For Bill Rosemann, the stories and characters that populate the Marvel comics, movies, games, TV shows and video universes are about much more than good guy beating bad guy, and they are certainly more than just a fun way to pass a couple of hours on a slow day.
For Rosemann, now vice president and head of creative at Marvel Games, they are some of his best friends on a personal level, but they are also role models capable of making great societal change.
"I can face my challenges if they can," he told students from St. Jude School, Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Notre Dame High schools on Jan. 31. A 1985 graduate of OLPH and a 1989 graduate of NDHS, he visited his former high school to address students as part of Catholic Schools Week.
The visit was especially meaningful for him, he said, because of his own journey and the roles that the schools and comic books played along the way.
"High school can be awesome, but it can be tough," he told the students.
His parents divorced just shortly after he entered high school, and once he got there he found himself living in the shadow of his star athlete brother, Jim, who was four years older. He and his mother moved from their large Mountain Shadows home into a much smaller apartment.
When the complex caught fire, they had just enough time to get their photo albums before the young Rosemann went back into their apartment for one more thing.
"I grabbed my box of comic books, and it was right then that I realized how important they were to me," he said.
"Friends" like Steve Rogers and Peter Parker, whose alter egos become Captain America and Spider-Man had to overcome numerous challenges. Rosemann said these comic-book heroes became far more than simple entertainment for kids, and they, along with other new Marvel characters, can impact our culture.
Captain America, for example, was created by two Jewish men named Joe Simon and Jack Kirby who very pointedly had Captain America punching Adolf Hitler on their premiere cover in March 1941. The U.S. would not enter the war until Dec. 7, 1941.
Rosemann told the students that Simon and Kirby were taken to task by their editors, at least until the bosses saw the sales numbers. He also told them several times during his talk that writers and cartoonists have decisions to make about what does and doesn't appear on the page and that it is important to "research who they are and what they are trying to say."
Spider-Man and Peter Parker are especially important to Rosemann. He is the first superhero to appear in a comic book, but he is also very human with much to overcome. Being a shy teenager for one, but he is also an orphan who has to deal with the death of his parents, financial struggles and eventually the murder of his caretaker Uncle Ben.
Racked with guilt because he believes he didn't do enough, or the right thing to save his uncle, he vows to use his superpowers for good from then on. It's a message that Rosemann said has guided him for most of his life.
For example, one busy day not long ago, just as he was about to head to a meeting, Rosemann got an email from the mother of then 4-year-old Anthony Smith, who was born with a chromosomal disorder called mosaic trisomy 22. Anthony was refusing to wear his hearing aids, which he'd nicknamed Blue Ear, to day care.
The boy told her that since there were no superheroes with such aids, he wasn't going to wear his. She made a quick decision on the spot, and told him yes there was. She was now reaching out to Rosemann to help bolster what she feared was a lie, and that when the child came home from school that day, she'd have to admit to the fib.
Standing onstage, Rosemann mimicked hitting the delete button on his computer, but then thought, 'What would Spidey do?'
He shared her story with other editors, who reminded him that a past character named Hawkeye used a listening device to seek out troubles, and a Marvel artist quickly drew up a sketch of Hawkeye.
The team took it a step further and created a young hero, based on the likeness of young Anthony, named Blue Ear. Assistant editor Nelson Ribeiro and production artist Manny Mederos devoted some free time to developing the character and his back story.
"That is the power of Marvel," Rosemann said.
"It's OK to feel different. It's OK to have challenges. Don't worry about not fitting in. Stand out. Be different. Be who you are. Be your own hero. It's about what you do. What are your abilities? Be nice. Be smart. Be good to one another. That's how you can be a hero."
It was with these things in mind that Rosemann said he had the idea to resurrect an old Marvel idea called Guardians of the Galaxy.
Being able to share that message with students at the schools where he matriculated and dealt with all those struggles was especially meaningful to Rosemann. Around 2008, Rosemann wanted to create characters that didn't look human, but that could represent people who aren't different. And he wanted them to be funny, as well as heroic.
Writer Arnold Drake and artist Gene Colan came up with characters like Rocket Raccoon, a tree named Groot and Drax the Destroyer.
The book version did OK, but Rosemann said the Marvel film guys loved it and wanted to make a movie version, and a new franchise was born.
Being back at Notre Dame was especially meaningful for Rosemann, he said.
"It's always great to share the message, but to be able to come back to where I was and remember what it was like I'm very lucky."
Contact Barry Courter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6354.