1938 saw the inception of the “superhero” as American and international audiences alike understand the concept today. Since the publication of Jerry Siegel’s and Joe Shuster’s Action Comics #1, which featured the proverbial Superman as its hero, superhero comics have become a vital and indispensible component of American culture. It would be virtually impossible to imagine an America in which superheroes and superhero comics are not afforded the same level of attention and important as they are today. More importantly, the genre of superhero comics has evolved from serving a young, school-aged readership to encompassing an audience of a much broader range of ages and backgrounds. The superhero genre has subsequently garnered significant literary and critical attention, resulting in publications from various schools of thoughts. This development from children’s literature to an object of literary criticism is only initially surprising, as the genre presents a multitude of interesting questions, conundrums, and points of analysis in general. The superhero genre has gotten so far as to produce successful comics and graphic novels that are critical of the genre itself, the most notable of these being Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ critically acclaimed and award winning Watchmen. With a screenplay adaptation released two decades after publication, Watchmen stands as a remarkable culmination of the literary components essential to the superhero genre. The superheroes of this graphic novel, as well as those found in most other superhero comics, are fundamentally flawed individuals who nevertheless develop extraordinary skills to fight crime and combat evil. Interestingly enough, these characters are loved and deeply appreciated by fans of superhero comics, playing a prominent role in the establishment of a large and committed readership. Much of the appeal of superhero comics comes from the genre’s ability to elevate the status of an “othered” subset of the population by rendering them as superheroes instead of “freaks” or misfits. At the same time, and just as importantly, the superhero genre functions to blur the distinction between the ordinary and the extraordinary by presenting superhuman characters that are ultimately flawed like their mundane human counterparts.
The superhero’s paradoxical nature- that is, the character’s simultaneous encompassment of superhuman skill and human flaw- primarily presents itself through the stark contrast between the character’s super identity and mundane, every day existence. This character duality plays a predominant role in establishing the oppositional hierarchy between the ordinary and the extraordinary. In his essay “Masked Heroes,” Richard Reynolds characterizes the superhero’s dual identity as an integral part of the superhero genre, one of seven motifs needed “to construct a first-stage working definition of the superhero genre” (Reynolds 106). Reynolds explains that “the extraordinary nature of the hero will be contrasted with the mundane nature of his alter-ego” in quite the similar fashion as the contrast between “the extraordinary nature of the superhero [is] contrasted with the ordinariness of his surroundings” (106). It follows that by definition, the superhero personality is at the forefront of the hero’s identity, not the hero’s mundane existence. While this idea is easily applicable to superhero comics that have been deeply embedded to the American comics consciousness, such as Superman and Wonder Woman, to name a few, it may become a bit problematic when considering other costumed heroes like Batman or a majority of the superheroes of Watchmen. These vigilante superheroes, though originally regular human beings, nevertheless display their “super-selves” most preeminently, as opposed to drawing attention to their original identities. In fact, since Watchmen’s characters consciously adopt their superhero identities as their foremost selves, it should be argued that they effectively translate their original, mundane identities to alter-ego status. However, despite the superhero-identity’s priority over the character’s mundane existence, the hero is nevertheless subject to human flaws and shortcomings. Lawrence Rubin addresses this conundrum in his article “Superheroes on the Couch: Exploring Our Limits,” by arguing that “superherodom” actually heightens the superhero’s vulnerability rather than diminishing it. Rubin explains that for the superhero, “to be reified is to always worry about acceptance and the ‘fall from grace” and “to constantly have to make choices is to live in fear of making the wrong ones” (Rubin 415-416). As a result, a superhero encounters much challenge in achieving any form of dual identity reconciliation (let alone consolidation,) and he or she is further deterred by the onerous task of making morally “correct” decisions. Rubin also points to Jamie Hughes’ argument in “‘Who Watches the Watchmen?’: Ideology and ‘Real World’ Superheroes,” in which Hughes asserts that “figures of authority deem the superheroes they depend upon to be menaces and attempt to try them in a court of law” (Hughes 547). Because they lack support from the very institution that is established to protect public interests, the superhero begins to feel ostracized and even persecuted by society. As a result, “the glow of superheroism is forever tarnished by the loneliness, fragmentation, fallibility, and self doubt that marks the existential legacy of humankind” (Rubin 416). Superheroes and their readers alike are subject to the same experiential questions, leading to the publication of highly affective and subsequently rewarding superhero narratives.
Faced with a subset of the population that is persecuted and alienated, the superhero genre effectively functions to elevate the status of its psychologically damaged and emotionally compelling superheroes. It must be clarified that superhero comics in no way shy away from drawing attention to the peculiarities, and at times, the downright strangeness of their heroes. It is actually crucial for texts of the genre to embrace their characters’ idiosyncratic features, for it is the characteristics and behavior that lie outside of societal conventions that are actively harnessed to bring about empowerment. An early example of this dynamic includes Marvel’s original X-Men series, in which a group of young superheroes are presented as misfits rather than a superpowered elite. Under the tutelage of Professor X, these heroes transform their status in society from alienation to empowerment. A 21st century example would follow Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel, whose distinguished ability to navigate between the forces of her ethnic and religious traditions and American societal conventions translates into her superpower of shapeshifting. While the conflict between these two opposing forces appears to be debilitating for Kamala, it ultimately plays out as her golden ticket to “superherodom.” This transition from alienation to empowerment plays out especially well in Watchmen, in which Dan Dreiberg is depicted as impotent, both in a sexual and non-sexual sense. When he is not donning his Nite Owl costume, Dan behaves in a passive and downright diffident manner, owing in large part to his uneasy ambivalence toward his unusual affinity for ornithology. Assuming the identity of Nite Owl, he is not only able to obtain a justification for his odd love of birds, but his peculiarly nocturnal behavior becomes glorified instead of being dismissed as simply strange. Consequently, Nite Owl feels more than comfortable in his own skin (more accurately, in his costume’s “skin”) to be sexually adequate and more importantly, to fulfill his duty as a crime fighter. Dan Dreiberg’s potency and power is entirely derived through his assumption of the identity of Nite Owl, demonstrating the character duality’s role in stimulating an otherwise dormant figure in the narrative. Rendering Dan as a superhero transforms the audience’s perception of him (as well as his own perception of self) from “passive misfit” to “superpowered eccentric,” effectively elevating the status of an otherwise “othered” Dan Dreiberg.
While the superhero genre engages in uplifting the status of superheroes, it simultaneously serves to highlight the ways in which a superhero’s flaw acts as a deterrent in the fulfillment of the hero’s ambitions, much in the same way as the tragic flaw operates for heroes in classical mythology. This is most powerfully exemplified by Adrian Veidt and Rorschach, each of whom has an agenda that can be placed on each side of a political ideological spectrum. In writing “The World Ozymandias Made: Utopias in the Superhero Comic, Subculture, and the Conservation of Difference,” Matthew Wolf-Meyer argues that Adrian Veidt exemplifies the Nietzschean übermensch, particularly through his unrelenting desire to uplift humanity and achieve utopia (Wolf-Meyer 506). However, when his plan to achieve such a state of utopia is rationally evaluated, one cannot help but consider Veidt’s plan of mass-destruction not only as unethical but as unpractical and doomed for failure. Wolf-Meyer argues that the much simpler Rorschach stands in stark contrast to Ozymandias in his irrational fervor to retain the status quo, demonstrating an even more objectionable outlook on a dark and bloody world. While many readers like Rorschach and may even see him as a relatable character, Wolf-Meyer points out that there is nothing noble nor admirable in fighting to preserve the status quo of a society that continues to elect Richard Nixon as its president well into the 1980s. Given the flawed nature of these superheroes, it is not surprising therefore that neither of them is able to offer a viable solution in the grand scheme of eradicating crime and poverty from society.
The superhero genre tends to produce texts are highly relatable and accessible to readers, leading it to become a highly successful franchise across various types of media. The genre primarily derives its appeal by rendering misfits as superpowered beings, therefore uplifting a subset of the population that has been “othered.” However, the genre simultaneously functions to blur the distinction between the superhero’s extraordinary nature and the ordinary nature of human beings by producing superheroes that are burdened with virtually as many flaws and shortcomings as their non-superpowered counterparts.