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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

My colleague Ed Adams observes an improbable shift in Victorian literature in which “war epic becomes largely a province of childhood and a pleasure reserved for children—or for adults relaxing into a juvenile mood” (49). Superhero comics share the same audience—or they did for their first half-century. Sanitized violence dominated the genre from its inception in 1938 through the mid-80s when the Comics Code increasingly lost its control over the industry. Once Kent Williams painted Wolverine’s claws punching through the eyeballs of a random thug in the non-Code-approved Havok & Wolverine: Meltdown, the genre could no longer be defined entirely by its pubescent audience.

But superhero comics did achieve their defining success in the juvenile market, and the character type may be especially adapted to adolescent readers. Captain Marvel creators Bill Parker and C. C. Beck reflected their intended audience through their leading character’s alter ego, twelve-year-old Billy Batson in Whiz Comics #2.

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Since puberty typically occurs for girls between the ages of ten and fourteen, and for boys between twelve and sixteen, Parker selected an especially representative age. Every time Billy transforms into the hypermasculine superhero, he enacts a pre-pubescent wish-fulfilment. The puberty metaphor, never far below the surface text, extends across the genre’s decades of publications. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko developed it further in 1962 by featuring a teenaged superhero as a title character. After being bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter Parker declares: “What’s happening to me? I feel—different! As though my entire body is charged with some sort of fantastic energy!” Spider-Man’s readers may have experienced their bodies’ transformations too.

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Developmental psychology also provides additional parallels. David Elkind introduced the concept of adolescent egocentrism, a developmental stage that includes the “imaginary audience” and the “personal fable,” a belief in one’s invulnerability, omnipotence, and uniqueness—traits that describe most superheroes. One textbook makes the analogy explicit:

“Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, stand aside! Because of the personal fable, many adolescents become action heroes, at least in their own minds. If the imaginary audience puts adolescents on stage, the personal fable justifies being there. […] It also includes the common adolescent belief that one is all but invulnerable, like Superman or Wonder Woman.”

Fredric Wertham described a similar “Superman complex,” reporting to the 1954 Senate subcommittee juvenile delinquency that comics “arouse in children phantasies of sadistic joy in seeing other people punished over and over again while you yourself remain immune.” Wertham argued that the complex was harmful to children’s ethical development, but a 2006 study found that the fable’s omnipotence correlated with self-worth and effective coping; uniqueness with depression and suicide; and invulnerability with both negative and positive adaptational outcomes.

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Whatever its developmental effects, the personal fable could also increase reader identification with the superhero character type, providing a further explanation for the popularity of the genre with its original age group.

Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development provides another explanation. Kohlberg outlined six stages, placing twelve-year-olds at the intersection of three. Most children leave stage four by the age of twelve, expanding interpersonal relationships to the rigid upholding of social laws that characterizes stage four conventionality. Twelve is also the earliest age that stage five reasoning appears—though Kohlberg estimates that less than a quarter of adults achieve it or a stage six level of post-conventionality. Superheroes, however, do. As a character type, the superhero evaluates morality independently of governments and legal systems, relying instead on personal judgement based on universal principles. Superman, observes Reynolds, displays “moral loyalty to the state, though not necessarily the letter of its laws” and is willing “to act clandestinely and even illegally” to achieve it (15–16).

Superheroes are independent moral agents, devoted to a higher good which they alone can define. This is also the general definition of “hero” that coalesced in the first half of the nineteenth century. German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel praises “heroes” such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon as

“thinkers with insight into what is needed and timely. They see the very truth of their age and their world, the next genus, so to speak, which is already formed in the womb of time. It is theirs to know this new universal, the necessary next stage of their world, to make it their own aim and put all their energy into it. The world-historical persons, the heroes of their age, must therefore be recognized as its seers – their words and deeds are the best of the age.”

Hegel’s 1820s’ lectures on the philosophy of history were published in 1837, six years after his death, and four years before Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History, in which Carlyle proposed his “Great Men” theory:

“Find in any country the Ablest Man that exists there; raise him to the supreme place, and loyally reverence him: you have a perfect government for that country; no ballot-box, parliamentary eloquence, voting, constitution-building, or other machinery whatsoever can improve it a whit. It is in the perfect state; an ideal country.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson echoed it in his Representative Men:

“Mankind have in all ages attached themselves to a few persons who either by the quality of that idea they embodied or by the largeness of their reception were entitled to the position of leaders and law-givers. […] The great, or such as hold of nature and transcend fashions by their fidelity to universal ideas, are saviors from these federal errors, and defend us from our contemporaries.”

Hegel, Carlyle, and Emerson also share assumptions that Ed Adams links to the popularity of the epic: “that wars were the most important of historical events; and that individuals possessed the agency to determine their outcomes” (34). Beginning in the early nineteenth century, that tradition shifted to juvenile fiction, as authors such as Carlyle and Tennyson rescued “modern faith in heroes by self-consciously appealing to primitive, childish beliefs” (52). The great man of epic history began its transformation into children’s adventure hero in 1844, when French novelist Alexander Dumas described the titular hero of The Count of Monte Cristo as one of a new breed who “by the force of their adventurous genius” is “above the laws of society.” Siegel and Shuster drew on the same hero type a century later, transforming so-called great men into the comics genre of superheroes.

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