What If… Superheroes were Signifiers without anything to Signify?

I wrote this essay in response to Tanya Gold’s article in The Guardian, ”These men are bad role models’: will my son get over his superhero obsession?’ However Stan Lee died in the same week I was writing it, and so this doubles up as a tribute to Lee and all the other comic creators that had an influence on me over the years. Excelsior!

Orion is toxic

I feel for mothers (and fathers) everywhere who have to deal with the demands of their young children for the pyjamas, the duvets, the costumes, the posters, the endless pantheon of DIY demigods. When I was growing up, it was mainly Hulk lunchboxes; now our sons’ rooms are plastered with every kind of paraphernalia, and all of that paraphernalia is plastered with the grimacing mug of Bruce Wayne’s alter ego.

Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman: the holy Trinity of DC comics. The X-men, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four: the dysfunctional families of Marvel comics. Spawn, Hellboy, Dredd: the assorted loose cannons of other continuities. For a long time, they were never a natural fit for television – larger-than-life characters find it hard to fit on the small screen – or the movies, where until recently special effects were unable to capture the weird dynamics of the comic page.

With several bounds, superheroes escaped from the cultural ghetto they were in and colonised mainstream entertainment. Yet their success is deceptive, because it was when they escaped from the comics that things started to go wrong for them; the one villain they couldn’t defeat was the market. It didn’t destroy them, but twisted them into more powerful but less interesting versions of themselves. Ironically, on the printed page they were two-dimensional – but they had more depth.

Ambush Bug and Cheeks, the Toy Wonder

Forget about Batman for a moment. When I was a boy, my favourite superhero was Firestorm, the Nuclear Man: the everyday story of a self-absorbed jock and a narcissistic nerd, fused into one insanely powerful body and forced to learn not just to live with each other, but to learn from each other. Issue #16, “Blackout”, found Ronnie Raymond (the sportsman) and Martin Stein (the scientist) floating alone together in a void, with Ronnie unable to work out how they got there. Perhaps their archenemy Multiplex had something to do with it?

As Martin slowly pieces together what has happened, Ronnie becomes increasingly distressed, refusing to recall the events of the day. Martin gently coaxes him through those events until, eventually, Ronnie remembers. They have not been trapped in the void by a scheming supervillain: Ronnie has just watched his father die in an explosion at their home, arriving seconds too late to save him. There is no epic punch-up: only Ronnie Raymond, on his knees, consumed with grief; and Martin Stein, a man who he barely knows, helping him to face that grief.

Firestorm in grief

Now I’m not claiming this was great literature – for a start the front cover of the comic gave away the ending (also “NEXT: FIREHAWK!”) – but as a child this was the first time anybody had shown me the visceral impact of loss, grief, trauma. I learned two things from that comic: first, it doesn’t matter how powerful you are, the people you love will still die; second, you should tell your parents that you love them before they’re killed by a booby-trapped front door. These lessons might not seem like much, but over 30 years later I still remember that comic, and I feel compelled to tell you about it.

Maybe these heroes are bad role models, most of the time. But they could also be a way that a father could share something with a son; a way that a young boy could learn what was worth fighting for (although hopefully not the kind of fighting that destroys New York); a guidebook to new ideas that you wouldn’t be taught about anywhere else; and at their best, a set of myths that might fill a cultural gap that you can’t articulate but which is palpable. Superhero comics could be the stepping stone to other types of literature – not just fantastic fiction, but philosophy.

The late philosopher Mary Midgeley wrote that “the way in which we imagine the world determines what we think important in it”. For all their flaws – the casual violence, the blatant misogyny, the cheap morality – superheroes put spurs to the imagination in the same way that heroes always did. Achilles was far from perfect; why should the Avengers be any different? Superheroes might seem juvenile, but in ancient Rome the Juvenalia was a festival to celebrate the coming-of-age of young men, and perhaps that’s the role that superheroes are supposed to play.

The modern definition of juvenalia is antiques connected with children – toys, dolls and the like – and unfortunately this is how superheroes manifest in our culture. Yet the last film featuring ultraviolent X-men fan favourite Wolverine was a sombre meditation on growing old and being a parent. Wolverine is clearly not a suitable role model for a four year old, but a four year old knows nothing about Wolverine as a character, only Wolverine as a symbol, a signifier without any significance, a series of things to collect and discard. Our children aren’t really in love with superheroes; they’re in love with late capitalism.

The readership for superhero comics continues to dwindle, but the audience for superhero films, tv series and cartoons continues to grow; and so understandably the corporations that own those characters will capitalise on it while they can. It won’t last forever; Wonder Woman will outlive Gal Gadot. At their best – as Grant Morrison’s book Supergods suggests – superheroes transcend their cultural roots to become modern myths in the way that Midgeley meant. All our myths are problematic, but they are also malleable, meant to be re-shaped, and we have a responsibility to re-shape them.

Iron Man: Demon in a Bottle

In the late 70s Tony Stark wasn’t Elon Musk, but a raging alcoholic who had to give up being Iron Man for a time; and the Reaganite Superman of the 80s became the All-Star Superman of the 00s. So I leave the last words to Clark Kent, speaking at his father’s funeral, words written by Grant Morrison.

“Jonathan Kent taught me that the strong have to stand up for the weak and that bullies don’t like being bullied back. He taught me that a good heart is worth more than all the money in the bank. He taught me about life and death. He taught me that the measure of a man lies not in what he says but what he does. And he showed me by example how to be tough and how to be kind and how to dream of a better world. Thanks, Pa. Those are lessons I’ll never forget.”

Morrison isn’t writing here about the lessons that a fictional father taught his fictional son; but about the lessons that so many of us learned from reading the comics in which those fictional characters featured. Our superheroes can save us; but we have to save them first.


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