For over eighty years, the superhero genre has helped reveal our own secret identities. ♦
It’s because of this ability to identify that comic book characters function so well as an analysis of our own identity, both as individuals and as Americans. Comic book characters are the perfect template for us to ask questions of ourselves, each a new and problematic variation of the question we all have for ourselves, “Who am I?” Comic book heroes and villains allow us to inquire into who we are through powerful narratives of individuals who fight for something greater than themselves. What’s so powerful about these characters is the variation in questions that we ask when faced with the different symbols and masks of these mild-mannered journalists, billionaires, and scientists.
Batman is my favorite superhero for a reason; it’s because of the character’s ability to inspire certain questions within us, especially dealing with loss. The story of Batman is a tragic one, and
|Artist: Dave Mazzucchelli|
In Frank Miller’s iconic The Dark Knight Returns, we see a Batman that has been out of the game for ten years, and now attempts to make the titular return to his crime-fighting ways. To find the Batman, the part of himself that he thought he had discarded, Bruce must cloak himself once again in the memories of that night when he lost everything. He surrounds himself with his pain and grief, and they once again become his weapons against evil. While painfully compelling, this movement within Bruce is also a cautionary tale to the reader. Batman shows us what it’s like to never let go, to never move on from the dark places in our lives. Batman forces us to ask ourselves, if we are so willing, “What injustices, what tragedies do I refuse to let go of?” Are there any parts of our lives that, while being detrimental to us, are so formative that they are almost comforting? I know, personally, that keeping the sadness within me was at some points far more comfortable than letting it go. Is this because we are all spiritual masochists like the Dark Knight? Or is it because, having moved on from our grief, we have trouble finding out who we are? If the dark times in our lives don’t define us, what does? Who am I, if I’m not a product of what has happened to me?
Those are exactly the sort of questions that a very different hero raises within us. If Batman is the night, then Superman is the day. He derives his powers from sunlight, and Superman is often synonymous with flying through a clear blue sky, overlooking Metropolis, keeping a watchful eye out for disaster. Superman is a hero of near limitless potential. His powers are seldom concretely defined, with writers often preferring to make him as strong as he needs to be for the situation at hand. It isn’t the amount of strength that Superman possesses that makes him so compelling, though, but that he always has enough strength to overcome the challenges he faces. I often was reluctant to identify with Superman when I was younger, seeing him as lame or overpowered. Why would I ever read a comic about a superhero that can do everything? Where’s the struggle? Where’s the conflict? There can’t be a satisfying victory without something to overcome, and this is where Superman loses so many viewers, readers, and fans.
|Artist: Curt Swan|
We would all like to picture ourselves as Superman, for two distinct reasons. Firstly, imagining ourselves as wildly powerful, with the ability to make real lasting change upon the world, is an extremely compelling notion. Who wouldn’t want that kind of power, if only just to fly around the world for a few days of vacation? Sure, Superman has a weakness, but the beauty of Kryptonite is that Superman can spot it from a mile away and knows how to deal with it. So often in our lives we feel weighed down by unseen forces, like we are failing for unknown reasons. Being able to know what is impeding us, and knowing the confines and definitions of our weaknesses, could help us to overcome those same weaknesses.
We’re also drawn to the Man of Steel because of his uniqueness, which, ironically, often isolates him. How many of us feel like we’re different than others in ways we can’t quite explain? After all, Superman looks like a human, he acts like a human, but that doesn’t mean he’s one of us. Many of us often feel like Clark Kent without the benefit of Superman. We feel like we haven’t discovered what makes us super, we don’t know the extent of our secret identity. We feel that we could be so much better than we are right now, but we just don’t know our own powers. Superman is so enduring within American pop culture because he shows us that there are answers to those questions, even if we don’t know what they are yet.
This idea, that superheroes uniquely allow us to ask questions of ourselves, isn’t limited to the World’s Finest. It can work for any superhero. Spider-man asks us, “What kind of responsibilities does someone with power have?” Green Lantern: “What do I do when I’m afraid?” Honestly, this process can work for any character in fiction, or even real people, if we look at them the right way, but superheroes are much easier to do this with because they are intentionally equipped to answer these questions. They were created with these questions in mind. While I have my own answers to many of these questions, I’m not going to put them here. These heroes can be looked at and adapted in so many different ways, and this allows every person who reads about them to ask different things of themselves, and develop different answers to the questions they find in these characters,
There’s also a lot of punching. No other method of self-discovery has so much punching.