I had a rough childhood, but didn’t we all? Being sick more than I care to remember, I was frail and in this frailty I felt weaker than the other kids my age. I spent most of my childhood reading and living in a fantasy world. Years ago, I found a picture of myself at two years of age wearing a Batman costume. The picture was from Christmas in 1974, I was clinching an Evel Knievel action figure and smiling. I could see my mother and my grandmother in the picture, looking at me standing ever so proudly in the vinyl Batman Halloween costume. My mother tells me that I got the costume for Halloween and refused to wear anything else for months. I wore it until it fell apart. The 70s were a different time, we had experienced the campy Batman television show with Adam West and Burt Ward. That show was originally made in the 1960s and was heavily syndicated during my childhood. My earliest memories from my childhood all involve comic book characters. I can recall watching Tarzan starring Ron Ely at my grandmother’s house the year before I started kindergarten. I can even remember my first comic book from the convenience store down the street from my grandmother’s house, it was Batman Vol. 1# 296, the Batman battles the Scarecrow. There are memories of the early Spiderman television show from 1977 starring Nicholas Hammond as an older Peter Parker. Those tv shows fascinated me, with all the gadgets and costumes. Looking back at them now, they were campy and unimpressive. But they held an important part of my life, a part that made me who I am today.
One of my fondest memories was from a two-part special from 1979, entitled Legend of Superheroes. It brought the Adam West Batman and Robin team together with many of the famous heroes and villains of the DC comics. I was only seven when this aired, and it was entrancing and exciting to see a tv screen full of live action superheroes all together. It occupied a place in mind for many years and it wasn’t until the website, IMDB came to exist that I was able to track down the name of the show. I knew I had seen all those characters together on screen, but without knowing the name it just didn’t seem real. Looking back at my childhood all the key moments I remember have some sort of superhero associated with those memories. From seeing Superman with Christopher Reeves in the theater, to playing with the original G.I. Joe action figure at Christmas, to being disappointed with Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Batman in 1989, because Bruce Wayne is over six feet tall and some guy trying to be The Bat at 5’9” was just a joke to me. It was the summer of 1988 when the classic Killing Joke was released, and I finally read the true Batman story. It changed my life; I felt Batman’s pain and glimpsed the insanity of the Joker. Throughout the years, all those memories revolve around one common factor, superheroes. So, I have to ask the question, what would my life be like without those legendary characters. Who would I be if I had not had all those moments of inspiration and euphoria? I honestly can’t imagine.
As a child we are helpless in so many ways, being small humans surrounded by large adults is a bizarre way to think about childhood. But it’s the truth, childhood is scary. We are taught not to talk to strangers, we hear stories of bad people all around us. Watching the news with out parents is especially terrifying, all the reports of murder and crime. But believing that there are superheroes out there is a comfort, and for me it was my earliest comfort. Reading stories about men in bright colorful costumes saving the helpless citizens from the evil criminals was comforting. Watching The Lone Ranger in black and white on Sundays at my grandfather’s house made me feel powerful, like I could be that masked vigilante who saved people while riding my beautiful white stallion. And every superhero had a trusty friend, a sidekick. The life of a superhero seemed liked the greatest life of all, you had adventure, you got to save the day and you had a companion that looked up to you, not to mention all the cool gadgets. Batman had the Batmobile, Superman had the Fortress of Solitude, Luke Skywalker had a cool Lightsaber, and Han Solo had Chewbacca. It was the most satisfying life I could ever imagine.
But as we get older the idea of a superhero changes, suddenly its no longer about the guy in the cool outfit who fights evil doers. It becomes champions of the people, the everyday person who stands up for truth and justice. That person who saves a dog from getting hit on a busy street, the person who stands up for equality in the face of bigotry and racism. That person who rushes into a burning building to save a child. But what if those people were inspired by the superheroes they remember from their childhood? What if having that role model helps up to do the right thing, and it was in us all along? What if having a superhero in our lives helps us overcome the struggles we face as adults? I believe that is why it is essential in a person’s life to have someone or something to look up to and strive to be. I learned more about right and wrong from the pages of a comic book than I ever learned from anywhere else. I will be forty-nine years old in a few days, and I still buy comics every month, I still watch superhero shows on television almost daily. I make it a point to go to the first showing of a new comic book movie. Today the Marvel and DC universe is incredibly massive and occupies a large part of the entertainment industry. It wasn’t always this way. We had to live through some pretty crappy movies until Christopher Reeves as Superman changed the way we saw comic book characters in 1978. Marvel burst onto the screen with Blade in 1998 and changed everything. Stan Lee became a household name, and everyone was there to experience the mind-blowing Marvel cinematic universe starting with Captain America and the climatic Avengers Endgame. As a child I never thought it would be possible to make that many amazing movies with a connected storyline that would dominate the entertainment world. But there is still a simple magic in opening up a comic book and reading the stories and seeing the artwork that made it all possible. The humble beginnings of Detective Comics, Action comics and Marvel Mystery Comics have made this world possible.
Batman has been the one constant in my life since I was two years old. He taught me that life is valuable, that we should always save the helpless, that we should spend our money making the world a better place. Superheroes aren’t just drawing in a comic book; they aren’t just actors on a screen. They are eternal and they give us hope and teach us to be the best version of ourselves. As a father I have raised my children to love superheroes as much as I do. The proudest I have ever been of my kids is when I see them taking life lessons from the pages of a comic book. My daughter told me one time, “Why do we fall sir? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.” The classic line from The Dark Knight. I have never been prouder of my daughter than when she quoted a superhero moment to me.
So, no matter how old you are, no matter where you are in your life, superheroes can always make our worlds better. They force us to take an inventory of our moral code, and they inspire us to be the very best we can be. Go pick up a comic book, open it up and travel back in time. Be a kid again, if for just a few moments. Up, Up and Away.
All Rights Reserved – Copyright 2021 James Heaton