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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

A love of superheroes

By Suzanne Walker


The night I saw The Avengers for the first time, I took the train back to my apartment and immediately dashed off the following email to a friend of mine:

“The Avengers was amazing, I can’t even describe it. Feeling strangely fearless about life, and my head is filled with too many intellectual thoughts about superheroes.”

A bit hyperbolic, perhaps, driven by excessive euphoria and a distinct lack of sleep, but all’s fair in the world of comics and “POW BAM KABLAM.” In some ways, that email is the most succinct explanation of my relationship with superheroes that I’ve ever offered to anyone.

Perhaps because I became a fan of comic-book superheroes relatively late in the game (I didn’t so much as pick up a graphic novel until my freshman year of college), my fascination with superheroes has always been a healthy mix of unadulterated love and academic curiosity. Anyone who’s spent more than five minutes with me knows I can rave for hours about the beauty of Matt Fraction’s new Hawkeye series. Anyone who spends more than ten minutes with me knows that I’ve also presented at an academic conference about Hawkeye and depictions of disability in comics—and about the importance of looking at popular culture through a critical as well as enthusiastic lens.

When I started as an editorial assistant at Oxford University Press ten months ago, two of the first titles I began work on were Our Superheroes, Ourselves, edited by Robin Rosenberg, and What is a Superhero?, edited by Robin Rosenberg and Peter Coogan. They’ve been a learning experience in more ways than one. It’s been a fantastic opportunity to work on a project whose topic was so close to my heart. The books operate at a unique and brilliant intersection between enthusiastic love and academic inquiry—celebrating superheroes even as they ask why they remain such compelling and permanent fixtures in our cultural landscape. In preparing the manuscripts for production, corresponding with the volume editors, and reaching out to academics and comic-book writers alike for endorsements, I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect on the nature of superheroes and their meaning to fans and creators.

From my own personal perspective, there has always been something particularly joyous about not only being a fan of superheroes but also participating in the communities that have sprung up around them, especially when one considers the multitude of angles that people approach comics fandom. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a more passionate group of people than superhero and science fiction fans—people who love these stories so much that they will devote hours of their creative energy into writing, drawing, and putting together costumes of their favorite superheroes. People love superheroes because they mean the world to them, for one reason or another, and to take part in such a collective passion will always be a ridiculously fun experience.

At the same time, I have always been an eager student of American history, and superheroes offer an important reflection not only on our current society but also on our own cultural history. As several contributors to What is a Superhero? point out, it’s no coincidence that the rise of the modern-day superhero occurred in 1930s America, in the depths of the Great Depression and on the eve of the second World War. Our same heroes have proven to be remarkably pliant and adaptable over the years (much like the ever-elastic Mr. Fantastic), molding to fit the country’s political and social climate. It’s quite telling, for example, that it took until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s for Marvel to create its first African-American superhero, the Black Panther, and that one of Ms. Magazine’s first covers was an image of Wonder Woman in 1972, heralding the second-wave feminist movement. More recently, I re-watched the 2008 Iron Man film and was struck by how dated it already is even five years later. It’s extremely attuned to the politics of the late Bush years, and strives to offer commentary on the United States’ wars abroad even as it delivers high-flying adventures with Tony Stark.

No matter what the time period, superheroes will always mean something different to each individual fan, and everyone seems to have a different idea of what makes a superhero—not only that, everyone seems to have a different favorite, and a huge variety of reasons why. Some fans prefer their superheroes to be high above mere mortals, a flawless ideal to aspire to. Some prefer their superheroes to have their own weaknesses and flaws in personality, making for a more human, relatable hero. Luckily the genre has something for everyone—Superman fans will be getting their fill this summer with Man of Steel, while fans of the more flawed superhero cheered on genius billionaire playboy Tony Stark in Iron Man 3.

Personally, the superhero that has made the biggest difference in my life is Bruce Banner, aka The Incredible Hulk, particularly Mark Ruffalo’s rendition of the character in The Avengers last year. Banner’s quiet struggle with his inner demon that becomes the Hulk has resonated with me more than any superhero narrative I’d ever encountered. To see Banner quietly and eloquently work to overcome his demons, to master this worst part of himself and channel it into something heroic—something that could help save the world—meant more to me than I’ll ever be able to express.

Bruce Banner’s journey with the Incredible Hulk was the primary reason I wrote that email a year ago, why I said to my friend I was feeling strangely fearless about life. Superheroes can offer us limitless inspiration, whether it’s in the blatant smashing of the Hulk or in the joyous pursuit of flight seen in Kelly Sue DeConnick’s new Captain Marvel series.Our Superheroes, Ourselves, and What is a Superhero? have provided me with more than a few hours of deep thoughts, and I couldn’t be more excited to help bring them to the world.

Suzanne Walker works as an editorial assistant at OUP. She recently gave a presentation called “Deafening Outcry: Hawkeye, Transformative Works, and the Recreation of Disability,” at Syracuse University’s Disability Studies conference. When not at work she reads and blogs about comics. She tries to channel Bruce Banner more often than she tries to channel the Hulk.

Image credit: Photo by Suzanne Walker. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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