Hornet Herald: Serialized Superheroes Inspire Society

{Originally printed in the Hornet Herald, released Thursday, now re-posted here.}

When the comics hit the newsstands, the fans wait to read the newest issue. Last time, Captain America fell off a precipice, pushed by a Nazi tank. Will he survive? The fans mill on the street, flipping through the pages to read what happens next. What happens next within the comic seems to be the only thing that matters at the moment.

We as a society are obsessed with heroes because those heroes reflect our values.

Beowulf was once that hero, the mortal man who rose above his calling to do something heroic. Today, we have the Avengers. On May 4, The Avengers movie will be released in theatres featuring superheroes such as Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, and Black Widow. Why do heroes even matter, and why do we follow them so ardently, buying issue after issue of a comic to follow a storyline?

Thousands of years ago we needed as we need today not just real heroes (firefighters or military leaders) but fictitious ones to represent what we believe as a society. We have expressed our deepest fears and greatest achievements through the stories of heroes. When World War Two began, comics became filled with masked men like Superman and Captain America. And what did Captain America stand for? America: liberty, freedom, and the defeat Hitler.

At that time in our history, America needed a patriotic hero.

In the 1970s, we met slightly different superheroes like Alan Moore’s Watchmen, representing heroes disillusioned with the country’s treatment of them and “the evils of capitalism.” For example, Moore’s masked Rorschach acted against the law to achieve what he believed personally just (a popular idea during this era).

Superheroes changed drastically in just three decades, from stalwart defenders of the Constitution to anti-war cynics. They change because America changes. Superheroes become whatever we need them to become and stand for what we need them to stand for.

After generations of change, how do the superheroes today measure up to those in the past? Due to a newly sparked interest in comic book heroes through recently released movies such as Iron Man, Thor, and The Dark Knight as well as the release of DC’s The New 52 (new and classic characters re-imagined to fit better into the mold of modern day), we must look at our superheroes have shaped us and how we shape superheroes.

What happens in our world is not just reflected in high-brow literature: in comic books, we see writers’ much more immediate reaction to tragedy. Comic books have featured suicidal religious cults, national terrorism, and corrupt politics, all trials that we have recently experienced.

For example, since the 1970s, we have seen a rise in female and minority superheroes (not just as sidekicks, but leading their own series). Female crime fighters such as Wonder Woman, Black Widow (part of the Avenger’s team) and Electra show that woman are just as formidable in tights as men. With the most recent comic reboot of Spiderman, we have adopted a multi-ethnic hero named Miles (who is half-Hispanic, half-African American).

While some see the purposeful change of a popular superhero’s race as a publicity stunt, I think it promotes the idea that heroes can arise from any background. Not everyone who will make a difference looks like Superman.

Comic book creators have also injected more realism into comics as well as the movies those comics inspire. We are no longer a society that needs a Superman, some infallible hero with unlimited powers; instead, we want characters vulnerable enough sympathize with and human enough to relate to. The humanizing of heroes has allowed us to place ourselves in a hero’s shoes: if even heroes can die yet overcome that fear to save the world, why can’t we?

As history progresses, we create superheroes more and more like ourselves perhaps because we love to see ourselves as heroes, even superheroes. Take for instance one of DC’s most popular characters Batman: he has no powers, only martial arts training and piles of money big enough to rival those of Scrooge McDuck’s. He appeals to us because he is both privileged and emotionally scarred—almost like America—and yet he uses what is given to him to defend Gotham City.

We need heroes as we have always needed heroes. Even if they are fictitious, we need someone to inspire us when times get tough, someone who will rise to the occasion and seize the day. We need that enigma to stand for something, and as long as glossy paper and America exist, we will have comic book superheroes who reflect our ideals and metaphorically protect us from wickedness.

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About Derek Berry

Derek Berry is a novelist and spoken word poet. Derek is the author of Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County (PRA Publishing, 2016). He co-founded and organizes The Unspoken Word, a literary non-profit based out of Charleston, SC, which provides an intendent home for the poetic arts through regular readings, workshops, and community fundraisers. He is on the Executive Board of the Charleston Poetry Festival, the inaugural production of which will be Fall 2017. His work has appeared in The Southern Tablet, Cattywampus, Charleston Currents, Illuminations, RiverSedge, and other journals.He has performed in venues across the United States and Germany. He has worked as a photographer’s assistant, busboy, and bookseller. He currently works at a curation facility for Cold War History.

Posted on April 30, 2012, in books, Characters, Education, genre studies, Humor, News, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Interesting post. Have you read Grant Morrison’s book- “Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human”?

    • Funnily enough, someone else suggested that book to me today. I’m still working through all the major Batman graphic novels, and I’m also reading Marvel 1607. Then, maybe, I shall go read that.

      • Awesome. Ha, there’s a lot of collected batman out there. So it might take a while. But regardless, I’m always down to talk comics.

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