Rattus Scribus© 24 Sept 2010
Ever since I could read, I've been a sucker for superheroes and superhero stories. Comics were my first real entrance to the wonderful world of books, and I could not then and still cannot get enough. During my middle and high school years I was not a good student. I hung around some of the worse kids in the school. We made teachers quit. That will give you an idea of my background.
But I loved to read, and I read more than anyone I knew (which may not be saying much). So while school bored me to tears and I barely graduated high school, I was engaging, quite by accident, in a significant amount of self-education. Years later when I got married and started college, all my teachers loved my work; and I owe it to my start in comics. Today, ironically perhaps, I am a teacher.
The comic book stories I read as a child may have been primitive compared to some of today's sophisticated writers. For one, the science was often just plain bad. I still laugh at how many superheroes got their powers from exposure to some radioactive cosmic energy -- gamma ray bombs, rocketing through Van Allen's radiation belt, radioactive spider bites, tumbling into horrifically toxic sludge, and so on. And instead of withering to bacon, the characters end up with the ability to juggle tanks, flame on, scale walls, and control nature.
Nevertheless, I learned a lot. At 10 years old I knew words like inundate, quandary, conundrum, heinous, raiment, refulgent, salutary and munificent. I also understood basic physics concepts like the inseparability of time and space, and why (if E=mc2 is true at all) humans cannot and never will travel Faster Than Light (FTL), despite all the sci-fi books and movies that depict otherwise.
But my love of superheroes was more than just knowledge acquisition, or even childhood fascination with fantastic powers and thrilling adventures. For a time my biggest dream and prayer request to God was to be a superhero. Crazy, I know. But there was practical reason behind the madness.
I wanted to save the world, and the world I grew up in needed saving, badly. For this was the time of Cold War paranoia, epitomized by the Cuban missile standoff that nearly plunged the world into the unthinkable; a time of race riots in virtually every major American city; a time of assassinations -- President Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr, and Robert Kennedy; a time of protests, from the Vietnam War to civil rights to the drug and sexual revolutions.
I wanted to help. But what could one lone skinny kid do about any of this? Comics came to the rescue, because I saw in them, three very important things that have stayed with me ever since.
First, comics stirred in me the beginnings of a social consciousness. Certain superheroes and stories impressed upon my young mind the need to look at evil and injustice in the world and to expose the causes. In many of the first comics I read, problems were often reduced to individual megalomaniacal super baddies who either wanted to rule the world or destroy it. But in the 1960s and early 70s, comics took a big risk and started dealing with systemic social problems like racism, drugs, homelessness, gender discrimination, political corruption and more, all reflective of real contemporary challenges.
Second, action. Superheroes always took action whenever they saw the innocent threatened with danger, whether human, natural, alien, or mystic. I remember when Martin Luther King Jr. said: "History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people." His exhortation may well have been all the more influential on me because the groundwork had already been prepared by those comic superheroes who took Edmund Burke seriously when he said, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.
Third, there is rarely a convenient time to be a hero. I loved Superman, but the guy is basically a god. When you're invulnerable to all but a rare chunk of your destroyed home planet, being a hero is not much to risk. Comic book writers understood this, and wrote some stories where heroes are marked not by their power, but by their willingness to do an utterly selfless heroic thing, even at great personal cost.
In my top five superheroes of all time is a Marvel character by the name of the Silver Surfer. Issue number five (1969) is titled "And Who Shall Mourn For Him?" The Silver Surfer, an alien being endowed with the "power cosmic" is exiled on earth. Misunderstood and hounded by a fearful and violent human race, he has at last found to his surprise that one human has befriended him, a scientific genius named Al B. Harper, who as an African American knows full well what it is like to be misunderstood, feared and hated.
But a super-powered alien named the Stranger has arrived and judged humanity to be too wantonly ignorant and savage to live. This affront to the universe shall be destroyed by a (wait for it) "Null-Life bomb," which the Stranger has hidden somewhere in New York. While the Silver Surfer battles the stranger and seeks to change his mind about destroying the world, Al Harper frantically searches for the bomb using a sort of Geiger device.
Despite the ever-reliable ignorant humans who nearly thwart his efforts, Harper succeeds in finding and dismantling the bomb, but at great cost. An anti-tampering device is set off and Harper is killed, but the world saved. The Stranger then realizes that if one human is willing to lay down his life for his fellow humans, then perhaps the species does have redeeming value. He departs, leaving the Surfer to mourn the only human who, knowing alienation, befriended an alien. Although the world does not even know of Al Harper's sacrifice to save it, the Silver Surfer leaves on his otherwise unmarked grave an eternal flame as a testimony to a real hero.
This story and others like it (and my later introduction to Christianity) taught me that heroes don't have to have super-powers, only the willingness to be available. And that is something we all can do: a helping hand, a kind word, giving with no thought of reward, a shoulder to cry on, support, affirmation, love. These are the every day heroic acts that matter.
Above: A very kind rendition of me, after one of my favorite superheroes: The Silver Surfer. I loved this character not only because he had the coolest superpowers -- he could travel the distant galaxies, skim the surface of suns, and manipulate matter and energy -- but because comics legend Stan Lee made him among the wisest and noblest of heroes. I realized as a child that the Surfer had a wisdom that came with having seen much of the universe, with great civilizations that flourished for a time but are now long since gone, and what legacy did they leave? This cosmic perspective seemed sorely missing among us humans who tend to be imprisoned to the cultural-historical moment.