Saturday, November 13, 2010

Why We Collect: Part I - The Superhuman Element


Hello everyone! As my true first blog entry, I thought I'd try to tackle the subject that is at the very heart of collecting. Before we spend oodles of cash on some articulated plastic "talisman," there has to be a key interest in the first place. What is that interest?--The characters and what they represent to each and every one of us. 

The Superhuman Element: 
A Literary Examination of the Superhero Genre

“Look!--Up in the sky. It’s a bird! It’s a plane. It’s popularized, trite graphic fiction!” …Or is it? Since it’s inception in the late 1930s, the superhero genre has had no shortage of criticism, from McCarthy-Era politicians, to the worrisome mothers of yesterday. Even Nancy King, a 2010 Senatorial Candidate from Maryland, condemned comic books in her recent political campaign. Despite the rollercoaster of criticism over the decades, colorful stories of unbelievable feats by beings with unimaginable power are popular to this day and continue to thrive. Superheroes have become one of the most successful genres in print, on screen, and in licensed property. However, do these superhero escapades offer more than simple entertainment?  They do.
Although primarily targeted at the demographic of children and young adults, superhero comic books and other fables have significant literary value. These comics represent a correlation to ancient mythology, reflect where their society of origin is politically and socially, and explore the cultural and psychological aspects of individual personalities. To this end, superhero fiction is worthy of deeper examination and understanding on a literary level.
More than three thousand years ago the ancient Greeks believed in Gods and Goddesses that ruled over the world. One in particular, Hercules, stands out as one of the earliest superheroes. In a Storyworks article, Yesterday and Today: Hercules & Superman, comparisons are drawn that illustrate the many similarities of the mythological heroes from thousands of years ago, and the spandex-sporting superheroes of contemporary comic book fiction. Both Hercules and Superman had tremendous power at an early age. Both dedicated themselves to using powers to help humankind. Each defeated villains and monsters, had a nemesis, and rescued beautiful damsels from certain peril. In Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come, however, heroes such as Superman, rather than portrayed simply as infallible God-like beings, suffer from fear, guilt, and uncertainty. This dynamic allows more complex plots to unfold and readers find the heroic characters more easily relatable. 
Tales of both heroes sprouted from a society in need, and generated profound effects. Ancient Greeks had tasted blood in many conflicts, and stories of courageous warriors, such as Hercules, enabled these soldiers to fight on and ready themselves for the next great battle. Superman came about at a time when the Nazi regime rose to great power. G.I.s received comic books from home to boost moral while fighting overseas in the largest global conflict modern society had ever witnessed.
Greek mythology is seen as scholarly literature, with immeasurable historical significance. One day, perhaps the stories of the Justice League of America may prove as important in the development of western cultures.
One might argue that Greek mythology and contemporary superhero fiction differ as the Greeks believed the stories true and that belief shaped every facet of their culture and way of life, while the society that developed the comic book superhero knew it to be escapist fiction from the get-go. However, these stories also serve as effective social and political allegories. Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1987), a twelve-part comic mini-series published from 1986 to 1987, was set to the back drop of New York City during the latter years of the Cold War and exudes a dark, fearful, and paranoid tone reflecting society’s disposition at the time. The book received a Hugo Award in 1988.
Captain America is another example of socio-political status reflected in the pages of comic books throughout the years. In the 1940s, the stories were extremely simplistic, good versus evil tales where Cap valiantly fights off Nazis at every turn and always emerges victorious. More modern Captain America stories, particularly after the events of September 11th, 2001, show the character as a human being much more torn and conflicted between morality and duty in a complex world, as expressed in Jerry Adam Smith’s article from Utne, “Not Your Father’s Captain America. “Comic books have always reflected the social and political environment in which they are created, but only recently have superheroes started to address the issues raised by the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq” (Smith).
             On a smaller scale than mythology, sociological perspective, or politics, superhero stories affect people on a personal psychological level. Comic books, movies, and television programs about superheroes continue to rise in popularity in our society because, at the core, most people desire to achieve difficult feats and receive admiration and praise for that achievement. People fantasize about scoring the winning touchdown of a football game, a promotion in their careers for a revolutionary idea, or sweeping a potential lover off their feet.  The superhero adventure is an extension of that fantasy. In “We Need a Hero”, an article from The Futurist, Philip Zimbardo, renowned psychologist and author, writes, “We may all be called upon to act heroically at some time, when opportunity arises. We would do well, as a society and as a civilization, to conceive of heroism as something within the range of possibilities for every person.” Although people may never “leap tall buildings in a single bound,” superhero fiction encourages people to be heroic, courageous, do the right thing, and make sacrifices for the greater good, even in our day-to-day lives. After the catastrophic climax of Kingdom Come, Batman chooses to aid those affected by the aftermath by spending his days running a hospital from his home, while Superman begins the cultivation of new farmlands for future crops. Both are examples of how one has the ability to simply make the choice to help others or not. In “superhero,” the human element of the “hero” is more important and more powerful than the “super.”
            Comic books and superhero lore are much more complex and relevant than one might believe at first glance. The stories say far too much about society and culture, as well as speak to the fantasies of the deeper psyche to be simply dismissed as mindless entertainment. Whether art imitates life, or life imitates art, the superhero genre documents poignant reflections of humankind, how life is lived, and provides a moral compass for exploring one’s personal integrity.
           


“Yesterday & Today: Hercules & Superman.” Storyworks Oct. 2010: 22-23. Print.
Moore, Alan. Watchmen. New York, New York: DC Comics, Sept. 1986-Oct. 1987. Iss. 1-12. Print.
Smith, Jerry Adam. “Not Your Father’s Captain America.” Utne Nov/Dec. 2006: 26-27. Print.
Waid, Mark. Kingdom Come. New York, New York: DC Comics, May-Aug. 1996. Iss. 1-4. Print.
Zimbardo, Philip. “We Need a Hero.” The Futurist Nov/Dec. 2010: 25-26. Print.

3 comments:

  1. I very much enjoyed this piece. (And, incidentally, the Greek heroes/superheroes connection goes deeper; check this out: http://io9.com/5616498/ultraviolet-light-reveals-how-ancient-greek-statues-really-looked) However, I'm not sure that we yet have a rationale here for the action figures -- I understand the appeal of superheroes, or else I wouldn't read about them myself -- but as this is part one, I imagine I'll be seeing more of that in part two. I'll be following you on here, definitely.

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  2. Radio, thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it. The article you linked is fantastic. It's another great example of similarities of cultures separated by thousands of years.

    Hopefully Part II of this blog entry will answer some of your questions regarding the link between hero worship and action figures!

    Thanks for reading!

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