Note: this will likely have nothing to do with my mental state, mental health, or anything along those lines. It’s just something I felt like writing about, and seeing as how this is my blog and writing’s what I do here, a detour from the standard path it travels along can’t be too bad, right?
So, as many of you know (or not, but if you didn’t, now’s a good time to start), I’m a pretty big fan of superheroes. I read a lot of Marvel comics, and it’s been noted that my apartment seems a bit like a shrine to Captain America. In fact, I have a Captain America cosplay outfit I’ve been working on for about a year and a half, and it’s what I wore for Halloween. The shelf space I set out for my comics in my apartment is overflowing, and I’m looking for new places to stash my collection and keep it readily available. I’m also waiting for an RPG I helped fund with Kickstarter, called Masks – which is about teenage superheroes discovering their place in a world where they are the third generation of heroes and their place int he world isn’t clear – to release new playtest rules so I can try it out. Right now, a good chunk of the time I spend playing video games is spent on Marvel Heroes 2015, which is a kind of Diablo-like Action RPG with MMO elements, where you can play 52 (and counting) different Marvel. I’m not so much a DC fan, since I disliked what they did with their universe reboot – they eliminated a bunch of characters I liked, and changed several more to the point of unrecognizability. So, have we established that I’m kind of a comics/superheroes nerd? Good, then let’s move on.
I know at least some people I’ve met find it weird that a 36-year-old guy is so enamored of comics and superheroes; they are often seen as kind of a childish pursuit, which I can see – not understand, or agree with, but see nonetheless. Oddly, I never really got into comics or anything until my teens, and even after that, after a few years of comic collecting, I dropped out of the scene for quite a few years – I don’t think I really picked it up for about ten years, in my mid-20s. Oddly, I think getting into grad school for English was what really kicked that interest into high gear. And if that seems weird to you, just wait, it keeps going.
See, I really like things like history and mythology. I love reading tales about the Greek, Norse, Egyptian, etc. gods and the things they did way back when, the various ways that different groups thought of the world being created, destroyed, and things in between. I find the epic stories of the Iliad and Odyssey captivating; I love the bizarre family dynamics of Thor, Loki, Odin, and their other assorted relatives; I love the hero myths and the end-of-the-world predictions. I think they say a lot of things about the cultures that created them, and I find that kind of insight into the lives of people who died hundreds or thousands of years ago amazing. And I think that, in a way, superheroes are one of the ways in which we are creating our own modern mythology.
No, really, think about it. Look at the most popular characters in comics and comic-related properties. They are larger-than-life people often with bizarre and stupendous powers, who have an enormous impact on the world around them. Superman? Invincible alien from another world. Batman? Arguably insane, vengeance-driven billionaire vigilante. Wonder Woman? Literally a creation of the ancient Greek gods. Iron Man? Billionaire alcoholic with unparalleled engineering genius, who makes intelligent armor. Captain America? Blond, blue-eyed super-soldier created to fight one of the greatest evils in history. Thor? Like Wonder Woman, a figure right out of mythology. These are characters who are all powerful, with amazing abilities and often facing things that we can’t even comprehend facing – alien invasions? Criminally insane cadres of villains? Evil deities from ancient cultures? The stories being told about them are about these amazing powers they have, and the amazing things they do, but they are also stories about the very human parts of each of them.
Superman might be alien, but he was raised on Earth, and has to reconcile the astounding power he has with the morality he was raised to believe in. He could easily conquer the world, and kill anyone he wanted, but instead he chooses to be a protector. Batman, in an ideal setting, would need mental care because he has essentially given up his identity as a person in society to become an almost mythic figure of vengeance. Iron Man has all this money and ability, but constantly, arrogantly, overestimates what he is capable of doing because he assumes his being smarter than others means he knows better. Captain America is a man who became something amazing selflessly, and gave up his life – only to find out it wasn’t given away, just delayed, and now has to adapt to a world far different than the one he left. And these are just some of the big names; there are some great stories going on in other comics.
Ms. Marvel? A second-generation Muslim child in New York, who was already having difficulty bringing the world of her faith and culture into the world around her, when she was given powers she didn’t understand – and yet, given these powers, which she could have done anything with, she decided to emulate her idol – Carol Danvers, previous Ms. Marvel – and try to do good. As one of her creators notes, “As much as Islam is a part of Kamala’s identity, this book isn’t preaching about religion or the Islamic faith in particular. It’s about what happens when you struggle with the labels imposed on you, and how that forms your sense of self. It’s a struggle we’ve all faced in one form or another, and isn’t just particular to Kamala because she’s Muslim. Her religion is just one aspect of the many ways she defines herself.” The Runaways? The children of a group of supervillains, who, upon finding out who their parents are and what they do, decide that they don’t want to be like their parents. They run away – from their parents, from other adult heroes who come to try to get them and ‘fix’them – because they want to be able to define themselves, to decide on their own which direction their lives will go. Alias? A young woman gains superpowers, and has fun with them – and then is victimized in an absolutely terrible fashion, driving her away from everyone she knew, realizing that her powers can’t help her work through her pain and trauma (incidentally, this comic is the basis form the upcoming Netflix series Jessica Jones, which looks like it will be super-dark).
I know that, with comics, there isn’t a lot of change in the status quo – the world mostly stays the same, because publishers want to keep telling stories about the same characters, and to do that the world can’t change much. This is why, 50 years later, Tony Stark is still Iron Manning it up, fighting many of the same villains with many of the same allies, without ever seeming to age a day. And this can often be frustrating, because I think it would be cool to see how writers would have a world change if it did have groups like the Avenger, the Fantastic Four, the Sinister Six, or the Thunderbolts. But even without a lot of actual change int he world, the comics can pretty clearly lay out the personalities and problems each hero (or villain) faces. They put a human face and motivation to the fantastic, and they tell stories that often resonate with us, as readers, because of the place we are in the world or our lives. I think the movies help, because since the character must be played by actors, the characters by necessity change, grow older, and evolve or die – they have to, because (sadly) Robert Downey Jr. can’t be an ageless Tony Stark forever; in the movies, the character will either die, retire, or pass on the mantle of Iron Man. And we can see at least some of the effect they have on their world – the trailers for the upcoming Superman/Batman movie show Superman being brought before the government, and Batman seemingly trying to deal with the existence of someone so much more powerful than him that nothing he can do will help.
I obviously can’t see the future, but I’d like to think that, somewhere down the line – a hundred years, 200, more – people will look back on these characters that were created, see the types of stories that were told with them and what kinds of things they did, and see them as the kind of mythical figures we see in Greek and Norse (And other assorted) mythologies – not figures to be worshipped, but characters who help to explain who we were, what we did, and why we thought the way we thought.