This American Life

Each week we choose a theme. Then anything can happen. This American Life is true stories that unfold like little movies for radio. Personal stories with funny moments, big feelings, and surprising plot twists. Newsy stories that try to capture what it’s like to be alive right now. It’s the most popular weekly podcast in the world, and winner of the first ever Pulitzer Prize for a radio show or podcast. Hosted by Ira Glass and produced in collaboration with WBEZ Chicago.

508: Superpowers

508: Superpowers

Sun, 21 May 2023 18:00

We answer the following questions about superpowers: Can superheroes be real people? (No.) Can real people become superheroes? (Maybe.) And which is better: flight or invisibility? (Depends who you ask.)

  • Host Ira Glass talks to comic artist Chris Ware, who thought about superheroes a lot of the time as a kid. He invented his own character and made a superhero costume, which he wore to school under his regular clothes. Which went fine until he realized he would have to change for gym class. (6 minutes)
  • Act One: John Hodgman conducts an informal survey in which he asks the age-old question: Which is better: The power of flight or the power of invisibility? (14 minutes)
  • Act Two: Kelly McEvers with the story of Zora, a self-made superhero. From the time she was five years old, Zora had recurring dreams in which she was a 6'5" warrior queen, who could fly and shoot lightning from her hands. She made a list, pages and pages long, of all the things she could accomplish to actually become that superhero: martial arts, evasive driving, bomb defusing. By the time she was 30, most of her list had been checked off. She was as close to a superhero as any mortal could hope to come. But her dream had changed. (17 minutes)
  • Act Three: Ira talks with Jonathan Morris, the amazingly funny and charming editor of the website "Gone and Forgotten," an internet archive of failed comic book characters. Jonathan explains what makes a new superhero succeed, and what makes him tank. (9 minutes)
  • Act Four: Of course you can’t be a superhero without a supervillain trying to destroy you. And the most interesting supervillains, of course, are the ones who think that they're the real heroes, not the guys in the capes. Glynn Washington tells the story of Evil D. (9 minutes)

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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. I mean, on question and play, I was by far the most low-thmember of my class, I think, you know, being a pasty, unethical kid who was weird looking and probably seemed overly eager. So, you know, and I had friends that would come over on the weekends, you know, to play, but then at school, they would ignore me and pretend like they didn't know me. And so when it was little, Chris Ware, the guy who was just hearing, spent a lot of time thinking about superpowers. He drew superheroes over and over trying to get them right. He always wanted to wear somebody to find a radioactive animal, like the one the bit Peter Parker turned them into the amazing spider-man. And a couple times, Chris thought that he might be developing his own superpowers. Real worth. 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, you know. 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, well, 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 I was, 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 developed the ability to withstand extraordinary heat. And of course, we just ran out of hot water, but at that time I didn't know that that happened. I thought hot water was an endless commodity. Even it did its 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 that he could wear himself, red tee shirt with a black circle with an H on it, and a mask that his mom made for him, and a yellow cape. You know, some kids really go for a cape. 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 have gym class, you know, so you have to change your clothes. I don't know what I was thinking. There was one time I actually, this is sort of a peripherally superhero, but I had actually drawn circuit boards on pieces of paper like the Bionic Man, the Six-Main Dollar Man, and I 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! Some of us, we spent a long, long time hoping that we're more than with the world thinks of us. And so, of course, we're drawn to these stories. These myel banner guys who, underneath their clothes, were a costume and secret, with powers nobody suspects. And when we get older, it all seems ridiculous, of course. It seems really, really dumb. It's embarrassing. Chris Ware, though, went on to draw cartoons for his living. But the cartoons that he draws are like novels, the graphic novels, about real people. Any time a Superman type shows up in one of his cartoons, he's always trying to find kids, but the costume and a cape. He's always a disappointment. It's just more interesting that way. I think he's more like a real dad that way. The more I draw on the fatter he gets to, 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? What a day on a radio program, superpowers, four real-life stories about how easy it is to be caught up in the dream of them. The program today is a rerun from WB Easy Chicago. It's this American life. I'm Ira Glass. As the super villain say, silence miscreant, our program has begun. Equine, invisible man versus hawk man. So 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-rush-hawk test. John Hodgman has been conducting an unscientific survey, posing for people, a very simple choice. 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 them 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 passion at 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 flashier, heroic. In fact, they almost never were. 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, and fly right back. Don't think I'd fly to Atlantic City. 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 there's going to be just like, oh yeah, I just slept with the flying dude. The baby is like, oh, score. I go into Barney's. I pick out the Kashmir sweaters that I like. I 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 into the dressing room. I turn invisible. I walk out, leaving her to wonder why there's a tag hanging from the door that says five and no person inside. So you would become a thief pretty quickly? Immediately. Until I had all the sweaters that I wanted, and then I would have to think of other things to do. 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. 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, would be very dangerous. If you had to rescue somebody from a burning building or something like that, you might, you know, catch on fire. Just having flight. I don't think it's necessarily quite enough, because you don't have the super strength. I'd still be weak when I got there, I guess. I don't fight crime now, and people without superpowers do. So, short and theory, yes, but, you know, I'm not a... I mean, what can I do with this? I mean, either one of those, you see, you need a whole package. There's not much you can do with any one thing. I'd go to Paris, I suppose. That's not being super hero. Well, they may, you know, I could be going to Paris, man. That's sort of a super hero. Going to Paris, man, is not a super hero. 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. The first thing that occurs to me is, I think I would sneak up behind them very low and within knife that they didn't see and slice their Achilles tendon. Oh, no. I somehow shove a sock in their mouth or something like that so they can't, and rub some tape around their mouth so 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 hand. I have to keep a bag full of stuff with me. Knives. Socks. Tape. Do you think you would be tempted to enlist a teenage helper? No, I think a helper would be good at helping with a complimentary power. There's no others. Anybody else are superpowers. Oh, it would just be a teenager hanging around me? No. 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. Now, when you're flying, if you're flying at a thousand 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. And do I have to be completely quiet, or you guys will like hear my footsteps? Yes. Because that's a pain in the ass. And also someone has to let you in. Can I carry somebody on my back? Can you carry someone on your back now? Little people, little people, yeah. Then you can carry little people on your back. Done. Flight it is. 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 day, a tallish man with glasses wedged into a cramped bar room corner begins as they all do. With stage one, gut reaction. Initially I would think perhaps invisibility. Next comes stage two, practical consideration. 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. And you hear that doubt in his voice? That's the beginning of stage three, philosophical reconsideration. I believe it would immediately turn into a life of complete depression. You wouldn't be able to really share with anyone, because you know, and I know there would be some problems with the perversion thing. Stage four, self-rerimination. Invisibility leads you, these 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 just like a lifetime of that, and that's not acceptable behavior. No matter whether you're invisible or not. And finally, stage five, acceptance. Yeah, it has to go with flight. So who chooses invisibility and who chooses flight? In my experience, though there are lots of exceptions, men lean 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 shows invisibility. One super power is about something that's obvious and the other is about something that is hidden. I think it indicates your level of shame. How do you mean? A person who chooses to fly has nothing to hide. A person who chooses to be invisible wants clearly to hide themselves. Do you feel that you want to hide yourself? I want to... I'd like to not... I'm not going to answer that question. You know, all this has to do with guile. I'm wanting to be invisible means that you're a more guile, full 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. Flight is the hero, selfless and confident and unashamed, and invisibility the villain. Almost everyone I talk to called invisibility the sneakier power. Flying is for people who want to let it all hang out. Invisibility is for fearful, crouching master bettors. 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. Anyone faced with this choice in their heart of hearts will choose invisibility. Yes, or they have this sort of inflated, heroic, mythical concept of themselves. And in fact, they're not really giving it very much practical thought. 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? John Hodgman is the author of many fine books and the host of the Judge John Hodgman podcast. You can hear it on or wherever you get your podcasts. John Hodgman, Jimony, Hot Diggity, Hot Ziggity Z. Holy Popcorn, Golly Wow, I gotta get that man for me. Great Scott! Why not? He can do more than anyone can. I gotta get that man for me. Heck too. Wonder Woman. Okay, what are the ways to create a superhero? Gamma rays, space alien abduction, prison experiment, or NASA flight gone awry. Is this the idea of a list? Is it possible that a to-do list is powerful enough to achieve this incredible result? Killamie Gevers met somebody who tried. We met in a bar in Flagstaff, Arizona. I 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 streak tear 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 unlap dances from buff guys with names like Roman. Her get up is the same as before. Peas, hair, jewelry, and 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. 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 face 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 as medieval, sometimes as futuristic, sometimes as like a guerrilla war in Latin America. Can you describe that Zora to me, the Zora in Dreams? Very powerful, athletically. But beyond the rules of nature that this world allows. So six foot five and almost impossibly long silver hair. This sort of other world's equality to her, where her voice, sound did not sound normally. It sounded like almost musical. It became something that I aspire to be. Aspire 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 ten or eleven, I decided that that was my goal. Zora took the dream seriously. So seriously that at the age of twelve, she sat down and composed a list of some thirty 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 twenty-three. Zora pulls out the old spiral notebook that was her diary at the age of thirteen and turns to the inside back cover. Yeah, there's a list. Wow. Once you go ahead and read it. Okay, the list included martial arts, electronics, chemistry, metaphysics, hang gliding, helicopter and airplane flying, parachuting, mountain climbing, survival. Throughout her teens and twenties, each time she started any 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, weaponry, rafting, scuba diving, herbology. Yes, I studied that. CPR for Satan, mountain, emergency kind of medicine. The list also includes bodybuilding, archery, demolitions and explosives. She wanted to learn how to hunt animals and track men. And the most incredible thing about all of this is that Zora accomplished nearly every item on the list. Throwing stars and compound bows and throwing knives, and yes, it was a very interesting pastime. 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 a summer term and finished high school by the time she was fifteen. She got her BA at eighteen, a master's at twenty, and completed the coursework for a PhD in geopolitics by the time she was twenty-one. She wanted to live like Indiana Jones, spending half her time in the classroom, and half her time saving the world and the jungles of Peru. Item number four, camel elephant riding, evasive driving and stunts. 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. After that, then they sent investigators out to interview me, interview my neighbors, interview ex-boyfriends, interview friends, ex-friends, former colleagues, people I 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 the street children in the street, they see their dog get killed, and they get upset, and they rushed 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 certain way, either by giving them money more likely, but that was an acceptable 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. Do you tell them about your dreams? 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 and preparation for the next phase, which would be to actually put it into practice. 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. Probably it took me more like two years to recover. I was a basket case. I wasn't, I wasn't, 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. 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. I had violated the agreement of the list, violated the agreement of that I made with myself, that I had not become what that 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. 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. Child abduction, retrieval, custody, reverse stings, occult and ritualistic crimes, those tend to be really interesting. I like working on those anti-terrorism, kidnapped protection and return, counterintelligence. 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. 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. What did you wear when you went to the... No, I wore like a little ladybitty skirt and a little tank top. I made it seem like I had plenty of money, and that interested him, that 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 he... I found him to be pretty emotionally open and 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. 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 Princesa, 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. I need to learn how to play tennis and golf, and my new list is Wincerfing, 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 Billy Holiday. 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. Kelly McGevers, she's the host of NPR's Embedded Podcast. It's been a while since we first broadcast this story, and Zora is currently doing a kind of superhero work. She's with the United Nations Humanitarian Organization that's deployed to conduct investigations in conflict zones, refugee camps, and something called complex emergencies. It's delicate enough for her to sit in an email that she cannot name the countries publicly. Gold finger, he's a man, a man with a might as touch, a spider's touch. Such a cold finger, back in you to enter his web of sin. But don't go in. Golden words, he will pour in your ear, but his lies can't disguise what you feel. Noted Billy Holiday, imitator David Starris, coming up. Exactly what Superman knows, that Jigsaw Man does not. That's in a minute, there's a Gaga public radio, when our program continues. It's this American life on my red glass. Each week on a 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. Today's show is a rerun. I've derived it at 3. The green team of Superhero Boy Millionaires, the amazing Super Monkey from Planet Krypton, and the man from Shram. My friends, they come in waves. 100 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. He's 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, the 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 superstandards. I'm trying to find a very good one. I 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, waiting 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. He's flying into action. I don't even know why that is one of the most disturbing things I've ever heard. This company has 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 it was nothing like the famous plastic man. Which was always an embarrassment to him. He'd be ordering online. He gets his mail all the time. 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. There's even a point where he hears people yell plastic man on the street. And he's not, 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 presses with me. Press? The first teen president of the United States, a rather earnest young man named Press Rickard, becomes, 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 I was not a responsibility. I was aware of the president had. But apparently it's rather important. Now, what is his superpower? What kind of president does he make? Well, he kind of fits in that Doc Savage Batman mold, where he's mostly a very well-trained human. And thanks to his Indian companion, Eagle Freeze, menagerie of animals, he learns several animal skills, helping teach Press Rickard how to be fast as an antelope, swing like a monkey, fight like a bear, I guess. 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. Well, this one thing that Press proves, it's that there's nothing that the president couldn't solve with two fists in Indian companion and a small army of birds and elephants. If you were to explain to people the characteristics of a bad comic book superhero, 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 reader's throats. One of the characters was B-man. And everything about him was B's. His full name was Barry Eem's. He was attacked by mutant B's, which were sent to Earth by space alien B people. And he himself became a mutant B person who had B powers and lived in a hive and ate honey and stole gold because gold looked like honey and he could sting you. There is nothing be related to this man refused to do. You meet somebody at a bar, you start talking to him in your real life, he only has one interest in life. That's exactly what B-man was. Everything would have gotten back to B's. You start talking about what you watched on television last night, so you know I saw an interesting show in B's. Do certain comic superheroes come out of particular moments in the nation's history? Positively. That's another thing that really works against a character is when they're tied into tightly to a fad or tied in too tightly to something that is identifying an era. There's a character created in the 70's, but who was supposed to be retro character from the 50's, a name of 3D man, to help hook up on the 3D movies that were a craze in the 50's. Terrible, flat character, nothing going on. And when you say 3D man, what was his power? He had a magical pair of glasses and had the strength of 3 men. And that's it. He was the strongest three people. Fast just three people, whatever that means. Probably three times faster than a human being. They always describe it as something as so much as 3 men, but I don't see how he can be 3 times as he had the agility of 3 men. There's just 3 guys who are agile, doesn't make any sense. I have a little trouble with 3D man. Part of the problem with just naming off the superheroes are 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. Then where does the line come when they rise above that? Do you have a theory on this about what makes a good one and a bad one? 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 why I think why super strength, super speed, and vulnerability 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. Yeah, I don't even understand it. What does it mean, magnetic eyes of superpower? But 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 loop of forks. Jantan Mares, who brought a few of his 15,000 comics into the studio, has written a few books on weird superheroes, including the League of Regrettable Superheroes and the League of Regrettable Sidekicks. Back for villain enable. 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 Glenn Washington. Rule number one. Whatever it is you do, always look good doing it. See, now my Quantum Drive, the Lippian Corps, the mentioned 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 bought it. Check the tape. I sat there for 45 minutes. Big sack full of jewels in my lap for I finally pulled to your line my damn self. That's from the fun stuff. I hopped in my rocket ship and told 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, so brave. It is not brave to go in the burning building when you do not burn. It ain't brave to get shot when you don't feel bullets. Superman, nothing stops him. Nothing. Yeah, a kryptonite, please. I think he started that nonsense. I tried everything. kryptonite rays, kryptonite missiles. Once, I had the full lock in a kryptonite coffin. Oh, oh, it hurts. kryptonite, kryptonite. Then he broke out and started tearing up my secret lamp. He just never stops. Ben, Ben. He's got the nerve to put on some glasses. And then he's incognito, like I'm stupid. I even call him out of the club. What's up, Superman? How you doing, Superman? Clark, steady, looking all around our corny. Like I must be talking to somebody else. Excuse me? What's going on here? What? Ever, man. And no, this had nothing to do with lowest lane. You wanna know this is about? You wanna 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. So one night, I'm pouring in my hand and see. Turn around and there he is. Talking to Sheila. My Sheila. And I'm like, oh hell to the know. 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 gonna 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 them. I followed them. I know I'm 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'm trailing with my special scene everywhere machine. He knew I was watching the whole time and he didn't care. Why should he? Do you know what Superman does? And his apartment by himself? Tell me, do you? 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 all 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 why I said it, our women. Now, I'm evil, please. My name is Darnell. And what I am is the student of the game. The rules clearly state when the big dog is up in your way. Except the place, son. Or, or you go get you some more juice. I need it power, crazy power, power like the sun. I started looking and 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 in the end, I just can just find power. I found God. And I put him in a gun. At least, I think this guy, 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, since you're 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 the head and fired by tractor being useless. Superman ripped the hatch off my ship like it was wrapping paper. I, I, you got him. Stop 10 at my ride. Your reign of terror has come to an end. The crowd sheer. Superman's days stayed fixed into the distance as he flew me off to prison. I even gave him a couple 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've got a present for you. I shot God right between his eyes. It was instantaneous. I saw Superman at the end of a 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. Hero. Ha. Finally, at long last, Superman was off-skrimmed. Then we were 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 superhearing. Clark. Clark, I heard you, Clark. I heard you set us out. Nothing. 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 shown. His mouth hung open and shocked. Then Superman shrieked. The air burned. Yeah. 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 and his eye. He shot up into the air, speeding toward the sun. See. Life hurts. We all have hard choices to make. I have my own decision in front of the light. But that. See, that's a whole other story. He's got a good job. Glenn Washington, he challenges off his speckled, seemingly mild, mannered nemesis, as well I know. In his job as host of the public radio show and podcast, Snap Judgment, where this story first appeared. He just launched a new show that's the evil twin of Snap Judgment. However, you get your podcast. I'm a boy walking through the woods. See the castle, too. Clubs of towering, he saves land. All back, quarter to two. Our past is any sight of being king. This is only moon and the stars to you sing. He can fly at you most anything. It's a superhuman thing. Well, I'm Braco Miss British today by Alex Bloomberg and myself with Blue Shevon H. Jonathan Goldstein and Starly Kine. Our senior producer for today's show, Julie Snyder. Production out on today's rerun from Eleanor Staffa. Music out from Mr. John Conner's, or technical director's Mr. Matt Tierney. Mixing out from Jared Ford, Catherine Raymondo and Stone Nelson. Special thanks today to James Hulk, R.A. Andrews, Seth Fisher, Adam Warren, Jason Bennett, Ivan Brunetti, Axel Lonso, spouse, the band, Jason Cadal and Seth Midens. Our website, And where you can find a cartoon by Chris Wehrer, who we interviewed at the beginning of our program. Cartoon about superheroes and their power over us, which is beautiful actually. Chris's most recent graphic novel is Rusty Brown Part One. A retrospective of his work opens at the Basil Cartoon Museum this summer. This American Life is distributed by PRX, the public radio exchange. Next, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Toy Manitia. He told me, back when he first hired me. 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. I'm Eric Glass. Back next week, with the more stories of this American Life. Next week on the podcast of this American Life. It's been five years since me, too, really kicked in gear. We've seen famous, powerful man brought down. But we haven't heard much about what the aftermath has been like for the women who came forward. Like jewels. Going public has impacted my girls in a lot of ways. One of them said, Mommy, why do you have to be a survivor? And that just broke my heart. Next week on the podcast, on your local bubble radio station.