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?
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