What if someone is not “normal?” There's a word for those who don't quite fit in with the in-crowd and whose esoteric interests have stirred an array of bewildered looks from those who simply don’t understand.
One might say "nerd." These days, some are daring to say "superhero."
Over the past decade, superheroes have sprung from the pages of comic books and into the world of television and film with an explosive, cultural KAPOW! But before the box office hits superheroes were the stuff of comic books, graphic novels and the nerds who loved them.
Nerds and superheroes are permanently woven together in the tapestry of comic book fandom. Superheroes resonate with fans because there is an element of nerd and outsider identity within their character structure. Clark Kent is an alien; Professor X is a mutant; Tony Stark, a singularly ingenious engineer - all unique, different, and set apart from any "normal" community.
“Many traits that people associate with those who fall outside the norm fall into this reject category, but us nerds embrace these characters not because it’s “geeky,” but because we understand the stories behind the characters and relate to them,” said animator Paul Chapman. “I mean, Peter Parker is a nerd who becomes a superhero… maybe we all just need to tap into our own powers.”
Peter Parker probably speaks to the alienated nerd in many comic book fans, but the very idiosyncrasies of being different aren't necessarily seen as a weakness or a flaw, but rather an emblem of strength and individuality. According to Chapman, the influx of the comic book spirit in mainstream society might mean that there’s a little less public suppression of nerdy tendencies.
“It’s obvious that more people have grown to love superheroes,” said Chapman. “I think (superhero) films allow those who aren’t familiar with the world of comics to take an interest into some amazing character that they never would have known otherwise.”
But why and what makes superheroes so beloved and their stories so transfixing? Since the inception of mythological figures, tales of those possessing superhuman powers have captivated and provided popular entertainment for generations.
“The fascination with hero type figures predates comic books, but you could say that the superheroes we’ve come to know and love provide a contemporary type of legend,” said former comic store owner Joshua Baker. “Superheroes and mythical gods both have powers that can easily rival one another, and if you take someone of the likes of Thor, well, he’s both. It’s that mystifying element that we get hooked into.”
The notion of heroes is nothing new, but there certainly has to be more to these costumed adventurers than what meets the eye - something behind all that spandex, those masks and secret identities. “What kid hasn’t tied a cape around their neck and pretended to save the world?” asked Baker, breaking into a chuckle.
“I think the appeal has a lot to do with their alter-egos. There’s something about them being super human while being human that we can all relate to. We superimpose what we wish we could be onto these characters.”
Many of us have that desire to emulate them to a certain capacity. And while it’s nearly impossible to emulate powers of the likes of super speed or super strength, it is that appeal of achieving some kind of greatness or making a difference that has become inherent to the human psyche.
“Making a difference doesn’t necessarily always have to do with having an innate gift at something,” said behavioral and social researcher Mike Peterson. “People can make themselves into a variety of things, and the superhero charm is that people can imagine that they, too, can achieve some kind of greatness. It reveals those qualities we would like to have more of.”
Peterson explains that much like books, movies or music, we can all find that anchoring relationship and grow to strongly identify with certain characters, lyrics or stories. And superheroes are no exception. “They have a very special element about them because of their dual persona,” said Peterson.
“In one sense, they’re normal. They have jobs, they go through everyday struggles, they have people they care about… but in the other sense, they are extraordinary. They’re different.” From the nerdy student who sees himself as Peter Parker one minute and as the web-slinging Spider-Man the next, to the cubicle worker Clark Kent who becomes the archetypal superhero as the Man of Steel, and even to Bruce Wayne, who may not truly possess super powers, but is just as iconic as the Dark Crusader… they all capture the idea of dreaming in possibilities.
You may not have the ability to manipulate magnetic fields or have tantalizing gadgets, but who’s to say that being a hero is solely contingent on the gifts that one possesses? Perhaps it’s more to do with how one wields his or her own strengths. Aside from having super human abilities, it may in actuality be the empowerment woven into these superheroes that have captivated us. That in some way, they have served to teach principles of morality and cultivate the idea of having a responsibility to ourselves and to the world.
“Each superhero teaches us different things. For instance, Superman has limitless super powers and can probably do whatever the hell he wants, but Clark uses his powers for good. His power is more so his goodness rather than his ability to fight,” remarks comic collector Brianne Martinez. “Superheroes are more than being crime fighters or having an adamantium skeleton. It’s about sacrificing for the greater good and that’s something worth looking up to.”
Though both super and ordinary, one has to wonder if in actuality the ordinary reveals more about the hero. Spider-Man is capable of saving the day, but Peter Parker is what makes him do it. “Spidey is one of my favorites. Peter has to overcome a lot and has a lot of inner strength and resilience. He’s this nerdy and scrawny kid, but his alter ego provides this strong counterpoint to his weaker traits,” said Baker.
“His powers are definitely cool, but the best part about him and other superheroes is their core self.”
According to Baker, the occasionally overlooked value and appeal in superheroes are their constant hopefulness. Whether you’re talking about X-men, Spider-Man, Batman or Superman, perhaps their ultimate superpower is hope. Without it, what would be the point of fighting the good fight? Without hope, nobody would rise up to challenges. Let alone feel that actual change or progress can be made.
It’s not as much about superpowers as it is about our humanity and recognizing the superhero in all of us. “I know so many people who put things on the line every single day and never expect to be called heroes, but they are,” said Martinez. “People are far more super than they give themselves credit for, and I think we can all aspire to become a superhero in our own right.”
And taking to Martinez’ sentiment, many of us have been told to dream big and shoot for the stars. Even the moon if one is truly ambitious, but how does someone ever achieve superhero greatness? Maybe it is that power of hope that Baker had expressed - the hope to aspire to confidently live a life that defines a meaning, the hope to go against impossible odds, the hope of helping one another for the price of nothing, and the hope to expand the parameters of change and human accomplishment.
In essence, to be a game changer and to always embrace one's inner nerd without forgetting to always keep in mind the wise words that “with great power comes great responsibility."
“What makes the superhero special is the unique ability to inspire. Like them, we all have our flaws, but even with flaws we can right wrongs and fight for what’s right,” said Baker. “Superheroes aren’t loved because they fight against evil… we love them because they demonstrate this idea that evil can be conquered. What’s more super than that?”