I’m 60, and I’ve been reading superhero comics since I was 10. That’s a half-century of flying men in leotards punching giant robots.
Why haven’t I outgrown them? Why am I writing a series about superheroes?
The question may seem needlessly defensive. After all, geek culture is ascendant, and some superhero movies do well at the box office. (Sorry, “Green Lantern.”) I have many friends who are interested in superheroes.
Still, most of them aren’t interested like I am. They scratch their itches for superhero stories, to extent they have them, by catching the movies or playing DC Online. If and when they do read comics, they wait for the trades.
Not me. I’m at the comics store every Wednesday or Thursday afternoon without fail to pick up the stuff on my pull list and whatever looks interesting on the racks.
Why? It’s not like I need Superman or the X-Men for a fix of the fantastic. I enjoy all forms of fantasy, science-fiction and horror, and from a certain perspective, superhero comics are the runts of the litter.
Fantastic literature trades in unreal setups and phenomena. But many critics argue that it should extrapolate from its outlandish premises logically, and even the best superhero comics generally fail this test. They’re full of assertions and events that are irrational even in the context of their own crazy ground rules.
There’s no way 3,600 Green Lanterns could patrol the entire universe, Iron Man’s cutting-edge but contemporary Earth technology could stand up to the weapons of star-faring races like the Kree or a warlord from the far future like Kang, or that enemies who lack superspeed could pose even a momentary threat to the Flash.
It just doesn’t make sense.
Superhero comics are also the most contrived and artificial form of fantastic literature. The human race doesn’t have people traveling to other planets and star systems, and maybe we never will. Still, when science-fiction posits such voyagers, it describes explorers, colonists, soldiers, merchants, etc., and we’ve certainly had those.
There was never a Conan of Cimmeria, but there were real barbarian warriors who wandered to more civilized lands to seek their fortunes. There’s no such thing as magic (Wiccans and New Agers, I look forward to your emails), but there were and are people who believe in it and even claim to practice it. In contrast, real life doesn’t serve up superior individuals who fight evil as masked vigilantes while forswearing lethal force. More than any other sort of human character, the superhero is purely a fictional conceit.
So why read or write about them, then?
Many people have observed that superhero comics are a power fantasy, and that’s true. What isn’t true is that such a fantasy is necessarily unhealthy or the mark of a timid, downtrodden individual. You don’t have to be bullied, lonely, or sexually frustrated to enjoy the idea of swinging around Manhattan on web lines, shrinking to the size of a toy soldier, or turning into a being of living flame. You simply need a sense of wonder.
Wonder is actually the most salient characteristic of a superhero universe. As I said, over time, as stories accumulate, such universes almost invariably lose a measure of logical coherence, but at the same time, they become increasingly marvelous. In the first issue of Secret Avengers, the team starts out investigating mundane (by comic-book standards) corporate skullduggery. Twenty pages later, the twists and turns of the case have them rocketing off to explore alien ruins on Mars, and it all hangs together on its own terms. How can you not enjoy a setting and style of storytelling so wild and free that a plot like that is feasible?
Aside from the power fantasy and parade of wonders, though, what superhero comics offer is a moral vision. Blessed with power that would allow them to do virtually any selfish thing they like, superheroes instead use it helping others, sometimes at enormous personal cost.
Out of all such characters, Batman provides perhaps the finest example of virtue and nobility. He became a crime fighter because, as a child, he saw his parents murdered, and modern writers make it clear he still carries the scars. To say the least, he lacks the optimism of Superman and the rest of his peers. Yet his rage and grim outlook never turn him into a monster. He never kills, and he always puts protecting the innocent ahead of punishing the guilty.
Actually, his story is even more inspiring than that. Over time, he achieves all the elements of a healthy, fulfilling life. He creates a new family and a circle of friends. He has a love life, a sense of humor, and is one of the world’s foremost philanthropists. Though born in horror and tragedy, he embodies goodness because he chooses and wills the good,
That, I think, is one reason he looms so large in the imagination, and why I keep coming back to his adventures and the exploits of other characters like him. Their sagas exemplify courage, idealism and hope, and on those occasions when I’ve managed a bit of pluck or unselfishness in my own life, I’m sure their influence played a part in it.