There may seem to be a recent influx of superhero merchandise in stores or superhero movies in theatres, but the fictional men and women whose faces adorn lunch boxes and t-shirts everywhere have been part of American culture for over seventy years, thanks to people like comic book writer, editor, and former president and chairman of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee. Superheroes have always had a place with fan boys, kids, nerds, and geeks, but I believe they can resonate with all of us and have with previous generations and will for generations to come.
However, many critics claim that superheroes and comic books are merely for escapism, the characters lack complexity, and they teach laughably simple moral lessons. If those claims were true, I don’t believe comics would have the long-standing relationship with American readers that they’ve had. So, it could be argued that, instead of being a passing fad, superheroes and comic books are eternal. (This is simple to see, especially now). But why?
I think the most obvious answer is because they’re relatable. What some people may not realize is that superheroes are very complex – just like us. They have jobs (maybe as a news reporter), they have love interests, they have fears, they have internal and external conflict, and maybe even homework and bills to pay. But they possess something that makes them a bit more extraordinary (like a bat cave or a spider bite that aids in their ability to scale buildings). Superheroes can relate to anyone, or anyone can relate to superheroes, including people who are adopted, for example. I’ve read many accounts of kids who are adopted, just like Bat Man (who is raised by Alfred) and Super Man (who was found and adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent), and feel less alone because their favorite heroes faced the same struggles with their identity. Further, I think comics do a good job of making people feel less alone. (Remember the scene from “Juno” where Jason Bateman’s character Mark shows Juno, played by Ellen Page, a comic book of a pregnant superhero? She realizes that you can be pregnant and still kick ass). They are there for kids and adults who may not have anyone else.
Additionally, I think everyone has dreamed about being a superhero – may dreamed of flying, seeing through walls, or having super-human strength. Those dreams don’t go away as an adult. (Has anyone fantasized about being able to float out of your workplace office and through the clouds or is that just me?) Comic book superheroes may have capes, masks, or a really cool car, but you don’t need any of that to be a hero. You just need to do good and to make the world a better place in a small way (by picking up litter at a park, for example) or in a big way (like soldiers and nurses). Namely, as said in an article written for Teen Ink, “Superheroes might not be logical in their super abilities, but they embody the moral desire to do the right thing, and they symbolize the good in all of us.”
Superheroes also exemplify negative traits, though, like hate and jealousy, and illustrate our human need for justice and vengeance. Batman is a prime example of this need for justice. His parents were murdered in front of him when he was a young child and he feels it was somehow his fault (kids are good at blaming themselves for situations beyond their control). Eventually, this fuels his need for vengeance and he begins his quest to rid Gotham City of crime. Thus, comics depict superheroes doing things we’re afraid to do.
Daredevil, for example, has been dubbed “The Man with No Fear.” He’s a blind lawyer, living in a crime-riddled city, who serves vigilante-style justice to those that slip through the cracks or those the law can’t touch. And he’s not the only superhero with a disability (physical or mental) or an ax to grind, but one of the more prominent ones. In “The Dark Avengers” (an obscure version of “The Avengers”), the drug-addicted, schizophrenic, lab-created human-turned-god Sentry is so afraid of becoming The Void, his soulless, murderous alter-ego, he attempts suicide three times, but is involuntarily resurrected each time. (Eventually, The Dark Avengers are charged as war criminals and thrown in prison). These “heroes” – like so many others – embody anger, hatred, addiction, narcissism, mental instability, and selfish-motives, which may reveal more about the darker side of ourselves than we would ever dare to.
So, superheroes can inspire us, to do good or evil. They show that, no matter what the situation, we have a choice, and can overcome anything. They show us that we can be a part of something bigger than ourselves. They can show us ourselves and who we are. Comic books and superheroes are an ode to human nature. They represent the times (i.e. the X-Men were created in the early ‘60s during the Civil Rights Movement and it could be argued that African Americans were represented by the mutant population). They speak to our morality. They give us a sense of belonging. They are so, so much more than ink on a page – they are the voice of a generation. But, perhaps most importantly, they give a voice to those who feel they may not have one.
Written by Alexa Linger