Caped Crusaders

My five-year-old son has three black and one blue Batman outfits, which he wears everywhere—including our periodic visits to Gotham, where the security guard at LaGuardia whispered into his walkie-talkie, "Batman is in the building" without a trace of irony. Cole has Batman toys that he has classified by their color and accessories, from Batcopter to Batcave to Batpod At preschool, he has recruited all the other boys to play a complex version of Batman that includes Robin, the Joker, the Riddler and various other characters from the comic book character that originally appeared decades before his birth.

I long ago concluded that peeling off my son's Batman t-shirt before school is a losing battle, but I am left pondering where the obsession came from and what it means about manhood when otherwise gruff-looking garbagemen hanging off the back of a truck see my boy and shout "Batman!" at the top of their lungs. Maybe my son has seen that the superpower isn't about rope and masks at all, but the mythology of the Batman himself.

But the more I thought about it, the more Batman came to symbolize a much bigger problem than outsmarting Mr. Freeze. As guys we have a ton of real-world challenges, from work to war to intimacy and fathering. Batman doesn't help with any of that. He's a dodge from reality.

As men (and women, I might add), we hold up the myth of the superhero as the ideal man. He doesn't talk—he just whips out his batarang to deal with his problems. One of the enduring issues we face, with warning signs everywhere from athletes to investment bankers, is to put flesh and bones on the male form.

I do not have superpowers and neither does my five-year-old. I like to think I am a decent guy, but I have made serious mistakes in my life. I read books, talk to other guys and spend a lot of time trying to sort out what is right. Most of the men I know are like me. They live complex, nuanced lives that can't be reduced to the ultimate good and evil of the Batman vocabulary.

The societal alternative for guys—at least when it comes to Madison Avenue and popular culture—is to be a moron. Think Bud Light commercials or Two and a Half Men. Maybe we get a bit more depth but no less silence and duplicity with Don Draper. Of all the great male athletes doing the right thing in this world, what gets 99 percent of the ink? The guys whose lives have turned upside down by making horrible mistakes. It’s comfortable, because it fits the concept that polar extremes are part and parcel of the male condition—something both women and men have somehow talked themselves into believing.

But I am neither idiotic nor mythic. I am human. So are the guys I have sought out to get beneath the myth to find the reality of manliness in America.

I have been in regular contact with Michael Kamber, the NewYorkTimes photojournalist on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. I've spent time with 14 guys locked up for life inside Sing Sing. I've watched scores of guys I know try to turn their sudden unemployment into a chance to start over. I've hung out on playgrounds with stay-at-home dads and interviewed teenage boys with no fathers about to become dads themselves. I've had lunch with a friend who is the number two at what used to be Merrill Lynch, and edited the story of a member of the 82nd Airborne who survived the Gulf War but had to bear watching his toddler die in his arms from a rare birth defect.

None of these guys have superhuman powers. But they all told me the story of their lives, man-to-man, with unflinching honesty. And here's the thing: In so doing, each one of them became heroes to me in their own unique way.

My five-year-old son isn't old enough to graduate from Batman, but my 14-year-old son Seamus is. He knows about Michael Kamber and former Sing Sing inmate Julio Medina. And he knows that truth isn't stranger than fiction. When it comes to manhood, truth is way more powerful than any comic book character. He knows that because I have told him about these men. Just like my father told me about men who fought in Vietnam, who went to Mississippi in the name of Civil Rights, men lived lives of heroism not because of their celebrity but because of their courage.

I wonder if that garbage man shouting from his truck as it rumbled down 5th Avenue saw something in Cole’s batman uniform that reminded him not of superpowers but his own human power, of the fact that all of us guys have a story to tell and we all can be heroes even if we will never be the caped crusader.

©2011, Tom Matlack

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While all complain of our ignorance and error,
everyone exempts himself. - John Glanville

Tom Matlack, "I am a sucker for real-life heroes, particularly the ones that get overlooked. My profile work grew from my first published piece, THE RACE, which describes my own life altering experience in an athletic event barely worthy of the local paper. Coaches and athletes in the sport of rowing were my initial focus before expanding to mainstream sports like professional basketball. Music, film, and television have proven fertile ground for heroic journeys of a different, but related, kind. Finally, I have continued to write bits and pieces of my own story in an attempt to inspire and enlighten."

Thomas Matlack was Chief Financial Officer of The Providence Journal until 1997. He was the lead investor in Art Technology Group, which reached $5 billion in market capitalization in 2001. He founded and ran his own venture firm, started companies like American Profile (sold to Disney for $260 million) and Telephia (sold to Neilson for $560 million), before turning to writing. His work has appeared in Rowing News, Boston Common, Boston Magazine, Boston Globe Magazine and Newspaper, Wesleyan, Yale, Tango, and Pop Matters.

In 2008, Matlack founded, with his venture capital partner James Houghton. He has appeared on national and local television and radio as well as print across the country. The fall of 2009, Matlack led a non-conventional book tour for The Good Men Project that started inside Sing Sing and ended in Hollywood with a screening of THE GOOD MEN PROJECT documentary film followed by a panel discussion including Matt Weiner and Shepard Fairey.

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