If you’ve read much of my other work on this website, you’re probably looking at the title and going, “What? But he’s always linking to that piece over at Jezebel about how brown kids deserve more brown superheroes!” Well, two things about that: 1) I’d probably do just as well linking you to “A Superhero That Looks Like My Son” and 2) they absolutely do, but I’m concerned that this mandate might encourage us to settle for just about any Black superhero, when that is simply not enough. We do owe it to children of color, to say nothing of LGBTQ+ youth and others, to represent their diversity in superheroes. But first, let’s deal with why it is that comics and superheroes matter so much.
The easy answer is that superheroes aren’t just fantasies; they’re deities. In our modern context, where our media at least appears to be pluralistic and decentralized, our deities come in all forms, and some of them wear capes. I say that to express that superhero stories are modern mythologies. They’re a method by which we represent the best of our culture to ourselves, and also by which we work out the issues currently facing our society. We’re prone to associate the word “myth” with things that didn’t actually happen—events strictly in the realm of fantasy. But take, for example, the story of Perseus and Medusa. Perseus goes on a hero’s journey, beheads Medusa, rescues Andromeda, etc., etc. Clearly a story. Many of the great mythographers of the 20th century, however, regard this myth as a representation of an actual event. From the third volume of Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God:
The legend of Perseus beheading Medusa means, specifically, that “the Hellenes overran the goddess’s chief shrines” and “stripped her priestesses of their Gorgon masks,”…that is to say, there occurred in the early thirteenth century B.C. an actual historic rupture, a sort of sociological trauma, which has been registered in this myth.
Pictured: Culture Hero
All that to say that the myths passed on by a society are not simply the idle results of primitive beliefs or childish minds. Even if they do not encode actual events, they record perspectives, cultural norms and ideals, and desires. Thus, when we write superhero stories, we are telling tales about idealized versions of ourselves. If my little mini-lecture about occidental mythology was not convincing, take Captain America: The Winter Soldier. That film could not more blatantly be about the relationship between freedom and security, the tension between individual liberty/honor, and the modern surveillance state. Plainly, it is a 170 million dollar exploration of one our society’s most pressing issues. Continue reading