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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

The first time I taught my honors seminar “Superheroes,” I scribbled character elements on the board as students called them out:

“Intelligent.”

“Superpowers.”

“Orphans.”

“Brave.”

No one shouted, “Assholes.”

But they are now.

Comicbook.com’s Scott Johnson isn’t the only reader to call Grant Morrison’s new Action Comics Superman a “cynical, arrogant jerk.” Johnson concedes that “this might be the real personality that would develop if an all-powerful alien being found himself stranded on earth. Those with great power, more often than not let it go to their heads.”

But Morrison isn’t the first writer to portray a superheaded hero. It’s been the trend for years if not decades.

We have yet to see what director Joss Whedon has in store for The Avengers, but Captain Hammer, his first take on a superhero, was a superasshole. Nathan Fillion hammed it up as the cheesy embodiment of superpowered privilege in Whedon’s 2008 musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. The guy dupes a social advocate into sleeping with him (“This is so nice / Just might sleep with the same girl twice”) by faking that he cares about the homeless (“I’m poverty’s new sheriff / And I’m bashing in the slums / A hero doesn’t care / If you’re a bunch of scary alcoholic bums”).

Look at Jonathan Lethem’s Omega The Unknown and his superhero is no better. In addition to womanizing, the millionaire Mink bribes politicians, stages photo-ops, and stars in his own Hollywood Squares TV show. Other characters call him “greedy and boastful,” a “jerk,” a “pig,” and (my favorite) “the worst person I have ever been seated behind in a movie theater.”

Hammer and the Mink are right up there with CoreFire, Austin Grossman Superman knock-off in his 2007 novel Soon I Will be Invincible.  CoreFire has a “smug air of invincibility” and seems to fly “purely out of a sense of entitlement.” His own teammate calls him a “jerk” and a “fucking racist.”

President Obama would never call someone a fucking anything (though, wow, do I wish he would), but he doesn’t like arrogant superheroes either. While on the campaign trail in 2008, he told Entertainment Weekly: “The guys who have too many powers—like Superman—that always made me think they weren’t really earning their superhero status. It’s a little too easy.”

Garth Ennis, on the other hand, would call anyone a fucking anything. His superhero-bashing Butcher in The Boys sums up what he hates most about them: “That arrogance. That fuckin’ DISDAIN they have for us, where our lives mean nothin’ more than a rat’s.” And if that’s not clear enough for you, Ennis has Homelander (another Superman stand-in) and his teammates require their virginal recruit to give them blowjobs before she can join.

Starlight: “I mean this is completely disgusting! It’s a betrayal of everything you stand for! You’re the Earth’s most mighty! You bring justice to all, you avenge the innocent!”

Homelander: “Yes, and we’d like to get our dicks sucked.”

Peter Berg’s 2008 Hancock started out almost as bad. Berg described the original 1996 script as “a scathing character study of this suicidal alcoholic superhero.” To keep a PG-13 rating, the revised “comedy” still had to trim back a statutory rape and a scene of Will Smith drinking with a 12-year-old minor (flying while under the influence stayed).

Hancock, Mink, Hammer, CoreFire, Homelander. That’s a lot of asshole. But they’re just the most recent examples.

Look at Rick Veitch’s Brat Pack.

Look at Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come.

Look (inevitably) at Alan Moore’s Watchmen.

Superhero-as-asshole is the shared premise of some of the very best comic book writing of the last quarter century.

But you can go back further. The 1960’s Silver Age happened because Stan Lee was the first writer willing to make a hero ugly. In Fantastic Four #1, the Thing calls frightened onlookers “Lily-livered cowards!” and picks a fight with Mr. Fantastic: “I’m going to paste you right in that smug face of yours!”

Spider-Man started out worse. After letting a thief run past him, he tells a cop: “Sorry, pal! That’s your job! I just look out for number one—that means—ME!”

The Hulk, Doctor Strange, Iron Man, Thor, they were all jerks.

But it’s not just the Silver Age. Comic books began with the biggest asshole of all, Jerry Siegel’s Superman.

Look at Action Comics #12. The guy busts into a radio station and shoves an announcer in the face: “Beat it! And tell that control engineer that if he shuts me off the air, I’ll make a bee-line for his gizzard!” He then announces his “war on reckless drivers” and, while dodging police bullets, demolishes a car pound (the owners are traffic violators), a used car lot (the cars are old and unsafe), and a manufacturing plant (the owner uses cheap materials). He even kidnaps the mayor and frightens him into obeying his orders.

This isn’t Robin Hood do-goodery on behalf of the common man. The guy is a superpowered egomaniac. It’s the trait DC covered up, made Siegel turn his Asshole of Steel into a well-mannered law-abider. But the arrogance has always been there, just under the leotard.

Good for Grant Morrison for giving us a peek again.

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