Transcript

508:

Superpowers 2013
Transcript

Originally aired 10.18.2013

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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, being a pasty, unathletic kid who was weird looking and probably seemed overly eager. 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. 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

He invented his 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 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 have gym class. So 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. So 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 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. If you were Superman, too, you're like, 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. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. As the super villains say, silence, miscreant. Our program has begun.

Act One. Invisible Man Vs. Hawkman.

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 had 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. Then I think I would fly to Atlantic City.

Woman 1

I'd go into Barneys. I'd pick out the cashmere sweaters that I like. I'd go into the dressing room. The woman says, how many items? I say five. I go into the dressing room. I put those five sweaters on.

And I summon my powers of invisibility in the dressing room. I turn invisible. I walk out, leading her to wonder why there's a tag hanging from the door that says five and no person inside.

John Hodgman

So you would 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 will use my power to fight crime. No one seems to care about crime.

Man 2

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 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 3

Just having flight, I don't think it's 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. So sure, in theory, yes. But I'm not a-- what can I do? Either one of those, 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 the superhero.

Man 4

Well, I could be Going to Paris Man. That's 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

The first thing that occurs to me is I think I would sneak up behind them very low with a knife that they didn't see and slice their Achilles tendon. No. I 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. Might just be some napkins or something. I can't keep all 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 would be tempted to enlist a teenage helper?

Woman 2

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 ask, 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 1,000 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 1,000 miles an hour at 100,000 feet, are you comfortable? Do you get very cold?

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 would have to let you in.

Man 6

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

John Hodgman

Can you carry someone on your back now?

Man 6

Little people, yeah.

John Hodgman

Then you can carry little people on your back.

Man 6

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.

Subject A

Initially, I would think perhaps invisibility.

John Hodgman

Next comes Stage Two, practical consideration.

Subject A

Because you have the ability to walk around work, perhaps. Show up at one point and perhaps 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.

John Hodgman

You hear that doubt in his voice? That's beginning of Stage Three, philosophical reconsideration.

Subject A

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

John Hodgman

Stage Four, self-recrimination.

Subject A

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. 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.

Subject A

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 lead toward 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'd choose 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 it 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 7

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

Woman 4

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 4

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. He's on tour around the country right now. To find out when he's coming to your town, go to JohnHodgman.com.

[MUSIC - "THAT MAN" BY PEGGY LEE]

Act Two. Wonder Woman.

Kelly Mcevers

We met in a bar in Flagstaff, Arizona. I had 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 noticed this Amazon of a woman with huge blonde 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, tanned 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 get up is the same as before-- teased 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, right?

And it's my most common set of dreams. And it varies. Sometimes it's medieval. Sometimes it's futuristic. Sometimes it's 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. So 6 foot 5 and long-- like, almost impossibly long-- silver hair, this sort of otherworldly quality to her, where her voice did not sound normal. It sounded 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 dream 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 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 body building, archery, demolitions, and explosives. She wanted to learn how to hunt animals and track men.

Zora

This is funny, I have here, 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 coursework 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 had 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 them money, more likely. And that was an acceptable answer. And 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, where I would be using all that list and 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 wasn't-- I was just down. I would have to work. I couldn't concentrate. Sort of slumped down, staring at the wall. I had 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 had 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, 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 a 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 the 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

Oh, 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.

And 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. 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. 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 have 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 super souls. 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's 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, beating up the criminal.

Ira Glass

What?

Jonathan Morris

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. He's flying into action.

Ira Glass

I don't even know why, that is one of the most disturbing things I have 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 who was nothing like the famous Plastic Man.

Ira Glass

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

Jonathan Morris

He 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

Right. 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 had to bring all the Prez's with me.

Ira Glass

Prez?

Jonathan Morris

Prez, the first teen president of the United States, a rather earnest young man named Prez Rickard. 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, that's one thing that Prez proved. 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. It's as 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've gotten back to bees. You start talking about what you're watching on television last night, he'll say, you know, I saw an interesting show on bees.

Ira Glass

You know how there's certain stores 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

I was going to say, yeah, what's the point?

Jonathan Morris

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

Ira Glass

He would just invade the picnics of super villains.

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, the 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, the fastest three people, whatever that means, probably three times faster than a human being.

They always described it as something as, so much as three men, but I don't see how you can 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 the 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 mid-court 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 when you say 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.

[BUZZER ]

Blossom

Blossom here. What? Mojo Jojo! We'll be right there. Buttercup, Bubbles, let's go.

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

Act Four. Villain and Able.

Ira Glass

Act Four, "Villain and Able." Of course, you can't have a superhero without a super villain. And the most interesting super villains, of course, are the ones who think that they are the real heroes, that they're the ones living by a true code of honor, not the guys in the capes. This story comes from Glynn Washington.

Glynn Washington

Rule number one. Whatever it is you do, always look good doing it. See, now my quantum drive, the lithium core, dimension-jumping rocket ship does not just go fast. It's sharp, baby. Yes, that is a new chrome alloy. And no, it is not available in the stores. Recognize.

And please understand, if they had made the big fuss about how unbreakable the new security system was, I wouldn't even have bothered. Check the tape. I sat there for 45 minutes, big sack full of jewels in my lap before I finally pulled the alarm my damn self. That's when the fun started.

I hopped in my rocket ship and towed through the middle of downtown Metropolis, making up all kinds of commotion. Sirens, helicopters, police lights. I'm having a ball. Then here he comes, Superman. And right on cue, the ladies start screaming, oh, Superman, Superman, Superman is so brave. It is not brave to go in a burning building when you do not burn.

It ain't brave to get shot when you don't feel bullets. Superman, nothing stops you. Nothing. Kryptonite, please. I think he started that nonsense. I tried everything-- kryptonite raids, kryptonite missiles. Once, I had the fool locked in a kryptonite coffin. Oh, oh, it hurts, kryptonite, kryptonite.

Then he broke out and started tearing up my secret lab. He just never stops. Then-- then-- he's got the nerve to put on some glasses, and suddenly he's incognito, like I'm stupid. I even called him out at the club. What's up, Superman? How you doing, Superman?

Clark, steady looking all around all corny, like I must be talking to somebody else. Excuse me? What's going on here? Whatever, man. And no, this had nothing to do with Lois Lane. You want to know what this is about? You want to know what this beef is about? One thing, and one thing only. Jungle fever.

Superman had it, bad. Call me what you want to, but Clark Kent was up in [? Legends ?] nightclub seven nights a week, chasing the chocolate goodness. And I'm not hating. I understand. But one night, I'm ordering my Hennessy, turn around, and there he is, talking to Sheila, my Sheila.

And I'm like, oh, hell to the no. But I'm supposed to step to the Man of Steel? And on top of everything else, Superman's got that mind control. How else Sheila going to get up in front of everybody in the club and walk out with Clark Kent? Explain me that.

She was with me. She came there with me. So yeah, I stalked him. I followed him. I know him better than his mama, and I don't know him at all. He's weird. Like, he's reading the words that come out of his mouth.

For a while, I thought he was a robot. Because everybody breaks character sometimes. But not Superman. I trailed him with my special Seeing Everywhere Machine. He knew I was watching the whole time, and he didn't care. Why should he?

Do you know what Superman does in his apartment by himself? Huh? Nothing. Just sits there. Doesn't turn on the TV, doesn't eat cereal, doesn't watch porn. He does nothing but sit there and look stupid.

I had to take him out. I tried to take him out. I couldn't take him out. At first, if you don't succeed, try again, and again, and again. And every time, he's off flying me back to jail, steady making pronouncements about fighting evil. I am nobody's evil.

I just don't think we should be letting aliens from outer space roll up in here with our women. That's right, I said it, our women. Now, I'm evil? Please. My name is Darnell. And what I am is a student of the game. The rules clearly state when the big dog is up in your way, accept your place, son.

Or, or you go get you some more juice. I needed power, crazy power, power like the sun. I started looking in my brand new secret laboratory. Turns out there are dimensions between the dimensions, and dimensions between that. The deeper you dig, the stronger the force, the stronger the power.

All this technology, and in the end, I didn't just find power. I found God. And I put him in a gun. At least, I think it's God. Or maybe it's the devil. It's really simple, though. At the end of the universe, the end of time, the end of everything, it is going to ask you what matters.

No more waiting eons for your personal judgment day. My little shooter sends you there with a quickness. And you can't lie. You can't lie. God will have her answer.

So anyway, Superman was hovering in front of my chrome, real rocket ship. I went on ahead and fired my tractor beam. Useless. Superman ripped the hatch off my ship like it was wrapping paper. All right, all right, you got me. Stop tearing up my ride.

Your reign of terror has come to an end. The crowd cheered. Superman's gaze stayed fixed into the distance as he flew me off to prison. I even gave him a couple of minutes. Hey, Clark. He didn't turn his head, didn't look at me.

I was not worth the effort to him. Hey, Clark. I got a present for you. I shot God right between his eyes. It was instantaneous. I saw Superman at the end of the universe. Then came the question. Will you give your life to save this world?

Or will you live as a hero knowing the Earth is doomed? Tough one, Clark. Lay down your life like a new Jesus or keep up with this fake hero act. Superman bowed his head and answered instantly, softly, hero. Ah, finally, at long last, Super-duper-man was off script.

Then we're back in the sky, Superman still flying me off to jail. The air was warm, salty, delicious. I spoke in a little voice, because I know he's got that super hearing. Clark, Clark, I heard you, Clark. I heard you sell us out. Nothing. Nothing, no reaction at all.

Then he blinked. Just a blink, and everything changed. We sped towards the ground. I didn't scream, because I couldn't scream. I couldn't inhale. We landed, soft, like a swan kissing the water.

He released me. His eyes shone. His mouth hung open in shock. Then Superman shrieked. The air burned. He looked at me then.

Yeah, for the first time ever, he looked at me then. I spit in his face. It ran down his cheek in his eye. He shot up into the air, speeding toward the sun. See, life hurts.

We all have hard choices to make. I had my own decision in front of the light. But that, see, that's a whole other story.

Ira Glass

Glynn Washington. He challenges all bespeckled, seemingly mild-mannered nemeses as well I know in his job as host of the public radio show and podcast Snap Judgment, where this story first appeared. If you are not hearing or downloading Snap Judgment already each week, what is holding you back, my friends? They are on a roll. They're conquering worlds. They are getting so good. Find them on iTunes or at SnapJudgment.org.

[MUSIC - "SUPERMAN" BY SPOUSE]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Alex Blumberg and myself with Blue Chevigny, Jonathan Goldstein, and Starlee Kline. Our senior producer's Julie Snyder. Production help from Dana Chivvis, music help today from Mr. John Connors.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org, where you can listen to any of our old shows for free, and where you can find a cartoon by Chris Ware, who we interviewed at the beginning of the program. This cartoon about superheroes and their power over us is just beautiful, actually. Chris, by the way, is the author most recently of a book that's like the whole world in one book. It's called Building Stories.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Torey Malatia, who told me back when he first hired me--

Subject A

You have the ability to walk around work, perhaps, show up at one point, and perhaps 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.

[MUSIC - "SUPERMAN" BY SPOUSE]

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.