Caped Crusaders Championed in Superman on Earth: Reflections of a Fan
- Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Perhaps the Apostle Paul, who writes about putting childish things behind him, would frown upon a grown man's infatuation with a superhero. But then again, the evangelist who became all things to all men might have seen the merit in bonding over comic books.
At least pastor and newly-minted author Gary Robinson thinks so. Robinson, who grew up infatuated with Superman, and remains intrigued with the superhero genre even into his fifties, has written a book on his life and times with this uniquely American aspect of pop culture. Titled Superman on Earth: Reflections of a Fan, Robinson's self-published memoir conveys an often amusing and disarmingly poignant story of a preacher who saw an opportunity to take a childhood fantasy and create an evangelism tool out of it.
Obviously, this isn't the stuff of conventional Christian literature, but neither is it just another aging baby boomer trying to meld fad with faith. Indeed, considering the recent resurgence of comic book popularity in North America, Robinson's story just might be more relevant than the PlayStation crowd realizes.
Not that Robinson minds being labeled a superhero geek. Part of authoring a tale involves realizing how different audiences might perceive it. To that end, he sprinkles his story with just enough industry insider folklore to establish his street cred, and just enough self-deprecation to show his readers he's still connected with the real world.
A real world in desperate need of the real Super Man, in whom Robinson's faith ultimately rests.
Growing up in Ohio and Kentucky, Robinson's family referred to comic books as "funnybooks." But whatever you call them, he's proud to point out that the Superman franchise actually created the genre. Sure, Robinson loves the movies and was weaned on the classic Superman TV show, but he keeps "coming back to comics" for their appeal to his imagination. It's like die-hard book lovers who'll settle for Kindles and Nooks when wedged into an airplane seat, but who break out the real thing when ensconced in an upholstered chair by a winter's fire. Superhero fans might concede their comic books aren't in the same league with Shakespearean literature, but they won't be denied the tactile pleasures of page after page of hand-rendered storytelling.
Not that Superman has been Robinson's singular fantasy icon. He has collaborated on scripts for Jonni Star, a superhero figure created by his friend John Pierce. Also, a self-avowed patriot, Robinson sings the praises of Captain America.
"I mean, you can drape the flag over anything and it'll look good," Robinson exclaims.
Mild-Mannered Preacher or Superhero Wonk?
Of course, the two worlds of superhero/sci-fi and church rarely share the same space in modern North American culture. However, that dichotomy between superhero geek and evangelical pastor isn't lost on Robinson. He's aware that from behind the pulpit, Superman doesn't always fly.
"I've got to be careful; I realize that. I divide people with regard to their reaction to Superman into two groups: the amused and the exasperated."
Not that he keeps his alter ego completely under wraps.
"Phillips Brooks said, ‘Preaching is truth through personality,'" laughs Robinson. "And unfortunately… I've run with that all these years, and allowed my personality, including this part of it, to be on display! All I can really say, and it's not even a defense, is that I haven't done it all that often. I say in the book that Superman is pretty strong, and a little bit of him goes a long way."
Despite his peculiarity, Robinson says only one church he's pastored has ever taken issue with his hobby. And even at that church, after he was allowed to have his say, Robinson's ministry actually flourished among the congregation for the rest of his tenure.
Not in It for the Money
Although the superhero genre doesn't enjoy the widespread acclaim it did a generation ago, its popularity appears to be on the upswing among a new breed of fantasy fans. Superhero/sci-fi conventions draw sizeable crowds across the country, and the market for vintage comic books and related memorabilia remains strong, despite its evolution from mainstream to niche in the pop-culture world.
If the sign of true fans is ambivalence toward their pastime's fiduciary strengths, then Robinson easily qualifies.
"I don't have half of the comics collection I used to," he admits, dismissing the idea that he's in it for the money rare comics command. "Basically, the ones I've kept are the ones I've thought I would re-read, and that's been their primary value."
Along with two fellow Christian superhero fans, Robinson has also hosted a chapel service at a superhero/sci-fi convention, where an evangelical presence is limited at best, and at worst, can be overshadowed by vulgar attractions such as porn stars.
"It was difficult," recalls Robinson of the service. "You're essentially dealing with a lot of people who don't normally go to church. ... However, you do find Christians at these things—dealers, artists, writers—who do appreciate having it available to them."
Robinson plans on attending another convention this fall in Columbus, Ohio, to gauge interest in possibly reprising the chapel idea at these events.
Indeed, the opportunities for evangelism appear wide-open among today's new breed of superhero fans, many of whom are both deeply intelligent and deeply skeptical of mainstream Christianity. Like some of the church members Robinson has encountered in his career who hold wide-ranging misperceptions of the superhero genre, many comic book fans have grave misgivings about conventional churchgoers.
Yet the superheroes these fans worship can't save them.
Robinson makes no apologies for his love of superheroes in general, and Superman in particular. He's still a loyal customer at his local comic book shop, takes pride in his children's shared infatuation with Superman, and is preserving some of his collection for his grandchildren.
Yet he knows that whatever legitimacy a mid-50s Superman groupie can claim only wears thinner as the years go by. When appearing at his church's VBS a few years ago in full costume, Robinson winced when he heard a little girl ask a teacher why Superman had gray hair! Indeed, nothing deflates fantasy better than reality, especially when a hobby like superheroes depends so much on youth. Not that his affection for the Caped Crusader has waned, but Robinson admits that it has matured a bit.
Which may leave the ol' telephone booth open for another mild-mannered person to reveal the superhero within.
After all, it was Clark Kent who was in disguise … not Superman.
For more information about Gary Robinson and his memoir, Superman on Earth: Reflections of a Fan, please visit here.
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