What I Learned from Childhood Heroes

July 27, 2010

“A boy doesn’t have to go to war to be a hero; he can say he doesn’t like pie when he sees there isn’t enough to go around.”   -Edgar Watson Howe

I’m so glad I was kid in the 70s and early 80s. We got at best a couple of hours of cartoons a day, and after that we were stuck doing our homework or even *gasp* playing outside with our friends until dark. When I look at what is popular on kid networks today, I cringe with sorrow. In the age of 24 hour entertainment, there is little depth in anything children’s networks produce, at least for boys anyway. Superheroes have turned into teenage whiny brats who spend more time trying to develop their “chi” or learning how to cast spells than getting down and dirty with the next bad guy who is threatening the world. Although very young, my kids were lucky enough to experience the tail end of the age of the comic book superhero before Pokémon came on the scene and ruined it all. With the exception of The Avatar, I have not seen one action/adventure cartoon that has any decent story development at all, nor any “heroes” with any noble qualities that I would want my kids to develop. In fact, some of these so-called heroes often act in ways that I would feel the need to punish if they were my kids. If the attempt is to make the hero more human, writers today take it too far. Why do we need make-believe heroes in the first place? Is it not because we all know that in real life we simply don’t measure up? Kids need heroes to look up to, to emulate and learn from. The day to day grind of reality is enough to drag down the spirit of any man, but when properly inspired, that same man can be a hero when push comes to shove. Yet, how can we learn to become heroes as men, if we don’t have good models to teach us as boys, and if we don’t have the opportunity to spend hours of outdoor playtime pretending we are the hero saving the damsel in distress, or even the world from utter destruction? When I consider the man I am today, I can trace back many of my positive traits directly to the influence of my childhood heroes.

“With great power comes great responsibility” –Peter Parker, aka: Spiderman.

Even in my earliest memories, Spiderman is a part of my imagination. I can’t remember my first comic or cartoon; he was simply always there helping this shy, rejected kid feel like maybe someday I could be a hero too. Peter Parker was actually the first teen superhero who wasn’t just a sidekick, and his creator, Stan Lee, revolutionized the comic book industry when he gave him real life teenage problems. But there is a difference between Peter Parker and the teenage heroes we see today. Instead of always being a self-absorbed and snotty, he learned from his mistakes, he strove to be a good person. Though he was interested in and awkward around the opposite sex, he didn’t obsess over his loves interests (at least not inappropriately). He didn’t use his powers for the self-satisfaction of kicking ass and gaining glory; he was a genuine hero who saw his gift of superpowers as a gift to the world. Any Spiderman fan knows the great lesson that Peter Parker learned from the tragic death of his Uncle Ben: “With great power, comes great responsibility.” What was most amazing about the Amazing Spiderman was that his powers didn’t really bring him glory, but they actually became a burden to him as he desired to just have a normal life, yet he still made the choice to sacrifice his time and limited resources to go out and fight evil and save the lives of complete strangers. Peter Parker was a geek at school; he was an outcast, but as Spiderman, he sought to protect the very people who rejected him when his mask was off. He could have had a chip on his shoulder, but he made the choice to be a hero. He had real life problems, but he still gave his time and energy to help others he considered to be in greater need. When Stan Lee condensed decades of story writing into three movies, the hero’s journey that Peter Parker takes, not only as crime-fighter in tights, but as a boy becoming a true man, is even more evident. In addition to protecting the weak and innocent, the call to love your neighbor, to do good to those who persecute you, to find the freedom that forgiveness brings our souls, yet all the while standing up for justice and what is right and facing the hard choices we must make in the process, is written all over those scripts. I never had a radioactive spider mutate my DNA, but the hours of comic book reading, and the time I spent imagining I was the web-slinger himself surely mutated my spiritual DNA, and now I’m a man who knows you don’t have to be perfect to be a hero, you just have to be willing to give what you’ve got, and when the situation calls for it, you need to make sacrifices in your own life in order to do the right thing and even help save people who will likely never offer any thanks in return.

“It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”  -Bruce Wayne, aka: Batman. 

My first taste of Batman was the old Adam West TV show, and the original Super Friends cartoon. In the first he was nothing more than a silly clown, and the latter a pretentious jerk who depended on his silly gadgets to survive. In my opinion, Marvel Comics definitely had better heroes and more interesting stories than DC Comics, so I never bothered with any Batman comic books. That is, until I discovered Captain Blues Hens, the local comic-bookshop. The first time my mom dropped me off there, I held my breath as I saw the rows upon rows of classic comics, and the walls lined up with every new issue released, even from comic publishers I had never heard of before! I found that the owners celebrated Batman as much as Spidey. I soon discovered why. The original comic book Batman had all the mystery and swagger that makes a villain appealing, but he was still a good guy. He was The Dark Knight, a protector of the innocent. In addition to just being one cool dude, Batman was special because he didn’t actually have any superpowers at all. All his skill was based on personal training. True, he would not have been able to accomplish the status of “superhero” if he was not rich, but in some ways, that makes him even better; he chose to use his riches to develop all his killer crime fighting equipment: the Batmobile, the Utility Belt, the Batcave all used up resources that could have been spent on women and drugs and multiple vacation mansions, but he used his fortune to help prevent others from becoming victims of crime. Of course he had his front of being a playboy, but that was just to ensure he kept his secret identity safe. His nights were not spent with loose women, they were spent bringing justice to Gotham City. Bruce Wayne was inspired to become a superhero when he was just a boy and his parents were murdered in front of him during a mugging. His father was in charge of a large successful corporation that was left to his young son too early. Luckily, Bruce had Alfred, the butler who was almost a member of the family, to raise him and take care of him. The young boy decided to honor his parents’ death by becoming someone who would prevent others from suffering the same fate. The idea of Batman was born. Batman is more than just the fancy gadgets paid for by his successful corporation. Think about it, he was still sharp enough to ensure that his father’s corporation continued to make money and provide for his crime fighting habit. He had to have the mind of an inventor and scientist to create all his crime fighting equipment; he also needed to develop his intuition and detective skills, and he needed a deep mental and spiritual strength to train himself how to fight and to know when not to. Batman was smart enough not let his grief from his loss affect his emotions when fighting crime. He knew to keep his head clear, and he followed a strict rule to never kill his enemy, no matter what. He understood the difference between justice and revenge. Batman teaches us that to be successful in anything, whether it’s fighting crime or running a multimillion-dollar-corporation you need self-discipline and self-control. He teaches us that while physical strength and skills are important, brains are almost always better than brawn. Batman usually defeated his enemies through outwitting them. Like Spiderman, he made great sacrifices for the protection of others, but he made doing good and being smart look bad-ass.

“It’s not the years; it’s the mileage.” –Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr.

What boy who grew up in the 80s didn’t don the fedora, the brown leather jacket and the whip? Indiana Jones allowed me to play dress up (minus the whip of course) well into my teens without looking too silly. I still own my first leather jacket I picked out as a cool guy teenager; it is curiously familiar to Indy’s. What makes Indiana Jones such a hero is his lack of heroic qualities that he learns to overcome as a flawed man who steps up to do the right thing when faced with danger. There is no mask needed here. Dr. Jones shows us once again that intelligence trumps brute force as he and a small band of faithful friends defy evil armies and prevent them from gaining more power to further their reign of terror in the world. Indiana Jones is just as excited, even giddy, to gain more knowledge and understanding about his craft of archaeology as he is to overcome the bad guys in his adventures. One of my favorite lines from the last movie happens in the midst of Indy wiping up some bad guys, when his son (unbeknownst to either of them at time) proclaims: “You’re a teacher?!?” Considering that Temple of Doom actually takes place a few years before Raiders of the Lost Ark, it is easy to see a progression of maturity and heroism in each of the four movies. In Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones is seeking adventure for the sake of “fortune and glory,” but he chooses to save a village in poverty instead. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, he goes after the greatest archeological find ever, the Ark of the Covenant, and learns to sacrifice his find to save the ones he loves and for the greater good of fighting the evil Nazi regime.  Indy restores his relationship with his estranged father in The Last Crusade, in fact, he only goes on this adventure to save his father’s life.  His maturity culminates in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull when he is finally able to step up as a true man and claim the woman he truly loves as his wife and begin a relationship with the son he unknowingly fathered with her. A typical movie begins with Indiana Jones on a personal quest either for himself or for his museum. However, eventually he has to make the choice to sacrifice his own goals and desires and possibly his life for the greater good. By the last movie, serving others is old habit. One other thing that is significant about Dr. Jones is that as a man of science, he still has a respect for the supernatural, and in his search for understanding through the study of ancient artifacts, he learns that there are forces in this world that can’t be explained by science or history alone. The original Indiana Jones Trilogy wet my appetite to search for truth in this chaotic world of ours. I wondered about different cultures both ancient and in the present, and I understood that the more I knew about the differences I have with others, the better chance I have of survival and peace with them. I also wondered about God’s role in our world, and whether or not he really cared about our tiny human affairs of evil régimes like the Nazis trying to take over the world. Indiana Jones played a legitimate part as one of the tools God used to invite me to seek him and discover who he really is.

“You don’t raise heroes; you raise sons. And if you treat them like sons, they’ll turn out to be heroes…” – Walter Schirra Sr.

Parents who believe that the media they allow their kids to be exposed to doesn’t hold much sway over their hearts are fools. I see two extremes with parents these days. Some want to lock their kids down so tight they shun anything that involves any hint of the imagination. Others allow their kids to be exposed to almost anything they want. I was shocked to one day overhear a conversation between my son and his friends when they were about ten years old. They were spending the night and were complaining that I was being too overprotective because I didn’t let him watch South Park and Family Guy. Apparently all their parents felt that since the shows were cartoons they were for kids! Considering the kids’ knowledge of the content of the shows, I am sure at least a few were getting a steady dose. What a wonderful logic of parenting! The painful truth is that ever since our fall in the Garden, childhood largely consists of a loss of innocence into the harsh reality of the fallen world. We have the difficult task of encouraging our sons to hold onto their imagination and faith so they can enter the Kingdom of God like a child ready to submit to their heavenly Father, and at the same time raise them to be mature men of God, spiritual-warriors even, so they are ready for the assault the enemy of our souls will surely wage on them. All this while working out our own salvation—no small task. Parents who shelter their boys too long and stifle their imagination will raise adults unable to cope with sin’s tempations and unable to act against evil when confronted by it. Parents who allow their boy’s flower of innocence to be cut too early will raise adults who are stuck in perpetual adolescence, believing that promiscuity is the only way for excitement and vulgarity is the only way to make a joke. As parents, we bear the image of God to our children. That is why a young boy’s greatest hero is his dad. It is a high calling that we will most certainly fail at because we are human. That is why we must encourage our sons to have heroes who arouse their curiosity about life and truth and the right way to live. We need to set before them men and women, super or otherwise, who make good choices and feel the painful consequences when they don’t. We need to give them room to breath and explore and imagine, but we also need to make sure the world they are exploring has safe boundaries. As they grow older and learn responsibility and morality, we increase their boundaries little by little so when the day comes for them to leave through the gate, they have the inner strength they need to fight evil and protect good at all costs, to fight for a woman’s honor, not to take it from her and abuse it, and even, if called to do so, to lay down their lives for the greater good of all. Boys need to see what true heroism looks like; they need to be able to spend time imagining and playing the hero, so they can one day become men who will be the hero.

Peter L Richardson*

*Pete’s Disclaimer: I stopped collecting comics in 1991 when I sold my comic collection for money for food shortly after I dropped out of college (my first attempt). Comics were already well on their way towards a dark trend that was geared to an adult audience. Although, to my knowledge, Spiderman comics remained mostly unaffected, there are a number of Batman works that are definitely inappropriate for children, and in some cases even teens. As with everything, parents need to monitor what their kids are reading, viewing, playing, etc. and use wisdom to know what each child can handle and offer guidance with any material they choose to allow. There is a reason the Indiana Jones films are rated PG13.


4 Responses to “What I Learned from Childhood Heroes”

  1. Catherine Marie Says:

    I loved this…and it brought back a lot of mememories. I liked the way you developed it from “playing” with the inner city kids to what a true hero is.

  2. Chester Says:

    My childhood heroes were of two varieties: the comic book kind, like Spiderman and Captain America, and the real ones like General George Patton, ordinary soldiers and Marines, and my Dad. My Dad was the kind of guy a kid could look up to – strong, good with his hands, patient, teaching, kind and loving. Sure he had faults, and unbeknownst to me, a long string of life events that really colored his outlook on living. But he taught me so much about the world, indirectly and directly, that it had a huge influence on my life. Even though I only got to live with him for 15 years, it made a big difference when I got out into the world.
    As it turns out, he overcame challenges most of us cannot even imagine having to face, and that’s why he’s still my hero. Overcoming adversity is the hallmark of a hero.
    And of course, I cannot fail to mention that Pete here is also my hero – for the above mentioned “overcoming adversity” thing, in spades, without complaint or murmur. Just heads-down grinding away until successful. Right Pete?

    • peterrock12 Says:

      Thanks, Jim. Your comments are encouraging and humbling. I can tell you as an outside observer, that you exhibit the same qualities as a father that your dad showed you; patient, strong and knowledgeable, and more than that, you are faithful and reliable to friends and family!

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