A long time ago, I'd hoped that a children's cartoon character would be my kid's entryway into the world of science fiction. But, nope, as much as I wanted it to happen, it was DC Comics' Legion of Superheroes that helped my kid understand what "the future" means.
Ten years ago, I was an editor at Time Out NY Kids Magazine, in charge of music and film coverage. This was long before I had a kid and just as shows like Yo Gabba Gabba! were hitting the sweet spots of parents desperate to hold onto any sense of coolness. I endured a lot of twee, treacly kids-pop from acts trying to hit the big time, but I also got to witness this amazing kid-music scene in New York City, too, with monthly jam sessions filled with talented grown-ups, and primary-school heavy metal and pre-teen shoegaze bands getting to perform in front audiences for the first time.
One of the first acts I fell in love with was centred around Gustafer Yellowgold, an oddly cute solar alien who came from the Sun and made a bunch of animal friends despite having odd habits like punching cheese.
Gustafer's multitalented creator Morgan Taylor combined a lo-fi garage-folk musical style, a clever imagination and sharp drawing chops to deliver a gently twisted fictional world full of sweet and funny sci-fi concepts. (When I met Morgan in person, it quickly came out that he'd had a heavy period of comic book collecting and we chatted a long while about Jack Kirby's Fourth World.) Gustafer jumps on cake, has friends who build rocket shoes and makes friends with wayward stars.
When I eventually became a dad, the singalong DVD of Gustafer Yellowgold's Wide Wild World was one of my kid's favourites. As she was just starting to talk, she'd hum, mumble and harmonise along to the "Cooler World" intro, "I'm From the Sun" and "Your Eel".
I'm 10 years gone from my first contact with some of these songs but their tender humour still makes me well up like I'm hearing them for the first time. Over the summer, I found the DVD in a pile of stuff from our move. My kid didn't remember ever being obsessed with this stuff and asked me to pop the DVD into the Xbox 360 so she could watch it. "This is it!" I thought. The path I'd wished for would finally come to fruition: Gustafer's charms would enchant her and she'd want to know more about creatures from other planets, advanced super-science gadgetry and all the great sci-fi imaginings adjacent to this loopy world!
That didn't happen. The animation didn't click for her. ("No, I mean, where's the cartoon?! Where's the video?" "This is it, sweetie!") She wasn't patient enough to let the music soak in. The dream was over. I still loved Gustafer but she'd moved on.
Months later, her nightly requests for superhero knowledge began. Those sessions have continued and my daughter's been leading them in her own imaginative fashion. This week, she hasn't been just issuing the same flat query for "more superheroes"; instead, she's been concocting scenarios. "I would not want to be the Hulk, because I would have to talk in a baby voice and people wouldn't understand me." (She cracked up when I acted out Ol' Jade Jaws' rudimentary "Hulk smash bad guys!" speech pattern to her. She calls it "baby talk" now.) "Yeah, the Hulk isn't a very good thinking superhero. And, remember, he's mostly angry all the time." "But She-Hulk and Batgirl are!" "Are what, sweetie?" "They're two really good thinking superheroes." "You're right! They are. I'm so proud of you for remembering that!"
We've been covering a lot of X-Men, and she's now at the point where she understands that some characters are mutants born with different genes that give them superpowers later in life. ("What are genes again?" "They're the cells that tell our bodies to grow certain ways." "What are cells again?" and so on…)
In a non-sequitur during one of our talks, she relayed a story that a friend told her about "a dinosaur lizard that laid an egg and what came out was like a chicken". I seized on this opportunity to talk about evolution. "Over long periods of time, animals' bodies change so that they can live better in certain environments," I told her. "It takes a long, long time but what you friend said could've been true, that the animal came out of the egg looked different than its mother."
She's also been thinking up abilities and powers and asking me if a character exists that can do that. "Is there anybody who's like a fish? Not like Aquaman or those other underwater superheroes, but more like a real fish." The fishiest superhero I could pull up was Triton, the scaly water-dwelling member of the Inhuman royal family. My age-appropriate explanation of how giant space aliens experimented on human DNA let me talk about genetics a little more, and she even seemed to grok the idea of how Terrigen makes Inhumans' bodies different. "Is that like ebolution?" "It's 'evolution', honey. And, yes, it is like that but it happens really fast."
We finally got to the future via another of my daughter's roundabout prompts: "Is there anybody who can turn into, like, a big rock or ball and make the bad guys run away because they think they might get rolled over?" She comes damn close to stumping me sometimes with these bizarrely specific requests! But then I remembered the one and only Chuck Taine, otherwise known as Bouncing Boy from the Legion of Superheroes. For whatever reason, I decided that it was important that she know that the LoSH operated in the future. The problem was that all previous attempts to explain the future to her met with head-scratching frustration. "Wait, do you mean in dinosaur times?" "No, I mean ahead. A time that hasn't happened yet."
The eureka moment last night came from me leaning on stuff she already knew. First, I used spatial concepts of distance, using my hands to create a crude timeline. "This is where we are, the year 2017," I said, holding my left fist firmly in the air next to the right. I then stretched my right hand away from it. "The time where, or when, Bouncing Boy lives is alllllll the way over here." "Oh, OK, I get it." It was starting to click. Next came counting, which she loves to do in that singsong way of children. "So, if we're in the year 2017, pretend about counting to 2018, 2019, 2020 and then all the way to the year 3017." "That's a long time from now!" "Yep. And, you know how we have cars that roll on the ground? In the future, they have flying cars and MUCH taller buildings. And going to Mars is like when we go to California or New York. Because their science gets much stronger."
From there, we talked about how things could be very different in the future. Taller buildings, cooler computers, robots that do lots of different things for you. "Even a robot that could clean up all your toys?!" "Yeah, but those inventions will probably happen a long time from now. We may not be alive." "I know but the future still sounds pretty cool!" I know that it's going to take more than one session talking about these lofty concepts for her to truly integrate them into her imagination. But I love the fact that she's continuing to follow her curiosity down paths of wider understanding and I love even more that I'm able to help her get there via superhero-centric lesson.
"The future still sounds pretty cool!" It sure does.