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Jewish World ReviewAugust 24, 2000 / 23 Menachem-Av, 5760

Evan Gahr

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Not So Super-Heroes -- THE MYTHIC Superman of yesteryear was invulnerable and heroic. Today, the man of steel is angst-ridden and self-absorbed. In the August 2000 comic book Adventures of Superman, our hero muses over his feelings and bruised ego.

Think Woody Allen in a cape. Or better yet, check out the Weinbergs, dysfunctional teenagers who battle with "self-esteem issues" and an occasional bad guy in the recent comic book series, Relative Heroes. Their "powers are their problems."

Whether it's the dark, craggy Batman or the morose Superman-who doesn't so much fly as lumber over his fictional metropolis, holding back tears-superheroes aren't quite so super anymore. Can you feel their pain? "It's not easy for these guys," says Bill Jemas, Marvel Comics president of publishing and new media. "It's hard to fight crime and have a day job."

Yes, they still have special powers and battle criminal elements. But who can fly straight with such emotional baggage? This fall, Spiderman sees a psychologist. And a psychologist will soon arrive in Gotham City, perhaps to better understand Batman's nemesis, the Joker. As comics become more like soap operas, moral ambiguity is increasingly pronounced, says former Comics editor Stuart Moore.

It's often hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. The X-Men, who debuted in the 1960s, once fought monsters and mutants. Now, their mission isn't so clear. In the new X-Men series this November-part of a much-ballyhooed Ultimate Marvel line geared to attract a new generation of readers-Jemas says the X-Men are "like Janet Reno: involved in high-profile, no-win situations." Industry legend Stan Lee, creator of Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk, makes a similar point. "The stories have gotten a little darker and grimmer, not as light-hearted as they used to be," he tells The American Enterprise. "There is overlapping of bad guys and good guys."

Who stole Superman? It's hard to find a single villain. It would be simplistic to blame political correctness or typecast the industry as yet another victim of the culture wars, observers say.

Yes, Batman writer Devin Grayson rails against conservatives Jesse Helms and Pat Buchanan. But she also says "the evil forces we live with today are ourselves." Not exactly a conservative sentiment, but it doesn't reek of obsession with "social injustice" or naivete about human nature. True, some comic books have pushed for gun control, and the tobacco industry is evil incarnate in recent editions of Superman. But more than politics is at play. Since Superman and Batman burst onto the scene in the late 1930s, superheroes and comic books have been constantly re-invented, says comic writer Gerard Jones, author of The Comic Book Heroes: The First History of Modern Comic Books. After seeing sales decline in the '50s, the industry rebounded in the early 1960s with a new breed of superheroes created by Stan Lee.

Lee wanted more human superheroes, not "characters who didn't need to worry about making a living and dandruff." His Spiderman first captured the imagination of millions of Americans as an angst-ridden high school student who obtained special powers when he put on his costume. "We had to accept the fact that someone could stick to walls and spin webs and worry about grades in school." Worries, yes; moral ambiguity, no. Self-absorption was literally deadly: Spiderman was so busy showcasing his new powers he didn't notice a burglar who later killed his uncle. He learned his lesson.

In the late 1960s, as everything was "questioned," says author Jones, superheroes' lives became even less black and white. Still, more than politics was at play. The most pronounced changes took place not at the highpoint of left-liberalism in the 1970s, but a decade later, at the height of the Reagan era. The Punisher, who started out as a villain in Spiderman, became a border-line hero (and border-line psycho) a decade later in 1987. Ask ed one writer, "Was the Punisher a menace or martyr?" The same question could be asked of Batman. In 1986, Frank Miller created a rather unseemly Batman, fat and cranky, in Dark Knight Returns. The series sold big. And as Batman went, so did the other superheroes-until even industry insiders worried their trademark heroes had plunged too far into the dark side.

Superman started behaving like a super-vigilante. In a breach of an unwritten code, he killed some bad guys in cold blood, says editor Moore. "People at DC thought, 'This is not Superman. He should not be doing that.' They didn't want Superman to be a killer." In the early '90s, these "angry heroes" burned themselves out, according to Jones, and the pendulum swung in the other direction. The heroes became a little bit more heroic. But these are still not your father's superheroes. As an alien who tracks Superman this year comments, "He's not leaping tall buildings...He's just there...I'm not watching a Superhero in action. I see a man…who looks like he's lost everything."

JWR contributor Evan Gahr is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute. To comment click here.


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© 2000, Evan Gahr. This article first appeared at The American Enterprise