American sci-fi writer, Theodore Sturgeon once admitted, “Sure, ninety percent of science fiction is crud.” Yet, if you look beyond the exotic worlds, colorful characters, and off-the-wall plots, you’d find a profound genre rich in themes addressing real life issues. Chaos, deprivation, paradise lost and regained at the expense of what makes us human, killer technology, poverty, racism, bigotry, sexism, medicine, disease, war, growing up to face the real world, and so much more invade the common person’s attention by the means of fictional stories and fancy characters. For instance, who doesn’t love Peter Pan, the boy who refuses to grow up? One of his essential character traits is his forgetfulness; he’s never able to recall past actions. Maybe that’s the reason J.M. Barrie’s fairytale is so enduring. We can all relate to not wanting to grow up.
I was obsessed with comic books in the 80’s. I had a friend who was something of a comic hoarder. He would loan me over-stuffed grocery sacks, one at a time, to pour through and enjoy. The early superheroes were often alien and god-like, a throwback to ancient mythology. But the new heroes were more like me, an adolescent boy coming to terms with strange and powerful changes. Characters like Batman and Spiderman where normal people trying to deal with their new extra-human abilities while honoring a heightened inner-sense of justice.
The highlight in my week was rushing home from school to catch reruns of the 1960s TV series Batman. Learning more about my extra-ordinary superheroes and their very human (often corny) struggles, was therapeutic in a way. I easily identified with them, as they struggled with love, purpose, loss, defeat, threats, villains, and how to overcome incredible odds. As silly as it may sound, their weaknesses seemed to make them more invincible, at least in my eyes. Maybe being a “nerd” in the 80’s wasn’t a weakness after all. It certainly wasn’t for Peter Parker—a.k.a. Spiderman! In my pubescent world where everything seemed forever changing and out-of-control, vulnerable heroes fed my sense of wonder and redemption.
By rewriting ancient fairytales (what would have been considered “religion” in ages past), pop culture has attempted to rearm us with imaginative weapons needed to right past wrongs and vanquish the villains threatening our future. My personal opinion: they’ve done a pretty decent job in doing just that. It’s as if we instinctively know a childlike imagination is a powerful creative force when facing off with our own personal demons. As silly and clumsy as Robin often was, Batman needed “The Boy Wonder.” I suppose we still do too—if not the “boy,” then at least the “wonder.”
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