Leadership Lessons From The Great Books – Shorts #18

Comic Book Origin Stories for Leaders

My name is Jesan Sorrells, and this is the Leadership Lessons from the Great Books Podcast- Shorts.
There’s no co-host on shorts.

These are two-to-four-minute observations, ideas, thoughts, or rants, about the literature, philosophy, psychology, and theology of leadership.

Origin stories, including shrinking rays and the lighting from the sky, are an integral part of the mythology that comic book narratives relentlessly provide to their readers.

And, over the last fifteen years, as comic book heroes—once designated as merely “kid’s stuff” by adults—have had their narratives taken more and more seriously by adults, the narrative itself has become fodder for deeper study.

Myths are nothing new to humanity, obviously, but only in the United States of America could two Jewish creators from Cleveland—Jerry Seigel and Joel Shuster—make the ultimate Jesus myth and sell it back to generations of willing and eager American children.

Comics and narrative.

Mythology and truth.

Ideas and concepts wrapped in four-color, throwaway newspaper and once sold on rickety racks inside of drug stores for $0.30 would, over the course of 50+ years rise to become the dominant entertainment narrative of choice for generations of audiences seeking to escape the meaninglessness of a gray-colored world.

And then, at the height of the Cold War, in a geopolitical world where mighty nations states were revealed to have feet of clay in jungles and mountain deserts, creators with a much more nihilistic and existential view of the absurdities inherent in the comic form would come along and change everything.

What does it mean to actually fight injustice?

What does it mean to take the law into your own hands while simultaneously handing over captured criminals to the representatives of the state who come with badges and guns?
What can we glean from people who look like us, have the power of the gods, and walk around dressed up in costumes designed to hide their identities?

Who watches the watchmen?

It all got complicated as even the business outside the creation of comic books became marred by legal wrangling over who owned what, who created what, and who had the right to get paid for their work.
Independent creators from Robert Crumb and Wil Eisner to Melinda Gebbe and Jill Thompson would come along and create alternative stories embedded within the medium of comic books, transforming them from “kid’s stuff” to adult’s stuff very quickly.

And, of course, all the serious people would occasionally glance over at what was brewing in that space and whisper “why?”

And the comic book people, with their history, narrative, language, and cliques, would look back and whisper “stay out.”

But, with the coming of the Mouse House, the legitimizing of comic book narratives for the masses became common rather than niche, and now, twenty years into the twenty-first century, comic book narratives in their lowest form have penetrated almost all aspects of our entertainment, our culture, and even our thinking about everything from how to solve complicated problems to our tendency to seek a savior out there, rather than putting our own hands to the plow.

So, what can leaders take from all of this?

The biggest lesson, one oddly enough from another myth, more based in Hades than in Zeus, comes from the origin story created by two Ashkenazi Jewish creators from New York and can be summed up in a quote from the titular character in the graphic novel that set the tone for his character from the mid-1980’s forward, The Dark Knight Returns:

“You always say yes—to anyone with a badge or a flag…you sold us out, Clark. You gave them power that should have been ours. Just like your parents taught you to. My parents taught me a different lesson—lying on this street—shaking in deep shock—dying for no reason at all—they showed me that the world only makes sense when you force it to.”

Leaders need to understand, respect, and acknowledge—deeply—the narratives that drive the people who they lead, whom they’re opposed to, and who they are seeking to appeal to.

The leaders who fail at this lose the narrative, lose their teams, and eventually lose their way forward, and wind up resorting to coercion, force, and fraud in a vain attempt to make the world make sense.
On their terms, of course.

Comic books are no longer just for children if they ever really were in the first place, and we are about to explore, in leaps and bounds, just how high up leaders need to get into the atmosphere of leadership before they can fly, like the four-color gods.



…and away!