Superheroes, old and new-fangled

Superman

My stepdad James and I were talking about a month ago, and he said something that I can’t get out of my head. I’m paraphrasing:

“You know, the thing about this culture is that even Superman’s too young now. You notice how he’s gotten progressively younger over the years.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“Well, once upon a time, Superman was a guy you could aspire to be, you know. Sure, he had superpowers and whatnot, but in the comics he was a relatively young professional who you could grow up to be, or at least try to be. In the early TV show, he was played by a guy with a slight gut, with a barrel chest, and a receding hairline.”

“I think that guy later committed suicide.”

“Don’t distract me,” said James. “Anyway, Superman was a guy who could serve as a role model if you were a kid, and could be a guy you identified with as an adult. And then, in the 1970s and the 1980s, it was Christopher Reeve. Sure, he was younger and better-looking, but he at least still looked like a real person.”

“He was still an adult.”

“Exactly,” Dad said. “With the Lois & Clark TV show, Superman got even younger. Dean Cain looked like he was fresh out of college. Still, he was an adult. He had a career, he had nagging parents, he had the girl he couldn’t quite get.”

“They married in the last season,” I said. “Show went all to hell.”

“Stop it. Anyway, now we’ve got Smallville. Superman’s in his teens. I can’t even pretend to relate to him anymore. Superman’s supposed to be an American icon, but he’s not even designed to appeal to Americans over the age of, I dunno, twenty or so. It’s like American culture has decided to leave everyone behind who’s over drinking age.”

Although I’ve been an avid comics reader since my teens, I was never enamored with Superman. By the time I got interested in superheroes, it was the mid-1980s, and the entire genre was being reworked—made darker, more complicated, more neurotic—by Frank Miller (Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns) and Alan Moore (Watchmen), among others. Superman seemed tame and simpleminded in comparison. (I loved watching Lois & Clark, of course, but that had much more to do with Teri Hatcher and her long legs than with Superman.) In 1994, I read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics which, along with introducing me to the idea of comics theory, alluded to dozens of alternative, underground, and experimental comics that I had never heard of. I’ve never looked back.

I grew out of superhero comics because I felt that, in terms of emotional maturity and intellectual complexity, they were stagnant, doggie-paddling in a pool of stunted adolescence. You’ve heard this line before—I’m not saying anything new here. But I owe my interest in the art form to my mom and stepdad, a couple that was mature and wise in the best senses of the words. It was James who gave me my first issue of MAD. (Alfred E. Neuman was posed like Bruce Springsteen on the cover of Live 1975-1985. I didn’t get the reference at the time.) It was James who slipped me a ragged, beat-up copy of a Mr. Natural comic.

And my mom has acquired, over the course of twenty years, one of the best collections of Spider-Man paraphernalia ever.

“You once watched this Saturday morning cartoon show with Spider-Man, this fire girl, Iceman, and one other character,” she says. “After one episode of the show, you asked me who my favorite superhero was. I said, ‘Spider-Man,’ because he just seems like a regular guy. He has a job, girl troubles, he has to do laundry and pay the bills.”

But he saves the world, too. It’s the combo—the awareness of the larger world and its problems, combined with the quotidian troubles of an individual in America—that gives superheroes such power over us. They’re mythic, they’re epic, and the closest thing America has to natural-born gods, but they’re also adults. We can never stick to walls or shoot laser beams out of our eyes but, because of their maturity and their ability to aid the world, we can see superheroes as characters that, with a lot of practice, we might become. They’re superheroes but, in most cases, they’re also superhuman.

But not now. Superheroes are so steroidal and pneumatic that they don’t look like people anymore. I suppose the costumes were always tight, but they didn’t start looking like pornstar gear until the 1990s. The violence seems grimmer, splashier, but somehow less satisfying and less connected to the real world. Mostly, the comics seem less bound to humanity and more to fantasy. There have been recent exceptions—Alan Moore’s Promethea is overly lush, graphically busy, and full of half-digested Kabbalah nonsense, but Moore is at least trying to infuse the genre with mythic dimensions.

And the fantasy, of course, is an adolescent male one. That’s the major problem—that superheroes have gotten too young to have the depth required of epics and myths. As much as I wanted to like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I always felt like I was watching episodes of high school life re-imagined by the nerd who never outgrew the eleventh grade. Smallville is myth being lived out by people who still think pimples on Prom night are the worst problem in the world. There’s little hint of Odysseus’s 20-year journey to re-unite with his wife here, of sacrifices and joys that extend beyond the present moment, of family rivalries that have gone on for generations. Like the kids who it’s programmed for, the superhero genre is concerned entirely with the here and now.

The whole thing wouldn’t bother me if I had just outgrown the superhero genre. After all, comics exist in just as many modes as painting, literature, music, or any other art form. I’ve found my way to the stuff I love. But it’s bothersome that the superhero genre seems to have failed us. In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the superhero was something Americans of all ages paid attention to. The superhero was, even on newsprint and in smudgy ink, a symbol of something greater than ourselves, but ultimately of ourselves.

And make no mistake: the superhero is reigning supreme in American culture. The movies with the biggest budgets, highest profiles, and biggest grosses are superhero movies. Even with the critical ascendancy of the alternative “graphic novel,” the biggest print runs and best production values in comics go to the superheroes. Buffy, Smallville, and the continued, unexplainable success of Charmed all indicate that superheroes are part of, and symbolic of, the popular culture mainstream.

So, it’s a shame that the genre is obsessed with emulating the audience that’s too immature to fully appreciate its potential. The genre exists now less as a guide—here’s what you can be—than as a fashion reporter—here’s what you are, and look how cool you are. The genre’s brains have gotten smaller in its thinking, even as its breasts and muscles have gotten larger. That’s just the way the kids like it, but what about the rest of us?

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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One Response to Superheroes, old and new-fangled

  1. Jen says:

    OK – here’s a comment from a Smallville fan who’s over 40! I love it for it’s complete escapism and the fact that it doesn’t really try and emulate the real world. In the UK they’ve just put the can on Grange Hill which was “real life” and utterly depressing.
    Would you really want to be able to relate to Clark Kent?!

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