“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely“
“…with great power there must also come — great responsibility!“
Like many other kids, I often imagined what my life would be like if I had superpowers. A lot of my time in school (a truly great location to daydream about being somewhere else) was spent thinking about what I would do if I could fly, shoot lasers from my eyes, or utilize inhuman fighting skills. Thanks in large part to Stan Lee, legendary Marvel Comics writer and editor who welcomed viewers every Saturday morning to the cartoon series Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends with the opening line, “Greetings, true believers” I felt a strong sense that such abilities would entail an obligation to serve. Thus while my teachers were prattling on about dangling participles and the FOIL method, my attention was focused on an imaginary thought bubble, inside of which I battled against alien invaders or cyborg terrorists who had attacked my classroom. In the service of wholesome ideals I saved the lives of all my classmates and even preserved my teacher’s life that she might bore me again the next day.
By the time I got to middle school, the shape of my world began to change. I started to understand the nature of social hierarchies, and as a scrawny kid with bucked teeth and a face covered in acne, I learned quickly where I ranked on the pyramid. And the view from there wasn’t very pleasant. Long after my peers had moved on to more mature interests, I still thought a lot about superheroes and often imagined many of the same scenarios as I had when I was younger, though now rather than solely serving some higher purpose, I really just hoped that my classmates would all like me after I used my powers to avert certain annihilation. I still promised myself that if I were to ever possess superhuman strength or speed, I would use that power wisely and in service of the greater good, but my promise was made in the same realm where actual superheroes live; that of hypothetical fantasy. What if such power were granted in the real world with an exponentially greater number of choices big and small posed to me than could ever exist in the world of comic books? Would I cheat? Maybe a little here and there? Use my powers for some small gains? And how exactly would I treat the classmates that didn’t show proper gratitude for my saving their ass from the radioactive ninjas that nearly destroyed fourth-period Reading?
Human history has provided countless examples to bolster Lord Acton’s famous quote from the beginning of this essay, and every culture has struggled to find some kind of balance between power and justice. Each society’s mythos has, to one degree or another, sought to create an antidote to the problem of unchecked power by imagining the existence of transcendent individuals who possessed uncanny talents, yet were guided by an unswerving commitment to the most central ideals of their societies. These incorruptible warriors were usually seen as the highest expression of their people’s collective values and defenders of the sacred social order. Mythology is full of tales of all powerful deities and legends of supernatural beings. But the most compelling stories from these pantheons are those of beings who have one foot in heaven and another here on Earth. That is, they may be superhuman in ability or wisdom, yet who are undoubtedly human in their allegiances. This duality allowed them to wield power in a way that defied Acton’s maxim.
If we take just a cursory look at the history of literature, it is clear that “superhero” may be a modern word, but it is an ancient concept. The earliest recorded story, is also something of superhero tale. The Epic of Gilgamesh pitted the eponymous god-king and his sidekick Enkidu against supernatural foes; demons and a bull with the power to spread famine across the earth. In ancient Indian epic poem The Ramayana, Prince Rama, an avatar of the god Vishnu, must battle an army of demons who have overrun his kingdom. Armed with his magic bow and arrow he must face the evil lord Ravana. The Greeks had Heracles (more famously known by his Roman name, Hercules), the son of Zeus, who was also half human. He used his godlike strength and skill to wrestle lions, slay giants, and sack enemy cities all in order to protect his people. In The Bible, the nascent kingdom of Israel was defended by Samson whose long flowing hair gave him strength enough to defeat enemy armies armed with nothing but a jawbone and tear down a Philistine temple with his bare hands. Beowulf the Anglo-Saxon king slew the beast Grendel in one-on-one combat and later died while battling and defeating a dragon. Ferdowsi’s epic Shahnameh attempted to give the people of Iran a sense of agency after centuries of domination by foreign powers. Heroes like Rostam and Sohrab kindled feelings of pride as they used superhuman strength and inhuman fighting ability to single-handedly defeat invading armies. Each reflected the deeply held values of his culture and defended it against its worst collective fears, and each embodied the pinnacle of human goodness in ways that mere mortals could not.
Around the time that superheroes were bursting into the modern cultural landscape, the great folklorist Joseph Campbell, attempted to place the mythic hero into a universal pattern arguing that all heroic literature was part of a “monomyth” in which the hero set out on a quest to battle the forces of evil and protect his society, but also to discover the “ultimate boon” that is the culmination of the heroic quest. Campbell has been criticized for glossing over important cultural differences in attempting to place vast mythic constructs into a single framework, and I think these critiques are appropriate. Nonetheless, his “hero’s journey” that consists of three basic steps – departure, initiation, and return – can be mapped pretty well onto the modern superhero mythos, perhaps even more than it does on classical mythology. The idea that a hero must depart from conventional reality, suffer ordeals for doing so, and eventually bring the “ultimate boon” to his people (usually by defeating criminals or hostile alien invaders) pretty well describes the life stories of Clark Kent and Peter Parker.
Our rational age is less likely to look upon its heroes as representative of the wills of the gods. This has not stopped us from imagining that there are those among us exalted in both skill and virtue that exist to protect us from those who would do wrong to us as individuals or to society as a whole. The nineteenth century that brought the world rapid advances in science and technology did not lack in rugged adventurers who relied on bravery and physical skill to conquer their enemies; heroes like Three Musketeers, Robinson Crusoe, and Alan Quartermain all fit this mold. Others relied more on rational faculties prized in the post-Enlightenment world. Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin spurned an entire genre of detective fiction most notably embodied in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. These characters relied on reason and wit rather than brawn to defeat evildoers. Likewise, Captain Nemo and Abraham Van Helsing battled their foes using scientific knowledge that was gained through commitment to rational study rather than gifted from gods or granted by means of noble birth.
The first documented use of the the word “superhero” goes back to 1917 and used to denote a greatly accomplished public figure, but the concept of the costumed hero with which are most familiar likely originated outside of the English-speaking world. In Japan a form of street theater that was popular during the Great Depression known as kamishibai (the aesthetic and story themes of which would foreshadow the rise of manga) gave rise to The Golden Bat, a masked, caped hero who defeated evil doers using super strength and the power of flight. French director Louis Feuillade who had produced early horror-film classics Fantômas (1913) and Les Vampires (1915) teamed with novelist Arthur Bernède to create a dark hero named Judex who appeared in multiple films, novels, and stories starting in 1916. Feuillade took the Gothic atmosphere of his earlier work and added a vigilante who operated from a secret lair and used clever gadgets and masterful fighting skills to defeat a corrupt banker.
With the introduction of the railroad, the country and the world grew smaller as distance ceased to be a barrier to mass communication. Local newspapers became national ones and helped to create a shared national culture. When Marconi’s radio became a household item in the the 1920s, the distance was further eroded and a common mass pop culture took further shape in the United States. Both radio and newspapers provided platforms for stories, many of which carried over the adventure themes of their nineteenth century forbears but new media called for new kinds of heroes as well as a new type of society for those heroes to defend.
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” The introduction of Detective Story Hour radio program that premiered in 1930 was answered simply with “The Shadow knows!” An early example of cross-platform marketing used to help sell the Street & Smith publication, Detective Story Magazine. The character of the Shadow initially appeared as the host of the show who narrated crime and detective stories. Eventually, his popularity led to a demand that he take part in his own adventures. The Shadow’s description resembled that of Judex, clad in all black, mysterious, and possessing the power to cloud men’s minds through the use of hypnosis. Taking on a series of secret identities, he waged a one-man war against the sorts of crimelords that had risen to power during the Prohibition era as well as mad-scientists and a string of foreign enemies who fit into the simplistic Orientalist stereotypes that terrified Americans during the so-called “Yellow Peril“. Similar heroic characters arose over the following decade to dominate the air waves and pulp magazines including Doc Savage, a physical marvel and polymath whose moral compass was unswerving and who assembled a team of fellow do-gooders to protect the world from evil. These two proto-superheroes spurred a wave of imitators like The Avenger, The Spider, and countless other knock offs that would seed the cultural soil for the growth of a new heroic archetype.
The hero of antiquity emerged from timeless oral traditions, of tales told over campfires and was preserved in the form of the epic poem. The heroic archetype that emerged from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a staple of pulps and radio plays. Our modern superhero was born along with a newly emerging medium, though one that had ancient antecedents. The idea of depicting stories through sequential panels goes back at least to the beginning of human history. Some scholars believe that early cave paintings and Egyptian hieroglyphics were meant to tell a sustained narrative. The Bayeux Tapestry, a giant embroidered cloth created in the 1070s to commemorate the Norman conquest of England, stretched more than two hundred feet and displayed more than fifty ongoing scenes of battle. The Sistine Chapel is a sequential depiction of the Genesis creation-story. American newspapers began printing cartoons in the 1800s, sometimes in strip form that featured multiple panels. In the early decades of the twentieth century, heroes like Tintin, Buck Rogers, Popeye and Tarzan became serialized in magazines and newspapers across the country. The comic book as we know it today finally took its familiar form in 1929 when publisher Dell released The Funnies #1, a sixteen-page collection that reprinted the most popular of these into a single volume. National Allied Publications (later, and more famously known as DC Comics) started publishing New Fun Comics in 1935, the first comic book that contained all new material. It became the garden from which costumed heroes would emerge a few years later.
American cartoonist Lee Falk laid much of the groundwork for superhero comics by introducing strips of Mandrake the Magician and his superhuman companion, Lothar in 1934. The two teamed up to fight against many future staple villains like crime bosses, evil esoteric brotherhoods, and extra terrestrials. Two years later, Falk created The Phantom a costumed crime fighter who like earlier radio-show adventurers lacked superpowers, but battled evil with the use of sharp wit, top fighting skills, and an arsenal of gadgets and weapons. Based in a secret lair called The Skull Cave, The Phantom served as a bridge between characters like The Shadow and a certain billionaire crimefighter who would similarly operate out of his own hidden cave. The Phantom’s greatest contribution to the superhero mythos may be the pupil-less eyes behind his mask that Falk claim was inspired by the look of marble busts of Greek heroes from antiquity. My introduction to these characters was through a cartoon series in the mid-1980s called Defenders of the Earth that brought Falk’s heroes together with comic strip veteran, Flash Gordon and a younger generation of heroes. I had no idea at the time that I was witnessing an homage to the 1930s pulp adventurers I’d later grow to love.
The most compelling and controversial contribution to the superhero mythos may have come from outside of the realm of literary adventure stories or new media of the period. Philosopher Fredrich Neitzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarahustra: A Book for All and None introduced the concept of the ubermensch to the world. Nietzsche’s oft recurring theme of the man who through the force of will and rejection of traditional morality and power structures transcends the ordinariness of his fellow mortals provoked the imaginations of many for both good and ill. Early translations used the more etymologically accurate English “Overman” but in his 1903 play, Man and Superman George Bernard Shaw gave the term its more enduring English rendition. Pop culture later benefited from this neologism, but in the 1930s and 40s the world bled greatly from a great misunderstanding of Neitzsche’s ideas. The National Socialist regime that took power in Germany in the 1930s used Neitzsche’s language to justify its theories of racial purity and ethnic cleansing, imagining that the “Superman” was defined racially, as in the master race of Aryans that would conquer the Earth and vanquish the rest of humanity in the process.
At the same time that Hitler was consolidating power by promising Germans that they were the collective epitome of supermandom, two Jewish kids from Cleveland were also reading Nietzsche. Science fiction fans Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster, collaborated on an early draft of a story called “The Reign of the Superman” inspired by the concept of the ubermensch. The story’s central figure is a bald, power-hungry villain with telepathic abilities (who looked strikingly like Superman’s archnemesis, Lex Luthor). Seigel and Shuster abandoned the story but later took the title character’s name into a very different direction.
The first issue of an anthology called Action Comics dropped on newsstands April 18, 1938. It featured lots of stories; westerns, slapstick comedies, and a murder mystery, but with one exception these are mere historical footnotes. The main attraction was a tale about an orphan boy from a far away planet who was raised by earthlings to become the “champion of the oppressed”. Due to the highly evolved state of his alien heritage he possessed superhuman powers; he could easily lift a car, outrun a train, bullets bounced off his chest like harmless pebbles, and he could jump over skyscrapers. When he was granted his own cartoon series in the early 40s, producers found it easier to animate Superman flying than doing amazing leaps, so flight was added to his roster of powers. Over time he would gain other powers like x-ray vision, heat rays, and cold breath and more that would ultimately make him more and more godlike. This early Superman was also brash and violent, willing to dish out punishment with excessive force, sometimes to the point of killing his foes. He wasn’t yet the upstanding boy scout he would become in service of society. His early targets were often those that would make modern progressives smile – wife beaters, slum lords, and corrupt politicians all felt Superman’s wrath as did police officers who tried to stop him from his crusade against injustice. Like all myths, Superman evolved, especially as other storytellers took his mythology into new directions. His power, unlike that of the ubermensch that was being touted in Nazi Germany was tempered by his absolute commitment to the ideals of truth and justice that were taught to him by his adopted parents in the heartland of America.
If Superman was godlike, another superhero introduced the following year provided a counterpoint. Batman was human, flawed, and walked on the dark side. Although he was a good guy, a crime fighter, the difference between his tactics and those of his foes was one of mere degree, and in his earliest years, of very little degree. When his origin story was later revealed, we learned that Bruce Wayne was driven into a quest for unending vengeance against the criminal underworld after witnessing the murder of his parents by a street thug named Joe Chill when he was just a young child. Unfortunately for the criminals of Gotham City, the young boy inherited his parents’ fortune which he used to build an array of vehicles and devices to aid his crusade. As a child, young Bruce had fallen into a hidden cave and was terrified by the flailing of a colony of bats he disturbed in the process. It was that fear he carried with him into his career as a crimefighter when he used the likeness of these dark creatures to strike terror into the hearts of his criminal foes. Batman’s creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger were clearly inspired by radio dramas and magazine serial characters like the Shadow, The Phantom, and Doc Savage, all of whom left indelible marks on the Dark Knight. But his costume and the comic book medium from which he emerged put him in the same camp as Superman. Like early Superman, Batman was a more violent character, willing to execute criminals often in extremely gruesome ways as when he hanged a villain from a rope dangling off of his Batplane. If Superman sought to use his powers to make the world safe for the innocent, Batman hoped to make it dangerous for the guilty.
In 1941, A third character whose real world origins were far stranger than her comic book one, would form the holy trinity of early American superheroes. Princess Diana, better known as Wonder Woman was born on Paradise Island (Themyscira, as it’s now come to be known) a place populated solely by divine female warriors where she was sculpted from clay and had life breathed into her by the Greek gods. After an American pilot named Steve Trevor crashed onto Themyscira, Diana escorted him back to the United States and became an ambassador of peace. But when war engulfed the world she used her unmatched skills to battle the Axis powers. Yet, there was more to Wonder Woman than simple martial heroism. Her creator, a man named William Moulton Marston (writing as Charles Moulton) was not the typical comic book writer of the time. A Harvard-educated psychologist who lived in a polygamous union and had a feminist axe to grind was far out of the mainstream of 1940s American life. Rather than writing an academic treatment or political manifesto for his views on women’s liberation, he chose to make a comic book. He later said, “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.” Wonder Woman was Martson’s crusade to save the world from inherently violent men by presenting a female hero who could match any male superhero in strength yet could also outdo them in wisdom and kindness. But there was a secondary dimension to Marston’s character that is more complex. Marston had a love for bondage that showed up in his stories, visually present in Wonder Woman’s bracelets and her lasso of truth. Early Wonder Woman comic books featured so many examples of the hero being tied up or put in chains that were a clear and deliberate use of bondage imagery. Marston was called out frequently for this sort of thing and replied unapologetically, “…women enjoy submission—being bound.”
With this trinity in place, the table was set for the creation of a new American mythos reflecting the values of the interwar years. National Publications, the owner of all three titles, would become known as DC Comics, short for one of it’s more popular series, Detective Comics (the name change wouldn’t become official until 1977) and soon found itself sitting atop an unprecedented pop culture phenomenon. The early antiestablishmentariansm of these characters had to be brought into line as a growing number of children began reading DC’s monthly offerings. When Pearl Harbor was attacked in December of 1941 and the United States declared war on the Axis Powers, there was little room for figures who bucked the trend of patriotic cohesion and social conformity in the face of the fascist and imperialist threats abroad. Superman’s borderline socialism, Batman’s brutality, and Wonder Woman’s barely disguised sexuality were all tempered in order to make the heroes acceptable to the general public.
In late 1940, Whitney Ellsworth editorial director and DC’s early creative voice sought to make his characters more family friendly when he issued an order to end the excessive violence and sexual innuendo. Superman and Batman then became adherents to the belief that life was sacred that would form a central trope of herodom. Thus Batman began to draw a sharp line between his outlaw vigilantism and the criminals he fought by never killing his foes and Superman who had the power to destroy the world with little effort, became outspoken in his belief in the inherent value of all human life. The fact that the central ethos of the heroes I grew up with is based on a pragmatic marketing decision and not a commitment to an actual ethical stance is one that still doesn’t sit right with me. Nonetheless, I absorbed these values when reading about superheroes as a kid.
A world at war with evil required a larger roster of heroes to protect it. DC Comics soon added iconic characters like The Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Hawkman, The Spectre, and Doctor Fate. Other publishers would quickly jump on the bandwagon producing knock-off heroes, most of whom would be easily forgotten once the initial popularity of masked crimefighters died down. Several competitors did manage to create characters that would endure; Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, Captain America from Timely Comics (the publisher that would eventually become Marvel), Will Eisner’s quasi-superhero, The Spirit, and Charlton’s Blue Beetle remain well-known figures to this day. A new vehicle for the transmission of an American mythology came into being almost overnight, at the same time that Americans were reinventing the myth of their own nation. Comic book superheroes went to war before The United States did. Captain America was in Berlin punching Hitler in March of 1941, nine months before the attack on Pearl Harbor shook the majority of Americans from their isolationist tendencies. Kids in the millions bought comics and read them as did GIs fighting overseas. Some seventy million Americans – nearly half of the population of the United States – was reading comics during the golden age. Those percentages shot up into the nineties when controlling for child readership. The so-called Greatest Generation was steeped in the mythology of superheroes and for awhile the superheroes reciprocated.
After the end of the V-J Day, superhero comics declined in popularity as romance, western, horror, and action/adventure titles came to dominate the medium. While the more popular costumed adventurers from the Golden Age continued to thrive, most superhero titles faded into well-deserved obscurity and eventual cancellation. Undoubtedly, returning GIs who’d made up a significant percentage of the comics reading public had little interest in seeing super villains in action after the horrors they’d witnessed in Europe and the Pacific. The very nature of the concept of the super-powered hero came into question as well. In the early 1930s Neitzche’s ubermensch was received entirely differently than after the horrors that were inflicted under the “master race” ideology of Nazi Germany.
This last point was picked up on by a man whose name became infamous in the annals of comic book history. Dr. Frederic Wertham was a German-born psychiatrist and activist who gained notoriety in the early 1950’s with his assault on horror and crime comics that culminated in his book, The Seduction of the Innocent and a set of Senate hearings that ultimately led to the adoption of the comics code in 1954. Wertham’s contention was that comics were undermining and corrupting the youth of America and leading to juvenile delinquency. Though the brunt of his campaign was waged against EC Comics tales of undead creatures and amoral criminal escapades, he didn’t neglect superheroes in his crusade. Despite his villainous reputation among comic book fans, Wertham was a staunch liberal who worked tirelessly against racial segregation as he did against comic books with severed heads on the cover. He saw in Superman scary overtones of fascism and the Nazi exploitation of Neitzsche’s ubermensch. For Wertham, the unchecked power that engulfed his native country in the 1930s and 40s was not a trait to be emulated even if, as it did in the case of 1950s Superman, it cloaked itself in benevolent heroism.
Nonetheless, the mythic hero always returns to us in one form or another, the superhero would not be vanquished either by activism or lagging sales. Many of DC’s Golden Age characters would be rebooted in the 1950s under the guidance of editor Julius Schwartz. The familiar versions of Flash, Green Lantern, and Superman that are with us today, as well as the birth of The Justice League of America, perhaps the most powerful collection of superheroes the world would ever see are largely the result of Schwartz’s vision. As the Eisenhower 1950s bled into the 1960s, superheroes received a new jolt of life that kicked off the Silver Age of superhero comics.
By 1961 DC’s longtime rival, Timely had rebranded itself Marvel Comics. Writer Stanley Leiber (known more famously as Stan Lee) teamed up with veteran artist Jack Kirby to create a new superhero team that began the process of redefining mainstream American comics. The Fantastic Four offered little in the way of superhero originality but it injected a humanity into genre by depicting a family who behaved like real families do, often dysfunctionally. The following year, Lee and artist Steve Ditko released a short feature in Amazing Fantasy # 15 that featured, Spider-Man, a character who would revive and redefine the genre. For the first time in comic history, comic book readers met a hero whose secret identity was a lot like they were. Peter Parker was shy, bullied by his peers, and lacked the confidence of Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent. Moreover, he initially did what most of us would do when he gained superpowers; he used them to make money. It was only through an accident of fate in which his decision not to intervene in stopping a criminal who would later go on to kill his Uncle Ben made him pay heed to his uncle’s famous maxim. Peter’s decision to use his powers for good didn’t necessarily make his life better. He struggled, both as a superhero and as a young man trying to find his way in the world. When his girlfriend Gwen Stacy died at the hand of his archnemesis, The Green Goblin, readers were shocked to see that the hero did not always save the day and that they sometimes exacted terrible prices for their commitments to doing the right thing.
Marvel continued to push limits as DC’s classic heroes became one-dimensional mirrors of a world that was passing away. In the same decade when the Batman TV show featuring Adam West turned the dark and tortured caped crusader into a cheesy television cliche, Marvel was introducing more complex characters. Tony Stark the arrogant and sometimes unlikable billionaire secret identity of Iron Man would wrestle with alcohol addiction; The Hulk, a brute created when Dr. Bruce Banner was exposed to gamma radiation blast was as much a monster as a hero; Kirby’s magnum opus, Silver Surfer carried all sorts of psychedelic imagery that was right at home in the Age of Aquarius.; The X-Men a group of mutant heroes vowed to protect a human race that mostly feared and hated them. Their pariah status would make them extremely popular in later decades and allow writers to explore issues of discrimination and identity. As the preeminent writer of the series, Chris Claremont would say, it was “a book that is about racism, bigotry and prejudice.”
Marvel began to address the issue of representation in a field long dominated by Jewish and Italian immigrants who nonetheless presented a package of monthly stories designed overwhelmingly for white males. Characters like the African king T’Challa, better known as Black Panther and Luke Cage, defender of Harlem’s streets. Ms. Marvel, Black Widow, She-Hulk, and Storm (the popular X-Men character who was both female and black) built on the legacy of Wonder Woman and eventually became vehicles for feminist critiques of superhero culture. DC would have its triumphs in the 1970s including the Dennis O’Neill and Neal Adams Green Arrow/Green Lantern series that tackled many issues of the day through the eyes of the opposing political views of the two characters. But, mostly it was still mired in the past. Even its grittiest hero, Batman still carried the baggage of the 1960s television show with its “bams” and “pows” and paper-thin characterization.
By the late 60s the ostensibly stable status quo that Golden Age heroes had used their powers to defend was beginning to crack. Marvel’s more complex characters served as a canary in the coalmine about the crumbling social order, but they only rocked the boat to a certain degree; they were Johnsonian Democrats to the DC Republicans. Below the surface a wave of underground “comix” came to the fore taking cues from 60s counterculture that cared neither for the comics code nor for the trappings of polite society it was meant to uphold. Robert Crumb (better known as R. Crumb) and others who’d grown up reading Mad Magazine, EC horror comics, and even early superhero titles brought an irreverence and artistry to the field that mainstream superhero titles often lacked. In the 70s and early 80s French Heavy Metal, 2000 A.D in the UK, Kazuo Koike’s Lone Wolf and Cub, and Cerebus by Dave Sim all became established as classic examples of alternative vehicles for comic art featuring complex characters and adult themes. Before they became popstars in their own right, Eastman and Laird’s small superhero spoof, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lurked in the underground world crafting tales grittier than the late 80s cartoon that would make them famous. Superheroes had always been defenders of social norms to one degree or another, but as widescale protest and government scandal created broad dissatisfaction with authority and many of the hitherto sacral norms of society, it was inevitable that the institution of superherodom would come into question.
By the late 1980s, I was entering the semi-supernatural realm of puberty and with it the questioning of those older mores and simplistic notions about heroes and villains. The comics that had consumed so much of the attention of my childhood began to bump up against youthful angst and rebellion that was better funneled through my discovery of punk rock. This blend of hormones and anarchistic sound made for crisis when it came to holding onto my previously safe and secure understanding of reality. No longer did the existing order make complete sense to me, nor did its blanket defense seem particularly heroic. The black and white world was not only turning gray, but sometimes the good guys and bad guys began to flip spots in my moral universe. I didn’t stop loving comics, but masked do-gooders who were clearing the streets of villains were beginning to lose their grip on my imagination. My body happened to coincidentally schedule the radical biological changes of adolescence at the same time that the comics industry underwent its own paradigm-shifting coming of age.
In 1986, a young writer named Frank Miller who brought the grit of Scorsese to one of my favorite titles, Marvel’s Daredevil in the 1970s would go on to write The Dark Knight Returns. This alternate universe tale of an aging Batman was an utter rejection of the watered down Adam West camp that had defined Caped Crusader in pop culture since the 1960s. Miller’s story was a reflection and a scathing satire of the age of Reagan, a dystopian future in which Bruce Wayne has been retired from his crime-fighting career for more than a decade. But the force of both a decaying Gotham City and his own internal demons drives Bruce Wayne to don his mask again. Miller’s Batman holds to his line drawn in the sand maintaining the moral high ground and upholding his respect for life, but he walks closer to it than at any other time since his very earliest days. He does not hesitate to use excessive force and psychological torture in order to defeat his criminal enemies. One telling scene depicts Batman pinned down by a criminal minion of his nemesis Two-Face who holds a gun to the back of the Caped Crusader’s head. In the narration boxes, Batman explains calmly and methodically that there are seven working maneuvers in which to escape his predicament. Three of them disarm with minimal contact. Three kill. The last one hurts. It is this final option that he chooses.
As much as it was considered something of a postmodernist deconstruction of the Caped Crusader, The Dark Knight was in many ways a reclamation of the pre-war Batman meant not to strip the character of his mythical properties, but rather to re-enshrine an older, darker legend of the character. Miller’s series was an utter rejection of the peace that superheroes had made with the establishment since the early success of Superman in the late 1930s. Despite its elements of Reaganesque “law and order” conservatism, The Dark Knight ends on a quite progressive note. Bruce Wayne hangs up his mask and cape and gives up his fight against petty crime to take on a larger fight against the structural deficiencies of the world after it is torn apart by an electromagnetic pulse delivered by a Soviet nuke. The final page of the epic four-part series depicts an unmasked Bruce Wayne with an organized group of former gang members and hoods making plans to rebuild Gotham City’s infrastructure, or as the narration blocks state, “bring sense to a world plagued by worse than thieves and murderers.” For the first time in his decades-long crusade against crime (and the occasional extraterrestrial invader) Batman ceases his fight against the symptoms of social decay and takes up arms against the cause.
It was the question of underlying cause that had driven much of the early superhero fiction of a young British writer who would revolutionize comics in the the 1980s. Alan Moore began contributing work for the UK comic anthology series, 2000 AD in the late 1970s and his pioneering work on V for Vendetta and later stateside with the DC horror comic Swamp Thing. He began making a name for himself in superhero comics with his work on Miracleman (a reboot of a 1950s rip-off of Fawcett Comics’ character, Captain Marvel), it was a story straight out of 1950s American schlock comics of vanilla do-gooders foiling the evil schemes of sanitized villains. In Moore’s hands, it became the first major nail in the coffin of the traditional superhero.
Moore began to ask deeper questions about humans who attain such powers (and they were the same by and large as those asked by Frederic Werthen in the 1950s). Should we embrace the idea of an individual whose abilities were unchecked by any possible counter force? Would such a person necessarily live by an unswerving moral code, or would they be subject to the same human flaws as the rest of us? Was the social order that superheroes had always worked to uphold worth even defending? And perhaps most importantly, what made someone who dressed in a mask and tights to live out heroic fantasies tick in the first place? Rather than simply taking on the forces of evil, Miracleman must reckon with the fact that he is now, by all reasonable measures, a god. And with godlike powers, there must come godlike responsibilities. When his former sidekick, Kid Miracleman is driven insane by his infinite power, Miracleman is forced to execute the young boy in order to save the planet from the existential threat the child represented. Once this enemy is vanquished, Miracleman turns his attention towards actually saving the world once and for all. When he expresses a desire to abolish all inequity to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she replies that he cannot be allowed to destroy the free market. His response is a simple question, “Allow?” Her facial response tells us all we need to know; the absolute power Lord Acton warned us about has arrived.
In 1986, the same year that Miller was reinventing Batman, Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons began publishing Watchmen through DC Comics and, in so doing, reinvented superheroes entirely. Outside of the publication of Action Comics #1, it is fair to say that no publishing event in the history of comics has had same import on the development of the superhero myth as Watchmen. The series is a storytelling powerhouse with sociopolitical and personal layers so deep I have found each of a dozen or more rereads rewarding. The story takes place in a fictional alternate universe where a the creation of a singular omnipotent superman named Dr. Manhattan by a freak accident at the Gila Flats nuclear facility has inextricably altered the subsequent history of the world. His birth is surrounded by tales of other costumed adventurers guided by a number of complex motivations who stumble through until they are put out of business by an act of congress. As the world is hovering on the brink of nuclear apocalypse, one of these former costumed men is mysteriously murdered and Doctor Manhattan is framed and sent into exile on Mars. A shadowy figure with a Manichean world view, named Rorschach who serves as the story’s main protagonist vows to find out the identity of the real killer. His investigation leads to a grand conspiracy that threatens to shake the world.
Watchmen takes the Utopian/Dystopian conclusion of Miracleman to a new level. The story’s antagonist, billionaire retired hero Adrian Veidt, (formerly known as Ozymandias and often dubbed “the world’s smartest man”) has seen beyond the simplistic notion of fighting crime and has asked the bigger question of how he might save the world from the international conflict that threatens apocalypse. Veidt’s “heroism” is utilitarian and calculating. With the Cold War ratcheting up, he sees the nuclear writing on the wall and takes it upon himself to prevent the inevitable carnage by concocting a scheme by which he stages a deadly alien invasion that kills millions of New Yorkers in hopes to unite the world and to save billions from the threat of impending destruction (Moore lifted the concept from the great episode of The Outer Limits “The Architects of Fear”). Essentially, Veidt is recognizing the inability for heroes to simply do good by unswervingly abiding to a strict moral code. Human beings are messy and we carry lots of evolutionary baggage and our acts of heroism must be equally messy in their approach to problem solving. Veidt is a grim pragmatist and plenty of blood is spilled because of it.
To me, the most compelling character in Watchmen is the masked detective, Rorschach. His absolute commitment to never compromise with evil seemed to the twelve-year old me who first the story the absolute essence of what heroism was about. It was only subsequent readings of the story that were undertaken as I became older and learned more about human nature that it occurred to me that Rorschach was an unequivocal sociopath. Moore would likely say I had outgrown my simplistic childhood morality and come to the difficult world of adulthood where such simple notions are best discarded even if, very often, our society clings to them. For Moore, this childhood fantasy, taken to its logical conclusion is a source of unmitigated suffering and delusion and must be discarded from our collective psyche. What Wertham could not do by trying to destroy superheroes from the outside, Moore did from the inside.
The superhero concept, of course survived the twin assault of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen in the late 1980s, but it would never be the same. The old tropes were no longer tenable and every single story scripted since that time has had to account for what Miller and Moore had done to the myth. Dubbed by some as the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Dark Age of superhero comics, a murkier morality took hold of the world of costumed crimefighters. As the Cold War ended and the gaze of western civilization began to turn inward, the loss of a sense of unity engendered by a common enemy accelerated the path it had taken since the 1960s and society’s mythological heroes had to change with the times or become irrelevant. Moody Grunge rock began to dominate the pop charts, supplanting the party rock anthems of the 1980s. Much of comicdom went the same route. Batman took on a more ominous tone as his battles with the criminal underworld were paralleled and often eclipsed by by the battles within his own dark and brooding soul that often seemed to echo Kurt Cobain’s desperate lyrics. In the 1990s his popularity in the DC fold was rivaled by that of Lobo, an amoral antihero who rose to superhero stardom with his wanton acts of violence and nasty cynicism.
In many ways, Marvel was better equipped for the transformation. Mark Grunewald had actually gotten a jump on the idea of superhero fascists with his 1985 mini-series, Squadron Supreme in which an alternate universe of superheroes (all of whom have a striking resemblance to DC’s Justice League characters) seek to take the reigns of control and create a world free of suffering. By confiscating all weapons and ultimately resorting to behavior modification a la A Clockwork Orange they create an ambiguous utopia. In the 90s, Wolverine a tortured and violent antihero, whose popularity had been increasing since his introduction in the mid-1970s took center stage while Captain America and Spider-Man faded in popularity. While New York City was suffering a terrible crime wave during the 1970s, The Punisher rose to become one of the most popular characters in the Marvel Universe. The unmasked figure in black didn’t mess around with handy gadgets, instead opting for lethal guns and explosives that he employed with a complete lack of mercy for his criminal foes. Needless to say, The Punisher got several of his own titles in the late 1980s and became a symbol of the era. In 1990, the morally ambiguous and psychologically unhinged Deadpool was introduced to the Marvel Universe and his violent sociopathic behavior made him a fan hit, in part because of his amazing ability to address them directly. When Deadpool’s creator Rob Liefield joined Todd MacFarlane, Wolverine writer, Marc Silvestri and several other Marvel writers and artists to create Image Comics they rolled out a series of strikingly vicious characters like Spawn and Savage Dragon who had little use for the 1940s editorial standards or the prohibition on killing they enforced.
As writers began to explore the potential of their darker characters, the old shining knights Spider-man and Superman each suffered major blows to their popularity, so much so that DC deigned to kill the latter in December of 1992. Marvel attempted to save Spider-Man with some truly bizarre story-lines that made sales figures drop further. Both publishers tried to connect the old world with the new by connecting the mythic eras of the past with the hyper-realistic Dark Age that had come upon them. In the 1994 series Marvels, Kurt Busiek worked with the amazingly talented painter, Alex Ross to re-envision the history of the Marvel universe. The story is told through the eyes of a photojournalist named Phil Sheldon who witnesses and chronicles the major events that shaped the history of Marvel superheroes. While the heroes are the centerpiece of the story, they are kept at a distance both by Busiek’s framing narrative that surrounds the everyday life of a regular guy who witnesses the heroic pantheon in nearly the same mythic sense as the reader and by Alex Ross’ hyper-realistic painting, he thus simultaneously preserved the mythic nature of the Marvel pantheon of heroes while humanizing the world around them.
Alex Ross teamed up with Mark Waid in 1996 to craft the miniseries Kingdom Come that served a very similar role as a bridge connecting the Silver Age of DC’s heroes with the modern one. In the story Superman and his Justice League teammates have been sidelined by a new generation of anti-heroes who do not subscribe to the ethics of their forbears (and like the new breed of popular anti-heroes, apparently didn’t get Whitney Ellsworth’s editorial memo about the sanctity of life). A conflict begins to erupt between these two factions as well as a more moderate group led by Batman and an evil team led by Lex Luthor and a brainwashed Captain Marvel, the entire world is threatened by the brewing battle of so-called metahumans. The story ends in a peaceful balance between the golden age of old and the new world order that seemed to be a ubiquitous theme in the 1990s.
Mark Waid furthered Moore’s superhero deconstruction with his Boom Studios series, Irredeemable. A Superman-like character known as the Plutonian changes from a golden boy do-gooder to the world’s most prolific mass murderer in the course of a single afternoon when he scorches an entire city, murdering millions in the process. All this is spurned when his heart is broken by the girl he loves. The bleak series, A God Somewhere (2010) by John Arcudi takes this premise further. A regular guy named Eric suddenly gains super strength and the ability to fly and other powers that he barely understands. At first he uses these newfound abilities to save people from a number of natural disasters, but eventually they divorce him from human suffering and he begins to kill on a massive scale for no discernible reason. When an old friend encounters him in a cave and tries to understand his motive neither he, nor the reader is given a clear picture of what cannot be understood. Human beings are of no more significance to this newly minted god than fleas are to most of us. Like Kingdom Come, Jupiter’s Legacy written by frequent comic book thought experimenter, Mark Millar, tried to bridge the gap between old world values and the new world order. A legendary family of heroes protects the world for decades while their offspring use their power for celebrity, social status, and living in the fast lane like rock stars. When internal intrigue shatters the old order and installs a superhero dictatorship, the younger generation has to grow up fast and rediscover the age old values of responsibility to guide their great powers to save the world.
In 2000 Marvel launched the Ultimates line, a parallel universe in which Captain America, Iron Man, and Hulk are flawed and often unsavory characters who are usually pretty hard to like. The 2007 Civil War crossover event featured superheroes going to war with each other over differing ideals of what it means to be a hero. Congress outlaws costumed adventuring in response to the accidental deaths of hundreds of innocent people in a battle of super-humans, and demands that all heroes register their identities and fight under the command of the United State government. Iron Man yields to the process, but Captain America resists. Each becomes a pole around which an army of heroes gathers and both present fairly powerful cases for his side. In Avengers vs. X-Men, Marvel’s heroes again square off proving that in a postmodern world where good and evil are subjective constructs existing on a gray moral continuum, monologuing villains don’t have the same appeal as conflicted heroes.
For the most part, the main cast of characters in the both the Marvel and DC universes have maintained their relationships with the current socio-political order despite more misgivings and internal confusion about the validity of that status quo. Superman still defends truth and justice even if he is somewhat ambivalent about “The American Way”. Captain America has often found himself at odds with the government that he once served unswervingly (including when he hung up his suit and shield in response to Watergate in order to become the non-aligned Nomad). But in his heart, Cap is a patriot who doesn’t question the righteousness of the nation for which he is named, even if his trust of the government has dropped over the last decades on par with that of the American people.
But every reaction has a counter reaction and the gritty realism of the post-Watchman world has inspired a backlash of its own. Some comics have unapologetically embraced the mythic character of superheroes. Kurt Busiek’s magical series, Astro City has taken the history of comics and the tropes that it has birthed and located them into a single magical metropolis. Using the same third-party point of view that he employed in Marvels he is able to keep his costumed adventurers on a higher level than the grit and grime that covers the rest of the world. In reading Astro City, I get the feeling of awe and willing suspension of disbelief I felt as a child flipping through Avengers comics, yet I recognize the same commitment to writing about the human condition that has driven some of the darker more realist comics that I’ve come to enjoy in my teens and adult years. Warren Ellis, another Brit who came over to US comics in the 1980s along with Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman (apparently the UK has a thing for re-inventing American art forms. See the history of rock and roll for more information). His series Planetary is a love story to the entire lineage of comics going back to its earliest roots. The rich narrative involves a team of “archaeologists of the impossible” tasked with uncovering the secret history of the world and discovering evidence of superhuman activity that maps perfectly over the meta-history of comic books and their cultural antecedents.
Perhaps Moore’s greatest rival in the British Invasion of comics writers is Grant Morrison. Like Moore, Morrison brought lots of unusual influences into his work, notably the meta-fictional style of Jorge Luis Borges and the complete mindfuckery of Franz Kafka. Yet unlike Moore, Morrison is an unapologetic fan of the superhero genre. His work stateside, starting with Animal Man in the late 1980s and moving on to Doom Patrol, Justice League, and X-Men incorporates characters previously unseen in comicdom into his often bizarre stories. A cartoon coyote sent to Earth to pay for the sins of excessive cartoon violence, a mutant with a tiny sun in his head, a secret brotherhood dedicated to the art of absurdity who once stole the entire city of Paris, and a heroic sentient street are but a sampling of the oddities one will encounter in a Morrison comic. His goal has never been to take part in overturning the mythic status of the superhero by injecting excessive realism or darker narratives, rather he has always looked to reinvigorate the genre by taking the myths to new and unexpected places. Nowhere is this mission better exemplified than in his take on the Man of Steel. All Star Superman, a twelve issue series that rand from 2005-2008 in which Superman is dying of cancer after taking a trip into the sun to save an endangered space station. In his attempt to set things right before he dies, Superman must undergo various tasks that purposely mirror the twelve labors of Hercules. In an ambiguous ending, Morrison seems to suggest that the legend of Superman is bigger than the man himself.
Superheroes have always had life outside of the pages of their native comic books. From the Superman radio show beginning in 1940, the campy Batman television show of the 1960s to those 80s Saturday morning cartoons that were so important to me, superheroes have long been a multimedia phenomenon. Since the early part of this century, they have become not merely a Hollywood staple, but the dominant force in the movie industry. Marvel has rewritten the rules of film franchises while DC has striven to keep up. Though the nerds among us will argue whether anyone one could ever draw a better Superman than Curt Swann or whether Stan Lee or Jack Kirby deserve more credit for the creation of the Marvel Universe, to most casual readers or viewers, the characters live outside of the writing credits in comics or films in the realm of a shared mythology. They are timeless characters whose stories belong to everyone just as Heracles and Beowulf belonged to everyone in their own societies. Increasingly, comic book characters and creators are becoming more diverse and representative as the demand for more art by women, people of color, and alternate lifestyles is increasing across American culture. There are even those who have taken inspiration and tried to emulate superheroes in real life by donning costumes to raise awareness about important causes, do charity work, and, of course, even to fight crime. Like them or not, the superhero is here to stay.
Alan Moore has called this trend a “cultural catastrophe” and sees the global embrace of the idea of all-powerful, all-good protectors as something that potentially inoculates us against any skepticism towards abusive authoritarians who would claim to save us using their exceptional abilities. He echoes Isaiah Berlin’s critique of the hero-worship rife in the nineteenth century Romantic movement that helped to inspire the fascist movements of the early twentieth century. A love of superheroes, Moore suggests, is a way to retain a simplistic childish morality without having to grow up and live in the real world where choices are often gray and murky and absolutist responses to crises are not only inadequate, but dangerous. Since the 2016 election, the political lens through which Moore reads the popularity of superheroes has gotten traction, especially as those heroes jump from the niche market of comic books into the wider mass market media.
Our liberal political system has created a sort of mediocre homeostasis that is designed specifically to stifle the power of heroic or villainous charisma in favor of faceless and impersonal bureaucracies that work to block unrestrained power. By and large, this has worked well for human well-being, but even though bureaucracies can present an obstacle to keeping Lex Luthor out of power, they hamper the ability of Superman to do his work, too. When the bureaucratic swamp built to protect us from perilous power struggles of powerful charismatic figures and is instead populated by distant faceless elites, many of us tend to look for someone to save us from it; a Batman willing to take to the shadows and ignore societal norms in order to overcome these institutionalized barriers.
Witness the rabid and uncritical wave of support that brought Donald Trump to power. His presidential campaign sought to portray him as a heroic crusader willing to battle the forces of bureaucratic evil. Armed primarily with mythic sentiments (Make America Great Again) he stirred the passion of his supporters and never missed an opportunity to let them know that he alone could save them from the danger of evil immigrants and Muslims waiting to destroy all that is good in their lives. Lest we assume this was only a right wing phenomenon, we can look to Trump’s opposite, Bernie Sanders who likewise generated great enthusiasm in his supporters by demanding a political revolution to overthrow the power of Wall Street elites who seem to be running our world like supervillains. Bernie didn’t resort to the same sort of demagoguery as Trump, and there is no honest comparison between the manner in which Trump and Sanders ran their campaigns, yet among Bernie’s supporters there developed a vociferous uncritical movement that elevated him into the position of a savior against a world full of Big Pharma villains. In short, for many people of very differing ideological dispositions both Trump and Sanders served as potential saviors. As superheroes.
So then, are Alan Moore and Frederic Werthen right to suggest that superheroes are symbols of our society’s inability to grow up and accept the responsibility inherent in recognizing that the world is a messy place and black and white moral situations are very rare if not non-existent? Should we be wary of the fact that so many seem willing to uncritically offer their allegiance to would-be saviors? The biological wiring that makes us tribal creatures, predisposes many of us to bow before the will of those who claim the mantle of hero who represents the epitome of our tribe’s values. This is concerning, especially in this time of ours where the various tribes seem intent on dividing up people into camps of good and evil with no room in between. Human literary history is littered with idealized human beings as we have seen, but so is our actual history. Religious figures are of course cloaked in divine sanction, but so are nationalist and ideological figures objects of hero worship that often puts them above criticism in the imagination of their respective partisans. How can we expect Spider-Man to escape what Ronald Reagan could not?
But perhaps Alan Moore’s well-intended criticism is up against another biological reality as well. Human beings are not the rational animals many of us like to imagine ourselves to be. Rather we are emotional creatures with supplementary rational capabilities who evolved the ability to tell stories long before the first social scientists emerged with their charts and graphs to analyze the world in ostensibly objective terms. The most important information in our lives is best passed along when it is encapsulated within a compelling narrative full of symbols that resonate with us on an emotional level. Those symbols can, and too often are, manipulated for nefarious ends, but that doesn’t mean they are inherently or inevitably dangerous. They can also be used to inspire the best in us. Even if we recognize that Captain America represents a benevolent patriotism seldom displayed in the real world that ignores the ugly realities of aggressive nationalism, we need to recognize that the ideal is not lessened because we hardly ever reach it. In point of fact, the narrative form- whether for good or ill – is the only reliable way to actually move people en masse to act in the name of our better angels. No argument, no matter how well-intentioned, no demand that people “grow up” seems capable of making it otherwise. Therefore, my suggestion is that those of us who would fight for a more rational world free of superstitions and with tribal boundaries blurred or eliminated need to learn to better accept the role of irrationality in our lives. We need better stories with better heroes.
There is arguably no mythological structure in our society that better represents the theme of taming power with restraint than that we find in our superheroes. Of course, they represent something that is corruptible and potentially dangerous, but that isn’t the entire story. We should look to honor their ideals of self-sacrifice, bravery, honoring the value of life, and most importantly voluntary restraint of power, rather than simply fearing the slippery slope towards tyranny that is ingrained within them. Perhaps Moore’s rival, Grant Morrison said it best, “We love our superheroes because they refuse to give up on us. We can analyse them out of existence, kill them, ban them, mock them, and still they return, patiently reminding us of who we are and what we wish we could be.” There is a powerful moment in The Dark Knight Returns when the United states is left defenseless because of an electromagnetic pulse that has completely wiped out the power grid in the western hemisphere. As his helicopter crashes helplessly, a reporter writes a letter to his wife that she will never read. In it, he places his hope for her salvation on one single factor; that the choice to empty the Soviet silos rest in the hands of a human being. In other words, his one wish is that some ethical ideal will influence the decision as to whether to murder hundreds of million fellow human beings. Because, sometimes, the ingrained ideal of our fellow humans is the only thing that can save us.
There has never been a point in my life where I stopped reading comic books. For a long time, I became divorced from the world of capes and tights while I enjoyed more serious adult fare like Maus, Persepolis, or Charles Burns masterpiece, Black Hole, as well as mature series like Sandman, Bone, and Strangers in Paradise that are meant neither for children nor those interested in having their Manichean worldviews massaged. I still managed to check in with the world of the costumed crimefighter from time to time and have found, especially, as I became a dad and my children discovered the same sense of wonder that animated my own childhood, that something in them still speaks to me.
I no longer subscribe to the simple, black and white outlook of my eight-year old self and have come to see society in a much grayer light that is often difficult to navigate. I have come to question the validity of much of the social order that costumed heroes worked, perhaps often misguidedly, to defend. The realities of the human condition sometimes make the use of simple platitudes like “truth and justice” into an exercise in futility and madness. Still, I wonder how we can sail the treacherous waters of existence without some sort of underlying ideals even if they may contain within them the potential for absolutist readings. As trite as it may sound, there is a very important reason that I teach my children not to casually stomp on bugs. Our relationship with these tiny creatures is a clear-cut example of power dynamics unrestrained by anything but our own personal choices. There is a very relevant analogy here to the disparity in might between Clark Kent and the mere mortals he lives among. I hope then above all to impart the lesson to my children the lesson that Uncle Ben taught Peter Parker and as a result, to me.