Yes, the obvious route to creating early childhood trauma is a dead parent. The easy route. I mean, goodness knows my own therapy has, over the years, uncovered an issue or two stemming from the death of my father, and I still have a living mother. It’s also true that, in generations past, a dead parent or two was more common. I’m probably from one of the earliest generations where growing up with a dead parent made me unusual. When some of our earliest superheroes were created, dead parents were a lot more common. Still, it gets kind of pointed after a while, doesn’t it?
Finding a definitive list of all superheroes missing at least one parent is difficult, a task compounded by, you know, varying continuities. There’s also your definition of “parent” to consider; while obviously, Kal-El’s biological parents are dead, Clark Kent definitely has loving parents who are even allowed to be alive in some continuities. Though not all; in the current movies, his mom is alive but his dad is dead.
But, yeah, Bruce Wayne, of course. Peter Parker loses not only his biological parents but his father figure, Uncle Ben—and indeed, there are a ton of orphans wandering around Spider-Man stories, including people who started out with a living parent but lose the other somewhere along the last few decades. Matt Murdoch’s mother doesn’t come up much, but the death of his father is vital to the plot. Bruce Banner eventually turns out to have had his mother killed by his abusive father. Most of the Robins were orphans or missing a parent when Batman took them in. Sometimes, Aquaman is an orphan. Various members of the Fantastic Four are either orphaned or just don’t have parents mentioned. And so on.
No, it’s not a problem unique to superheroes. In Disney, the dead parents, or at least absent ones, outnumber the living. Which isn’t their fault; it’s in their source material as often as not. Harry Potter’s parents are dead. Hamlet is driven by a parent’s death. Dead parents litter fiction; it’s an exceedingly common trope.
I just think, you know, superheroes rely too much on it. In part, that’s because I’m wary of the idea that you have to suffer trauma to be a superhero. Now, Clark Kent is Superman not because of his dead biological parents but because of his living adoptive ones. They instilled the values of Truth, Justice, and The American Way in him. That’s great; let’s keep that. We need it. And it’s not that there’s anything wrong with the occasional quest for justice or striving to clean up the mean streets of the city that killed Our Hero’s parents. Battling crime because you’ve been deeply affected by the problems of crime? Okay, that makes some sense.
I would imagine it also streamlines the plot, if you don’t have to mention parents. Not that it makes sense for Spider-Man, who has more friends than any six other superheroes put together, it seems like. Peter may be a nerd, but he seems to be a pretty likeable one. But if you’re trying to reduce the number of characters, sure, take the parents out of the picture. Not that you necessarily have to kill them off to do that, but okay.
However, it seems to me that it’s still lazy storytelling to kill off so many parents. Is there a reason Betty Brant is an orphan? I put it to you that there is not, and yet there we are. Okay, so maybe Aquaman and Namor and Doctor Doom do kind of need to be orphans, if they’re going to hold their titles, and giving Superman his biological parents back would complicate matters. And, yeah, Batman makes the most sense with that depth of psychological scar tissue. But for every character where I understand the dead parents, there are two or three others where it doesn’t feel important.
I will say that there seems to be some moving away from the Broken Home Model of superhero. The current Blue Beetle is one of a large, loving family. The current Marvel version of Captain Marvel has living parents who are still married to each other, though I don’t know a lot of detail about that given I haven’t read much of her comic. Miles Morales started with two living parents, but his mother was killed a few issues in, because of course she was.
If we lived in a world with real superpowers, I would like to believe it would be one where some people, upon discovering that they had said powers, used them to fight crime not because of a traumatic past but because they believed it was an important use for them. Because of values instilled in them by their parents. That they might think they were making their parents proud. And maybe exploring that dynamic would be interesting. It would make a nice change from all that brooding over graves, anyway.