Why Study Superheroes…

There have been many moments in my life that have inspired me, and I have loved them all. I believe that Inspiration can, and has and will again, save the world. Something that inspired me recently, something that affirmed me in this feeling, came when I read Grant Morrison’s book, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and A Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, earlier this year. Morrison recounts that when recounting his own childhood and being afraid of the nuclear bomb that it was originally an idea, but so was Superman.  He states that

“It’s not that I needed Superman to be ‘real,’ I just needed him to be more real than the Idea of the Bomb that ravaged my dreams. [He was] the human imagination, such a perfectly designed emblem of our highest, kindest, wisest, toughest selves, that my Idea of the Bomb had no defense against him…” (xv).

Morrison speaks of a truth here that I too believe in. Superheroes are our ideas given form, they represent our “very best” selves, our ideals that though we think are unattainable, are in fact, never out of the question worth reaching for. Superheroes, like our mythologies and imaginations, are worthy of exploration because they inspire in us to be our better selves, to achieve great things, and believe in a better world.

My superheroes and rhetoric, like Grant Morrison’s book, has served to inspire, to make me believe in again things that I had forgotten. The greatest revelation of this class, of this semester has been my own awakening to the potential that superheroes have, not only as persuasive tools but also as tools of pure inspiration, an ability to interact with different genres, different ideas, and even different graduate level, PhD classes.

Throughout this past semester, I have seen comic books and comic book superheroes in everything I have encountered. Other than this class, I have had two others: Rhetoric of Detective Fiction and Major Rhetorical Theories: Perelman’s New Rhetoric. The former class, including discussions on Sherlock Holmes and his adversary Prof. James Moriarty has followed discussions of doppelgangers, Lacanian psychoanalytical theories on “the real,” and discussions of Noir detectives and serial killers (other incarnations and inspirations of Batman and the Joker). The later class, involving discussions on Perelman’s concepts of presence, example, illustration, and models has generated and revived, thanks to interactions with Morrison’s All-Star Superman, my belief in Superman. Furthermore, Perelman, combined with superheroes, revealed to me just how powerful the images and symbols that those superheroes represent can truly be.

This semester has shown me just how valuable comic books, particularly as scholarship, are as a reflection of the multiplicity of humanity. Superheroes are an exploration of the human condition. For as humanity is itself a complex systems of values and ideas, so to, as Henry Jenkins points out

“that it has maintained the capacity to build upon that varied history by pulling towards one or another genre tradition at various points in its development; that it has maintained its dominance over the comics medium by constantly absorbing and appropriating new generic materials; and that its best creators have remained acutely aware of this generic instability, shifting its core meanings and interpretations to allow for new symbolic clusters…” (http://henryjenkins.org).

Superhero comics are able to draw upon, to appropriate, whatever is needed – genre, form, idea, etc. – to explore whatever facet of the human condition any writer, artist, or fanboy could want. They are the new mythology of the modern age.

This view of superheroes as the new mythology was something that peaked my interest, particularly how Richard Reynolds pointedly made note of this in his book Superheroes: A Modern Mythology. In his book he notes, “An attempt to define the limits of the genre can best be made as part of a broader exploration of the heroes themselves” (8). If there were, to say then, an unlimited potential for heroes and superheroes in the comic book genre, then there might be room to say that the genre was, as Jenkins hints at, limitless and bound only by the multiplicity of values, cultures and ideas that find expression. Comic books can and do, become the playground for whatever the human imagination can dream up.

Reynolds, something particularly that I loved when I read it, discusses an outline (not too far from similar ones discussed by Joseph Campbell and other mythologists) for 7 traits or headings that can be pulled together to provide a framework for defining superheroes. Noting Reynolds headings these consist of: “Lost parents…The man-god…Justice…The normal and the superpowered…The secret identity…Superpowers and politics…[and] Science as magic” (12-16). Though some of these are self-explanatory – the idea of losing your parents, a quest for justice, super powers, etc., on page 16 Reynolds establishes a very clear table for how these work. He states that these headings are an attempt “to construct a first-stage working definition of the superhero genre; a definition which at least has the authenticity of being constructed from the motifs of the first ever superhero comic” (Superheroes: A Modern Mythology). Of course, he is basing this “template” on Superman and his first appearance in Action Comic #1 in 1938. It would be only fitting to grant this definition of superheroes in parody to that of mythological gods, for what was Superman if not the ancient Greek/Roman Sun god, Apollo. Superheroes are analogues for the gods of mythology; some of them are the gods of mythology in manifested form (Thor, Hercules, etc.). Reynolds notes that like culture, which is always changing and shifting, evolving, so too do our myths – hence superheroes (82).

One of the most pointed moments as a reader was how Reynolds illustrates that is engaging in semiotic actions. Having studied semiotics and having a strong interest in visual rhetoric, it sometimes baffles me that I overlooked what was right under my nose this whole time. Superheroes are the re-appropriation of ancient archetypes and motifs that have traveled with humanity since are earliest history. Semiotically, Reynolds notes that “…it could be argued [that] Like most important signs, the superhero supports a varied and contradictory batter of readings” (83). Superheroes, to put it another way, are semiotic agents (as myths are), physical representations of abstract ideas, beliefs, and concepts. They grant substance to dreams, to ideas, and to the highest ideals (as Morrison mentioned).

The ideals that are found in comic books and comic book superheroes are most often American ideals. However, to what shape those ideals are portrayed are sometimes called into questions. Two articles, one actually from a book, tackle this idea from two different approaches. The first, a chapter from a book entitled Introducing Comics and Ideology by Matthew McAllister, Edward Sewell, and Ian Gordon, looks at how the portrayal of ideology in comic books has been misinterpreted or viewed as a threat to American ideology and beliefs. The second, “What Makes Superman So Darned American?” by Gary Engle, looks to more of the idealistic trope of how superheroes are part of the American cultural “consciousness.”

McAllister, Sewell, and Gordon’s article tackles what started comic book superheroes “darkest night” when they came under attack by psychologist Fredric Wertham’s 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent. Wertham’s book attacked comic books as the cause of delinquent behavior, homosexuality, and other socially unacceptable behaviors in youth by acknowledging the power comic books had as a medium to influence young people. This, in some cases, was not untrue. The authors note though “By attacking all comics with such a broad stroke, Wertham also missed more subtle textual and interpretative cues that actually critiqued dominant institutions rather than celebrated the status quo…” (6). Wertham missed out on the fact that comic books both challenge and reinforce, through hegemony, the ideologies in which they are created. He was right that comic books had power to influence young minds and shape their views; however, he missed the “boat” by not seeing the positive influences that comic books and comic book superheroes could have to teach young adults and kids. Wertham’s narrow view and broad strokes represented a missed opportunity and one that comic books has paid for ever since in many respects.

Gary Engle’s article, “What Makes Superman So Darned American?” takes up where Wertham left off and missed out. This article discusses just how powerful a semiotic icon figures, like Superman in particular, really are and how they embody American ideology. Engle boldly states that “Superman is the great American hero…achiev[ing] mythic stature, interweaving a pattern of beliefs, literary conventions, and cultural traditions of the American people” in a way that other American heroes of myth and folklore cannot (1). Superman does all this and the fact remains that he is not an American by birth – he’s an illegal alien. Not just any illegal alien either; he’s an alien illegal alien from another planet. It’s still American though, because we are a nation of immigrants. Not only does this make Superman “So Darned American” but it also engages in creating something greater – a debate.

Superheroes are themselves signs of symbols in a semiotic interaction. Superheroes are also allegories, metaphors, and representations of ideas and conflicts that persist in the world around us today – as in the past and probably the future too. Superman is American because he is able to be a “cultural icon” that “manages to tap the national religious spirit” but in a way that is secular but more than secular at the same time (8). He defies religion and secularism to become something both camps can see as an embodiment of “more” and “what is best” to strive for – such is the role of a symbol and icon anyway.

Thomas Andrae pointedly illustrates that Superman, originally a socialist hero of the people, has become the page boy of corporations – or whatever else society has demanded of him at any given time (From Menace to Messiah). He does this because he is a symbol and his purpose serves whatever the greater need of the culture he is immersed in. He can be many things to many different people, at many different times – a Harry Potter-esk “room of requirement.” Andrae notes, at the end of his article, that Superman embodies the “key attribute of mass culture, its substitution of mythic repetition for historical development” (137). Time then, for Superman, is cyclical and endless. Though Andrae sees this as a way of rendering the reader “passive and submissive” to the state, it could just as easily be interpreted as the mythic hero cycle – constantly repeated. Superman, then, like any symbol, whether of mass culture or some higher mythos, embodies an essence, a loci of essence, which anyone can make identification with and one that can change and adapt to whatever the predominant culture needs it to become.

Superman, like all other superheroes is an idea. Batman is an idea. Superman and Batman stand like Apollo and Dionysus at the center of humanity’s shifting conflict between order and chaos, between socialism and capitalism, between poverty and wealth…and they switch roles too (you can read that any way you want too). Superheroes can be whatever we want them to be and are only limited by the potential of human’s to tell stories. To say that superheroes are not worthy of study is to say Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, and Hemingway are of dubious nature as well, in my opinion. To say superheroes are not worth studying is to deny perhaps even the word of God – so throw out the Bible, God told us his word but we decided it was not worth listening to because stories do not matter.

There is always a place for stories in the human experience; to say otherwise is a kin to denying human nature – though we do it all the time. To return to Grant Morrison’s book, one that I think anyone who takes a course of Comics and Rhetoric should read (heck anyone should read it if you enjoy story telling, myths, etc.) even if it’s not required, says so much about how American comic book superheroes are, but also how superheroes can belong to any culture as a semiotic mode of expression. Morrison states that humanity, we as humans,

“We live in the stories we tell ourselves. In a secular, scientific rational culture lacking in any convincing spiritual leadership, superhero stories speak loudly and boldly to our greatest fears, deepest longings, and highest aspirations. They’re not afraid to be hopeful, not embarrassed to be optimistic, and utterly fearless in the dark…We should listen to what they have to tell us” (xvii).

We should listen to what they have to tell us. Our culture spends far too much time either attempting to look “progressive” or “conservative” without acknowledging we need both. In fact, we constantly want both and desire both, we re-appropriate (and always have) elements of the past, reworking them and shaping them to use again in the present. Superheroes are a re-appropriation of our myths and ancient stories, given a chance to live again in the present. Why? Because we need them to do so to remind us of where we have been, what we believe in, what we want, and how nothing is beyond the human spirit to achieve. Superman’s greatest role, as Morrison illustrated in All-Star Superman, is to inspire and lift up humanity. As Marlon Brando, portraying Superman’s father Jor-el, stated in reference to humanity that “They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way” (Superman: the Movie). Human potential is limited only by our imaginations. We dreamed up Superman, Iron Man, Batman, Galactus, the Fantastic Four, Spiderman, Captain America, and Wonder Woman. Why should there be any limit at all? That is why comic books matter, because of the limitless possibility of the human imagination that they represent.

Works Cited

Andrae, Thomas. “From Menace to Messiah: The History and Historicity of Superman.”Discourse 2 (Summer 1980): 124-138. Print.

Engle, Gary. “What Makes Superman So Darned American?” Mythic Rhetoric of the American Superhero. Reading Packet. Com 4849: Special Topics in Rhetorical Studies. Dr. Shaun Treat. 2011. Print.

Jenkins, Henry. “Just Men in Tights.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan. 19 March 2007. Web. 10 Oct. 2011.

McAllister, Matthew P., Edward H. Sewell, and Ian Gordon. Introducing Comics and Ideology. New York: Peter Lang, 2001. Print.

Morrison, Grant. Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and A Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2011. Print.

Reynolds, Richard. Superheroes: A Modern Mythology Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 1994. Print.

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