I’m 13 years old, and I like girls a lot.
But they don’t like me.
There was then (as now) two ways of dealing with disappointment: be bitter, or get better. I vacillated between the two. I could observe around me what seemed to “work” with girls; however, most of those things seemed as far from possible as being a superhero.
There is a view out there that comic book superhero stories are escapist: we imagine ourselves “as them” to forget that we are, in fact, us. But, at the age most people come to comics, we are just then forming our ideas of who we are, and every potential future seems distant, fantastical, and unlikely.
So superheroes, in our imaginations, are no more strange than life is. Life is big, and scary, and exciting, and terrifying, and finding our place in it, while we are simultaneously learning what the weight of social expectations feels like, is a lot — a lot of a lot.
I came to comics in the so-called “Bronze Age”, although I was no more aware of it than were the Mycenaeans. I just knew I wanted to “matter”, to be important, to be more — more than I was as a thirteen year-old kid. In fact, I wanted to be more than I could imagine being, like Superman or Batman.
Much of the criticism of superheroes, as a class, seems to think the “super” part is all that matters. But the “hero” part was what spoke more to me: to do what’s right, to overcome, to persevere, to fight for things that matter. At 5 foot 10 inches and 90 pounds, that was hard for me to think I could ever become.
At heart, you see, many boys and girls are romantics, and want to be worthy of the love they desire. It wasn’t my unpopularity that bothered me, so much as the feeling that I deserved it. And, to this day it’s hard to argue against “being amazing” as a key component to attractiveness.
Note that I am saying the role model aspect of superheroes was the most important part for me. It is not so for all readers, as the medium speaks to different people different ways.
I jumped into comic book reading with a passion, one that embodied the noblest desires I had at that time: to become amazing, to be worthy, to become a better me. Adolescence is often characterized as a time of great confusion, and it was for me, emotionally; it also can be a time of great purity of ideals, and also was for me, even if the constant sexual tinge of my thoughts made little seem “pure” to me at the time. But the desire to be better drove me to try, and I don’t know that I’ve ever tried as hard, since.
When the age came that I realized that there was no “trick”* as to how to interact with girls, I had both gained and lost something. I had gained a more mature and balanced view of myself as a guy: that the key for me in interacting with people was to interact with them as people, individually, and not as generalizations. I had my ups and downs with relationships, but at my best and on the whole, I had gained some wisdom.
What I had lost, though, was more subtle: I had started the process, as most adults do, of accepting my limitations — physical, mental, emotional, and moral. And it was the last of these that was the real loss. I knew in my heart I was no hero, and while I might (and did) find love, I would never know what it was to be worthy of it.
As a better me would have.
* I actually did try a period of pretending to be a totally different kind of guy than I actually am, and got about a year worth of being more popular with girls than I ever was before or since. So when I say there was no “trick”, I mean there was no “trick” that was not disingenuous.