I have long been a comic book geek.
Finally, at 45-ish, I have reached the level of self-confidence sufficient to combat any ridicule I might receive from hunters, athletes, mechanics or other stereotypical roles of masculinity regarding my love for the superhero genre. Therefore, I am at last comfortable revealing that I know the difference in “a cyborg,” a being who is part-man and part-machine, and “Cyborg,” a member of DC Comics’ Justice League who is … well, part-man and part-machine.
I can tell you the secret identity of almost any costumed, comic book hero – a gripping game I like to play on long road trips. Believe it or not, my family very seldom wants to join me. My youngest child Maddux WILL occasionally indulge me in a “name ‘em” game where we spread out a drawing of multiple comic book characters and then try to call the correct names of each one, no matter how obscure.
Look, I already said I was a geek.
One must admit that Hollywood, over the past decade, has validated MY position – that comic book heroes are the modern-day analogies of ancient mythological characters like Hercules and Beowulf. Inarguably, Tinseltown has discovered that my fictional, spandex-wearing, new titans are very, VERY marketable.
I was way ahead of the curve on that one.
From pre-school days, I’ve been a fan of Batman. Like many from my generation, I became aware of the caped crusader by watching him on television in the BIFF-BAM-POW campy creation that ran on ABC back-to-back weeknights from 1966 to 1968. Even today, the show’s star Adam West, in his gray and blue long underwear, defines the Batman character for millions.
I was in elementary school before I found out that Batman was not just a TV show. There were these picture books called “comics” for sale at Hopkin’s Big Star or Cunningham’s Grocery that painted a much fuller picture of the Batman and his teenage sidekick Robin.
Batman was more, I found out, than a melodramatic, goody-two-shoes who chit-chatted with celebrities as he climbed Gotham’s buildings via the bat-rope. The Dark Knight was a brilliant detective and a vicious but virtuous vigilante who could find ways to succeed regardless of the odds stacked against him – not comically like on television, but semi-realistically. The bottom line: comic-book Batman was cool.
Apart from the dynamic duo, I also discovered “others” out there, a whole DC Comics’ “universe” of characters. And in that universe was, of course, the ultimate superhero, Superman, the granddaddy of ‘em all.
The red-caped, Kryptonian Man of Steel had a TV show of his own, too, I later learned – The Adventures of Superman – but his series was gone from the airways, along with its star George Reeves, long before my time. I did eventually pick it up later in childhood, syndicated on Saturdays, but the strange visitor from another planet never could penetrate my psyche like Batman.
Frankly, I think it all came down to the idea that a regular person – if he was driven enough, talented enough, crazy enough – could theoretically BECOME Batman, at least as much as he could become Tarzan, or James Bond, or the Lone Ranger. Because Batman was a man.
On the contrary, no matter how much Popeye spinach I forced down, I would never be able to defy gravity and fly or shoot red laser beams out of my eyes. To be Superman was simply unattainable.
In the comics, I discovered another difference between Batman and Superman, more subtle but just as profound.
Superman sees human beings as inherently good, while Batman views mankind as untrustworthy, at best, and psychotically depraved, at its worse.
One would want to see it Superman’s way. From his vantage point above squeaky-clean Metropolis, a pinnacle of human civilization in the DC Universe, Superman looks down on people as generally noble beings, who in their heart-of-hearts desire to do right by one another. It’s only the few bad apples – Lex Luthor, Toyman, Parasite, etc. – who are out there actively trying to spoil the bunch in the Man of Steel’s worldview.
On the other hand, Batman, whose parents were gunned down in an alleyway in gritty, dirty Gotham City, views mankind quite differently. People are selfish, belligerent and dishonest or far, far worse – take the homicidal lunatic the Joker, for instance.
In black and white pre-school terms, Batman and Superman are both certainly out there vanquishing evil. But the difference is Superman believes that ultimately he can win, that he can expunge evil completely. The Batman, for his part, understands his quest is a never-ending battle against depravity which can spontaneously recreate itself anywhere human beings exist.
Batman’s realism versus Superman’s idealism is just one of the heady philosophical considerations that keep my status as a comic book geek intact after four decades as a fan.
Of course, I also like to see Lex Luthor and the Joker just get punched in the face. So there’s that, too.