Media scholars draw an important distinction between mass culture and popular culture. Mass culture is mass-produced for a mass audience. Popular culture is what happens to those cultural artifacts at the site of consumption, as we draw upon them as resources in our everyday life. Many scholars have focused on how the same mass-produced artifacts generate different meanings for different consumers. Less has been said about the ways our relationships to those artifacts change over time, and the ways that what they mean to us shifts at different moments in our lives. This essay is an autoethnography of my relationship to superhero comics. What I have to say here is shaped by my experience of grief over the death of my mother six months ago. I had checked her into the hospital complaining of indigestion, only to discover what turned out to be a tumor in her kidney already so advanced it was no longer possible to operate. All we could do was keep her comfortable and wait for the inevitable.
I bought the comics on the way to the hospice. They were selected hastily, and even then, I felt guilty about the time it took. I was looking for something banal, familiar, and comforting at a time when my world was turning upside down. I read them intermittently as I and the other family members set on deathwatch, the experience of the stories becoming interwoven with old family memories and the process of letting go of my mother. Retreating from the emotional drama that surrounded me, I found myself staring into the panic-stricken eyes of a young Bruce Wayne, kneeling over the freshly murdered bodies of his parents. I have visited that moment many times before, but this time, our common plight touched me deeply.
A year ago or a year from now, I would have written a very different essay, but for the moment I am trying to work through what comics might have to say to me about death, aging, and mortality.