Superheroes & Me

Happened to catch a rerun of a 2001 episode of This American Life entitled Superpowers on the local NPR station last Friday. It makes an interesting jumping-off point for a discussion I’m determined to have with myself on this blog, regardless of whether any of you are especially interested. (Yes, it’s the latest in a series of ongoing bouts of narcissistic self-obsession. It’ll be fun.)

Anyway, the show includes an intriguing segment called “Hawkman vs. Invisible Man” in which interviewees are asked to choose which one superpower they would rather have, flight or invisibility, and then explain the choice and how they would use the power once they acquired it.

Very funny. Very smart. Very much worth a listen.

14 Responses to “Superheroes & Me”

  1. Brian Spence Says:

    I think what’s almost as intersting is which would you rather be with superpowers: a supervillain or a superhero (please don’t sue me, Marvel/DC)?

    If you picked invisibility, you could get away with so much. If I had invisibility I would be too tempted to rob a bank. Just once, so I’d be set for life. I’d rationalize it by saying its insured or something.

    How much good could really be done if you’re invisible anyway? You probably wouldn’t be able to find Osama with that power. Most people want that power so they’d know what other people said about them when they’re not around. The best things to do with that power are BAD things.

    Oooh, look at me being controversial. It must be Friday.

  2. Stephen Abrams Says:

    Yes, I agree. There’s not much good to be done with invisibility powers, but there’s a lot of “evil” fun to be had.

  3. Matt Butcher Says:

    No, please, blog away. I would love to hear one of my favorite author’s thoughts on the matter. I, for one, find it fascinating.

  4. A.L. Baroza Says:

    I remember that This American Life, and yes, it’s great. But isn’t it always? My favorite show still has to be the one where Sarah Vowell re-traced the Trail of Tears. Just brilliant work.

    Steve, you’ve been doing novel approaches to superheroes and super powers longer than most. Anything you may have to say on the matter is worth reading, as far as I’m concerned. Especially if it has to do with your next project.

  5. Leviathan Says:

    I was really unimpressed by that particular “This American Life.”

    It was obvious that the “reporter” was somebody who really didn’t “get” superheroes, talking to people who did, and as a result, that segment was a pretty weak exercise in pseudo-intellectual psychobabble.

    I remember something like, “It was interesting that people seemed to want to ‘bargain’ with their powers, like, ‘If i can fly, can I lift and carry another person?'” No, you idiot, that’s not bargaining, that’s asking you to define your terms more usefully.

  6. James Hudnall Says:

    I would want flight, so I could travel around. However, it would have to come with a force field to deflect wind and the elements. And it would have to be able to travel really fast to be much use.

    Invisibility would be helpful in some cases. You can do good as an invisible person. Helping people and not getting seen doing it But ity’s a major temptation to do bad. I have some ideas for an invisible character I might do that’s sort of a robin hood type character, that throws some moral questions into the mix.

  7. Joe Brusky Says:

    Being able to move through solid objects has always intrigued me the most as a super power. It would be cool if it worked, but with gravity, how could you just walk through a wall without ending up in the basement as well? 😉

    I’ll take flight. It REALLY would save me some cash…

  8. Nat Gertler Says:

    I pick flight, because I already have the practical power of invisibility. I can go unnoticed in the crowded room; I can be unmemorable when I want to. Flight is efficient, romantic, and saves wear and tear on the sneakers.

    The guy doing that report is John Hodgman, who scored some success recently with the strongly-funny-at-points-but-uneven book The Areas Of My Expertise. Far more even and worthwhile are his occasional appearances on The Daily Show over the past few months, where he is their “resident expert”.

  9. Forrest Says:

    “My god! You’re levitating!”
    “Actually I’m flying in place…”

  10. Richard Bensam Says:

    I finally had a chance to listen to this. At the start of the segment about flight versus invisibility, I began to worry that John Hodgman had let us down with his choice of interview subjects. Their ideas for using their chosen powers all seemed so prosaic and mundane — shoplifting sweaters and getting to doctor’s appointments on time? sheesh! — it seemed like he found a lot of people who were unable or unwilling to fantasize in any constructive way. But by the end of the segment, some interesting observations came out and it seemed like Hodgman was able to glean a modicum of insight from even the duller scenarios.

    But still…my daydreams of invisibility have always been about crusading for justice and taking down bad guys. You know: eavesdropping on corrupt politicians and swiping the documents that will expose their crimes Or spying on Klansmen (or their modern-day counterparts) to watch them planning their next evil deed, then anonymously tipping off the anti-Klan activists so they can be foiled. Or terrorizing the superstitious mugger into thinking I’m a ghost sent to haunt him. Stealing sweaters or watching women take showers doesn’t seem nearly as appealing.

    Jerry Siegel must have had similar fantasies of using the power of flight (and super-strength and invulnerability) to settle scores with evil mine owners exploiting workers or rescue innocent convicts unjustly sentenced to death…and he used Superman to act out those daydreams of getting even with the bad guys. And maybe that’s a distinction as interesting as the choice between flight and invisibility: given a super-power, do you think of outrageous things you could do to settle scores and change the world, or can you only think of your own personal convenience? I’m biased, of course; I feel sorry for people whose inner lives are so stunted that they’re unable to dream of anything bigger than stealing an expensive sweater from Barney’s.

  11. Brian Christgau Says:

    I think it all really depends on whether you’re being practical or romantic. Are you choosing your one alloted superpower for good or for personal pleasure? Are you going to try and save lives and whip evil’s ass, or are you going to fulfill a deep-seated childhood wish.

    Invisibility would be the way to go if you’re going to fight bad guys, be they in street clothes or three-piece suits. You’d be able to save people from muggers, rapists and killers with relative ease, and sneak into corporate and federal buildings to dig up hard proof of their crimes. Flight would be useless for these things, but you’d be able to live out a universal human fantasy.

    Of course, both powers have major practical issues. Flight? You have to worry about crashing into flocks of geese and zit-faced neighborhood brats taking pot shots at you with their BB guns (to say nothing of hunters). Invisibility? You’ll be able to go anywhere unseen… but you’ll have to do it BARE ASS NAKED. Can you even begin to imagine the damage this would do to your feet? (That last point would be rendered moot if you’re talking about a suit of some kind that bends light.) The perks would be unimaginable if you’re a voyeur or a total pervert, though.

    What would I choose? I guess it would depend on my mood at the time. Probably flight, though. Who among us has never wanted to jump out the window and rise above it all for an hour or two? I guess coming back down to earth would be the hard part.

  12. Richard Bensam Says:

    Forgot to mention this before: even though there are good reasons to be skeptical of the story she tells, this Zora woman sounds a lot like a Steve Gerber character, don’t you think?

    Also: Brian, John Hodgson covers the whole nudity question in his discussion of invisibility, and stipulates that your clothing would become invisible while you were wearing it…a good thing too, since al fresco invisibility would be a real hazard in cold climates. (However, objects you pick up remain visible, so enough with the shoplifting!)

  13. Bart Lidofsky Says:

    It’s easy for me, although I’m thinking the opposite of Nat. With technology I can fly, but being invisible is something that nobody else can do.

  14. Nat Gertler Says:

    Yes, but think of it… as a superhero you could fly without having to drive to LAX first, without having to arrive anywhere two hours early. Superman never has a four hour layover in Des Moines.

    (Travel back in time five years, and try telling people “You have to take off your shoes if you want to fly anywhere.” They will think you’re crazy.)