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

Phone Booth Friday: Superhero Chemistry

Today’s Phone Booth Friday post is all about science, or more specifically elements and chemistry. Now, I’ve noticed that there’s been a lot of blowback recently in the social media commentariat about how it’s not cool to say that you love science, when you’re not actually a scientist. If you’re just someone who enjoys reading about things like space exploration or physics in popular publications, then geeking out over some discovery you find fascinating is apparently bad form. So before I get into the meat of today’s post, I will simply say as an initial matter that while it’s true watching a NOVA episode on the Valley of the Kings does not make you an Egyptologist, it’s only fair to point out that being able to cite the stats of a particular college football player because you happen to watch him play on television every week doesn’t even make you so much as a benchwarmer for Notre Dame, either.

Alright? Then let’s move on, those of you who are still with me.

Earlier this week I was pleased to come across this truly, deeply nerdy post on the Periodic Table of Superhero Elements. In it, the authors comb through the DC, Marvel, and other comic universes to list those fictional substances which have caused an impact on the lives of many of the characters we know, both for good and for bad. In doing so, they may also be revealing why it is that the superhero genre seems to be able to infinitely expand as it does, thanks to our acceptance of the ever-changing aspects of science and technology.

Most of the superheroes we’re familiar with have their origins either on another planet, as a result of interaction with someone from another planet, or they have undergone some kind of mutation as a result of an experiment or accident. Even the ones who are just earthlings with extraordinary talents and resources, like Batman or Ironman, hone and improve their abilities through the study of science and technology. It’s interesting then, in reviewing this superhero periodic table, to note how often something as basic as a particular element – albeit a fictional one – can have a significant impact on the lives of these larger-than-life characters.

Kryptonite, for obvious reasons my least favorite element, is very well-known, even among those who aren’t really fans of the superhero genre. Although it does not exist in real life, when someone refers to something as “my kryptonite”, we all understand immediately that they are identifying a particular weakness that they have. Oddly enough, in real life “krypton” itself is one of the noble gases, rather than a long-gone planet, and is used in lighting and photography.

Sometimes these fictional elements don’t have a physical effect on our hero or heroine directly, but rather aid them in some way. Vibranium, for example, is the key component of Captain America’s iconic shield, while Amazonium is forged to make Wonder Woman’s bullet-deflecting bracelets. The properties of these substances are determined by the writers of the stories, of course, and some of these can a bit far-fetched indeed.

Nevertheless, we always suspend our disbelief regarding fictional elements such as these, and don’t seem to give much thought to the fact that many of the things we see in a superhero film, for example, are not actually possible on a scientific level – at least, not yet. I suspect that part of the reason why we’re willing to accept these things is because of science fact, even though in the superhero world we are looking at science fiction. In real life, we have come to accept that science leads to new discoveries of unknown substances and elements all the time, with possible new chemical properties and practical applications, as well as risks and dangers.

Consider the actual periodic table of elements and chemistry itself, which you probably had to memorize in high school. That grid layout of numbered and stacked boxes, as most of us would recognize it, first appeared nearly a century ago now, but it has grown considerably in size since that time as new elements have been discovered. The most recent of these, fierovium, livermorium, and ununseptium, have only been named and accepted by the scientific community within the last five years.

Who knows what the table may look like a century from now, as science advances?  What elements will there be, and how may we be able to use them in things like chemical applications?  Things like this make science perpetually exciting, frankly, even when you’re not a Nobel Prize nominee, but just someone who has a big imagination.  And it shows that the hero can just as easily have a great mind, as be able to toss the bad guys about like paper bags.

So for those of you who enjoy the world of superheroes, whether you are a full-blown collector and cosplayer, or whether you just enjoy catching the odd film or TV show when it’s on, go right ahead and enjoy learning about science. No, taking an interest in science does not make you a nuclear chemist. Yet by appreciating the study of science, and indeed encouraging the study of it among the young people of your acquaintance, you not only open a wider world of knowledge and lifetime learning for yourself, you also can help show others that studying science is not a chore, but actually rather heroic – in an elemental sort of way.


Phone Booth Friday: Telling Super Stories

This week Warner Brothers announced a slew of upcoming films based on characters from the DC Comics universe, which will take us through 2020; Marvel Comics have already announced their future lineup.  The offerings from DC include stand-alone superhero movies based on Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, Shazam, Green Lantern, and Cyborg, as well as ensemble films such as the in-production “Batman v. Superman”, and the interesting sounding “Suicide Squad”, which will be something like “The Dirty Dozen”, only with supervillains.  The really BIG event will be the first-ever “Justice League” film, split into two parts, which should bring together all of the major characters from the DC universe.  Anyone who watched “Super Friends” on Saturday morning cartoons when they were little will probably be looking forward to that one.

If this seems like a lot of spandex to deal with on the big screen, not to mention the host of superhero-themed television shows now appearing on the small screen, it may be worth stopping to consider how repeated storytelling about heroes and their adventures is a common practice within Western culture.

There is no one, single definitive version of the stories of the ancient gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters from Greek and Roman mythology.  Over many centuries, the same stories were told in different ways, sometimes adding or taking away elements, depending on the times or the tastes of the audience. The basic legends surrounding Heracles/Hercules for example, were pretty much the same in both Greece and Rome, but when the Romans adopted the Greek hero as their own, they changed his story in places to make him a more Roman figure, even transferring some of his famous “Labors” to a Roman setting.

We can see the same adaptation of well-known characters over time in the legends surrounding King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. King Arthur lived – if he did at all – in what is now Northern England during the 5th or 6th century, and legends about him fluttered about in popular storytelling until a Welsh writer wrote a chronicle of these tales in the 1100’s with many of the now-familiar aspects of the Arthurian legend.  However, a century later a French writer expanded upon these stories, adding both the quest for the Holy Grail and the character of Sir Lancelot.  As a result, today a modern audience could not imagine telling the story of King Arthur without the adultery of Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, even though at one time this plot device would not have been considered canonical.

Both Hercules and King Arthur have had their stories told by many different storytellers.  While certain details may change, depending on who is doing the telling, as subjects for sharing ideas and ideals, they have never ceased to fire the imaginations of writers, artists, and performers.  So rather than be surprised that the characters from comic books continue to be revisited and reshaped, both for existing audiences and for new audiences coming to learn the stories of these heroes, we can see them as part of a continuum in Western literature.

Because they are more recent in time, having appeared in the 20th century, superheroes are more easily adaptable to the present age than figures from the very distant past, like Hercules and King Arthur.  Sure, we still create entertainment around these earlier figures as we tell their stories, but there is always going to be some level of distance between us and them.  Hercules is not going to be taking creatine and whey powder while powerlifting boulders, and King Arthur is not going to be receiving suggestive snapchats on his iPhone from Morgana la Fay.  Superman, however, can have a meeting with Batman on a space station orbiting the Earth, and we think nothing of it.

Our appetite for mythology, tales of adventure, and acts of heroism seems to be fairly insatiable in Western culture.  With the release of so much superhero material, perhaps the studios and publishers are over-estimating the public’s appetite for market saturation when it comes to this particular genre, as some have argued.  Yet in seizing the zeitgeist of this moment, these storytellers are not only being very smart from a financial standpoint, they are also tapping into a long history of storytelling, one which laid the building blocks of the culture which we enjoy today.