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Monday, January 23, 2006

A Random Nightly Thought: Superheroes, Idealistic or Classist Propaganda

I have a friend who is very insightful and intelligent who once told me that she didn't like Superhero comics in general because she thought that they were classist. They were upholding the status quo, which means that the people in power stay in power, while the people below stay below. And she felt that the whole movement had its roots in old classist notions of heroes who were "born better" than the ordinary man.

It's an interesting perspective, really. Personally, I've always felt it to mean something different. The appeal of the superhero to me, has always been that most of these people are relatively ordinary and identifiable but have found something about themselves that's exceptional, that they are able to channel in a way to help their fellow beings. Whether it's because they're powerful aliens, born with nifty powers,have had something happen to them...whether it's because of something many people have: intelligence, imagination, altruism, blind faith. I've always thought that the varied kinds of Superheroes really represented how everyone had their own unique gifts that could be used to somehow make the world better.

My friend resents the idea that the heroes are presented in a way that emphasizes some sort of inner nobility and self-sacrifice. I have to admit, I can't really present her argument properly because I've never been able to see why these attributes *shouldn't* be considered admirable.. Unless, perhaps what she resents is that perhaps the hero archetype presents the notion that it is admirable to sacrifice one's own individual needs for some sort of governmental ideal (truth, justice and the American Way!) or a charismatic individual's goals (see Professor Xavier). I should really ask her to write about it formally some time so I can link to it.

I'm not really posting this to argue one way or another, but it is an interesting point of view. Especially since, I personally, have always been of the idea that superheroes were the ultimate symbols of freedom and transcendence. I've never been particularly sensitive to propaganda and I can be a little easily influenced.

In the end it probably doesn't matter, entertaining characters and stories are entertaining characters and stories.

But it's still a fairly interesting thought to play with late at night when I should be asleep...


  • At January 23, 2006 7:52 AM, Blogger Elayne said…

    Not to drag politics into this, but I've heard the very same types of arguments as to why superhero comics represent, to some, a conservative ideal (the strong protecting the weak and maintaining order and safety in a grateful world) and, to others, a liberal ideal (people with unique abilities striving towards the greater good so that life is better for everyone). I think a superhero world is a little like the Star Trek world, every fan sees what he or she wants to and imprints their own personal view on it. In the case of your friend, perhaps she's a libertarian, as that philosophy holds that the self is more important than the collective; personally I'm with you, I think it's always more important to help others before you help yourself.

  • At January 23, 2006 10:43 AM, Blogger ShellyS said…

    Hero worship goes back a long way, through myths and legends of olden days. Superheroes are just the latest version of this. And I think anyone can make their case because there's so much that can be read into the existence of heroes. The thing that holds fairly steady is that humans must need heroes, because we keep inventing them.

    We've got James Bond and Sydney on Alias. We've got heroes and anti-heroes and anti-heroes are simply ordinary folks who become heroes in spite of themselves, at least in the eyes of the audience.

    Personally, I think some people read more into a thing than is there, but that's just me. :)

  • At January 23, 2006 12:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Well, let's just be clear about two things:

    Politics and superheroes go back to Action Comics #1, a tradition carried on by Green Arrow and Hawkman right through Watchmen and Ex Machina.


    There are more than one superhero, who individually represent different interests.

    Batman, despite his vigilante status is VERY conservative, tough on crime, terrorists, and environmentalists, while less concerned with social issues, unethical business practices, or other "liberal" concerns.

    Meanwhile, Superman's worst enemy is a former President of the United States! And in general, he is extremely anti-authoritarian, fighting evil gods and evil machines with god-complexes. And as a reporter, with his very outspoken, progressive wife, he is almost the liberal ideal.

    Meanwhile, Aquaman IS a king, the Oedipus/Arthur myth of the abandoned prince whose royal inevitably leads him to the throne. Barry is a lucky guy, Wally the product of fate, Hal and Kyle both had elements of luck in their being chosen. And the Spectre has the authority of the voice of god, for all the good it does him.

    Superhero stories are about people with more power than others, fantastic powers, and how they choose to use that power. And the heroes and villains, even in the same universe, choose to use that power differently, depending on the same character traits that make people pull the lever for this politician or that one.

    So while a strong argument could be made that this character or that character is Classist, to reduce the genre as a whole to one philosophy or ideology seems to trivialize what stories superhero comics are capable of.

  • At January 23, 2006 5:28 PM, Blogger Seth T. Hahne said…

    I agree with Steven and would point out that to paint the hero stories too broadly is to show negligence with both the stories and their characters. And really, how many heroes consciously fight to maintain the status quo? I suspect that many might be tricked into maintaining the status quo, but largely, they are just operating on the particular values system that is unique to their character. And each character, obviously, has different values systems - which is why they always fight each other. It's too bad but your friend seems unduly prejudiced.

  • At January 23, 2006 8:30 PM, Blogger Melchior del DariĆ©n said…

    As Steven said, folks like Superman could make a bid to rule the world if they so desired. Consequently, self-abnegation, self-sacrifice, and self-control are strong elements in the superhero mythos. This image brings it all into focus for me. (It's swiped from The Zeta-Beam.) The way that Superman addresses and interacts with the derelict (who he only later establishes is Myx), is non-partisan--Supes doesn't need to know if the derelict is conservative or liberal before he shows him compassion.

  • At January 23, 2006 11:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    While individual heroes stand for varying ideals, I think there's one thing that binds them together, something that defines the "superhero" almost as much as the costume and the powers: The superhero is a person who is 1) in a position to do good in a way that others can't and 2) chooses to do it.

    Note the word "position". Some heroes are capable of great deeds by virtue of genetics, but others are able to do so because of dumb luck or even plain old hard work. Those differences are interesting, but for our purposes they don't matter. It doesn't matter why a person finds himself with a chance to do good; it only matters that he does it.

    Until I came to these conclusions, I never realized why I was so fascinated by the fact that Superman was originally conceived as a villain. It's because it throws light on what makes a hero. Superman didn't have a choice about flying and shrugging off bullets, but he did have a choice about proactively righting wrongs.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that I see the superhero as an extended metaphor for the moments scattered through all of our lives when we can make a difference. "With great power comes great responsibility," right? I don't find that "classist."

  • At January 23, 2006 11:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Well we're all in agreement then.

  • At January 24, 2006 5:27 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Wow, thanks everyone for commenting!

    elayne: yeah, you're probably right. People see what we want to see, that's probably why the medium is so popular. :-)

    shelly: You're probably right. :-)

    steven: you remind me of why I've always found most DC-Marvel crossover stuff unsatisfying. Personally, I don't think Batman would get along with any of the X-Men at all for example. I don't know if I would call him conservative per se (though you've made a good case for it), but he's certainly authoritarian. He's not going to be fond of such blatant anti-authorian rebels. And it would be vice versa, folks that have trouble taking orders from *Cyclops* are certainly not going to like Batman. (Or Robin or Oracle for that matter...)

    ken: That's interesting to think about too. I mean there are some heroes that I doubt will ever really switch idealogies. (I can't see Kyle Rayner, for example, ever really suiting a conservative mindset...Batman will never seem particularly liberal to me, that sort of thing).

    Now I want to read the Megaton Man take on it. :-)

    the dane: I think you're right too. And when they are tricked into maintaining the status quo, it's usually by corrupt governmental or otherwise figures.

    Melchior: That is a really nice image. Pretty much embodies everyting I love about Clark right there. :-)

    kris: I had no idea Superman was conceived as a villain. that's absolutely fascinating.

    mallet: well, not *everybody*

  • At January 25, 2006 11:59 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    ken s: You're probably right about time period making a difference. Particularly looking at Silver Age/Golden Age and Post-Crisis versions of the character.

    One I've always thought really highlighted that sort of writer-paradigm shift is Hal Jordan. I mean, if you read Showcase for example, the Hal Jordan of the Silver Age actually seems a lot younger/more idealistic/more innocent in a lot of ways, to me. Post-Crisis Hal is much more cocksure, traditionally macho/masculine and well...he feels more "conservative". Silver Age Hal had a lot more in common, in certain ways, I think with Kyle Rayner than with modern Age Hal Jordan. (And I say that as a fan of all three)

    I'm looking forward to seeing your flipside thing!


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