Kevin got Kieron a Spiderman game for his 13th birthday, and since then Kieron, never particularly fascinated by the superhero world before, has been informing himself about this strange and peculiarly American world (though I understand that Japan has adopted and furthered some of its ideas). Kieron comes by it honestly, I suppose, because both his mom and his dad went through a similar stage in their adolescence. Kevin still has a superhero comic collection in his office closet, though I don't think he's looked at it for a quarter century; I think I gave my collection to my younger brothers when I left for college, or maybe before.
On one hand, as a homeschooling mom who aspires to introduce my children to our great intellectual heritage, I have some regret at the corresponding tendency of the children at certain ages to fill their minds with the artifacts of popular culture. Even though I did it myself.
On the other hand, as a former young teenager myself, I remember the attraction -- the theme of power to do great things and make a difference, the corresponding temptations and dangers, all played out on a vast but limited, vividly colored stage; the mystery of how some people go "wrong" while others choose the right, again limited to a manageable arena of predictably-outcomed battles where generally, people weren't permanently damaged.
So many of the challenges that will face them in the adult world, as young teenagers are probably just starting to dimly realize, aren't epic battles on rooftops against dramatic villains with scarred or masked faces. Rather, they are going to be worked out in the soul or in the common duties of everyday life. I feel I've had just about as adventurous a life as most people in America, but even the most crucial moments usually came down not to one grand battle but to small recurrent battles partly against myself and partly against the contingencies of whatever was going on. In an odd way, even though the comic book situations are unrealistic, they do portray some of the way the same "villains" recur again and again in one's life, sometimes in slightly new guise, and the way one's own personal weaknesses are part of the problem even as one's strengths and willingness to struggle are part of the solution. Comic book epics, at least since Stan Lee, evoke a bit of this emerging reality while still keeping the playing territory safely fantastic.
Probably the basic themes are not too dissimilar to some of the ones in the Iliad or in boys' books like Treasure Island. In the classic literature, there is more nuance and more permanence. The story in these books start from a point before the work actually begins, but come to a resolution; the superhero cycle perpetuates endlessly, perhaps something like the chronicles of King Arthur. It was interesting to talk to Kieron, after he had pored through Wikipedia, about what was the same about the world of Spiderman now compared to the world I knew. It has changed, but slowly; I suppose the seeming immortality and fixedness of the world also has an appeal to the young teen who is leaving behind the eternal bright world of youth and starting to encounter changes that will often come faster than he is ready for.
A very young child, of course, is often fascinated by the superhero world, as well, though Kieron didn't ever seem to go through that stage. I think the fascination for a young child is somewhat different. They love to dress-up and "become" characters, because that is how they grow into their image of themselves. They usually want to think of themselves as invulnerable and all-powerful, because of their inner realization that the world can be dangerous for a Very Small Person. A small child in pretend-play usually sets up the rules so that he will infallibly win. I remember my little brother convincing my mother to make him a cape that labelled him "Super-Everything" -- being simply Superman wasn't quite enough.
For a young teen, though they still want assert their uniquely powerful nature, total invincibility is no longer as attractive. At this age, they see that games are more fun when the rules are not set up in advance to favor them; they want to compete against themselves; they want their dangers and challenges to have a more realistic veneer. Now that they more realistically take their own weakness into account, they focus their attention on how to overcome it. But the superhero format allows them to control the elements still and distance the struggle from the daily world. I think this is important for a young teen, to ponder through struggles in the playing field of his imagination and make his choice to aspire to better rather than worse.
One of the issues that constantly plagues me as a homeschooling mom is how far to acknowledge and respect the developmental tendencies that lead to this kind of intense interest, and how far to try to, let's say, sublimate them and lead them towards more durable culture. It is probably the tension between what David Hicks calls "Norms" and "Nobility". There is a sense in which education is meant to affirm and consolidate where a child is developmentally. But there is another sense, which Hicks brings out well, in which education is meant to stretch and expand the child's horizons. It is to bring out the real, not fantastic, not simplistic hero in all of us; to give us the air of the eternal things to breathe. Metropolis and Gotham City are icons -- Kieron tells me that in a Superman game for the X-Box, Superman's health points dive to zero if Metropolis is destroyed, which seems like a nice referent of the Aristotlean polis and incidentally a telling critique of the Nietzschean ubermensch . But like other icons, it seems they have to stand for something beyond themselves, and I want the children to have some understanding of that as they move out towards the adult world.
This "expanding" view of education has to be a restrained one; acknowledging that a human child has the capacities within him for his own development; they aren't to be imposed upon him. One of the unique ways a human being is different from the non-rational animals is that he is to some extent in charge of his own development. The purpose of education isn't to wrest away this freedom, but to enhance it, give it room, and keep it in tune with the Real Things.