By Seth Stevenson
SAN DIEGO — I understand the allure of comic books. Stunning artwork. Twisting plots. Serial cliffhangery.
What I've never been clear on is why this visual and narrative approach is so pressed into the service of stories about people who wear capes and fly through the air. How did it come to be that comic books -- and comic-book-inspired movies, and the fans who adore those movies, and the culture at large -- are all deeply obsessed with the notion of the superhero?
Thursday afternoon at Comic-Con, I attended a panel that I hoped might shed some light on the matter. A group of academics had convened in a medium-size conference room to explore the past and the future of superhero studies. What flavor of seminar was this? Let us note that when the projector clicked on, the first slide was a photo of Carl Jung.
University of Oregon professor Ben Saunders ("I was hired to teach Shakespeare, but since I got tenure I've been teaching comic books") walked us through a few of the superhero discipline's major themes. First: The notion that superheroes are merely the latest iteration of an age-old concept. For it was Jung who posited that every culture, in every place and time, will compulsively rehash certain myths and symbols. Among these, and most relevant to our purposes, is the "hero's journey."
As described by the Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank, the hero's journey goes something like this: 1) The hero is a child of privilege, born to distinguished parents. 2) Those parents are somehow threatened. The child is abandoned. 3) The child is saved by a surrogate caregiver. 4) The hero, now grown, rediscovers his origins and finds his purpose.
You may recognize this hackneyed plot structure from high-concept, tent-pole properties such as Moses, Oedipus, Gilgamesh, and Hercules. More recently, it has bolstered the biographies of Tarzan and Luke Skywalker. And, yes, Superman and Batman.
Why does this specific story resonate through the millennia? For Rank, the heroic myth helps counter feelings of powerlessness within the family structure. Which is why little boys can't get enough of superheroes. It lets them imagine themselves as instruments of their own will -- instead of subjugated weaklings, in tiny bodies, who lack all agency. (I'll let you decide whether a similar emotional impulse drives scrawny 26-year-old nerds with no girlfriends to dress up as Thor on the sidewalk outside Comic-Con.)
According to Dr. Robin Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist and the author of the book "What's the Matter With Batman?", there's also some moral exploration going on. "Small children are really interested in figuring out what's right and what's wrong. But their brains aren't yet capable of understanding much in the way of gray areas. Superhero stories have a good guy and a bad guy. It's clear what the right thing to do is." Rosenberg notes that little girls' princess play serves a similar purpose: It's about seizing power and then observing how that power affects your subjects. Of course, it doesn't hurt that both princesses and superheroes get to wear really cool outfits.
For Saunders, author of "Do the Gods Wear Capes?", myth-oriented examinations of the superhero phenomenon can get a bit reductive. "So Superman is Moses," he stipulates. "Then what?" He is even less interested in studies of contemporary fan culture. "If you're asking what kind of person likes superheroes right now, the answer is everybody. Except maybe A.O. Scott and Anthony Lane." Saunders seemed to instead advocate rigorous, close reading of superhero texts -- something akin to the approach the New Critics once brought to literature.
For me, the most interesting thing about superheroes is the mirror they hold up to us mortals. For instance, many superhero scholars have noted that we are now living in a Batman moment. But it wasn't always this way. Superman came first, in 1938 (conceived by a pair of Jews -- and again I'll let you decide whether feelings of subjugation played a role in that invention). The Man of Steel was the go-to hero for much of the 20th century. Meanwhile, Batman was ill-suited to the age. The 1960s Adam West TV show resorted to portraying him as a campy goofball.
Now the roles have reversed. Gritty, brooding, vengeful Batman owns the biggest superhero franchise of the new millennium. Director Christopher Nolan's reboot of the dark knight's tale is very much a post-9/11 vision. "Batman is the fantasy resolution of an impossible contemporary problem," says Saunders. "How do we keep ourselves safe without violating civil liberties? Batman skips right over that. He tortures. He'll shoot you in the kneecaps and water-board you. But he's still cool. With his minimalist black leather and all his gadgets, he's the perfect hero for the iPad generation."
Suddenly, it's Superman who feels out of step -- a naive Boy Scout clad in primary colors, with a cherubic curl and golly-gee manner. But fret not, fans of Kal-El. It seems a good bet that at some point we'll collectively realize this particular iteration of Batman is a sadistic, antisocial freak. At an earlier Comic-Con panel, Rosenberg and another psychologist actually debated whether Batman has a diagnosable mental disorder.
According to Peter Coogan, director of the Institute for Comics Studies, "Superman is about public-spiritedness. His motto is 'Truth, Justice, and the American Way.' Batman is about private demons and personally driven ambitions. His motto is first-person, and it's darker: 'I must be a creature of the night.' " Rosenberg agrees and argues that the younger generation of Americans -- people who've graduated from college within the last 10 years -- is a more communitarian, more optimistic cohort, in search of team-building purpose. Superman may speak to them in a way that Batman never could. We'll know more when the next Superman flick, "Man of Steel," hits theaters in summer 2013. (In the meantime, David Brooks, fire up your laptop. This column writes itself.)
By the way, if you prefer to escape the limiting Superman/Batman dichotomy, you can always look abroad to meet your superhero needs. Brits, for instance, tend to eschew all the big muscles, ridiculous costumes, and physical feats, preferring a rather brainier brand of idol. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Who both sport average-looking physiques, superhuman intellects, and dry senses of humor. Which may well be your cup of tea with milk, but may also be just a tad subtle for the mainstream American palate. I spotted Matt Smith, the current star of the BBC's "Dr. Who" TV series, rolling through San Diego's Gaslamp district in a pedicab this evening, accompanied by a film crew. A pair of drunk Comic-Con attendees standing on a corner recognized him -- and his swoopy haircut. "Hey, Justin Bieber," the nerd aggressors taunted, "we love your music!"
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Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of "Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World."