Our superheroes, ourselves?

I started the week early and moved my way through the reading assignment, How Ancient Legends Gave Birth to Modern Superheroes . What captivated me most about this interview was Nevin’s response to whether a proto-superhero could successfully be created in the modern superhero age. For the most part, Nevin believes it would be very difficult, if not impossible to create a modern day proto-superhero – however, I disagree. In fact, I think an argument can be made that proto-superheroes have been and will continue to be created and exist as along as underrepresented segments of the population exist.

Women, as well as POC, have been pushed aside and left in the fringe market of most of modern mainstream superhero stories for decades, and as a result female and POC proto-superheroes appear all the time – Noah Berlatsky does a fantastic job of breaking down the unspoken rule of proto vs modern superhero – BE MALE, or the related equivalent. He points out half a dozen examples of female proto-superheroes who were not only created in the modern day superhero age, but are thriving – Katniss Everdeen, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (although she does now have her own comic), and Xena to name a few.

And let’s not get into the Harry Potter superhero debate…….


Next I went to find a superhero origin story. I used a superhero database to search for a female superhero, of course. I settled on Starfire after watching this short YouTube introduction:

I was able to find photos of the original Tales of The New Teen Titans Vol 1 #4 but the images were too small to read; luckily, I also found the same comic as a slideshow on YouTube.

Reading Starfire’s story through the lens of Kurt Vonnegut’s Shape of Stories, really shows the commonality between the special story telling quality of superhero tales, which interestingly, are the same methods we see used in various types of soap-operas (wrestling, melodramas, sagas, etc). It’s a combination of methods, or more accurately, an inception of methods.

With Starfire, for example, we assume her story will ultimately have the “man in the hole” arc – she began as royalty on a peaceful planet. She begins spiraling downward as her sister attacks her, her planet is destroyed, she is forced into slavery, and ultimately almost loses her life while being tortured. We begin to see her climb upwards again when she does not die and is able to escape from her sister and slavery. We assume this means she is on the upward slope. We assume this because we have the desire for a happy ending, we like stories with happy endings. All of Vonnegut’s story shapes end happily.

But we don’t know. We don’t know how her story will ultimately end, and the way the creator keeps us engaged is to feed the audience smaller story arcs within her larger plot line. We see this with almost all major superheroes. They perpetually live below Vonnegut’s average line in the upward swing towards happiness, but never quite achieving it. Whether it’s a sense of vengeance just out of the superhero’s grasp or the desire to return to a home or family they once knew, very rarely do we see the ending.

Instead, smaller story shapes are created that fit nicely within a single comic book, a single episode, or a single movie. Then, medium sized story shapes are built that fit within a single volume, or a single season, or a trilogy. Yet, we are still engaged in the grander plot line of the superhero.

In a lot of aspects, I think this is why we love superheroes. No matter how strong or invincible or powerful they are, superheroes are forever the underdog. They may win the fight; they may win the battle; they may win the girl (or guy) – but in the end they are still sitting in the curve of the story shape arc. And this is why we connect with them.

There is nothing about a flying woman who gets her energy from the sun and was born a princess on another planet that I should identify with, and yet I do. I do because I don’t have to be tortured or enslaved by my sister to know what it feels like to sit in the curve. To be the man trying to dig out of the hole.

Nevin argues that a series of unique circumstances combined with selflessness are required to be a superhero, but I think it’s more than that – we have to WANT to root for you. Because when we root for the superhero – the underdog, what we are really rooting for is ourselves.


Source: Our superheroes, ourselves?