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What’s Your Superpower?: Comic Books in popular culture and film as stories of contemporary initiation

Have you seen Wonder Woman yet? How about Guardians of the Galaxy II? Or Spiderman Homecoming? I know you felt juiced when Immigrant Song sounded in the back of the Thor 3 trailer.  What about Justice League’s Maori biker Aquaman? Tight! I can’t even begin to describe how excited I am for Black Panther, an all black cast in a major Hollywood production, featuring a mythical afro-futurist nation. Whatever your flavor, whoever’s your favorite, superheroes are big noise right now. Comic books have been on the silver screen before but, this decade seems to have mastered the formula. I say this as a “fanboy” (wearing a Green Lantern shirt as I write this) but also someone who strives to be discriminating with the media that I take in/participate in. I also say this as a lifelong student of myth and folklore.

So why are they so popular, and why now? And what might we have to learn as guides, mentors, educators, parents and those who walk w/ and instruct youth through life passages? Many commentators have spoken of comic books as popular folk mythologies of industrial societies. The secret identity is a trope that speaks to both the democratic potential of each and the feeling of being an unknown number, punching a clock, or getting punched by one.
A key feature that makes comic books differ from classical and ancient mythologies and religions is the source of the hero’s power. In a materialist and increasingly technology enmeshed society the source of the (s)hero’s power or the catalyst for their activation often comes from science fiction. Cosmic rays, radioactive spiders, and serums, extra-terrestrial origins, or evolutionary mutations. Rather than metaphysical realms, mythical beasts, or divine boons, the vistas opened by science become the realms of mystery, the places where imagination can play and contact the deeper layers of the unconscious, the strata of archetypes.

Even though the source of their power or transformation often differs from ancestral traditions most of the stories conform to the monomyth identified by Joseph Campbell. Though Campbell’s work has fallen into disrepute in recent decades under postcolonial and postmodern discourses; I still think there is something of value for soul guides and mentors in a comparative glance between ancient myths, ritual and mystery traditions and superhero folklore.

Across centuries and cultures, peoples have described the soul’s journey in this life and its obscure origins beyond it. We could look at Plato’s dialogue Phaedo and his allegory/intuition that the soul comes into this life laden with a knowledge of the fundamental forms of reality, that all knowledge is recollection and remembering. This notion did not begin with Plato, Greek culture or western civilization, however. Recall the story from West Africa about the soul’s descent into incarnation recounted by Michael Meade,

Ymumate by Silas Hobson

“We all made an agreement with a divine twin before we entered this world but in order to incarnate we had to embrace the tree of forgetfulness.  And once we’re born we just happen to have forgotten why we came here.  And life is to remember that original agreement. “

According to Malidoma Somé in both his autobiography of Water and Spirit and The Healing Wisdom of Africa in his village before each person is born diviners contact the spirit of the child to be and attempt to reveal their basic character and destiny outlines. Part of the purpose of the adolescent rite of passage is for the incarnated human soul to make contact with that pre-birth destiny and begin the work of bringing it into form and action. Part of the work of family, mentors, and community is to hold these early hints and stories and remind the youth as they grow. The community forms a circle of support for the emergence of the young one’s unique spiritual line, or genius to emerge. As we know this process can be a trial to say the least.

In comparing this ancient, cross cultural view to the prototype of all superheroes, we can better understand how they inform and drive our popular culture. For instance, the Man of Steel. Superman is a clear allegory of the descent of the soul, of the process of incarnation and the taking up of destiny. First infant  Kal-El escapes a dying world, sent by his “Heavenly” parents (dying to the skyward or eternity, sent on a mission by God/Ancestors/Spiritual world/karma). Then he is found by his earthly parents (birth/childhood) and raised as a farmer. In childhood, he is told to keep his special-ness hidden (soul forgets it’s divine origins), until he can no longer contain it in adolescence. His earthly parents show him the remains of his ship (pre-birth hints and divination), and he embarks on a quest to find out the truth. He then reconnects w/his heavenly father as a hologram (his “shade”, spiritual or soul body) who tells him of his home world, mission and the full extent of his powers in the Fortress of Solitude (has intuitive hits of pre-life origins alone in the wilderness). He receives his cape, boots, and insignia from Krypton (new social status granted by the elders and the Spiritual world) and discovers that he can free himself from gravity and fly (inner freedom and elation of soul contact). A crisis draws him back to save and protect the people of earth (puer sacrifices “perfect ideal” and accepts responsibility to give a gift to the community).

You can find something similar in most comic stories. Batman turns tragedy into determination. He befriends the night and masters fear. Wonder Woman leaves Paradise Island (comfort and privilege? Buddha’s Palace) and enters the morally ambiguous world of “men” as a beacon of truth and justice. Thor loses his hammer (has his thunder stolen) and his arrogance only to regain his weapon and the weight of humility. A weight that only he can carry. I could go on.

In each case, the (s)hero loses something or sacrifices something to gain their power and their sacred mission. And what about those costumes that symbolize to our eyes someone who has stepped outside of the normal social order (who wears a cape these days?)? And sometimes gives superheroes their special abilities? At first, they seem to be derived from the freakish and the comical (and they are that) in relation to social conventions of fashion, but upon closer examination, these costumes are contemporary symbolic iterations of powers that have always inspired human beings.

Bats remind us of the dark and fear. Bruce Wayne rocks one on his chest. Peter Parker originally an icky, but witty nerd hiding in the corner becomes the agile and wily spider. Superman’s world famous “S” is housed in an unbreakable diamond. And Ironman built a suit of armor that is powered by a “light” in his heart, once a wound helps him to find and opens his heart that is. Each of these emblems calls on elemental, animal, or mineral powers to symbolize the hero/heroine as an embodiment of forces of nature, cosmic or moral qualities. These symbols and emblems access a language of visual hieroglyphs, simplified and stylized images that speak directly to sub and super conscious levels. These contemporary “totems” are used by sports teams, nations states, corporations and even apps to coalesce shared identities, communicate across linguistic differences and direct attention. How might we learn from these visual languages?

I know of at least one program that does so. Surfing the Creative international Rites of Passage Leadership Camps©, the soul work of Melissa Michaels, combines somatic awareness, embodiment, dance and movement, conscious communication, human development and the arts to create a catalyzing and integrating initiatory experience for young adults. As part of this process, participants are invited to create shields. These shields can be thought of as discoveries, insights, commitments, and intentions that come into visibility.  They are aspects or snapshots of inner qualities projected outward through paint, collage, and color. They are the literal projections of heart and soul.

As a long time participant and leader, this is one of my favorite moments in the process. The whole room comes alive as secret selves are revealed, and invisible struggles find visible symmetry in moments of synthesis. As each shield hangs to dry the whole community wanders around, taking in each unique image, feeling inspired by and deeply curious about the embodied experiences that produced it. At different times in the camp masks and costumes arrive, aiding participants both to hide and reveal their truer selves, accessing parts of their humanity and divinity that are often misunderstood in the social order of the everyday. These practices have ancient roots that spread worldwide. Masking to put aside the personal identity and do the works of the gods/God’s work.

Another example is the recent film Lom Nava Love produced by Fanon Hill of the Youth Resiliency Institute in Baltimore. Lom Nava follows the work of community organizer and elder Momma Shirley. One of the methods of liberation and empowerment used by Shirley and other residents of the Cherry Hill community in Baltimore is for individuals to don costume and code name, to become concentrated embodiments of their artistic creativity, highest aspirations, and deep genius.

Like the shields of STC and of the costumes of Baltimore, superpowers are often blunt metaphors or exaggerations of qualities that we possess. Captain America, a skinny kid, put himself in harm’s way for the sake of others, even before he was enhanced by the steroids on steroids and the unbreakable shield. He was that shield and perhaps called it to himself by force of soul. The (s)hero’s inner“character” becomes their outer destiny and dharma. So how might we as guides employ aspects of these popular stories and help our youth develop that character to shape destiny? How can we be the Alfreds who shelter young Bruce Waynes as they apprentice and train? And we can’t just “let the youth lead the revolution.” We also must ask how can we model heroism in our everyday lives, even as we are aware (and reminded by the youth!) of our faults and shortcomings? How can we walk with them and to the degree possible, prepare them to return from fortresses of solitude, bat caves, schools of gifted youngsters, paradise islands of community, into Metropolises and Gothams of indifference, addiction, stress, soul numbness and individual and systemic violence? How can we, adults striving to live lives of continual initiation, model that sometimes, even daily you might have to tuck in your cape and button your or your thunderbolt under a collared shirt?

These stories are immensely popular and have held their value as myths that connect us back to the eternal, that model the soul’s dive and sojourn in(to) time, the journey that we all go through quietly or in living color. These stories frame the questions that we ask generation after generation.

Who am I…really?
Where did I come from?
How can I face my life w/courage?
What do I have to offer to the world around me?
What do I do with the power given to me?

Perhaps these questions never change or change ever so slowly. But the context, the historical-cultural situation does. We inhabitants of industrial growth societies live in a world shaped by human hands, human intention, human intellect. We live in a world where you can access ages of accrued knowledge with a little black mirror in the palm of your hand. Where parents to be will be able to choose the eye color of their children. Where robot planes bomb cities to rubble. Where the power of agreement could end hunger and poverty world wide. Where one song, one beat surfs through billions of dancers. Where suits in valleys of silicon promise an ageless body. How can we wield such power with wisdom? How could we resist using it at all? We live in a superhuman world. Perhaps we always have. How do we initiate the youth, our children into a superhuman world?

Well…I don’t have the answers. By the time you read this, the new Spider Man will have dropped, and perhaps Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben will again intone the hint that comic book heads, soulful adults, and really everyone already knows. “With great power, comes great responsibility.

About the Author: Ramon Parish

Ramon Parish is a member of the YPW Stewardship Council, the Cross Cultural Protocols working group, long time leader in Surfing the Creative, instructor at Naropa University, family guy and clearly a comic book fanboy. You can read more of his work at Youthpassageways.org under Confluence Journal II or contact him at: fabfamilia@gmail.com

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