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Transcript: 178: Superpowers

Transcript

178: Superpowers

Originally aired Feb 23, 2001

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Prologue.

Ira Glass

When we were weak, we told ourselves we were strong. And sometimes, if we were very weak, we told ourselves we were very, very strong.

Chris Ware

I mean, unquestionably, I was by far the most loathed member of my class, I think, you know? Being a pasty, unathletic kid who was weird-looking and probably seemed overly eager, so, you know. And I had friends that would come over on the weekends to play, but then at school, they would ignore me and pretend like they didn't know me.

Ira Glass

And so when he was little, Chris Ware spent a lot of time thinking about superpowers. He drew superheroes over and over, trying to get them right. He always wondered where somebody could find a radioactive animal like the one who bit Peter Parker and turned him into the Amazing Spider-Man. Once or twice, he thought he might be developing his own real superpowers.

Chris Ware

There was one morning where I was standing under the shower. And of course when you get in, immediately, because you're so cold, the water is extremely hot by contrast, you know? So you have the cold water turned up, and as you stand in there, you get used to it, and you turn the cold water down.

And I was in there for a very long time. And I remember turning the cold, and it wouldn't go any farther. And I thought, that's weird. It must be stuck. And I turned it more, and it wouldn't go any farther. And I realized I was standing under completely hot water, but it felt fine to me. It actually felt warm, almost cool. And the longer I stood there, it felt cooler and cooler. And the only explanation I could come up with is that I had developed the ability to withstand extraordinary heat.

And of course we'd just run out of hot water. But at that time, I didn't know that that happened. I thought hot water was an endless commodity.

Ira Glass

His first crush was Batgirl. Even now, he says, if he just sees the colors of Batgirl's costume-- just the colors, no image at all, just the colors-- his heart still skips a beat.

He invented own superhero called the Hurricane, who could shoot blasts of wind from his hands and was drawn with huge, manly muscles. He made a Hurricane costume to wear. Red T-shirt with a black circle with an H on it, a mask that his mom made for him, a yellow cape.

Chris Ware

There were a few times where I actually came to school with bits of a superhero costume secreted under my school uniform. I guess, I don't exactly know why. I guess I thought it was like it was going to give me some sense of power or something. But of course then I had gym class, you know? You have to change your clothes, so. I don't know what I was thinking.

There was one time I actually-- this is sort of peripherally superhero-- but I'd actually drawn circuit boards on pieces of paper, like the Bionic Man, the Six Million Dollar Man, and I'd actually taped them on my legs to look like real circuitry exposed, as if I had mechanical legs or something like that. And I guess I vaguely thought that somebody would catch a glimpse of it and think, wow! Look, he's bionic!

Ira Glass

Some of us, we spend a long, long time hoping that we're more than what the world thinks of us. And so of course we're drawn to these stories of these mild-mannered guys who, under their clothes, wear a costume in secret, with powers nobody suspects.

And when we get older, it all seems-- well, it all seems ridiculous. It all seems really, really dumb.

Chris Ware went on to draw cartoons for his living. But these cartoons that he draws now are like novels, about real people. And when a Superman type shows up in one of these cartoons, it's always somebody trying to con kids with a costume and a cape. He is always a disappointment.

Chris Ware

It's just more interesting that way. I think he's more like a real dad that way, I guess. And the more I draw him, the fatter he gets, too, and the more bald he gets, I guess. And if you were Superman, too, you know, what do you care what you look like? You wouldn't be all handsome. You'd eat whatever you felt like, you'd take whatever you wanted, and you'd end up looking really terrible after a while, I think. If I was a superhero, I think I would probably-- I mean, who's going to criticize you?

Ira Glass

Well, today on our radio program, Superpowers, four real life stories about how easy it is to be caught up in the dream of them. Act One, The Invisible Man Vs. Hawkman, the story of one man, two superpowers and one big question, a question, my friend, that we all can face equally.

Act Two, Wonder Woman, the story of a kid who decided to take steps to become a superhero, systematic, thorough steps that took her years, well into adulthood.

Act Three, the Green Team of Superhero Boy Millionaires, Beppo, the Amazing Supermonkey from Planet Krypton, and the Man from Sram. In this act, an inquiry into superheroes-- and there are many each year-- that just never caught on.

Act Four, The Wonder Twins, the story of two 12-year-old boys in Burma, guerrilla fighters, who had entire armies believing that they could stop bullets and summon the dead, and why so many people believe them.

From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. As the supervillains say, "Silence, miscreant! Our program has begun."

Act One. Invisible Man Vs. Hawkman.

Ira Glass

Act One, Invisible Man Vs. Hawkman.

Well, we now present a kind of super-contest for you, beloved super-listener, between two ancient superpowers, two of the superpowers which have fascinated humans since antiquity. And actually, this is kind of a super Rorschach test. John Hodgman has been conducting an unscientific survey, posing for people a very simple choice.

John Hodgman

Flight versus invisibility? This question is only for you. Whichever you pick, you'll be the only person in the world to have that particular superpower. You can't have both. Which do you choose?

I started wondering about this a few years ago. I'd bring it up at parties, dinners, wedding receptions. It was more interesting to ask than where people worked or where they went to school, and clearly more fun to answer. Like a magic word, shazam, flight versus invisibility would instantly change an evening's character, opening passionate conversation and debate.

But what surprised me more was how quickly everyone would choose, as though they'd been thinking about it for a long time. Everyone knew exactly which superpower they wanted and what they would do with it. Their plans weren't always flashy or heroic. In fact, they almost never were.

Man 1

If I could fly, the first thing I would do is fly into the bar, check out what's going on there, fly back home. I would attach my baby to me and fly to a doctor's appointment at 11:30, fly right back. And then I think I would fly to Atlantic City.

Man 2

I would imagine, like, if it got around that I had the power of flight and it was a rare type of thing, I mean, there would definitely be flight groupies. I would imagine. So they're going to be just like, oh, yeah, I just slept with the flying dude. You know? People are just like, oh, score.

Woman 1

I'd go into Barney's. I'd pick out the cashmere sweaters that I like. I'd go to the dressing room. The woman says, how many items? I'd say, five. I'd go into the dressing room. I'd put those five sweaters on. And I'd summon my powers of invisibility in the dressing room. I'd turn invisible. I'd walk out, leaving her to wonder why there's a tag hanging from the door that says five, and no person inside.

John Hodgman

So you'd become a thief pretty quickly.

Woman 1

Immediately. Until I had all the sweaters that I wanted, and then I would have to think of other things to do.

John Hodgman

Typically, this is how it goes. People who turn invisible will sneak into the movies or onto airplanes. People who fly stop taking the bus. Here's one thing that pretty much no one ever says-- I would use my power to fight crime. No one seems to care about crime.

Man 3

I don't think I would want to spend a lot of time using my power for good. I mean, if I don't have super strength and I'm not invulnerable, then, I mean, it would be very dangerous. If you had to rescue somebody from a burning building or something like that, you might catch on fire.

Man 2

Just having flight I don't think is necessarily quite enough, because you don't have the super strength.

Man 4

I'd still be weak when I got there, I guess. I don't fight crime now, and people without superpowers do. Sure, in theory, yes. But you know, I'm not a-- I mean, what can I do with this? Either one of those is, you need a whole package. There's not much you can do with any one thing. I'd go to Paris, I suppose.

John Hodgman

That's not being a superhero.

Man 4

Well, maybe I could be a Going to Paris Man, that sort of a superhero.

John Hodgman

Going to Paris Man is not a superhero. And I have to say this drove me crazy a little bit. We are, after all, talking about superpowers. Why not take down organized crime, bring hope to the hopeless, swear vengeance on the underworld, if only a little bit?

I proposed a variety of sample scenarios along these lines, such as, how would you handle a mad genius taking over the Empire State Building, or a group of terrorists hijacking an overseas flight? And what I learned is, some people should simply not be fighting crime.

Woman 2

Well, first thing that occurs to me is, like, I would sneak up behind them very low with a knife that they didn't see and slice their Achilles tendon. Oh, no. I'd somehow shove a sock in their mouth or something like that, and wrap some tape around their mouth, so that they can't yell out. It might not be a sock. It might just be some napkins or something. I can't keep all of this in my head. I'd have to keep a bag full of stuff with me. Knives. Socks. Tape.

John Hodgman

Do you think you'd be tempted to enlist a teenage helper?

Woman 2

Um. You know, I think a helper would be good, a helper with a complementary power.

John Hodgman

There's no others, anybody else with superpowers.

Woman 2

Oh, it would just be a teenager hanging around me? No.

John Hodgman

People who consider invisibility always want to know, do I have to be naked? People who choose flight want to know, how fast? Almost all asked, who would win in a fight, Mr. Invisible or Flying Man?

And so I had to lay down some rules. Invisibility means the power to become transparent at will, including your clothing, but anything you may pick up is visible. Flight means the power to fly at any altitude within the earth's atmosphere at speeds up to 1000 miles per hour.

But even then, they start looking for loopholes, hidden catches, superpower fine print. They start negotiating their dreams with me.

Man 5

Now, when you're flying, if you're flying at 1000 miles an hour at 100,000 feet, are you comfortable? Do you get very cold?

Man 6

Let's say I'm in this room and I'm invisible. And I'm walking around this apartment and I'm invisible. Do I have to be completely quiet, or you guys will, like, hear my footsteps? Because that's a pain in the ass. And also, someone has to let you in.

Man 4

Can I carry someone? Can somebody go on my back?

John Hodgman

Can you carry someone on your back now?

Man 4

Little people. Little people, yeah.

John Hodgman

Then you can carry little people on your back.

Man 4

Done. Flight it is.

John Hodgman

This is all part of what I call the five stages of choosing your superpower. Sometimes this process occurs in just moments. For example, subject A, a tallish man with glasses, wedged into a cramped barroom corner, begins as they all do, with stage one, gut reaction.

Man 7

Initially, I would think perhaps invisibility.

John Hodgman

Next comes stage two, practical consideration.

Man 7

Because you have the ability to walk around work, perhaps show up at one point, and perhaps like go away for a little while, and turn invisible, and then come back and listen to what they say about you. You have the power to spy on your exes. And that would all be enlightening and fun and, in fact, a little bit perverted. And--

John Hodgman

You hear that doubt in his voice? That's the beginning of stage three, philosophical reconsideration.

Man 7

That would-- I believe it would immediately turn into a life of complete depression. You wouldn't be able to really share it with anyone, you know? And I know there'd be some problems with, like, the perversion thing.

John Hodgman

Stage four, self-recrimination.

Man 7

Invisibility leads you-- leads me, as an invisible person, down a dark path, because you're not going to want to miss out, when you're invisible, on-- you know, no matter how many times you've seen a woman naked in the shower, you're going to want to see it again, because there's always a different woman, right? And there's like a lifetime of that. And that's not acceptable behavior, no matter whether you're invisible or not.

John Hodgman

And finally, stage five, acceptance.

Man 7

Yeah, I'd have to go with flight.

John Hodgman

So who chooses invisibility and who chooses flight? In my experience, though there are lots of exceptions, men lean towards flying, women to invisibility. And many brood anxiously over their choice, switching from one to the other and back again. And that's because, more than the ability, say, to burst into flame or shoot arrows with uncanny accuracy, flight and invisibility touch a nerve. Actually, they touch two different nerves, speak to very different primal desires and unconscious fears.

My friend Christine chose invisibility.

Christine

One superpower is about something that's obvious, and the other is about something that is hidden. I think it indicates your level of shame.

John Hodgman

How do you mean?

Christine

A person who chooses to fly has nothing to hide. A person who chooses to be invisible wants clearly to hide themselves.

John Hodgman

Do you feel that you want to hide yourself?

Christine

I want to-- I'd like to not-- I'm not going to answer that question.

Woman 3

It all has to do with guile. Wanting to be invisible means that you're a more guileful person. If you want to fly, it means you're guileless. And I think the reason that I'm so conflicted about flying versus invisibility is that I have guile, but I really wish that I didn't.

John Hodgman

Flight is the hero-- selfless and confident and unashamed. And invisibility, the villain. Almost everyone I talked to called invisibility the sneakier power.

Man 8

Flying is for people who want to let it all hang out. Invisibility is for fearful, crouching masturbators.

Woman 1

First of all, I think that a lot of people are going to tell you that they would choose flight, and I think they're lying to you. I think they're saying that because they're trying to sound all mythic and heroic, because the better angels of our nature would tell us that the real thing that we should strive for is flight, and that that's noble and all that kind of stuff.

But I think actually, if everybody were being perfectly honest with you, they would tell you the truth, which is that they all want to be invisible so that they can shoplift, get into movies for free, go to exotic places on airplanes without paying for airline tickets, and watch celebrities have sex.

John Hodgman

Anyone faced with this choice, in their heart of hearts, will choose invisibility.

Woman 1

Yes. Or they have this sort of inflated, heroic, mythical concept of themselves, and that, in fact, they're not really giving it very much practical thought.

John Hodgman

In the end, it's not a question of what kind of person flies and what kind of person fades. We all do both. Perhaps that's why, when I put the choice to myself, I'm hopelessly, completely stuck. At the heart of this decision, the question I really don't want to face, is this. who do you want to be, the person you hope to be, or the person you fear you actually are? Don't rush into it. Think it over. Which would you choose?

Ira Glass

John Hodgman in New York City.

[MUSIC - "THAT MAN" BY PEGGY LEE]

Act Two. Wonder Woman.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Wonder Woman.

OK, what are the ways to create a superhero? Gamma rays. Space alien abduction. Prison experiment or a NASA flight gone awry.

And then there's the idea of a list. Is it possible that a to-do list is powerful enough to achieve this incredible result? Kelly McEvers met somebody who tried.

Kelly Mcevers

We met in a bar in Flagstaff, Arizona. I'd just moved back from Cambodia and I was going out for one of my first beers back in the States. Not long into the first one, I notice this Amazon of a woman with huge blond and red-streaked hair and frosty lips, wearing a short red tank dress and at least 50 bracelets. She's six feet tall and showing a lot of leg. People at the bar swivel their heads to watch her every move.

She stands next to me to order a drink, and in this throaty voice says, "What are those?" pointing to my cigarettes. I tell her they're Cambodian. Her eyes light up and she shoots out a long, tan arm, and points at a table in the corner. She orders me there. Before I can say no, I'm following her to my seat.

She tells me she's an international private investigator, a bounty hunter, and a bail bonds enforcer, and that her name is Zora. I sit there for hours listening to her. Within a week, she takes me to Las Vegas. We drive there in her red Mustang. As always, there's a Colt .380 under the driver's seat and a .45 Megastar in the trunk.

In Vegas, we skip the casinos and head straight for the male strip clubs, where Zora drops at least $200 on lap dances from buff guys with names like Roman. Her getup is the same as before-- teeth, hair, jewelry, and the ubiquitous tank dress, which, I realize, is the best way to show off her tattoos.

One is this big circle with blue and white swirls in it, kind of like a bowling ball, on her left shoulder. Every guy she meets asks her about it, and when they hear her answer, they sometimes propose marriage. Turns out the tattoo is a magic globe she holds in her dreams. And in these dreams, it gives her superpowers.

Zora

Ever since I remember, I've had the dreams. And they're very vivid. But it varies. It usually involves fighting, sometimes with guns, sometimes with superhero powers. Lightning from my fists and all that. And I usually have super strength, and I can fly, and I have all those things.

And it's my most common set of dreams. And it varies. Sometimes it's medieval, sometimes it's futuristic, sometimes it's present day, sometimes it's like a guerrilla war in Latin America.

Kelly Mcevers

Can you describe that Zora to me, the Zora in dreams?

Zora

Very powerful athletically, but beyond the rules of nature that this world allows. It's a six foot five and long, like almost impossibly long silver hair. This sort of otherworldly quality to her, where her voice did not sound normal. It sounded, like, almost musical.

And it became something that I aspired to be. I aspired to be this sort of superhero, this sort of person who would fight for a cause. That was my motivation in life. Ever since I was 10 or 11, I decided that that was my goal.

Kelly Mcevers

Zora took the dreams seriously. So seriously that at the age of 12, she sat down and composed a list of some 30 skills she needed to learn if she wanted to become as close to a superhero as any mortal could be. She even gave herself a deadline-- to master these skills by the time she was 23.

Zora

I don't know what's in these.

Kelly Mcevers

Zora pulls out the old spiral notebook that was her diary at the age of 13 and turns to the inside back cover.

Zora

There's the list.

Kelly Mcevers

Wow. Why don't you go ahead and read it.

Zora

OK. The list included martial arts, electronics, chemistry, metaphysics, hang gliding, helicopter and airplane flying, parachuting, mountain climbing, survival--

Kelly Mcevers

Throughout her teens and 20s, each time she started a new diary, she would update the list and write it in the back of the book, each one with the same format, each one titled "The List."

Zora

Weaponry, rafting, scuba diving, herbology-- yes, I, studied that-- CPR, first aid and mountain emergency kind of medicine.

Kelly Mcevers

The list also includes bodybuilding, archery, demolitions, and explosives. She wanted to learn how to hunt animals and track men.

Zora

Major physical conditioning.

Kelly Mcevers

And the most incredible thing about all of this is that Zora accomplished nearly every item on the list.

Zora

Throwing stars and compound bows and throwing knives and-- yes, it was a very interesting pastime.

Kelly Mcevers

To keep up with the goals set by the list, she sped through school. Starting in the seventh grade, she began completing entire school years during the summer term and finished high school by the time she was 15. She got her BA at 18, a master's at 20, and completed the coursework for a PhD in Geopolitics by the time she was 21. She wanted to live like Indiana Jones, spending half her time in the classroom and half her time saving the world in the jungles of Peru.

Zora

Item number four-- camel, elephant riding. Evasive driving and stunts.

Kelly Mcevers

When you're a kid, you have these romantic visions of what you'll be when you grow up. But how many people are so diligent they commit their dreams to paper and make it their life's work to achieve them? How many keep a list, amending it, adding to it, ticking things off as they go along, well into their adult lives?

After finishing the course work for her PhD, Zora decided to quit school, disappointed at the lack of cliff-hanging adventure in her doctoral program. And since superheroes who live in the real world need jobs, she decided to seek employment at the only place that would allow her to put all the skills from the list to use. Zora wanted to become an agent in the CIA.

And so began a rigorous application process. Interviews, psych exams, a three-day lie detector test.

Zora

After that, then they sent investigators out to interview me, interview my neighbors, interview ex-boyfriends, interview friends, ex-friends, former colleagues, people I worked with, people I used to work with.

They threw a question out in the middle of an interview. So what would you do in this situation? If you were driving down the road, and you had one of your native agents with you, someone who's going to give you some information, and you were in a third world country somewhere, and you were driving a car, and you accidentally ran into a dog, and people have been out playing in the street, children in the street, they see their dog get killed, and they get upset, and they rush towards the car, what do you do in that situation? You don't want to draw attention to the person who's with you.

So what I said was that I would tell my agent to get down lower in the car, and I would get out of the car and draw the attention to myself, and try to appease them in some way, either by giving money, more likely. And that was an acceptable answer. That was a good answer to them.

At the time, when I was going through the process, it felt like everything was coming together. And I had not felt so much joy probably ever.

Kelly Mcevers

Did you tell them about your dreams?

Zora

Absolutely not. I would tell them that I had a sense that I could combine the whole street smarts intellectual, the education with the sort of adventure personality. And I was actually told that I had the perfect personality for it, and that I would do really well. It was like the fruition of my life, that it was going to be the step into the next-- you know, where I would be using all that list in preparation for the next phase, which would be to actually put it into practice.

Kelly Mcevers

About eight months into the interviews, Zora got a letter saying she'd been rejected. She appealed over the next year and a half, partly to find out why they'd turned her down, but the best they could do was to tell her to try again in a few more years. In the end, the CIA wouldn't take her, and they wouldn't even tell her why.

Zora

Probably it took me more like two years to recover. I was a basket case. I was just down. You know? I would have to work. I couldn't concentrate. Sort of slump down, staring at the wall. I put my whole life into examination, all the years of preparation.

Kelly Mcevers

Most of us give up our dreams of superhero adventure when we're adolescents. Zora was only getting to it at the age of 27. Here she knew how to fly a helicopter and survive in the wilderness, but for what?

She devoted a lot of time to thinking about why she might have been rejected by the CIA. Maybe it was all those months she spent with right wing militia groups, doing her doctoral research. Maybe she shouldn't have told the CIA how she ended up in a clandestine IRA club one night while on vacation in Ireland. Maybe the CIA didn't like the fact that her father, a professor at the University of Minnesota, is an outspoken Serbian nationalist. Or maybe it was simply her own fault, that she couldn't turn herself into a superhero.

Zora

I had violated the agreement of the list, violated the agreement that I made with myself, that I had not become what the archetype was, that I'd become something lacking. The point being that my mythology should have guided me better, and it felt like such a final thing.

Kelly Mcevers

So Zora remade herself. She had been virtually isolated from other people since she was 15, when she started actively pursuing the goals on the list. Her parents were happy she was so busy, because she had no time for boys.

But now she started working for a woman private investigator. One day when she went to court, she wore her first pair of pantyhose, because she was told it would help her look more feminine. Soon after, she was schooled in the sheer power of lipstick, a short skirt, and a supermodel runway walk to control the minds of others.

These days she works for an international private investigation agency that handles these kinds of cases.

Zora

Child abduction, retrieval of custody, reverse stings, occult and ritualistic crimes. Those tend to be really interesting. I like working on those. Anti-terrorism, kidnap protection and return, counterintelligence.

Kelly Mcevers

She's happy doing this work. In a typical case, Zora's agency sent her on a mission to Mexico to do what's known as a reverse scam. The agency was hired by the family of a young woman who'd recently traveled there and fallen in love with the man she planned to marry after knowing him for only 10 days. The family suspected some sort of con.

Zora contacted him, pretending she was looking for a girlfriend who used to work with him in the travel industry. She took a photo of a classmate with her to begin the scam.

Zora

I sort of played the distressed American student going to a Spanish school. And he invited me on a couple of dates, and asked me to come back for the bullfight.

Kelly Mcevers

What did you wear?

Zora

I wore like a little itty-bitty skirt and a little tank top. I made it seem like I had plenty of money, and that interested him. He kind of perked up at that.

He never mentioned, the whole time that I ever spent any time with him, he never mentioned that there was ever a woman. I found him to be pretty emotionally open and a very romantic guy. But I honestly felt that he probably was not in love with her, that he was taking this as an opportunity to live in the United States. And that was the report I gave.

Kelly Mcevers

Before Zora set out for Mexico, I rode with her to the airport. We were late and hurrying through the terminal, just 10 minutes to spare, when she did the strangest thing. She sat down in a chair, far from the gate, and wouldn't move. I told her she was going to miss her flight, but she didn't budge.

I sat down next to her. She said she was scared. About the case? About which disguise she might wear? About being found out? No, she said. She said she was afraid that when she got to Mexico, people wouldn't like her.

The next time I was at her house, I hadn't noticed before, but I realized her bookshelf was packed with advice on how to build confidence. Titles like Princessa: Machiavelli For Women. Books like that aren't really so far from the idea of keeping a list, having an ongoing plan for self-improvement, believing that if you just put something on paper and stick to it, you can change.

Zora still has her list. But while the old list was all about being perfect and saving the world, the new list is very different.

Zora

I need to learn how to play tennis and golf. And my new list is windsurfing, tennis, golf. I need to develop some kind of talent. Like, I need to learn how to sing properly, or to do some kind of comedy or sketches, acting. I need to learn how to act. Oh, I need to learn how to sing like Billie Holiday.

Kelly Mcevers

She doesn't take the list so seriously these days. There are no deadlines. She puts things on the list and later decides not to do them. It's not a grand mission anymore. Now it's just a list.

Ira Glass

Kelly McEvers.

[MUSIC - "GOLDFINGER" BY DAVID SEDARIS]

Billie Holiday imitator David Sedaris. Coming up, exactly what Superman knows that Jigsaw Man doesn't, in a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three. The Green Team Of Boy Millionaires, Beppo The Amazing Supermonkey From Planet Krypton, And The Man From Sram.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Superpowers, and how easy it is to get caught up in the dream of superpowers.

We've arrived at Act Three. Act Three, The Green Team of Superhero Boy Millionaires, the Amazing Supermonkey from Planet Krypton, and the Man from Sram.

My friends, they come in waves, 100 a year or more, whole armies of them. I'm talking about new superheroes created by the comic book companies. It is rare for any of them to last more than a few issues.

The website Gone and Forgotten is, as far as we can tell, the authoritative archive of these failed supersouls. The guy who runs the site, under the title "Your Humble Editor," is Jonathan Morris.

He says that the few great superheroes have some common sense things going for them. One, they have powers that make intuitive sense. Two, they have a reason for fighting crime. Three, their stories have a human touch to them. You can relate to them.

He agreed to come into the studio with a stack of some of the comics that do not quite measure up to those super-standards.

Jonathan Morris

I'm trying to find a very good one. I've brought a ton of comics with me. Let's see. We've got Captain Marvel, who is one of the characters featured on the website. His amazing power is that he can split, by which we mean his limbs fall off and then flail around. Hopefully, I imagine--

Ira Glass

What?

Jonathan Morris

--beating up the criminal. I'm not kidding. He says "Split!" His arms, legs, and head fall off, and he screams, "Yow! I popped apart!" And with the word "Zam," he returns to normal, and he's flying into action.

Ira Glass

I don't even know why. That is one of the most disturbing things I've ever heard.

Jonathan Morris

This company had a number of characters who shared their names with pre-existing characters. They had a Plastic Man who appeared in this very issue, in fact, but he was nothing like the famous Plastic Man.

Ira Glass

Which was always an embarrassment to him. He'd be ordering online, or he'd--

Jonathan Morris

Gets his mail all the time.

Ira Glass

Exactly. He'd make a reservation at a restaurant, and then he'd show up, and they're like, oh, we thought you were the other Plastic Man.

Jonathan Morris

And there's even a point where he hears people yell "Plastic Man" on the street, and he's long past the point where he's thinking, maybe they mean me. No. He knows they mean the guy in the red.

I did bring all the Prezes with me.

Ira Glass

Prez?

Jonathan Morris

Prez. The first teen president of the United States. A rather earnest young man named Prez Rickard becomes-- and with a name like that, how could he not? He becomes the first teenage president of the United States.

This is the issue right before he has to fight vampires, too, which was not a responsibility I was aware the president had. But apparently, it's rather important.

Ira Glass

Now, what is his superpower? Like, what kind of president does he make?

Jonathan Morris

Well, he kind of fits in that Doc Savage-Batman mold, where he's mostly a very well-trained human. He's taught by his-- I hate to say this-- his stalwart Indian companion how to develop the all-important Indian tracking skills. And thanks to his Indian companion Eagle Free's menagerie of animals, he learns several animal skills, helping teach Prez Rickard to be fast as an antelope, swing like a monkey, fight like a bear, I guess.

Ira Glass

You know, I've always thought that the United States presidency would be so much more effective if the president had the powers to communicate and control the animals.

Jonathan Morris

Well, if there's one thing that Prez proves, it's that there's nothing that the president couldn't solve with two fists, an Indian companion, and a small army of birds and elephants.

Ira Glass

If you were to explain to people the characteristics of a bad comic book superhero--?

Jonathan Morris

There are obviously a lot of ways you can screw up. One of the ways is to just overdo it and cram the elements of the character down the readers' throats. One of the characters was Bee-Man and everything about him was bees. His full name was Barry E. Eames. He was attacked by mutant bees which were sent to earth by space alien bee people. And he himself became a mutant bee person who had bee powers, and lived in a hive, and ate honey, and stole gold because gold looked like honey. And he could sting you.

There was nothing bee-related this man refused to do. If you meet somebody at a bar, you start talking to him, and you realize, he only has one interest in life-- that's exactly what Bee-Man was. Everything would have gotten back to bees. You start talking about what you watched on television last. He'll say, you know, I saw an interesting show on bees.

Ira Glass

You know how there's certain stores, like in a neighborhood, and no matter what business moves in, they always fail? There's just one after another after another? Are there certain powers that when people try to give them to people, it's just inevitably a formula for failure?

Jonathan Morris

There's one power that never survives on its own, and they always end up enhancing it. And that would be shrinking.

Ira Glass

Now, why would that be? Because that conforms to the rule of, there's something intuitive about that that anybody can understand. You get small.

Jonathan Morris

There is something intuitive about that. But then you also realize that, all right, you're small. Now I can take you.

Ira Glass

And usually the power that they'll add is what kind of thing? Like, what kind of things will they add to the little guys?

Jonathan Morris

Well, usually the one they get is, you get to keep your full human strength. They like to give them something relating to being small. Ant-Man has the ability to control ants. And again, as I say it, I realize that's probably not much better.

Ira Glass

Well, I was going to say, like, yeah.

Jonathan Morris

He's as strong as a guy, and here are some ants.

Ira Glass

He would just invade the picnics of supervillains.

Do certain comic superheroes come out of particular moments in the nation's history?

Jonathan Morris

Positively. That's another thing that really works against a character, is when they're tied in too tightly to a fad, or tied in too tightly to something that is identifying an era. There's a character created in the '70s, but who was supposed to be a retro character from the '50s, name of 3D-Man, to help hook up on the 3D movies that were a craze in the '50s. Terrible. Flat character. Nothing going on.

Ira Glass

And when you say 3D-Man, what was his power?

Jonathan Morris

He had a magical pair of glasses and had the strength of three men. And that's it. He was as strong as three people, as fast as three people, whatever that means. Probably three times faster than a human being. They always describe it as something as "so much as three men," but I don't see how he can be three times as-- or have "the agility of three men." There's just three guys who are agile. It doesn't make any sense. I have a little trouble with 3D-Man.

Part of the problem with just naming off the superheroes or going through their powers is that, on the face value, there's not a superhero who doesn't seem silly, because you have to get to a point where the man's wearing a costume and he's driving around fighting crime.

Ira Glass

Then where does the line come where they rise above that? Do you have a theory on this, about what makes a good one and a bad one?

Jonathan Morris

I have sort of a half-formed theory. I know that one of the things that really helps a superpower get over with the audience, get over with the readers, is if it's something they can apply to their normal lives, perhaps by way of fantasy. And that's, I think, why super strength, super speed, invulnerability, or just general toughness are often so common. If you can get on the court with it, get that super accuracy, and get a slam dunk from midcourt, and really just school over somebody, then that's probably a superpower you want.

But when you start getting into powers like one character who had magnetic eyes of superpower, which is a little too esoteric to even understand.

Ira Glass

Yeah. I don't even understand it. What does it mean? "Magnetic eyes of superpower"?

Jonathan Morris

Yeah. In his first appearance, he announced that he had magnetic eyes of superpower. They would illustrate little beams coming out of his eyes, making metal things shoot right at them, which would be terrible in a room full of forks.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Morris, who brought a few of his 15,000 comics into the studio. Search the internet for Gone and Forgotten and you'll find his site.

[MUSIC - "SIGNAL IN SKY" BY THE APPLES IN STEREO]

Act Four. The Wonder Twins.

Ira Glass

Act Four, The Wonder Twins.

You may have read or heard something of this story, how in a civil war in Burma, the Karen people's guerrilla army, God's Army, had these two twin boys with them starting when the boys were just nine years old, Johnny and Luther Htoo. Finally, they came out of the jungle, smoking cigars and looking much younger than their 12 or 13 years. But for a while, many people believed that they had superpowers.

Jason Bleibtreu reported on them in Burma. He says there was actually a legend that preceded their appearance.

Jason Bleibtreu

The legend of the twins had to do with Burmese mythology. And the mythology was, when the Karen people, which are an ethnic minority, when things are really tough for them, twins would appear. The twins would have magical powers and they could save them from bad, from evil things.

Ira Glass

And what superpowers did people believe they had, Johnny and Luther?

Jason Bleibtreu

The twins at one time claimed, and also their followers claimed, that the twins were able to command ghost armies. Each twin had 200,000 to 300,000 soldiers that they could command. And when the fighting got tough, they could call on these ghosts and the ghosts would come to support them. Other mystical powers were things such as bullets would bounce off of them, or if they were struck by shrapnel from a landmine, it would bounce off of them.

Ira Glass

Jason, in the course of your reporting, did you meet people who claimed to have witnessed the twins using any of these powers?

Jason Bleibtreu

Oh yes. Certainly. I met several people, many people. They told the stories about, during meditation, the kids would be meditating with the twins, and all of a sudden, they'd open their eyes, and there would be an old man sitting there. And it would be the body of an old man, but inside it would be one of the twins.

Another one was, they're going into battle. So one of the twins took his weapon, his M-16, pointed it to the ground, and he fired 20 rounds. Later that day, his troops came back and said, we killed 20 soldiers. He says, yes, we killed 20 soldiers because I fired 20 rounds into the ground.

Ira Glass

So I understand that, in the course of your reporting, you visited with the twins, is it twice? While they were still out fighting?

Jason Bleibtreu

Yes. I visited with God's Army several times.

Ira Glass

And when you would ask the twins directly, you know, do you have powers, let me see the powers, would they answer directly? Would they say, yes, I have these powers? Or would they talk around it, you know?

Jason Bleibtreu

They would talk around it, and I would push and push and push, and I would get answers like, yes, I have magical powers. But those powers only come out in desperate situations, like when we're in battle. I just can't bring up the magical powers just to show you.

Ira Glass

What was their affect? How would they respond? Were they embarrassed? What would they do?

Jason Bleibtreu

I'd push with questions, and then they would get irritated. They would get angry. Several times Luther lifted up a machete and would threaten me with it. I could hear him through the translator. I would get the translation. He would say stuff like, "This guy's bothering us, isn't he? Isn't he really bothering us now?" I don't think I like this guy."

Ira Glass

And so what were they like?

Jason Bleibtreu

Luther was quite shy, fidgety. He seemed to lack much attention and strived to get attention. Johnny is more confident and outgoing. Both of them were treated like kings. Both of them rarely walked on the ground. Most of the time, they were carried on someone's shoulders.

Ira Glass

It's interesting. So then, in their own little world, they were sort of superheroes.

Jason Bleibtreu

Oh, certainly. One of the kids would bark out, "I want to smoke," and they would run out and they would grab the cigarette and light it. He would want a lighter, they would run and grab a lighter. He'd want something to eat, they'd run off and get him something. He wanted to be lifted up, they would lift him up. He wanted down, they would put him down. They would bark out commands, and most of the commands would be adhered to.

Ira Glass

How do you think it affected them? Did you get a sense of that?

Jason Bleibtreu

Certainly Luther, he wanted attention. He was a boy who needed to hug. He was a boy who didn't have his mother around, didn't have his father around. There were no mother figures in the camp. They didn't want women there. And it just seemed like he wanted some affection. He would go from soldier's lap to soldier's lap, and he would just sit in the lap of the soldier. Or he would come up behind the soldier and he'd quickly put his hands around him and give him a little hug .

Ira Glass

At the point when they surrendered to Thai troops, they wrote a letter to their mom, and the letter said, "In Burma, we were very hungry, but now we have food. The Thai army is looking after us. It is a nice life here. We want to stay with you. We miss you, Mommy."

Jason Bleibtreu

Yeah. They didn't enjoy being in the mountains, on the run. It was a tough life. They weren't well-nourished. And yeah, they missed their mother and they missed their father.

Ira Glass

Do you think that the way the twins came to power in this group, that a part of them believed that they might have magical powers?

Jason Bleibtreu

It's very difficult to say. They believed that they were special. They were treated special. I don't think that Johnny or Luther believed that they had magical powers.

Ira Glass

I don't know. If I were young child, and I were told that there was this legend that I and my twin were going to come and that we would have these special powers, a part of me probably would believe, well, I don't have the power right now, but maybe, in some circumstances, I could.

Jason Bleibtreu

Yes, you have a point there. And it's quite possible. But I don't think that they believed that they ever did something magical. Nor do I think that they were psychotic. I think that they were part of a con.

Ira Glass

When you say a con, you mean a con by whom, perpetrated on whom?

Jason Bleibtreu

God's Army, this group of the Karens, were down and out. They needed some type of miracle. They needed people to believe them. I believe that they created Johnny and Luther, claiming that they were gods, so that they could con people into fighting for them and they could intimidate their enemies.

Ira Glass

It's interesting. First they try to win through politics, and then through arms, and then when arms fail, they have to go straight to myth.

Jason Bleibtreu

Yes, it's true. They were desperate. They don't have anything left. They don't have that many fighters. They don't have resources. They don't have many weapons. And it's a desperate act by a group of desperate people.

Ira Glass

Did it work for a while?

Jason Bleibtreu

Yes, it worked for a while. And then the Burmese forces were intimidated by them and scared of them, and believed this. So yes. And they gathered a lot of support amongst the people in the mountains.

Ira Glass

Jason Bleibtreu, speaking to us from Bangkok, Thailand.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Alex Blumberg and myself with Blue Chevigny, Jonathan Goldstein, and Starlee Kine. Senior producer Julie Snyder. Contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, Alix Spiegel, Nancy Updike and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Elizabeth Meister runs our website with production help from Todd Bachmann, Annie Baxter, and Jane Golombisky. Musical help today from Mr. John Connors.

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

If you'd like to get a cassette of this or any of our programs, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago. Look us up in the book or call 312-948-4680. Or you know you can get tapes from our website, where perhaps in an economically unsound decision, we also make it possible for you to listen to our programs for free at www.thisamericanlife.org.

There you can also find, this week, a cartoon by Chris Ware, who I interviewed at the beginning of the program today, a cartoon about superheroes and their power over us. It's really just beautiful. Chris, by the way, is the author of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who told me back when he hired me--

Man 7

You have the ability to walk around work, show up at one point, and perhaps, like, go away for a little while, and turn invisible, and then come back and listen to what they say about you.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

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