Superhero or Supervillain?

I first came across Ian Buckingham’s work when I was employed by a digital agency. He did some work with the leadership team on culture change and seemed to be way ahead of his time when talking about how people are “happiest when the work me and home me meet and work no longer feels like work at all”.

He started out in London’s finance rat race then agency worlds. I am still intrigued by his championing of the work of storyteller and anthropologist Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey, which is now shared as narrative lore within the Hollywood and Disney Pixar factories and beyond.

Firstly, I asked Ian what got him into storytelling?

I grew up in South Africa during the apartheid era. It was a world literally divided into stereotypes, of  alleged heroes and villains and was pretty frightening at times.

My world of escapism included a magical comic exchange. Here I would trade a stack of Marvel and DC classics for fresh books and comics. Because the superhero genre wasn’t taken that seriously, they largely escaped censorship by the oddly religious state. So I could read about the Black Panther, Daredevil, Batman and empowered female characters, the like of which I rarely witnessed in society at the time.”

Q: So reading and trading comics became an education, inspiration, escapism and act of rebellion?

“Well, the original comic book superheroes were created in the US in response to a social need arising from the widespread insecurity and fear generated by the world wars. They brought much needed moments of escapist excitement to the lives of children and adults alike. It also gave reassurances that the powers of good would eventually triumph over evil. Here they were in South Africa, saving the day again and opening the eyes of a new generation of kids.”

I know that characters like Black Panther became legends within the black communities. Like in the townships of Soweto where kids would role-play the overthrow of their overlords, right under the noses of the censors.

For me and my friends, the most admired of the superheroes were not the Demi-Gods, but the ordinary men and women in the superhero ranks. They were the ones we wanted to be when organizing impromptu rumbles in the back yard.

While it was, of course, desirable to have the likes of Superman and Thor on the side of righteousness, the most engaging and alluring crusaders were the otherwise everyday folk. They couldn’t rely on super genetics but created super technology to defeat their foes using good, old fashioned, human ingenuity. They are the ones who are not born with superpowers but develop technology and hone skills to become super powered. And many of us still find them so engaging because they are the heroes we can most relate to. They certainly were then.”

Q: You speak about this in your consultancy books, about the power of ordinary employees rather than the elite.

“Yes. Makes perfect sense to me. There are a lot more of the former and that’s where the power is. We aren’t all blessed with super powers. But we can all become super powered if we put our minds to it. I remember this as a lesson from those dark days. It’s something the kids waiting for their dads to return from war used to pray for. It’s very similar to children believing in the power of magic and wanting to achieve great things, inspired by great children’s writing whether in books, comics or even films.”

Q: So what are your top 5, Every man heroes?

Great question. This list changes. But in order, probably still:

1. Iron Man

2. Black Panther

3. Batman

4. Black Widow

5. Jet Jungle

The last on the list is a character nobody will have heard of.

He was a comic creation drawn by Dov Fedler and was  broadcast as a series on the state sponsored radio in South Africa as an embodiment of, I guess, white power and supremacy.

Jet was a mixture between James Bond, the Phantom, and the Thunderbirds, but with a tame panther as his companion. He was literally a white patriarchal figure, although I was initially oblivious to the politics and just loved the stories.

I can , however, remember the eager anticipation of listening out for his adventures weekly and that innocent pleasure remains with me to this day.

As I listened and read my comics, my eyes were opened to all sorts of contradictions. I started to ask uncomfortable questions about why the villains were “so often foreigners and people of color” and why there were no characters like T’Challa or Romanova.

I guess many others did too as, sadly, despite a successful run and a range of action toys to rival the Marvel classics, rather than adapt and change, Jet Jungle disappeared with the apartheid era.”

Q: So a lesson in the need for our heroes to remain relevant and politically correct?

“Well, they’re called superheroes for a reason. But as we all know, there’s a fine line between hero and villain status at times and the most engaging heroes seem to exist on that cutting edge.

Whether we agree with it or not, books and comics offer a view of the world that we can either subscribe to, avoid, or choose to remain critical of.

I believe it’s healthy for children to develop that critical faculty by being exposed to a range of alternatives and to seek out their truth in the conclusions they draw. We sometimes shut this faculty down as adults as we join and comply with a tribe. For me, retaining the sense of questioning is as important as retaining the sense of wonder and awe. This is especially important when we’re flooded by often contradictory messages daily and have to chart our own course through it all.”

The first in Ian Buckingham’s changeling trilogy is available now, as are his books on leadership and brand management.

They’re well worth checking out.

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