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What Makes Superheroes So Special?

You’ll believe a man can fly

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The question seems, at first sight, like an easy one to answer. The power of flight is clearly special. Enormous strength, claws coming out of your hands and the ability to control the weather are also pretty impressive. The Hulk is the Incredible Hulk, not the Ordinary Hulk. What makes superheroes special is fairly obvious.

However, unusual powers aren’t necessarily the most interesting qualities that these heroes possess. Their powers are after all only physical attributes, like being left-handed, or having green eyes. These attributes may be striking and may have an effect on personality, but they don’t define a character.

Imagine a headline tomorrow announcing that a young man had been bitten by a radioactive spider and now had the proportionate strength of a spider and could walk up walls. We’d all be fascinated, and of course we’d want to know the extent and nature of the powers involved. But after that, surely what would be most interesting would be the effect these powers had on that young man. Does he welcome the way this extraordinary event has barged into his life and changed it utterly? Or does he feel uneasy about the fact that he is effectively a mutant, the only one of his kind in the world? Does he still feel entirely human? Would he discard his new powers if he could? These are the questions about superheroes that intrigue me. They are the kind of questions that aim to get under their bulletproof skin, the kind of questions a novelist might use to develop and become familiar with a character.

The first time I saw this emphasis on character in a superhero story was when I was reading Chris Claremont’s X-men comics in the nineteen seventies and early eighties. These young heroes were outcasts from society, set apart by their powers, not always sure how to cope with them, not even sure that they wanted them. Claremont, along with artist John Byrne, created complex characters who got on each other’s nerves, made mistakes and displayed emotional nuance while wearing gaudy costumes in order to overcome Magneto, the master of magnetism. Nightcrawler, who is blue and has a tail, was self-conscious about his unique appearance; Colossus, who is Russian, was concerned that he was betraying his heritage; Jean Grey, before she became worried about the destruction of the universe, was surprised and unsettled by how much she enjoyed the surge of power she experienced after becoming Phoenix. The key thing about Claremont’s characters was not their strength, it was their fragility. Their powers were exciting and interesting, but it was their human qualities that allowed the reader to become emotionally involved.

I don’t want to over-state the case. An X-Men comic has never had the same approach to character as a serious novel. It’s more comparable to a soap opera. The comics offered the soap opera rewards of a strong narrative, combined with an emotional roller-coaster, interspersed with regular cliffhangers, and then they added super powers. For my teenage self, it was an irresistible combination.

There was something more making these comics attractive, however. I thought Wolverine was extremely cool, but he and his friends also interested me because they felt connected to my teenage life. In the late seventies and early eighties, while I was enjoying the X-Men, I was experiencing standard teenage angst, along with parental divorce, and then all of a sudden, out of the blue, life-threatening illness. The notion of unwelcome change barging into your life was familiar to me, and I was interested to see it treated with humour, empathy and action. I was feeling a bit different, a bit other, but Nightcrawler was coping pretty well with similar feelings, and he had blue skin.

In the early eighties I gave up reading comics. I felt I’d outgrown them and I assumed my relationship with superheroes was over. I was wrong. They returned, as they tend to, more powerful than ever.

In the second half of the nineteen eighties, I discovered comics that didn’t define themselves as comics. They had put on a different costume, in order to make their way into a different market, in the adult world. They were graphic novels. A graphic novel is usually simply a collected run of individual issues, but the issues tend to tell a discrete story over three or four hundred pages, they follow characters who are on emotional journeys and they often explore serious themes.

Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen portrayed older more mature superheroes dealing with corruption, the onset of old age and the question of what one person in a costume can do about a world that is spiralling into disaster. Superheroes were now troubled, morally compromised, inadequate, possibly mentally ill and occasionally criminal. Where Claremont’s X-Men comic was reminiscent of soap opera, the graphic novels of Miller and Moore aspired, as the name suggests, to the status of serious fiction. This was where superheroes seemed to grow up.

And then they moved off the page, and on to the screen. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was not originally a comic, and Buffy was never defined as a superhero, but that is effectively what she was. Her TV series, created by Joss Whedon, appeared in the later nineties and continued into the early twenty-first century. The show was about a high school girl who has special powers and responsibilities and needs to find a way to integrate them into her ordinary life, while fighting vampires. The conventional awkwardnesses, complications and embarrassments of adolescence are magnified and multiplied by her unique situation. Once again, the subtext concerns how a teenager copes with unexpected and unwelcome change. J. D. Salinger might have recognised some of these themes.

The superhero movies of today are a regression, simplifying the story again. Brave men (mostly men) in bright costumes defeat evil enemies. But superheroes are now part of the culture, and there’s room for all kinds of approaches to the subject. Comics, graphic novels, TV series, films and conventional novels all jostle for attention. Perhaps what really makes superheroes special now is their ubiquity.

Some writers are exploring intriguing new avenues on the fringes of the superhero genre. These writers are interested in using some of the tropes of the superhero world – mutation, difference, alienation – in work that has nothing to do with fighting crime, supervillains or demons. Black Hole by Charles Burns is a notable graphic novel that deals with teenagers who become strangely mutated by a disease spread through sexual contact. It’s a gloomy and disconcerting world where teenage angst seems to take on a physical shape. All My Friends are Superheroes, by Andrew Kaufman, is a literary novel, a clever and tender love story in which powers are obstacles to forming a relationship.

Over the decades, our culture has gradually become ever more preoccupied by superheroes. It is as if, like the Hulk, it has been hit by gamma radiation, like Captain America, it has had Super-Soldier serum injected into it, and like Batman its parents have been shot dead in front of it. My first Young Adult novel is influenced by this changing culture, by the fact that I’ve lived with superheroes for most of my life. The novel concerns teenagers who acquire strange mutations and in some cases powers. For the most part these changes are unwelcome, and for some they’re life-threatening. The teenagers wonder what they have become, they don’t feel entirely human any more, they feel human-ish. Fiction usually involves changes occurring within a character, but the world of superheroes has given writers license to expand and amplify the concept of change.

Mutations and powers don’t necessarily make people into superheroes. Instead they create unease and they lead to heightened forms of alienation and prejudice. Superheroes are special, but they may not want to be. They are most interesting when they are not comfortable in their skins, when they reflect but also distort our own lives. It’s not easy being a superhero. But sometimes it’s still very satisfying to forget about the drawbacks and the insecurities, and to watch them strip away their ordinary street clothes to reveal a costume, and then punch a bad guy really hard, before they fly away.

Mark Illis writes for TV and radio and has written a prize-winning screenplay. He has also written five novels for adults. His first Young Adult novel, The Impossible, is published in July 2017.

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