“Conor, your ideas are good, but they need a little more rigor. Come on. I know you can do better than this. The insights that you share in class, the depth of your thinking, your prose at its best…you’re capable of so much more.”
She was right, of course. I’d jotted the paper off at the last minute, per my usual modus operandi, and the result did leave something to be desired. But it was usually enough to satisfy my professors. Not Her.
Her office was brimming with the projects She was working on, a stack of third wave feminist and queer theory texts next to scans of journals of first-generation converts to Mormonism and other 19th-Century religions founded in America and in the far corner a mix of graphic novels, mythology, and postsecular theory. Small mementos from Her travels and years teaching were scattered among her desk and shelves.
She looked at me with Her fierce, yet warm eyes.
“What’s your plan, Conor? How can we take this idea and flesh it out? You’re moving in interesting territory with your argument about superheroes as modern American myth, but what does that give us? What does that mean?”
I pause for awhile before replying, “That is the question. I think, we can learn something about our values and what we yearn for in the heroes that we look to.”
“Ok, but why are they like a modern myth, why draw the connection to Hercules and Zeus and Odin and countless other mythic figures from various traditions?”
“Pop culture is religion? That’s messy and more of a sociological argument, but I think there’s evidence for it. And obviously, I can use Thor as a bridge figure, that these modern myths literally lift figures from old myths. I probably need to do something with Gaiman’s American Gods, but I can slip that in.”
She pushes me, asking, “But where’s the belief? Aren’t myths defined by the cultural belief in them? Their explanatory power? Some sort of belief system associated with them?”
“That’s the weak point. But does belief need to be literal? What about comic cons and Halloween and action figures and the ways that young kids are indoctrinated into the cult of Marvel or DC? Isn’t that a sort of belief?”
“Perhaps. You could establish some sort of rites or pilgrimages that would bolster the mythos argument. I’m not sold, but we’ll run with it. What do these myths give to us? What do they teach us?”
We’ve reached the peak, I think, as I respond, “That’s complicated. There’s a strong individualist streak, a sort of Nietzschean ubermensch. Often the characters come from nothing, we have all these American Dream origin stories. Yet there’s also a focus on teamwork and this community of superpowered people that somewhat weakens the Nietzschean pull…”
She stops me.
“Conor, why do you want to write about this?”
I sit, pondering.
She waits. Expectantly.
Why do I want to write about this? Probably some childhood thing. Maybe all those cartoons growing up. Perhaps to figure out why I’m still drawn to them, despite feeling ideologically conflicted about the violence and arguably fascistic bent of most, if not all, superheroes.
“To untangle my connection to superheroes. And because I feel like there’s some sort of religious or at least spiritual component. Maybe because I feel a sort of childlike faith when I encountered some of the films and want to figure out why and how I can replicate that elsewhere in my life. There’s something about how I understand and connect to God and power and salvation, I think, buried deep in my attachment to these films and I want to get at that.”
She smiled and leaned back.
“Now that’s interesting.”
We worked for the next hour or so bouncing ideas off one another, wrestling with my complicated connection to and relationship with these superheroes. It was enlightening. As we turned my scholarship back on me, it filled with new meaning.
We shook hands as I walked out.
“If you get stuck again, Conor, don’t hesitate to come by. Always happy to chat.”
“Will do, Professor. Thanks.”
She closed Her door and a last flash of light glinted off Her initials on Her nameplate, “H. M., Ph.D.”
As I walked away, I heard the faint hint of Danny Elfman’s haunting Batman theme and smiled.