Phone Booth Friday: Let’s Give Our Superheroes A Break

Yesterday I read this criticism of superheroes by Vlad Savov in The Verge, because a well-intended reader of this blog sent it my way, wondering whether I would care to comment on it. In his piece, Mr. Savov raises a number of points, but his general thesis is that the superheroes with whom we’re familiar don’t seem to be very super.  Despite their powers and abilities, they do not eradicate evil and suffering from the world, they only beat it back for a time, and sometimes not very successfully. In essence, the author is asking the question, “What are superheroes for?”

The most important thing to consider when attempting to answer this question is the rather obvious, though perhaps easily-forgotten fact, that superheroes don’t actually exist.  They’re beings inhabiting works of fiction, no different in their way from other characters in adventure tales such as Captain Nemo, Michael Strogoff, or The Scarlet Pimpernel.  Even when there are traces of their being drawn from the lives and experiences of actual persons, theirs are not stories about real people.  As vivid as Bruce Wayne or Steve Rogers may be, they are still just characters in a story.

In most cases, a fictional character is created primarily for the purpose of entertainment.  Not all fictional characters exist devoid of deeper meanings or significance of course: they can often serve important pedagogical purposes, such as teaching us things about human nature, or about anticipating the consequences of our actions.  The best literature, oftentimes, not only entertains, but informs and enlightens.  Yet while one can easily learn a life lesson from The Little Engine That Could just as well as one may do from Thérèse Desqueyroux, in the end if their stories are not entertaining, no one is going to read them.

When we complain that superheroes don’t appear to solve the problems of the worlds which they inhabit, we’re playing a version of the classic game known as the “omnipotence paradox”, i.e., can God create a stone so heavy that He cannot lift it?  If Superman is so powerful, why doesn’t he work to eliminate all crime instead of fighting against it with his fists?

If superheroes fail to fix everything that afflicts mankind, it is because they have a fundamental belief that it’s important for people to solve their problems themselves whenever possible.  Certain threats against humanity – an approaching asteroid, a water supply poisoned by The Joker – they will step in and act upon.  Yet to remake the world in their image would be to set themselves up as all-powerful gods or benevolent dictators, negating the ability of ordinary people to exercise their own free will.  As Gandalf points out in “The Lord of the Rings” when Frodo offers him the One Ring, he would try to use its power for good, but in the end the temptation to turn it to his own selfish desires would be far too great for even him to resist.

This is because appearances to the contrary, superheroes are vulnerable.  They get shot, stabbed, punched, kicked, poisoned, and otherwise mangled and mistreated on a regular basis.  While they may have miraculous powers of self-healing, they still have to suffer in the course of their lives and work as we do. They do so in ways which are less mundane than paying the gas bill or being stuck next to a screaming baby on a plane. Yet they keep going, fighting for what matters to them, because they believe that the values which they fight for are more important than their own personal comforts, and because they recognize that the abilities with which they have been gifted call them to a different level of commitment and self-sacrifice.

By no means is this meant to be a complete response or even a riposte to Mr. Savov’s piece, which despite my disagreement with his assumptions and conclusions is worth reading for some of the points and criticisms it raises.  However, the takeaway from this is to remember that the superhero genre is meant to be, first and foremost, a form of entertaining literature: it is FUN, and it is perfectly acceptable, indeed laudable, to simply sit back and enjoy the ride.  While it might be nice for all of our problems to be solved by these beings endowed with unbelievable powers, the reality is, each one of us is called to work out our own problems ourselves whenever possible, rather than having all of our solutions to the difficulties of life handed to us.

So let’s give our superheroes a break, gentle reader.  Give them a chance to kick off their boots, and put their feet up after a hard day of fighting crime.  And let’s encourage those virtues of selflessness, self-reliance, and courage in the face of evil in our lives which, as fictional characters, they try to exemplify in their own.

Superman After a Long Day by Alex Ross

Superman After a Long Day by Alex Ross





Phone Booth Friday: Suit Yourself Up

Since their inception as a genre, superheroes have never really dressed like most people.  Sure, many of them have their secret identities and wear everyday clothes, so that they can hold down jobs or mix undetected with normal human beings.  Yet when they really go to work, they wear clothing which is, to be fair, rather outlandish.  That being said, this doesn’t stop those along the spectrum of fandom, from casual aficionado to full-blown expert, from trying to find ways to bring some aspect of their favorite hero to their own wardrobes – and that’s something we ought to encourage.

For those unwilling to don a garment made from lycra/spandex from fear of being photographed, like British Prime Minister David Cameron, there are of course other options. The now-familiar slanket, also known as the snuggie, i.e. a fleece blanket with sleeves, has been around for a few years now, and comes in a range of superhero styles at many retailers. However some new arrivals on the wearables market may prove to be just as popular with superhero fans who aren’t quite willing to fully suit up for themselves.

Take for instance this new product from Chilean company Selk-Bag: wearable sleeping bags designed to make the user look like a Marvel superhero. They fit just about any size, from kids to adults.  They’re also waterproof, but only recommended for temperatures down to 45 degrees Fahrenheit – that’s about 7 degrees Centigrade for you non-Americans.

Although not designed for such temperatures, I can envision some people using these this winter, much to the envy of their friends.  Particularly on warmer winter days when engaging in things like sledding, snowball fights, and ice hockey, a bit of padding can go a long way toward not being knocked about too much.  Still, perhaps these types of garments are best-saved for those of you who live in more moderate climates, where winters are not too terribly cold.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the return of the beloved childhood label Underoos, but this time in adult size.  If you’re of a certain age, you probably had a pair or two of these in your underwear drawer growing up. Underoos were matching underwear sets for kids, the most popular of which featured superheroes and sci-fi characters.  From the late ’70’s through the 80’s, they were quite the rage for kids who wanted to run around the house torturing their younger siblings through acts of violent horseplay.

So far the offerings are limited, but include Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Batman, Batgirl, Harley Quinn, He-Man, and Skeletor.  The underwear sets even come in the same retro packaging that you may remember from your childhood.  In some sense others have already picked up the slack on this type of product, most notably athletic gear/underwear designers UnderArmour in their “Alter Ego” line. However one should never underestimate the appeal of a well-timed bit of nostalgia marketing, particularly when superhero culture is such a dominant force in the entertainment world at the moment.

The huge variety of characters in the superhero universe, who all dress rather unusually, allows people to explore different aspects of their own personality and values.  Even if they happen to be drawn to one particular favorite, when purchasing garments like these, fans can naturally cross over into being several different characters – just as most of the serious cosplay folk I’ve been getting to know do in the projects they work on.  The fact that such garments are even available to the general public only reinforces the impression that, while marketers may be taking full advantage of this trend, there is more going on here than simply choosing a logo and going with it.

Like in Greco-Roman and Norse mythology, comic book superheroes speak to something larger than themselves.  By referencing their articles of clothing in what we ourselves wear, we also reference what virtues these characters stand for.  So while today wearing the “S” on your chest is a kind of textile shorthand for saying that you value “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”, in ancient times the wedding knot in the girdle or belt  worn by a bride around her waist was a reminder of the virtue of chastity, from the tale of Hercules and Hippolyta.  Western culture is littered with many such symbols which try to pass on values, which even if we don’t realize it are still showing up in articles of clothing today, from the laurel leaves of Apollo and Daphne on a Fred Perry bag, to the Golden Fleece from the story of Jason and the Argonauts embroidered on a Brooks Brothers polo shirt.

People need and want to be reminded of what makes us care for one another, and why having a free, democratic, and civilized society is better than the alternative.  I don’t mean to suggest that one must always try to dig deeply into the superhero world to try to answer that need, because let’s face it: sometimes you just want to have fun and play make-believe.  Yet in a time when so much of contemporary society seems so lost and rudderless, awash in a sea of materialism and selfishness, and in need of rediscovering virtues like self-sacrifice, charity, and service to others, is your wearing a superhero t-shirt really such a bad place to start?

Selk-Bag's range of Marvel superhero wearable sleeping bags

Selk-Bag’s range of Marvel superhero wearable sleeping bags

Phone Booth Friday: Why Superheroes Have Day Jobs

Yesterday I had to work on a brief description of myself for a group project, the sort of thing that in business parlance is often referred to as a “biographical sketch”.  I never find these easy: do you keep everything bland and professional, or do you tell something about your life outside of work? It got me thinking about the fact that while the superheroes we’re familiar with from popular culture have incredible powers that could bring them untold wealth, ease, and luxury, the vast majority of them hold down some kind of day job, just as we all do.

Admittedly, some of our heroes have more well-paid, less stressful jobs than others.  We’re all familiar with Clark Kent being a reporter, or Peter Parker being a photographer, neither of whom is raking it in as a journalist, but both of whom share difficult, often irrational bosses. If you can watch Superman being chewed out by Perry White, or Spiderman being screamed at by Jonah Jameson, and not wince in recognition of similar moments you’ve had in the working world, then you’ve not been in the working world long enough just yet.

At the other end of the income spectrum in the private sector, Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark are the sons of hugely successful businessmen, as well as successful businessmen in their own right.  True, they lead glamorous lifestyles characterized by magnificent homes, beautiful women, and all the toys any playboy could wish for.  Yet not only do they engage in many acts of public philanthropy, trying to set an example for others, in secret they are using part of their wealth to invest in crime-fighting activities for the good of others as well.

Interestingly, in the public sector Diana Prince has had quite a career arc, one which for my fellow residents of the Nation’s Capital might not seem strange at all.  She began her professional life as an Army nurse when she decided to leave the comforts of her life as an Amazonian princess.  Later on she became a secretary at Air Force HQ, and still later became a top U.S. government agent.  In fact by now, Wonder Woman must have amassed a pretty sizable government pension, given her decades of service to this country.

Not all of the men and women in tights and armor have what we would call “normal” day jobs, of course.  The X-Men, for example, just get to be mutants all the time, going to mutant college when they’re not fighting evil.  Bruce Banner started out as a scientist, but with his anger management issues he rarely manages to be able to hold down a job for very long before he has to move on to the next place.  The Incredible Hulk would be an example of what a job headhunter would call, “difficult to place”.

Still, while it may be difficult to imagine someone like Captain America writing up a bio for a company website or job application, the point is that many of these characters choose to hold down normal human jobs for a living.  And like all of us, there are responsibilities and costs that come with their jobs.  The Flash is a police forensic scientist, so presumably he’s paying annual union dues; Thor is a doctor in private practice, so he has to renew his New York State medical license every year in order to continue practicing.

I think the reason we see this narrative, time and again, not just in the superhero universe but throughout Western art and literature, is that the weavers of these tales recognized and wanted to emphasize the values of both service and hard work.  To be of heroic service to one’s country or fellow-man, and then return to the toils and cares of ordinary life, is something which Western culture has held up as a virtue since ancient times.  The Roman statesman Cincinnatus for example, after whom the city of Cincinnati is named, was beloved by the Founding Fathers in general and by George Washington in particular.  He was handed absolute power over Rome, twice, in moments of crisis.  After each crisis was over, he immediately gave up his absolute power, and went back to work on his farm.

We live in an era in which, sadly, quite a number of us expect to receive something for nothing – and right away, too.  Some believe they deserve to have a well-paying job immediately upon graduation, simply because they happen to have paid a lot of money for a piece of paper that says they jumped through certain arbitrary hoops chosen by an academic committee.  Others stuff and/or starve themselves with unproven or even dangerous diets and miracle pills, in order to try to achieve a desired physical appearance, without being willing to put in the grueling hours of sweat that a professional model, athlete, or actor must devote to staying in top physical shape.  Still others write stories, paint pictures, shoot films, or write songs, and expect patronage to come falling over itself to their doorstep, merely because they have created something, without being willing to do the hard work of getting recognized through patience and endurance.

While service through self-sacrifice is the job of every superhero, and indeed our job as well, the day job elements of their stories are also a lesson to us, even if perhaps a less-recognized one.  More than just a way to conceal superpowers, their jobs tell us that despite the messages of self-indulgent entitlement that plague our culture at present, there is a nobility in work that exists above and apart from the nature of the work itself.  Getting your hands dirty, and doing a hard day’s work, is something that even the most powerful of superheroes, Roman generals, or American patriots have done.  There’s no reason why you shouldn’t roll up your sleeves and do the same.

Another day at the office for Clark Kent

Another fun day at the office for Clark Kent