EDITORIAL: Marvel Comics and the Idea of the Super-Hero

EDITORIAL: Marvel Comics and the Idea of the Super-Hero

Though I've written similar pieces to this one recently, I think they focused too much on arbitrary issues rather than getting at the core of things. So here's to getting at the core of things.

 

The Super-Hero Idea

 

Just to avoid any confusion, I've also posted this whole article on my own blog, so this isn't plagiarism or anything. With all that’s been going on at Marvel Comics lately, that being the pushing of political narratives in their storytelling, I decided to look at the issue in a more in-depth way than just a sales / marketing aspect. This need for analysis has also been spurred on by listening the words of Professor Jordan B. Peterson, whose ideas I highly recommend you look into. H offers some fascinating thoughts on the idea of the super-hero and the evolution of stories not only as entertainment but as a tool of evolution itself. Anyway, instead, I’m going to focus on what it is that has caused the almost complete disenfranchisement of the Marvel Comics fanbase. Moreover, I’m going to argue that it’s nothing that’s really been discussed yet. I’m not coming at this from the slant of arguing against the diversity initiative, or the pricing problem, or the flaws with the distribution system. I’m going to argue that the reason that these characters, and therefore this company, are no longer so beloved in the eyes of their fans is because the heroes no longer represent ideas, but have rather become mouthpieces for the ideologies of the left. To do that, I’m going to have to create a very clear idea of what it is exactly that a super hero from Marvel Comics is. So, we must look at what a super-hero is.

 

What is a super-hero?
A super-hero is an individual who overcomes strife and turmoil, either internally or externally, through dedication to the cause of bettering themselves for the sake of the world at large by means of utilising supernatural abilities. That’s what I would define a super-hero as, because that is what is true of all the characters you’ll find at Marvel or DC. The entire roster of super-heroes conforms to that one archetype, and it’s an archetype that’s existed since before the days of ancient Greek myth. Obviously, there are ways to interpret archetypes and make them into sub-categories of heroes operating at different levels of society. Therefore, it’s so easy for people to become attached to kinds of heroes, because these characters are coming from positions we are hardwired to relate to. Whether it’s Peter Parker, the beta male nerd who gains super strength and becomes everything that every young boy wants to be in adulthood, or whether it’s Bruce Wayne, a man who is simply born into such high status that he should be mistrusted, but instead he stakes his life on the line for those that any other billionaire would consider beneath them. Where Peter Parker is relatable from a personal standpoint, Batman is relatable from an outsider perspective, in that he is the predator that helps to keep us safe from other predators. There’s a reason they’re emblems are that of the spider and the bat. Both creatures, spiders and bats, prey on insects. Things that in a primal setting, prey on what can do us harm without us realising it. That primal setting brings me to my second point, which is the medium through which most super-hero stories are told: comic books.

 

What is a comic book?
A comic book is a narrative medium that employs sequential imagery to tell a story, typically with something to say about human nature or offer a life lesson. All stories throughout history have the goal of teaching us something, from Aesop’s Fables to Beano magazines, we’re taught morals through stories both farcical and philosophical. Comic books stand out from the crowd though. I often ask myself what it is that makes comic books such a distinct medium and why it is that super-hero stories are so at home there. I thought about the fact that stories exist to teach us lessons and I thought, “Well… what were the first stories, and how were they told?”. The obvious answer would be the likes of myths from the Greeks, the Romans, the Vikings and all those other ancient cultures. But, as a species, we’ve been telling stories for much longer than that. We’ve been telling stories since before language was developed. How did we accomplish that? Through cave-paintings. Ancient man would witness events and rather than allow them to slip into memory, they would be chronicled on the walls of cave dwellings. Cave paintings are incredibly easy to follow, and quite often, they appear not simply as drawings of individual moments – you don’t simply see a depiction of a hunting party gathered around a dead buffalo – you see each step of the process that led to the buffalo being dead. Sequential imagery, just like in comic books, was essential to the first storytellers. You see the buffalo, then the hunting party, then the party gathered around the dead buffalo. Maybe one figure is highlighted as the one who threw the spear. The first depiction of that could be considered to the first ever super-hero. The first character to overcome an obstacle using his cunning and the tools at his disposal. And why was that drawn on the wall? To show people that not only is hunting possible, but you can kill some huge animals. It tells you that you’re the peak – if you’re trying, you can be as good as the guy who threw that spear. Which brings me nicely to the amalgamation of these last two points.

 

Why do super-hero stories work so well in comic books?
Super-hero stories started to appear after the Great Depression. They could just as easily have emerged as novels, or even cartoons, but instead they emerged as sequential imagery in comic books. Why is it important that these stories were being told after the Great Depression? America, and the world over, was in a slump. Not just economically, but mentally, everyone was destroyed. People needed to feel hopeful, they needed an ideal to strive toward, to inspire them to be better than they were. Enter Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster with their creation: Superman. This outsider, an alien, arriving on Earth like a fallen angel and becoming the sole protector of the planet and the saviour of the American people, regardless of the situations they found themselves in. Superman had the tools to deal with any threat. Frost breath, heat vision, x-ray vision, flight, super strength, and impenetrable skin turned him into this incorruptible idea of what we can be if we set our minds to it. Beyond the physical, Superman fought for truth, justice, and the American way. He embodies these ideas to this day. A physical manifestation of what everyone on the planet can and should be. This is one of the main criticisms of Man of Steel, because it calls into question whether Superman should really owe the world his protection. The answer is obviously, no, he doesn’t. Superman doesn’t protect the world because he owes it to us, he protects the world because he can. And that’s what we should all be like, we should all protect the world however we are able, because we can. That became the fundamental idea of super-heroes: they protect the world because they can. And why were their stories appearing in comic books? Well, it’s rather obvious. These characters are no different to that guy who threw the spear and killed the buffalo. They’re who we want to be. Stories like that are best understood when they can be told through imagery, but comic books allowed for words to be brought in also. What you end up with is a cave painting that tells you what it’s trying to teach you directly, leaving nothing up for interpretation. This may sound out there, but it’s not coincidental. Now we’ve established what a super-hero is, what a comic book is, and why those two things work well together – now let’s look exclusively at the Marvel Universe.

 

The Marvel Universe:
The Marvel Universe began in 1939 with the emergence of the Human Torch, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and the Angel in Marvel Comics #1. All three characters were capable of flight, but each one represents a different force of nature; those being fire, water, and air respectively. If you compare the covers of Action Comics #1 and Marvel Comics #1, you’ll notice something about what the heroes are doing. While Superman is lifting a car above someone’s head as people flee around him, assumedly protecting the man from the car as onlookers flee in astonished terror, Marvel Comics # 1 is a bit more aggressive. We see the Human Torch, a sinister look on his face, lunging through a melting wall and reaching out toward a man holding a gun. There is a clear antagonism between the two men on the cover, but if you were passing that by on the street, you wouldn’t know which is the protagonist. Herein lies the fundamental difference between DC and Marvel. While DC’s characters exist as icons that protect people and are displayed as defenders of the innocent, Marvel’s heroes are more ambiguous, treading the line between protector and aggressor, and it isn’t until you look a little closer that you see that these are indeed super-heroes. This becomes true in the sixties as well, but rather than being protector or aggressor, it’s a matter of civilian or super-hero. The front cover of Fantastic Four #1 shows the heroes in their regular clothes, using their powers to fight a monster. Obviously, these are heroic figures, but they seem like normal people. This isn’t unknown, any comic book fan can tell you that this is the case, and was always Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s intention. But it offered something new. So therein lies the difference between Marvel’s super-heroes and DC’s. Yet they still represented ideas. Ideas that had to be updated to appeal to a new audience. Ideas of family, technological advancement, nuclear terror, education, co-existence, but one unique ideology that was resurrected rather than introduced: patriotism. The revival of Captain America was in response to more than just the Cold War threat, it was to re-establish that sense of national pride in all Americans, because they won the bloody war, and they can do it again. And those values I just mentioned, they remained the core of the Marvel universe for years to come. Not because these characters constantly told people that they represented these ideas, but because their stories let people know that those characters represented those ideas. Which brings me nicely to the problem with Marvel today.

 

The abandonment of ideas and the embrace of ideology:
Marvel characters have become nothing more than mouthpieces for the writers currently under the company’s employment, and those writers are trying to convey political ideology to the readers rather than allowing the stories to inspire them, as writers, to convey the ideas at the core of the characters. Characters have been swapped around and killed off and in some cases outright bastardised for the sake of political commentary. Captain America no longer represents the ideal of the American people, to always strive toward victory and never give up in the face of adversity. Captain America’s a Nazi now. Worse still, Marvel have allowed Nick Spencer to rewrite their entire history. Canonically speaking, Captain America never stood for those things. He’s just been a puppet of Hydra since his childhood. His ideals are Hydra’s. His ideals are fascist in nature. Gone is the star-spangled man with a plan and here now is the goose-stepping neo-Nazi hell-bent on world domination. That’s what Marvel Comics have turned Captain America into. Or rather what they’ve allowed a writer like Nick Spencer to pervert him into. We see the same with Spider-Man. Dan Slott has abandoned that core of Spider-Man, the optimistic youth who will take on the world and win despite all the odds being against him. Instead we’ve got Peter Parker, CEO of Parker Industries, and genius tech developer. The souls of these characters are being abandoned to criticise the real world without meta-narrative or metaphor. There are no intrinsic human lessons being taught any more. Instead, readers are being taught about micro-aggressions, third wave feminism, the patriarchy, white privilege and so much political rhetoric that it’s difficult to keep track of what they have and haven’t published at some stage or another. One thing though is clear: people don’t like it. It’s possible to teach people a lesson about politics without even involving politics in the story. Because politics is human. You tell a story about an aspect of human nature and people can easily apply it to politics. They can apply it to anything. And those are the most important lessons that you can teach someone through stories. Human lessons that force people to see their idols undergo human problems and come out the other side a changed person. There’s great value in that! Much more value than telling them about the problems in the world around them today.

 

DC are doing the unthinkable though. They’re telling human stories. Superman has a family now. Batman may well be getting married soon, and he has a son. Wally West is reconnecting with a world that left him behind. The Green Lantern Corps are working alongside the Sinestro Corps for the good of the universe. These are important stories because they teach important lessons about family, about time, about love, and about co-operation. Currently, those are the best lessons to offer people.

 

To conclude, the root of all of Marvel’s problems lies in the abandonment of the souls of their characters. There is no longer a desire among the top Marvel writers to tell stories that teach the reader a valuable life lesson. Where these heroes used to embody human ideas, they now spew political rhetoric while the writer sits back and says, “Take that, misogyny! Have some o’ this, racism!”. Comic books were never meant to attack ideas. They were meant to bring them to life. Marvel are quickly killing that, at least under their own banner. Unless their upcoming Legacy relaunch accounts for the points I’ve discussed here, then they’re not going to see any sort of change in attitude toward them. I sincerely hope they’ve thought out their next move, and that there is a push to return to the core of these characters, and to teach people lessons about the nature of humanity through the presentation of these super-heroes as the living embodiments of valuable ideas.

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