Monday, April 11, 2016

Behind Our Masks: The Questions Superheroes Ask of Us

For over eighty years, the superhero genre has helped reveal our own secret identities. ♦ 
It’s no secret that America loves superheroes. Our highest grossing movies, our most popular TV shows, and even our video games are often a reflection of this adoration for men and women with supernatural abilities and talents. Why is that? What’s so fascinating about a grown man dressing up in tights and wearing a hat with bat ears going out and beating muggers half to death with his bare hands? Why do we revel in the idea of a Superman instead of revile it? Perhaps it’s because superheroes are, in a way, a blank canvas for us to paint ourselves onto. Beneath the mask, the hero can be anyone (well, usually a white male, though maybe recent heroes like Miles Morales and Kamala Khan signal a change in the demographic), and this idea allows us to identify with superheroes in a very intimate and psychological way. If you ask someone that you’ve never met, “If you could have one or two super powers, what would they be and why?” either they have an answer or it won’t take long for them to think of one. Superheroes are an artful and compelling way for us to extend ourselves beyond our limitations, to imagine a better now and a bright future.
    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
for all of his accomplishments and victories, he is still very much the little boy that watched his parents get gunned down in Crime Alley, kneeling, forever broken, next to their fallen forms. Batman’s city inevitably matches this mentality within the Caped Crusader. No matter how hard Batman tries, there is always crime in Gotham City, just as there is always that brokenness within Bruce Wayne. The questions that Batman asks of us are as numerous as they are challenging. First and foremost, however, the story of Batman presents itself to me as the question of how we deal with loss. Within the context of Bruce’s story, however, this question may be better phrased as, “What does it look like to never let go of grief?” This is ultimately what Batman shows us. No matter how much he fights, no matter how many Robins he trains, or how many victims he saves from the Joker’s death traps, he is still very much the boy that misses his parents. This grief is what fuels him to fight injustice, but it’s also what holds him back from ever moving on. In fact, in many iterations of Batman, we see a character unwilling to move on from that grief.
    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
   When we do this, however, we are asking the wrong questions of Superman. If we want to read about a hero consistently taking a beating, we should look more in the direction of Daredevil. Superman was never about the enemies he faces, because he always wins anyway. His ability to beat the odds, to overcome obstacles, is what makes him so fascinating to begin with. Superman asks of us very different kinds of questions, as he is more god than man. When reading Superman, I often find myself asking, “Am I living up to my full potential? What would I do with all that power?”
    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.
  • About the Author
    Tom Mullenix is a 15th-level writer (out of 100), a 4th-level copywriter, and a 6th-level warlock. He’s currently studying Creative Writing and Philosophy at Miami University and will use any excuse to write about comic book characters or wizards. Any excuse. Visit him online at

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