Where did I come from: Superhero edition

* This post is Very Different from my usual output. It’s based on a series of Tweets I made after a discussion with the author April Daniels about the morality of superheroes doing superheroic things. It is, consequently half-arsed, extremely geeky and concerned with the surprisingly deep philosophy of what’s commonly considered “low” sci-fi culture. Proceed at own risk*

Recently, I’ve been reading Octavia Butler‘s Patternist series. It is a sprawling, multi-epoch work exploring the idea of breeding a super-race with psychic powers. Along the way it takes some fascinating detours into race and oppression. One of the concepts is that there is nothing accidental about the composition of the super-race, which has been constructed over hundreds of generations by selective breeding, and in-breeding.

This has led me to consider the obviously related genre of comic book superheroes.

Superhero origins fall into 3 distinct camps.

1. “Born with it” (Superman, Mutants). These are people who have been essentially assigned their power at birth, whether or not it manifests itself (adolescence is often the preferred point of emergence).

2. “Accidental” (Green Lantern, Spiderman). These are people who were (up to one point) ordinary, then a single catalyst provides them with powers or abilities that they neither sought nor asked for.

3. “Self made” (Batman, Iron Man). These are individuals who have amassed the resources to give themselves the power to be more than an “ordinary” person.

Now these are broad categories, and there will obviously be some bleed in between them, but they’re useful units for analysis, as quite distinct moral considerations and sociological models come embedded into each category.

Type 1 Superheroes (Born with Its) have no choice in becoming “what” they are, and their differences from ordinary mortals are unavoidable. Their social interactions are circumscribed by their very bones, often along with how their group identities are constructed by the public.

Type 2 Superheroes (Accidentals) are aware of their changed status, but usually have a “secret identity” where they can operate normally and CHOOSE to engage as superheroes. They may hear the call, but it is their choice as to whether they respond to it.

Type 3 Superheroes (Self Mades) usually have constructed their personas with the express purpose of exercising power in the world… compelled to act. In other words, heroism is a deliberate, conscious act.

If you stop thinking of superheroes and villains as individuals and start thinking of them as a stratified class, it starts becoming extremely interesting. Comic books themselves have done this a lot over the years. X-Men started as a civil rights analogy, and it’s fair to say that particular sub-franchise runs on this conceptualisation of hero identity. Similarly, Marvel’s Civil War storyline is based on constructing and legislating a singular identity of superheroes (essentially flattening out the schema I laid out above).

This isn’t to deny the individuality or subgroup identities of the superhero genre. You use intersectionality (as pretty much all comic book writers have since comics began) to analyse differences and to comment (both subtly and in a heavy-handed manner) on real world dynamics of race, class, gender and sexual identity.

Different dynamics to social interaction with the general public also apply, especially when you try to untangle “others” who have obvious markers of difference (either costume or physical appearance) vs those who are “just like us”. The social acceptability of this different status is contextual. As an example, the appearance of Superman is greeted extremely differently by members of the public than the appearance of the Hulk might.

This becomes especially fascinating when the existence of a secret identity gives a character the freedom to be heroic or villainous without it impacting their everyday life.

(As a possibly interesting side note, villains are generally still villains when they’re hiding in their volcano lair or warehouse hideout, wheras Spider Man is Peter Parker when he’s relaxing in his totally ordinary apartment).

Heroic and Villainous mantles can also be handed down, Dread Pirate Roberts style. The mantle is an identity – is a role – is a duty. This is generally a feature of type 2 and 3 in the schema I described earlier, especially when heroism is conferred by a costume or item tied to a particular moral code or role, such as Green Lantern’s Ring or Thor‘s Hammer.

Type 2 heroes often have powers and identities conferred by an authority figure (be they Gods, Wise Old Wizards or Alien Warriors) onto an otherwise unmotivated individual. In these case they’re less individuals with agency than unwilling servants to imposed ethics they wouldn’t otherwise follow. They “heard the call”, took the King’s Shilling (Wizard’s Staff, High-Tech Suit Of Otherworldly Technology, etc) and now have to use this to implement (and often internalise) someone else’s moral code. 

On the other hand, Type 1 individuals share with Type 3 individuals a sense of agency in following their own moral code, which they have developed over their lives, shaped by their OWN experiences and societal attitudes.

Where they differ is the Type 3s have agency in their identity as well, wheras Type 1s can’t cast their difference aside, only pretend to. This pretence is often thwarted in any case, by societal attitudes and prejudices. Their identity is at least partly ascribed rather than assumed.

Batman can always be just Bruce Wayne if the desire took him. Ororo Munroe doesn’t have that option, even if she chooses not to call herself Storm.

The identities of Type 1 heroes are generally organic, growing out of their positions in society and history. For want of a better term, they are presented as emerging from the tapestry of society rather than being apart from it. They are born from the existing world, and bear all of its markings and striations.

In contrast, Freudian explanations are used extensively for the actions superheroes of Type 3 (and Type 2). It provides a personal narrative which obscures wider perspectives. The Phantom swore on the skull of his father to fight evil, the death of Uncle Ben pushed Spiderman to understand that “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”. On the villainous side Doctor Doom’s minor, but psychologically immense scarring provides a symbolically clean division between the villainous and the merely arrogant.

This is categorically not to say that catalystic events like this don’t happen in the real world, just that they were a common trope that was employed to drive characters to step outside the bonds of socially normative behaviour.

I am very much aware I’m just covering ground already covered by decades of scholarly research, but superheroes remain a fascinating intellectual rabbit hole to explore if you can ignore the narrowly literary sneers of its critics.

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