Spidey August 17, 2007

I’ve just finished watching a Spiderman movie with my oldest son, and while watching it, I began wondering why it is that America has produced the cultural phenomenon of the comic book superhero.

Popular culture is far more interesting to me than ‘high’ culture. I’m interested in what interests the vast majority of ordinary people. I’m not too interested in what interests professors of literature at Ivy League colleges or literary critics of the major newspapers. I’m interested in what interests teenaged kids, movie goers and the general population fo ordinary folks.

The comic book superhero is actually a fascinating phenomenon, and it is curious that it is a peculiarly American phenomenon. Is there such a thing as a French superhero? A British superhero? Is there even a Canadian or Australian or Brazilian superhero? I don’t think so. Comic book superheroes are American through and through.

Of course, all the anti American cultural snobs can turn up their nose if they like, “So the comic book superhero is something to be proud of? What next? a song of praise for the Big Mac? cultural observations on the superiority of Wal-Mart as a retail model for the world?” I hear it, but let’s put the snobbery on one side for a moment.

I think America produces superheroes in popular culture for some very interesting reasons. First of all, the superhero is a modern version of the gods and heroes of the classical age. In the classical age the heroes had supernatural powers. They were half man and half god. They struggled with their destiny. With their supernatural power they had supernatural responsibility. They had to make tremendously difficult moral choices. As such, both the superheroes and the gods of the ancient pagan world revealed to mere mortals the depth of their own calling, the possibility that they too had a supernatural dimension to their lives, that this required great ressponsibility and engaging in difficult moral choices.

There is more to it than that. America produces superheroes, and nobody else does. Why is that? It reminds me of a comment I once overheard which was made by a snooty English woman. “Americans are so sweet!” she said condescendingly. “They still think it is possible to be a hero.” She was right. Americans do believe that it is possible to be a hero. They believe it is possible to be a hero because they Believe.

A vast majority of Americans (even those who do not go to church) are believers in the broadest sense. They believe in God. They believe in good and evil. They believe that there is a battle between good and evil and that the result is still all to play for. They believe that their own involvement or indifferece to this battle matters. They believe it matters not only for the good of the world, but also to the benefit or detriment of their eternal soul. Americans believe they can be heroes because they Believe.

Having lived most of my life abroad, and traveled widely and come back to America, it strikes me that this is the most important distinction between Americans and the rest of the world. Americans are believers. They still buy into the great myth that there is a battle between good and evil, and that their own moral choices can make all the difference.

Are comic book superheroes an error in taste? Are they tacky and lower class in their spandex suits, their artificial anonymity, their over the top villains and their simplistic world view? Are they common, low brow and lacking in subtlety? Probably.

Do I like them? You bet.

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  • Matt Pelicano

    And yet one more reason to love this country and be patriotic… if we dare use that word. 🙂

  • Indeed, but patriotism doesn’t necessarily exclude proper criticism of one’s country does it?

  • Louise

    “What next? a song of praise for the Big Mac? “Our son lived in Moscow, Russia for many, many years. When MacDonald’s arrived, it became very popular. Why? He said it was the only place where the people could eat out where the food was reasonably and consistently good. the prices were not exhorbitant, the restaurant was clean, and the staff was friendly and smiled at the customers. How’s that for a song of praise for the Big Mac?

  • Thanks for your comment Louise, it’s more of a comment on the wasteland of communist Russia than the virtues of the Big Mac, but I take your point, and its nice that America tried to export efficient, cheerful service along with the cheeseburgers.

  • An excellent post on the subject, imho. I had never considered that the phenomenon of the American superhero in this Christian (and increasingly post-Christian) society might have parallels with the pagan gods of old. A fine observation.

  • It’s an interesting thought. I believe, however, that it’s intrinsically linked to us having a “frontier” as part of our immediate history. Could one look to the colloquial histories of the Spanish conquistadors as a precursor? The romanticized novellas described in Don Quixote? (granted they didn’t have the mass marketing system we have today).Prohibition gave us organized crime – whereas the rest of the world didn’t have it as much as us (well… as publicly anyway). A league of criminals needs a Paul Bunyan, a John Henry, a Davy Crocket and Sam Houston.Plus, up until the 1970s, we didn’t have the same kind of popular cynicism that we have today. Sure, JFK had his affairs. FDR may have known more than he let on about 1930s Nazi Germany. But it wasn’t until Watergate (so some would argue) that we turned on our leaders. Europe had royal infidelity, Machiavellian rulers, “benevolent dictators” (a phrase that always cracks me up). We had Thomas Jefferson rising up against the Crown. Abraham Lincoln standing up for Emancipation (and later gunned down for the same).Plus, one could argue the decline in superheroes since the 1970s – Batman and Superman were regular television shows in the middle part of the 20th Century. These might back the “Watergate”/Cynicism theory… I’m a history buff, not a sociologist 🙂 The renewal (with the X-Men/Spiderman/etc movies) isn’t the same as it used to be.Also – don’t count Japan out. Their “manga” (comic books) aren’t quite the same as the never ending serial comics… but the graphic novels have made a statement for “heroes”. Though the Japanese didn’t have a frontier, a “criminal subsociety” nor coming from a recent idyllic period (manga being popular post-WWII rather than before it).Good thoughts, though, Father. Thanks for sharing!

  • Eh-hem!!Father, I’ll grant that I’ve never so much as heard of most of these characters, not being much of a comic book reader myself, but Canadian superheroes do exist! And they go back a long way, arguably, I suppose, to a more heroic age in Canadian history. From my childhood, I do remember Rocket Robin Hood, which originated in Toronto–not that it was terribly good. Perhaps that just goes to prove your point. 🙂

  • There are super heroes from different countries actually… X-men has alot.. and Japanese culture has many as well.. b4 America had..