In memory of Judd, a friend who acted in his own simple ways to better the lives of those around him.
Growing up, I never really connected to superheroes. I hadn’t even bought my first comic book until I was almost 14 years old. I was always focused on other things like sports and school. The only taste of the comic genre I got came in the form of films. The first comic book movie that I ever saw in theatres (at least that I can remember) was The Incredible Hulk, and it wasn’t until The Dark Knight Rises in 2012 that I was even remotely interested in reading the comic books. I mainly used these fictional realities as a getaway source; a way to exit the exhausting and technical aspects of everyday life that sometimes created a heavy burden. I never paid any attention to things like the story, character interaction or cinematography. All I ever saw -in the books or films- were my favorite characters using their powers for good, and as a kid, that was something that I wanted to mimic in my life. I knew that I didn’t have any special powers, even though I pretended to when sometimes playing with my childhood friends, but I just wanted to be something good that anyone could come to and leave with their day a little brighter.
Really the first comic book character that I ever cared about at all was Marvel’s own Captain America. I first found my love for the character as a young boy when my parents brought home the animated Marvel movie Ultimate Avengers. Captain America, arguably the main character in this feature, almost instantly nestled himself in my mind as the coolest superhero there was. Sure, I didn’t know too many other superheroes outside of the Avengers lineup within the cartoon, but this was the first time that I had truly connected with a fictional superhero. Watching it for the first time at the age of six, Steve’s actions quickly stood out to me from the rest of the other accompanying characters. He seemed to have a bigger motivation to do what he felt was right in his heart and relying on his gut instinct to react to his situations. A similar theme carried over into the second chapter of this animated story, and both Ultimate Avengers films became extremely easy for me to repeatedly watch over and over again. With each rewatch, I paid closer attention to what Captain America did to save the world. I started to acquire this desire to do as Captain Rogers did with his actions, that is, to try and do the right thing in each situation I was given. This almost unconscious desire was augmented when the character’s first live-action film was released in 2008. Captain America as a superhero continued to be a source of positivity as I cultivated my newfound love for more things comic book related in my early grade school years.
When I had reached the age of 12, Captain America was still my favorite superhero by far. I had heard -and occasionally seen- about other characters from another brand called DC, but I never really invested my time into watching or reading much about them. Plus, my parents didn’t think that I was yet old enough to watch The Dark Knight and at the time I thought it looked too horrifying to even endure. At this point in my life, my swimming career had started to pick up, and my times had started to get to the point where I could venture off to bigger meets outside of my home state of Utah. Ironically, it was at one of my state meets in the middle of the summer that my number one hero changed on the dial. After a long day of preliminary swimming, me, my dad, my coach and I wanted to do something where we could get out of the sun to relax while still being entertained. Naturally, the movies were a perfect option to do just that. So my dad, knowing I was a fan of the superhero genre, asked me if I would want to go see the newly released The Dark Knight Rises since he felt that (based off the trailers) it wasn’t nearly as dark as its previous installment. I hesitantly agreed to go see it, not knowing what to expect from a movie about a hero named Batman.
Then and there is when my number one favorite fictional character was established. I suddenly was almost obsessed with Batman. Something about his grounded sense of realism and dark atmosphere just clicked inside me. I found it so intriguing that a man with absolutely zero superpowers was fighting beyond his human limits to make his city a better place, especially after being broken like he was in The Dark Knight Rises. Shortly after the meet, I bought my first graphic novel in a small comic book shop with my own money. It was Batman: Year One.
Aside from the nerd in me wanting to learn and see everything I could about my newfound love for The Dark Knight, I’ve also found some strong messages that have aided me in many aspects of my life. My junior and senior years of high school were especially hard times in terms of both schoolwork and sports. I was taking classes that were proving to be extremely difficult to understand. I was also experiencing a slump with my swimming career; struggling to better my times and keep myself motivated to train as hard as I was. I was driving almost two hours away from my home three days a week to train for my sport, often doing more than 5,500 yards in a practice, and trying to juggle my consistently piling up homework. Even though this wasn’t anything new to me, it was starting to become exhausting. I wasn’t finding the same joy in the journey to improvement I did in the previous years of competing, and school slowly started to seem more and more like another chore that needed to be checked off the list. On top of all of this, I had several friends that were finishing high school and were leaving to serve LDS missions. I found myself questioning if I truly enjoyed what I was doing or not, which ultimately drove me into a negative mindset for a period of time. As childish as it sounds, I had the thought pop into my head one night that got my mind going a bit: What would Batman do?
A simple answer came with a bit of thought, and that was to simply endure. What I realized about Batman, as a character, was that he understood that the dawn only comes after the night. For me, this was a little hard to swallow. When you’re in a slump like I was, it can seem like time stretches on forever, and that things may take forever to get better. It took a lot for me to come to terms with myself that I wasn’t alone in this fight, and that things would get better with time. I can say now that I wish I had understood this life lesson before all of this because it wasn’t long before things started to brighten up in my slump. I started to find days where I had more energy than I usually did, and school started to become easier the more that I worked at it. I used Batman when I was practicing or in school as a thought to keep me motivated. A thought of pure strength to help me push through the things that were usually hard, usually tiresome and usually heavy on my mind. I started dropping time in my events again, even breaking a school record that had stood for almost 15 years twice. I was able to experience the best state meet that I had in my high school career by taking third in both of my events in a much more competitive atmosphere than there had ever been in my school’s swimming history. I also was able to maintain my 4.0 GPA that I had worked to keep the previous years. It’s kind of ironic when you look at it all because Batman was one of the major things that brought me out of an inherently dark place, when in reality, Batman is an inherently dark hero.
Batman wasn’t the only comic book character that has made an impact like that in my lifetime though. There has been one other hero that has made as much, if not more of a difference for me than any other fictional character I’ve encountered. This hero is one that has given me hope in a time that I could not see any, and he’s one that I would have never thought to lean on. I never found him interesting, thought-provoking or heroic at all. I just saw him as someone who never failed his job because that’s just who he was. Superman as a comic book superhero changed completely for me when I went to a movie theatre in Logan, Utah and saw the movie called Man of Steel.
Zack Snyder’s take on America’s most recognizable superhero created a total paradigm shift for me. I now was able to relate to this character on levels that I would argue are deeper than my connections with Batman. As the themes from the film marinated in my conscience, Superman quickly transformed from a weak source of aspiration to an overwhelmingly solid foundation of truth. I’ve had to rely on Superman the most as a foundation in the previous few months especially.
On the morning of May 25th, I woke up ecstatic. It was Senior Sluff Day at Bear River High School, and since I was a senior I had no plans of attending classes when my other senior classmates weren’t. My best friend and I had plans to go to a nearby reservoir with some other friends for an outside barbecue, paddle boarding and water sword fights- yes, I said water sword fights. We were so high on fun that we even tried to recreate the waterfall scene from Black Panther. The day was sunny, clear and so much better than an empty classroom. We were all so thrilled just to be having fun, possibly for the last time, as high school friends together because we knew that once we left the scene of graduation (which was just a week away) that there was a slim chance we would see each other at the same area together. So for a few hours, we savored our youth, not a worry on the horizon and the future at our fingertips. However, that was about to change.
After we all had packed up, said our quick goodbyes and made our way home, I returned home to some soul-wrenching news. When I entered my home, I noticed my mother’s face was red, and her eyes close to releasing tears. When I asked what was wrong, she asked me, “You remember Judd right?” Judd Miller was a good friend of mine that I had played little league football with when I was very young. We grew up as brothers in arms together, and while I wasn’t his best friend by any means, we still shared that bond even in high school. He was a successful football player in high school, making game-winning plays and having a ball attending other sports. He was also a senior, just like me, and was scheduled to graduate with all of us. I responded, “Of course I do. Did something happen.” The words that followed from my mom sunk deep into my heart like a thousand pounds. “Judd died in an accident today.”
Judd Miller passed away that day, unbeknownst to the rest of us, while cliff jumping at another reservoir with other friends. All of a sudden, the world started to shake with sorrow, and everyone was hitting rock bottom. The story was quickly making the rounds on the news outlets like KSL, and so were the tears in everyone’s eyes once they heard what happened. Judd was somebody that had the power to reach out to anybody. Whether they were in need or just simply someone he recognized. He was supportive when someone had nothing else to lean on, comforting when no one else was listening, kind wherever he went, and simply made life just a little more joyful. Judd was loved by many, but Judd loved everyone he knew. Judd also had plans to serve an LDS mission in Mexico and to play college football when he returned. My sadness only deepened with every crying face that I hugged later that day at another friend’s mission call opening, and I could feel the walls of everything I believed in start to shudder with doubt.
The following days after the accident left me racking my brain with questions and my eyes shedding several tears. This time I wasn’t questioning my daily routines, I was questioning everything. My sport, my effort in school, my religion. Everything. I was left feeling lost, not knowing what to think anymore. I was constantly wondering why something so sudden, so unbelievably swift could happen to someone that had so much ahead of him. Reality had shocked me, punched me at my very core, in its most cruel state like a freight train. Put simply, I was devastated, and so was most of my community. I was in desperate need of some hope and comfort.
The next Tuesday, I had the feeling that I should revisit Man of Steel and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. So throughout the day, I watched both movies, not really understanding why I had the impression to do so. After I had finished, and with the help of my religious beliefs, I was able to start making more personal connections with my life to those movies than I ever had been able to. Maybe it was the fact that I could now relate to Clark Kent losing a loved one in his life to an unforeseen event or that Superman was able to bring a Batman, whose soul had been broken by the world’s darkness, to the light of day. I could now relate to a Superman, not knowing how to approach a world-ending situation, find the courage to hope that everything would work out in the end. I could see myself in that same broken Bruce Wayne, and see the hope start to return to his eyes even after years of gruesome, brutal, sorrowful years of tragedy and crime fighting. All of this was the first of the comfort that finally came to my aid. The rest of my closure came with the inspiring funeral the day before graduation. While it did feel like we were missing someone close to all of us at the ceremony, we all knew that Judd was in our hearts as we walked to get our diplomas and say goodbye to our high school experience.
Everyone has their own stories about how superheroes have inspired them to be better in their lives. I think there are more people that have inspiring stories about how superheroes have saved them from their hard times. This is mine, and it hasn’t stopped yet. Right now I am preparing to venture off to college for a year on my own and will be continuing my swimming career at the next level. After that has finished, I plan to serve an LDS mission as well. While I am very nervous about these next big steps in my life, I know that I have these characters to inspire me to keep going. To be brave. To hope.
No matter what your story is, no matter how you tell it, I think that is the beautiful thing about comic book characters; in the movies or books. All of these heroes are inspiring in their own way, regardless if you like them or not. We don’t have to love every hero that exists in the movies or the books by any means. However, I think the thing that most don’t realize is that superheroes exist around us today. They might not carry the House of El on their chest, have an indestructible shield or fight to reduce the crime rates at night, but they might be that person next to you. They may be just someone who is full of life and is doing all they can just to live to the fullest they can. They’re the ones that can unite us as a people and put aside our fears, doubts, and anxieties. They’re the ones that can make us strong in our weak moments when we feel too tired to carry on. Those individuals are the true heroes.
My last experience with Judd was on a regular school day when all of our classes had just finished. I passed him in the hallway while he was having a discussion with another teacher. I simply smiled at him, not wanting to interrupt him in his conversation. Judd did not just smile at me; he quickly paused the discussion he was having and took the time to say a simple hello. We shook hands just before I walked out the doors, and his last words to me were “Wow that was probably the best handshake I’ve ever had. Take care you stud!”
Judd, along with Superman, Batman, Captain America, and the entirety of the comic book genre, even though I may not like it all, remain the rocks upon which I can tread on when my life may seem like it has no foundation. Had it not been for these characters and the people in my life, I can say without a doubt I would be a completely different person. Superheroes have quite literally saved me in my hard times, and I don’t think they’re about to stop doing so. That is why I have such a strong passion for them. This is why they matter in the world we live in today. Because even though we may only see them on a comic panel or an IMAX screen, their personalities are tangible. They’re felt around the globe, and they are saving people every day through the goodness of good people. I am going forward in life with a little more understanding, a little more love, and a little more hope.
I hope that we can all recognize the significance these larger-than-life characters have in people’s lives. That they may exist in a reality where we can criticize, judge and even reject, but their ideals exist in people that we interact with every day around us. Those are the people that I hope we can appreciate a little more, send grateful messages to more often and realize that they might even be saving us. Even if they aren’t able to be with us any longer.