With Superman Returns and X-Men III opening soon, superheroes once again are in high-profile, a position they've occupied in recent years with films like Spider-Man, The Hulk, Fantastic Four and Batman Begins. Although some cultural watchdogs deplore these films' violence, and censure their merchandising, I think superheroes can only be a good thing.
I am unlike many parents, who put comic books, action figures and superhero films in the "bad" column and limit children's access to them. Superheroes have led to a very strong bond between myself and my two young sons. Shared interests and passions form the strongest ties, and although my sons are too young to see some of the films, we've become great friends through watching the cartoon versions of these adventures, and through reading the comic books about them.
Through the animated series of Superman, Batman, The X-Men my sons and I have come together in the way that only anoraks and geeks can. The most important thing about this is that our enthusiasm's sincere. I've been a great fan of comicbook heroes since my childhood, and my children enjoy my stories about how I loved these characters when I was their age.
I learned a lot from comic books; if nothing else, they taught me how to read, a pastime I picked up when I started devouring copies of Superman and Batman at around five. The vocabulary was challenging: I still remember asking my sister and parents what "cosmic" meant. They didn't know, so I had to find out for myself. It was exciting and educational and eventually led to a lifetime of books.
The cartoon adventures are equally beneficial. Superhero stories are the myths and fairy tales of our time, and they can convey morals and instil values in children in a way more suited to the world they know. Through following the adventures of various caped crusaders, children learn about good and evil, about courage and heroism, about responsibility, friendship, and working together.
They learn about caring for others, about "doing the right thing" and about telling the truth. They know that while the "baddies" may hurt people and steal, the superheroes never do. And although all children know that they can't fly or "bend steel with their bare hands" through watching the inspirational superheroes who can, they learn that if they try their best and, as Batman says, "never give up", they can achieve equally heroic things.
Social values are learned too. In my sons' favourite show, Justice League Unlimited, three of the heroes are "aliens", visitors from another planet, who find themselves stranded on Earth, and two of them are the last of their kind. Not only do my children learn tolerance for "others", they also see that being "different" is no drawback. Superman, for example, is an alien and an orphan, but these handicaps don't defeat him. Wonder Woman, who is just as powerful, is a good argument against sex discrimination.
The stories often revolve around contemporary crises, like global warming and climate change. In The X-Men, not only must the teenage heroes contend with the bigotry and ignorance they're subjected to as "mutants", they also have to find time to do their school work and deal with all the stress and pressure of growing up.
Through seeing their heroes tackle these very real problems, children can develop the savvy and courage to face them themselves. To get all this across and still provide absorbing stories, thrilling action, believable dialogue, sympathetic characters with real personalities, and excellent animation, requires great skill. Rather than being examples of the cliched pop culture, superheroes are part of the front line in the never-ending battle, not only for truth and justice, but for intelligent and highly-motivated children as well.
Win X-MEN goodie bags, Friday magazine 3 Gary Lachman is the author of several books on cultural history.A founding member of the pop group Blondie, in March he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.