Thursday, May 26, 2011

A thing or two about comics

I have been an avid reader of comics for thirteen years now, especially ones involving capes and tights. I study comics at the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies. I co-taught a college course with a fellow student on comics in the spring semester of 2010 entitled Seduction of the Innocent to sixteen other students. I pride myself on my knowledge and understanding of the ninth art and particularly the superhero genre. I have a pretty impressive comic collection including but not limited to: a few golden age green lanterns signed by Martin Nodell, the first appearance of Hal Jordan, multiple pages of original comic art, and an entire wall full of trade paperbacks, graphic albums, and anthologies. I express my hubris to showcase my complete and total ignorance about what it means to be heroic, and how little I have actually learned from the superheroes that I claim to adore. His Holiness gave me a better understanding of heroism in one conversation on consumerism and greed than my thirteen years of devout readership of all the superheroes that I have been worshipping my whole life.

I was sitting in his Holiness’ library, fervently taking notes, surrounded by my peers and numerous books that I cannot read. His Holiness was addressing that we need to bring about change on an individual level. “Relying on the government is difficult because who has the foresight to see what is good for a country and its people. Big corporations have their own agendas. We cannot put it on others because we are the consumers.” That made sense to me because I am terrified of organizations that are too large for me to perceive. Some might say that I am paranoid, but I quote Spider Jerusalem and say, “Paranoia is just possession of all the facts.”

His Holiness continued, “Everyone is responsible and at fault because the world has become a small family. Damaging any part of the world, or anyone in it will come back cyclically. We need to change behaviors on an individual level. We need to honor the enormous amount of responsibility and the great amount of work that needs to be undertaken.” That seemed reasonable enough to me, His Holiness’ generation, of which I am part, is going to face tremendous adversity dealing with the many global issues that we will face in our lifetime.

Then he said, and I will never forget it: “We are the protectors, each and every one of us,” which is when my ears perked up; I put my pencil down, and began to really listen.

He continued his lecture explaining that it takes noble aspiration to be a hero and noble resolve to manifest noble conduct. Responsibility is a heroic endeavor. Uncle Ben’s words rang out in my mind. Noble conduct means being pioneers in steering towards new directions, and the first step required to do so is education. Batman’s lifetime of training second only to his compassionate will to never take a life shined out like the Bat-signal.

I was forced to acknowledge that I have been reading superhero comics for all the wrong reasons. I ignored the moral responsibility that these characters uphold because I have been blinded by the power that frequently overshadows the responsibility. I felt like Lex Luthor - green with jealousy or orange for avarice - looking to covet whatever he cannot possess. I did not dream of protecting the weak and saving the day, but dreamt of what it would be like to fly, throw cars, melt stuff, and teleport. What it would be like to be loved by all, to have to answer to no one, and to have a super computer and a butler to do all of the stuff I don’t want to do. I fantasized about escaping this reality, where I frequently feel so impotent, to live in one where I could do anything.

You see - I always kind of assumed that I would get superpowers at some point. I think a lot of permanent adolescents like myself do, at least that is my justification. I had done the homework – years of backbreaking research into the most suitable powers, how to construct a foolproof secret identity, and where the best possible secret lair would be. I have been anxiously looking for an arch nemesis more than I have been looking for true love. I have explored alien abductions, gamma radiation, and cosmic rays. I have spent years avoiding my Earthly responsibilities thinking about the day when I finally get my long deserved superpowers, sliding into some spandex made of unstable molecules (it breathes well, and I have sensitive skin), and saving the day.

It never occurred to me that I haven’t gotten superpowers because I haven’t tried saving the day without them. I had fallen into the fickle and deceptive display of phenomenon all around me. Surrendered to it because of gullibility. I had accepted the system as it is, swallowed the red pill, and have been waking up, wrapped in a cozy blanket of ignorance every morning since then.

I do not need superpowers to do the right thing. I never did. I do not need to be bitten by a radioactive arachnid, or have billions of dollars to do what is right. I do not need super speed, a magic ring or hammer, or adamantium claws. I do not need to be the ruler of a kingdom, made of stone, or be able to read people’s minds. What I need is to follow the example of the characters I know and love, and do what is right, especially when it is difficult. It is kind of a tough pill to swallow, but it feels fantastic, even spectacular or amazing, to feel awake and alive for the very first time.

I bring this up because I have always wanted to work with comics and education. I just never knew how to do it, but now I think I am starting to. The powers and abilities, beautiful covers, and complex continuities are what drew me into comics. What kept me reading, though, and will keep me reading, is the way these characters turn their struggle into heroism through perseverance. The way they continue to show compassion to everyone and never give up.

I may never have realized that had I not had the opportunity to listen His Holiness’ insightful words. I am forever indebted to him for showing me what has been right in front of my face for years: that power comes from within. I have always been ready; I was just looking in all of the wrong places.


Brendan Mead.


  1. Brendan, thank you for this article. I loved it! I'm hoping some more of the students who studied with HHK will write about their experiences. You are all so fortunate! Makes me wish I was back in college!

  2. Hi Brendan, Please do keep us posted on the future works that you intend to produce on 'comics and education'. I'm a Buddhist practitioner myself and am always on the look out for age-appropriate materials to guide kids and teens to love themselves and all others and to empower them to be the agent of change in this world. I've been looking through Comic books as one of the potential resources to draw from, but had no luck in finding the meaningful kind, so i hope your work being inspired by HH Karmapa's compassion and wisdom might be just what i need. If you have any good recommendations on current comics which i might have missed during my search that could be helpful, or just to reply to my post, here is my email address: (would love to hear from you! BTW, I'm a postgraduate student from Australia)