics highlight, what the dynamics make repeat of that form becomes more familiar to us.
Thing comes off as the working class Fantastic Four member because the others are the children of doctors and (mad) scientists with upper middle class money. He seems technologically-ignorant because he is so often talking to a super-genius demonstrating a new piece of technology no one – not just the Thing – no one else knows how to operate.
Whether Storm, of the X-Men, comes off as being a queen, a goddess, a rough and tough street criminal, a saintly hothouse gardener, all largely depends on who she is in a room with, who she is living with. For the X-Men, she is too often the go-to for explanations about anything Africa or Black (when Kitty Pryde cannot be counted on to say something awkwardly racist), while Misty Knight missed no opportunity to rib her as a woman who lived for years in a rich upstate private school disconnected from much of the world of Misty’s idea of Black culture.
Much of these dynamics can be laid as fault at the door of artists and writers, as the consequence of editorial diktat, but it can also be looked at, internal to the world, as exemplar of how we all show facets of ourselves and how we are all perceived by others, never in whole, always in facets, and not necessarily in facets we can choose.
Every band needs a Ringo Starr. Every group needs a big guy. Every team needs a leader. The pretty one. Class clown.
This can lead to some unfortunate situations, in that we all choose to ignore or downplay certain facets of a character who has enough appearances, just as we do with real life people we know a lot about. But, outside of some painful outliers, this is simply not noticing when Storm is being imperially smug or politically imperialistic or letting the Thing be an average joe with his average beer and not a wealthy Manhattanite with a keyring full of access to space rockets.
Every member of the Fantastic Four is the class clown in the right group, but when it is the traditional four of that team, the role goes mostly to the Human Torch or the Thing. It is that group’s comfortable dynamic. Anticipatory. Shift it up at all, and it can be the Invisible Woman or Mr Fantastic. Mr Fantastic’s own family are sometimes shocked at hearing what he can get up to without them.
Batman can both be haunted by his inability to protect people from three strikes laws and an elitist who purposefully beats up recidivists harder to avoid having to “fight” them again another time. Batman can be liberal, leftist, an anarchist, a Conservative, conservative, socialist, or an autocrat. And, Batman can be all of those at once, in succession, or in different ways, different parts of his life and political outlook or practice.
The mistake is not in deciding Batman is fascist or socialist, anarchist or liberal, pro-charity or big on people picking themselves up by their own boot straps, and more in assuming with no research that no one but you has come to that conclusion or ever commented on it. Batman can even be – and has been – the class clown. He has been the leader. The cute one. The drummer.
Making these smart observations is neither smart nor helpful. It could be smartass, but unfortunately, many making the observations for pay or cultural expert cache are not being savvy enough to be smartass about it. They think they are making genuine, useful observations, not talking trash. It is simply presumptuous cultural elitism. (And, so, too often, is the snap response from fans familiar with Batman, the Thing, whoever is being talked about, but that is for another day.)
You do it. Who is your funny friend? The smart one in your family? Who comes to mind from your life when you think of a teacher’s pet you knew?
A bunch of your friends are funny. For real, I asked around. A bunch of them. But, you likely picked somebody.
You picked a teacher’s pet, and it was probably not a concatenation of evidence that led you there.
In his novel, Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami writes:
“‘Those guys sure knew something about the sadness of life, and the gentleness.’
“By ‘those guys,’ Reiko of course meant John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison.”
Decades later, Murakami wrote, “I never saw that lovely young girl again, either, the one who was holding the LP ‘With the Beatles.’ Sometimes I wonder—is she still hurrying down that dimly lit high-school hallway in 1964, the hem of her skirt fluttering as she goes? Sixteen even now, holding that wonderful album cover with the half-lit photo of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, clutching it tightly as though her life depended on it.”
Ringo is there in both. Excluding Ringo is making space for Ringo. Your Ringo always makes space for himself, and in your heart, you made the space for him to.
The world is supported not only by turtles all the way down, but Mickey Dolenzes all the way up.
Batman is a superhero who uses his money to help people. Batman is a superhero who could use his money to help. Batman uses his money for selfish theatrics.
The Beatle you pick is the Monkee picks you. How you feel about Dorothy and her crew on the way to Oz or to kill depends on how you feel about what they seek, what the Wizard tells them they have; whether you feel there are four or five in the group. Toto does not ask for me, that we hear, but Toto is there. Toto does the work.
When the Beatles broke up and did solo records, most of them had some other post-Beatle play on the songs, but Ringo? Ringo gets everybody. Yet, he is the one critics will dismiss first and easiest.
We make snap calls and we stick to them.