Although the concept of the superhero is as old as the Epic of Gilgamesh, superheroes as we know them today are a product of American history. DC’s Superman and Wonder Woman fought in World War II, as did Marvel’s Captain America, Bucky, the original Human Torch, and Namor, a.k.a. the Sub-Mariner.
(Don’t worry if you’re not familiar with Namor just yet. Once upon a time, most people outside the world of comic book fandom would never have recognized the characters from Avengers: Endgame. I’m still blown away by the fact that Groot and Rocket Raccoon are pretty much household names these days.)
I think that superheroes represent the best of American ideals, and that one of the best representations of superheroes is this little essay that’s been around the internet for a number of years. I’m posting it here as my way of celebrating Independence Day. Enjoy!
A common leftist critique of superhero comics is that they are inherently anti-collectivist, being about small groups of individuals who hold all the power, and the wisdom to wield that power.
I don’t disagree with this reading. I don’t think it’s inaccurate. Superheroes are their own ruling class, the concept of the übermensch writ large.
But it’s a sterile reading. It examines superhero comics as a cold text, and ignores something that I believe in fundamental, especially to superhero storytelling: the way people engage with text. Not what it says, but how it is read.
The average comic reader doesn’t fantasize about being a civilian in a world of superheroes, they fantasize about being a superhero. One could charitably chalk this up to a lust for power, except for one fact…
The fantasy is almost always the act of helping people. Helping the vulnerable, with no reward promised in return.
Being a century into the genre, we’ve seen countless subversions and deconstructions of the story.
But at its core, the superhero myth is about using the gifts you’ve been given to enrich the people around you, never asking for payment, never advancing an ulterior motive.
We should (and do) spend time nitpicking these fantasies, examining their unintended consequences, their hypocrisies.
But it’s worth acknowledging that the most eduring childhood fantasy of the last hundred years hasn’t been to become rich. Superheroes come from every class (don’t let the MCU fool you).
The most enduring fantasy is to become powerful enough to take the weak under your own wing. To give, without needing to take.
So yes, the superhero myth, as a text, isn’t collectivist. But that’s not why we keep coming back to it.
That’s not why children read it.
We keep coming back to it to learn one simple lesson…
The best thing we can do with power IS GIVE IT AWAY.