How Superman Taught Me Story Structure

When I was six or so, I wrapped a small blanket around my shoulders and jumped off the top step at the front of our house. I fully expected to fly like my hero, Superman. He wore a cape, after all, and he could fly so why shouldn’t I?  That was the logic behind my courageous leap.

Of course, I didn’t fly.  Gravity took over. I crash landed and rammed my knee into my jaw, which in turn shoved my teeth into my tongue. I was a bloody mess.   

It was a harsh lesson in the fine distinction between fiction and non-fiction.  Since I can recall the painful details of the experience many decades later, it was a lesson I never forgot.

Superman was the first of my super heroes.  Others would follow, but like first loves, he would always be special.  Not even Batman, Spider man, the Hulk or others in the superhero realm could knock him off his lofty perch. Although each of them fascinated me for a while, it was faster-than-a-speeding bullet, leap-over-tall buildings Superman I returned to time and again. 

When I was a kid, Superman was alive and well on the weekly episodes I watched on our grainy black-and-white TV.  But mostly, he was alive and well in the comic books I relished. At 6, I could hardly read, yet but there was enough action on the pages to keep me occupied.  Even without dialogue, I could make out much of the story. The plot unfolded panel by panel across the colorful pages.

From Superman comics, I learned about story structure – first an opening to set the stage, then rising action that led to a climax and resolution.  I didn’t know the technical terms then, but I understood the concept of beginning, middle and end.

pramit_marattha / Pixabay

From Superman comics, I learned about protagonists and antagonists, and how important it was to have struggle and conflict in a story.  When Superman clashed with a villain like Lex Luthor, I turned pages faster. Complications keep the story moving, and for every hero there must be a villain – or at least, a counterpoint.

From Superman comics, I learned about good and evil. I learned about unrequited love. I learned that worlds exist beyond ours, and the possibilities for adventure are endless. And when Superman turned to mush in the presence of kryptonite, I learned that even the strongest and bravest among us have flaws.

Above all, I learned that capes alone do not a superhero make.

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