Thursday, June 04, 2015
Next week on Wednesday, June 10, I'll be at the North Regional Library in Raleigh at 6:30 p.m. to lead a discussion called "The Superhero Inside Us All."
I've always been fascinated by superheroes. My interest spans several mental domains. First, I'm a big old geeky fanboy who has a massive accumulation of superhero comic books. It's been twenty years since I last made a serious attempt at organizing and cataloging my collection, and I owned about 10,000 books then. My wall of long boxes has only gotten bigger over the years. Most of my collection is dominated by DC. For a long time, well into the 1980s, they had simpler, more episodic issues. Since I frequently bought my comic books used at flea markets, odds were excellent that if I picked up a single random issue of a DC comic, I'd get a complete story, while a single random issue of a Marvel comic, at least since then early 70s, would be only part of a larger story arc that might be difficult to cobble together. Of course, things changed with the rise of comic book shops in the 80s and 90s. Then, it was possible to find all the back issues you needed to read a complete story, and by the 2000s, any story of significance from DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, Image, etc. was going to be collected into graphic novels. Ironically, the rise of graphic novels was a big factor in cutting me loose from my local comic store, which I used to visit with the regularity of church. Now, why bother collecting a story in bits and pieces? Wait six months or a year, and you can read it all at once for less than the sum of all the parts.
But, I'm getting distracted by the once dominant medium of superheroics, and neglecting to talk about the content. The scientific part of my mind is intrigued that superheroes have any hold on our imaginations at all. Evolution should have us programmed to understand the limits of a human body. We know we can't run faster than a car, know there's no use trying to pick up that car and throw it, and know that if a car is coming at us, we seriously need to get out of the way, since it's not just going to bounce off us. We know that we can't jump hard enough to launch into flight, and no matter how hard we stare at a wall, we're not going to see through to the other side. Yet, we accept all of these attributes in our superheroes. Tell a four year old that Superman can fly, and odds are good he'll believe you on the first try. Why? Even if we consciously reject the possibility of these things being possible, why are we so easily drawn in, so ready and willing to believe?
At the risk of getting overly metaphysical, I suspect that superheroes and religion share neural pathways in our minds. We've evolved to recognize patterns, even when none exist. If an old woman says she can make it rain by shaking a rattle at the sky, and it rains even once, we can be convinced there's something to it. This isn't just a habit of primitive minds. Even the most rational-minded people among us hold onto beliefs that they can control the uncontrollable with certain ritualistic behaviors. This primitive pattern recognition didn't evolve to recognize a difference between the natural and the supernatural, and, before the rise of the scientific method, it once must have made perfect sense that there were supernatural forces controlling everything. You didn't just want to accept that it was chance that determined if you were going to catch fish on any given morning. There must be river spirits who controlled such things. And, since we are excellent at projecting human characteristics onto inhuman things, it probably wasn't a big leap to think that the river spirits had vaguely human shapes, even if we never caught a glimpse of them. River spirits, cloud spirits, earth spirits, fire spirits... the world was controlled by powerful entities who chose to remain out of sight under most situations. But, we still felt in our gut that they were there, and this gut instinct now makes it possible for us to accept superheroes on a subconscious level.
Superhumans have always played a major role in the mythology of every culture I've ever studied. The Greeks, the Norse, Navajos, Egyptians, the Japanese... name a culture, past or present, and I'll find you some well loved hero with superhuman powers.
Of course, not many of them will be wearing capes, tights, and masks. This version of the superhero arose in the 1930's in America and quickly became the dominant shared myth of our nation. While I have no actual research to back me up, I suspect more people can name five founding members of the Justice League than can name our first five presidents.
How did the caped crusader style of hero come to such cultural prominence? It's easy to look to the spectacle, the bright colorful costumes, the violent adventures, the catchy code names. Flash! Spiderman! Wonder Woman! All decked out in clothing indistinguishable from body paint, the products of our id escaping into daylight. But, I would argue that the real reason that the superhero template formed before World War II has endured has little to do with spectacle, and a lot to do with spectacles.
The genius of Superman was that he had a secret identity. When he wasn't fighting Lex Luthor, he was just plain old Clark Kent. Clark was kind of nerdy and clumsy. Ladies didn't give him the time of day. He wasn't rich; unlike Bruce Wayne, he had a day job. He paid rent, he paid taxes. He got yelled at by his boss. People ask, why bother being Clark Kent when you can be Superman? But Clark Kent isn't a disguise Superman wears. Superman is a disguise Clark wears, a coping mechanism that allows him to have a normal life. Clark isn't a god hiding among men. He's a kid from the mid-west, raised on middle class, middle American values. He's modest, he's honest, he's hardworking, and he's a team player. He's a journalist because he believes that a free press is vital to a democracy, and he's believes in democracy because he's an American in his soul. He had no desire to conquer the world, no desire to rule. He had the same fundamental power to change the world than any American has... he can vote, and I suspect he never misses an election.
Yes, he has amazing powers. Yes, he can fly. But he lives in the city, riding the subway, eating at lunch counters, because that's how normal people spend their days. And when rude people jump in front of him as he's racing to catch the elevator, or when his boss is nagging him about deadlines, and when for the hundredth time Lois has rolled her eyes when he asks him out on a date, he knows, deep down, that there's something inside his shirt that would make everyone see him differently, but he's just not ready to show it. I think this is the ultimate reason Superman (and other working class heroes like Spiderman or the Flash) resonates with us. As we put up with all the hassle of daily life, we can calmly smile, thinking, it's okay. These people don't know the real me. They don't know my secrets my true potential.
It's not the cape. It's not the invulnerability. It's the faith that, if the world truly knew the real you, they would be amazed. Deep inside, everyone has a little Clark Kent in their soul.