When I was a boy, my fantasy heroes were many. Hidden in archives, my parents have Polaroids of me in all variety of costume: Lone Ranger, Indiana Jones, Zorro—to name a few. I had all the comic-cover and movie-poster poses and facial expressions down pat. I remember running around inside—and outside—the house, in my Batman pajamas, while my best friend got the Robin ones. I told him it was because he was smaller (which he was), but the truth was: I had control issues (which I still do, as you’ll see). Teenage girls in the neighborhood laughed at us, equal parts adoration and pity.
But my favorite hero of all was Superman. He was the champion. How could he not be? He’s the whole package: super strength, super speed, flight, X-ray and heat vision, and a shining beacon of everything elementary school teaches us is good and whole and pure about America. I was raised on a healthy diet of Superman, especially the 1978 film with Christopher Reeve, and how fitting it was that 1978 was the year I was born. I must have watched that film ten thousand times, and the sequels a few hundred times each. Even despite the rancor for Superman Returns, I love that movie. It was my childhood reborn. Not gonna lie: when he saved that plane and got a standing ovation in the center of a baseball stadium (America’s game)… yup. Cried a little bit. Although not as much as when I was five—thinking that I was Superman, I attempted to “fly” from the top of one park picnic table to another, falling just short of the landing and busting my front tooth out on the edge. Apparently, I was not made of steel. I was hurt.
By the time I was a teenager, things had changed. I wasn’t as optimistic as I had once been. My parents divorced somewhere in there, some time after the family game nights had become less frequent than the family fight nights. Childhood friends turned against me, joined gangs, or died. I spent the better part of 7th grade in brutal and bloody fist fights at school—these with young and blooming career criminals, so the fights were often violent indeed. In freshman year of high school, our art teacher had given us the assignment of drawing images on the outside of our portfolios that represented “us.” Apparently, some of my youthfulness persisted: I had drawn Pac-Man as one of the images, but the prevailing character on the page was Batman.
You won’t believe this, and it does sound ridiculous, but when I was 14 years old, I sincerely believed that “when I grew up,” I was going to become a vigilante—that I would have some sort of regular job during the day, but at night, I would go out and beat the crap out of criminals to rectify the failed justice system. As a freshman, I joined the cross-country team because my English teacher said that it made a person very strong and fit, which I knew I’d need to be. As a sophomore, I wrote a [dubious] research paper arguing that society felt a greater sense of satisfaction and closure with frontier justice than they did with the legal system. As a junior, I was extremely frustrated that I couldn’t get better than a C in chemistry; I worried I would never be able to “crack the code” on complex street drugs, the way Bruce Wayne did in his bat-cave laboratory. I even shopped around for what kind of suit and body armor would work best and look good. I contemplated names and chest logos. Mind you, this was nearly twenty years before Kick-Ass, and it speaks volumes of just how underdeveloped the teenage frontal-lobe is, but I assure you, it’s true.
Batman was a figure I admired at that stage in my life. A person who carried immense pain around with him, who had no patience for a system that repeatedly failed to actually dispense “justice” in a timely manner. And he did so—as they say in the military—“with extreme prejudice.” Of course this was the Batman of the 1990s—the sort-of post-Frank Miller, “Dark Knight” evolution, pretty far removed from Adam West and the royal blue and grey suit. I wasn’t naïve to the differences between 1960s Batman and 1990s Batman. I just took this to be the natural evolution of the character as a symbol of society’s underlying needs, expressed through popular media. And just as society had no further need for a law-abiding Batman, I was at a place where I had no further need for a flying Boy Scout called Superman. I no longer jumped around pretending to fly or to round up bad guys and faithfully deliver them to the proper authorities. I wanted to hurt people. I was hurt.
Now I am a father. I have two sons. They love Spiderman and the Avengers. My older son collects comics of his own—Mega Man. He’s in the Cub Scouts, and I’m a volunteer leader with the BSA. My sons’ and my heroes overlap in several places, and I love sharing these modern myths with my boys, the way I know my father loved sharing them with me. I still love Superman; I loved Man of Steel. I still love Batman; Christopher Nolan’s three films were absolutely definitive. But neither of these characters really speaks to me anymore. Neither one represents me. Neither one can save me.
My heart goes out to Kal-El; it must be very lonely to feel such a tremendous weight of responsibility, and to feel that there is no one else who can understand. I can only sympathize. I have no experience of that kind of loneliness. I feel love and companionship and support all around me, and I don’t need to be strong. It’s actually rather liberating to accept how weak we are.
My heart goes out to Mr. Wayne; I do know what it feels like to be so angry, and to feel that the only way you can be happy and safe is by hurting others. I hope someday you will temper and see that hurting others is only to hurt yourself. Never more did I realize this (and even am reminded still) as when those old bats in my belfry return, and I lose my temper and fly into a rage at my sons. To see the fear in their eyes of this thing that only a moment ago was their fun-loving father, now mutated into this raging monster… Is that what I looked like when I was that age and my father raged at me? Is that how fantasies of Superman become obsessions with Batman? I begin to see where that kind of frustration and feeling of helplessness come from, but I hate myself when I go there. I regret the way I treat them and the things I say. I hurt.
That is why the idol of fatherhood for me is the Hulk. Bruce Banner. Here is a man I recognize: someone who is intelligent, successful, kind, loving, and loved. And at the smallest provocation, he is transformed into a brute whose only solution to every problems is destruction, and who in these berserk rages is utterly stupid and totally unreasonable. Forgive him; he knows not what he does. Here is man who has this side of himself that he hates, whose life-long struggle is to try and find a way to suppress his inner anger and to come fully to peace with it, lest it destroy himself and everyone he loves. And yet, every once in a while, that anger, that rage, that ability to fight tooth-and-nail and to destroy a legitimate and viable threat—sometimes it is exactly what the situation calls for. So where does a father find that balance? Where do we all find it?
Superman. Batman. Hulk. That’s the order. That’s been my life. Sometimes you get asked, “Who’s your favorite comic book character?” For me, the question is temporal. I wonder who it will be when I’m an old man. My boys will be grown then, so perhaps my heroes will no longer be found in the four-color fantasies of my youth, but will in fact be the very characters whose evolution I am shaping. They are a dynamic duo of sorts, after all.