The first word my son learned to write was “Batman.” The second was his name. The third (which took me a while to decipher because I could not believe that he understood an acronym) was A.K.A. Ethan aka Batman, that’s how he defines his place in the world.
Batman isn’t just a favorite character or toy. To my son, Batman is someone he aspires to be someday. A hero. A man who puts aside his own needs to “defend people, defend myself ,” Ethan wrote on his “me” poster for Kindergarten.
The first time he could articulate this to me, I think he was two and I asked him, “Why Batman and not Superman or Wolverine or the Hulk?”
Before I tell his answer, you’ll need to know that this boy already knew more than I did about each superhero and their affiliations and powers and weaknesses. His bedtime reading included Marvel Encyclopedia, D.C. Comics Ultimate Character Guide, or Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.
You also need to know that he’s a product of superhero fans. My husband always jokes that the only reason why I married him was because he read more comic books than I did. Before we had kids, we had bedtime conversations like “If you could be any superhero, who would you be and why?”
These conversations became dinner ones once the kids were born. The first thing they wanted to sort out was our secret identity. Daddy aka Hulk was the easiest for all the obvious reasons of how the kids view him as the strongest in the family, their protector, and discipliner.
My oldest Kyra, who just turned nine, was a no brainer too because ever since she could grasp a car in the palm of her hand, she has wanted to be a race car driver. Naturally, she likes anything that requires speed. Kyra aka Flash.
My youngest, Riley is only one years old but this baby has the deadliest nails ever, no matter how we trim and file them down. Since the day we brought her home, she digs those nails into our flesh or claws our face in her enthusiasm to show us her love. Those angelic chubby cheeks would lure you close and then she would swipe your face. Riley aka Wolverine.
My identity is still being debated. Ethan, who is now five, insists that I must be the Batgirl. But my husband says hands down that I’m Rogue.
I worry whether it is okay that my family lives within the comic book world. Superheroes are the rose-colored lens with which we make meaning out of the meaningless events that occur in life.
We are faithful patrons of the superhero genre, watching every blockbuster superhero film on opening day in 3D IMAX. I would take photographs of the kids dressed to the nines in the heroes depicted in the film we are watching that I never post on FB because I don’t want to be judged. Am I introducing my kids to violence at too young an age? Or am I teaching them how to be a hero?
Because secretly, I kinda like that my kids are growing up believing in superheroes. Perhaps, this is a trickledown effect of the way my artistic mother raised me in which I was actually pen pals with Santa Claus until I came home one day from high school in tears searching for the letters as proof to my friends that he was real and poor Mā Ma had to sit me down and say, “Oh finally, I can stop writing those letters.”
But mostly, I enjoy seeing them run around with a cape fluttering in the wind behind their backs. I like that I can be their sidekick and see them teach me things. I like that they believe in the idea of heroism, superpowers, and hope that when you think someone died, they actually didn’t. Certainly, this is influenced by the fact that I lost both my mother and brother to the same disease in my early twenties.
I also like how I can get them to learn just about anything as long as I tie it to superhero trivia. For example, Kyra and Ethan learned the alphabet quickly with our road trip game of identifying a superhero for each letter. (My favorite is pointing out how important homework is when Iron Man or Spiderman solve a problem with their wit.)
Of course, I’m careful to spend a lot of time talking to my kids about what is right and wrong, what’s Hollywood vs. reality, and the things that are okay in the superhero films but not okay for them to act out on the school playground.
So back to my question to Ethan when he was two, “Why Batman and not Superman or Wolverine or the Hulk?”
He was quiet for some time. All I could see was his round brown eyes blinking behind his Batman mask. He brushed off some lint off his padded muscle chest and adjusted the gadgets on his utility belt. “Because I can’t fly.”
Kapow. Splat. Whoosh. This answer settles uneasily in my stomach. On one hand, I’m glad he is wise enough to aspire to be a superhero that could actually be possible within the limitations of reality. But I’m also terribly sad, that he has already begun to define what he can and can’t do.
Dear Readers: I just returned from Squaw Valley Writers Conference where I wrote this piece. It has inspired me to return to Love+eMotion, which I took a hiatus from to work on my memoir.