As my nephew approached his fifth birthday, I ordered a handful of toys for him from eBay. Since we live a couple thousand miles away from each other, I asked his mom to gift him the toys one-by-one on different days (because I figured he might disregard some immediately if he gets them all at once and has a favorite). On the day when he was supposed to get one toy, he was playing with his best friend/cousin, so I decided to gift a different toy to each kid. (I figured it would get my nephew to like the toy more because mimetic desire is certainly a real thing in kids.)
I gifted his cousin a toy of Mr. Terrific whose real name is Michael Holt. I emphasized that Mr. Terrific is a genius–like the smartest guy in the world. And I pointed out that he has super technology that he invented that allows him to make a forcefield, go invisible, shoot lasers and do almost anything you can imagine. Basically, I wanted them to see that science and technology is a window to imagination. I also think it’s helpful for him to see a Black genius (not just a super-athlete) as what it means to be a superhero.
In terms of why he fights, I pointed out the words “fair play” written on the sleeves of his jacket. From that, I told them that Mr. Terrific fights to make things more fair. He can’t stand when things are not fair, so he fights to fix those situations. Since the idea of fairness is something little kids (think they) understand early on and constantly obsess about, that was pretty easy to explain and engage them in talking about.
The action figure that I gifted to my nephew that day was Aqualad (also known as Khaldur’ahm or Jackson Hyde). I told them that he can control water and even create weapons out of it, like water swords. They really thought those powers were cool, and they immediately wanted to start playing instead of listening to why he fights.
Eventually, I got them to listen and it was worth it. I explained that Aqualad didn’t know about his powers because his foster parents raised him in the middle of the desert and never told him that he comes from a group of super people who live underwater and can control water. I told them that the most important thing to him is about telling the truth because he was so hurt by the fact that his parents hid his powers from him growing up. Months later, my nephew and I were hanging out and he got a chance to play with Aqualad with me in a way where his beliefs came into play.
We were playing with Aqualad’s dad who is called Black Manta (David Hyde). Now, to be clear, the comic books have multiple origin stories for Black Manta (which is true for most characters). At the time, I picked one that I could help me point out the dangers of valuing money above all else. I explained that he is a pirate: he steals treasures and re-sells them because he only cares about money. Months later I found out about a very different origin story for Black Manta as someone who believes in the liberation of Black people by breaking away from the lands where we have been colonized and enslaved and starting our own underwater Black nation. I wish I had known that story at the time. It would have made for some good debates with Killmonger who was his co-conspirator during those weeks where I was playing with my nephew.
Anyway, all of this is to say that we played with Aqualad and Black Manta (along with other action figures) and Aqualad’s focus on truth above all else gave my nephew a motivation for conflict with Black Manta for leaving him in the desert with foster parents who lied to him about his powers. There was another chance for me to bring up truth with Aqualad, but I really fumbled it.
Aqualad is gay. Actually, he is openly gay and that is part of his big emphasis on truth that I want to teach my nephew. I didn’t lead with that because I wanted my nephew to already love this character before finding out about his sexuality. I figured, eventually my nephew will hear someone use “gay” as an insult (or I’ll hear him do that) and I would then make him aware that this toy we both love and think is super-cool is a gay superhero with nothing to be ashamed of. Maybe it’s not the best strategy, but it was really stuck in my head. So stuck, in fact, that I missed an easy opportunity to bring up Aqualad’s sexuality in the natural course of playing. What had happened was that another toy was doing mind-control on Aqualad. My nephew said that the mind control made Aqualad think that Killmonger was his girlfriend instead of an opponent. It made for a pretty funny scene (that is, if you think five-year-olds are capable of being funny), but it also could have been a chance for me to have Aqualad say something like “I know this is a mind trick because I don’t even like girls.” It could have opened the door for an easy conversation about same-gender attraction, but I didn’t take that path because I was so stuck on the plan I originally intended. Next time, I’ll be more open to where the wind blows.
If you are looking to buy an action figure of Mr. Terrific, Aqualad, or Black Manta, they are pretty easy to find on eBay. There are a few versions of each toy with some–especially the used ones–much less expensive than others. They are not popular enough that you can expect new ones to drop on a regular basis, but some of them on eBay will still be in their original package if you have a big aversion to used toys.
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