Mythology as a thing in tights

A writer and former comics dealer argues that our longing for powerful figures to help solve our oversized problems fuels our love affair with superheroes

Q&A /John Flynn

September 16, 2007|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Reporter

John Flynn was one lucky kid. Not only did his mother never throw away his old comic books, but his aunt actually encouraged his love of Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, those costumed superheroes constantly striving to make the world a better and safer place.

"My Aunt Shirley used to give me and my brother comic books after she had read them," he says.

Good for Aunt Shirley. Not only did she provide her nephew with the beginnings of a comic-book collection that now numbers in the thousands; she also planted the seeds that would eventually turn young John into an author.

After years spent as both a comic-book collector and dealer - from 1980 to 1985, he operated Galactic Enterprises on Crain Highway in Glen Burnie - Flynn, 52, decided to put to use the writing skills he'd honed in college, where he eventually earned a doctorate in psychology from the University of South Florida. A former high-school English teacher and college administrator, his science fiction has earned him three Hugo Award nominations (in 2002, 2003 and 2004), he's written extensively on both movies and the comics, and he has been a guest speaker and panelist at comic-book conventions, including the mother of them all, the annual Comic-Con in San Diego.

In June, Flynn's 12th book, 101 Superheroes of the Silver Screen, was published by Galactic Books (, which he and his wife, Wendy Bush-Flynn, run out of their Owings Mills home. From his home, he talks about why we need superheroes, what makes for a good one, and the potential pitfalls of moving them from the comics page to the big screen.

What is it about superheroes that makes them so appealing? Why do we need superheroes, or why do we react so enthusiastically to superheroes?

I think it goes back to the fact that we've always needed myths of some type, to explain some broader truth about the world in which we live and our place in it. If you look back to the Greeks and Romans, they had a whole pantheon of gods and heroes that they worshiped and followed their stories.

Coming into the 20th century, we entered without too many of those myths. And we were entering a place where we needed those characters. We didn't know what we needed. I think these superheroes have come to represent the ideals and the innermost desires that we have for ourselves. They reflect feelings of bravery, that noblest part of our human nature. And they allow us, in a way, to see ourselves a little bit differently than what we really are. Had we spent so much time debunking myths that we needed to create new ones? Was that part of the problem?

That's exactly it. Our science is magnificent, it's given us a lot of wonderful things, like the Internet, for example, and medicines. But our science also took away some of our religion, took away some of our faith in something beyond ourselves. Science has spent so much time trying to say that God doesn't exist that we've reached the point that Nietzsche was pointing out, that God was dead. And so, without having this larger force, we had to create something new.

That's where the superheroes came, they sprang out of that desire for a belief in something beyond ourselves. The first truly great, or popular, superhero was Superman: Is it by accident that he happened in 1938, a time of Depression, of oncoming war?

He's a direct outgrowth of that particular time period. He is a reflection of what we wanted to be, at a time when we were in the midst of this worldwide Depression that was pulling us down economically, and affecting our social behavior as well. Then, of course, that Depression gave rise to fascism in Europe, and World War II. We needed Superman to come along and say that there is something better than this, here are these ideals that we can aspire to.

It's interesting to remember that, at first, he really was just a super man. He wasn't surviving nuclear blasts. He wasn't quite the invulnerable superhero that he became later.

Actually, if you want to go back, he was not a nice guy to begin with. When Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster first imagined him, they created this story called "Reign of the Super-men." It was a self-published magazine called Science Fiction 3, 1933. He was not the Man of Steel that we have come to believe, but rather a megalomaniac, like one of the James Bond villains, who was going to take over the world and put everyone under his domination.

He wasn't a hero figure at all, but when Siegel and Schuster went to try to sell this, Consolidated Book Publishing said, `Look, no one's going to buy this guy. But they will buy somebody who stands for Truth, Justice and the American Way.' Thus we had the megalomaniac turning into a good guy.

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