Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Superheroes and the quest for the larger-than-life man

(or what my beloved super heroes taught me that my Dad never could.)
The Avengers Age Of Ultron, Marvel, Superheores
Illustration by Arthur Milano
The phenomenon that is superhero culture has grown exponentially and I think I know why. Thus, may I present my arm chair philosophy concerning the appeal of the American super hero fantasy genre. They are urban myths, they are larger than life and they are what we all aspire to be. Men (and a few choice women) who stand tall in the face of adversity and do so even when triumph is not certain. What’s not to love?
In a world where so many men (and again, a few choice women) abandon their families it is nice to see someone step forward and commit to taking the hits for the weak, meek and defenseless. To stand strong for the weak, to be there when… okay you get the idea.
In classic literature we call a protagonist’s plight the hero’s journey. This is earmarked with tragedy, sacrifice, pain, suffering and finally, redemption. Ancient heroes were quite super as well. Perseus, Agamemnon, Achilles, Hercules, Homer. Magic and mysticism has been wrapped around King Arthur. Instead of Gamma rays and and radioactive spider bites, these ancient heroes had special abilities derived from the Gods (Zeus, Hades, Athena, etc).
The rise of the American super hero is largely due to the need for young boys looking to an ideal—for a blueprint of manhood. I speak from experience when I say that when there is no father, or father figure around, the child suffers. Trust me, in light of a bad father, like one who is abusive–in any way—often the child is better off. I mean if the Dad is there, actively engaged, encouraging, a spiritual compass, a family leader and is there to give a hug or an ass-kicking when needed. Believe me, there's nothing better for a child’s formative years.
So who were my heroes?
Growing up, I wasn’t much into sports (that would come later) and so fantasy, science fiction and comic books were where I–an only child to a single Mom–raised in the shadow of a butt-ugly divorce–went to look for inspiration. I found that inspiration in the muscle-bound, testosterone-laden super-dudes of Marvel Comics. Now and then I dug some DC books later, but all of DC’s characters–Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Green Lantern, The Flash among others–were largely unrelatable to me. They all seemed like perfect white men leading already perfect, privileged lives. They didn’t seem to struggle with life like Marvel’s characters. Peter Parker (a.k.a. Spiderman) was a nerd who was terrorized at school, who wasn’t popular with the ladies, wasn’t a jock and because his parents were dead was being raised by his aunt and uncle.
Now THAT was a character I could relate to.
It gets better. The X-Men, largely teenagers, had to deal with all the same problems as most American teens but also had to contend with weird powers they didn’t understand, world-conquering maniacs, giant killer-robots built to hunt them, alien attacks and crazy murderers around every corner (hmm, sound  like my old neighborhood growing up). Iron Man was a brilliant industrialist but also a raging alcoholic. The Hulk was a euphemism for rage, like a modern-day Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. Powerman (Luke Cage) was an ex-pimp and street enforcer turned 'good', the Fantastic Four were a dysfunctional family of misfits and–well, again, you get the idea.
But I still haven’t answered the question yet, who were my (super) heroes? First was The Vision. A super-android who was built to destroy the Avengers, a team of haphazard do-gooders. He chose differently and eventually fell in love with, married and divorced the Scarlet Witch, a mutant sorceress and long-time Avenger. He was an android, a synthetic man, who was built to do the bidding of his robot master, Ultron–a sentient AI who was obsessed with killing off the human race but who also had a huge Oedipus complex. I was bi-racial (actually I still am) and I could relate to someone who was a part of two different worlds but fit into neither. Now don’t get me wrong, when the s#!t went down, you wanted this guy on your side. And that’s what drew me to him. In spite of his inner turmoil, he knew his allegiances. In short, he would make the correct choice.
Then there was Bishop, a big, powerful mutant super-soldier from the near future. Muscle-bound with a big attitude and even bigger guns. He was a leader and took no s#!t from anyone. And he was Black. Something else as a bi-racial kid (half black, half white) needed to see was balance. I could see someone who is strong and tough who isn’t a blonde-haired blue-eyed ideal I could never live up to. Something else I fancied about Marvel, they were diverse. The X-Men had members from Africa, Latin America, Canada, Germany, Russia. They even had a Native American strongman named Warpath! Marvel created the first black superhero in the Black Panther and frequently had their women equally powerful (or more so) than their male counterparts (single-Moms rejoice!).
These fictional characters had all the shortcomings of a regular person yet, were able to rise above their station and do extraordinary things. My father, who never once showed his face to me, was a man who I never got to know. That was his choice. Mine was to find examples of manhood that were good, solid compasses. I turned out to be a father–and eventually, sadly enough, a single Dad–who is always there with hugs, words of encouragement or the threat of a smack down when needed. 
My kids know I mean business when I say something. While I’m the farthest thing from perfect I share my love of comic books, art, movies, reading and sports with my daughter, 17, and three teenage sons. We even attend local ComiCons together. I believe in supporting my kids as much as any committed parent. I’m there for them and want to coach my kids to be the very best they can be. To accomplish acts of kinds and unselfish citizenship. To make a positive mark on the world and if at all possible, leap tall obstacles in a single bound. Just like the heroes I grew up idolizing. 
After all, would the the Vision or Bishop do any less?

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