Jeffrey Baldwin was powerless. The five year-old had lived, and died, locked in a cold bedroom in the Toronto house where he was left unchecked after being removed from the custody of his parents. In this house he had been beaten and starved by his own grandparents. When Jeffrey died in 2002, he weighed less than he did at his first birthday. A photo of Jeffrey eventually surfaced at the inquest into his death. The boy was dressed as Superman.
When Jeffrey’s love of the character was first noted during the official inquest, Ottawa resident Todd Boyce decided to honor the boy with a memorial statue. Funds were crowdsourced and a statue was created referencing the photo of Jeffrey in a Superman costume. DC Entertainment then reluctantly declined the use of the famed Superman shield and the Internet rained down hatred upon the company. DC Entertainment reevaluated, conferred with the boy’s family, and altered their decision.
I, like many, was a little angry when I heard of DC Entertainment’s initial decision. At first, my response felt disproportionate. I neither knew the boy nor do I have any involvement in the precarious managing of publishing brands. I do, however, have a lingering affection for this character and was confused at the refusal. DC Entertainment has used their characters for altruistic purposes in the past, such as the recent We Can Be Heroes campaign that responded to the hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa. The notion that Superman, Siegel and Shuster’s “Champion of the Oppressed,” couldn’t be used to memorialize such a powerless child did not feel right.
I’ve seen first hand how powerless children can take ownership of powerful characters. I once worked as a counselor with children who had been removed from their parents due to abuse and neglect. Understandably, these kids presented a number of behavioral challenges and I went to each shift armed with distractions like comics and DVDs. Different kids were drawn to different stories. One boy I worked with loved Superman. He was a creative and chaotic kid but was quite happy when he could dress in a cheap one-piece costume and leap off the couch.
When I first saw that photo of Jeffrey Baldwin in his Superman costume I was startled. Upon closer inspection, Jeffrey didn’t really resemble the boy I worked with but both had suffered abuse, both had been removed from their parents, and both took ownership of a power fantasy about an alien in tights. There, the stories begin to differ. The boy I worked with was returned to his father one Christmas in an attempt to reinstate the family unit. One month later the boy was back in state care after evidence of neglect had been found during the follow up. As sad as his story was, it was much better than Jeffrey Baldwin’s, who was left unchecked and died in a manner so tragic it turns our stomachs.
It’s clear that stories of strength and freedom are valuable to children who feel as if they have none. We can debate the extent to which adolescent power fantasies may help or hinder the perception of the sequential art medium, but in my time reading comics with children from broken homes I’ve seen what these stories can offer. Stories offer not only a comforting escapism but also function in an instructive capacity. For instance, I watched one ten year-old girl pattern her behavior on Wendy from Peter Pan as she became a makeshift counselor for her younger siblings. I watched one three year-old boy who had become homeless with his two brothers rearrange his understanding of family after seeing Alvin and the Chipmunks. And in this instance, I watched one young boy, powerless in a life of abuse and neglect, dress in a Superman costume and imagine himself as strong and free.
For powerless children like these, a character like Superman can be worth a great deal. As children imagine themselves strong and free, they can also begin to imagine the ways in which they could negotiate social forms of power. Taking ownership of a character like Superman can be a framework for imaginative problem solving. In the case of the boy I cared for, Superman became a positive focus for his energies and frustration. In the case of Jeffrey Baldwin, Superman was likely just a comforting fiction. Superman didn’t save Jeffrey, but at some point something about the character was valuable to him.
For a powerful entity like DC Entertainment, Superman is worth something very different. This character is a historically lucrative publishing brand. The use of this trademarked shield is carefully monitored by a range of protective policies and not given away for free. Perhaps what some didn’t fully realize at first is that people often buy into Superman not because they want to own him, but because they believe they already do. The power that children feel they can access by an imaginative association with Superman is what makes the character culturally valuable. That, in turn, is what makes it commercially valuable. If DC Entertainment wants to continue to sell Superman branded T-shirts, toys and coffee mugs, they should remember what their character offers young audiences to begin with.
Ultimately, Superman is worth more to the powerless than to the powerful. In a legal sense, Warner Bros, of which DC Entertainment is a subsidiary, owns Superman and have flexed a great deal of muscle in court over the last few years to ensure it. In a cultural sense, Jeffrey Baldwin, as well as many other powerless children, own Superman and the memorial statue is now testament to that. DC Entertainment got there in the end. Let’s consider this a timely reminder of what makes a character like Superman valuable for its audience in the first place. Otherwise, DC can keep him. After all, if powerless children like Jeffrey Baldwin can’t own Superman then the character feels rather worthless anyway.