Dysfunctional superheroes

Superman has never an easy superhero for the modern age. Unlike the classic Joseph Campbell hero, he has no conflict, no real journey to embark upon. Batman, on the other hand, is perfect for the modern era of conflicted, dysfunctional heroes. His entire quest to rid the world of evil is arguably a quixotic — and by definition impossible — attempt to right the terrible wrong that was done to his own parents. *

Still, Batman is highly traditional in certain ways. Unquestionably the boy tormented by tragedy has grown into a kind of uber-man — an unapologetic vigilante who believes thoroughly in himself and in his own brand of frontier justice.

Even when the hero is dark, these comic books were pure wish-fulfilment fantasy. Even the most insecure teenager could project themselves into a fantasy version of adulthood — an individual who has overcome doubts and fears to be the modern version of a knight of old.

Spiderman represents a far more radical evolution. Peter Parker is not Billy Batson being swapped out into Captain Marvel when danger comes calling. No, Spiderman the super hero is still a lonely lost boy, his self-doubt and insecurity highly visible, to the point of being a badge of identity. Stan Lee’s brilliant innovation was to project the insecurity of the reader onto the superhero himself.

By now we take such ideas for granted. Buffy is a good example of a modern superhero. We watch not to see her defeat vampires and demons (something she can do with ease), but for her far more interesting and difficult battles against her own inner demons. To quote Berlin artist’s Marcus Wittmers’ brilliant work Superman Crashing: “Auch Helden haben schlechte Tage!”

Which brings us to the inevitable next evolution in the superhero — “Breaking Bad.” More tomorrow.

* Yes, Superman’s parents — and, in fact, his entire planet — were annihilated, but as a child he didn’t have to deal with that, and it never seems to have really bothered him.

3 Responses to “Dysfunctional superheroes”

  1. Doug says:

    I think that there’s still some interesting areas to explore with Superman. He’s gifted– he can literally see things that other people can’t see. What others have to struggle for, he can do with ease. I would think that would be very lonely sometimes. You understand why he would pick Lex Luthor, the genius, to be friends with as a child. And he’s invulnerable, so where does his empathy come from?
    The best comic I’ve read about superman was Red Son by Mark Millar, an alternate world where Superman was raised in the Soviet Union. There’s also a book of poetry about Superman called Krypton Nights.

  2. Sharon says:

    I looked up Superman Crashing (and also the German phrase, which translates as “even heroes have bad days”). That is an interesting piece of art. Is the phrase inscribed near it, or otherwise tied to the piece? And is it really outside a Jewish museum, as one web page says? The sculpture without the words would have a very different effect, at least for me. With the words, it is somewhat amusing and reassuring. Without the words it would seem much more vengeful.

  3. admin says:

    I believe that phrase is actually his title for the sculpture. I suspect the sculpture itself has appeared from time to time in exhibitions where there was no wall on which to place the caption.

    When I was staying in Berlin in the summer of 2006, that sculpture was on the sidewalk a few steps from my flat in Kreizberg, and the phrase was on the building wall behind it. Every morning, as I left to go to the Technical University, I found its presence immensely delightful and reassuring.

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