By Douglas E. Cowan, author of Magic, Monsters, and Make-Believe Heroes: How Myth and Religion Shape Fantasy Culture
Growing up, my parents often accused me of living more in my imagination than in the real world. And I’m not sure they were wrong. My nose always stuck in a book, my head in the clouds, as it were, I fought monsters, cast magic spells, flew spaceships, and saved the day in every story. Well, almost every story. Take, for example, my first attempt at being a superhero. It was, I imagine, like many others: short-lived. I was about five years old, and my growing comic book collection had convinced me that I understood exactly how Superman could fly. I knew that it wasn’t a feat of strength. Sure, in the early 1960s, Superman was lean and toned, but at that time he lacked the hyperbolic, indeed comic musculature that came to mark so many other entries into the superhero genre. (Yes, I’m talking about you, Batfleck.) And, even then I knew it wasn’t what would be described decades later as “the energy storage capacity of Kryptonian skin cells.” I’m with Leonard Hofstadter on that one. I mean, really, are you even listening to yourself? No, it wasn’t Earth’s lower gravity compared to Krypton, or its yellow sun, or any of the other theories that have been proposed to account for this extraordinary ability.
It was his cape.
At that age, I wasn’t about to let the fact that other superheroes had capes, but didn’t fly, spoil my fun. I didn’t think that the color made a difference, but fortunately I had a red beach towel, so it was a moot point. There was a large rock in our front yard that, though not as tall as a building, would do for a proof-of-concept test. It was just slightly bigger than me, and initial attempts to leap it had been unsuccessful. Satisfied with my plan, I tied my red beach towel around my neck, scrambled up the rock, and looked down from what appeared to my five-year-old self its towering height. Preparing for flight, already imagining myself soaring through the air, I repeated the mantra that introduced the Man of Steel every week on Adventures of Superman: “It’s a bird . . . It’s a plane . . . It’s Super—”
“Douglas Edward Cowan, you get down from there RIGHT NOW!”
My wings may have been clipped that day, my cape confiscated, but I can’t imagine my life, then or since, without stories of people who do fly, or who command dragons and fight monsters, or who pilot spaceships, or who do any of the innumerable things our mythic imagination sets before them. I still remember, just barely into my teens, reading John Norman’s sword-and-sorcery science fantasy Assassin of Gor (1970), and weeping as the heroic racing tarn, Green Ubar, died in the arms of his rider, the mysterious Melipolus of Cos. At university years later, when I should have been studying for tests or writing papers, I went night after night to the Odeon Twin, and watched Star Wars again and again. To this day, when the Imperial star destroyer first drops into the frame, accompanied by John Williams’ magnificent score, the same thrill I felt so many years ago runs up my spine, and I just . . . smile. Stories have always been a part of my life. Indeed, as Stephen King says in On Writing, “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” In many ways, my book, Magic, Monsters, and Make-Believe Heroes, is something of a love letter to the stories with which I grew up—or, if you prefer, on which I was raised—the stories that were, and continue to be, a significant part of my life support system.