Many superheroes were created as fictional solutions to the social issues of their time. (Ever wonder why so many heroes gained their powers from radioactivity? Think about it.) Their storylines are dripping with social commentary, which makes them one of my favorite conversation starters when I casually wish to get my nerd on (hint: always).
Fun fact: All A-list superhero characters were created between 1930 and 1980.*
While many of their storylines are still relevant — history, as they say, tends to repeat itself — these characters do not adequately represent the 21st century American people (that is to say, we are not all white and male). A lot of things have changed since 1980: the Cold War ended, computers are old news, and people use this thing called the “Internet” to watch funny cat videos. I’ll admit it. I love the superhero classics: Batman, Superman, Spiderman, and so on. But I believe it’s time for a new generation of superheroes to join them on the superhero A-list. We need heroes we can all look up to and identify with; heroes who look like us, face the same issues we face, and challenge and inspire us to change the world.
Last Tuesday, I enlisted the help of 35 Youth Ambassadors at Seattle’s Cleveland High School to explore what this new breed of superhero could look like. Founded by Lori Markowitz, Youth Ambassadors is an awesome program that allows compassionate teens (and tweens) to act as mentors to younger students, with the goal of reducing truancy and dropout rates.
I asked the ambassadors to pick a real-world issue they are passionate about and then tasked them with imagining a new, fictional superhero to tackle that issue. Let’s take a look at a few of the superheroes they imagined:
As a child, Mag-Man accidentally swallowed a magnet that gave him the power to attract guns and bullets. He uses this unusual superpower to take weapons away from people and prevent gun violence. Because of his superpower, Mag-Man must wrestle with a major moral and philosophical dilemma: Who should be allowed to carry weapons? Is it right or wrong to take guns away from the good guys, like policemen?
Miss C takes on miscommunication and misunderstanding. With her power to read minds, she is truly able to understand all people. She uses this superpower to help decision-makers find compromise, and prevents decisions that would be wrongly made because of miscommunication. Miss C can also teleport and uses this unique combination of powers to find missing persons.
Unsurprisingly, Speedo’s superpower is superspeed. He uses this power to quickly bring resources to people who are in need. Speedo must decide how to distribute resources without taking too much from others. His arch-nemesis is the government because he does not believe the government sufficiently assists people in need.
Shelter Man’s mission is to help the homeless get off the streets and into houses. This hero himself once lived on the streets. One night, after raiding a garbage can for food, he ate a slice of radioactive pizza which transformed him into Shelter Man. He uses his powers to build homes for the homeless, but often struggles with where to place the homes. He also uses his superhero fame to combat laws that are detrimental to America’s poor.
Simply put, I was blown away by the passion, creativity, and awareness the Cleveland High Youth Ambassadors displayed through the characters they created. Imagine Hollywood’s next major motion picture: Mag-Man, Miss C, Shelter Man, and Speedo team up (as “the Ambassadors”?!) to save the world from gun violence, miscommunication, poverty, and homelessness… Now that’s a superhero team 21st century Americans can look up to.
*See this list of superhero debuts. As this information is Wikipedia-sourced, I thought I’d open it up to challengers.
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