When I was a mere lad, I picked up a battered newsstand copy of Power Man and Iron Fist. I had grown up with superheroes in Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, The Incredible Hulk, and The Herculoids on the television, but my comics reading prior to that issue of Power Man and Iron Fist was relegated mainly to Hanna Barbara comics, Richie Rich, and (oddly) Conan the Barbarian. Anyway, there was a single panel of that comic book that has stuck with me to this day. In it, Power Man and Iron Fist are strolling down the street together in their garish garb, simply talking to each other like regular old pals. I clearly remember how struck I was by that panel, and it made me want to join them on their adventures—an activity that spawned years and years of comic book collecting and reading, joining larger-than-life heroes in their struggles to rid the world of evil.
Superhero stories are a continuation of a storytelling tradition that is as old as recorded memory, and they indicate at their heart one basic characteristic of human nature: that, at our core, we all desire to see evil vanquished, to see good prevail, and to see the world made safe for everyone. It is not naiveté that drives my thoughts towards these optimistic ideals of the superhero, but rather a conscious decision to pursue the potential of superhero stories, and the meaning behind their seemingly immortal hold over us.
Of course, I should define my personal concept of superhero as any protagonist who faces odds that would crumple average people. Contemporarily, this has also come to include said protagonist facing those odds specifically in the aid of those less capable, a characteristic not necessary to the heroes of classic Greek or Roman mythology. The heroes in those ancient stories served as a template for the ideals of the times, some of which we may not find very nice today. Similarly, Captain America’s super patriotism and Superman’s fight for truth, justice, and the American way were far more resonant in the 40s than they are today—a time when Captain America breaks laws for more lofty ideals than nationalism and the “American way” in Superman’s motto is conspicuously omitted.
This pliability is something that has been a constant in the realm of the heroic tale. Homer gives us a very different Achilles than Aeschylus, who gave us a vastly different Achilles than does Virgil centuries later. And, Achilles is completely different when he is portrayed today (Brad Pitt, anyone?). Great Britain, France, Spain, and Italy have all historically included the exploits of Paris, Aeneas or Heracles in their lineage and justifications for divine rule. Check out this French tapestry from the late 1400s. French dress, French colors, French flags. What is it depicting? The Battle of Troy!
Heroic stories helped carve the landscape of our civilization, for good or ill, but the heart of heroic stories lies within the desire to become better than we currently are. It is part of human nature to advance our current condition, and the vision of the hero gives us a metaphorical template to strive for. That is why that pliability, or malleability, of heroic storytelling is so vital—it helps us to constantly redefine our view of the human ideal.
This brings me to what most people now think of when using the term “superhero”: superhumans in colorful costumes fighting crime with various powers. I have already mentioned Captain America and Superman, two of the most important of examples of a couple of reasons. First, they represent the two main publishers of superhero comics. Second, they both have become American symbols as potent as the bald eagle or the Statue of Liberty. It has been argued that the superhero as we now know him or her is a distinctly American invention. In a lot of ways, this is true. Just as the Tudors partially justified their divine right to the crown by claiming the lineage of Aeneas, Superman’s inherent Americanness comes from his own roots—not Kryptonian, but those that come from being raised by Ma and Pa Kent on a rural farm in a town called Smallville. Thomas Jefferson famously lauded the virtues of simple life on a pastoral American farm, and this agrarian ideal has been so ingrained in our culture that it was chosen to give an alien from another planet the moral compass to become our greatest hero.
Of course, the tales of superhero genesis are not always as simple as where characters were raised. I am reminded of John Gardner’s book, On Becoming a Novelist, in which he absolutely ravages the works of both John Steinbeck and Harlan Ellison while saying students would be better served if those authors’ stories were replaced by the first Spider-Man or Howard the Duck stories. Gardner was an author of no small ego, but also one of incredible insight and intellect. His book Grendel kept me enraptured and dreaming (to use his own metaphor of story as the continuous dream) for months,
and his words forced me to examine those original Spider-Man stories more closely.
Spider-Man was the product of the 1960s, a decade of change so significant that it mirrored the volatile century that contained it. Spider-Man is often discussed as the birth of a truer, more believable comic book character because he is a bit of an outcast (an element readers could relate to, particularly at that time), who struggles with money, rent, illness, and other, more human contemporary challenges. More significant, however, is how Peter Parker did not immediately use his powers for good, but for personal gain. It is not until tragedy strikes as the result of his selfishness that he decides to initiate his life as a hero. Peter Parker’s story is deeply informed by guilt, and represents the idea that 20th century heroes are not necessarily driven by an intrinsic sense of good, but rather must experience true loss in order to appreciate the need for good and the importance in using their powers with great responsibility (sorry, I had to).
The stories contained in superhero comics have since become more adult, more violent, more “realistic,” and, at their worst, more nihilistic—changes that reflect the tumultuous 1980s and informed future stories. The vices of heroes have become more acute at times in the effort to appease what publishers view as more sophisticated readership tastes (although, I debate the term “sophistication” in some of those cases). The fight for good against evil is still at the base of those stories, however, even as we struggle to balance what we deem realistic with the ideal.
This struggle leads to familiar reader complaints: No one really dies in a comic book. The stories never end, but continue ad nauseam. The cynical and admittedly true reason for both of those complaints is money. Familiar characters sell, so The Punisher or Wolverine stay the same age for decades, while characters will be killed and resurrected in the name of comics event profits. I have voiced my irritation at that myself, but the more I have thought about it, the more those elements of comics storytelling mirror the stories of Heracles, Thor and other mythological figures throughout the ages. The timelessness of comic book superheroes allows us to not only keep our symbols of good, but to have those symbols evolve to reflect our contemporary values. Maybe the economics of that and the artistic meaning we choose to take from it are not mutually exclusive.
When I was beginning my career as an educator, I received an incredibly valuable piece of advice from my mentor, Mrs. Thorn. The job of the teacher is an impossible one, she said. What you want to do is try to get as close to that impossible goal as you can. In that case, the impossible goal is to see every single student who walks through your door leave a complete success whose life was changed and permanently improved due to your teaching. Many people who enter the teaching profession possess these lofty aspirations, which, in their way, are the aspirations of the hero. I see part of the superhero’s function is to express the desire to be the best we can be—an impossible goal, perhaps, but one to work toward.
Before completely finishing this article, I was informed about the bombing at the Boston Marathon. It was difficult news to consider in the midst of my thoughts of heroism and human ideals. Before my thinking could become crippled by it, I came across the now widely shared words of comedian Patton Oswalt. They filled me with emotion, as they have for countless others, and I am sure many of you have already read them. I am going to end this with them anyway. Oswalt is also a well-known superhero comics nerd, and today he is my hero:
Boston. Fucking horrible.
I remember, when 9/11 went down, my reaction was, “Well, I’ve had it with humanity.”
But I was wrong. I don’t know what’s going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem. One human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths.
But here’s what I DO know. If it’s one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out. (Thanks FAKE Gallery founder and owner Paul Kozlowski for pointing this out to me). This is a giant planet and we’re lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in a while, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they’re pointed towards darkness.
But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago.
So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, ‘The good outnumber you, and we always will.’
By day, Miguel Rodriguez is a mild-mannered educator, but the world will never know his secret identity as Director and Founder of Horrible Imaginings Film Festival in San Diego. He is also your horribly humble host for The Monster Island Resort podcast, the online radio show that goes bump in the night. Miguel discusses all things horror with interviews, reviews, rants, or just good old fashioned conversation. Also, Monster Island Resort Storytime offers audio readings of classic horror and gothic tales! Follow Miguel on Twitter: @MonsterResort.
Categories: Guest Star