How a 5-Year-Old Inspired Marvel to Create a New Superhero and Custom Iron Man Poster

“Superheroes don’t wear hearing aids.”

When 5-year-old Anthony Smith uttered those words to his mother, Christina, one day last year, he had been wearing his hearing aid without issue for four months. But that morning he woke up and decided that since his favorite superheroes didn’t wear hearing aids, he didn’t want to either.

Born with mosaic trisonomy 22, Anthony’s parents knew he would suffer from hearing loss. Because of a complicated childbirth and other health concerns, Anthony didn’t receive his first hearing aid device until he was 2-and-a-half-years-old. “One of our big regrets is that we didn’t push harder, sooner, because it made a miraculous difference,” said Christina.

While the first device Anthony had to wear was painful, the second one — the blue Phonak hearing aid referred to by his family as “blue ear” — seemed to be a perfect fit until Anthony decided he didn’t want to wear it anymore. Not willing to give up on a device that was helping to improve his speech and language skills, Cristina came up with a solution: “I lied. I said superheroes do wear hearing aids.” Anthony, of course, wanted to know which superheroes his mom was referring to, so Christina wrote an email to Marvel, publisher of comic books and creator of many famous superheroes, asking for help.

Although her email was sent to a general catch-all “fan mail” account, the Marvel team saw it and responded. As it turns out, superheroes do wear hearing aids: Hawkeye, a member of the popular Avengers team, had lost his hearing during a fight and wore a hearing aid for a period of time in the 1980s. But the Marvel team went a step further and created a new character, Blue Ear, to be Hawkeye’s sidekick in a special one-off comic book created just for Anthony.

That private gesture didn’t remain private for long, though. Almost a year ago, the story of Marvel creating a superhero for one little boy went viral. CNN, Gawker, and the Huffington Post were among the news outlets that picked up Anthony’s story.

While media attention eventually died down, the Marvel team went to work figuring out how to make the specific character appeal to others. “We immediately thought of Iron Man,” said Bill Rosemann, Marvel Custom Solutions Editor. After suffering a chest injury, Tony Stark (Iron Man’s alter ego), relies on a suit of armor to live, similar to how Anthony relies on his hearing aid to hear. Iron Man is also one of the most widely-known and popular superheroes, thanks to two blockbuster movies in the past five years (with a third movie due out this May).

Iron Man was also a perfect fit for Kimberly Rawn and the team at Phonak, manufacturers of hearing technology for children and adults. “[Iron Man's story] was a complete parallel to what hearing technology does for kids and adults,” said Rawn. Together, Phonak and Marvel created a poster (see below) to educate children and lessen the stigma of wearing hearing aids.

The poster was revealed last week at the Center for Hearing and Communication in New York City. At the event, Anthony said his favorite superhero is now Iron Man. Christina added, “[The past year] has been amazing and I think the biggest impact on [Anthony] has been him being a great self-advocate.”

But what about Blue Ear? His turn in the spotlight may not be done just yet. When asked if there are any plans for him in the works, Rosemann said, “Well, you never know. The more we get asked about it, the more we think what could be done, so I always say, ‘Stay tuned.’”

Image: Anthony Smith and Iron Man by Diane Bondareff/Invision for Phonak/AP Images

Poster: Marvel/Phonak Iron Man poster by Christos Gage and Paco Medina

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