A handsome intelligence officer of the United States Army, Colonel Steve Trevor, crashes his plane on “Paradise Island” (an island full of Amazon women, what else would it be called, right?). Trevor is found by a beautiful Amazon Princess named Diana, who nurses him and subsequently falls in Love with him. When she learns about the war against the Nazis, she dons a costume of America’s red, white, and blue, and departs for the “Man’s World.” She is Wonder Woman — “beautiful as Aphrodite, wise as Athena, stronger than Hercules, and swifter than Mercury”. She can fly like Superman, she can hurl heavy objects like the Hulk, and if you really make her mad, she’ll crack out her golden lasso and tie you up (especially if you’re male).
At first glance, she may look like an empowered, kick-butt, feminist super-heroine amidst a realm dominated by male super-heros. But is Wonder Woman really empowered? Is she really the icon of feminism in graphic novels? Is her message really all about defending sisterhood, freedom, and democracy?
1. The Damsel in Distress
Originally, women played a very small role in comic books. In the late 1930’s, super powered heroes like Superman and Captain Marvel dominated the stage while women scarcely made any presence. Specifically, they were depicted as dependent and “damsels in distress” — victims that needed to be rescued by the male protagonist; a prize that needed to be won by either the male villain or hero. For example, in the first issue of Superman, news reporter and future love interest, Lois Lane, is kidnapped by criminals and eventually rescued by Superman. No relationship gets developed and nothing else is learned about who Lois is — Superman simply saves her, flies her to safety, and then flies away. Women were also portrayed as the “girl-Friday…seductive vamp, or perhaps, the long-suffering girlfriend” (Lavin, 1998). The stereotypical gender roles were quite obvious: men alone are capable of succeeding independently and being courageous, while women are subordinate figures in the background. These early attitudes towards women in comic books are implicative of common gender role stereotypes where women are thought to be less intelligent than men and only have a place in the house as a caretaker and/or source of emotional support. As New York cartoonist Jules Feiffer states, “the ideal of masculine strength, whether Gary Cooper’s, Lil Abner’s, or Superman’s, was for one to be so virile and handsome, to be in such a position of strength, that he need never go near girls. Except to help them.”
2. Women as Sex Objects
The role of women changed dramatically during World War II when patriotic characters emerged and surprisingly attracted the interest of new readers, who were both males and females. Arguably, the most noteworthy character was Wonder Woman. As mentioned above, she possesses enormous super-human strength, has the ability to fly, and can overcome any obstacle that comes in her way. . Even more interesting is how her love interest, Colonel Trevor, is constantly being rescued by her, as if he is the male version of the aforementioned Lois Lane. Rather than the male rescuing the female all the time, it is reversed in the Wonder Woman comics. In the following years, other strong and super heroine characters surfaced like Miss America — the female version of Captain America — Mary Marvel, Super Girl, She-Hulk, and many others. They carried the symbolic message that “girls could do anything boys could do, and often better, especially if they stuck together” (Robbins, 2002).
However, despite these new portrayals of strong and powerful female characters like Wonder Woman, something else was occurring: they were being depicted as sex objects. As stated by Michael Lavin, “powerful super-heroines like DC’s Wonder Woman or Marvel’s She-Hulk may easily overcome the most overwhelming threats and obstacles, but they are invariably depicted as alluring objects of desire, wearing the scantiest of costumes.” The images of women with large bust sizes, slim figure, bare legs, and half-naked appearance became enormously popular after the success of Wonder Woman. Believe it or not, comic books were filled with so many sexual images of women that they were known as “headlight comic books” — a crude and stereotypical reference to the female anatomy. Comic book historian Ron Goulart writes: “In the days before the advent of Playboy and Penthouse, comic books offered one way to girl watch” (1986). A prime example of “headlight comics” was in Bill Ward’s “Torchy,” a series that ran from 1946 to 1950. The comic books contained dull and uninteresting storylines where the scriptwriters were merely making an excuse to draw Torchy as a tall, bare legged blond, who walked around in her underwear.
The escalating amount of sex and violence in comic books eventually led to complaints, particularly by psychologist Fredric Wertham who held a symposium in 1948 on the “Psychopathology of Comic Books.” He also wrote a book, Seduction of the Innocent, which correlated a connection between “juvenile delinquency and comic book reading” (Lavin, 1998). As a result, the Comics Code Authority established a written code which set the guidelines for comic book publishing. During this time, the comic book industry took a remarkable new turn where the constant objectification of women was seized. But this period where comic books were geared more towards girls and teenagers wouldn’t last long. Superheroes reemerged in the late 1960’s, along with their scantily-clad super-heroines and damsels in distress. Women were drawn in the same stereotypical fashion, but this time, the artists took it one step further on the skimpy scale. Consider the White Queen, a female villain that appeared in the X-Men comics during the 1980’s. She was “the stuff of male sexual fantasy: a push-up bustier, panties, and high-heel boots, all in white” (Lavin, 1998). Observe the image below and judge for yourself:
Today, women are becoming more and more sexualized. As described by Jones and Jacobs (2005): “Females, perpetually bending over, arching their backs, and heaving their anti-gravity breasts into readers’ faces, defied all laws of physics… the Victoria’s Secret catalogue became the Bible of every super-hero artist, an endless source of stilted poses ripe for swiping by boys who wanted their fantasies of women far removed from any human reality.”
One study conducted by Jessica H. Zellers shows an examination of how women are depicted in eighteen graphic novels. She finds that “of the suggestively clad, partially clad, or naked individuals, about three times as many were women (296) than men (107).” From the graphic novel sample where there were 1,768 male characters and 786 female characters, only 6% of all males were suggestively clad, partially clad, or naked; while of all the females, 38% were suggestively clad, partially clad, or naked. Additionally, of all males, 2% were naked, while of all females, 24% were naked. Zellers writes: “It is incredible that almost one out of every four females was, at some point, depicted in the nude” (2005).
3. Exploitation and Sexism
While some comic book artists argue that drawing women voluptuously and provocatively is a symbol of their strength and power, there are other points that can be emphasized upon to argue that women are being exploited. Consider the creator of Wonder Woman: a psychologist named William Moulton Marston (pen name: “Charles Moulton”) who also invented the lie detector. Revealing Marston’s intentions and goals on the character of Wonder Woman sheds light upon new attitudes towards women in the world of graphic novels. The fact that Wonder Woman comes from a matriarchal “Paradise Island” is enough to indicate male fantasy, but Marston also states, “give [men] an alluring woman stronger than themselves to submit to, and they’ll be proud to become her willing slaves.” Though Wonder Woman is not subordinate or weaker than her surrounding male characters in terms of strength and powers, she is being exoticized and idolized by her male creator. Her weapon is a golden lasso, which critics have called an erotic symbol of sexual control since she uses it to make her adversaries obey her commands. Marston has been criticized for his bonding fixations — a recurring theme of Wonder Women tying up both men and women. It was so prevalent that the editor of DC comics, Sheldon Mayer, was so uncomfortable with it and tried to tone it down (but was unsuccessful). In one 1948 story of Wonder Woman, there are no fewer than 75 panels of Wonder Woman tying up men or women in ropes.
One may also find sexist undertones in how many other female characters have abilities and superpowers ranging from being skilled in mundane arts like gymnastics and mind control (Maher, 2005). Female characters like Madame Mirage, White Queen, and Malice have the ability to use mind control to manipulate their opponents, mostly men! White Queen specifically uses her powers of mind control to manipulate and deceive men in order to gain wealth and power (Lavin, 1998). Yes, typical woman! The voluptuous Catwoman uses her beauty to manipulate Batman, Poison Ivy uses her seductive and deadly love potions to gain what she wants, and Malice is able to control the emotional centers of the brain. Hmm, what’s next? A female character that marries a rich old man only to have him killed off just to inherit the wealth and property? Wait, they already have a character like that: White Rabbit from the Spider-man comics!
What significance does Elektra’s “Electra Complex” serve?
Ah, Frank Miller. The comic book writer/artist who is notoriously known for his racist (see “300″) and sexist undertones. The hatred for women in his comic books are too obvious to be missed. Elektra (pictured above), for example, is a troubled female Assassin and anti-heroine. Miller named her after the Greek mythological character of the same name. Like the myth, Elektra’s character develops a sexual attraction to her father (which is the symptom of the “Electra Complex” in psychology). Early in her life, her Elektra complex is strengthened when her father rapes her, but then she is told that it never really happened. “It was only a fantasy… and she wanted it to happen. Her belief in her desire for the father grows, but her father dies before she can resolve the Electra complex” (Baughman, 1990). Frank Miller has also subjected other female characters to subordinate positions, such as Ava Lord in his series “Sin City.” Ava Lord says to a male character: “You’re right about me! I’m nothing but a selfish slut who threw away the only man she ever loved . . . I’m such a fool. Such a selfish stupid slut” (Maher, 2005). Another character he sexualizes incredibly is Vicki Vale in his new Batman All-Stars graphic novels. She is drawn in her pink bras and panties while thinking about her upcoming date with Bruce Wayne (aka Batman). On one panel, she is sucking her finger while showing her entire figure, and on the bottom panel, there is a shameless close-up of her buttocks. Below is an image from the comic book; the caption is from Frank Miller’s script for artist Jim Lee. It speaks for itself:
As analyzed by a feminist comic book reader, Vicki Vale’s character is there to “reassure the readership of their hetereo-masculinity.” She is quintessentially “watched by male watchers: the writer/director (Frank), his artist, and the presumed male audience that buys the book” (Finally, A Feminism Blog, 2006, para 7).
4. The Male Gaze
One could argue that what is in work here is the concept of the “male gaze”. This feminist theory was first introduced in the essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” by film theorist Laura Mulvey in 1975. Male gaze is described as “the concept of the gaze as a symptom of power asymmetry”. A defining characteristic of male gaze was how the heterosexual male lets the camera “linger on the curves of the female body”. The male gaze “denies women agency, relegating them to the status of objects.” When applied to comic books, what we see presented is through the gaze of the male. The women are presented as men would want to see them. These same images are presented to women as something they should aspire to be if they want to be with a man. In other words, the power and control that characters like Wonder Woman have may be perceived as a woman’s control or power over a man, but it is in fact fake control. The male writers can take it away at will. Consider the following “adjustments” made by male writers on the storylines of female characters: “Batwoman is killed, Batgirl is paralysed, Mirage is raped, while Black Canary is tortured, made infertile, and de-powered!” (Maher, 2005). In other words, femininity has no control at all, as long as male writers and artists persist with these depictions and attitudes.
I found countless images of female characters in extremely provocative poses; bending over, arching their heads back, tossing their hair, fighting in the rain, etc. Even the popular characters like Wonder Woman, Storm, Super-Girl, and Jean Grey were not spared. This image of Wonder Woman in her traditional Amazon attire, for example, is especially crude and repulsive:
Example of the “Male Gaze”
What is the Future for Women in Comic Books?
The comic book industry is by far a male dominated industry. Just go to a comic book convention where fans are “treated to the sight of several scantily clad professional models dressed in the costumes of popular comic book babes. These models are hired by the comics companies to promote the publisher’s wares. For a small fee, any fan can immortalize the fantasy by having his picture taken with one of the role-playing women” (Lavin, 1998).
This is not to say that there are no female comic book readers — there certainly are — but one may argue that as sexualization of women continues, the rate of female readers will decrease significantly. According to Trina Robbins, a female comic book artist, “Women just don’t go into comic-book stores… A woman gets as far as the door, and after the cardboard life-size cut-out of a babe with giant breasts in a little thong bikini and spike-heel boots, the next thing that hits her is the smell. It smells like unwashed teenage boys, and it has this real porn-store atmosphere.” Just by looking at the covers of comic books like Wonder Woman or Catwoman today, it seems like the artists and writers are more concerned with how the characters are depicted than with storyline.
Look at films like “Batman Begins,” “X-Men,” “Superman Returns,” and the “Spider-man” films. They are all not only successful, but critically acclaimed as well. Is there a Wonder Woman film? There have been two films in the past five years with a female protagonist: “Catwoman” and “Elektra”. But these films bombed in the box-office. They’re so bad that they’re laughable. They’re not taken seriously like the aforementioned comic book movies. They were just poor excuses to get Halle Berry and Jennifer Garner to dress in tight and skimpy costumes.
And even if there was a Wonder Woman movie, is she really a complex and three-dimensional character like Batman or Spider-Man? Spider-Man, for example, is filled with so much depth — in the first film, we see him as a nerdy high school student who gets picked on by bullies, in the second film, we see him conflicted with keeping a job, paying his rent on time, and most importantly: he is torn between his obligation of being Spider-Man and his love for Mary Jane Watson. Should he give up being a super-hero and live a normal life where he can be with Mary Jane? These kind of challenges, dilemmas, and choices are what make characters like Spider-Man so interesting and three-dimensional. How can young girls relate to Wonder Woman? She is an exotic beauty from the land of the Amazons. She is more of a mythological Greek goddess than a human being. Where are her character flaws? What are her dilemmas and inner struggles? Besides, do we really want young girls to have Wonder Woman shirts or backpacks after we’ve learned that she is a product of a male fantasy?
The X-Men include powerful female characters who can move things with their minds, control the weather, and run through walls, among other things, but the male characters are at the center of the stage. Also, let’s look at characters like Super Girl, Bat Girl, and Spider Girl. What do they all have in common? They would not have existed if it were not for the original male characters. Superman tells Super Girl that he will take care over her like a “big brother,” but if Super Girl is the cousin of Superman, then why in the world would she need to be looked after? This is an example of how male dependency is prevalent in comic books, both implicitly and explicitly.
As I said earlier, the sexist undertones and stereotypical images are getting worse and increasingly sleazier. Graphic novels have a unique blend of complex narratives and visual art which is what makes it a very popular and appealing form of art, but stereotypes about women are being reinforced — stereotypes about the “ideal” feminine body image: large breasts, thin waists, toned buttocks, long legs. These stereotypes are misleading because they are setting a standard for beauty in women, and now that superhero characters are being portrayed in Hollywood films, more readers are being attracted to graphic novels.
We need new interpretations of female comic book characters; just like how their wardrobes have been reinterpreted in the X-Men films directed by Bryan Singer. Instead of wearing tight leather or spandex, the characters are wearing less provocative clothing (see Anna Paquin’s Rogue). Elektra’s character and her Elektra complex was removed; Catwoman was once a prostitute, but that was changed — and for the better. More realistic, three dimensional, and complex female characters are desperately needed; characters that can we can relate to and we can learn from.
Some admirable efforts include comic book writer Chris Claremont, who introduced “a string of independent, strong-willed, and generally admirable heroines” in the mid 70’s (Lavin, 1998). 14-year old Kitty Pryde (or “Shadowcat”) of the X-Men was an excellent example of a realistic, complex, and 3-dimensional female character. She is a teenager who suffers from anxiety, peer pressure, loneliness, and she has a longing to be treated as an adult. Instead of being drawn as an exotic, large breasted, and bare legged Amazon like Wonder Woman, she is drawn “slim, coltish, and flat-chested.” Another positive female character is also from the X-Men: Jubilee.
More female writers and artists are needed to help make this medium a stronger and meaningful form of storytelling. At the same time, the male writers and artists need to stop objectifying women! Otherwise, if images of women in comic books persist in sexualization, then the great storylines will fade away, just like it did in the late 1940’s during the “headlight comic books.”
Jehanzeb is a film student who writes about Islam, Feminism, Politics, and Media. This piece was originally published on his blog.
IT PAINS ME to say this: I’m increasingly ashamed identifying as a comic book nerd. It isn’t for the usual reasons. I don’t feel the shame of having to hide underneath my covers to read comics by flashlight. I don’t feel shame over the posters in my office or the references I make. I’m not ashamed because I can argue the superiority of Wally West and Kyle Rayner over Barry Allen and Hal Jordan. But I do feel shame, not because of what I like and how I like it, but because what I like expresses itself in an increasingly ugly way.
Growing up, I was incredibly obese. Although I had always been plump, this tendency accelerated after my parents’ divorce and my father’s subsequent death, when I was nine, from liver failure. By the standards of young boys, I was the outcast. I couldn’t play sports so I never joined a junior team. My body held me back throughout elementary and middle school so I grew accustomed to making excuses for my weight.
I joked about it, hid it, wore a shirt in the pool. Gym class, compulsory in Illinois, was a nightmare. I had my nose rubbed in proverbial shit by gym teachers because I couldn’t perform a layup when it was time to “learn” about basketball. In seventh grade, I missed enough school to almost get my mom in trouble with the authorities because I was so cowed by a table of older bullies, positioned right at the end of the lunch line, which routinely pulled me over and mocked me from round head to sausage toes.
This is where a lot of antisocial behavior can come from. However, my interests sustained me and got me through this time. I had my TV shows and my video games but, above all, I had my comic books. While I’ve always been, and am still, a fan, comics never made a bigger impression on me than they did then.
Iron Man and Batman were my wish fulfillments. Maybe it was the former’s mustache and drinking problem that reminded me of my father, triggering some instinctive paternal devotion, but both characters seemed to have a handle on things in a way I didn’t. They were in shape, had it all, and, of course, could get any girl they wanted. This was all wish fulfillment, as many comics are. They can be power fantasies, or moral instructions, or parables soaked in derring-do and adventure, but as I grew older and more sophisticated in my understanding of the medium, I learned that, at their core, many comics were about embracing, even celebrating, the outsider and working towards a better world.
Consider the X-Men: a group of outcast teenagers rejected by society due to their identities, abilities, and proclivities. While the earliest X-Men stories featured a cast entirely comprised of WASPs, later stories, starting in the mid-70s with Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, and John Byrne, featured an international cast that has spawned a media empire. How about Spider-Man? Geeky and bullied teenager Peter Parker becomes a superhero, something that seems more of a curse than a blessing as he juggles failures both personal and professional. And there’s Daredevil, the blind Matt Murdock who overcomes his disability and defends the accused as a lawyer by day and punishes criminals by night.
All of these characters were outsiders, appealed to outsiders. Sure, they may have been drawn to physical perfection, but, at their core, they were alone, set apart, and either were mocked about or kept secret their true identities and abilities.
The be-all-end-all of outsider superheroes is, of course, Superman. Born with powers far beyond those of mortal men, the ultimate outsider, Superman, in the Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster originals, was a social crusader. He fought wife beaters, corrupt landlords, exploitative industrialists and capitalists. Superman deposed Hitler and Stalin, dropping them off at the League of Nation’s headquarters to stand trial for war crimes. The guy even fought the Ku Klux Klan on the Superman radio show. And, with his square jaw, broad shoulders, and spit curl, he looked good doing it all.
This spirit of progress is rich within comics. Wonder Woman is a powerful, liberated female, sent as an emissary to “Man’s World,” to promote harmony, dialogue, and understanding between the sexes. Batwoman is a proud ex-solider, ostracized from the military due to her homosexuality, that has turned to crime fighting to make the difference denied to her. Professor Charles Xavier is confined to a wheelchair but is seen as one of the foremost enlightened minds of our time. Luke Cage, a wrongly convicted criminal, defends his native Harlem against criminals and oppressors, from outside or from within. Green Arrow is a selfish playboy turned outspoken liberal who is less concerned with petty crime than social justice. Apollo and Midnighter are the physical epitomes of masculinity and a committed homosexual couple. The Black Panther is T’Challa, king of Wakanda, an African nation resolutely, and successfully, opposed to Western imperialism. Lois Lane is the career woman who can, and does, have it all. The Legion of Superheroes is a group of teenagers and aliens from the future, brought together from different worlds across the galaxy to keep the peace and foster interstellar harmony.
These are all characters with a certain degree of difference. They are all marked by what they stand for or who they are that differentiates them from the accepted mainstream. In essence, they are, as good superheroes should be, unconventional. They are beyond the pale and always figure out new ways to solve problems. Whether its overcoming the law of physics or overcoming no win solutions with viable third ways, they were outside the box. And I love them all. I had, and still have, room in my heart for everyone one of them, even beyond those listed here.
Nevertheless, my love of comics and the characters populating them seems to be fading. Maybe the love is morphing into a different kind of affection, where the warts really start to show, but I’m starting to feel, frankly, embarrassed. Superheroes were, for me, outsiders. My bond with them hardened when I felt to be an outsider. For starters, they went outside the law. Factor in their amazing abilities, unconventional identities, and you have an instant attraction for someone, like I was, who grew up an outsider.
But superheroes, perhaps comics as well, are no longer about outsiders, for outsiders. They’ve been mainstreamed, gobbled up by the public, and rake billions in profits from movies, TV shows, and video games for their corporate masters. For many people, superheroes are creations leaping off the silver screen, not the printed page. Indeed, I’ve had people look at me quizzically, baffled when I say that superhero comic books exist. With superheroes gaining a wider audience, their contours have altered.
Have you ever been to a comic book convention, hosted in seemingly progressive places such as San Diego, New York, Seattle, or Chicago? It’s mostly a display of the same exploitative, cheesecake art and background misogyny that increasingly define the appearance of women in superhero comics. Yes, there’s an element of costume, fantasy, and dress-up, but it often leaves me with the distinctly unclean feeling that I’ve stepped off the convention floor and stumbled into a meat market where exposed flesh is the medium of exchange.
None of this used to bother me. As a large kid, mocked by other kids with more traditional bodies, I latched on to superheroes. I developed a kinship with these characters because of their physical perfection. Being someone scorned because his body was far from the heights of perfection, how could I not gravitate towards those who possessed physical perfection in spades? Essentially, I wanted to be the stereotype, progressive inclusiveness be damned.
From comic artist/writer and uber-bro Todd McFarlane: “As much as we stereotype the women, we do it with the guys. The guys are all good looking, not too many ugly superheroes. They’ve all got their hair gelled back. They have got perfect pecs on them. They have no hair on their chest. I mean, they are Ryan Gosling on steroids. Right? They are all beautiful. So we actually stereotype and do it to both sexes. We just happen to show a little more skin when we get to the ladies.”
Men are stereotyped to the preferences of males. Women, in superhero comics, are shackled to the sexual proclivities of heterosexual men. The only equivalency here is that both representations are geared towards people with penises. And as someone with a penis, I was once dazzled by these representations. It likely wasn’t something I was conscious of. For the most part, the attraction dwelt in the vestigial reptile brain we all possess.
That’s what’s insidious. I was hooked by comics because they portrayed the outsider. Little did I know that other forces, unthinking forces, might be at play. Growing aware enough, it’s not unlike Roddy Piper in They Live: once you put on the special sunglasses and see what’s around, you can’t go back to the way things were.
Such unthinkingness is widespread in superhero comics. For example, take Mark Millar, widely known for the limited series Kick-Ass and the recently adapted Kick-Ass 2. In the story, the titular hero’s love interest is beaten and gang-raped. This is all rendered in the exactness and bodily precision that’s a hallmark of superhero artists. Thankfully, this scene was omitted from the feature film. Nevertheless, it is Millar’s cluelessness of his critics’ charges that infuriates me. In an interview with The New Republic’s Abraham Riesman, Millar says: “The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know? I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.”
Let Laura Hudson, former editor of ComicsAlliance, a popular comics blog, respond: “There’s one and only one reason that [rape in comics] happens, and it’s to piss off the male character. It’s using a trauma you don’t understand in a way whose implications you can’t understand, and then talking about it as though you’re doing the same thing as having someone’s head explode. You’re not. Those two things are not equivalent, and if you don’t understand, you shouldn’t be writing rape scenes.”.
Comic books aren’t the best way to bring home the bacon. Superheroes, although the most popular and profitable genre, still have a pitifully small readership. It’s a tangential, niche, outsider medium. Superhero comic readership, those that go every Wednesday to buy comics, has been estimated to be no more than 200,000 in the United States. Add a hundred thousand or so from friends or family member that share these comics, and you still have a miniscule base to work from.
Here is Todd McFarlane again, when asked at a panel what he would do to draw in more women superhero comic readers: “It might not be the right platform. I’ve got two daughters, and if I wanted to do something that I thought was emboldened to a female, I probably wouldn’t choose superhero comic books to get that message across. I would do it in either a TV show, a movie, a novel, or a book. It wouldn’t be superheroes because I know that’s heavily testosterone-driven, and it’s a certain kind of group of people. That’s not where I would go get this kind of message, so it might not be the right platform for some of this.”
This is the exact mentality that I’ve grown ashamed of. It’s the mentality that nothing can be changed. Things, as they are, are how they will always be. This is the mentality of those bullies that harassed me because, back then, they were, naturally, the ones in power over me. How could it be any other way? I had the wrong body. They had the right ones. This is the natural, normal, unthinking course of events. The fat outsider gets his food tray smacked to the ground, finds himself pushed into lockers, gets cornered in the bathroom.
So I retreated. Superhero comics got me through that period. They made me work to lose weight, to go from 250 pounds in eighth grade to 170 pounds my freshmen year, a task so impossible I hardly believe it sometimes. Superheroes gave me the power to envision something better, an alternative, an outside option.
But I conformed my body to become what’s called normal or ideal. I worked hard, lifted weights, ran, exercised, all done to bring my figure closer to those I idolized. I healed myself not by fighting for acceptance because I looked different but by discarding those differences. Instead of standing up for who I was, with all my strange and unusual properties, I turned tail and decided that I should look like those who bullied me.
It might be said that I should move on from superheroes, that I should realize that they have always been simplistic and juvenile. Some might say that, in doing so, those last bits held over from the heavy, isolated kid inside of me might die. So much of who I was then has already gone that way. I can, finally, progress, move on with my life. Become an ‘adult.’ Embrace the fact that my appearance is finally accepted because I’ve changed.
I reject that. While not a superhero in the conventional sense, another hero of mine, Mr. Rogers, always said that he loved me just the way I was. It was a message for a child, spoken from someone who remained a child at heart.
Superheroes are for children but only in the most wondrous ways. They’re for children and the child at heart because they present a world that doesn’t just operate on the ‘because’ or the tried and tested. They operate by finding another way, a better way. Don’t believe what you see in marketing. Superheroes are not about being sleek and sexy. They are not just about the violence, the spectacle, the special effect, the body. Superheroes are about taking that most innocent, childish of questions—Why?—and adding a coda: Why not?
A pensive, aging superhero. Illustration by Alex Ross.
About James OrbesenJames Orbesen is a writer and adjunct living in Chicago. His work has appeared in Salon, The New Humanism, Midwestern Gothic, Jacobin, Bookslut, The Collagist, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere.
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