HEY, KIDS, COMICS! part I
(Part 1, From Mystery To Glory)
By "John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL" [Darren Madigan]
This article was originally intended to be nothing more than an analysis of the various traditional elements of Classic Era Superhero Comics that are silly, absurd, and ridiculous, and as such, to support my previous contention that Superhero Comics Are For Kids, and there's nothing wrong with that, because the part of me that likes superhero comics never really grew up, and doesn't have to, either.
However, several thousands words into it, it somehow evolved into an analysis of some fundamental differences between the Classic Era Superhero and the Modern Age Superhero, which strikes me as a reasonable and important topic to write an article about, too. So... I suspect that this is going to be somewhat chaotic and confusing, at least, for a while. Try to hang in there.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has read any of my other articles, under this or any of my other pseudonyms, when I state that in my opinion, the Modern Age Superhero isn't as much fun as the Classic Era Superhero concepts that it evolved out of. In fact, as a vast generalization, I think the Modern Age Superhero pretty much sucks big rocks, especially when compared to the general run of Silver Age Superhero concepts.
Comics, in America, are targeted at kids. Comics, in America, have always been targeted at kids. Various writers and pundits, many of them smarter and at least a few of them better looking than I am, have wailed and bemoaned and guh-nashed their teeth about this for generations, pointing out in despairing tones that comics are widely accepted as a legitimate entertainment medium for all ages in Europe and Japan (while, generally, neglecting to mention that one of the concomitant results of that wide acceptance of the art form is a walloping dominance of the industry by pornographic comic books, some of which are shocking and disgusting even to the sensibilities of a filthy, jaded old Internet pervert like me).
To my mind, while articles about the widespread popularity with people of all ages of comic books in various exotic foreign lands are interesting, they are also moot. I'm an American, I read American comics, and American comics are now, and always have been, targeted at kids.
Over the past two decades, we've seen something of an attempt to open up the comics marketplace to adults, through the somewhat successful technique of marketing 'graphic novels' in chain bookstores like B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, and through the spin off of specific imprints, like DC's Vertigo, specifically targeted at 'mature readers'.
Still and all, by far the largest subgenre of comic book adventures being published are superhero comic books, and by far the largest market for superhero comic books are kids... specifically, young white male adolescents.
There are other types of comic books, and there are other demographics that buy superhero comics. Yet the overwhelming popularity of the superhero genre can be seen not merely by examining any direct sales shop, but also with an analytical scrutiny of any TV Guide or movie marquee, and the overwhelming influence of the white adolescent male target audience can also be clearly seen by examining not only the casts of characters of any successful superhero comic book, but of any successful 'superhero' TV show or movie.
Even BLADE, a comic book adaptation about a black vampire hunter, featured a Wesley Snipes apparently besieged and beleaguered by Caucasian allies and bloodsucking foes, while perhaps the most popular 'superhero' TV show right now, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, sports a relentlessly whitebread cast, who are also nearly all young, comely, and buffed up to an extraordinary extreme.
All these are things that we know, and to an extent, they are things that have not changed a great deal over the past several decades. In fact, since the advent of the direct sales method of comic book distribution in the late 1970s, this more specialized comic book market entirely predominated by young white adolescent males has become a fact of life.
Pretty much extinct are the days when comic books could be found on spinner racks or in the magazine sections of any supermarket or drug store, available as an impulse purchase to any wandering customer who might, on the spur of the moment, decide to drop a quarter on five minutes idle amusement with a fondly remembered childhood imaginary friend.
With the impulse, throwaway consumer out of the equation, comics have more and more been marketed to obsessive young fans who really care about various factors that never much mattered in the pre-direct sales days... and, as I say, I'm preaching to the choir, here. We all know this, and many of you (not me, no sirree) even think that overall, this narrowing of market niche has actually had a positive effect on comics quality.
What all of this pretty much means, though, is that over the past twenty five years, the superhero comic book has more and more come to reflect the values and desires of young, white, adolescent males. This has been exacerbated by the conversion of comics publishing from a slapdash, almost accidentally created and randomly maintained industry that pretty much only existed as a sideline to a more profitable trade in specialized periodicals for adult consumers, to a sleek, computerized, modern industry out to wring every last penny of profit possible from every conceivable aspect of a comic book character's existence.
For much of its existence prior to the 1980s, comic books were something a publisher put out because they were going to be putting out a lot of other magazines anyway, and comics were cheap to produce, and the mark up between single unit cost and cover price was steep enough to continue justifying the effort they were putting into it.
With the late 1970s, certain business interests suddenly seemed to realize that comics could be a big money industry, and by the 1980s, nearly everyone was starting to comprehend that the various cross media and marketing tie in potentials for comic books were simply astronomical.
At that point, the marketing guys landed in the industry with both feet, and like a vampire one foolishly invites home for Sunday dinner, it seems that we will never get them out the door again.
That this watershed era of change in the industry also seems to quite nicely coincide with the general time period most comics scholars will pretty much agree seems to encompass the death of the Silver Age and the birth of the Modern Age seems inarguable... and considerably more than a coincidence.
Which leads into my general thesis statement: Superhero comics have always been for kids. They're still for kids. The superhero concept and subgenre itself, with some few isolated exceptions, is in and itself so inherently absurd that it will always be for kids, for the good and simple reason that 'adulthood', in our culture, is, as Stephen King once noted, a state where the imaginative faculties have so steadily ossified as to be virtually non-existent, and so it is that the concept of people with superhuman powers and abilities will always be one that the average 'adult' will snort contemptuously at and reject out of hand from having any validity as entertainment.
What I'm going to try to do in this particular article is to take this general, overall statement and break it down a bit. Specifically, I'm going to examine various aspects, traditions, and conceptual details common to the overwhelming majority of superhero comic book stories and characters, and show how these are elements that the average 'adult' simply can't, won't, and isn't going to, ever accept as 'legitimate' entertainment.
I'm going to look at the origin of these peculiar features, their internal justifications and the actual melodramatic thematic purposes behind their inclusion, examine why, from any reasonable, logical viewpoint they tend to be so ridiculous (although virtually all superhero fans simply take them for granted and never question them at all) and I may even try to give examples of exactly how these odd features have changed from Golden to Silver to Modern Age.
This may not be educational or enlightening, as the fact that superhero comics are for kids doesn't exactly seem to be a secret. Even the 'comics are a legitimate medium' bus stop preachers stop short at trying to say that SUPERHERO comics are a legitimate subgenre of that medium; in fact, Big Chief Lets Take Comics Seriously Guy Scott McLeod once did all of us fanboys the grave compliment of identifying himself as one of us, in the same brief published statement (it was an apparently apologetic Afterword to his brilliant Kirbyesque pastiche/parody DESTROY!, in fact) in which he later went on to compare superhero comic books to SESAME STREET. Hully gee, Mr. Zot. T'anks so much.
Superhero fans seem to break down into two basic categories: those who, like Mr. McLeod, accept that superheroes are an intrinsically absurd and silly concept, and while they will grudgingly and with some embarrassment admit to still occasionally enjoying them, always seem to end up apologizing for it and noting loudly and at length that while comics is a legitimate medium of artistic expression, it will only be accepted as such here in America through the proliferation of such adult, serious, deeply meaningful genres as, you know, Westerns, War, Detective, Romance, Historical, and, one has to suppose although they never mention it, Triple X Rated Porn.
Then there is the second category of superhero comics afficianados, who shrilly declaim that superhero comics are not necessarily for kids, and who point to WATCHMEN, and DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, and ASTRO CITY, and TRANSMETROPOLITAN, and MARVEL BOY, and DOOM PATROL, and occasionally, when they're especially overmedicated, to stuff like X-MEN and NEW TEEN TITANS, too.
That they are, at least in my opinion, nearly invariably pointing at bad & boring versions of superhero comics, and that they never have the wit to point to the four truly adult superhero comics I myself just wrote a two part article about last week, does not seem to matter to them. The lesson, to me, is that superhero comics can be for adults, if they're either badly written or they explore truly intelligent and esoteric themes, and it still doesn't matter, because most adults just won't buy them.
Those of us who accept that superhero comics ARE for kids, and that's okay because people who still have enough imagination to actually be able to read and appreciate comic books are, at least in that one area, not typically 'adult' by our society's social standards, and that's not even remotely a bad thing... well, that seems to be a very small group indeed. In fact, it seems to be comprised of me. However, I'm the guy writing this article. So, then, with all the above as necessary (and, hopefully, at least mildly interesting, preface) let's examine the essential childishness of the Superhero Sub-Genre, in several elemental details:
1. The Mystery ( AKA Secret Identities)
2. The Ceremonial Attire (AKA Costumes)
3. The Illumination & Empowerment (AKA Secret Origins)
4. The Transcendent Glory ( AKA Super Powers)
5. The Never Ending Battle ( AKA Fight Scenes)
6. Truth, Justice, and the American Way (the Morality)
7. Faster Than A Speeding Bullet (the Rubber Physics)
8. The Life Eternal (Death Traps & Resurrections)
9. The Power Of A Name (Cool Sounding Hero/Villain Names)
1: The Mystery (AKA Secret Identities)
I noted in the Occult Superhero Comics article, previous to this, that to an extent, the Secret Identity is a little bit of virtual reality in nearly every Classic Superhero concept. It's also, as with all the other stuff we'll be talking about, basically silly and unrealistic.
Nearly everyone knows this the instant they sit down and think about it, and, in fact, the inherent stupidity of the secret identity is so obvious that Walt Simonson made fun of it during his run writing and drawing THOR back in the 1980s, when he had a disguised nemesis figure out Thor's astonishingly obvious Sigurd Jarlsson secret I.D., and one of Thor's allies use that fact to in turn figure out that this woman must really be a sinister supervillain, because "secret identities don't work like that", and thus, she must be using some sort of magic or other unfair means, and therefore, be Evil. (This was one of the elements of Simonson's generally revered run on THOR that first inclined me to stop buying it; to my mind, it's one thing to have something basically silly as an essential part of comics, it's another thing to call attention to that silly thing in such a way as to point out to your audience that it is not only silly, it's actually stupid, and therefore, they are, too.)
However, simply because I love to watch myself type, and perhaps for the few in the hypothetical audience who are now, in true kneejerk manner, grousing "Hey, secret identities don't ALWAYS have to be stupid," let's examine this nearly universal convention a little more closely and analytically.
Why would a superhero maintain a secret identity? Supposedly, to allow him or herself to pursue a normal life when not fighting evil, and, more importantly, to prevent villains from taking his loved ones hostage, or just killing them in reprisal for the superhero's valiant acts.
These aren't terrible reasons, theoretically; in fact, they're pretty sensible. However, we'll point out that the first one, however understandable, is basically selfish, and thus, since we're talking about Iconic Heroes, here, not a very good or credible one. The second one, on the other hand, seems heroic and noble, but is, in fact, also selfish... as we'll see, in a moment.
But now let's examine exactly what it means for a hero to keep a secret identity:
* They have to lie to everyone they know, all the time, about one of the most, if not THE most, essential aspect of their lives.
* Most of them have to go to astonishing, and even unbelievable, lengths to disguise themselves.
* Last but not least, wandering around beating the crap out of total strangers whose behavior isn't compatible with your own particular moral codes is not, in and of itself, either very nice, or very socially responsible, and when you hide your true face and name while doing it, it becomes, from a realistic viewpoint, downright scary.
Leaving aside the above denoted issues with the Secret Identity, our last reasonable, adult objection is all but insurmountable: most Secret Identities simply wouldn't work, and only an idiot (or a child) would believe otherwise.
On the first issue, the fact that a superhero with a secret identity basically lives a life of lies and active deceit: realistically, someone who spends their whole lives and every waking moment concealing the basic truth about their lives from everyone they know is someone who has issued with intimacy, to say the least. There are people who do this in the real world, and they can be best summed up with the single word "Unabomber".
Realistically speaking, people who lie to everyone they care about on a regular, if not constant basis aren't very nice, and aren't considered to be especially reliable. In fact, realistically speaking, someone who actually CAN continue to lie to their loved ones, year in and year out, a dozen times a day in either commission or omission, is probably rather psychotic. They may be able to successfully simulate normal human emotions, but they sure as hell won't really feel them. They'll be, in short, scary. Kind of like Batman is supposed to be, these days, in fact.
Classic comic book heroes aren't like this; in fact, Classic comic book heroes invariably have friends and lovers they are deeply and warmly attached to... except for the fact that quite frequently, they have to make some stupid excuse and run out on these people, so they can put on a costume and go fight evil. When they're done fighting evil, they take their costume off, come home, and when their friends or lovers ask them "Say, where'd you run off to?"... they lie.
And these aren't harmless or noble or selfless lies, either. Oh, sure, Peter Parker doesn't tell Aunt May that he's Spider-Man because (he says) she'll have a heart attack if she figures it out, but it's made just as clear from the git go that Aunt May finds Spider-Man scary and brutish, and therefore, if Parker tells her, she probably either won't like him very much anymore, or will make him quit doing it. His motivation in keeping his secret identity is just as selfish as it is noble.
Furthermore, a superhero's loved ones arguably have a RIGHT to know that their best buddy Johnny Handsome is actually Silverwolf, scourge of the underworld, because, if Silverwolf's arch-enemy the Hooded Claw finds out who Silverwolf really is, his friends and family will be in danger. Our heroes keep their faces covered to protect themselves from the consequences of their actions, and in so doing, they deny their loved ones the opportunity to knowledgeably prepare for the possibility of those consequences.
Okay, so realistically, keeping a secret identity isn't, actually, very nice. Next, we have the truly ridiculous lengths some superheroes go to for this secret identity thing.
For just a mild and very common example, Peter Parker wears his Spider-Man costume under his clothes nearly everywhere. In fact, throughout the Silver Age, Parker's more playful writers, like Roger Stern, frequently put Parker in situations where he suddenly had to strip down (like, at a pool party, or for a sudden physical check up) and he'd have to find some way to either ditch his costume or keep people from noticing it.
This is all well and good, until one sits down and actually thinks about what wearing even a very lightweight, skintight, unventilated costume under one's clothes all the damn time would actually mean.
First, he can never wear a short sleeved shirt. He can never roll his sleeves up. He cannot, for god's sake, even undo his top collar button, for fear someone will see the rather distinctive red and blue Spidey costume peeking out underneath. He can't take a sweater or a sweatshirt or a pullover jacket off where anyone might see, in case his shirt rides up from static cling when he does it. He even has to be careful pulling up his cuff to check his watch whenever Flash or Harry ask him what time it is. He can't wear shorts, obviously, or open toed shoes; he can't ever go barefoot.
These are just the limitations to his wardrobe. He's also, to put it delicately, going to become rather aromatic rather quickly, especially if he, as Parker often does, webslings his way to work, and then puts his civvies on over his now sweated up costume.
In the winter, it's just barely credible he could pull this off. In the summer, it's completely ridiculous.
Nearly every superhero who doesn't change into his or her secret identity by magic, or by having a compressed costume in their ring, or by carrying their armor around in their briefcase, has this basic problem. We just don't think about it, or even how truly ridiculous it is, such as when, throughout the Silver Age, Batman can stuff not only his costume, but also his cape and his utility belt underneath Bruce Wayne's expensive business suits.
Superman fitting his cape under Clark's blue suits is equally ridiculous, although probably the ultimate in dumb 'hide it under the coat' gimmicks has to be credited to either Steve Rogers, wandering around with his shield strapped to his back under his suit jacket (or, at times, his form fitting t-shirt), or Warren Worthington, who somehow managed to STRAP DOWN HIS BIG WHITE WINGS and fit them under normal clothing, so he could wander around in civvies with the rest of the X-Men, without being noticed.
We should also award a tip of the winged cowl, at this point, to superheroic archers, who somehow, in their own civilian identities, manage to haul recurve longbows and a quiver full of yardlong, gimmicked up arrows around with them, in addition to their (in the case of DC and Marvel's classic costumed bowmen, Green Arrow and Hawkeye) unusually bulky and cumbersome costumes, without, apparently, anyone in the passing, madding crowds musing to themselves, 'Say, that guy over there appears to have an Alpine mountaineer's backpack on underneath his RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK T-shirt, and what's that strangely curved walking stick he's carrying?'
I mean, please.
While mentioning all this, I may as well bring up this idiotic convention that has recently left comics and infiltrated movies, like the DARKMAN stuff, and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 2, with the pullover rubber face masks that we're supposed to accept can actually successfully disguise one human being as another human being in such a way that their closest friends or co-workers can't tell the difference.
Good thing that apparently, in the movies and comics, all goons are the same height and build, right? I bring this up in relation to secret identities because Red Tornado wears one of these idiotic things in his 'secret identity' of 'John Smith'. (The Martian Manhunter threatened to beat him into scrapple if he tried to use 'John Jones', for which I'm profoundly grateful.)
Actually, I'm not even sure the Red Tornado still exists in the Modern DC Universe, but, in the Silver Age, he DID wear one of these idiotic masks as part of his secret identity. Of course, he probably doesn't sweat, so that's okay, but he also doesn't have eyeballs, and whenever someone pulls those rubber face masks off, the eye sockets are always empty, so it's still pretty much ridiculous.
And yet, the 'over the head rubber mask disguise that fools everybody until the person wearing it pulls it off' is yet another convention of comic book fiction... so much so, in fact, that in one particular issue of Captain America, a villain named the Golden Archer, who wore a yellow Robin Hood type fletched cap (similar to Green Arrow's) and had a big black mustache, once pulled his 'disguise' off (it was one of these idiotic over the head rubber masks) revealing, underneath it, Hawkeye the Archer... who wears a very bulky hood with an attached, protruding, flared domino mask on the front of it... which the artist drew him as wearing, UNDERNEATH THIS RUBBER FACE MASK.
(Look, it was Sal Buscema, and I have endless and eternal respect for Sal Buscema, and I assume that either (a) he was told to draw Hawkeye's hood regardless of how stupid it was to make the character visually recognizeable, or (b) he simply looked at the directions for the panel and did it without thinking about it because he was probably pencilling four other Marvel comics that month. Still, it's got to be one of the most egregious examples of a truly stupid secret identity disguise ever done in comics.)
And, since we're talking about one particular kind of mask, and how ridiculous they are, let's just expand that to the subject of masks in general. Ever tried to make and wear a reasonable facsimile of a superhero cape and cowl? You liar. You know you did, you're just embarrassed to admit it. Remember how even with the half face ones, you can't see well out of them, especially if you're running around going 'nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah BATMAN!' and they're sliding all over the place, or you've just gotten into a big fake fist fight with your little brothers and they've either slid around backwards, fallen down around your neck, or popped off entirely.
Even when they're perfectly adjusted, you have no peripheral vision. And the full faces ones? Forget about it, they're TERRIBLE; five minutes running around and the mask is soaking wet from sweat and spit, it's gross inside, you're hot and you can't breath... even the Prowler could come along and kick you off a ledge while you're hyperventilating and half passed out in one of those damn things, let's not even think about the Green Goblin or Doc Ock.
A domino mask, such as those worn by Robin, the Spirit, or the first Nite Owl, are actually quite practical, in terms of staying on and not overly hindering your vision or breathing (although, when Wesley states in THE PRINCESS BRIDE that they're really terribly comfortable and he expects them to be all the rage very soon, he's indulging in typical Goldmanesque irony, as even a cut down domino mask is still not as comfortable as not wearing a damn mask in the first place).
The only problem with domino masks is, they aren't going to hide your secret identity for very long from anyone who has seen you in your civilian guise, or wants to make a serious effort to figure out who you are.
In point of fact, John Byrne, of all people, gave superhero fans a crash course in the absurd unreality of the secret identity in one of his earliest issues as writer/artist on Star Brand. When Ken Connell walks into a comics convention in Pittsburgh to show himself off as a 'real live superhero', a few guest professionals from the Marvel Bullpen quickly set him to rights, informing him that there are certain things in comics that only work because the writers want them to, and if any of them wanted to find out who he really was under his concealing hood, it wouldn't be that hard (for one thing, Ken Connell, like his original creator Jim Shooter, is about 6'6).
From the 'things that simply wouldn't work and that you have to have a childlike sense of wonder to suspend disbelief in', we proceed to, flat out, secret identities that Just Would Not Work, and that even those of us who remain eternally young at heart do not so much Suspend Disbelief In, as we do simply Ignore The Hell Out Of.
Probably the all time champion leader of this parade is Green Arrow. Visualize it: here we have a photograph from the Star City Daily News' society page, showing handsome, blond goateed, social activist millionaire Oliver Queen. And here we have an action pic on the front page depicting Star City social activist superhero, Green Arrow, who happens to have a blond goatee and is wearing a tiny, tiny angular little domino mask. Um. Gosh. I wonder...?
Dopey though Green Arrow's secret identity obviously is, he's only the most obvious offender. Batman is another character whose secret identity simply will not and can not work.
Oh, his mask is concealing enough. However, very nearly any idiot who can do some basic research at the library, and is capable of the slightest amount of analytical thought, should be able to figure out who he is in about ten minutes, from the list of facts that are common knowledge about the Caped Crusader.
What facts? Well, he's a white guy. We know about how tall and heavy he is. He's a gifted martial artist, detective, and criminologist. His probably lives in or around Gotham City. He's FRICKING rich, dude. He had a boy partner for a certain time period who was a very skilled acrobat, and most of whose face we could see. Both he and his boy partner clearly have profound issues with street crime.
Hmmmm. Now who could he be? Even without the boy partner, it's not exactly a question you need to feed into a positronic brain, and when you factor in the boy partner showing up at exactly the same time Bruce Wayne takes in a young, orphaned circus acrobat who just happens to look EXACTLY LIKE BATMAN'S SIDEKICK... well. I mean, gee.
Other secret identities are, for the most part, just as stupid. Some of them might work reasonably well, as with Captain America, (no one knows or cares who Steve Rogers is) but often in those cases, there's no reason why the character should HAVE a secret identity, as, for example, people knowing that Captain America's real name is Steve Rogers isn't really going to help his enemies much, since all his friends are superheroes or Agents of SHIELD.
Green Lantern doesn't need a secret identity (and Carol Ferris is the world's biggest moron for not tumbling to it immediately anyway; all he wears is a domino mask, fer Chrissake, and he's ALWAYS popping up thirty seconds after Hal Jordan runs out of the room) any more than Cap does (he's got a power ring, go ahead, mess with his friends). (Furthermore, Green Lantern only actually has a secret identity because all superheroes have one, so he has to have one, too. Other Green Lanterns don't bother, although the domino mask seems to be, for some strange reason, a part of the official uniform.)
Some may have noted, with some surprise, that I am not rankin' on Superman's secret I.D., despite the fact that to many, it's the first example they can come up with of a secret identity that just shouldn't work. However, I disagree. I honestly think Superman's disguise could be fairly effective, for the good and simple reason that no one should ever suspect that Superman HAS a secret identity.
I mean, why would he need one? He doesn't wear a mask, it's public knowledge that he's an alien from an exploded planet, his real name is Kal El, he's invulnerable, doesn't need to eat or sleep... why would anyone reasonably assume he turns into some nebbish for half or more of his waking hours? It makes no sense.
That's the major reason why no one would ever suspect Clark Kent is Superman, because logically, no one should ever suspect ANYone is Superman. Which simply points out yet another absurdity about the Secret Identity... not only do all superheroes have them whether they really should or not, but all Superhero Romantic Interests know they have one, whether they really should or not.
Given all the egregious idiocies surrounding the Secret Identity I've just pointed out, we have to wonder, then, exactly why this is such a common tradition and convention of the superhero art form. Did everyone just slavishly copy the same formula exactly as created by Siegel & Schuster? Did it simply become an unquestioned part of every superhero concept simply through inertia and fear of innovation?
Probably that was part of it. However, another part, and the largest part, is that the audience for superhero comics was and remains children, and children love secret identities. Honestly, they (we) do.
Remember when you were a kid and you used to fantasize about being Spider-Man, or Superboy, or, I don't know, whoever, maybe someone you made up yourself, how cool it was to think about putting on a costume and mask and saving your entire school from a big monster or alien invaders or, whatever, demons or ninjas or killer cyborgs sent back in time from some dark, post Apocalyptic future timeline? You never did that? You are such liars. You know EXACTLY what I'm talking about; what, were you born thirty years old?
And a big part of how cool that was came from the idea of changing back into wimpy little Bob Boinger and mingling with all the kids that Ultra Lad (look, I can't help it if you came up with stupid names for your fantasy characters, I just report this stuff) had just saved, and hearing them all go "Oh wow, Ultra Lad is so cooooooool".
Over and above all this, childhood is a world of secrets. Every kid has things he or she keeps hidden, not only from adult authority figures, but from most of his fellow kids, as well. These things may be as innocent as a crush on a classmate, or as significant as a secret career as a window peeper, arsonist, or vandal, but nearly everything, when you're a kid, has at least the potential to be a secret.
Kids also lead double lives as a matter of everyday routine; the way you talk with your peers, between the ages of, say, 9 and 17, and the way you speak with or in front of adults, is vastly different. The secret identity of most superheroes is something kids can relate to from their own experience, and even better, since superheroes conceal vast aspects of their lives from their loved ones, and even their parents, in the case of teenage superheroes, that validates the covert behavior that is a near universal part of a child's normal existence.
If Spider-Man can lie to Aunt May, his science teachers, his girlfriend, the school bully, and J. Jonah Jameson about exactly who beat up those aliens, then the average kid is certainly justified in lying to his parents, teachers, friends, and afterschool boss about who threw that rock through the window or put those firecrackers on the railroad tracks.
Beyond the fact that kids simply like secret identities, there are also sound melodramatic reasons to give them to your hero. First, they keep him or her busy doing something. They generate difficulties, conflicts, tension, suspense, and, ultimately, plotlines. If your hero has a secret identity, then there is something else he can be threatened with besides injury and death... he might have his secret exposed. Probably nearly as many superhero comics cliffhangers and plots have revolved around a superhero protecting his secret identity, as around him escaping from some bizarre deathtrap.
All of which is why virtually every superhero of any era has a secret identity, regardless of how nonsensical secret identities actually are, when subjected to rational, intelligent, realistic, adult scrutiny and analysis. And the overwhelming reason still remains: kids like them, so superheroes have them, regardless of how stupid they actually are.
In the Modern Era, the convention of the secret identity is still nearly universal, but its parameters have been relaxed a lot. Once upon a time, romantic interests were the characters who would never find out for sure who a superhero's secret I.D. was (although they always suspected it was their boyfriend, or at least, that nerdy guy who kept asking them out even though they themselves were dating the Superhero).
Nowadays, in a nod to a more realistic depiction of intimate relationships, girlfriends and spouses are generally the first people to be let in on the double identity. Characters who do not actually have secret identities have become a little bit more common over the last couple of decades, although they're still in the pronounced minority. Plots... in fact, entire multipart story arcs... are still being done around the concept of the secret identity, as when, a few years ago, Spider-Man became four different superheroes briefly in order to be able to keep functioning as a superhero and escape an intense police manhunt.
Secret identities remain, for the most part, ridiculous, absurd, silly, and in many cases, downright stupid. However, they also remain an intrinsic part of the superhero subgenre, and as long as the superhero subgenre appeals primarily to kids, they most likely always will.
2. The Ceremonial Attire (AKA Costumes)
We touched on a few of the general specific stupidities of specific superhero costumes in our discussion above. Still, we haven't really discussed the simple fact that, overall, the idea that someone would put on garish tights and a cape to go do ANYTHING on any other day of the year besides Halloween (much less fight evil) is simply ridiculous. However, the universal presence of the Ridiculous Costume as a part of superhero comics is undeniable; so much so, in fact, that when a writer wants to either make his particular superhero more 'realistic' (as with Steve Ditko's The Question or Eclipse's The Masked Man) or to subtly lampoon the entire superhero genre (as with Will Eisner's The Spirit, or Alan Moore's Five Swell Guys) one of the most effective mechanisms for accomplishing either task is to simply have your hero wear normal street clothes.
Another tack that some writers have taken to make their superheroes seem 'credible' is to go to great lengths to make the ridiculous crap their characters wear somehow functional. This impulse has its origins as far back as Batman, where Bob Kane told us that Bruce Wayne was dressing up like a goofball in a bat costume in order to strike terror into the underworld heart. The best Batman writers play along with this and the most gifted Batman artists render the character in such a way as we can fairly easily suspend our disbelief and actually go along with this ridiculous conceit, but still, on some level, we know they're reaching, as even a multi-million dollar budget on several major studio films did not suffice to keep Batman from looking just a tiny bit ridiculous in live action... and that, after the wardrobe guy changed Batman's costume significantly, too.
The simple fact is, if you take the most massively muscled male mesomorph in existence and jam him into a real word version of what Batman wears in the comics, he's not going to look like a demon or a human bat or anything even remotely scary. He's going to look like a big dope in a stupid costume. Batman wears a costume for the same reason nearly all superheroes wear costumes, because kids like costumes and they look impressive drawn.
Why do kids like costumes so much? Not having a Ph.D. in childhood psychology, I'm not sure I'm competent to tell you. I can, nonetheless, testify fervently from my own childhood experiences that kids do like dressing up in costumes, and this is a particular aspect of childhood that most adults retain, although the vast majority suppress it except on Halloween.
Still, it is a condition of human existence that we are constrained in our abilities and our behavior by circumstance, social context, and natural law, and it is natural to dream of defying, exceeding, or escaping those day to day boundaries.
For a child, to dress up as something is to become that thing, and that, I think, is why kids like superheroes who wear distinctive costumes so much. First, they recognize that although Bruce Wayne SAYS he's dressing like a bat to scare crooks, that's a crock, he's really dressing like a bat because millionaire playboys aren't allowed to drive jet powered cars through red lights, beat up the Riddler, live in a really cool cave, or swing from rooftop to rooftop looking in people's windows late at night when everyone else is asleep.
Second, they like superheroes with costumes because if you like a certain superhero, it's more fun to pretend to be that hero by dressing up the way he does, and it's easier to dress up the way he does if he dresses in some distinctive fashion.
Because kids respond so well to heroes in costumes, all heroes have to have costumes. Some writers make up somewhat logical reasons for their characters to have one, such as Peter Parker's decision to become a masked entertainer to make money off his new spider-powers.
Others make the superhero costume some sort of official uniform, as with Green Lantern, and other GL inspired characters like Marvel's Nova and Quasar.
The Fantastic Four have to wear costumes because their powers all involve fundamental changes to their physical bodies, and they need uniforms made of 'unstable molecules' that can conform to these altered physical changes. (Well, they don't NEED them, but Reed Richards would shred or fall out of normal street clothes when he uses his elastic stretching abilities, Johnny Storm would burn his up when he flames on, and Sue Storm wouldn't be particularly invisible if her clothes didn't turn invisible along with her, and apparently, she's too goody goody to just strip naked like the more classical Invisible Folks do.)
These are among the more plausible reasons for superheroes to wear costumes. Other rationales get a little more ridiculous, such as Matt Murdock's rather bizarre rationalization that, if he put on a costume that only a blind man could ever possibly have either designed or worn in public, it would somehow release him from his promise to his father that he would not become a professional boxer. (This makes even less sense than one would think, because Matt did not, actually, become a professional boxer while wearing his costume, he instead became a masked vigilante named Daredevil.)
Perhaps the ultimate in completely idiotic authorial contrivances for giving a character a costume came in Atlas Comics' mostly enjoyable Destructor feature, when Archie Goodwin, apparently baffled as to why his vengeful young hood turned enemy to the Mob would bother wearing a colorful costume, simply had the kid find one in a closet and decide to wear it for no appreciably good reason at all.
And it's worth noting in passing that costumes are so much an entrenched part of the superhero mythology that the very worst and unimaginative of all creators simply tend to automatically give their new, Modern Age superheroes fantastical, skintight outfits and accoutrements without making the slightest effort to justify them.
At Image, for example, the characters simply... wear costumes. There's no reason for it ever given; with Spawn, it took Neil Gaiman doing a guest shot as scripter before anyone ever had the vaguest clue why a newly resurrected, amnesia-stricken, demonically powered undead guy happened to be clothed in this really nifty outfit with an animated cape and living chains and all sorts of other cool looking stuff.
Team Youngblood never bothers to tell us why they dress up in painted on spandex, nor do the WildC.A.T.s. It's just... what superheroes do, and the Image creators no more question it than do any of their fans.
Some writers, in taking a more 'realistic' tack towards superheroes, have mocked the whole tradition of costume wearing. Alan Moore, in the at times tediously mundane and self important WATCHMEN, tells us the blackly humorous tale of Dollar Bill, the hero who got machine gunned to death while trying to prevent a bank stick up, because his cape got caught in the bank's revolving door. Later on in the same series, another character relates how the first time he tried to wear an experimental exoskeleton to boost his strength, it broke his arm, and costumes are further... I'm not sure if the term would be ridiculed, or demeaned... when Moore reveals that this same character apparently can't get a woody unless both he and his paramour, superheroine Silk Spectre, are wearing their superhero outfits, thus not so subtly implying that the real reason many superheroes wear costumes is because they find them sexually titillating.
Moore isn't the only one to mock the concept of superheroes wearing gaudy, idiosyncratic outfits. James Robinson's annoyingly trendy Modern Age version of Starman is the son of the Golden Age Starman and younger brother to a brief lived Modern Age Starman, both of whom wore a rather extreme and endearingly ridiculous example of a typical Golden Age superhero costume, complete with garish red and green color scheme, heavy, flapping cape, big finned helmet, and glaring yellow chest star.
To show just how cool his own version of Starman is, Robinson has the character reject the entire idea of wearing a superhero costume; instead, he goes into action wearing whatever he happens to have on at the time, and a mask he can pull rather easily over his head. Such ostentatious pragmatism seems to have appealed to many readers, however, in the context of the superhero sub-genre, I myself find it annoyingly pretentious.
While occasionally functional (as Iron Man's armor clearly is), the superhero costume is simply something that is, like secret identities and other trappings of the superhero tradition, flat out silly.
Beyond simply being ridiculous, when looked at from a more realistic viewpoint, superhero costumes are actually somewhat ominous. In the real world, a uniform is generally authoritarian; a uniform combined with a mask, as is evident with most superhero costumes, is usually a symbol of illicit, outlaw fascism, as with the Ku Klux Klan, or Nazi bundists... the badge of the extremist or outright fanatic, generally willing to use violence and other illegal, anti-social means to accomplish their ends, which are often, in and of themselves, also illegal.
However, none of this really matters. Superheroes, and their enemies, dress up in ridiculous costumes and, most likely, always will. As with secret identities, it makes little sense, but it's appealing in a very basic, childish way, and that's enough to guarantee that costumes will almost certainly remain part of the superhero tradition for as long as that peculiar melodramatic tradition continues to exist.
3. The Illumination & Empowerment (AKA Secret Origins)
One of the most cherished absurdities of superhero comics is the concept that something could happen to a perfectly normal person that would somehow convey to them powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.
In real life, this simply doesn't happen. If you're unlucky enough to get hit by lightning while standing hip deep in radioactive experimental chemicals, you're just gonna die... and if you don't, chances are the chemical burns, or the radiation poisoning, or, you know, that weird tentacle creature swimming around below the surface of the swill you're standing in that Luke has just had a bad feeling about, will kill you pretty quickly thereafter.
However, in comic books, anyone wanting superpowers should seek out laboratories stocked with experimental chemicals, gulp down radioactive ingots, fly copper framed kites in the middle of thunderstorms, climb into smoking craters and pick up glowing meteorites in their bare hands, and charge screaming at any parked flying saucers you happen to see. In real life you'd earn little from such tomfoolery but a gruesome death, but in comics, you'll not only end up with some cool superhuman ability, but within a couple more pages, someone will have handed you a suitcase containing a skintight, slick looking set of caped leotards, too.
Occasionally, superheroes have somewhat different origin sequences than the standard one of instant empowerment through fortuitous accident. Batman, for example, works hard all through childhood to become the world's greatest asskicker, so he can track down and punish not only the crook who killed his parents when he was a little kid, but all crooks, everywhere.
Superman and Thor are just flat out better than normal humans because they were born into non-Earthly races that are superior to Earth humans in many regards. The X-Men have probably the simplest origin imaginable - they're mutants, which means, they were born with their powers.
However, such characters are a minority (or, at least, they used to be; at Marvel these days, there may very well be more mutants than there are any other sort of superhuman).
I don't know what terminology others may use, but the Late, Great Jeff Webb and I used to refer to superhumans who gained their powers through such ridiculous events as 'altered humans'. 'Altered humans' make up the vast majority of comic book superhumans, with others types in a minority... non powered humans, like Batman, artificially powered humans, like Iron Man, Green Lantern, and Nexus, natural ubermen types, like Superman or Thor, and, well, freaky types, like the Eternals, Marvel's mutants, and the Inhumans (or so we once thought), who are born with super powers, but not with the kind of wide ranging, general superhumanity that the ubermen have.
There is a reason why 'accidental empowerment' makes up the majority of superhero origins, however, and that reason is simple: reader identification. It's far easier for a kid.. or anyone, really, but a kid especially... to identify with the idea of being perfectly normal all your life and then, BANG!, something cool happens and you get nifty powers, than it is to project into any of these other types of fantasy characters.
After all, we're pretty sure we weren't born on Krypton or in Asgard, so that lets out being a galactic uberman. We don't seem to have any mutant powers, and we don't know anyone else who does, either. We sure as hell haven't spent our entire childhoods pumping up and mastering various martial arts skills, and it's not likely we're going to start soon.
However, chances are, we don't know anyone who has ever been exposed to radiation, been hit by lightning, accidentally ingested experimental chemicals, gotten a blood transfusion from a god, found a crashed UFO with a dying alien pilot who needed to pass on his mystic artifact to someone brave and heroic, or, you know, any of that cool stuff.
If we don't know anyone it's happened to, then we don't know that it actually can't happen to us, and furthermore, we don't know that we wouldn't get amazing superpowers if it did. It is, therefore, easier and more fun for kids to fantasize that such an 'accidentally empowered' character could actually be them, or someone like them, then it is with other characters, such as Batman, or Cyclops, or Iron Man.
Reader identification is, of course, a common element with all successful superhero comics, or, really, all successful fiction, and it exists in Batman and the X-Men and Thor and Superman. However, each of those characters gets their readers to identify with them, and project themselves into them, in less obvious ways.
With Batman, we sympathize with the kid whose parents are killed and something in us resonates with his quest for justice and/or vengeance.
The X-Men are outsiders and social rejects, which nearly any kid, and every comics fan, can identify with. Plus, over the course of years, canny X-Men writers began introducing the idea that most mutant powers did not manifest until puberty hit, which, again, was a very clever way to tie into the fantasies of their younger readers. It was pretty cool to think you might actually be a mutant, and that at any moment, your nifty mutant power might suddenly manifest itself, maybe in the middle of math class.
Iron Man is just the ultimate high tech science fiction guy who gets girls and kicks ass with laser beams and like that, a prototype that is generally popular with young males, although not overwhelmingly so, as can be seen by IM's decades of lackluster sales.
Thor... well, let's remember that originally, Thor WAS an 'accidentally empowered' human; it was only later, when Stan actually sat down and thought about things and realized just how goofy a lame doctor turning into the Norse God of Thunder really was, that we discovered that 'Dr. Don Blake' was just this fake identity Odin had whomped up and stuck Thor into, with his memories removed, in order to punish him and teach him humility.
Oddly, this is one area of the standard superhero formula that those princes of the Modern Age of Superhero Comics, the Image founders, totally blew off. However, in looking at the various titles and concepts that saw any success from Image, we get the impression that eschewing 'accidental empowerment' origins wasn't a deliberate choice on the part of the Image creators, it was more a consequence of the fact that none of these guys apparently even wanted to bother with stupid stuff like explaining who their characters were before they got their powers, and how they got their powers, or, in a lot of cases, even what their powers were.
Image wasn't about backstory or explanations, it was about cool if derivative looking characters leaping around doing cool if derivative looking things. How did Spawn or Spartan get their powers? Who cares? Don't they LOOK great?
Another reason why kids like the 'accidental empowerment' origin so much is the one I explained in my article on occult comics... it's instant self-actualization. Much of childhood, at least, for those kids lucky enough to have the attention of caring adults, is set in a context of constant nagging to do better, work harder, don't throw your future away, I know you can do better than that, you're not living up to your potential, what's wrong with you, do you think you're always going to be a kid?
Grown ups mean well, but this gets really old really fast, and so it is that the average comics fan relates well to a story in which some high school schlub, just like him, gets bitten by a radioactive spider and suddenly gains superhuman strenth and agility, as well as other cool powers like clinging to walls and a danger sense.
In one swell foop, this lucky superhero has jumped off the 'worker harder, do better, come on, I know you're dogging it' wagon and become, well, dammit, Self Actualized. He has not only lived up to his friggin' potential, he has blown right on by it; he is now not only the toughest kid in his gym class, he's the guy who's saving all the other kids when the Molten Man attacks his science lab. (With a mask on, naturally, so he can keep his Secret Identity safe.)
This is pretty heady stuff, and it's considerably less thrilling if the character actually WORKED for his powers, by building a set of armor or working out since the age of five or being so good and noble that the gods themselves award him superpowers.
Kids can get into a character like that, but it's not as much fun because they feel like they're being preached at; "Look, Billy worked HARD to get his super powers". Who wants that? We want slacker validation, dammit. We want fantasy heroes who goof off all their lives and STILL get hit with the power stick.
Strangely, the 'accidental empowerment' origin did not show up in the first couple of superhero stories published. Superman doesn't have one, nor does Batman. The first character I can think of who had one was the Golden Age Flash, and I'm sure that any true Golden Age comics scholar could probably tell me of at least one character who gained superhuman powers through a random act of fate prior to that character's debut.
However, it's interesting to note that nearly every Silver Age Marvel character has an 'accidental empowerment' origin. Even Dr. Strange and Iron Man have elements of one, in that Strange would never have become a Master of the Mystic Arts if he hadn't had a car crash that ruined his dexterity, and Iron Man needed to be critically wounded by shrapnel before he built his first suit of powered armor.
It should go without saying that, naturally, the 'accidental empowerment' fantasy, which is the most popular Secret Origin type in the superhero sub-genre, is also the one that seems most completely ludicrous to adults. Adults can accept the idea of a kid seeing his parents gunned down at an early age and working all his life to turn himself into a fearsome vigilante. (They balk at the Costume and the Secret Identity and the Superhero Name, but the origin they're fine with.)
Similarly, adults can accept someone fighting crime with the aid of a mechanical weapon, as they all know about guns, and, well, they're adults, so they find the idea of someone working hard to invent a machine that gives him some sort of edge to be perfectly acceptable, and validating of the hard work ethic they've had crammed down their throat all their lives.
But this 'get hit by lightning and turn into a god' stuff, as far as the average adult is concerned, is not only nonsense, it's offensive and obnoxious nonsense. Grown ups know that there ain't no such thing as a free lunch, you get what you pay for, nobody's going to just give you anything, and other depressing, cynical sounding aphorisms like that. All of which is yet another reason why superhero comics, at least, as long as they contain mostly characters who get 'accidentally empowered', are and will continue to be for kids.
4. The Transcendent Glory ( AKA Super Powers)
Pretty much intertwined with the ever popular 'accidental empowerment' Secret Origin, we now come to the overwhelming popularity of Super Powers.
If there is any one element of superhero comics that disgusts adults more than Super Powers, I can't think of what it is. Costumes come close, because adults just seem to instinctively distrust people who want to dress up funky (most likely because they recognize the same impulse in themselves, and have been taught to be ashamed of it). But if you manage to get any adult to ever talk about just what it is they find stupidest about comic books (most adults automatically associate the phrase 'comic books' with superheroes), it will always come back to the superpowers. Real People Just Can't Do Those Things. They Are Impossible.
If the adult in question is a bit more intelligent than average, and perhaps a bit more informed about superhero comics (maybe he read them when he was a kid), they'll even go into detail about how physically impossible it is for the Flash to run faster than the speed of sound without digging a flaming, magma filled trench in the ground, or about how, if Superman leaps a tall building at a single bound, why doesn't he kick a hole in the sidewalk when he takes off and smash a crater into the ground when he lands? (For the answers to these and other questions about Rubber Physics in the Superhero Universes, see my 4 part METAPHYSICS FOR METAHUMANS article, elsewhere on this website, eventually.)
Kids, on the other hand, not only don't care if superpowers are possible or not, we simply wouldn't read comics if they didn't have super powers in them. (Witness the dismal failures of all those wonderful 'legitimate, adult' comics subgenres like War, Western, Detective, Romance, etc. If the hero isn't blasting a monster through a cement wall with a particle beam from his forehead, kids just aren't interested.)
The reasons for this are pretty obvious. Kids are, for the most part, powerless. They get yanked around by the whims of adults for eighteen years or so, and even the ones who aren't so unlucky as to be in abusive situations still, generally, find they have little control and less actual power over their own lives. For a kid, therefore, the fantasy of being somebody who can pick up a bus and hit someone he doesn't like over the head with it is a very compelling one. And when you couple that with social acceptance... he can not only hit the guy he doesn't like with a bus, but he can get in the papers for it and the Mayor might give him a medal... well, you've got some pretty heady stuff indeed for the average geek social outcast who actually reads and enjoys superhero comics.
It's worth noting for a moment that in my personal experience, kids like 'natural' super powers a whole lot more than they like artificial ones. One of the reasons Green Lantern has never sold well, I think, despite the fact that he has the ultimate wish fulfilment power (he can just Do Anything He Wants To) is that he does not naturally have that power, he gets it from a ring.
Now, in many ways, this makes GL a better designed character than if he simply somehow had the capacity to generate a green psychokinetic energy within himself that he could shape through his willpower into any coherent form he can imagine -- the ring can have arbitrary weaknesses, because it's a construct and constructs often have flaws, the ring can be taken away from him, the ring can be neutralized, the ring has to be recharged, etc, etc -- but it makes him far less appealing to his target audience.
I venture to predict that if Green Lantern had, from the beginning, been given some sort of 'greenish power energy' by Abin Sur that somehow bonded itself with his metabolism and become a 'real' super power, and which, in every other way, acted as otherwise has been established, GL would have been as popular as Superman or Batman.
There are, I think, similar psychological reasons for why Iron Man has never had better than mediocre sales. Each character has vociferous cult followings, each character tends to be a favorite among many comics professionals, and I think that's because each character is very intelligently designed. However... kids just don't like artificial powers, no matter how well they're written.
Another case in point is the Legion of Superheroes. No kid I know ever even remotely questioned why the Legion had a rule about no one having artificial powers. From a more adult standpoint, the rule is ridiculous; a kid with a good set of powered armor he built himself, or a magic wand that can do nearly anything, should be just as effective a member as anyone with natural powers (and more so than, say, Dream Girl or Bouncing Boy; sorry, Chuck).
Still, everyone I've ever spoken with who loved the Silver Age Legion when they were a kid agrees with the rule, and the reasoning behind it seems to be quite simple: artificial powers are cheating. ANYone can get a jet pack and a ray gun. Given a choice between having the dopiest super power (like Super Bouncing; again, sorry, Chuck) and a fully functional power ring and power battery, I honestly think most kids would... well... at least hesitate, before they picked the power ring. I mean, 'real' powers are just BETTER than 'fake' powers. Sorry, but they are.
Yet another example, from my own personal experience, of how much I preferred 'real' powers, when I was a kid (and, honestly, still do) came out of the Marvel Comics character Nova. I read the first NOVA series in my early teens and kind of liked it, although, when John Buscema left the book, I kind of lost interest and drifted away from it after a few issues by his brother Sal. (The series was written by Marv Wolfman and honestly, wasn't very good; had it been a Steve Englehart title, I'm sure I'd have been a fan to the end.) Still, I liked the character, thought he had a good name, cool powers, a great looking costume, a decent origin.
When I got into college, a guy I hung around with at the time tried to argue that Rich Rider hadn't actually had any super powers; the strength, invulnerability, and flight had all come from his costume. When I pointed out that Rich had once knocked his own personal version of Flash Thompson (I think his name was Mike Burley, or something like that) fifty feet down an alley into a brick wall, this guy sneered snidely "He was wearing the uniform under his clothes" (another idiotic element of superhero comics; see Secret Identity, above).
However, I always knew that Rich had REAL super powers, and decades later, when he showed up with superstrength, flying around at superspeed, in sweats and a muscle shirt in NEW WARRIORS, I felt deeply vindicated.
Obviously, though, the major reason kids love the idea of super powers is the one we've already mentioned: the sheer, raw power. Labeling superhero comic books as adolescent power fantasies is perhaps something of an oversimplification, but it's still valid and accurate. Kids simply like the idea of being able to do things that are not normally within the bounds of day to day reality, especially if those things will allow them to more freely gratify the almost always frustrated desires of puberty and adolescence.
Face it, if Superman wants to reduce an entire school, and every teacher in it, to powder, nobody's going to send him to his room or give him a detention for doing it. And if the process of becoming an adult involves the gradual erosion of the active imagination, it also involves a growing necessity for accepting unpleasant realities.
These realities are many, and gruesome (we'll talk about this more in Death Traps & Resurrections), and one of them is, simply, that there are certain things we not only can't do, but that we're not allowed to do, and in fact, that we're supposed to feel guilty about even wanting to do.
Kids have not yet learned that it's wrong, not just to drop kick an annoying neighbor into the next county, but to even WANT to. They're perfectly happy with fantasizing about being someone who could do that, if he decided to, even if the average hero we fantasized about being was always giving annoying little speeches about how if he used his powers to beat up the school bully who picked on him, he'd be just as bad as Doc Ock and those other guys.
(Yeah, right. Doc Ock robs banks and drops chimneys on gentle, elderly, retired police captains. Nerds with sudden super strength who beat up the bullies who have been tormenting them for years are... well... they are not as bad as Doc Ock. Sorry, but they're not.)
Or, well, they (we) were content, back in the day. One of the most prevalent trends in the devolution from the Silver Age to the Modern Age was the presentation of characters who not just COULD act out antisocial whims, but who DID, too.
In the Silver Age, there were no characters who simply beat up or killed people out of childish pique, who broke things for the sheer joy of destruction, who went on nihilistic rampages just for fun. Crooks generally stole things in interesting ways (and always got caught by the hero at the end of the story), and even the major villains always had a reason for the evil actions they were undertaking.
In the Modern Age, more and more writers began revising old characters, and creating new ones, who used their powers more and more to indulge their own selfish, anti social whims. Lobo and Ambush Bug were bad enough in their selfish, chaotic nihilism, but even paragons like Superman and Batman started doing things like using their powers to advance their high school athletic careers, or commenting on just how much fun it was to brutalize a pimp.
And, again, while this is all a logical extension of the enjoyment most kids take in the idea of having super powers, it's a definite change in the use of that superheroic element from the old, Silver Age days of "with great power comes great responsibility".
This thing is getting long and I still have The Never Ending Battle ( AKA Fight Scenes), Truth, Justice, and the American Way (AKA the Morality), Faster Than A Speeding Bullet (AKA the Rubber Physics), The Life Eternal (Death Traps & Resurrections), and The Power Of A Name (Cool Sounding Hero & Villain Names) to do.
Rubber Physics will be easy because I'll just blow you off to my METAPHYSICS FOR METAHUMANS articles (get ahead of the curve and read them now!), but the rest will take a little while. So we'll get to those in Part 2, which hopefully I'll have thought of a good chapter name for by then.
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John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, no longer dwells in Marathon, IL. He once knew the Power & Glory of the Secret Identity, and would still, too, if his arch nemesis The Evil Captain Kurt had not revealed his true identity to the world on an ASTRO CITY chatboard. (Fortunately, very few people seem to read an ASTRO CITY chatboard, however, the Manhunter's pathetic and pitiable comedy relief buffoon villain Doltish Dave also revealed his true identity to the few remaining readers of CBEM a few weeks ago, as well, so what the hell.) However, under any name, many names, or none at all, he continues to fight his never ending battle for truth, cheap laughs, and the World Wide Web Way on this website and a couple of others roughly every week, more often during Sweeps Months.