“Father, tell us about the time that Gilgamesh and Enkidu defeated the evil giant Humbaba.”
“Oh, all right. Hop up on my lap. One day, not long after Gilgamesh and his hairy friend Enkidu wrestled each other like bears, they set out for the Great Cedar Forest of Lebanon…”
Such tales have been repeated down through the ages and change only based on a given culture’s unique pantheon of superheroes:
“Father, my friend Kratos says that Heracles cleaned the Augean stables before he slayed the Nemean Lion, but I know that’s not true. Please, please, please, can you tell me of his mighty labors?”
Some superheroes have so much universal appeal that they have been making the literary leap from lap to lap for more than a millennium. Case in point — Thor and his hammer Mjölnir, who seems as comfortable in the 13th-century pages of the Icelandic Prose Edda as in 21st-century multiplexes. It was indeed the Mighty God of Thunder who allowed me to initiate my daughter into the ways of the superhero several weeks ago.
I’m not quite certain how the conversation started. Probably a thunder peal and a remark made by me about Thor stumbling about in the clouds.
We watch few television programs and movies in our home, and usually we tend to go for reruns of Flipper or other nature-based programming. But it turns out that my daughter has been storing up a wealth of questions about superheroes from what she has gleaned from classmates and friends.
“Joshua likes Thor, but Blake says that the Incredible Hulk can knock him flat on his feet.”
“That’s true,” I acknowledged, smiling. “I’ve seen it happen myself. The Hulk has been known to pummel his share of Norse gods.”
Thus began the salvo. Why is he green? Why does he get so angry? “That’s nothing; the real question is how his shorts stay on.” Well, my favorite is Spiderman, but how does he stick to walls? Will that happen to me if I get bit by a spider? “No, and his real name is Peter Parker, by the way.” You mean he doesn’t go to work as Spiderman? “Quite a few superheroes have day jobs. Batman, Superman, too. In fact, I think Clark Kent now writes for an online publication just like me.” What’s your favorite part about Wonder Woman? “Um…her invisible jet.” Brett really likes Superman, but Aidan says that Batman doesn’t really have any superpowers. What’s your favorite superpower? I like Spiderman’s shooting web. “Well, I’ve always been partial to the Green Lantern’s ring. But I also like the fact that Wolverine can easily recover from hangovers.”
It was just like that except for the last comment—though I was thinking it.
A wellspring of superhero knowledge proudly flowed from my lips, and I might have kept driving east straight into the Atlantic Ocean had not the topic of super villains emerged.
I presented the litany of usual suspects: the Joker, Lex Luthor, Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, etc. Then she asked who Wolverine’s enemy was. And that’s when the conversation shifted.
That wasn’t the answer my daughter expected, nor was it what I expected to say, frankly.
It was just a conversation about comic book heroes, but any good parent knows to seize an opportunity to impart a message about acceptance and diversity. So we spent a few minutes talking about the fact that in the X-Men mythos, other average people tend to be the ones who can’t accept that there are people different than they are. Then again, I confessed, it might take me a few minutes to get used to someone who absorbs my energy through skin-to-skin contact.
Then she asked about Iron Man’s villain.
My answer was simple: “Actually, I think he is the enemy.”
While global fandom is besotted with playboy technocrat Tony Stark, I really can’t stomach anything that turns a blind eye to the military industrial complex as much as that mythical world does. If Lockheed Martin executives Robert J. Stevens and Marillyn Hewson became the Wonder Twins tomorrow, yet continued clinging to all their killing machine stock, I wouldn’t let them save me even if I did accidentally drive into the Atlantic. And in any case, I’m pretty sure Aquaman or Flipper would come along to save me.
Even though it’s only superheroes, Iron Man isn’t getting my parental endorsement.
My daughter, of course, wanted to know why Iron Man is his own worst enemy. As I didn’t want to begin a conversation about militarism, I simply said that he didn’t appeal to me mainly for his arrogance. But I did think his red and gold suit looked pretty cool.
We drove in silence for several minutes. I knew what was coming next.
“They’re not real, are they?”
This has been a theme of late. My daughter is five and very bright. She is gradually emerging from the chrysalis of fairies and magic wands and flying ponies and recognizes that most of these things are not real outside of the human imagination—though she clings desperately to a belief in unicorns. And I’m not about to touch that with Alan Scott’s power ring.
“No, they’re not,” I admitted. “There are no real superpowers like capes that make you fly and magic hammers and adamantium claws. Though like you said, Batman doesn’t really have any superpowers, so I guess his ingenuity is real. But, truth be told, most billionaires don’t seem to use their creative energies for ultimate good these days.”
Then came the really important question: “But there are real villains, aren’t there?”
“Yes. Yes there are.”
“And how do we fight them?”
At this point, we weren’t far from the public library, so I decided to make an unplanned stop. Here I am going to plug the main branch of the Richland County Public Library in Columbia, South Carolina, which has one of the most wonderful children’s sections in the bibliothecal universe and truly deserves to be cited as a civic superpower.
We headed downstairs to the Children’s Room with its gigantic mural of Max and monsters swinging from the trees from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.
We pulled up to the reference desk and were greeted by a welcoming literacy superhero.
“We are looking for books about superheroes,” I announced.
The librarian smiled, “Any superhero in particular? Superman, the Fantastic Four?”
“No,” I clarified. “Real superheroes. We would like to find books about Nelson Mandela, Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Gandhi. And perhaps a book or two about St. Francis.”
The librarian smiled.
My daughters eyes lit up. “You mean there really are superheroes?”
I put on my best Yes, Virginia voice: “Of course there are. How else do you think we’ve been fighting villains all these years?”
“And what are their superpowers, Papa?”
“Theirs are the real superpowers,” I assured her. “They are the superpowers that you and I and anyone else can have. They are peace, justice and the nonviolent way.”
“And even Iron Man can have these?”
“Yes, Katherine. Even Iron Man.”
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