Here in the opening weeks of my 5th decade, I find myself regressing to a laddish state. I expend hours every week –many, many hours– re-digesting and re-discovering the tales of my youth, told in new and exciting ways. I’m talking about comic books, of course, and I make no apologies for this new obsession. There is something socially important about comics books generally, and superhero comic book stories in particular.
The genre approaches maturity now that those producing it are the same age as those consuming it. For the first time, the generation of creators responsible for mounting these products is one that grew up immersed in its miasma; they make no apologies for their love, and are marketing their products to those of similar mind, i.e. middle aged geeky men –like me.
There are two major comic book companies in the West: DC and Marvel. DC is responsible for the iconic figures of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Green Lantern, etc. Marvel, meanwhile, came later, and is responsible for Spiderman, the X-Men, the Avengers, Ironman, Hulk and so forth. There’s a qualitative and important difference between the products of the two companies. DC is kitchy, Marvel gritty. When I was younger, I prefered Marvel; but as an adult, I gravitate towards that DC product. But there’s no reason one cannot love both brands. That guy on Youtube, whom I keep plugging, put it best in one of his excellent videos: “People aspire to be Superman, but they relate to Spiderman.”
I’ve been unabashedly fascinated with Batman for some time now. The idea of a mere mortal man transforming himself into a seemingly superhuman being by the force of his will alone, yet remaining beneath the mask a hurting man of flesh and blood, is a compelling one. His precarious balance between the fascistic terror of vigilantism and the libertarian ethic of independent do-goodery is also quite fascinating.
But it’s Superman who presents the most fascinating analysis, from a social standpoint. It has been pointed out by many that Superman stands alone among superheroes. Pretty much every major storyline in the DC universe in some way relates to the life of Superman. He has long since been usurped as the most powerful hero in that panoply. (The Green Lantern and the Martian Manhunter, among others, are quantitatively more powerful). But Superman remains first among the so-called metahumans, not so much for his power, but for his refusal to slip from the role of inspiration, and his refusal to be tempted by fascistic power –a theme oft explored in the comics.
As has been expounded in other writings, Superman is unique among classic heroes because he is not his secret identity. Peter Parker pretends to be Spiderman. Bruce Wayne pretends to be Batman. But, in reversal, Superman pretends to be Clark Kent, always holding himself back, always striving to be more mortal, to deny his godhood. As he said in an episode of Justice League, “I live in a world of cardboard.”
There is a last aspect to Superman that I would like to make clear. In past generations, societies were held together with mythologies told at the grandparent’s knee. Ancient Greeks were warmed by tales of Hercules and other heroes, the Hindus by the adventures of Rama, Krishna and the Pandava brothers. In the modern West, the tales of Christianity have provided social cohesion. But in our modern, secular world, we are devoid of common mythologies, and of common tales told round the fire.
I submit that our new mythology is that of the comic books. In a given week, I can read a Superman comic, watch the Superman animated TV show, watch Justice League, featuring Superman, watch Smallville (about the life of young Superman), or watch the new TV show, Legion of Superheroes, about Superman’s adventures in the 31st century. Our culture was soothed by five live action Superman movies in the modern era (and a few more back in the old days). A new Justice League movie is expected in 2010. The next Superman movie comes out in two years. This past month, I watched two full-length Superman animated movies: Brainiac Attacks and Superman: Doomsday, about the now iconic death and rebirth of the man of steel.
Superman is our new Hercules, Thor and Krishna. In some ways, he’s our new Jesus. He is a godling sent to Earth by a powerful father (who sent “his only begotten son”) to save, teach, lead and redeem us undeserving mortals. He died to protect us, yet rose from the grave, stronger than ever. He resists the temptation to rule us, and thus demonstrates superior morality in the face of our mortal pettiness.
Comic books are no longer just shallow entertainment for young boys. They have grown to replace the role of mythology in our culture. Their importance, particularly that of the iconic Superman, has been underestimated.
“I’m not usually a praying man. But if you’re up there, Superman, please save me!” -Homer Simpson