May 3, 2017
The superhero is everywhere: toys, clothing, video games, posters, websites, television, today's blockbuster movies, and yes, stories about them are still published in those little floppy magazines called comics in addition to their adventures published in book-length comics called graphic novels. In 2017 alone, no less than seven superhero-related movies are slated for, or have already been, released and in 2018 there are even more films planned for release. Studio scheduling for these films is well into the next decade. You would think that by now we have sequel exhaustion and would be tired of the superhero. Yet, even the bad movies still make millions of dollars at the box office and through massive merchandising (the superhero film boom as we know it today started with the release of "X-Men" in 2000).
Isn't it odd that as a culture we are so fascinated with women and men dressed in colorful costumes (as Stan Lee referred to them as "long underwear characters") often with some kind of power fighting a villain and sometimes each other? On the surface it seems rather strange and superficial. Yet superheroes continue to be popular and show no signs of the public growing tired of them. Why? What is it about the superhero that we seem to love so much? One possible answer is that superheroes often represent the positive ideal that humanity strives to attain. With so much pain, ruin and horror in the real world, superhero stories give us a few hours of reprieve from problems of the real world. In frank terms, we want to see the good guys/gals win (especially if they are pitted against an interesting villain like The Joker, Catwoman, Thanos or Magneto). We appreciate the politeness of Captain America and the strength of Wonder Woman. Even darker and oftentimes morally ambiguous characters like Batman, Iron Man, Wolverine and the foul mouthed Deadpool still end up being heroic, oftentimes in spite of themselves.
The superhero as we know it today began in 1938 with the release Action Comics #1 featuring a brightly colored character on the cover who sported an S on his chest. Newsstand patrons in 1938 had never seen anything quite like this before. The cover was ambiguous. Was this brightly colored "superman" holding a car over his head a villain or good guy? It wasn't until one opened the comic to read the story that they understood this character, Superman, was a fighter for truth and justice. One thing the cover did promise was action and this story featuring Superman, created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, gave readers that and much more. Other colorful and super-powered individuals like Batman, Captain America, Human Torch, Wonder Woman, Miss America, Green Lantern and so many followed in Superman's wake. In the early 1960s Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko created the foundation for today's Marvel Universe. They created superheroes that were not perfect, had relationship and money problems, but still tried to do the right thing in spite of their own personal difficulties (like Spider-Man). This proved popular with the public and over at DC Comics, Denny O' Neil and Neal Adams followed in Marvel's footsteps (of course many other writers and artists had a hand in crafting these vast universes populated with the "flawed" superhero). Before then, superheroes had often been one-dimensional without having to deal with difficulties of "real" life (there are exceptions of course, The Sub-Mariner is one that comes to mind).
With over 75+ years under their belt, superheroes are our modern mythology and continue to resonate with us. Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, Iron Man, Captain America and Wonder Woman are known all over the world by the youngest of children to the elderly. Their stories are part of our collective consciousness as a culture. That's us on the screen and in other various story iterations and what we aspire to be. Superheroes can bring out the best in humanity, however flawed. Oh, and superheroes are just plain fun. I would encourage you to go see "Guardians of the Galaxy 2" when it is released this weekend and lose yourself for couple of hours as the Guardians save the universe one more time.
A few scholarly sources on superheroes:
The superhero has not escaped the notice of academics and the university. There are many courses on superheroes, comics/graphic novels and even some Comics Studies programs exist (University of Dundee and University of Florida).
Coogan, Peter. The Superhero: Secret History of a Genre. Austin: Monkeybrain , 2006.
Hatfield, Charles, Jeet Heer, Kent Worcester eds., The Superhero Reader. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2013.
Reynolds, Richard. Superheroes Our Modern Mythology. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1994.
Rosenberg, Robin, Peter Coogan eds. What is a Superhero? Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 2013.
Rob Weiner is popular culture librarian at the University Libraries. He teaches the class "The Superhero in Film, Television, History, and Popular Culture" for the Honors College. He is the author of "Marvel Graphic Novels: An Annotated Guide" and editor/co-editor of "Captain America and the Struggle of the Superhero, Graphic Novels and Comics in the Classroom" (with Carrye Syma), "The Joker: A Serious Study of the Clown Prince of Crime" (with Rob Peaslee), "Marvel Comics Into Film" (with Matt McEniry and Rob Peaslee) and the forthcoming "Python Beyond Python: Critical Engagements with Culture" (with Paul Reinsch and Lynn Whitfield). He is currently co-editing with Rob Peaslee on "The Dark Side: A Supervillian Reader."