Here at Comic Years, we love genre stories, from superheroes in outlandish costumes to fantasy fiction to good, old-fashioned horror movies. Yet, over the past week, the intense emotions raised by current events made it hard (even for me) to write about this kind of whimsy. My love of these stories dates back to before I could even read, really. The first “books” I ever tried to read on my own were the mini-comics that came with He-Man action figures. Today, superhero stories aren’t just for kids anymore, as they are the biggest pop culture phenomenon going right now. In fact, despite those suggesting we’re approaching superhero movie fatigue, we need these stories now more than ever before. Specifically, we need superhero stories for kids, because the world is a very tumultuous place.
The United States is in a very tumultuous time. We are in the throes of a pandemic, made worse by an inefficient response at the federal level. Meanwhile, cities across the US are in turmoil. People from all backgrounds are rising up to protest the extrajudicial killings of predominantly black folks. It’s at times like these that we need our heroes.
One of my personal heroes is Pittsburgh’s own Mister Rogers. He famously said that in times of strife, when children (and adults) are scared, we only need to “look for the helpers.” Whenever disaster strikes, the images we see can be terrifying. Yet, if you watch closely, you will always see people rushing in to help their fellow human beings. Sometimes, however, that’s not enough. We need superhero stories for kids now more than ever for two main reasons, and none of them are escapism.
Why Superhero Stories for Kids Are Important
When political pundit Bill Maher cruelly attacked the legacy of Stan Lee after his passing, he lamented the man’s life work. He claimed that comic book stories put the adults who enjoy them in a state of arrested development. He, and others, claim that they are fantastic wastes of time because it conditions people to expect some hero to swoop in and save them. This idea could only come from someone who doesn’t understand the importance of these modern myths. Sure, comics are funny books for children, but the stories they tell deal with fundamental issues in the lives of humans from the moment we gathered around fires and began to tell stories.
For most comic book fans, we don’t look to the protagonists as savior figures like one might do with religion. We don’t think Batman or Spider-Man will descend from on-high to save us. Rather, fans of superhero stories often look for heroes that are reflections of themselves (or, at least, the type of person we hope to be). That’s why superheroes so often wear masks. In the amazing Into the Spider-Verse, a key point of the film was that “anyone can wear the mask.” Superhero stories for kids are important because they help them learn what kind of hero they want to be.
That’s what Mister Rogers was getting at, too. The helpers are heroes, and any one of us can choose each day to be a helper. Almost no true hero ever thinks of themselves as one. In fact, most of us likely feel each day that we don’t have what it takes to be a hero or a helper. But to paraphrase Stan Lee from his Into the Spider-Verse cameo: The mantle of hero always fits…eventually.
What Superhero Stories Can Give Children In Times of Strife
There are a lot of great superhero stories for adults. Every version of the Watchmen throughout history, including the HBO series, is fantastic. Logan was a moving, artful film about aging that just happened to have cyborg people and a dude with knife-hands. Yet, we are specifically singling out superhero stories aimed at kids for a specific reason. Stories for adults often carry with them the baggage of adulthood and the death of optimism. They are a reflection of real world strife and failings, and can be a way adults can process their feelings outside of the context of reality. While that’s great, it’s not what children need right now.
Superhero stories for kids are important not just because they give them inspiring figures with values they can try to live up to. No, what makes these stories perfect for turbulent times is that, no matter how bad it gets, the heroes almost always win. While the real world is filled with everyday heroes far braver than Captain America or Superman could ever be, true victories are few and far between.
So, a story where a hero or a group of heroes face impossible odds and come out the victor can be an emotional palliative for kids and adults. In comic books and other genre stories, the odds can be impossibly stacked against the hero(es), and still they pull it off. When hope is in short supply in the real world, there is always a wellspring of it in our fiction.
What do you think? Tell us below in the comments what superhero stories mean to you, and which ones inspired you to be a better person or gave you hope when things seemed bleak.
Featured image via Marvel
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.