I want my son to like superheroes.
I don’t much care if he gets into comics or not; I never did and it didn’t stop me from digging the heroes they created. Besides, if anything, today’s superhero-saturated culture makes it easier than ever to get exposed to comic book characters without actually reading comic books. And I’m not worried that my son won’t go through a superhero phase at some point. He’s a little boy; whether caused nature (genetics), nurture (my guidance), their sheer prevalence in today’s pop culture or just the natural law of childhood, it seems pretty likely that he will. I certainly won’t stop him.
But I may try to steer him towards one superhero in particular…
I love Superman. I like other superheroes too, particularly Spider-man, and I guess Batman’s okay too, even though there’s nothing technically “super” about him. But as I said, when I was a kid I just wasn’t into comics; I had some, I liked some, but I wasn’t obsessive about them and I totally missed the graphic novel era. So most of my early exposure was through Saturday morning cartoons (“Superfriends”; “Spider-man and Friends”), live-action TV shows (primarily featuring The Hulk, Wonder Woman and Spider-man) and movies (Richard Donner’s Superman flicks).
Over the past 10 years, previously obscure heroes – or at least characters that were marginalized by being largely constrained to comic books – have emerged into pop culture in prominent ways. As such, my son is going to have a lot more choices. And I’m not sure that all of them are super (sorry) appropriate for a little kid.
We identify with different heroes at different ages, and under different circumstances (see this perceptive article). As a teenager, it’s definitely easy to get seduced by grittier heroes that reflect a more complicated, more cynical, less “square” viewpoint; I fell for that whole false “wisdom” thing too, I just did it via Ayn Rand and Bret Easton Ellis and other bullshit that screams “edgy” and “sophisticated” when you’re thirteen. Kind of like Batman.
Whatever. I already said I like Batman, so relax. I loved the show as a kid, ridiculous as it was, and I like Nolan’s Batman movies. I even like the whole “disturbed vigilante” thing he’s got going on. But not all superheroes are appropriate for all ages, and as the father of a toddler, I think I’ll stick with Superman for now. For the same reasons so many people claim he’s boring: he’s square, he’s a boy scout, he’s invincible, etc.
That’s all true, for the most part. He is square. He is a boy scout. He does the right thing, he doesn’t kill people, he stands for something, he’s borderline invincible, etc. Is he an anachronism? In today’s increasingly cynical world, does he still have a place? Can he even fight for the American Way when no one can even agree on what the way is anymore? Who cares!
While those things might be problems for adults who consider Superman too childish for their sophisticated tastes (and for unimaginative writers who can’t seem to find some conflict without stripping the Man of Steel of excitement), they make him the perfect superhero for young kids.
(I’ve written before about my issues with the idiotic “Superman is boring” argument; it’s lazy and overdone and just plain wrong. If you can’t write a character in an interesting way, it’s not the character’s fault, it’s yours. Prefer other heroes all you want, but discounting Superman because he’s “boring” is nonsense. YOU’RE BORING.)
For one, he’s not disturbed or tortured (usually). He can be – and it might even be compelling to see (not in the Superman III way, though that was pretty funny) – but he’s mostly not. He’s generally happy and kind and selfless and friendly.
When my son gets older, dissecting what Superman means and intellectually considering the nuances – or lackthereof – in the character may well be quite interesting to him. But right now? He just needs to see the good guys win. Superman is the ultimate good guy, which makes him a perfect role model for my son.
God knows, when it comes to being a role model, I, like Charles Barkley, tend to fall somewhat short. Superman makes for solid backup. Despite their popularity, I’m not sure a rage-based monster or a self-loathing bat fetishist are good alternatives.