Identity Crises

We are what we do. The world, be it our closest friends and families or the general public, will remember us for the impact that we have on it. When people meet and ask each other "what do you do?", we tend to answer with our career, not a description of our hobbies and personal activities. But what if you're all meeting in the context of a new job, or a new academic program? For example, when I started working at UNC Chapel Hill in 2011, my new coworkers didn't ask me "what do you do". They asked things like "what did you do in Indiana?" "Are you married?" "Do you have kids?" Suddenly, all of these other questions were relevant, because they already knew "what I do". On the other hand, when we forge new friendships, we develop the kinds of relationships with people in which we not only share what we do, have done, and want to do. We begin to include those friends in those activities, crafting common experiences in which we become integral parts of each others' memories. We become more than a career title and a family unit. We become a crucial component of a shared experience.

We are different things to different people, and sometimes we are different things to the same people at different times, or in different contexts. I am my wife's roommate, lover, confidant, friend and - until a few months ago - the stepfather of her dog. I am to my coworkers a fellow web developer, but to the members of my nonprofit board, I am a President. To Rachel, I am a former graduate school classmate and now co-author of this book. To my parents, I am their child, but as the years have progressed, I have also become their peer. But sometimes our roles conflict. We all know those parents who have amazing relationships with their children and speak with them as peers to make them feel included and convey the impression that their feelings and opinions are valued. But what happens when a parent truly knows best and has to exert parental authority? Kiddo's best friend becomes the oppressive parent. Or what happens when parents of different faiths have to reconcile this difference when raising their children? A parent with the firm belief that their child's everlasting soul is dependent on their faith must wrestle with a spouse whose lack of faith may steer the child clear of similar beliefs. Depending on the nature of their faith and the degree to which they hold their child's faith important to their well-being, their role as a parent may conflict with their role as a Christian.

Comic books deal heavily with the concept of identity on several fronts: Characters are molded by their origin, upbringing and experiences, and superheroes have secret identities, and these identities are dictated by the need for safety and privacy, the different kinds of relationships that they maintain, and the different roles that they play in the worlds in which they live. And, as in real life, when contexts collide, comic books heroes grapple with these conflicting roles...

Clark Kent crashed on earth as a young child and was taken in by Martha and Jonathan Kent, a childless couple living and working on a small farm in Smallville, Kansas. As he grew, he came to realize that he had tremendous power. Upon explaining his mysterious origin from his parents, he was faced with his first crisis of identity. Raised by humans with human-looking features, human-like desires and social behaviors, and the kinds of good, decent human ideals that the Kents imbued him with, he was now at odds with what - in many portrayals - seemed like a colder and more callous Kryptonian view of earth, full of humans who seemed vastly inferior in almost every way. Then, as he became an adult and decided to take on the role of a superhero, he found himself with an artificially-constructed second identity crisis: maintaining his origin as Clark Kent, the son of Martha and Jonathan Kent, and flying around the world as Kal El, the last son of Krypton, known to the world as Superman. Rather than struggle to resolve these two identities as he did his Kryptonian and Human ones, he is now faced with the challenge of very intentionally maintaining a separation between then two conflicting identities of Clark Kent and Superman. Things only got more complicated when this division leads to a love triangle between Superman, Lois and Clark.

Batman is another interesting character in terms of separate identities, particularly because his association with each of his identities is somewhat reversed. Barry Allen is a police forensic scientist who takes on the name of Flash to fight crime in a mask. Superman is a reporter named Clark Kent who dons a caped costume to save the world. Wonder Woman is Diana of Themiscyra, an Amazonian woman who only takes the name Wonder Woman as a codename of sorts, and in many variations of her story doesn't even hide her identity as Wonder Woman. But Batman in no way identifies as Bruce Wayne, other than as a cover story to preserve his secrecy and finance his superhero lifestyle using a very superficial billionaire one:

Perhaps the most interesting characters in long-running comics are those whose identities and roles evolve as they grow and learn, giving us the impression that they, like us, are not immutable fixtures in the flow of time. A long running comic named "For Better or For Worse" (1979-2008) featured characters who grew as we did, and who played different roles throughout their lives. The comic begins with the birth of Lizzie, the younger sister of Michael, and follows the Patterson family as the kids grow into high schoolers, college students, adults, and parents of new grandchildren. The complexity of the character's synchronous growth brings a sense of reality and relatability to the comic that might be lacking in comics like Peanuts or Calvin and Hobbes, where the characters remain the same age over decades of print.1 Sometimes comics address this2, but more often they do not.

The Pattersons are hardly superheroes. Their relatively realistic experiences as they grow, learn, lose, love and grieve ring familiar bells but do not give us the escape that fantastic stories of power, magic, adventure and science fiction can provide. I believe one of the biggest reasons Superman has held on to our interest over the years is that he brings an attractive combination of strong family values, epic background, moral upbringing, amazing powers, and the kind of escapist adventure that we crave to be pulled into from our dreary lives, all in the story of a young child rocketed to earth by his biological parents in order to save him from the destruction of their dying planet. His complex origin, upbringing and set of often-conflicting roles as he must juggle working as an intrepid reporter while also flying around the world fighting for "truth, justice and the American way", crafts a complex and interesting character that holds on to our interest in ways than some of the trite superhero comics that have failed to catch on for as long as he has maintained his popularity. It is this evolution of characters that I believe captivates an audience, even when the powers and adventures of the characters they read about may be very much out of our reach in real life. Whether we have superpowers or not, we can more readily relate to a superhero who has real-life problems and grows in ways that we can understand than we can do a trite story about a "normal" human being with whom we can't identify at all.

When I moved to Indiana, it was with the explicit intention of getting a masters degree in something I enjoyed. My career goal at the time was to get involved in international programs at a university because I had had such good experiences studying abroad and volunteering with incoming internationals when attending the University of North Carolina at Greensboro as an undergraduate. At the time (2001), the advice that I was given by a friend and mentor in the industry - also a Martha3 - was to get a masters degree, because that typically made you more competitive when applying to administrative positions at universities. Because I had majored in German and Linguistics, and the international slant of a degree like that seemed to mesh well with my career goal, I sought out programs that would provide financial support while I pursued that degree. Indiana University offered me a half-time teaching position as an "AI" ("Associated Instructor"), paying my tuition and fees as well as a modest stipend to live on while working towards the degree.

Shortly before moving to Indiana, I spent the summer of 2001 working in the UNCG International Programs Center as an office assistant. During this time, one of the administrators slapped an HTML book down in front of me and one of the other student workers and said something to the effect of "you're young, figure this out." They needed to update their web page to conform to a new template that the university expected departments to use in their design. Knowing nothing about HTML, I proceeded to read the HTML Bible and figure out how to tweak the design and create simple web pages. By the time I arrived in Bloomington at the end of that summer, it had grown from a random office work assignment into a new hobby: making web pages was fun! It didn't take long for this hobby to evolve into an activity that occupied so much of my time that it sometimes felt difficult to maintain focus on my studies. I did finish the Masters, but it took three years, and when I finished, it was clear that my trajectory had steered in the direction of Information Technology: I immediately jumped right back into another masters program: this time, in Information Science. After four more years of part-time study and another three in which I lingered in Bloomington working at a full-time web development job with the school of education, I finally moved back to North Carolina to take a position at UNC Chapel Hill that was a significant step up into a senior development position. My life had changed completely, and my path was nothing like the one I had in mind when I first moved to Bloomington.

The story I just told makes my time in the Germanic Studies program sound like a complete waste of three years. Let me assure you that it was not. Not only were my experiences during the years incredibly valuable for my growth as an adult, but provided intensive experience as an educator, a researcher, and - I hope - a friend. These years were, as are our entire lives throughout the years, fraught with ups and downs, wins and losses, amazement and disappointment. And they were - most importantly - the years in which my friendship with my co-author began. Rachel and I met in Fall of 2001 when I moved to Bloomington. She had already been in the program for a year, and I was assigned to the same office: Ballantine 666. We quickly realized that our conversational dynamic really clicked. We talked about everything. Religion, comics, science, language, feelings, relationships, friends, family, love, loss. But like many friendships, life's changes, geographic moves, and any number of other factors conspired to part our ways for a few years. Shortly after returning to North Carolina, I opened my Facebook inbox one day to find a message from Rachel hoping to get back in touch. We did, and the friendship grew even stronger.

When we first met, Rachel and I quickly tossed around the idea of writing a book. The potential title  - Superman and God - stemmed from some joking around over some lunch at a food court in the IU Memorial Student Union building. We had somehow arrived at an interesting comparison between Superman as the son of a powerful alien and Jesus Christ as the son of God, and the savior role that each of them are portrayed as playing. At the time, the idea only came up occasionally as a passing joke, but when we reconnected, having another decade of experience under our belts and some catching up to do, our conversations just deepened even further, and so we decided to take the endeavor seriously and start to seriously work on a book. And so, the many identities that I have had throughout my life now have the chance to come together in the form of anecdotes and lessons learned, and to graduate from a collection of random stories to an opportunity to look back on my life and share those experiences in relevant contexts as we craft this project together.

1It is interesting to note that Garfield, Odie and Jon appear the same age throughout the years, but that Garfield's age when referenced in their speech bubbles continues to increase as our real years progress.

2A recent fan theory about South Park proposes that Kyle - and Kyle alone - is the only character on South Park who realizes that they have been fourth-graders for over 20 years.

3Martha Trigonis passed away after a renewed battle with breast cancer a year or so after I left for Bloomington.