A Guide for the Comics-Impaired

Ss-- Sooo-- Sooperr-- Superhero? I've never heard of that. What is it?

In very general terms, a superhero is a usually-fictional person who has special powers and dresses up in a fancy costume to fight crime and similarly-powered bad guys called "supervillains." (mblase points out that "super-hero," with a hyphen, is a trademark jointly owned by Marvel Comics and DC Comics. That's why I prefer it without the hyphen) The vast majority of superheroes appear in comic books, though they show up infrequently in movies and television shows.

"Vast majority"? Why come?

Well, the superhero is the primary player in the modern American comic book industry. There are lots of comics out there that have nothing to do with people flying around in the long underwear, but I'd guesstimate that 85-90% of the American comic book industry is focused on superheroes. It didn't really get its start as a cultural concept 'til Superman appeared in the 1930s, but it's already traveled all over the world.

So, all the superheroes fit that definition above?

Generally, yes, but there are a number of important exceptions. Superman, Spider-Man, the Flash, and Iron Man are all pretty obviously superheroes. But there are numerous characters who appear to be exceptions to the rules. Batman, for instance, has no superpowers, but he's got a cool costume, he fights crime, and he hangs with other superheroes.

Professor X, meanwhile, is the leader of the X-Men, has big-time mental powers and fights against evil, but he wears normal everyday clothing. And the Hulk is usually considered a superhero, but he spends more time fighting other superheroes, damaging public property, and endangering innocent bystanders, which are all far from heroic acts.

There are even muddier cases. Characters like Doc Savage, Tarzan, Zorro, and the Shadow would be considered superheroes if they got their starts in comics, but they didn't, so they aren't. Same goes for Edward Hyde and Hawley Griffin, who, despite their unnatural powers and their appearance in the "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" comic book, are not and probably never will be considered superheroes. Same for the pantheons of Greece, Norway, Egypt, and Mexico.

Even within comic books, there are characters who don't exactly fit the mold. There are pulpy science heroes like Tom Strong and Adam Strange, psychotic killers like the Punisher and Lobo, and comedic goofballs like Howard the Duck and Lou Martin from "Major Bummer."

And both Jesse Custer from "Preacher" and Spider Jerusalem from "Transmetropolitan" have distinctive outfits and uncanny abilities (Yes, dammit, a bowel disruptor counts as a superpower) and go on quests for justice, but neither could be considered superheroes.

Wow! That was way more complicated than it had to be!

Thank you. We fanboys just live for that stuff.

So how come so many of those characters have fancy-shmancy powers? Wouldn't the stories be more exciting if they were just normal people and didn't have to fall back on superpowers?

Well, remember that superhero stories are, deep at their core, power fantasies. When you spend your school day getting abused by bullies, pestered by teachers, and ignored by cheerleaders, it's fun to read about a guy who can punch villains through brick walls, finish work assignments at superspeed, and make all the pretty girls swoon.

So these things are just read by little kids?

Well, that's who they were originally sold to. To a certain extent, that's who they are still sold to. But quite a few adults read them, too. Some of them started reading when they were kids and never gave them up; some of them didn't start reading them 'til after they grew up.

Yeah, but they're all geeks and losers, right?


Oww! My gonads!

I certainly won't deny that many adult comic book readers fit a certain geeky stereotype, but a wide variety of people read superhero comics, from pasty giggling fat guys to slick Hollywood studio execs. Some of them read because they enjoy the stories (and make no mistake, today's superhero comics are often very well written). Some of them still need the power fantasies; try working ten hours a day for a petty tyrant of a boss and see if you don't wish you could shoot lightning from your fingers.

So if it's all about power fantasies, why are there any supervillains? Captain Marvel would feel really powerful beating up on junior high kids, instead of picking powerhouses like Dr. Sivana and Mr. Mind, right?

Well, that may be so, but it wouldn't be an exciting, interesting story, would it? Superhero comics may start out as power fantasies, but they quickly move into standard adventure fiction. And if your adventure hero isn't worth challenging with opponents who can give him a serious run for his money, he ain't worth keeping around.

Okay, so what's with those weird costumes anyway? It's all sexual, right?

Actually, colorful costumes are quite practical, at least in the comics. Sure, in the real world, they'd make you an easier target, they'd be a bitch to clean, you'd trip over the cape, and the mask would mess up your peripheral vision, but in comics, they're primarily used to make sure the heroes (and the villains) are easy to identify. Let's face it, without masks or disguises, Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne could be twins. Without color-coded costumes and trademarked symbols, you'd get them mixed up all the time.

Sooo... it's all sexual, right?

Oh, and I understand that the first superhero costumes were actually based on the costumes worn by circus performers!


Okay, it's at least part sexual. Dude, do you know how many teenage boys bought "Teen Titans" comics just 'cause you could see Starfire's boobies?! It's not like we're the only obsessive pervs out there. If John Updike put a picture of Jennifer Lopez in a thong on the cover of his next book, it'd break sales records for sure! *

Jeez, defensive much? So anyway, it doesn't really seem like superhero comics are all that popular. I mean, it seems like they peak sometimes with some popular movie or TV show, but for the most part, they're completely off the radar of the mainstream. What's the future hold for superhero comics?

Good question. Some comics fans love superheroes and won't read any book unless it's got spandex jockeys galore. Some hate superheroes and wouldn't read a long-underwear book if it were written by Bill Shakespeare himself. Some people say the only way to save the comic book industry is to convince the general public that superheroes are cool so they'll buy comics. Some say that the general public will never believe that superheroes are cool, so the only way to save comics is to quit making superhero comics altogether.

Meanwhile, the general public doesn't really understand the appeal of superheroes--and probably never will.

There's a lot of stuff that the general public doesn't understand.

* (Pseudo_Intellectual and disarmed42 /msg'd me scant minutes apart to say they'd read that superhero costumes were so tight and skimpy because they were easier to draw that way. Clothing is not an easy thing to draw, compared to human anatomy, so many artists would draw a human form, add some gloves and boots, a mask, and a chest insignia, and call it a costume. Two of my e2comix comrades /msg'ing me with the same info in such a short amount of time officially qualifies as an omen, but ya know, I still look at costumes like Phantom Lady's or Zatanna's or Power Girl's and think it must all be about the booty.)

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