I am willing to put myself out there, to commit social suicide, to defend the indefensible position: comic books are cool. They are, really. They are cool. They are relevant. They are not just fantasy. They are the American mythology.
The popularity of “Spider-Man,” “Spider-Man 2,” “X-Men,” “Sin City” and the upcoming release of “Batman Begins” proves that while there is still a stigma surrounding the books, the stories are in fact entertaining. But why? Because comic books, as outlandish as it sounds, are in the same tradition as the myths of ancient Greece.
Comic books are merely fantastic stories about the American experience. Superman is the immigrant story. Spider-Man and Batman encapsulate the ideas that, in America, anyone can do great things. These stories espouse the collective values on which America was founded.
Superman, for example, is just a fictionalized version of the immigrant experience. Superman, born “Kal-El” on the planet Krypton, was sent to Earth as a baby when Krypton exploded. When he landed on Earth his adopted parents changed his named to the particularly waspy Clark Kent.
Countless immigrants who passed through the gates at Ellis Island shared this experience. While most were not escaping an exploding planet, these young immigrants were escaping a harsher life. Loving parents put their children on a crowded boat and sent them to a better place. When they landed on the doorsteps of America, their adopted parents gave them new names, American names (Dubinsky to Dubin for example). These children grew up, just as Superman, to espouse “American values.” They grew up believing wholeheartedly in things like truth, justice and the American way.
Not only that, but for better or worse, each immigrant had two faces, his or her American face, the face of Clark Kent, and his or her Old World face, the face of Superman. In essence, Clark Kent represents their assimilation, the way in which their new home tried (albeit not very hard in some cases) to embrace them.
The Superman face is much different. It only presents itself in certain situations, but Superman shows the variety of cultures in America. We are all different. We are from different places and we have different abilities. However, once we realize this, we see that in our differences we are all similar. We are all different from one another and that makes us the same; Superman makes Clark Kent.
Superman isn’t the only character whose story is merely a fictionalized version of an American experience or idea. Two other characters are based on a truly American and mythical idea: that ordinary people in extraordinary situations are capable of amazing things. Take Spider-Man and Batman, for instance. These two stories exemplify that idea. Remember, Batman does not have any superpowers; he is merely a man who is put in extraordinary circumstances. Spider-Man does have superpowers, but the means by which he got them was completely random.
A radioactive spider bit Peter Parker (Spider-Man’s real name), giving him the source of his power. Yes, I know, this would be the end of Peter Parker as an ordinary man, but that isn’t the point. The point is that it could happen to anybody.
Comic book characters, especially the originals – Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, the X-Men, the Spirit and many others – all had one thing (if not many more) in common: all tried to keep their powers a secret. In some cases, the obvious reason was to keep the bad guys from attacking a superhero’s family or even the superhero themselves. But that is a weak excuse. These are superheroes – whether people know who they are or not -and they can still kick butt and protect their family. The real reason is much less obvious, but much more virtuous and in the mythical tradition.
Like the myths of ancient Greece, superheroes live in a very black and white world. Not because their creators were oblivious to complicated and nuanced moral situations, but because comics are not stories unto themselves. Comics are means to an end. They convey a larger message of good and evil. And good does not need fame or fortune, just the knowledge that today a life was saved and the world was spared one more heartbreak.
So next time you see a comic, don’t roll your eyes or immediately dismiss them as childish. Remember that in 2,000 years, when students are studying the ancient civilization of America, it is quite possible that they will be studying the myth of Superman, the legend of Batman and the tale of the amazing Spider-Man.