If you enjoy this essay, please click on the Buy Me A Coffee link to the right and show your support. Supporters and Members get early access to posts like this one, as well as exclusives only available to Members and Supporters.
More than any other product of our culture, comic books are quintessentially American. Comic books, despite being strange and weird in uncountable ways, have nonetheless become both an art form and a diverse storytelling device. With the omnipresent ubiquity in today’s popular culture it appears the medium and the spectacular characters in it are experiencing a renaissance. Comic book characters are the key to this resurgence and they are one of the primary reasons the art form has remained popular for almost a century.
Any discussion on comic books will need to start with focusing on the creation of two of the most popular characters of all time: Superman and Batman. The creations of Jerry Siegel and James Schuester, as well as Bob Kane and Bill Finger respectively, these two characters are amongst the oldest in the medium. Both characters have become cultural icons due in large part to what they represent and their consistent presence in pop culture throughout the decades. The dichotomy between Superman and Batman can be seen through the lens of the dividing differences in American culture and its principles.
Superman is without question the progenitor title of what we know as comic books today. Almost every comic book character since his creation has taken some aspect of the Superman character to create its own mythos. Superman is an immigrant story, a vehicle for wish fulfillment, even a commentary on American exceptionalism. He is all of these things and yet the character can be much more as well (for instance, a merchandising juggernaut). The constant reinvention of Superman has allowed the character to change to match the culture around it.
Throughout the character’s decades-long run (with all of its various incarnations and re-imaginings), one trait has held true: Superman’s devotion to American idealism and exceptionalism. As conveyed so earnestly by the late Christopher Reeves, Superman fights for truth, justice, and the American way. The character has come to embody the homespun, Middle-American values we are often told form the backbone of the country. More to the point though is that the Superman character also represents the fractured American identity that cannot fully reconcile itself: the desire to remain humble and the overwhelming need to be all-powerful. As observed by Batman on more than one occasion, the key to Superman is that it’s never really occurred to him that he’s a god.
One implication that has (to my knowledge, at least) never really been explored fully is the connection between the Big Brother idea and Superman. The beneficent nature of the character does take away some of the sting of the realization that a super-powered god with x-ray vision and superhuman hearing patrols one’s city. Some would no doubt find such an arrangement a comfort (except for when the villain(s) arrive and cause mass destruction) but the possibility for the abuse of such power is far too alarming from my perspective. The possible connection between totalitarianism and superheroes applies to many other characters as well.
To stand opposite of the optimism and naiveté of Superman is Batman. A quick confession on my part: while I enjoyed Superman as a kid (Who didn’t wrap a towel around their neck and pretend to fly?), as an adult I have come to appreciate Batman. The character Bruce Wayne/Batman is perhaps the most deeply psychological characters in the medium. The origin story serves as a springboard into a conflicted character that represents the divergent desires in American culture regarding justice. On the one hand, we want fairness, rule of law, and impartiality. But we also acknowledge (openly or secretly) the desire for vigilante justice. Batman straddles that delicate balance, allowing us as the audience the vicarious thrill of beating up the criminals as well as letting the proper authorities have their day.
The concept works, in part, due to the honesty of recent incarnations of Batman. In a comic book universe overrun with gods, monsters, unfathomable horrors, and aliens galore, it’s interesting that the one character constantly referred to as the most dangerous man alive is the rich playboy from Gotham City with no superpowers. Batman is the Sherlock Holmes of the DC universe, if Sherlock Holmes had billions of dollars, a company with defense contracts, and an obsessive mental disorder. Batman also serves as a stoic pragmatist to the “gosh darn” All-American optimism of Superman. The difference extends to their respective “rogue’s galleries”, with Batman’s villains getting the edge in psychological trauma and horror. One needs to look no further than the primary villains of each character. Superman has Lex Luthor, a corrupt industrialist, versus the Joker, a man without a shred of what we would call “normal” human behavior. Luthor represents the danger of unchecked power whereas the Joker is simply chaos incarnate.
One aspect with is touched upon in Batman Begins is that Wayne’s fortune is simply a vehicle fueled by his force of will to never let anyone experience the type of loss he went through. Take away all those wonderful toys and you still have someone who is a credible threat purely based on his intellect and tenacity. But his wealth also allows Bruce Wayne almost complete autonomy from the system of societal justice. The commentary one can gather from this idea is that Batman uses that wealth to keep himself from receiving some form of the justice he dispenses to others.
These are only two of the vast multitudes of characters that have been foisted onto the public by the comic book companies. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the other major comic book dealer and current juggernaut of pop culture, Marvel. It’s an interesting note that two Marvel properties (X-Men and Spider-man) are arguably responsible for the glut of comic book-related films over the first decade of the 00’s. It’s reached a point (for me, at least) that Marvel is more well-known for their film series than their comic books these days.
Marvel characters are well-known for being grounded in real world angst (at least by the standards of a comic book universe). Spider-man’s backstory and adventures can be seen by an audience as a reminder that personal responsibility can never be abandoned, regardless of one’s station in life. Characters like Wolverine and Sabertooth represent the conflicting dualities of the higher mind versus the primal mind. Someone like Iron Man reinforces that technology can be a force for tremendous and terrible change. Tony Stark/Iron Man can also be seen as a commentary on humanity’s penchant for reinvention through the artifice of advancing technologies.
The two major comics’ publishers aren’t the only game in town. The internet has given artists and writers a new level of creative freedom, similar to the underground magazines and comic book shops of the 1960’s and 70’s. Ideas, concepts, and characters that would never have been approved by the Comic’s Code or the executive brass of Marvel and DC are given free rein on the web to find an audience and flourish or fail.
One of the web comics I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying is Neurotically Yours. The focus is the irredeemably caustic and irreverent Foamy, a squirrel with a deep-seeded loathing of stupid humans. Through Foamy and his hapless owner Germaine, the audience is given absurdist situations from squirrel-led exorcisms to the difficulty of balancing feminism and porn as well as sexual objectification and sexual freedom. My personal favorites are the “rant” episodes, which feature foul-mouth tirades from Foamy on any subject that catches the creator’s fancy, from the ubiquity of chain coffee stores to the shady practices of video game stores. An example of how far-reaching this web comic series is can be seen from Foamy’s rant about cellphones and ringtones several years ago. During the rant, Foamy suggests creating a ringtone that commands others to “follow the sound of my voice and kill whoever’s holding the phone”. This ringtone later became available for personal use, allowing for a twisted, tongue-in-cheek wink at the rant.
As I’ve gotten older my desire to read the heavily-continuity based monthly comics of Marvel and DC has waned. Trade paperbacks and graphic novels have been a major boon in this regard. With the nature of current comic storylines (which usually lead up to massive yearly events across multiple titles), the trade paperbacks allow readers to follow a story thread from start to finish without having to collect all the comics individually or wait for the inevitable delays that occur when stories are not submitted on time. It allows an audience to enjoy gigantic events like Marvel’s Civil War storyline or DC’s Flashpoint event.
Which leads me to my primary criticism of the current comic book landscape (and this is the major motivating factor in why I don’t actively read monthly comics anymore): the massive, yearly crossover events should not be yearly events. There is an overreliance on both Marvel and DC’s part to use tentpole crossover events to boost sales and increase readership. I’m not against for-profit companies doing what it takes to maintain or increase the bottom line. But when you apply such strong, profit-driven motives to what is essentially a storytelling and artistic medium, you’re likely going to receive a substandard product.
Myths and legends have always been a part of our cultures, serving as a way to reinforce societal norms and expectations. For a country like America, these stories are essential for understanding and redefining our identity. Comic books have become a form of mythic storytelling that captures the often-fragmentary and contradictory elements of the American psyche. The heroes and villains act out physical confrontations that represent our psychological struggles. And it’s for this reason that comics remain one of the most important storytelling mediums in American culture.