I officially entered the "very late" period of my late 20s a short while ago, and now that I'm closer to an era of fatherhood than childhood, I've been thinking a lot about different teaching tools for my future kids. I know I want them to be literate, moral, imaginative, openly curious about the world around them and naturally think beyond themselves. Beyond the obvious methods like early reader books, trips to museums and Sesame Street, for later childhood my mind immediately turned to comic books.
It's totally understandable if you laugh, scoff, condemn or use some gesture that encompasses all three. There are obvious complains about modern comic book storytelling and they are all completely valid. Comic publishers prominently feature juvenilia masked as "adult themes." Multiple high-visibility, tentpole events and promotional initiatives in the last two decades have come under fire earlier for objectifying women, gruesome violence and using sex for shock value.
However, like all popular media, you have to look for the right comics and most importantly, the best representation of the industry's iconic characters. A character like Superman has endured for generations and will endure for countless more because he represents a timeless idealism, presenting the idea that if a being is given limitless power he will always work for the greater good with unbreakable integrity. Spider-Man is arguably the most beloved character in comics because he paints the struggle of growing up, coping with personal loss, and accepting adult responsibilities in the context of battling Green Goblins and alien symbiotes. Grant Morrison, in his excellent book Supergods, eloquently summarizes the lasting appeal of superhero comics: "We love our superheroes because they refuse to give up on us. We can analyze them out of existence, kill them, ban them, mock them, and still they return, patiently reminding us of who they are and what we wish we could be."
While the current narrative in popular culture for superhero fiction is "grim, gritty and dark," these heroes being used as avatars for high ideals are not relics of a forgotten Golden, Silver or Bronze Age. While building my personal pull list, I've found that Tony Stark in Matt Fraction's The Invincible Iron Man is one of the coolest characters in the Marvel Universe not because of his bleeding edge weaponized armor, but because he applies his genius toward green technologies and building a future that ensures a thriving and healthy humanity. Geoff Johns' Green Lantern at its heart, is a story about how willpower, imagination and bravery are the strongest forces in the universe and can overcome even cosmic crises.
The character that speaks to me the most though, is one that's been considered a joke for the majority of his existence. Booster Gold, created by Dan Jurgens and also written at various points by Geoff Johns, Jeff Katz, Keith Giffen, and J.M. DeMatteis, was originally the superhero personification of the me-first 1980s. A time traveler from the 25th century who used future technologies to become a superhero and leave behind his tainted football career, Booster was primarily motivated by fortune, glory and tabloid headlines. His reputation as an underachieving goofball was reinforced through his close friendship with the Blue Beetle, Ted Kord, with their antics including the pair buying living islands and hoarding New York's Oreo cookie supply.
However, as DC's storylines in the past decade progressed through story arcs such as Infinite Crisis and 52, both the Beetle and Booster evolved beyond silly caricatures into more well-rounded personalities. Ted Kord, who now had a renewed focus on his creative brilliance, resourcefulness and good nature, was tragically killed. A devastated Booster, realizing the cost of his irresponsibility, dedicates himself to true heroism, and almost immediately is chosen to carry the literally Herculean task of protecting the entirety of time.
Booster Gold Volume 2 narrates Booster's adventures in the timestream, and throughout the series is revealed as a superhero who is flawed and completely unsure of himself in the face of unimaginable, terrifying adversity. He is forced to make impossible decisions, such as the opportunity to restore Ted Kord to life at the expense of the universe falling apart, and constantly doubts he has the strength to do the right thing.
When confronted with these choices and these obstacles (and there isn't a single second in Booster Gold Volume 2 when his ordeals stop), he perseveres and does the right thing. He looks deeps inside himself and accepts his responsibilities no matter what the repercussions may be or how afraid he feels. As "The Greatest Hero You're Never Heard Of," Booster accepts his anonymous burden of protecting time knowing he will never get respect from the superhero community that still treats him as a joke. While he still wants that respect and popularity, he has the support of a small but loyal group of friends and loved ones that carry him through his mission, and that is most important to him.
These character traits make Booster Gold to me, one of the best identification figures in modern comics. As kids grow up, they may not have to be protect the planet from a three-eyed warlord, but they will have to face issues like peer pressure, moving away from home, chasing a career dream or personal relationship crises. Booster is far from a perfect hero and makes mistakes, but he learns from those mistakes and retains his ethical compass and integrity. As Morrison writes in Supergods, "we've always known we'd eventually be called upon to open our shirts to save the day, and the superhero was a crude, hopeful attempt to talk about how we all might feel on that day of great power, and great responsibility." When choosing a role model for my kids (besides their family, and prominent scientists/academics), I'd much rather trust heroes on the page who will never let them down, rather than celebrities/athletes tainted by 24/7 social media culture, when the time for their figurative "shirt-opening" arrives.
Unfortunately, in the transition to the New 52 Initiative, DC Comics retconned (erased) all of Booster Gold Volume 2. According to the current DC Universe, Booster's adventures in the timestream never happened and his best friend/catalyst for character growth, Ted Kord, never existed. However, while these stories may not exist in continuity, they will never leave the printed page, and I plan for the Booster to be on my shelf for many years to come, to be enjoyed by a certain group of new readers, along with his pals Green Lantern, Iron Man and Captain America.