Category: Guest Writer

Necessary Evils

The need for justice.

It’s a concept we can pretty much all get behind.

In comics, with a flash of a cape, good deeds are done all the time in the name of it. Colorful heroes pop from pages left and right to deliver innocents from the machinations of crooks, villains and other general ne’er do wells.

They even have a league.

But are heroes the only ones to represent the concept? After all, the bad guys always want the same stuff, don’t they? Glory, power, cash, prizes and even the odd world to bow before them–these are the things that a comic book villain covets. Still, every now and then, someone from the wrong side of the tracks will come along who embodies those very virtues. Truth, justice and all that. And really, that is what I would like to discuss here. Not the bank robbers or the power grabbers… but a few rare and memorable comic antagonists who might just be doing wrong for the right reasons.

First up is a personal favorite of mine. A character far more complex than his name would suggest.

DC Comics’ Sinestro was created in 1961 to serve as a foil for the company’s “silver age” reboot of Green Lantern. Admittedly, like many characters of the day, Sinestro’s name is a bit on-the-nose–and after considering his general appearance, it’s easy enough to imagine the character twirling that David Niven ‘stache, whilst plotting world domination. But what separates the character from other notable mustache twirlers is a single key factor.

Thaal Sinestro didn’t want power for power’s sake… he needed it to save his world.

For those who aren’t familiar with the source material… The Green Lantern Corps are an organized force of what can most easily be likened to SPACE COPS. Each member is given a super powered ring and a jurisdiction to protect, which often includes numerous inhabited planets. ‘Nuff said.

Sinestro was introduced pretty much as the golden boy of the Green Lantern Corps. His designated sector (which just so happened to include his home planet of Thanagar), was completely at peace and the Guardians of the Universe (a council of small, blue skinned, nigh-immortals who long ago took it upon themselves to protect all that was) couldn’t be happier. That is, until a smart-mouthed rookie from Earth uncovered the truth. See, instead of policing Thanagar, Sinestro had actually been ruling it with an iron fist for some time.

Now, as far as the actions of comic book villains go, world domination is hardly an original motive. Many a would-be tyrant has been driven by just that over the years… but where Sinestro differs from all the rest lies not in his actions, but in the reasons behind those actions. Sure, the guy had ego enough to fill that ten gallon skull of his, but at his core, Sinestro believed himself to be the ultimate patriot. A man who loved and wished to protect both his home and its people. Granted, total world domination may have been a bit on the extreme side, but that was just his way of showing he cared.

And that wasn’t the only time.

Years later, when Sinestro returned with a shiny new yellow ring and his own matching CORPS to go with it, he declared war on his former brothers in arms. The motive of such a bold move seemed crystal clear: he wanted revenge.

As generally is the case with any war, things got hairy for a while there. As if the yellow ring slingers weren’t bad enough, they released a couple “evil versions of Superman” and yes, some green lanterns died along the way. Fearing the cost of losing the war, the Guardians of the Universe (not the Galaxy) made a rather brash decision. They repealed a very old law, which stated that all Green Lanterns must only ever protect life and never take it. It was a soul crushing move for the Guardians, but proved the strategic equivalent of “pulling the goalie”, giving them the edge they so desperately needed.

In the end, armed with their new ability to wield deadly force, the green did defeat the yellow, finally tossing their mustachioed leader in a cell once and for all. But was that really the whole story?

Turns out, not so much. Revenge, as was revealed by a defeated and deeply pensive Sinestro, was only a means to an end. Apparently, he had long regarded the ban on deadly force as the one fatal flaw held by his old outfit. And so… he decided to present a threat so dire, the Guardians would have no recourse but to alter that ancient law. It was a move that, in his eyes, would serve to strengthen the one force capable of maintaining order in the universe–his sworn enemies–the Green Lantern Corps.

For those keeping score, that is two cliched villain motives (world domination and revenge) that Sinestro somehow managed to add a new dimension to. The character’s methods, while questionable, always had layers. There were reasons behind his reasons and justifications behind those–even if he happened to be the only one that fully understood them.

Next up is another complicated fan favorite. A character who like Sinestro, has often straddled that precarious edge between savior and despot.

Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men first faced the man called Magneto in 1963. The character has gone by many names over the years (Magnus, Erik, Joseph & others) but his ultimate goals have remained constant. Much like Sinestro, Magneto desired to protect his people (mutants)–or more specifically, to deliver them from the evils of bigotry and persecution. Also like Sinestro, the man managed to cross back over into the hero category many times over the years–even taking leadership of his original foes (the X-Men) when the need (or alternate timeline) arose.

For those who aren’t familiar with the source material… By the 60s, Marvel comic’s chief writer Stan Lee, had essentially grown tired of crafting unique origins for his slew of characters. After all, there are only so many radiation based accidents the populace is gonna swallow, am I right? So, wily Stan devised a way that would allow for many different powered characters to not only suddenly exist, but to continue coming out of the woodwork as time went on. He simply decided that these characters were born with their powers–as evolutionary anomalies called mutants. Beyond that, all you need to know is that the X-Men represent Dr. King (seeking peace and acceptance with the humans) while Magneto is more of a Malcolm X. ‘Nuff said.

The fact was, whether he was seen as champion or terrorist mattered little to the so-called master of magnetism. One of the more powerful mutant characters at the time, Magneto could manipulate magnetic fields to varying and astounding result. On the surface, he was an angry man whose actions came off as more “mutant terrorist” than anything. But at his core, he was a deeply troubled individual who was secretly fighting two wars at the same time. There was mutants vs. humans for sure, but there was an older fight as well, one which he could never win. As it turned out, the boy who would be Magneto was born to a Jewish family in 1920s Germany. And like so many others, he had eventually been captured and shipped like so much cargo, off to a Nazi prison camp.

In this writer’s opinion, choosing Auschwitz as a point of origin for the character has to be considered one of Stan Lee’s most shining strokes of brilliance. The backdrop allowed Magneto’s crusade against humanity to echo not only racism and persecution, but the all too real, penultimate conclusion of those hate-fueled doctrines. As more and more of his tragic backstory was revealed, we began to understand that what the man truly hated was not humanity itself, but rather the ugliness it was capable of.

For any medium, these are some seriously heavy issues, but for funny books of the 1960’s this was groundbreaking stuff.

Magneto didn’t want riches or power or even a world to bow before him… what he wanted was justice. Same as anyone. With many readers, the character simply struck a chord. A very real, very deep chord (maybe an e minor). After all, he wasn’t just trying to stop the persecution of his people from happening, he was trying to stop it from happening again.

Point is, if he hijacks some missiles or overthrows a made-up nation in Brazil, maybe you cut the guy a little slack. Besides, most of the time Magneto was trying to set up a sovereign nation for mutant kind. A home that would separate them from the race of humans who feared and detested them. Problem was, not everyone appreciated being shipped off to some uncharted island or asteroid that happened to be in orbit at the time.

But I guess, that’s gratitude for ya.

Characters like Magneto, and Sinestro believed one thing above all the rest. That whatever evils they wrought were not only justified but were of the necessary variety. In their own ways, each understood that old adage about the omlette. It was a path neither revelled in walking, but one they ultimately embraced with near fanatical fervor. As readers we may not have agreed with their specific actions, yet whenever misdeeds are motivated by love, they have a tendency of drawing out our sympathies and sparking our imaginations. Striking that e minor, as it were.

Make no mistake, these characters are the bad-guys. They are the destroyers, the fear mongers, the would-be tyrants… but in the scope of a good story, the “what” doesn’t matter half as much as the “why”.

Some grab power only because they can.

Others do so because they see no other choice.


Steve Van Samson is a graphic designer/dad/nice guy by trade. He is also a part time podcaster, singer of the band Enchanted Exile, and a great lover of all things GEEK. 

So far, Steve has written two unpublished books: “Broken Guardian,” which is intended to be Book One in a YA fantasy/adventure series called “Shatterscale”–as well as an adult horror novella (about vampires in Africa) called “The Bone Eater King”.

At this moment, he is more than halfway through a third book called “Marrow Dust” (a sequel to “The Bone Eater King”). When that one is finished, he plans on self publishing the two books at once, while continuing to shop around the first novel. In addition to that, he maintains a monthly column over at Cinema Knife Fight called “Monochrome Manor”. 


Once Upon a Time, We Were All Kitty Pryde of the X-Men

While most people will recall the 1992 X-Men the Animated Series, three years prior, Marvel attempted its first go at an animated X-Men. The premise followed the popular roster of Xavier’s students, Cyclops, Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Dazzler and Wolverine and the joining of Kitty Pryde. While the production value at the time received high praise, the campy story line, Australian Wolverine (did they know Hugh Jackman would join later?) and whiney Kitty Pryde killed all forward momentum.

While watching it, I realized something,  Kitty Pryde, more than any other mutant, is a reflection of the reader.

I wish I could say we’ve all had the ability to phase through solid objects, alter our density, and tame a pet dragon or that we’ve all fallen in love with beefy, sexy men named Peter (no seriously, she’s on her third Peter now?) No, it’s even more profound than that. Kitty Pryde unlike her brethren X-Men is not a symbol of a people persecuted for the difference, she is the face of the individual ostracized within their people.

Kitty Pryde originally joined Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters because like the other students, she was different. Not only a mutant, Pryde had a genius level intellect. We’ve each experienced a new school, moving from middle grades to high school. We have been outsiders amongst outsiders. Unlike the original five X-Men who were born into a generation when being rebellious was staying out late at night, Kitty Pryde had no problem throwing attitude at Xavier, her father-like figure and threatening not on his physical self, but his entire ideology. We grapple with her anger because like her, we’ve rallied against our parents (even if at a minor level.) We rooted for her to come into her own, to prove all others wrong because once, we wanted somebody to root for us in the same way.

It took years for her to discover herself. It took some of us years to do the same. We weren’t accepted by the outside world and later, we even question our acceptance among our peer group. But as Sprite became Ariel, and then turned to Shadowcat, we watched her experiment with her identity as we did the same. The scared girl, unsure of her own abilities grew into an angry and defiant teen who enter womanhood with the need to prove herself to nobody but herself.

We’ve watched her develop a young girl’s crush on the dashingly handsome Russian Peter Rasputin. While the romance remained plutonic and not returned by Colossus due to her young age (a subject that was even discussed in the comic) we rooted for them. Our teenage crushes were unrequited and we wanted this one, this forbidden romance, to play out even though if it did, we would lose faith in the honorable Russian. Later when they finally have sex, we experience a similar gratification in the moment, seeing Kitty’s childhood crush finally play out much like we wish ours idealized forgotten loves would have.

Later when she rejoins the team as a more mature Kitty Pryde, she sits at the “big kids” table and frequently spars with Emma Frost, the queen of vain. Her mini tantrums remind of us the young girl, partaking with the adults but still viewed as less, perhaps not earning her place. However, this changes during a physical confrontation between Kitty and Emma. We watch Kitty not only physically dominate the White Queen, she does so while unleashing decades of pent up rage. Ultimately she wins the battle and what little childhood remained in our beloved teen is wiped away and we’re left admiring a battle tested member of the X-Men. While we applaud her badassness, it’s only enhanced by her ability to still be the noble and empathic X-Man.

For a stint she serves as the Headmaster of Jean Grey’s School for the Gifted and we watch her character come full circle. Unlike many of her cohorts, Kitty does and has aged, moving from teenager to twenty-something. The student, the scared and timid girl becomes the pillar of a new movement of a different generation.

While we empathize with the rest of the mutants as they represent an allegory for civil rights, gay rights and minority persecution, Kitty Pryde is different. She isn’t the face of a movement or the icon of a species. In 1973, Byrne and Claremont had no idea they were creating the face of every awkward teen who felt uncomfortable in their own skin. We can only hope that as we grow with Kitty, we come into our own as she did. In the meantime, we continue to follow her journey, because in part, it’s like reading a super powered diary of our own lives.


The Folly of Subcultural Gatekeeping, or WWXD?

 

My favorite superhero comic property has always been The X-Men. Their powers were varied and interesting, the individual heroes had deep backstories and complex relationships with each other, so much of what they did was just so incredibly cool. But what I loved about the X-Men most of all was what they stood for: these heroes were mutants. They were different, shunned by society, told they were dangerous and shouldn’t exist and yet with all the hate thrown
their way they chose to use their powers to try to make the world a better place. The followers of Professor Charles Xavier put their lives on the line to protect the same people who would just as soon see them dead. What could be more heroic than that?

Obviously I’m not alone in my adoration of the X-Men. There have been 10 blockbuster movies, 3 animated television shows, and thousands (and counting) of individual comic issues. People love the X-Men and many people relate to them. Super-powered mutants on the embattled fringes of society work as metaphorical stand-ins for anyone who is off the mainstream; from racial and ethnic minorities to LGBTQ people to your garden-variety outcast or nerd (that last one would be me – hi!) Many people who love the X-Men do so in part because they know what it’s like to feel like they don’t fit in with the rest of the world, but that they still want to make a positive impact on it.

So I really have to say – it confuses the hell out of me when fellow geeks try to exclude people.

Let me just pause here and explain what I’m talking about: there’s this thing that some nerds sometimes do where they try to test and see if you’re a “Real Nerd™”. They may casually throw some quiz questions into their conversation with you, or make an obscure reference to see if you catch it, or suddenly quote something to see if you provide the next line. If for whatever reason you fail these tests then you have proved yourself not a “Real Nerd™” and will therefore get the cold shoulder or some snickering remark about how you probably never read any of the comics anyway. It doesn’t just happen with nerds trying to see who belongs in the clubhouse, it happens in all sorts of subcultures, professions, and social circles. People do it because they think for some reason (usually superficial) that the person they are dealing with doesn’t belong in the same group they do. It’s an insecure, childish behavior and it has a name: Gatekeeping. At the lowest levels, Gatekeeping is people telling others that they can’t be “Real Nerds™” or “Real Fans” or whatever and giving them the brush off in a social setting. At the highest levels, Gatekeeping shuts people out of careers, neighborhoods, countries, entire parts of their lives. Pretty shitty, huh?

To be fair, I say that it confuses me when geeks (those typically shunned and shut out for as superficial a reason as being slightly awkward and liking nerdy things) engage in this behavior, I can extrapolate why people do it. Sometimes it’s a feeling of ownership: comics are “their” thing and other people could not possibly share their deep personal connection to them. Sometimes it’s a feeling of vulnerability and mistrust: the person that they are eyeing suspiciously reminds them of people who would normally ridicule them for liking comics so they must only be feigning interest to gain a hurtful new advantage over them. Sometimes it’s a certain element of snobbery: they have spent countless hours dedicated to learning all about these comics, this casual interloper has no place among the Hard Core Fans like them!

My rebuttal to all of this is basically, grow up.

Comics, superheroes, nerdy stuff in general is not just for you. Unless you are a wealthy Renaissance patron you probably don’t have an entire stable of artists and writers creating content for you, personally. Comics creators create their work hoping that as many people as possible will enjoy it since you know, that’s how they make their living.

No adult is going to spend their precious free time and money going to crowded comic conventions or digging through longboxes in the local comic shop just so they can find your weakness and get some zinger in at you. As disappointing as it may be, we live in the real world, not a middle-school made-for-TV special where mustache-twirling villains scheme to hurt your feelings.

I take special umbrage with the “Real Nerd™” snobbery of being a more casual, or just less experienced, fan. Not having the hundreds of hours (and thousands of dollars) investment into a fandom doesn’t mean you are any less sincere or enthusiastic. It is often just a question of access. I grew up in rural Maine, you know what my local “comic shop” was? Rite Aid. Yeah, the pharmacy. They carried maybe 4 different superhero comic titles on their magazine rack (plus Archie, of course!) On top of that my parents didn’t “believe in” allowance (yeah, I don’t know either) so I almost never even had pocket money to purchase those comics with until I was old enough to drive myself to a part time job. By the time I left home for college I had only ever read maybe a hundred out of literally thousands of X-Men comics. There was no way I was going to catch up and become a “Real Nerd™” before I started my freshman semester! I would be forever shamed!

Because I was going to college to get my degree in comics.

You see, despite not being able to find, purchase, and therefore read many comic books, I always loved them. I was drawing comics before I knew what comics were. I had always loved to draw, I had always loved to write, so I did the two together my entire life until I realized that it was really the only thing I wanted to do and skipped off down to the Savannah College of Art and Design to maybe learn how to actually do it well. Along that winding path there were so many people, “Real Hard Core Nerd™” people, who saw my enthusiasm and drive and welcomed me in and helped me along. From the English teacher who first suggested I look into SCAD, to the Comic’s Lit Book Club organizer who shoved Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” into my hands after the first meeting I attended, to all my college professors, to friends I made over conversations that started with, “oh, you haven’t read that? You should totally check out this…”

I would never have gotten this far in my amazing comic-creating journey without those people, the ones who saw someone who maybe didn’t quite fit their notion of “belonging” but welcomed them anyway. I have definitely encountered my fair share of Gatekeeping trolls – occasionally to my social or professional detriment – but I am eternally grateful for all the people who decided to embody the inclusive spirit of the X-Men and help me on my way instead. It may not be fighting Apocalypse to restore the timeline, but they put themselves out there in small ways to make the world a better place for people that may not have been just like them.

That’s the thing, really: you can’t tell from a quick look or nerd-password-test who you’re really talking to, who could end up being a great friend, or even a creator of some of your favorite comics some day. So the next time you think you’ve encountered a casual comics’ fan, someone who’s only into superheroes because of the CW, or any other less-than-fully-vetted nerd, and are tempted to quiz and cold-shoulder them, just take a moment and ask yourself, “What would Xavier do?”


Amanda Kahl is a comic artist and writer and the creator of the fantasy webcomic “Age of Night.” She also illustrates for the tabletop gaming industry and likes to play games, hang out with her kids, and read. Check out some of her comics at www.ageofnight.com!


Reality & Continuity, Or Why 9/11 Reveals Some Insights About Live-Action Superheroes

Superheroes aren’t real. (Gasp, I think one may have just died because I said that). They aren’t, but the rise of realism in comic storytelling that emerged in the second half of the 20th century, means that readers demand realistic elements to the storytelling. Even though our capes are walking deus-ex-machinas, we prefer the veneer that all things are genuine struggles for them. But surprisingly, superheroes do have limits. They are not perfect. Because for all that the superheores can do in their fictional realms, they cannot leap from the page and be a part of this world. However, they can appear increasingly life-like through good and sustained storytelling.

A good measure to think about superheroes is to consider how they operate in response to the world around us? How do they deal with real tragedies such as 9/11 and other tragic events wherein they are specifically designed to protect us from? Herein, I will explore how both DC and Marvel have grappled with that idea and the implications it has had for their cinematic and television universes.

I turn to Peter Coogan and his seminal book on the superhero as a genre (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/222322.Superhero) to highlight the power of the genre over others and how it may operate or deal with the real world.

“Real events from the past are worked in…Likely it will become more prominent as creators are freed from the burden of timeless continuity and are able to present stories that deal with the passage of time in more flexible ways….The superhero has a unique signifying function. It can be used to express ideas that other genres cannot portray as well. Superheroes embody a vision of the use of power unique to America.

Superheroes enforce their own visions of right and wrong on others, and they possess overwhelming power, especially in relation to ordinary crooks. They can project power without danger to themselves, and they can effortlessly solve problems that ordinary authorities cannot handle. This vision of power fits quite well with the position America finds itself in after the Cold War. America is the only superpower in the world, something like Superman in the days before other superheroes and supervillains.”

However, with cataclysmic or galvanizing events, trying to tell superhero stories becomes trickier. Cord Scott articulates this challenge in discussing writers dealing with World War II in “Written in Red, White, and Blue: A Comparison of Comic Book Propaganda from World War II and September 11” (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1540-5931.2007.00381.x/abstract):

“The writers and artists had to walk a fine line in how they portrayed these characters and how they showed them fighting the enemy. If a character was too successful at a time when the war was going against the United States, sales went down and people became demoralized. If the superhero did nothing but fight imaginary, nonthreatening foes (such as domestic criminals), then the heroes were not doing their part for the war effort.”

What does walking a fine line look like when dealing with more contemporary events, especially when the perceptions of comics and readers are much darker and adult-oriented, when censorship and violence is much more present within comics?

911—Continuity vs. Non-Continuity Responses

In 9-11: September 11, 2001 (Stories to Remember, Volume 2), published in January 2002, DC published a 2-page feature as part of a 2-volume series of publishers and artists delivering stories about 9/11 with the proceeds going to charities for the survivors. The short piece, “Unreal” features Superman saving a spaceship while breaking the fourth wall and telling the reader that despite his superpowers, he cannot “break free from the fictional pages.” The story reveals a child reading the comic that Superman is featured in and being rescued by a firefighter (likely, in one of the World Trade Center towers). The final panel bears the words, “A world, fortunately, protected by heroes of its own” while showing a silhouette of a firefighter holding an American flag.

By contrast, Marvel Comics addressed 9/11 in Amazing Spider-Man, Volume 2. Interupting the ongoing plotline, the largely internal dialogue of Spiderman is heard as he makes his way through New York City in the wake of the devastation. A bystander confronts him, “How could you let this happen?” He ponders this question and denies his ability to have stopped it with, “We couldn’t imagine. Only madmen could contain the thought, execute the act, fly the planes. The sane world will always be vulnerable to madmen because we cannot go where they go to conceive of such things.” Despite incapable of preventing it, much of the Marvel Universe is dedicated to the clean up in various not-so-sublte disguises. Included in the mix are characters such as Dr. Doom, Magneto, and Kingpin—characters who’s fictitious murders well surpass the death-toll of 9/11. According to Spider-Man, their presence is “Because even the worst of us, however scarred, are still human.”

Brian K. Vaughan’s series, Ex-Machina presented an interesting third option for superheroes regarding 9/11. The series presented the main character, Mitchell Hundred as a superhero who managed to prevent the second plane from striking the second town. Two years later, Garth Ennis would entirely reinvent 9/11, preventing it from happening as we know it and simply having his hedonistic and narcissistic superheroes fighting one another and causing one of the hijacked planes to crash into the Brooklyn Bridge. While both series started with Wildstorm (a subsidiary of DC), The Boys moved to Dynamite Entertainment after the first six issues. However, both were contained universes that had no need to address continuity issues. They also both adhere to Coogan’s point about the chronological distance allowing for them to play with the event.

But DC and Marvel’s approach to the real event is fascinating in its initial reaction to the event. Marvel folds the story into its universe—albeit a bit clumsy. It doesn’t give up its own fictitious realism but doubles down on it. By contrast, DC gives up the ghost and merely says, “Hey, we’re not real and can’t do anything.”

The Real World Approach To Movie-Making

For many years, Marvel was known for being a bit more realistic with its fictional world than DC. The classic, “superheroes with problems” shtick that derived from the 1960s Lee & Kirby team up has long permeated an assumed difference between Marvel and DC. But it goes deeper than that. It’s not just superheroes with problems, but it’s superheroes in a real world. Notice that Marvel Comics, by and large, exist in realm places New York City, Los Angeles, London, etc whereas DC has its fake cities: Metropolis, Gotham, Central City, etc.

This difference also accounts for some of the reason why Marvel has dominated at the box-office in the last decade whereas DC continues to stumble.   Until Man of Steel (although really, not until Dawn of Justice), DC Comics created contained fictions. When the movie ended, the credits rolled and the story was complete and contained (even when sequels would follow, they existed solely within that superhero’s limited world). It was even rare for the movie to reference anything beyond its own world (e.g. Batman might reference supervillains in Gotham, but never those of Superman). For most of the last forty years, every time DC sets to tell a new superhero story in film, they hit the reset button from anything else relating to DC.

For over a decade now, Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has continually let viewers know that the fiction does not end. They did this through cameos, Easter eggs, and post-credit scenes—all of which told us, the universe was not contained; there was more story to enjoy. Though this is most clearly done through the Marvel Cinematic Universe (movies revolving around the Avengers character franchises), it was also present within the X-Men movies of the 2000s with numerous references to other characters and events within the Marvel Universe (and, of course, their branching out with the Wolverine movies).

At best, DC can said to be trying to do this now with its TV series and films, but it appears to be in a constant state of catch-up. While its Arrow, Flash, and other shows have found ways to be woven together and that with Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, the films are existing in the same world, Marvel still beat it to the punch in making the jump between the TV and the films with Agents of Shield.

I don’t have a superpower to tell the future, but my guess will be that it will be a long time before DC can meaningfully compete with Marvel on the cinematic level with engaging individual tales that interweave with a large tapestry of stories. Yet I can tell you that when it does, it will because it has stopped admitting its own fictional existence and started to own its vision of what a real world would look like with superheroes.

*This essay was adapted in part from a previously published essay by this author in this collection: September 11 in Popular Culture: A Guide. Sara E. Quay and Amy M. Damico, Eds. Greenwood Press (9/2010).


Lance Eaton is an instructional designer, adjunct instructor, part-time writer, and perpetual collector of degrees. He resides in Beverly, MA with his partner and two adorable cats and is currently working on a PhD. He writes about books, audiobooks, comics, popular culture, education, and anything else that crosses his mind on his blog: By Any Other Nerd (http://www.byanyothernerd.com)


Modern Superheroes: Where Myth Meets Reality

My very first comic was an issue of Superboy in the early nineties. It had to do with the Phantom Zone, and that’s all I remember about it. It wasn’t the story that hooked me into reading comics—it was the medium. My brain had no context for what I was looking at. The combination of images and narrative was new to my young brain and the brightly drawn covers at the comic store seemed like infinite windows into new and spectacular worlds.

More than twenty five years later, comics have changed almost unimaginably. The kinds of stories being told are more creative and original, spanning from crime tales like 100 Bullets to absurd fantasy based on biblical myth like East of West. Yet the core of the industry is formed from superheroes. Men and women in silly costumes trying to do the right thing.

Why? How does the concept of the man or woman in tights continue to endure after almost a century of publication and tens of thousands of iterations?

There are a lot of theories. Psychology professors teach elements of superhero mythology in their classes, and it’s impossible to touch on the subject without examining the appeal. Every take holds some kernel of truth. Some people will read them because they like the action, the appearance of a simple good/evil dichotomy. Some just enjoy the art and need no deeper reason.

But for many if not most, superheroes remain timelessly fascinating because they represent the modern expression of one of the oldest human drives: to mythologize. Look at religions through the ages, especially Greek mythology. The idea of a superman, flawed and fascinating, is rooted deeply in stories of Hercules. The prototypical idea of someone like Batman, human but at the absolute peak of his abilities, can be found in countless other stories of classical Greece. I use it only as an example—the same can be found in nearly every other culture throughout the world.

Superheroes are that mythology for us in a world so modern it allows very little room for true mythology. Religion and science have crowded our ability to collectively believe the folk tale or put our faith in culture heroes. So we create our own. We fictionalize and tell tales, but we do it better than any culture in the history of the world.

The modern superhero is complex. The serial nature of comic books and television shows, combined with ever-changing staffs of writers and artists, creates a constant influx of new ideas and fresh angles. When you look back at Hercules, he was an interesting character but didn’t come close the emotional complexity and depth we would expect from even a modestly popular man in tights gracing the pages of a new comic book.

A huge part of the appeal is how the genre itself allows us to explore the mythology from infinite angles. The kinds of stories we can tell—and project ourselves onto—span the entire spectrum of human experience.

Superman: a Kansas farm boy at his core, someone who puts on his superhero persona but remains that humble guy despite his godlike power. Many have written about the essential Otherness of Superman, how his origin and life parallel the problems faced by American Jews in the 20th century.

Batman: the human persona is a front. Bruce Wayne is a fictitious mask for Batman to hide behind. The entire history of the character is an extended study in what a damaged psyche can drive us to do, to become.

How about Ms. Marvel? A comic that explores what it’s like to be a teenage girl, a Muslim, and a superhero realizing that her powers don’t give her the ability to fix the very real problems that arise from who she is as a person.

Perhaps the X-Men, one of the more popular comic franchises in history. First an allegory exploring the brutality of living in a racist society, evolving over the last twenty years or so into a similar allegory for the LGBTQ community in the world today.

We love superheroes and go back to them time and again because they are made by us. Their stories change and grow to become expressions of the struggles we face. We don’t love them because the characters suddenly have the power to defeat the forces arrayed against us, but because they often fail. We are shown that even great power is often not enough to win against hate or fear or even personal demons. What matters is the fight.

Is there a better illustration of this truth than the ongoing nature of comics themselves? Do we shell out money week to week and month to month because we expect one final crescendo that ties everything up neatly?

No.

Many of us fall in and out of picking up books, but going back is never about hoping to have that decisive victory. It’s about finding the part of the myth that appeals to us and riding the wave. Identifying with the story and struggle, seeing a part of ourselves in the deeply flawed—or realistic, if you prefer—characters who populate those pages, is a powerful means of examining ourselves whether we realize it or not.

And in the end, the simplest explanation for the enduring popularity of the genre fits neatly within this framework: it’s escapism. Myths have always been a way for people to lose themselves in fantasy, in magic and might they know can never exist. The constant stream of new issues lets us submerge into worlds where the power to fight back is more tangible, even if we know it will never result in that one vital win.

In a world so firmly grounded in reality, superheroes remain the greatest way for us to forget for a little while and pretend that men can fly.


Joshua Guess is an independent author living and working in Kentucky. He writes books across genres, from zombie apocalypse stories to superhero tales, all of which can be found via Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Joshua-Guess/e/B004A5LKU0


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