IVP - Strangely Dim - Who Needs a Superhero?

September 30, 2004

Who Needs a Superhero?

By David A. Zimmerman

There’s a group at my place of business who share my fascination with the comic book superhero. This art form captured (and in some cases still captures) our attention; the characters have grown to mean something to each of us. We admired them, we wrapped them in plastic, we played as them in our back yards. No big deal, I suppose, except that we're much more likely to stand around gushing over what superpower we'd most like to have than talk about who in our own, actual reality inspires us.

Why do we more quickly identify with fantasy heroes than with heroes of real life? I think there’s a control issue involved. We know what Batman will do—he will batter the bad guys without pulling a trigger; he will make things right no matter how much of his own blood, sweat, toil and tears he has to sacrifice. In contrast, we never know what to expect from our favorite sports figures, political figures, celebrities and pastors—and we can never with full confidence declare that their exploits will bring about truth, justice and whatever American way might currently inspire us--or, for that matter, that they are really fighting bad guys and not simply victimizing people who don't agree with them.

But perhaps the reason no real-life heroes loom large in our cultural view is because the job description is too difficult to live up to. Winston Churchill’s task was simply stated: Save Europe; protect Western civilization. Buzz Aldrin’s: Walk on the moon. Superheroes have life-sized problems beyond saving the universe--their boss lays them off, perhaps, or their girlfriend is flirting with their cousin. But they still manage to get the job done: they keep the universe for one more day from slipping into oblivion and entertain us in the process. A little shock, a little awe, a little butt-kicking, and we’re safe, secure and satisfied. There’s little circumspection to block the spectacle.

But in our current context, and in real life, questions interrupt our adulation. The “coalition of the willing” (a great super-team name if I’ve ever heard one) that toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq meets the old qualifications for hero—they took a brutal dictator out of play—but were they liberating Iraq or its oil? Should they have conducted these rescues militarily or diplomatically? And what about the prisoner abuse that took place in the process?

And I suspect that most would-be heroes decide that the title is more trouble than its worth. Just when one villain gets vanquished, another springs up, or the cops don’t know what to make of this vigilante justice, or the hero is late for lunch. I could help to change or even save the world, but ultimately, what’s in it for me?

Perhaps such navel-gazing obscures our view of what greatness in today’s world would look like. Frank Miller, in his benchmark The Dark Knight Returns, shows Commissioner James Gordon justifying his deference to Batman by recalling a larger-than-life American hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt:

“A lot of people with a lot of evidence said that Roosevelt knew Pearl Harbor was going to be attacked . . . and that he let it happen. . . . A lot of innocent men died. But we won the war. . . . It bounced back and forth in my head until I realized I couldn’t judge it. It was too big. He was too big.”

When it’s all said and done, it’s pretty easy for someone in tights, a mask and a cape to elicit that sort of awe. It’s much tougher for everyday folk with nothing but flesh and blood. Those of us whose commitment to a righteous cause supersedes their self-absorption can justifiably be called heroes. The rest of us will just have to fantasize about it.


As of tomorrow, my book, Comic Book Character, is up, up and away at the printer. Look for it in six weeks--same bat-time, same bat-website.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at September 30, 2004 2:40 PM Bookmark and Share

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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