Sunday, May 30, 2010


I've been part of a small conversation on twitter about DC vs Marvel superheroes. I guess some folks can feel really impassioned and loyal to one group over the other. I've never seen it that way. I've enjoyed the stories of Superman, Batman, the Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man equally well. They all have something to say in their own particular ways and I think they're room in the universe for each one of them.

Another way to look at the superhero comic genre is as our modern mythic heroes. All you have to do is travel back in time a few decades to encounter another set of modern myths: The Lord of the Rings. Although based on much older mythic race types (elves, dwarves, dragons), JRR Tolkien tells a unique saga of heroism and the struggle against an ultimate evil, mirroring the post-World War II period in which he wrote his stories.

Go back much further, and you'll encounter heroes you truly recognize as classic myths, from the King Arthur legend all the way back to Greek and Roman heroes such as Heracles. Admittedly, I'm skipping over a large body of other, similar legendary characters, but this is a blog, not a dissertation.

Do Superman and the Hulk represent mythic heroes in the way Arthur and Heracles do? Probably only time will tell, since a legend or a classic is measured only by the test of time. True, Superman has been around since 1938 and Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the Hulk since the early 1960s (when Marvel shifted from producing horror and science fiction anthologies to serial superhero stories), but the legends I'm talking about have been around for hundreds or even thousands of years.

Is one pantheon of "gods" better than another? I suppose if you were a pagan worshiper of one sort or another, you would answer "yes", however we don't (I hope) actually worship comic book superheroes. With that in mind, is one comic book publisher's heroes better than another's? Do we favor DC over Marvel or Marvel over DC for any true qualitative reasons?

It seems to come down to a matter of opinion. There are people who dynamically support one over the other and will fight (argue) to the end their viewpoint or position. That makes me the odd man out (my usual role), since I've found enjoyment in many different characters created by different publishers. I even enjoy some that many DC and Marvel fans have never heard of and would probably consider irrelevant (and such heroes will probably never have movies made about them).

If we don't "worship" these heroes, what do they do for us? On the most obvious level, they entertain us. They take us into a world that can't possibly exist (you have to suspend certain facts about reality to believe a man can fly) so that, for awhile, we can forget about the world that does exist. That's what fantasy entertainment is all about.

Then too, there's the telling of a story that touches us in some sensitive part of our humanity. The Dark Knight (2008) tells a story that is tragic and heroic, of a man, driven to be a hero by night, longing for release from his self-imposed purgatory. A white knight enters the arena and we all put our hopes on him, especially Batman, who seeks to be released from the mantle of the bat. Alas, the white knight falls in battle, and to save his reputation and the people he serves, Batman not only must defeat the villain but do something harder...he must become the villain and shun the light and salvation.

Put in those terms, Batman transcends the level of the costumed comic book hero and becomes something much greater, on the level of our historic mythic epics. As I said, though...only time will tell whether Batman or any of his kind will truly enter history in that fashion.

Some of you reading this will probably think I'm overstating the case. Popular entertainment comes and popular entertainment goes. Does anyone ever think of the Lone Ranger anymore? Does anyone consider the Shadow? How many other fictional heroes, once loved by millions, now lie abandoned in the dust of the past? Will we one day too abandon Batman and Spider-Man for someone or something else that seems more timely?

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