Put on the cape and tights, fly through the city and save the day. That's the basic superhero job description.
The everyday activities of comic book heroes — and the moral codes that motivate them — aren't a bad blueprint for living. We could learn a thing or two from the mottos of two crusaders who have big movies out this summer.
Batman: “I made a promise on the grave of my parents that I would rid this city of the evil that took their lives.”
And Spider-Man: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
In a time when it can be difficult to find appropriate role models, some parents are using the actions and credos of Batman, Spidey and other comic book heroes to teach their children. Parents also use comics and superheroes to teach social skills and reading and help broach social and political issues in addition to talking about right and wrong.
Molly Welsh's daughter, Ryleigh, 12, reads comics constantly. In comics, Ryleigh finds fictional people to look up to, particularly the lead character of “Coraline.” She talks to her mom about moral issues she finds in their colorful pages.
“That kid doesn't read,” said Molly, a 32-year-old Omaha mom. “She inhales and devours books.”
In “Coraline,” the title character must save her parents, who were kidnapped by an evil doppelganger of her mother from another dimension. The story is about her heroics and cleverness, as well as her accepting a normal life over the fantasy land in the other dimension.
As a young girl, Ryleigh relates to “Coraline” as well as to the young teens in “The Runaways” who decide to be heroes instead of siding with their supervillain parents.
Because comic book protagonists usually stand up for what's right, Welsh uses the stories to help her daughter identify good and bad behavior. The teens in “The Runaways,” who do the right thing despite immense pressure, and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” where teens fight personified evil in the form of vampires and demons, are current favorites in the Welsh household.
Darin Jensen, 37, shares comics with his two boys, Ian, 18, and Maxwell, 8. He also uses them at Metropolitan Community College where, as a member of the college's English department faculty, he teaches writing and reading courses.
“I love comic books in the classroom and I love them with my kids,” he said. “They're morality tales, they're fables. ‘With great power comes great responsibility' ... You can talk about that with the kid.”
Whether it's billionaire Bruce Wayne (Batman), or down-on-his-luck Peter Parker (Spider-Man), comics also show how a character balances being a powerful hero with being a regular person, said Dave DeMarco, co-owner of Legend Comics. That shows seemingly ordinary people can do extraordinary things.
He likes Spider-Man for many reasons: He's good at science, he's funny and he does the right thing even when something big is on the line.
“If Spider-Man was chasing a supervillain, he'd still stop to web up a mugger,” DeMarco said.
For decades, comics have also included story lines that deal more with real-life issues than they do with fighting supervillains or defending the earth from alien invasion. One of the most famous is Iron Man's “Demon In a Bottle” story line that covered alcoholism in 1979. Story lines in the last few years in “Superman,” “Astonishing X-Men” and other mainstream comics also have dealt with politics, homosexuality and war, topics parents want to talk about with their kids.
“Traditional hero comics find areas to explore values and morals,” said Omaha comics fan Greg Jaxies, 27. “Superhero comics have been tackling these topics in allegorical ways for years, but now they're tackling them in literal ways.”
The comic book “Cowboys and Aliens,” which was later turned into a film starring Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, helped Welsh's daughter Ryleigh understand the atrocities and massacres that occurred during European colonization of North and South America.
Superheroes, whether in books or movies, have for the most part stayed true to their codes (though story lines sometimes make them temporarily go rogue) while other entertainment choices become more questionable. Some parents would say it's hard to find role models on reality shows.
“These cultural icons are still hewing toward moral fiber whereas ‘Jersey Shore' is not,” Jaxies said.
Jensen has been taking Maxwell to comic shops for some time and he enjoys how the 8-year-old gets to interact and converse with adults. He's developing social skills and gets taken seriously at the comic shop, which wouldn't happen at other places.
But don't just hand the kid a comic book and think everything's going to be fine. Helping your child find appropriate role models is more than just telling them to be like Superman, said child therapist Allan Gonsher.
A real person (a parent, family friend, a nice person in the neighborhood) is better to emulate than a comic book hero, he said, and no matter who kids look up to, parents should engage them in plenty of conversation about how to translate your admiration for a person or character to your own behavior.
“If a child wants to be just like Superman ... parents are there to say, it's wonderful that you want to be strong like him and you want to be good like him,” Gonsher said. “It should involve some discussion. It's not just about emulation. If it's only about buying a comic book and hoping your kid will be kind like Spider-Man, there's something missing there.”
Of course, fables and stories can help teach children. Lots of research backs that up, said Gonsher, who operates three clinics in Omaha and Overland Park, Kan. Gonsher encourages children to have active imaginations and engage in fantasy play, but stresses it's important for them to know the difference between fantasy and reality.
Sharing comics with your kids can have other benefits.
DeMarco, co-owner of Legend Comics, thinks giving comics to a child will guarantee more reading. A relative gave him a box of comics when he was four and he's been reading ever since.
Jensen agreed, saying that Superman comic books might not be the highest form of literature, but it would be better for kids to read that than nothing.
He even uses graphic novels to teach students in his classes at Metro, including some high school dropouts who have some trouble reading.
It helps that all graphic novels aren't capes and tights. “Unknown Soldier,” which Jensen uses in his classes, is about civil war and child soldiers in Uganda. It mainly follows a Uganda native who leaves a good life in the U.S. to be a doctor in his native country, which is torn apart by war.
“The potential for being able to talk about how we act within the world is contained within the texts, and I like that. I like that a lot,” Jensen said. “In comic books, you can talk about sacrifice and doing the right thing.”
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