I remember when I was around 13 and bought yet another Spider-Man action figure. My mother was not happy about it—she expected me to be past the age of being into such “childish” things.
Well, I’m now 34 and still very much a fan of all things superhero. I’m not ashamed of it, though I should acknowledge that it does help to live in a world in which superhero and geek culture is more alive and accepted than it has ever been. Case in point: Wonder Woman is an official UN honorary ambassador, and I’m lucky enough to be able to write about superhero culture for a website. Even putting those two words together, “superhero” and “culture,” isn’t the sort of thing that was happening back when I was buying my cheap Spider-Man toys more than 20 years ago.
I’m proud of my inner child; it is a source of happiness for me. At the same time, I understand the unattractiveness of superheroes to many adults—the unrealistic violence of it all, the idea that you can always punch evil in the face to make it go away. Many superhero stories have more depth to them than that, but in the end, when dealing with characters who have superstrength or superspeed, marvelous metal-laced fists, metal gloves, or plain old metal hammers . . . someone evil is getting hit in the face. Yet we superhero geeks are far from being violent people who believe face hitting to be a solution to everything wrong in the world—more than the super characteristic, for fans such as myself it is the hero aspect that keeps us interested. The unrealistic violence is a visceral and direct form of action that the hero engages in to bring about good, and action is what it is all about.
And this is hardly unique to superhero stories. Take the Bhagavad Gita, or Gita for short, which is the Hindu holy text. It is an excerpt from the Mahabharata, an epic story of a rivalry between two families; the Gita is the conversation that takes place between king Arjuna and his charioteer and guide, the lord Krishna, right before a great war. Arjuna is a kshatriya, a person of the warrior caste, so his responsibility and purpose are to fight when it is necessary. But he is having doubts before leading his people into war. Through the philosophical conversation that takes place, lord Krishna convinces Arjuna that this action of war must be taken now, as it is necessary for the ultimate good of all. But war and violence are not advocated by the Gita. They serve as a grand metaphor for taking action, as war is the greatest and most difficult action that anyone can ever decide to take, even for a kshatriya king who is raised by a warrior code of honor.
Likewise, in the case of many superhero comics and movies, action is what it is being advocated, even if action takes the form of violence in the story. Decisive and intentional action to do the right thing and be a certain way, to handle ourselves in a purposeful manner in a given situation to bring about good in ourselves and our surroundings. That is what we allow superheroes to teach us, whether we are 13 or 34.
Naturally, the actions we regular folks must take to overcome our difficulties rarely take the form of punching evil in the face. Our situations change. They can be complicated and are different for every person. Some years ago, when I was in a dismal situation and felt more alone than I have ever been in my life, I remained stagnant and didn’t do much of anything to change my circumstances. At one point I became fed up and decided to summon Batman into my life as something of a metaphorical guide, because who better to turn dark loneliness into something spectacularly good than the Dark Knight? The full story is here, but to summarize it for you, it worked astoundingly well. But that was for one particular situation, and that situation is not like any of the challenges I am facing now in my continuing quest to better myself. I expect the superheroes I admire to come and go, and come again into my life when I need them, but I do believe that I personally will always have a bond with the Hindu deity Ganesha. Aside from his being a god of creative writing, I am intrigued by the intersection of his having an old and wise elephant head upon a young and playful child’s body.
I know that I am still very much a child by some people’s measure, still writing fantasy stories and still dreaming to have those stories out in the world (and working toward it, by the way, if you happen to be a fantasy agent I haven’t sent my work to yet). I’m proud of my overactive imagination, and I’m always excited to exercise it by creating and by exposing myself to other people’s stories and artwork. All of this childishness makes me happy, but I am adult enough to know that everything takes effort, including happiness. I put considerable conscious effort into being aware of the sources of my happiness. These include but are not limited to practicing gratitude for the good things in my life; spending quality time with my wife, family, and friends; practicing goodwill when I can; and, of course, working on my creative career, which goes hand in hand with engaging in creative play. Having done this for a little while, I’ve developed a sort of sixth sense for my happiness needs. It’s far from flawless, but I generally know when I need to be social and when I need to be alone and create and/or play.
When it comes to play, I no longer have those Spider-Man action figures, but I do have a much more fantastical toy for my age, especially when you consider the many, many superheroes of whom I have grown to be a fan: the Marvel deck-building game Legendary and most of the expansions. My wife can confirm that I am often fiddling with these cards, grouping heroes together for a fantastic fanfiction battle that won’t last more than 30 minutes, and often rearranging it all again before we actually play a game. It’s great fun for me and has allowed me to re-examine my favorite heroes. By playing with different team combinations, comparing them, and thinking about which iconic villains they are thwarting to save the world, I’ve considered these heroes in ways I never have before. I’ve asked myself, what is it about any individual superhero that draws me to them? What do I find most inspirational? And when you strip away the simplistic comic-book violence of face punching, what unique heroism is left that we regular people can incorporate into our own lives?
If we wish for it, each hero can offer us inspirational wisdom that we can use to face a multitude of rotating challenges. I’ve decided to call this ongoing experiment “The Superheroes in ‘I’” to encourage the idea that reflections of multiple superheroes can be found in any one of us, and depending on what our particular challenge or metaphorical villain is, we can bring that hero to the surface to conquer the evils holding us back. Of course, everything I come up with will be made up and will suit my relationship and views of the different characters, but I hope that as I engage in this project, others will also be inspired to find the superheroes within themselves.