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.