Superheroes are not just an idle preoccupation, or even the jurisdiction of the young, as E. Paul Zehr has discovered during his career using superheroes as a basis of science education. His new book for young readers, Project Superhero, is a perfect back-to-school tale blending fiction and non-fiction to connect classroom learning to the real world, and explore the amazing lives of superheroes—including those who live among us. In this essay, Zehr explores what superhero stories mean to readers of all ages, and why their tales are so important.
In my popular-science writing I use superheroes as foils for communicating science. Since writing Becoming Batman (2008) and Inventing Iron Man (2011), I have done a huge number of interviews, talks, and presentations in venues spanning the ginormous spectacle of the San Diego International Comic-Con, the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, TEDx, scientific conferences, school assemblies, and classroom visits.
I’ve learned from all those conversations that superheroes are super-popular at any age and for any group.
By far, the majority of my school visits have been to middle schools and grades 6 to 8. Which is why, a little while ago, I started to think about writing a book specifically for a younger age group—and for girls in particular. This was the genesis for my latest book, Project Superhero, in which Batgirl serves as an inspiration for my protagonist, Jessie. This is my first book that directly combines fiction and non-fiction. In thinking about how to translate my approach to a younger age group I spent more time reflecting on what superheroes represent in our culture as seen through Jessie’s eyes.
The approach I took in my earlier books was to explore the science of the human body through the lens afforded by superheroes. When looked at this way, the sublime skills and abilities of Batman, Iron Man, and Batgirl are fantastic for underlining the marvels of physiology, neuroscience, and biomedical engineering. The superheroes are useful for showing us the extremes to which many of our abilities can be taken, and of course also showing us where they cannot go.
I like to explore the physical reality of superheroes. For those like Batman, Iron Man, and Batgirl, there are parts of their mythologies and backstories that actually are accessible and grounded in reality. At first glance these characters captivate because they can do cool things that many of us can’t. That’s where the concept of metaphor comes back and is wrapped in the guise of mythology.
The societal concept of superheroes has really been around forever. I think the role that superheroes can play—that of inspiring us to think about exceeding our own limits—goes right back to antiquity. Icarus, Mercury, Prometheus, Thor, Odin, Hercules, and so many other mythological characters served as figures to inspire by their strengths and to guide by their weaknesses. They are also cautionary tales warning us of the costs of hubris and extending our grasp too far outside our reach.
Looked at in this way, the mythologies and back-stories of today’s superheroes are connected to many of those found in ancient myths, and these are stories whose appeal persists even centuries later. The attractive part for us real and mortal humans is that we can use the superhero fantasy as inspiration to free ourselves from the many false limitations we all acquire as we move through life. These limitations are grounded in expectations within our society or can also be self-inflected. Regardless, these limitations weigh us down, constrain our actions and prevent us from achieving more. They prevent us from being all we could truly become.
As Jessie tells us in her diary entries over the course of her Grade 8 year in “Project Superhero”, there is always more we can do and more that we are capable of doing. We just have to put some superhero lessons learned into our everyday lives and refuse to be limited by fear of failure. It truly is inspiring to recognize that real heroes get through uncomfortable scenarios precisely because they know that what they need to do is difficult but it still needs to be done.
To borrow from Jessie’s “Top 10 List of Things I Learned”, there really is a superhero in all of us. It is up to each of us—regardless of our age—to find that spirit of Batgirl, that inkling of Iron Man, or that bit of Batman we all have inside and put it to good use.
E. Paul Zehr, a professor at the University of Victoria, is the author of Becoming Batman (2008) and Inventing Iron Man (2011) and he writes for Psychology Today, Scientific American, and Discover. He lives in Victoria, BC.