Unpublishable #1 – Is the Ideal Superhero Dead?


Introducing a new series of essays, bits of bad writing and poems, and whatever else I make that doesn’t fit into a traditional writing format. My first entry is an essay I wrote in college, entitled “Is the Ideal Superhero Dead?” If you have some unpublishable works of art and despite all signs telling you to not, I would love to feature it here with you.

Author: Stew Stunes



Comic book superheroes have become an integral part of pop culture. The names Superman and Captain America have become the face of the ideal superhero. The ideal superhero is a character that always does good, always saves the day and never uses an excuse to justify killing a bad guy. A lot has changed in the world since the invention of those ideal superheroes, does the same superhero live on today, or has it morphed to match the changing times and ideals of American culture.


Is the Ideal Superhero Dead?

“It’s a bird…it’s a plane…it’s Superman!” was the mantra of American ideals and values from the 1940’s till the turn of the 21st century. The phrase conjures up visions of red and blue, bravery and chivalry, strength and humanity, and lastly a Jesus-like figure that will protect us from evil and evil-doers of the world.  It is this symbolism that has popularized comic books and characters like Superman, Captain America, and Batman, but do those ideals and values still ring true today in a post 9/11 world?

If one can think back to the late 1930’s, early 1940’s; one would see an America that was just starting to recover from a decade long depression and had a truly evil man across the world threatening and sadly succeeding in destroying entire cities and populations. The world needed superheroes; they needed real heroes to defend against a real spreading evil. The people of that time also need superheroes to inspire individuals to become heroes, and to act as a distraction from the hardships of life.

First there was Superman who was raging a one man war against drunkards, wife-beaters, and becoming a social activist against crocked businessmen and politicians. He was invulnerable to any punch or kick, and could stand up for those who couldn’t. He was an alien from a distant planet, all alone and trying to understand the human condition and somehow that made him all the more human. As the last Kryptonian alive, Superman was sent by his father to protect us from evil, much like Jesus in the biblical tradition was sent by God to the people of the earth (Kozlovic, 7).  There are many ways to compare Superman with Jesus; the mythos of Superman could easily be watered down to an Americanized version of the gospel. For example; they are both from above and both were sent by a father figure to protect people from evil. At the end of the depression and start of WWII, America needed a hero to save them from the monstrosities that at one time could only be imagined in the worst of nightmares, but suddenly became very real. What better person to base a hero off of than a re-imagining of the original peace maker and easily the most influential person in the world, Jesus.

Then in March of 1941, right as America was getting ready to enter the Second World War, there was a new hero, dressed in the American flag, going overseas with the troops to fight the enemy of the free world. His name was Captain America and is much like superman except he is the personification of American ideals and values (Marvel, 2). In many of his early adventures he was fighting alongside the allied troops against Nazis, Hitler and the personification of communism The Red Skull. On the very first issue of Captain America, we are treated with the drawing of Captain America brutally punching Hitler in the face. How inspirational it must have been to a child or young adult that didn’t really understand or comprehend the war across the ocean, to see the most hated man in the world get taken out by a superhero. One must understand that people didn’t have 24 hour news channels, so it was through paper mediums like newspaper and comic books that people found their news and entertainment. Yes, the war would still go on for much of the next 5 years, but I think seeing that kind of pro-American propaganda against Nazism and Hitler is exactly what America needed at that moment.

These two superheroes are viewed as the most ethical and held up as being totally good. The world needed the heroes of that era to distract us from the all too real horrors of real life. Famed comic artist Frank Miller noted, that Superman and Captain America exist solely to punch villains.  It wasn’t until the late 70’s when X-men hit the mainstream market that heroes could be anything but totally good (Coville, 4).  Character’s like Wolverine and new iterations of Batman were starting to get darker and less simply defined as completely good.  It was becoming acceptable for our heroes to do the wrong thing sometimes, or even kill a bad guy if it was necessary. We also started to see heroes die, in a special edition of Batman; Robin, the boy wonder was killed by a villain The Joker.  The publisher of that comic, DC, actually held a fan vote for whether or not Robin should be killed, and the fans voted close to 2:1 for the death of Batman’s sidekick. Soon after that comic, a wave of killings happened in comic books; everyone from Superman to Captain America to the fantastic four was killed off and then later brought back to life. This had a major effect on where comic books would go in the 1980’s.

In this era of comic books a new hero was born, dubbed the anti-hero (Coville, 4). The anti-hero would be a character that would not accept his role as a protector and would often be seen along with disturbing images often extremely violent and filled with sex and profanity.  Comics in this category are known by The Punisher, Spawn, The Dark Knight Returns, and the most important comic from that era The Watchmen.

Until the Dark Knight Returns, Batman had always held to the do not kill way of comic book characters (Furlong, 6). In this iteration of his legend, he can no longer keep up with the bad guys as he has grown old. He does his best to stop the violence without killing but finally he must bring down both The Joker and, in a twist, Superman who has sold the world to the soviets. Batman, after much internal struggle, uses a gun to finally stop the Joker from killing more innocent people. Has Batman and other superheroes decided that killing is the only way to stop evil completely?

Soon following the release of The Dark Knight; came the most critically acclaimed Graphic Novel of all time, Watchmen (Sunday, 9).  The story is set in an alternative 1980’s where people have grown up with real masked heroes saving us from threats like communism and the Vietnam War. The world is watching as America and the U.S.S.R. are locked in a stalemate waiting to see which country would drop the first Atomic Bomb. Watchmen had characters that equally broke down the psychology of what a masked hero really is. One of the main characters, Rorschach, only saw the world in terms of black and white. He would unflinchingly kill people if he deemed them sinners. Another character, Dr. Manhattan, is the only character to actually have superpowers; he is seen as almost God-like throughout the story.  As he discovers more and more of his powers, he becomes more distant from humanity and eventually leaves earth as he has no reason to stay.  The Story concludes with a very alarming chapter. The one character, Voidt, decides that if he creates a threat from another world that the people from earth would stop feuding and join together. Voidt sends an alien creature that ends up destroying whole cities and killing millions of people, but as the book ends he has saved the world from nuclear holocaust. His reasoning in justifying the killing of millions of innocent people is that a nuclear war would have completely destroyed everything and that in doing what he did he should be thanked for curing humanity of its hatred towards itself.

As one can see this is not really what the original comic book superheroes, Superman or Captain America would have done. Watchmen and The Dark Knight introduce us to morally grey superheroes that still work for the betterment of humankind, but they are not afraid of killing or doing what they deem necessary in order to accomplish a goal.

This trend of anti-heroes and morally grey subject matter would come to be a mainstay in comics (Coville, 4). As the Punisher (First miniseries published in 1986) has been the most financially successful comic since the golden age of comics in the early 1970’s (Marvel, 8). The Punisher comic is one filled with extreme violence; the character fights virtually every organized crime ring from the Italian Mafia to even Dare Devil and Spiderman, who both believe that his killing is unnecessary. He justifies his killing as an eye for an eye type of logic; the mafia originally killed his family which set him on course to hunt them down and brutally take vengeance into his own hands.  This is the new face of comics from the mid 1980’s to the end of the 20th century.

In the latter half of the 1990’s there was a resurgence interest in comic book collecting and that almost brought an end to the entire industry (Busiek, 1). People were no longer buying comics at newsstands and many of the old stand buys like Superman and Captain America were not selling.  It was a collectors market as people didn’t want any of the new comics; collectors and buyers just wanted to find comics with which they had grown up with that held a lot of nostalgia and a hefty price tag. This led to a glut for the comic book industry in which many comic book shops ended up closing their doors.

September, 11 2001; a day that will forever live in our tear-filled memory; as it was a major turning point for America, it was also a major turning point for superheroes (Diekmann, 5). For the first time, America was not saved from a threat and superheroes like Captain America and Spider-man would have to face the fact that they did not prevent the 9/11 attacks. In the issues following that date, there are scenes of humbled superheroes trying to make sense of these real events that they could not ignore. They were seen trying to help the real heroes of New York; firefighters, police officers, and emergency responders. The superheroes could no longer protect us; it was the regular firefighters and police officers that were the true heroes. I think this did more to injure the landscape of superheroes and their values than any other previously mentioned event.

In the months and years following the fall of the twin towers, America started to become very cynical and suspecting everyone and everything of being a terrorist. We’ve given up more civil liberties since those attacks than at any other time in history (10). Things like phone taps, tracking your cell phone, body scans and pat downs, security checks everywhere, passport only entry to America are now seen as a necessary evil to make sure that there is not a next attack.

In this brave new world, we as a culture and a nation have had to realize that we do not have a superhero to save us in the nick-of-time.  We could no longer rely on someone to save us, we had to protect ourselves.  As a result, America in itself has tried to become a superhero; doing its best to get the bad guy before another horrible event can occur.  As America has shown it is not above the morally grey heroes of the 1980’s era of comic books. America has done things to get information, that many deem unnecessary and maybe even completely wrong, but America justifies it by saying it the lesser of two evils.

As one can now understand, superheroes have gone from completely good to a mixture of good and bad and everything in between. Does this mean that the ideal superheroes are finished and their altruistic motives are outdated and for a simpler time, a time that simply does not exist anymore? Comic books are known by a simple reoccurring theme, they will never truly kill a main superhero. Yes, they may die, but later on in the next issue one will always see their cape flapping in the wind as they have been miraculously reanimated, or brought back to life, or even simply rebooted.  I believe that we are in a large comic-style cycle where the ideal superhero is on the out, but that type of superhero will never be forgotten and soon enough it will rise again to capture a new young generation looking for a hero that will save us and say no to evil. I will make one final point; I think young boys, especially, need a strong moral figure like Superman or Captain America to help teach young men moral responsibilities (Clement, 3). As a lot of kids are missing a good father figure, and believe it or not, Superman and Captain America can be a guiding voice to a young boy who needs adventure, hope, strength and a sense of civic duty. Most adults may not realize it, but all of the adventures that Superman, Spider-man, Captain America, the X-men, and Batman went on, had a profound impact on how young boys react to tough situations. Sadly now days without those comics on every newsstand, a lot of boys will grow up without the influence of the moral code that the ideal superheroes held so close to their hearts.

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  1. Busiek, Kurt. “The Gimmick Age.”PSU | Inart 10. Web. 26 Apr. 2011. http://www.psu.edu/dept/inart10_110/inart10/cmbk10gimmick.html.
  2. “Captain America (Steve Rogers) – Marvel Universe Wiki: The Definitive Online Source for Marvel Super Hero Bios.”com: The Official Site | Iron Man, Spider-Man, Hulk, X-Men, Wolverine and the Heroes of the Marvel Universe. Comics, News, Movies and Video Games | Marvel.com. Web. 26 Apr. 2011. http://marvel.com/universe/Captain_America.
  3. Clement, Priscilla Ferguson. “Boyhood in America: an Encyclopedia.” Google Books. 2001. Web. 26 Apr. 2011. http://books.google.com/books?id=IyTFVN0ugscC. page xxxiii
  4. Coville, Jamie. “The Bronze Age of the Mainstream and the Rise of the Post Modern Graphic Novel.”PSU | Inart 10. Web. 26 Apr. 2011. http://www.psu.edu/dept/inart10_110/inart10/cmbk8bronze.html.
  5. Diekmann, Stefanie. “How Marvel Comics Dealt with 9/11 | Culture | The Guardian.”Latest News, Comment and Reviews from the Guardian | Guardian.co.uk. 24 Apr. 2004. Web. 26 Apr. 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2004/apr/24/guesteditors3.
  6. Furlong, Patrick. “The Dark Knight: Storylines: The Dark Knight Returns.”Batman: The Dark Knight. 09 June 2000. Web. 26 Apr. 2011. http://www.darkknight.ca/storylines/tdkr.html.
  7. Kozlovic, Anton Karl. “Journal of Religion and Film: Superman as Christ-Figure: The American Pop Culture Movie Messiah by Anton Karl Kozlovic.”UNO – University of Nebraska at Omaha. Apr. 2002. Web. 26 Apr. 2011. http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/superman.htm.
  8. “Punisher (Frank Castle) – Marvel Universe Wiki: The Definitive Online Source for Marvel Super Hero Bios.”com: The Official Site | Iron Man, Spider-Man, Hulk, X-Men, Wolverine and the Heroes of the Marvel Universe. Comics, News, Movies and Video Games | Marvel.com. Web. 26 Apr. 2011. http://marvel.com/universe/Punisher\_(Frank\_Castle).
  9. Sunday, Lev Grossman. “Watchmen (1986), by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons – ALL TIME 100 Novels – TIME.”Breaking News, Analysis, Politics, Blogs, News Photos, Video, Tech Reviews – TIME.com. 16 Oct. 2005. Web. 26 Apr. 2011. http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1951793\_1951946\_1952878,00.html.
  10. “Top Ten Abuses of Power Since 9/11.”American Civil Liberties Union. 6 Sept. 2006. Web. 26 Apr. 2011. http://www.aclu.org/keep-america-safe-free/top-ten-abuses-power-911.