I may have been the only kid who ever got punished by his parents for being a superhero. Not even Superman could save me. In fact, it was all his fault.
“The Adventures of Superman,” as noted in Pioneers of Television's new look at superheroes, was a breakthrough '50s TV series (in color!) that became daily afternoon fodder in the early to mid ’60s. The show is also one of my earliest childhood memories.
Maybe it was the rousing opening music — I’ve always had a thing for catchy TV themes; my mother said I used to jump up and down in my playpen whenever I heard the joyous intro to “The Mickey Mouse Club” (“Who’s the leader of the club … ”). But the real intrigue extended to Clark Kent (George Reeves), the newspaper reporter who ran into an office cloakroom to change into his costume, fly out the window and save Metropolis or, more likely, Lois Lane, whose dowdy charm escaped me in kindergarten. (I think she grew up to be Judge Judy.)
Anyway, Young Kevin was somewhat impressed by the way Superman could see through walls, stop bullets with his chest and twist gun barrels into curls as if they were made of licorice. But, man, I was awestruck by his ability to fly. My jaw would drop with every whoosh on takeoff. I’d marvel as he soared through the sky, arms and legs stretched perfectly still and straight, then nail every landing like an Olympic gymnast, even if he busted through a ceiling.
Naturally, I had to give it a try. There weren’t any capes in the house so I would drape my plaid flannel bathrobe around my shoulders and start running. I’d get giddy if the hem of the robe lifted in my wake. I soon discovered it would flap even higher if I jumped off the top of the couch. That’s when Mom stepped in. Human kryptonite.
An appeal to my father went nowhere. He told me he didn’t like all the mayhem and violence that my brothers and I saw on TV, even in cartoons. Then he sat down to watch “Combat.”
And so my bathrobe was retired to a hook on my bedroom door and Superman was pre-empted in our house, never to be seen again. It was as if, like Puff the Magic Dragon, he had silently slinked away and taken my childhood with him. My first painful lesson in hero worship.
But in third grade I encountered a different kind of champion on television: Batman. He didn’t have any superpowers. He was just clever, kind and incredibly rich. Instead of flying, he drove a really cool car that he kept in the ultimate man cave (until someone bought it Saturday for $4.6 million). All the tricks of his trade were conveniently stashed in a sleek yellow carpenter’s belt. Even his adversaries were more entertaining than evil. The Joker was like an eccentric uncle, the Penguin an even bigger curmudgeon than Mr. Wilson on “Dennis the Menace” and Catwoman … well, let’s just say her skintight bodysuit stirred something in Young Kevin that until then lay dormant.
In the schoolyard, my friends and I no longer played Army or tried to fly. We staged laugh-out-loud fake fights, throwing punches that missed by a mile and yelling “Bam!” more than Emeril at a chili festival. At home, my little brother and I could save Gotham without leaving the basement. An unplugged rotary telephone was our Batphone. I’d wear an ascot when I was Bruce Wayne, then change into one of our Batman and Robin Halloween costumes. Curiously, more often than not, I wanted to be Robin — a boy wonder, prone to obedience, respectful manners and bad puns.
Holy guacamole, how the world has changed. The superheroes featured in movies and television these days are usually just younger versions of the original. The protagonists in video games are human killing machines who can rise from the dead to kill again. Today’s society, like my mother, has even taken all the fun out of being Superman. There’s a Man of Steel costume that actually comes with this warning label: “Wearing of this garment does not enable you to fly.”
Next thing you know they’ll be stitching that into bathrobes.