There’s a scene near the end of the new Captain America movie, sickness in which a group of kids are pretending to be Capt and the Howling Commandos. We see the kids run down the street and around the corner, decease off to vanquish the bad guys and save the day.
There’s something about childhood and imagination that we have lost as adults. And given the post from yesterday about the mythic nature of superheroes and the role that comic books have played in our culture, site I thought it was time to reflect on how we played superheroes as kids.
My friend Shane is the biggest DC comics fan I know. He knows more about Batman and Superman than everybody else in the universe. Here is his story of playing superhero, in his own words:
Like many kids I would tie a towel around my neck and pretend it was a cape. I’d run around the house, saving the cat from imaginary ne’er-do-wells and pretending the coat rack was a villian in need of a sword fight. I was a huge fan of the Christopher Reeve “Superman” movies and was always quoting them, much to my parents dismay. I’d “rescue” the cat and say “Don’t worry miss, I’ve got you!” but much to my dismay the cat never replied “You’ve got me? Who’s got you!?!”
I would also take the Lego blocks I had and would build sets for my Kenner “Super Powers” figures to smash, bash, and demolish while trying to conquer evil and restore peace to the good citizens of the city.
When I look back now I can’t help but be somewhat embarrased about my acting out superheroic fantasies. At the same time I realize that those times I pretended had a strong impact on building character. I would ask myself “what would Superman do” and try to act accordingly. Would he put others before himself, would he save the damsel or go after the villian? What did it mean to fight for “truth and justice”?
Unknowingly I was building a part of my lifelong moral character. I was teaching myself right from wrong, how to act ethically, why others matter, and other important life lessons and all the primary colored heroes served as my moral guides. They taught me to always do what’s right, to push on even when it hurts and that all life, even the lives of my arch nemesis, have innate value.
I also realize now that I was acting out stories that have been played out for millenia. Sure, in the past the stories may have been created around Hector and Achilles, or Arthur and Lancelot as opposed to Batman and Robin, but the narrative has stayed the same: there’s good and there’s evil and at the end of the day the good guys win, get the girl and ride off into the sunset while the bad guys see their plans foiled and are defeated… at least for now.
Perhaps that why I lament the current vogue of heroes wanting vengeance, seeking personal vendettas and generally not looking beyond themselves until the story says so. I miss the stories where the hero knew what had to be done and did it despite personal cost or the need for some self epiphany about the path of self-sacrifice.
I also realize that my attraction to the idea of Superman was because of my childhood belief in God and Jesus Christ. It’s been said many times that Superman is Jesus in a big red cape, and while I won’t go into that further (there are enough websites covering that already!) but I will that it’s a fairly good metaphor. Perhaps that’s why, of all superheroes, Superman has become part of collective conciousness. He, like Christ, is an ideal, what we wish we were, what we wish we could be if the right circumstances came together.
I may be getting too old for pretending to be a superhero and my villians have changed from those with ray guns and robots to those with debts and deadlines but the lessons I learned from pretending to be the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight have stayed with me: always do what’s right, push on even when it hurts and to always fight a never-ending battle for truth and justice.
I even sometimes do it with a towel wrapped around my neck.
Your turn: What is your fondest memory of playing superhero as a kid?
Let me say that I am impressed with this book. James McGrath has done an awesome job pulling together different scholars to examine the interaction between science-fiction and religion.
Check out my previous posts:
From Dr. Frankenstein to Topher Brink
Mis-Reading Star Trek? Exploring Danna’s Chapter in ‘Religion and Science Fiction’.
Today, capsule we’re looking at C.K. Robertson’s essay, “Sorcerers and Supermen: Old Mythologies in New Guises.”
Rev. Robertson gives us an overview of the birth and rise of comic books in North America. Looking at the origins of heroes like Superman and Batman, Robertson tells of how they evolved over the years, including how their morality changed in later incarnations. For example, early Superman was somewhat callous and had no problem throwing a bad guy to his apparent death.
A large portion of his essay is spent discussing the Marvel ‘verse, and he includes information from private interviews with Stan Lee. Rev. Robertson looks at the glory days of the 1960’s when Marvel introduced a bevy of new heroes including: Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, X-Men, the Avengers, Thor etc.
In light of the renaissance of Marvel movies in the past couple of years, the author also looks at the genesis of the comic book movie, which even the most hard-core comic geek has to admit, wasn’t very pretty. (David Hasselhoff as Nick Fury anyone?)
Rev. Robertson presents a basic synopsis of the history of the comic industry. Unfortunately, where he begins by framing the essay by suggesting that modern comic heroes are like the King Arthur legends retold as epic myths for each generation, he doesn’t go far enough in exploring that angle.
There are many parallels that could have been explored more in-depth between modern comics and the Arthurian legend of Arthur and the knights of the Round Table.
Some versions of the Arthur tales gave super-powers to certain knights. Sir Kay, for example, had the ability to hold his breath for nine days, increase his height (much like the Avenger known as Giant Man, and the Super-Friends cartoon character Apache Chief), and radiate heat from his body (though not at the same level as the Human Torch). Sir Gawain’s strength increased and decreased with the rising and setting of the sun, reminiscent of the solar-powered mutant Sunspot.
Arthur’s opponents also had enhanced abilities, the most obvious example being the Green Knight, who calmly reattached his own severed head.
Does this persistence of super-powered heroes and villains across the centuries reveal some sort of persistent cultural fascination with the possibility of humans becoming more-than-human? Does it mean anything that super-powered characters stand equal with (and are sometimes defeated by) non-powered characters whose abilities are the result of lifelong training (such as Lancelot and Batman)?
Much has been made of the semi-egalitarian nature of the Round Table, with a clear leader (Arthur) but a cadre of knightly equals. How do current super-teams compare? The Fantastic Four are a family, with Mister Fantastic as the patriarch, the Invisible Woman as his strong-yet-nurturing helpmate, and two squabbling siblings (the Thing and the Human Torch). The X-Men could be compared to a team of activists guided by the moral vision of Professor X. The Justice League seems to be run by consensus, with no official “leader.” The closest equivalent might be the Avengers, which is led by an elected Chair, but has no hierarchy beyond that. Is there a “best” organizational structure for a team of super-heroes?
Rev. Robertson concludes his essay with a call to embrace our imagination and to delight in the supernatural and magic offered in the coloured squares of comic books:
…from 1938 onward the mythology of comic books has been ‘unfettered by the confines of realism,’ and remains now, as then, something best accepted and appreciated by those whose childlike imaginations continue to soar, by those who still dare to believe that a man can fly. (pg 58)
Check out my article over at Political Jesus.