Since writing “Becoming Batman” and “Inventing Iron Man”, I have done an extremely large number of interviews and public talks. I’ve also presented at lots of different meetings and conventions where I’ve met some really interesting experts on superheroes and comics (like Travis Langley, Robin Rosenberg, Peter Coogan, Kate McClancey, Randy Duncan, and Jim Kakalios).  All of these discussions got me reflecting a lot on the role superheroes play in our collective cultural consciousness. And yes, also thinking about my obvious weakness for alliteration.

When I was writing my first two books, my lens was mostly focused on viewing superheroes as foils for the understanding the science of the human body. The skills and abilities of Batman and Iron Man serve as excellent metaphors for understanding the marvels of physiology, neuroscience, and biomedical engineering.

Since that time I have engaged in a kind of backward engineering to think more deeply about what superheroes like Batman, Iron Man, and others tell us about our overall abilities. And our capacity for achievement.

As I wrote in an earlier post (“Why does Batman matter?”), a superhero like Batman represents a good opportunity for thinking about possibilities. Since nothing supernatural underlies his abilities, it is possible to believe part of the pitch that he’s a human with powers that might possibly be within the reach of other mere mortals. Like us.

This same argument applies also to Iron Man. That’s why those who’ve worked with the characters—to say nothing about our own imaginings—always reflect on the access points that exist for embracing these superheroes. Dennis O’Neil calls Batman “…the most “realistic” of the great superheroes…” while Dave Michelinie says that Iron Man could be “…you or me, if we had the money and inventiveness. And the courage. And the willpower.”

In my books I’ve explored the physical reality of superheroes. For those like Batman and Iron Man, parts of some superhero mythologies are accessible. But on the whole they can do such cool things and we often can’t. That’s where the role of metaphor comes back into play. The metaphor of mythology.

Superheroes have been with us since antiquity. They have seen prior incarnations in mythology to help explain the world around us or to teach instructive lessons. These are themes I explored in a TEDx talk—the title was the same as that for this post—in the summer of 2012. I think it is an important way to think about how fictional superheroes can make useful additions to our real lives. Not to literally become superheroes, but to use their context as a way to extend our abilities.

Concepts like this have also been advanced elsewhere, notably in the gifted hands of Grant Morrison in his excellent “Supergods—What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human”. I discussed the physical reality of superheroes in my books with Grant Morrison at San Diego Comic Con a few years back. It was a great conversation and the intersection points were pretty interesting.

I really think superheroes are the modern day iteration of our ancient mythologies. There isn’t that much difference between the story of Icarus and that of Iron Man. If you take them both in historical context, I’d argue that wax and feather wings from 2 millennia ago are the technological equivalent of the closest tech that now approximates Iron Man’s amped up exoskeleton.

By the way, before leaving Icarus, I think it’s probably important as we move ever so rapidly towards gaining some real super human abilities through the use of technology (see previous post “The Olympic Games and the Disappearance of Disability" and my Scientific American post “Assembling an Avenger—Inside the Brain of Iron Man”) to remember that those ancient mythologies pointed out cautionary tales too. Like hubris and thinking we know more than we do.

In any case, thinking through ideas that emerge from the backstories (and ongoing adventures) of these superheroes have resonant messages for us. Looking at fictional characters like superheroes, who have now moved from niche interests to in-your-face mainstream pop-culture, we can identify important and useful lessons for daily life.

I wrote earlier that Batman is instructive as a great example of a need to be good at many things. His skill set encompasses a huge range of abilities and I often use sport metaphors like the decathlon (the most well rounded of athletes) to try and capture the extreme range we see in Batman. Specialization, while useful, can also be limiting if not balanced with some other skills. Well-rounded is something to strive for.

Another instructive lesson comes from Iron Man’s backstory from the debut “Iron Man is born!” story from Tales of Suspense # 39 in 1963. Here we can find a very shaky looking Tony Stark lumbering around in the original gray armor. Tony actually says “I’m like a baby—learning to walk all over again!” What? One of the most powerful heroes in the Marvel Universe as vulnerable as a toddler? What a great way to think of something we think we already know—Iron Man and his backstory—in a completely different way.

Learning to look at the familiar like we’re seeing it again for the first time is revealing and instructive. To me this riffs on the famous quote of George Moore (1852-1933) “A man travels the world over in search of what he needs, and returns home to find it.” Or, one of my all-time favorites, the Buddhist expression “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear".

A last example I use in a lot of my talks is that of passion. Passion is necessary to fire and inspire. Which is why I like to talk about the Incredible Hulk for this. OK. While not so realistic on the science end of things, the Hulk does represent a story of passion and perseverance. This is both in terms of Bruce Banner endlessly searching for ways to alter or at least control his Hulk persona, as well as the Hulk in action. The Incredible Hulk really is passion personified.

The bottom line is that portions of the backstories behind some superheroes do have truth within. Their mythologies are resonant with concept in ancient myths. The important bit is to use that truth to free yourself of the limitations we all acquire as we move through life. Limitations that weigh down our actions and prevent us from achieving more.

There is always more you can do and more you are capable of. So put some superhero lessons into your everyday life. Don’t be limited in what you think you can achieve.

Just try not to break too much stuff while you are at it. “Hulk smash!” means to smash constraints and preconceptions, not real objects.

© E. Paul Zehr (2012)

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