Before there were instruction manuals, self-help books, and televangelists, there was mythology. Expansive stories of fantastical feats passed down through generations, these parables were meant both to entertain and to expound wisdom. Whether one’s holy scripture is the Bible, Irish folk music, or the primetime programming block of Shonda Rhimes, the stories expressed therein capture our imaginations and linger with us, guiding our decisions and actions as we go on with our lives.
One need look no further than the box office to see that the most popular form of mythology today is the superhero. Why is that? Sure, it’s fun to watch Batman and Superman punch one another, but there must be more than superpowered violence that has kept audiences glued to these costumed adventures for the past 70 years. Underneath the flash and gusto, these stories connect with us on a deeper level. They help us touch upon something within ourselves, something we might not otherwise be able to find.
This much is evidenced in Last Night, A Superhero Saved My Life, a collection of essays by popular genre authors about times when the courses of their lives were directly affected by the actions of fictional costumed vigilantes. None of these authors claim to have been rescued from muggers by Spider-Man or freed from a burning building by Wonder Woman. Rather, the lessons learned from comic books, summer blockbusters, and Saturday morning cartoons allowed them to save themselves. Jamie Ford summons memories of Daredevil and Elektra to get over a lover who repeatedly tears him to shreds. Ron Currie Jr. finds within Wolverine the platonic ideal of masculinity in balance with a strong sense of feminism. These connections are unexpected, certainly, but reading personal accounts of parallels between fiction and reality—of recognizing patterns and learning from them, and following the examples of heroes without repeating their mistakes—demonstrates why the spandex-clad heroes continue to endure to this day.
The nature of anthologies, though, is a mixed bag—many authors working independently toward the same ends will produce inconsistent results. Some stories hit harder than others. Anthony Breznican talks about his wife’s family, with a history of congenital heart problems and early deaths, and the healthy brother they called Iron Man, a magnetic force of positive energy separating the shrapnel from their hearts just as the arc reactor does for Tony Stark. Delilah S. Dawson recalls summoning the indefatigable resilience of the Incredible Hulk as she survived an abusive household, a rape, and an attempted suicide. Alethea Kontis recounts a year in her life shaken by seven deaths and a nasty breakup, recognizing new post-traumatic behaviors of hers reflected in John Byrne’s Next Men and struggling to maintain her sense of self in a way those heroes could not.
The deeply intimate nature of these stories—the ones of personal trauma and finding within fictional heroes the strength to carry on and overcome hardships—make the essays that surround them weaker by association. Four of the essays are about Batman and, with the exception of editor Liesa Mignogna’s own penetrating contribution, they all amount to a grade schooler’s logic of “Batman is cool because he doesn’t have powers but he’s rich and he fights wacky criminals anyway and isn’t that neat?”
Scott Westerfeld’s essay is more of a love letter to New York City than to Spider-Man. The contributions from Brad Meltzer, Jodi Picoult, and Neil Gaiman—the three named on the front cover—are republished from years ago and, as such, don’t speak as directly to the theme as the original contributions. The lesser contributions aren’t so much bad as they are comparatively unemotional. If there was any lesson to be learned from the recent Batman V Superman and Captain America: Civil War, it should be that a little bit of heart goes a long way in making a compelling story. The tales within Last Night, A Superhero Saved My Life that share that extra bit of heart stand out all the brighter, leaving the rest to fade into the background.