Hero or Menace?

Roger Ash

Roger Ash


by Roger Ash

Don’t worry; you haven’t accidentally stumbled into a J. Jonah Jameson editorial. However, I am going to look at the world of superheroes, but first, a bit of a digression.

This past year, my fascination with the space program has been reawakened. Yes, the Mars rover Curiosity has played a part in that, but so has visiting the Kansas Cosmosphere as well as books I’ve read and DVDs I’ve watched. It’s brought back the wonder and intrigue of space exploration that I felt as a child watching a moon landing on TV. I’m also inspired by the men and women who’ve been a part of the space program and the dedication and sacrifices they’ve made. Some have quite literally given their lives. These are people I see as heroes; they certainly all have flaws, but they rise about them to become an inspiration and show the good that humanity is capable of and the wonder of the universe around us.

Amazing Spider-Man #217

Amazing Spider-Man #217


To an extent, this sense of wonder and inspiration was what first attracted me to superhero comics back in the late-70s and early-80s. I read stories of a guy who was a nerd in school, like me, who was also a hero who fought crime and could swing through the air on ropes of thread. There was a guy who had no powers except his body and his razor-sharp mind who brought to justice some of the most deranged villains ever. There was a family, each with amazing powers, who fought menaces throughout the galaxy, yet still behaved like a “normal” family. And there were also Norse Gods who fought dragons, people who could fly through space under their own power, and mutants who fought for the people who hated them.

Fantastic Four #236

Fantastic Four #236


These comics weren’t always rosy. The heroes often had flaws (that was Marvel’s Ace in the hole) and they often found themselves in some pretty intense situations, but I knew that Spider-Man, Batman, the Fantastic Four, Thor, Superman, the X-Men, and all the rest would behave heroically to defeat their enemies. And yes, some superheroes even lost their lives in those struggles. But they always seemed to operate under the credo of “if we behave like the people we’re fighting; we become no better than them.” I’ve read variations of that statement in many comics and it has influenced many of my beliefs as an adult. The heroes were inspiring and the sense of wonder I got from reading these stories was palpable.

Watchmen

Watchmen


Then came books like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons, and Miracleman by Moore and artists such as Alan Davis and Gary Leach. These were much darker stories that posited that if superheroes really existed, they wouldn’t fill people with wonder and inspire them but they would instead fill people with fear. These were fascinating and entertaining stories, and they inspired other writers and artists to follow their lead. This led to what is commonly known as The Dark Age of superhero comics in the 1990s where grim and gritty replaced wonder and inspiration. Some of the new heroes who were introduced during this time behaved almost as badly as the villains they faced.

This is not to say everything was sweetness and light in superhero comics when I first started reading them. The Punisher was introduced in the 70s (though I don’t think many readers thought of him as a hero till years later), most people were scared to death of the Hulk, and the X-Men were often hated and feared by those they helped. But in the case of the X-Men, the fact that they behaved as heroes in spite of that was inspirational.

Spawn #7

Spawn #7


Eventually, I think things kind of balanced out between the inspirational and the grim and gritty, though things have definitely taken a more gritty turn in the last couple years. People say that it more accurately reflects how the world really is. And, to an extent that’s true, but I think it only reflects a part of the world. Plus, part of the reason I read superhero comics is for an escape from the real world. If I want a horrible story about the real world, all I need to do is turn on the evening news. People are also quick to point out that the world is a different place now than in was in the 70s and 80s. I’m not naïve. I know that’s true. However, superheroes inspired during times of civil unrest, assassinations, and war in the past. Couldn’t we use that sense of wonder and inspiration now as well?

Have I painted superhero comics pretty broadly here? Yep. Are there superhero comics that fall outside of the lines I’ve mentioned here? Of course. Yet this rings true to me in general. But, bottom line, this all comes down to taste. If you like dark, gritty superheroes, that’s cool. Personally, if I need a hero, I want one who inspires, not one who makes me want to hide. What do you think?

Now, go read a comic!

Classic comic covers from the Grand Comics Database.

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  1. Beau Smith Says:

    Roger,

    This column was right up my alley of enjoyment. I really appreciate you taking the time to lay this one out. You covered all the bases and left no one stranded. Good stuff and I hope everyone reads this!

    Your amigo,

    Beau