The Concept of the ‘Superhero Comic’

In American popular culture, the comic strip is one of the most favored media, to the extent that both American and British (and sometimes both) works have recently often found a welcome audience when presented in movie format. This indicates that their popularity is not just based on the medium itself being appreciated by certain groups of people, mostly youth, but also on the content of the comics.

Now it seems that comic development in the United States has been different than in Western Europe. In the latter, narrative comics seem to be more prevalent, with a focus on ‘noir’ and political comics as well as history and fantasy; in some ways more similar to the detective novel as a medium than to the American approach. From early comics such as Tintin to the fantastic of Tardi or the serializations of historical events and novels popular in the Netherlands and France, it is clear that the comic here is much closer to the novel. They tend to be published in one-time stand-alone series, with usually between 4 and 20 instalments or so. In the United States, however, the focus seems to be on adventure comics in long-standing series with constant reinventions, with particular reference to ‘superhero’ comics. Both DC and Marvel, the main publishers of comics in the United States, concentrate strongly on superhero comics; even the popular productions such as Sandman have an emphasis on heroism, divine powers, lonesome individuals with special gifts, and so forth.

The first such superhero was fittingly called ‘Superman’, and was published in 1938, at the height of the Great Depression and in an atmosphere of gloom and impending war. It was a very popular format, but with the rebounding atmosphere of the 1950s and the competition from television, the (superhero) comic went into decline in the United States. Only during the 1960s did a revival occur, with ‘Batman’ in the lead (who had been created in 1939), particularly aided by fusing the medium with television through the production of animated series. Again, the revival coincided with a period of self-doubt and war, with the late 1960s and early 1970s seeing the strongest increase, aided by the efforts of the newly rising Marvel Comics company. During this period, one for the first time also sees the concept of the ‘supervillain’ being introduced, first in the shape of ‘Dr. Doom’, then as ‘The Joker’. It is telling that this happened in this period, when politically and socially the resistance against the traditional perception of American leadership and government as being good and virtuous was greatest. With Kissinger, Nixon and the War in Vietnam around, it was not difficult to perceive the narrative reality and tension of the ‘supervillain’, nor hard to suspend disbelief in the idea.

With the 1970s, the traditional form of the superhero comic underwent a significant change. A demand appeared for more psychological realism in the medium, in particular expressed as more nuanced and less one-sided roles for the characters, including the ‘superhero’ himself (or herself). The ‘supervillains’ became more effective at their evil, and at the same time social and political issues appeared explicitly in the comic plots themselves, positioning ‘superheroes’ more in the real world, one that was looking increasingly grim and that saw an ever greater skepticism towards the governments and policies that Americans (and other Westerners) saw around them. With the many political upheavals of those times being events that no-one could escape, it became necessary for the comics to integrate this changing life-world into their own caricatures of society, whether this meant introducing drug addictions and slum lords or viewing the superheroes themselves as capable of making moral mistakes and having human flaws. Such an increasingly skeptical view toward the traditional forms of authority presenting itself as acting for good would have been inconceivable in the 1950s. One also sees for the first time the appearance of the anti-hero, such as ‘The Punisher’, who in his quest against evil does almost as much damage as the evil itself. It is not difficult to see the social context there, such as an increasing awareness of the futility of moral defense of imperialism in an age of decolonization.

From the 1980s on, particularly inspired by Frank Miller, the idea of the ‘realistic superhero’ became dominant in what was called the “grim and gritty” style. Here, superheroes face moral quandaries, have doubts about themselves, and so forth, while at the same time the actual effect a ‘superhero’ would have on real society was examined for the first time. Eventually the contrast between the ‘superhero’ personality and the supposedly real human individual behind the suit was even made, in particular in the ‘Batman’ series. Superheroism was increasingly perceived as a burden, albeit a necessary one against the evils in and around society. At the same time, such a variety of different worlds with different superheroes had been created that DC Comics actually ‘reset’ their worlds, to use the old concepts and characters and place them in a new world more in line with modern demands. This development appeared even stronger in the early 90s with the eventual introduction of relatively non-caricatural gay, black and other minority characters in important roles for the first time. This parallels the way in which the various oppressed groups in American society successfully claimed their place in the social and cultural spotlight during the 80s and 90s. Here we should also place the relatively recent popularity of the concept of a ‘superhero’ who is an outcast in the society he is supposed to protect, which in some cases has been given practically explicit parallels to the gay struggle in the United States and elsewhere.

But it also reveals the limitations of the same: at no point was the conception itself questioned, not even in the general critique of superheroism in Alan Moore’s popular comic Watchmen. Although it is both from a literary and a cultural perspective to be encouraged that comics of this type have a greater sense of moral ambiguity and of embeddedness in society, the concept of the ‘superhero’ is itself a reactionary one which fetters their development. Even when the ‘superhero’ is outcast and full of angst, it still displays an attitude where the masses await saving, whether they will it or not, by the all-powerful individual. This individual’s problems and anguish is all about his or her own limitations and dilemmas, but in no way actually involves the society as such into the matter, except as backdrop. What’s more, generally the ‘superpowers’ involved are the product of horribly mistaken experiments, accidents of science, or alien backgrounds. In other words, they have a basis outside society and the normal world, subject to arbitrariness and forever out of the reach of the commoners to be saved. Even the villains tend to be of this kind, although the focus is usually less on them. Genetic mutation is also a popular theme for this sort of background, which again makes the ‘superhero’ status arbitrary. The result is, despite the ideal of altruism, a high degree of elitism and separation from the common people, which generally portrays a politically retrograde attitude. This may seem a childish judgement, but it is important to note that with a greater percentage of the world population having access to literacy and education than ever before, and with skepticism towards the Western governments within that same West being possibly greater than ever before (or at least rivalling 1968), it is simply backwards and behind the times to use the idea of the hero from outside who will need to save people against their own ignorance and malice. No amount of playing at noir themes can take away the inherently negative role of the heroic individual being set against the people supposedly needing him. There is no need for enforcing ‘socialist realism’ or other cultural mistakes of the past, and Communism does not and need not condemn escapism or fantastic themes of themselves. But it is to be encouraged and hoped for that with a development of a more socialist consciousness among comic book readers, the need for a deus ex machina hero will disappear, and the people themselves, with all their ignorance and flaws, will become the heroes.

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