- The Superhero Meets the Culture Critic
Although the “superhero” has been a staple of American mass media since the emergence of Superman in 1938, a definitive study of the genre has not appeared. Therefore, I greeted the American edition of Reynolds’s book (first published in London by B. T. Batsford in 1992) with enthusiasm. Its potential seemed substantial, as suggested by the back cover copy:
The popular figure known as the superhero has exerted such a strong and mushrooming influence upon society, morality, and politics that a mythology now pervades our culture. . . . Here is a study of this superhuman creation, revealed as a proliferating symbol whose dimensions over sixty years of comic book history have been rendered to satisfy the demands and expectations of the popular audience. This fascinating book shows how the superhero has become a vivid figure in the mainstream of modern culture.
This is a description of the book that popular culture scholars and postmodernists have needed: a wide-ranging yet detailed study of the proliferation of the superhero myth. Regrettably, Reynolds’s Super Heroes, while it has several merits, is not that book.
Reynolds begins with “a first-stage working definition of the superhero genre” expressed in seven criteria:
1. The hero is marked out from society. He often reaches maturity without having a relationship with his parents. 2. At least some of the superheroes will be like earthbound gods in their level of powers. Other superheroes of lesser powers will consort easily with these earthbound dieties. 3. The hero’s devotion to justice overrides even his devotion to the law. 4. The extraordinary nature of the superhero will be contrasted with the ordinariness of his surroundings. 5. Likewise, the extraordinary nature of the hero will be contrasted with the mundane nature of his alter-ego. Certain taboos will govern the actions of these alter-egos. [By taboos, Reynolds will explain further on, he refers to myths in which the hero gains strength through abstinence.] 6. Although ultimately above the law, superheroes can be capable of considerable patriotism and moral loyalty to the state, though not necessarily to the letter of its laws. 7. The stories are mythical and use science and magic indiscriminately to create a sense of wonder.(16)
Rules 1 and 3 are accepted facets of the American hero, as true of Natty Bumppo and Huck Finn as they are of Superman and Batman. Rules 4 and 5 are also familiar and straight-forward (although rule 4 could use a footnote regarding heroes who alternate between mundane surroundings and fantastic realms, such as outer space, Asgard, or astral planes). Rule 2, however, is flawed in a way that points to a major weakness of Reynolds’s book: its forshortened historical perspective.
Parallel to the “earthbound god” tradition of costumed heroes stemming from Superman is the “masked man” tradition of heroes with no real “superpowers.” The best-known comic book example is Batman, but he was preceded by other comic book heroes (the Crimson Avenger), pulp fiction heroes (the Spider, the Black Bat), and radio heroes (the Lone Ranger, the Green Hornet). Batman, the subject of three sections within Super Heroes, is obviously in Reynolds’s mind when he refers to “superheroes of lesser powers.” One could argue that Batman’s above-average intelligence, athletic ability, weaponry, or fear-instilling costume are “powers,” but Reynolds does not go into that. Instead he defines the super-ness of such heroes in terms of their interaction with the Superman crowd. This idea, as well as Reynolds’s lengthy discussion of continuity later in the book, depends upon the existence of a “universe” in which all the characters owned by a particular company inhabit the same fictional world. However, the idea of a fictional universe is more recent than Reynolds seems to realize. He links it to superhero teams (37–38), but, prior to the emergence of Marvel in the 1960s, the adventures of superteams were isolated from the solo adventures of the teams’ heroes. (I don’t mean to be overly pedantic, but one could...