Thursday, March 10, 2011

The superhero attraction

Why do characters endure?  It's something I've thought about.  Can anyone really explain it?  (I bet Joseph Campbell could.)

Sometimes it's hard to believe that Superman is over 70 years old, and yet he's become a part of American pop culture.  Then again, Romeo and Juliet are hundreds of years older, and the heroes of mythology are thousands of years older, and they're still going strong.

I wonder if somewhere deep in our brains there's a little cell that lights up when we hear stories about beings more powerful than us.  Or smarter than us.  Or braver, or stronger.  Why is that?  Do we want to know that it's possible to be better than we currently are?  Or do we want to know that there are other people out there who are grander than us and can take care of our problems for us?  Are heroes reflections of who we are or visions or who we want to become?  Are they idols to worship, or saviors to deliver us?

Some have considered superheroes (or aliens, or supernatural events) a proxy for the human genetic need to believe in something greater than ourselves.  Dean Hamer called it the "god gene."  Except we don't need to believe that superheroes in order to be attracted to them.  I don't think a Kryptonian is going to fall down to Earth and save us anytime soon, and yet I respond to the idea of "Superman" on a very visceral level.  Maybe heroes tap into a genetic desire for self-preservation and safety.

Or maybe it's one level higher.  Maybe the superhero attraction taps into our hard-wired moral predilictions.  Maybe we don't think there's enough justice in the world, so we like reading stories about justice-seekers who right the wrongs of their fictional universe.  Maybe if these fictional heroes can do good in their world, we can apply the same methods to bring justice to ours.

Maybe it's more vague, more "human."  Maybe we just need to look in a mirror from time to time.  Maybe the attraction just comes from seeing a character who reminds us of ourselves, whose heart is in the right place, whose suffered a few losses, who tries and fails and decides to try again, or who's lost something and moves beyond it, and maybe we need someone like that to look up to as a template of human behavior.

All these thoughts are swirling around in my head.  I see comics as a very primal force that meets some deep-seated needs in my brain.  I think that is why I like some books and not others: the books I don't like fail to meet some hard-wired need in my brain.  That little Greater Than Me cell isn't lighting up in my brain, and I'm not happy.  The story isn't connecting with me on an emotional level, or an idealogical one, or a moral one, or a human one.  When a character doesn't act better than I do, then it's not a story worthy of myth.  Then it's just real life.

And real life kinda sucks.

This post is really long and dreary, so I included a picture of two squirrels kissing to make you all happy again.


Diabolu Frank said...

I fell in love with super-heroes who represented concepts and ideals in a very literal and unique way. Captain America was everything I loved about my country as a child, and is still everything I wish the United States would be. Vanth Dreadstar was the charismatic rebel taking on the oppressive forces of conformity and dogma. Adam Warlock was the inherent flaw of manufactured perfection fractured into a megalomania that threatened to swallow the entire universe.

I'm not as concerned with heroism as you are, but I adore comic books as a dynamic and shamelessly entertaining means to address subjects otherwise considered too dry or "deep." It's so unintentionally subversive and beautiful in its stupid gutter mentality and simple answers applied to existential stargazing.

Eyz said...

Really thoughtful post!

For really long, I thought it was something specific to the US (note: I live in Europe!), but when I see characters like Spirou and Lucky Luke in Franco-belgium comics or Mazinger and Gatchaman in Japanese work, it's kinda an international feeling.
The same way movies like King Kong or Godzilla keep being remade/followed. We love these pup-culture icons and each new generation want to also experience the discovery of new tales with these characters.

Like greek or roman mythological figures of the past, they represent classic figures, inspiration and aspiration to the dreamers in all of us~

SallyP said...

The Iliad and the Odyssey are larger than life adventure stories with larger than life heroes and villains. Likewise for the King Arthur legends, and Shakespeare. James Fenimore Cooper made Natty Bumppo a superhero basically.

All I know is that a certain degree of epic-ness seems to appeal to an awful lot of people. It does divert us from our mundane every day lives, and there is the promise that out there somewhere, someone is fighting the good fight...and winning.