For years, I begged the library to let me check out The Complete Fantastic Four. The hardcover volume totaled approximately 400,000 pages and contained every single story line that my Connect Four-board, pimply face could handle. My fingers, unable to regulate their moisture, would stain the panels. I didn’t care. I owned that anthology as much as I’ve ever owned anything throughout my life.
As the summer of 1999 dragged on, the heat pushed 13-year-old me indoors. At the request of my parents, I began volunteering at the public library. I was given a cart of books and asked to use a plastic potato peeler to remove all the old “date due” stickers. Needless to say, my hand-eye coordination didn’t lend to the necessary skillset required for such arduous work. Instead I would find a cool corner, preferably near a vent and out of view, and haphazardly scrape off stickers while thumbing through The Complete Fantastic Four, The Spider Man Anthology and X-Men: Volumes 1-10. I hated Doctor Doom and secretly pined after Mary Jane Watson. I thought Gambit was the best even though Nightcrawler’s teleportation was the power I longed to have. I wanted to be a superhero.
Years later, and with much clearer skin, I would purchase every X-Men: The Movie action figure. I had Mystique with the detachable Wolverine-mimic skin. I had Toad with spring-action jumping. I had Cyclops, even though all his action figure did was have a light-up face. I saw the first X-Men movie four times in theaters. I still watch it whenever it’s on television. When The Dark Knight was released, I painted my face like Heath Ledger’s Joker. The air-conditioning in the theater broke. Even as the makeup melted down into my eyes, I was swept away to Gotham City …and found myself sympathizing with a billionaire in a rubber suit talking in a comically-low gravelly growl.
In many ways, at almost 26 years old, I should be over superheroes. They were cool when I was scraping stickers off library books at 13, but what the hell? I have a job now. I have a blog now. I can fill out a polo shirt. I wear cutoffs and TOMS in the summertime. Yet there I was, at midnight, freaking out over The Avengers. I was laughing and clapping and cheering with all the fanboys. Before the movie, guys my age were comparing custom Avengers t-shirts. They were brandishing Thor hammers and Captain America shields. There was even a full-suit Iron Man in attendance. We are not kids anymore. In fact, no one in the theater appeared to be under the age of 20.
I was raised believing everything and everyone had intrinsic value. Even the villains (from the high-school bullies to the creeps on the news) had a place. Villains existed so that we could see good prevail. We could hopefully see a bully get beat up by a bigger, older kid. We saw bad men photographed in handcuffs, in mugshots, and plastered on the fronts of newspapers. When I was a kid, comic books taught me about a world that was pretty black and white. Heroes protected the general good, even though they were often complicated men and women. Villains, be they corrupted by power or external forces, sought to expose the worst in society. They needed to be stopped, which is why the good guys, no matter the odds, always seemed to win. What a naïve way of thinking.
The older I got, things changed. Good men failed in real life. I read stories of greed and corruption going unnoticed because the good guys perpetrated it. I saw bad guys and absolute villains get away with blatant crimes. The internet opened me up to a world of confusion, where things weren’t going the way they should be going. I understood motivation and circumstance, but I wanted something simpler. I wanted an escape and a regression. I wanted Doctor Doom to lose.
I don’t see too many teenagers at comic book movies. I certainly see a ton of 25-35 year old men at comic book movies. We walk a line that teenagers don’t. We know about the superhero complex. We came of age before computers slammed us with every angle on every story… minute-by-minute in real time. We had to pick and choose our content rather than have it force-fed to us. We picked the heroes we love because we saw ourselves in them. Batman is just a civilian in a suit with a vendetta, forced to confront extraordinarily deranged foes. Captain America is a soldier who takes order, respects authority, and stands up for good. Wolverine is a misunderstood outsider, fighting alongside a group of mutants who maybe don’t fully understand his internal struggle. There is humanity in each superhero story, even the most fantastic. We want to see ourselves in the panels, in the comics. We want them to fight battles that are too outrageous to totally understand — battles that make our daily struggles feel like nothing at all.
I’m drawn to superheroes, on page and on screen, not because I’m trying to out-nerd someone else, but because I love when the good guys win. For as humanized as actors and directors have become via the internet, I want to believe in gigantic characters they portray and the huge stories they bring to life. The superhero complex is why I keep going, often at midnight, to watch the latest galactic showdown or gritty origin story. Hero stories, for as complex as they get, are still about all of us. They’re about adversity, friendship, broken homes and misplaced destinies. They make our lives more manageable.
If Bruce Wayne becomes Batman to deal with the death of his family and avenge his city, suddenly my petty quarrels seem even less significant. Sometimes we need superheroes to remind us that we can’t give up on the world, on other people, or on ourselves.