Brain Food #821: Why we need superheroes
The hidden potential in everyone
Thoughts of the day
On this day, in 1936, the world met its first fictional superhero. His name was the Phantom, and his creator was Lee Falk, who was inspired to create him by myths and legends from various cultures, from Greece to India. Although comic strips had previously been in existence, this was the first character that had the standard ‘superhero’ attributes; wearing a mask that hid his pupils and a skintight costume, hiding his true identity, being largely serious, and focusing on saving others from harm.
It was the eve of one of the most horrific catastrophes in history, and superheroes became the response of humans to a reality that was too hard to bare, where people began to lose sight of any good that the future could hold. Two years after the Phantom, in 1938, the first Superman comic strip was published. Captain America was first conceived in 1939, just as Europe started to witness the beginnings of World War II. Batman was also created in 1939, and the 1940s brought a wave of new characters who arrived to save humanity.
The hero had always existed, ever since the first stories were told. The hero’s journey is the foundation of most successful fictional tales today, and also, very often, a psychological tool to help us navigate our very own obscure paths. The ‘super’ attribute was added later, giving these characters supernatural powers, often turning their weaknesses into their biggest strengths.
Liking superheroes is instinctual. Children tend to emulate them in their play, and studies showed that even infants are drawn to the ‘hero’ figure when presented with scenarios in which someone is in danger while facing a villain, and a third person chooses to intervene, or to be a bystander. Superheroes allow children to develop moral values, and to understand the concept of using their strengths to help others and their communities.
Perhaps adults admire them because all superheroes have a calling that they eventually choose to follow. They represent the hidden potential in everyone, the ultimate form of love —shedding who they are for others— and, more importantly, the greatest act of courage, that of following one’s destiny.
Heroes have a secret identity; they hide this from the world, and often, the person that is to become the superhero first needs to discover or grow into this identity themselves. Unlike superheroes that followed after him, the Phantom had no actual superpowers, he simply used his strength and wit in his favour. One’s superpowers do not have to be supernatural, but first, they need to be found.
As Alan Moore, creator of Watchmen, said:
“The disciplines of physical exercise, meditation and study aren't terribly esoteric. The means to attain a capability far beyond that of the so-called ordinary person are within the reach of everyone, if their desire and their will are strong enough. I have studied science, art, religion and a hundred different philosophies. Anyone could do as much. By applying what you learn and ordering your thoughts in an intelligent manner it is possible to accomplish almost anything. Possible for an ‘ordinary person.’ There's a notion I'd like to see buried: the ordinary person. Ridiculous. There is no ordinary person.”
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