08/28/2014 12:45 EDT | Updated 10/28/2014 05:59 EDT

Why Your Kids Love Super Heroes (And Why You Should Take Them To Comic-Cons )

Kid culture, as any parent can tell you, is an ever-evolving beast -- what's popular on the playground today may be a forgotten figment by tomorrow, though admittedly it may also come back in 20 years. But since the late 1930s there has been one constant: superheroes.

superman and son

Sure, caped crusaders are big box office these days, but that's because of the genre's recent adoption by teens and adults. Children, on the other hand, have never not been obsessed with the likes of the 75-year-old Batman, 50-year-old Spider-Man and 40-year-old Wolverine.

And there's no better place to feed that obsession than a comic book convention like Toronto's Fan Expo, which is where I'll be taking my son, Emile, this weekend. It will be his seventh or eighth con.

He's not yet five.

I was already a regular attendee at Fan Expo, which is celebrating its 20th edition this year, though I first started attending comic-cons in the late '80s when I was an avid elementary school-age comic collector. I picked up the habit when my dad gave me a stack of his old superhero comics that included the now-classic "The Night Gwen Stacey Died" Spider-Man arc, which came out several years before I was born.

Back then comic-cons were still underground -- literally, in the case of the Vancouver one which was then located in the basement convention center below Robson Square -- and featured only comic book artists and writers as special guests, not TV and movie stars.

But in recent years they have become major pop culture parties, powered by the rise of geek culture and expanded to incorporate everything from anime, horror and video games to Star Wars, LEGO and cosplay masquerades. San Diego's famed Comic Con is one of Hollywood's most important calendar events while Toronto's own Fan Expo attracted a record-breaking 100,000 people last year.

Emile's first con, when he was a just-walking 13-month-old in a Flash onesie, was most notable for his encounter with a remote-controlled R2D2 whose sudden bleeps and whistles at his approach made him jump higher than had previously been possible.

His excitement has increased with each one he's attended as his love of superheroes has deepened and it's become a biannual bonding moment for us.

He's thinking of going as a Ninja Turtle this year -- he wants to spend his tooth fairy money on a new mask. Last year E was dressed in his Superman PJs and I was dressed as the Greatest American Hero. (I've rarely felt older than I did when people asked who I was supposed to be.)

With the line between reality and fantasy blurry at best for a three-year-old, he'd rarely seemed happier than when meeting Captain America, Thor and Storm in person. The latter actually happened just after I'd bought him a still-boxed '80s-era action figure and the woman in full cosplay seemed just as chuffed to meet a little boy proudly holding up a Storm toy.

(E subsequently informed his daycare friends that superheroes were real because he had personally met them. This year, I explained the situation and his wide-eyed response was simply, "Grown-ups in costumes? Wow!")

Blog continues after slideshow

What To Do At Fan Expo For Kids

Initially, this love amongst the knee-high set, who seem to be clad in superhero clothing more often than not, surprised me considering they're too young to read comics or see the movies. Even most of the cartoons have been aimed at older kids ever since the 90s classic Batman: The Animated Series proved there was older audience out there.

So being a journalist, at the last Fan Expo I sought out Marvel vice-president Tom Brevoort's thoughts about why that's the case.

"Well, I think it's the same thing that's always appealed to superheroes -- they are colourful, they are bright, and vibrant. At their core they are very simple, it's very simple to understand who wears the white hat and who wears the black hat. Or in Superhero colours, who wears the red and blue primary colours versus who wears the green and purple.

"At the most basic level they are empowerment fantasies, and for kids even at a young age being able to do stuff and not live in a world where everything's decided for you by forces that you can't really comprehend is just very appealing, on a gut level sort of thing. Whether it's being able to pick-up some huge thing, or run faster than anybody else, or fly through the air, kids have an understanding of that at the youngest age.

"You know they are very open to imagination and stimulation and so forth. And so these are all characters and elements that appeal to them. They may not get the shadings and all the aspects of Peter Parker and his powers -- his uncle is killed and he deals with this sense of guilt and responsibility -- but they certainly understand he's the guy in red and blue, swings around the city doing crazy things and striking poses, it's very easy to kind of imagine yourself into the figure. Spiderman is one of those characters and part of that design is so brilliant and beautiful and pure, no matter who you are - because he's covered head to toe - you can kind of project yourself into that character."

Of course, since comicdom has always had two towers, I also spoke with DC artist Jason Fabok, a Canadian who has made his name working on various Bat titles and will be back at this year's Fan Expo on the "Batman 75: The Eternal Dark Knight" panel.

"My parents wouldn't let me see the movies 'cause they were too dark, but I knew who Batman was, and I knew who Superman was. As a kid with a big imagination I loved to fantasize about you know being a hero, helping other people, rescuing those in stress, saving the world, you know, those are the things that I think maybe are somewhere deep down inside of us, there's that, that desire to want to try to rise above that, when you're young, when you're innocent, to rise above to help others, things like that. I was always attracted to that, I was attracted to superpowers, I loved Superman because he was Super, he could fly, shoot lasers out of his eye, you know? He was super strong, and those things are all qualities we wish we had, and as a kid we connect with really, really well."

Fabok also attributes the perennial popularity of superheroes to children's developing sense of morality.

"It is interesting how kids are attracted to those good characters. As a little child you want to be the good guy, you want to be the person who fights for truth, justice, and the American way, or the Canadian way."

It's a long way from the 1950s, when comics were blamed for juvenile delinquency and the subject of U.S. senate hearings calling for censorship. So rest assured that your child's love of superheroes is not just fun, but meaningful, and because you grew up with the same ones it's a great cultural meeting point for mom and dad, too.


Fan Expo Is For The Kids