How to Be a Superhero sounds, from the title, as if it could be the latest guide to heroically-inspired self-improvement. Our own overlord Chris Hardwick tapped into the virtues of nerdy self-help with The Nerdist Way, and Indoor Kids cohost Emily V. Gordon penned the excellent Super You: Release Your Inner Superhero. All told, How to Be a Superhero could indeed lead to some super self-improvements depending on what the reader takes away from it, but author Mark Edlitz’s book is a collection of interviews that offers an insight into the lives of the actors who have portrayed superheroes on screen and stage.
There are some famous names within the pages to be sure, but the interviews with lesser-knowns often bear illuminating insights into the craft of bringing heroism to life. After all, once you’ve played a character for an audience, the experience never really leaves you. For instance, you may not recognize the names of Nicholas Hammond, or Bob Holliday, or even John Newton, but these actors set the bars for their respective crime-fighters; Hammond portrayed Peter Parker, while Holliday and Newton both did different takes on Clark Kent. Fans are often inclined to deem their own personal first experiences with characters like Spider-Man or Superman the “true” embodiments of the heroes in question, but it’s important to reevaluate the long history that Hollywood has with comic books. How to Be a Superhero is a wonderful history lesson in that regard.
Opening the book, Edlitz is keen to point out his inclusion of the character James Bond in his collection of superheroes. Bond has at his disposal much of the same resources that playboys-turned-vigilantes Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark utilize to achieve their daring feats. In fact, you could make the argument that Bond achieves alone what it takes the combined team power of Bats and Iron Man—with the Justice League and Avengers, respectively—to achieve. The comparison isn’t a precursor to an interview with one of the many actors who have portrayed 007 over the years, but is intended to highlight that everyone has their own “personal Bond.” The point is, the Batman of our parents will not be the Batman of our children. Actors who come and go from these iconic roles are destined to become identifiable with their characters; sometimes briefly, sometimes forever.
David Mamet wrote, “I admire anyone who can make a living in his underwear.” Mamet was referring specifically to Superman and other costumed heroes, but I believe the same can be said of the actors who play them. – Mark Edlitz
I’ve thought a lot about How to Be a Superhero since I first got my copy, and I would call it—in the best sense of the phrase—a coffee table book. But unlike the photos or classical art reproductions you may find in other books that fall in this category, the interviews are what kept drawing me back. It was Yvonne Craig‘s interview that first caught my eye, but opening the book to any page is rewarding. Nearly every interviewed subject has something very interesting to add to the increasingly large tapestry of nerdy pop culture. Because each interview spans anywhere from five to 15 pages, it’s equally great for picking up for a few minutes or a couple of hours. Because superhero iconography is so memorable, the stories told by actors become immediately visual. When Adam West is talking about his time on set, your mind immediately takes you to the soundstage. West, Craig, Dean Cain, Helen Slater, James Marsden, Kevin Conroy, Malin Åkerman, Alan Cumming, and Lou Ferrigno are all amongst those who were interviewed by Edlitz.
The interviews offer as many insights into the psyches of heroes (and villains) as they do into the craft of acting. It’s a wonderful slice of the history of Hollywood has shared with comic book adaptations over the years. Stretching from the days when public familiarity and special effects were mild at best, to today’s multi-million dollar industry culture that surrounds the superhero genre, How to Be a Superhero contains something interesting for every member of the family.
“What motivates any psychopath is as mysterious and opaque as an ancient riddle.” Tom Hiddleston, on Loki’s motivations.
How to Be a Superhero even goes so far as to include collected thoughts from players who Edlitz was unable to interview personally. Culling through the archives, Edlitz compiled actors’ thoughts on their super roles in the book’s Appendix. Digest bites from Lynda Carter, Christopher Reeve, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mark Hamill, Michael Jai White, and many, many others are included to present a well-rounded case for what it means to play the superheroes, supervillains, and ambiguous anti-heroes we have all grown to love over the years. The book would make an excellent (super, even) addition to your bookshelf or coffee table, and makes for the perfect Marvel/DC-agnostic gift for the comic book nerd in your life.
Author Mark Edlitz has worked on the set of Batman Forever, and he also produced and directed the Star Wars-focused documentary, Jedi Junkies.