Behind the Mask

At Halloween, superhero costumes are a popular choice for many Trick-or-Treaters. (We had two Iron Men and a Spider-Man come to our door last year.)

This is a departure from the original concept behind Halloween costumes, which was to disguise as one of the ghouls, goblins, ghosts, or other malevolent supernatural beings thought to roam the mortal world this night, so as to escape their notice. Eventually, the holiday became an occasion for general dress-up, with many Halloween celebrants choosing to masquerade as characters from the fantasy lives they imagined for themselves. Rather than sneaking past evil spirits, the appeal of adopted personas like pirates, gunslingers, and ninjas might be that they can face these creatures head on, and vanquish them. And no characters would be better equipped for such a challenge than superheroes.

Superheroes offer children (and adults) the dream of unlimited power to overcome any threat or obstacle. But by itself, possessing amazing abilities only emphasizes the “super” part of these characters. What makes them truly worthy of admiration is the “hero” part of their description. And that comes entirely from the people they are underneath their costumes.

Secret Origins

After gaining the proportionate strength, speed and agility of a spider from the bite of a radioactive arachnid, teenager Peter Parker initially uses these abilities for personal gain. Then one fateful day, he lets a robber run past him and make good his escape because he can’t be bothered to stop him. Hours later, that same robber murders Peter’s beloved Uncle Ben, teaching Peter the painful lesson that “with great power there must also come — great responsibility.”

As a young Clark Kent grew to adulthood, he gained nearly godlike abilities due to the reaction of his Kryptonian physiology to the rays of Earth’s yellow sun. But it was the values instilled in him by his adoptive human parents that have forever since guided him to use those super powers in service of “the oppressed” and “those in need.”

The most admirable and inspiring quality of Superman is not super strength, invulnerability, heat vision or flight. It is his ability to remain incorruptible in the face of his own absolute power.

Days after “normal” human child Bruce Wayne witnesses the murder of his parents, he makes a solemn vow to avenge their deaths, not by bringing their killer to justice, but by devoting his life to ensuring that no one else suffers the loss he has. He then sets out to make that promise a reality by embarking on a decades long path of relentless, grueling training to achieve the physical and mental perfection necessary to wage his lifelong war on crime. Despite the personal sacrifices and hardships he must endure, he remains committed to keeping his word, even though he’s the only living soul who knows he’s given it.

Desperate to do his part for his country during World War II but too frail for military service, Steve Rogers volunteers to be used as a human test subject for an experimental Super Soldier serum. The drug grants him the mind of a tractical genius and the body of an athelete in peak human condition. Equipped by the Army with a red, white, and blue costume and indestructable shield, Steve is deployed against the Third Reich as Captain America.

Although he was created to be a living weapon and propaganda tool, Steve began to see himself as more than that. He saw Captain America not as an instrument of his government, but as a living symbol of the best ideals of the American dream. Twice, he gave up his costumed identity, once in the 1970s, when the crimes of his president shook Steve’s faith in the institutions he served, and once in the 1980s when the Pentagon demanded that he follow its orders rather than his own conscience. Throughout his career as Captain America, he has represented the power of the people to expand and defend freedom and justice for every citizen, no matter how many stand in the way of liberty.

Call to Duty

The lesson these comic-book characters have to offer us is that the key to being a hero lies in living your life with integrity.

Most of us will never make the kind of vow young Bruce Wayne did, but all of us make promises, and then have to decide how important it is for us to keep them. Whether it’s simply doing chores, taking care of family members, or doing a favor for a friend, people depend on us every day to be the type of person we present ourselves to be. And we make promises to ourselves as well, to be better, kinder, more compassionate, stronger, braver, and more just than we are now. And then we break those promises, sometimes when we encounter the slightest difficulty in keeping them, and usually much more quickly than we would ever think of breaking a promise we made to someone else. But when we fail to live up to our own expectations of ourselves, we can follow Peter Parker’s example by taking what lessons we can from the experience and moving forward with the determination to do better next time. We have to remember that saving ourselves is the first step in becoming a hero to others.

Of course, one solemn oath that many of us do make is our marriage vows, which call on us to be better people and require the highest degree of integrety to uphold. But the laws of our country still don’t recognize the right of every American to enter into such a commitment. And that’s where Steve Rogers’s idealism comes in.

As long as the American dream continues to be denied to some of this country’s citizens, each and every one of us has to pick whose side we’re on.  We don’t have to face Nazis on the battlefield, we just have to speak up against the Reich-like values of racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance and hatemongering that some among us are still trying to keep alive. Our nation’s experiment in democracy is far from being called a success, despite all the advances it has brought to so many people both in this country and around the world. And it never will be, unless we are all willing to do our part.

Most of us don’t believe we have the power of superheroes to change the world. But we do.

Virtually every great advance toward justice in the history of the human race has been conceived in the minds of one or more normal persons and carried out by larger groups of other normal people. Sojurner TruthHarriet TubmanSusan B. AnthonyMargaret SangerMartin Luther King, Jr.Daniel Ellsberg, and César Chávez to name a few, were all just people who followed their convictions wherever they led, despite the personal sacrifices and risks, to save lives, free the oppressed, and uplift the downtrodden.

Again, most of us don’t envision such grand accomplishments for our lives, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have decisions to make about how we exercise what power we do have. As Jon Stewart pointed out at last October’s Rally to Restore Sanity, every day our society carries on and achieves great accomplishments through a million acts of compromise and teamwork between people of different races, genders, religions, sexual orientations, and political ideologies. I think we do this because, like alien immigrant Clark Kent, we recognize that underneath the “masks,” we show to the world, or the ones others thrust on us, we are all basically the same and we are all in this together.

That’s why we mustn’t underestimate our ability as individuals to make a great impact on the world. The decisions we make about how to vote, what to buy, where to live, what to wear and what to eat can be matters of life or death for people, animals, and the planet. If you don’t believe that, or want some guidance on how to make those decisions, try visiting the Web sites of some of the organizations on my Justice Links page.

The power and the responsibility rests with us.

And the world can always use another hero.

This article was originally published on Richard De Angelis’s blog Comic Book Justice.

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Richard runs a blog called Comic Book Justice, where he shares his thoughts on social justice issues as they are presented in comic books. From January 1999 to September 2006 he served as Director of the non-profit Comics for Compassion program, which sought to produce and distribute comic books that promoted humane values to children. His writings on comics have been published in the International Journal of Comic Art and Satya magazine.

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