When I was a kid, DC Comics was a has-been. Marvel had been putting out more interesting stuff for a decade: Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Avengers. I still liked Batman, mostly due to the 1960s TV show, which I did not take as parody. But… Superman? Really?
Then, somewhere around 8th grade, I quit reading comics. Dad was dying of cancer. I got a part-time job at a motorcycle shop, and was more interested in Playboy and Hustler than anything the two major comics came up with.
I enjoyed Superman: The Movie. In band, I got to play the French horn lead to the score, which opens with a beautiful solo. Still, life seemed cheap and unpredictable, and the nobility of Superman evaporated in the sunlight outside the theater or concert hall. I even tried on the superhero outfit of my world — the football uniform — and blew my knee out. On crutches, the week after Dad died, I knew that life was cruel, God was indifferent, and Superman was for children who hadn’t been hurt yet.
Friends in college told me about the cool stuff Frank Miller was doing with Batman, but by then I was a young man getting an English degree, wrestling with Homer and Joyce. Bruce Wayne’s midlife crisis didn’t interest me.
Now I am middle-aged, and I find that DC speaks to me again, but not in the way I would have predicted.
Before I get to why, I have to confess that I’ve started watching their animated movies, and some of them are phenomenal:
- The Dark Knight Returns: Frank Miller’s 1980s comic, with old, angry Batman, and Superman as Reagan’s personal WMD, produced as a two part film
- Justice League: Doom. Members of the Justice League are taken out one by one… and cold, indifferent Batman’s to blame
- The Flashpoint Paradox: In an alternate timeline sparked by the Flash’s nemesis, Batman has no issues with firearms… or whiskey
It’s fun to see the old heroes re-imagined by my peers. Superman is what we’d like to be: all powerful, generous, and above it all, retreating to a spacious crystalline fortress when the world’s problems overwhelm us. Batman is what we’d really be, given the chance: rich, misunderstood, and eventually broken, left cursing at a screen in a dimly-lit cave.
To my surprise, it’s another DC hero — the Flash — who speaks to me now. I too am just a guy, running around, trying to fix everything, and needing allies to get me out of scrapes. I’m not strong like Superman, or smart like Batman. I’m just trying to keep up with my kids, with my job, with my second wife, and all I know to do when the world overwhelms me is run faster.
Looking back over my life, even with all the good that’s in it, if I had Flash’s power, I too would be tempted to run so fast I broke the time barrier, saved Dad, made wiser decisions, and left this world behind. The memory of my life would exist as a dark comic book in this new world, a place where life is joyful, God is smiling, and Superman isn’t necessary.
The catch? In such a place, I’d have nothing to say, and Homer’s words would have never reached me:
Tell me, muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
The Odyssey, Book I, Verses 1-5, translated by Richmond Lattimore.
Suffering doesn’t make you a hero. It just gives you the opportunity to become one.
Whether that hero is Odysseus, the ancient Greek answer to Batman who struggles for a decade, or Leopold Bloom, the modernist answer to Odysseus who struggles through a single day, is up to each of us.
(I chose the Flash.)