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Super Hero Narratives and Our Re-discovered Love for Them

NOTE: Sorry for posting this a bit late. The only excuse I’ve got is that I was busy at the movie theater doing more research for this blog post (honest!).

Despite the fact that the comic book industry bemoans its sad state on average once every nanosecond (more frequently than the book industry, believe it or not!), they must be doing something right if mass market narratives like Marvel’s The Avengers can just elide backstory, origins, or explanations and expect audiences to accept their characters as given. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Superman, Batman, Spider-man (note the sustained and sad preponderance of the male adjective in there) have become so integrated into Western culture that their mythos are omnipresent. But why? Why do we love super heroes and why – after two decades in the weeds – are super heroes flying off movie screens and DVD racks?

Super Heroes as Archetypes Embodied or Applied

There are a great many different kinds of comic books, from the spandex-clad super heroes we think of by default, to fictional slice-of-life stories, to crazy experiments in form and narrative. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to focus on the super hero genre – the others operate within entirely different conventions.

Let me start with a disclaimer: My name is Chris, and I am a lapsed comic book reader. As a kid, I must’ve spent a small fortune in birthday and couch cushion money at my local comic book shop. Every X-book, all the Spider-man books, the Batman line, Superman, Image’s early stuff, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, etc. etc. The list of books I inhaled uncritically is kind of embarrassing (and my bagged and boarded long boxes are still taking up space in my parents’ basement more than a decade after I moved out). It wasn’t until I got a lot older (and abandoned the super hero genre due to the fact that it generally did not and does not care about quality writing) that I started to really think about why certain comics appealed to me more than others.

Like any fictional conceit, super heroes are concretized metaphors. This applies just as much to Superman as it does to the X-Men. Only some metaphors are more transparent than others. It doesn’t take a doctorate in semiotics to label the archetypes that some characters represent: Superman, Batman, the Hulk, Captain America, Daredevil are idealized symbols for our collective imagination. These characters embody a particular ethos, and we enjoy their stories because they allow us to vicariously partake of a Nietzschian ideal.

Other heroes – Moore’s Watchmen, Spider-man, the X-Men, or the Fantastic Four – do not so much embody an archetype as provide a lens to examine its aspirational application. Through Peter Parker’s struggle to balance his heroic aspirations against his family life, we can examine what happens when one strives towards the archetype in a more realistic world.

At their core, this is what gives certain super heroes staying power within our culture. And story arcs that tap into this core are those that will resonate and stay with us. But that is the deeper, unspoken truth about comics and about super heroes. It speaks to our psychology as an audience, and to the creators’ philosophy as artists. But identification and concretized metaphor does not explain why audiences shelled out over $300 million to see spandex-clad divas smack each other around.

The answer lies in a dirty word: escapism.

Escapism Can Be Our Friend

That’s right. I said the e-word. I think of it as dirty because it is how “serious fiction” sidelined speculative fiction for decades. But escapism is a powerful narrative tool. It is a release valve for societies, and it is one that Marvel’s The Avengers employs flawlessly.

Regardless of whether it is in sequential art or film, ensemble narratives like The Avengers, or the Justice League, or the X-Men cannot possibly focus on their characters’ underlying archetypes: there are too many characters playing upon too many archetypes for that kind of narrative to hold together (despite the industry’s love of over-played crossover arcs). Instead, they tap into the audience’s yearning for entertainment and the abrogation of responsibility.

As human beings we like to have someone else do the work. We work hard all day long, we are stressed, we take tough phone calls, and we have difficult conversations. Most of us don’t need to fight giant robots or aliens or monsters, but we all struggle anyway. And there is something cathartic about watching someone else do the struggling for a little while.

This is the same desire that makes us appreciate eucatastrophe in fiction when executed well. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t much like (or really believe in) eucatastrophe as a narrative device, but when done well it is satisfying for the same reason: it places the hard choices on someone else, someone “extraordinary” with whom we can never wholly identify.

Come Away with Me, oh Human Child

Ensemble super hero narratives rely on Othered saviors rescuing us from Othered villains. Though in a more focused narrative the villains might well play archetypal roles, they are simply external threats which we (collectively) are not responsible for.

Sure, Magneto is responding to anti-mutant bigotry. But we, the enlightened audience, are never responsible for that: we like the mutants…or why would we buy their books? And Lex Luthor might be a product of capitalist laissez-faire society, but hey…he’s one egomaniacial super-genius. And Loki…well, he’s a demi-god, an alien, and crazy to boot. And lest we forget, if something goes wrong in comic book land you can bet the Government (or its sunglass-wearing agents) had a hand in it somewhere.

Ensemble super hero narratives are summer blockbusters, meant to briefly entertain, not change the world. And they do so by presenting us with problems that are not ours, and then parachuting someone else in to fix them.

Why are they resurgent now?

Yes, yes, I know that comic books as a medium are struggling for a host of economic reasons. And while I personally think that’s because it is hard to grow an audience solely by focusing on art with scant attention to writing, it is fair to say that the super hero genre is doing better today than it ever has.

Could a movie like The Avengers have been as successful twenty years ago? No. Because we as society were not in the mood for it then. Today, that kind of escapism is in the air. It is something we need.

Thirty years ago, Moore’s Watchmen showed us that heroes and villains need not be archetypal or aspirational. That they can be flawed, and human, and with all of the ugliness and beauty that entails. What followed was three decades of increasing grit, and darkness, and hard-edges…perhaps a counter-reaction to the Cold War’s end and the ensuing economic, technological, and social boomtimes of the ’90s.

But today is a very different world, beset by very different problems – environmental, political, social, economical, and diplomatic. And over the course of the last decade, it seems to me that the super hero pendulum has been swinging back in the direction of greater escapism: to offer a soothing balm to the challenges of our real world. In real life, there are no heroes able to step up and deal with these very real problems on our behalf.

And when – as these days – we see our leaders failing to do so, when we see our neighbors failing to do so, and when we see ourselves failing to do so, it is only natural that we should fantasize about a group of different people, with different backgrounds, different beliefs, and different skills doing the impossible.

In the United States, at least, we mythologize our cultural heroes. Whether it is the revolutionary militias camped at Valley Forge, the Founding Fathers in a hot Philadelphia State House, the pioneer settlers pushing west, or the Greatest Generation, we expect someone in our society to step up and fight the hard fight. Only for our generation, nobody is really doing so. Which is why we need it in our fiction.

In The Avengers, Maria Hill at one point asks Nick Fury why the heroes would come back to save the day. And Nick Fury’s answer is poignant, relevant, and sad: “Because we’ll need them to.” That is the dream and the yearning that drives super hero narrative, and which underlies our fascination with the archetypes it exposes.

Because we always need heroes. And today, in our world, it has become awfully difficult to spot them (at least among our supposed leaders). And we need heroes today, in places of great power, on local street corners, and in our schools. Because Cap and the Avengers, Supes and the JLA, are just stories. And they won’t save the day, no matter how much we may need them to.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. sftheory1 #

    Interesting post with a lot of very good points. I would argue with your assertions that comic books are poorly written nowadays, however. Do most books have poor writing? Probably. But with Scott Snyder, China Mieville, etc. writing comics, I think the writing is getting better.
    Comics have become commodities for a second time. Instead of the physical book as a collector’s item (in the 90s), comics today are intellectual commodities (as the basis of non comic book entertainments). And despite what some critics have called the death of the comic book movie, clearly, comic book movies are still going strong. And the much purported death of the comic book is about as silly as the death of science fiction. The situation is tenuous, but things are starting to look up.

    May 16, 2012
    • Thanks! Glad you found the post interesting. To be fair, I suspect comics fall under the Sturgeon rule: 80% of everything is crap. There is good writing in comics…only the majority I’ve seen in recent years falls outside of the super-hero genre.

      That being said, I’m encouraged by DC’s New 52…while I might quibble with their creative choices, consolidating the line is a necessary first step to enabling innovative, solid storytelling. With luck, the other super hero houses (notably Marvel) will likewise tighten their books. If nothing else, their massive movie business will drive that kind of consolidation (their traditional extremely sprawled universe is unsustainable across a broad film franchise). Either way, there’s lots of opportunity for good writing…lets hope the editors start focusing more on it.

      May 16, 2012
      • I agree about consolidation, I’d be much more inclined to follow X-Men in particular if there weren’t 8 core titles, plus secondaries and miniseries. Does Wolverine really need two books? My biggest problem is that with such a wide-ranging purview, it dilutes urgency and relevance from each title. I vaguely care about each character’s life, but at this point it feels like I’m reading Game of Thrones: I expect people to die or just not matter in the long run.

        Once I stop caring, I stop reading. Consolidation would go a big way toward repairing this, but they’d also need stronger writing–and somedays I wonder if comic books can really maintain any urgency. The point of them is they work into perpetuity, so where’s the risk? Sometimes Warpath dies but generally speaking the X-Men institution will live on.

        May 17, 2012
      • Exactly. With so many titles to support, so many characters to maintain, and an assumption that continuity is sacrosanct, writers’ hands are tied and their narrative options spread too thin.

        May 17, 2012
  2. Hi Chris–I enjoy your blogs and they give me a lot to think about, but I have to disagree with you on this one. (Disclaimer: I’m not only a mostly-lapsed comic book reader, I’m a writer of superhero fiction.)
    First, the superhero archetype has zip to do with the ideal of the Nietzschian superman–Nietzsche was describing a mental/moral superhuman, one in whom human morality had been replaced by a Will To Power; superheroes, faced with a true Nietzschian superman, would see him as a supervillain! But this is a nit-pick; mainly I think that your escapism thesis is off a bit.

    “Ensemble super hero narratives are summer blockbusters, meant to briefly entertain, not change the world. And they do so by presenting us with problems that are not ours, and then parachuting someone else in to fix them.”

    While the Avengers certainly entertains with an unreal threat, the underlying theme–an attack on an American city by someone who wants to conquer the world–is simply a fantasy-reframing of what many see as a real and even imminent threat. Indeed, we have experienced just this scenario before; the Avengers is less about escapism and more about facing our fears, even allegorically.

    Also, although I could be reading you wrong, you seem to imply that one of the attractions of superheroes is that they “parachute in” to fix our problems. I think you’ve forgotten your own comic-reading experience; nobody who reads comics puts themselves in the place of the victims in need of rescue–they identify with the heroes and live vicariously through them.

    Which brings me, amazingly, to a point; superheroes are such successful modern icons because they teach us how to live heroically. Acting as we would hope we would act if given superhuman powers, they inspire us and reinforce the “heroic expectation” that is the norm in our society. Whedon played on this theme on a couple of levels; on one level by giving lots of screen-time to the two superheroes who were “merely” human (Hawkeye and the Black Widow), and giving Agent Colsen his last stand, and on another by giving screen-time to New York’s first responders (police, firemen, national guard) in the middle of the big battle.

    Superhero stories don’t teach us to wait for heroes to rescue us; they teach us to be them.

    May 16, 2012
    • Hi George – Thanks for your comments! You’re absolutely right about the Nietsche quibble – that’s what happens when I revise a blog post at 1am. 😉

      To your main point, I think that the “identify with the hero” idea is the great fallacy of super-hero narratives. It holds true for a very few heroes (Spider-man, the Fantastic Four, Luke Cage, all of Moore’s Watchmen, etc.), but most heroes are purposely rendered as far beyond anything identifiable. Consider Superman, Batman, Captain America…even Aquaman, to a lesser extent. They are heroes in the sense of Rand’s Howard Roark: they take a certain conceit and follow through with it to an impossible conclusion. They turn the dial on certain traits within us up to thirteen. But every single one of these heroes is purposefully distanced from the audience:

      Superman is an alien. Batman is fabulously wealthy and misanthropic. Captain America is a man out of time. The Hulk is a self-exile from humanity. These facets of their characters underline their sheer impossibility, and the fact of that impossibility nevertheless permeates the reader’s perception. So yes, we identify with them to some extent. But I think it is usually at arms’ length.

      You’re absolutely right that the didacticism of super hero narratives is real. But since the Silver Age it has been receding into the background of super hero narrative. One can draw inspiration from the heroes (human, non-human, super-powered/talented or not) in The Avengers, but I don’t think that didacticism (alone) is the engine powering the film’s narrative. I think, from the audience’s perspective, it is a more passive experience: we want to sit back, and watch super-powered heroes fighting the good fight.

      Just a minor addendum to the above, inspired by Jamie’s comment below: that didactic/allegorical background to the super hero narrative only works if the story establishes a gap between our real choices and the idealized capabilities of the heroes. Didacticism alone cannot power the story: it needs the distance that comfortable escapism imparts. The strength of such narratives derives from the tension between our passive desire to sit back and watch others fight our battles on the one hand, and our active desire to be more heroic.

      May 16, 2012
  3. Very well put. I agree that people are turning to superheroes more and more because we need someone with which we can look up to, someone who we know will fight our battles for us, and someone who represents the qualities in which most people are lacking.

    Have you come across “Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell? He underlines some of the superhero archetypes that run throughout history. Our need for superheroes during a time when the world seems to have gone to hell could be compared to the invention of heroes like Hercules, Ajax, and Achilles during times of war and economic crisis of the ancient world.

    May 16, 2012
    • I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, and your point ties nicely to George’s comment on the allegorical / didactic dimension of super-hero narratives. By showcasing the gap between ourselves and our idealized constructs, super hero narratives can inspire us to action in the real world. But the narratives only work if that gap is there: because it gives us the distance of comfortable escapism, and because it gives us something to leap over.

      May 16, 2012

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