Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Powerful Pull of Superheroes

Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone
in the latest and greatest version
of Spiderman.

Lately, I've been very intrigued by the comic book and graphic novel industry. Recently, I took a trip to Paris and, out of curiosity, I wanted to see if the Virgin Megastore on the Champs Elysées was still in business (considering how so many forms of entertainment have gone digital). For me, it was a trip down memory lane, being a poor broke English assistant, I spent many hours with headphones on listening to the latest CDs on the market. (Wow, do I feel old!) Of course, the store had changed and things had been rearranged but, to my surprise, the top floor was dedicated to a café, a small pricey area filled with expensive writing utensils and... comic books and graphic novels. I'm talking walls and rows of comics and graphic novels I'd never heard of and some that have been around for years. All I could think was, "Who reads these?" because I certainly don't. I didn't take a photo to share, but click here if you'd like to see what it looks like.

A few months back I wrote a guest post entitled "The Year of the Superhero," and quite frankly I wrote it because I've noticed how saturated movie theaters have become when it comes to movies about superheroes. By the end of this summer, there will have been five superhero movies released already this year. Marvel Comics alone has a new comic book on stands every Wednesday. Not being a comic book reader, that sure shocked the pants off of me!

And I'm also curious as to why so many people get pulled into these stories. There obviously has to be a market for both comic books and graphic novels if they are getting published on a very regular basis since their popularity exploded in 1939. So, I went in search of some answers.

First, let's start by defining the difference between comic books and graphic novels. According to Graphic, here is how they define both mediums:
❝Graphic novels are, simply defined, book-length comics. Sometimes they tell a single, continuous narrative from first page to last; sometimes they are collections of shorter stories or individual comic strips. Comics are sequential visual art, usually with text, that are often told in a series of rectangular panels. Despite the name, not all comics are funny. Many comics and graphic novels emphasize drama, adventure, character development, striking visuals, politics, or romance over laugh-out-loud comedy.❞
But what is it about these storylines, with their comically dressed masked men and women and bubbles of words floating about their heads? Why do we need superheroes in our lives?
The Phantom

One of the longest running comics still on the market is The Phantom, the first ever superhero to grace the pages of a newspaper. He doesn't have any supernatural powers like those who followed in his footsteps (i.e. Superman, Spiderman, The Green Lantern, Wonderwoman, etc.), but rather relies upon his natural powers and skills like Batman, Black Widow, and Iron Man. In an informal and unscientific conversation with my husband who used to be quite the fanboy back in the day (and in some ways still is), I asked him what he enjoys about superheroes in general. Do those with supernatural powers outweigh those without? Do the female superheroes need to be sexy in order to draw the male public in? And the stories -- are they any good?

For my husband, The Punisher is his favorite. If you can remember back to the films that have been made, then you'll know they didn't fare too well at the box office. But it's the guns and the vendetta The Punisher has that makes him relatable to the reading public (or mainly to men). He's an antihero of sorts, one who goes after the criminals with any type of war weaponry available. He stands up for the little guy. And, perhaps, there in lies the key. Will any given superhero stand up for Plain Jane and Average Joe when the going gets tough? He pretty much has to if he wants the public to love him.

Here is a list of other characteristics many superheroes share:

  • Intelligent
  • Wears a Costume (I can't think of one who doesn't.)
  • Athletic
  • Role Model
  • Has a Weakness (Kryptonite, anyone?)
  • Has an Arch Enemy
  • Secret Identity (alter ego)
  • Love Interest (i.e. Mary Jane, Lois Lane, any one of Bruce Wayne's women)
  • Has a Goal
  • Special Powers (not necessarily supernatural powers)
  • Earns Respect
  • Has a sidekick
  • Unique
  • Uses Gadgets
  • Has a Lair or Hideout
  • Interesting Past (this is what motivates him in his quests)
  • Vehicle (i.e. the Batmobile, Iron Man's suit, the cool plane the X-Men use)
  • Determined
  • Strong
  • Brave
That's quite a list, but every single one of them is true. What would Superman be like if not for kryptonite weakening his powers? Batman needs his Batcave, right? And don't forget that gadgets are a must for Iron Man.

Overall, I think what most look for in a superhero is whether or not he is incredible in some extraordinary way and yet is very human and relatable to what is going on in one's life. My husband prefers those who don't possess a supernatural power because they are just like you and me. Take a look at Bruce Wayne. He has this dark past that makes him human on many different levels, but when the sun goes down, he goes out and hunts down the bad guys. At the same time most comic book and graphic novel readers enjoy the badassery of all superheroes, even the somewhat antiheroes like V from V for Vendetta. He's out there cleaning up the streets using his terrorist tactics to fight against his totalitarian government, but also keeping a cozy existence underground enjoying the simpler things in life like music and books. Superman has impressive powers, but at the same time he's just a boy who grew up on a farm and works as a reporter for his day job. You can't get more basic than that, can you?

Sometimes a superhero never
connects with the audience, like
with The Green Hornet.
But, sometimes a superhero's story just doesn't connect with the public. The most recent occurrence of this is with the 2011 release of The Green Hornet starring Seth Rogen and Jay Chou. My first thought when this film was released was "Who thought Seth Rogen could play a superhero?" (Personally, I think he lacks some of that "athletic" skill mentioned in the list above.) And many critics mirrored my thoughts. Roger Ebert didn't mince words when he said, "The Green Hornet is an almost unendurable demonstration of a movie with nothing to be about." Mike LaSalle from The San Francisco Chronicle had this to say:
"No one loved it into existence. No one had a feels less like an adaptation of The Green Hornet than a series of vague gestures on a 'Green Hornet' theme. In the place of the basic elements of storytelling, the movie offers vacancy."
In truth, consumers of comic books and graphic novels don't want to spend their money on some vague story that offers no satisfaction in return. They want to see the hero overpower the villain. They want to see what drives that character to go on a vigilante quest. They want to know what weakens the superheroes strengths and how that superhero devises a plan to get around such obstacles. The reader wants to feel his/her own vindication in the end, and, of course, there needs to be a hook to push that reader into buying the next installment in the series.

After all, what Mike LaSalle has to say at the end of his review is very true indeed:
"It's strange, but even in an action comedy, if the audience doesn't care whether the protagonist gets killed, it's a big problem. Without that one human element, all the carefully orchestrated action becomes mere commotion -- and sleep inducing."
Keep that in mind. We don't want to become noise in a reader's ear, to the point that he/she stops reading our work. Any writer needs to make the reader care about that main character -- no matter what genre you write!

Are you a comic book/graphic novel reader? If so, what's your favorite and why? Do you feel that any of the longstanding stories have jumped the shark and you just won't read them anymore? Do you feel the films ever measure up to what's written in the books?


  1. Perhaps Superheroes become more important to us in times of trouble; and right now, with all of the upheaval in the world, economic uncertainty and end-of-world talk, we are once again turning to an ideal world where good triumphs over evil and heroes save the day. I've never read a comic book, but my BF is a fan and took me to see the Avengers, which I enjoyed. (At the very end of the movie, after the credits, it shows our heroes tiredly and silently devouring sandwiches at a deli. A nice Everyman touch!)

    1. Li, I haven't seen the new Avengers movie, but have heard a lot about it (my husband went and saw it). I like the idea of the heroes sitting there and doing something so basic as eating a meal. And I think you're right, in times of trouble the whole idea of good triumphing over evil is a comforting thought.

  2. Super heroes are today's version of the mythic gods—Zeus, Thor, Odin, etc.—who all had fallible human characteristics as well as "powers" both good and bad. We need our mythic heroes today just as much as the Greeks, Romans, and Norse folk did.

    1. What an intriguing thought! We don't have the religious rituals and actual literal belief in our superheroes the way those people did with their gods, but the analogy is still good. Certainly the ancients imbued their gods with plenty of personality and foibles.

    2. I agree with Stephanie. I'd never thought of comics being our modern day interpretation of the mythic gods (but then again, Thor is a big comic book character). Even now we still live with the idea that there is a mythic hero out there fighting for what's good. And they have human characteristics that make them very relatable.

  3. Comics have never lost their appeal. Japanese Anime provided it with a new twist and it is constantly renewing the genre.

    Sister Mary, Mary you ask who reads graphic novels? First are those nostalgic for their comics plus newer generation of readers who have grown on mangas and believe that every text should come with visual props attached.

    Graphic novels/comics provide continuity. You don’t have to fall in love with new protagonists. Here is the familiar face of a hero you love and you know wont die or get hurt. Moreover, as Li pointed out we all need heroes that are Good and fight for Truth and Justice, most important, heroes who succeed in their noblest of endeavors even in the bleakest of times.
    Excellent post!

    1. Violante,
      You're right in saying that comics and graphic novels provide continuity, but maybe more so with comics since they are published so regularly. I'm not a fan of manga, but from what I understand it, too, has developed the same sort of following that comics have. It's just a matter of a different time and what the public is interested in.

  4. I suppose nowadays, the heroes of 'Techno-nerds' are Steve Jobs and other rich internet moguls. As one of the depression generation, (1930s) my heroes were Marconi, Farnsworth (television inventor), Edison, and even Henry Ford. I was never able to understand why some guy who could hit a baseball was heroic. As they say, 'different strokes for different folks' Regis.

    1. Regis,
      Much like the other Anon writer noted, superheroes come in different shapes and forms. I hadn't thought of the whole "Techno-nerd" hero, but in many ways you're right. Everyone has a different idea of what a superhero should be like. I like your list with Marconi, Farnsworth, Edison, and Ford. It certainly lends a different perspective to the whole "Who really is a hero?" debate.

  5. There are a couple of reasons superheroes are so popular. The first is that they are exaggerations of ourselves. That means they're relatable in some context but that they're able to deal with issues we can't. Seemingly in conflict with that, we often learn that super heroes still can't fix everything. That's a common theme in comics, often delivered througha villain's monologue. "For all your super strength, you couldn't prevent your boyfriend from dying! Muahaha!" I think there is some solace to be had there: No matter how powerful we become, there will always be things outside of our control. Some might find that depressing, but I see it as a way to let go of wasting my time trying to control the uncontrollable.

    Also important is the fact that it's far more socially acceptable to openly love and embrace nerd culture now than it ever has before. What seems like an explosion of super heroes to the non-comic lover is simply an inevitable culmination of a flowering culture.

    1. I feel like I want to say this somewhere, and this seems like a good place: Michael Chabon's "The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" is a great novel about superheroes from the creators' point of view. Lots of interesting history about the rise of comic-book heroes, and plenty of meditation on the appeal of the superhero. Daphne's Dad, I will continue to recommend this one to you! :)

    2. I've never heard of "The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay." I think that would be fascinating to read a novel from the creators' POV. Thanks for recommending it!

  6. As a result of all this, people are finally learning what comic culture has known for decades: Comic books can be as deep, meaningful and well-written as any other form of writing.

    1. Daphne's Dad,

      Thank you for your insightful and very true comments. I most definitely agree with the last sentence you wrote:

      'Comic books can be as deep, meaningful and well-written as any other form of writing.'

      If the writer is serious about what he/she writes, then, yes, that genre, no matter what it may be, can be a well-written piece of work.

  7. Sister Mary,

    Thanks for a very insightful and interesting post. I have to say that I like comic books and graphic novels very much as a genre, but I'm not in love with superheroes. I did when I was much younger. (BTW, thanks for clarifying the difference between graphic novels and comic books.) For me, superheroes are so predictable that they've become boring. Therefore, every time a new superhero movie comes out, I don't have any interest in watching it. But I understand their appeal (I think it has to do with our desire to see justice done. That's why the action genre in its many forms is so popular).

    Comic books about something other than superheroes have always appealed to me. In Latin America, they use to have different types of comic books (funny ones (ex: Condorito), dramatic ones (ex: Memin Pinguin) and romantic stories that later became telenovelas). When I was a teenager, I illustrated and wrote a graphic novel about two twins in love with the same guy :). Unfortunately I never finished it. Have you seen the Twilight graphic novel? It has beautiful illustrations.

    1. Sister Lorena, like you I’m not into comics superheroes (something about men in tights), and I’m more partial to anti-heroes, but I do like the idea of “gifted” men, protagonists who have some supernatural power.

      I like what Daphne’s Dad said about the vulnerability of the superheroes. There is something epic about someone who has god-like attributes but can’t prevent evil from happening. The closest to a favorite superhero of mine was David Carradine in “Kung Fu”. Caine could kick several asses at the same time, but he often found himself in moral quandaries that prevented him from using his powers.

      I never answered Sister Mary, Mary´s question about a favorite comic book hero. I have one that is long forgotten, Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, the adventures of a Viking Prince that becomes one of the Round Table Knights. Although Valiant had no supernatural powers, he lived in a sword and wizard world where he constantly met fairies, warlocks, dragons, a giant octopus and the like. I’m sad that nobody in Hollywood has remembered him in these High Fantasy days, there is a Fifties film with Robert Wagner, very bad movie.

    2. Violante, I totally had forgotten about Prince Valiant! I never really read his comic strip, but it seemed very popular while I was growing up. Not being one who still reads the funnies, does anyone know if it's still being published?

      Sister Lorena, I had no idea you enjoyed the comic book/graphic novel genre! I always like seeing different countries' takes on certain genres, so thanks for sharing. I agree with you, though. Superheroes tend to be so predictable. I suppose that's why I'm never really game to go see the latest movie out, because I know that Spiderman/Superman/the Avengers/Batman, etc. will always win in the end. It gets too predictable for me, too. I have seen a few pages of the Twilight graphic novel and I'll agree that whoever drew it did a nice job!

      ♥ Mary Mary

    3. According to Wikipedia, Prince Valiant is still on. It appears in 300 American papers. To think he first saw the light in 1937.

  8. Violante, It seems that escapist literature and movies are again trending to 'back to nature' themes and away from bizarre depictions of a techno-future, as in "Blade Runner' . The girl protagonist in Hunger Games may be the harbinger of more woodsy feminine heroines.

    I looked forward to Prince Valiant every Sunday, not only for the adventure, but to admire the beautiful artwork. Robert Wagner was probably selected because he was so handsome, and did resemble the prince. The failure was probably due to bad scripting and directing. Regis

    1. Robert Wagner was cute, but that silly wig! Funny, it just dawned on me that Valiant in the comics was dark, and yet he came from Nordic stock. Moreover, the film eschewed all magic material and Valiant's travels. Remember that he met Huns and Byzantines and even travelled to America? Smething else, I liked Aletta, because she was a girl with gumption, and she was sexy and yet strong and feminine but smart. No wonder they had so many babies. They were very well matched.

      I loved Blade Runner, but it´s one of the few science fiction films I can actually stomach.

      It´s so nice to hear from you. Hope the book is doing fine.

    2. I've never watched "Blade Runner", but a couple of days ago I saw "Prometheus" by the same director (Ridley Scott) and I actually enjoyed it (I'm no fan of sci fi, either) but this one was pretty interesting.

  9. Sister Mary,

    I thought you'd be interested to know that yesterday, as I was looking for some stuff in my brother's storage room, I ran into one of his superhero comic books. The hero is called KALIMAN, and he's a bit different than regular superheroes. Look at what Wikipedia says about him:

    "He does not use weapons, except a blowgun with tranquilizer darts and a ceremonial dagger that complements his costume. He is a master of martial arts, science and arts. He also possesses extraordinary mental powers: levitation, telepathy, remote viewing, telekinesis, astral projection, control of the involuntary functions of the body (which allows him to feign being dead: what he calls "actus mortis"), hypnosis, and self-healing, among others. He makes clear that he does nothing that any other men would not be able to do through self discipline, study and hard work."

    1. Ha! See -- even the brothers are reading comics! (As if they ever stopped reading them ;)) I don't think the genre will ever die. Thanks for sharing that interesting background on Kaliman's character.


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