I live in the small town where Batman grew up. I teach at the small college that Batman attended, where he probably learned things like how even the most stellar camera tricks of the 1960s would make an audience have a hard time believing he and Robin were really walking up that skyscraper wall.
The Batman I’m referring to, of course, is Adam West. Walla Walla Son. This spring, his small town beginnings have been told as part of the stories that have accompanied the announcement of his death. This matters to people who live where he began. As a child born after the 1960s, I knew of him more from his voice on the Simpsons. Upon his death, and upon reading local stories, I now know him as the person who was baptized in the same baptismal font as my son (I am still awaiting confirmation from a clergy person whether my son is Batman by virtue of what I’m calling the “transitive property of spiritual geometry”). I now know him as an alumnus of the college where I teach, among other things, about the social construction of celebrity (I am still awaiting word whether we can include “I found this class useful for my future work as a superhero” on our course evaluations). I now know him as the local resident whose childhood home is a block from my current home (I am still awaiting confirmation from the city planner whether I can accurately call him a “neighbor”).
Over the last few weeks, local social media feeds have been filled with comments about the myriad connections Adam West had with Walla Walla families (“My daughter bought his parents’ house;” “I was in his mom’s Sunday school class;” “I took Superhero Fiction 101 with him in college;” “I sometimes walk around wearing gray spandex but people do not think I’m a superhero…”). Also since his death, social media feeds populated by superhero fans who live beyond our Valley have reminded me that both fiction and non-fiction stories of superheroes (or the actors portraying them) sometimes note the importance of them being from small towns. Like Smallville. Or Walla Walla.
Small towns are useful for telling a story of a superhero who has a humble beginning, appreciates simple things, fights for justice from a moral place, and, ultimately, preserves all that is mythologized as good in America. Protect the little guy. Value education. Go to Sunday school. Smile. Wave hello. Climb skyscrapers. Come home sometimes. There’s a wholesomeness to small town beginnings that carries weight in superhero stories.
In real life, small towns love to have a celebrity whose birth home, childhood home, teenage home, or college home is intriguing to help tell the story of how people go from small places to big places. Just google “small town hero” and you’ll see.
Small town beginnings form a foundation for the oft-told story of superheroes who have humble and overcome-able roots. But sometimes emphasizing small town beginnings can gloss over ways that some people have very little to overcome even if they’re from the middle of nowhere. Or, as any news stories that point to social and political chasms between coastal cities and heartland towns portray, sometimes small town beginnings are used as a label that ultimately leads to residents being stigmatized as having backward ways. Of course, doing this fails to capture the forwardness that resides in small and hard-to-get-to places, and it fails to capture the backwardness that resides in Gotham City. Either way, we’re oversimplifying small town beginnings.
Because, of course, small town life is anything but monolithic.
I recently met up with a high school classmate who told me stories from our high school days. We grew up in a town of about 5,000 people, so we knew everyone, and we knew their stories. But, as she shared her experience, I learned that I was insulated from a lot of these stories. I — the smart one, the weird one, the teacher’s kid, the editor of the school paper, the musician, the school mascot who also acted in plays sometimes — always knew my story was not representative of my classmates’ stories. But it was overwhelmingly a positive story.
I hadn’t realized just how insulated I was from stories that involved so much pain that it is hard even to write about. Rape. Death at young ages. Classism. Abuse. Addiction. Racial intolerance. All while I was getting A’s, putting wax on my braces so my oboe reeds didn’t make my mouth bleed, and jumping around in a bird costume at football games. I like to think I was insulated from knowing all of the stories because I was socially awkward, and because I was on the periphery of all of the social networks where all the gossip was spilled. Anyone with privilege likes to think they had it bad to start because it makes them feel a bit like a superhero when they emerge without too many emotional bruises. But, of course, I could afford not to know the hard stories in my small town, even if I knew everyone’s name. I was insulated because I was born into a family that was always going to cherish me, protect me from trauma, and help me find resources that would lead to my ultimate success. In fact, I was born into a family that helped me understand that there is value in capitalizing in weirdness, and in working hard while standing on the edge of groups to try to understand what was going on, even if I wasn’t part of them. Why else do you think I turned into a sociologist?
Since the announcement of Adam West’s death, we’ve seen the Bat Signal projected onto Walla Walla’s tall building for an evening. There have been campaigns to fund a Batman statue. I suggested to a friend that only something bold could fully capture the significance of our local superhero. Like a permanent Bat Signal. But then I remembered: if the Bat Signal was always on as a reminder of how great things are in this little town, and how even this town can produce such a hero, then how would anyone know when there was really trouble?
My friend who teaches visual culture studies (and who also is, I learned, a huge Batman fan) suggested that a colorful mosaic might be better. This, we discussed, would nicely capture just how varied people’s experiences are in this Valley. The mosaic of Batman would appear, from far away, as a masked superhero face. But up close, behind the mask, there’d be a lot more complexity that would more accurately capture the stories from our Valley. Even, and especially, the ones that didn’t result in people becoming superheroes.