A long time ago, The American Superhero weren't people with special powers and abilities. They were also our friends.
Back in Superman: The Movie Superman called himself a friend. It was one of the most endearing moments in that classic film.
In comics, a superhero used to be a friend to the reader. Someone they could trust. Someone who made parents feel safe when their kids picked up a copy of their comics. Characters who had a presence that reassured readers that good triumphed over evil and never crossed the line in the sand. Generations of readers saw comic book superhero as good people who had a personal connection to the fictional communities they lived in. People who felt they had a duty to protect those people who couldn’t protect themselves from dangers that were beyond the capacities of Law Enforcement to handle.
Unfortunately, today, superheroes aren’t our friends. In today’s comics they’re portrayed as aloof overlords who believe that they’re doing everyone a favor by protecting society from itself. In fact many believe they are better than the people they’re supposed to protect and serve and look down at the masses they protect and pity them. Yes, they triumph over evil. But we have no idea how good they actually are. Or how good a role model they are for children.
Today, some superheroes believe they’re better than other heroes. And most spend more time fighting each other than the bad guys. Instead of adventures where good triumphs over evil, stories focus on how power inflates their egos.
In some ways today’s comic book superheroes are just as bad as the bad guys they profess to protect the world from. With the arrogant way many superheroes are portrayed today in today’s comics, it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys.
Over the last 25 years, the Superhero genre of comics gone from a bright four-colored world of Black and white ideals filled with inspiration and hope to a muddy gray area filled with drab colored characters filled with doom and gloom.. In these dark tales like Identity Crisis and Civil War, they don’t have any lines to demarcate between what’s good or evil.
I have to wonder: Is this dark gloomy story model a sign of the times we live in? Or Were Mark Waid and Alex Ross foreshadowing the future of superheroes in Kingdom Come back in 1999? It’s a question I don’t have an answer for.
All I know is superhero comic books aren’t fun anymore. Everything is dark and moody and all the characters we used to be friends with are angry brooding and bitter about their lives. They aren’t the kinds of people a reader wants to spend time with. Nor are they the kinds of adventures a casual reader would feel comfortable spending $4 on. With so many options available to make a person smile, why would anyone want to spend money reading about the adventures of someone who’s miserable?
The downcast paternalistic perception of today’s superheroes in comics has turned many readers off. Instead of being a beacon of hope who shows readers the best humanity has to offer, today’s comic book superhero has become a cold distant person who shows humanity at its worst. They believe they’re acting in the best interests of others, but in actuality they’re acting only in their best interests.
I wondered what happened over the last 40 years to change the way writers and artists perceived the relationship between superheroes and the communities they served. Again, were Mark Waid and Alex Ross foreshadowing the future of superheroes in 1999?
I remember when I wrote about a heroine with the same viewpoints as today’s superheroes back in 1999. Her name was Isis.
And because she had the same paternalistic view today’s superheroes had, the Elder gods imprisoned her on an uninhabited island to keep her from being a danger to those around her.
Like the third generation superheroes in Kingdom Come Isis felt justified in her callous views of people after experiencing decades of White Supremacy and racism in America. After the lynching of her husband and murder of her baby, she felt she had a right to mete out retribution on America. Thankfully, she had a family of older, more experienced Egyptian gods there to help her see the error of her ways and persuade her to come to terms with her losses and what she was about to lose.
I’ll admit Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come was one of the major influences on me writing Isis. From that story I saw how the modern superhero had changed from a person who saw themselves as person in service the community to a god looking to be served by the masses. Instead of being someone people loved and had a personal connection to, they became entities the world feared.
Kingdom Come helped me to understand the dynamics between the relationships of superheroes and the communities they served. I saw parallels between them and the legendary gods of Egyptian mythology like Seth. How great power used irresponsibly by immoral people can corrupt absolutely.
I also saw in Kingdom come how the fragile humanity of the American superhero was what led to a generation being lost. How when Superman lost Lois he lost his connection to humanity. And how the everyday slights and ungratefulness of public masses that took its heroes for granted led led to the emotional disconnect between the superhero and the communities they served. And how one tragic event led to these so-called gods meting out harsh justice through their wrath.
Sadly in comics the Kingdom is here. And unfortunately, there’s no older Superman to guide the next generation and be the moral compass to a new generation of comic book creators. In the world of the New 52 Superman is no longer a friend. He’s presented as just as malicious and depraved as many of the young third-generation heroes in Waid and Ross’ masterpiece.
There has to be some way to persuade today’s writers and artists that the American comic book superhero has lost their way. That the narrative has been corrupted. That the heroes who once stood for truth and justice now are their own worst enemies. Glorified villains who trample over the ideologies they once stood for in a quest to protect people for their own good. It’s a sad day when mainstream superheroes like DC’s Justice League act more like their evil alternate universe counterparts the Justice Lords. Even sadder that no writer has asked the question posed in Watchmen and Disney’s The Incredibles: If the heroes are going to protect us, who’s going to protect us from them?
I believe there’s a road back for the American superhero in comics. That they can find the light at the end of this dark tunnel and go back to being our friends. When I wrote Isis, Osiris’ daughter was pulled back from the line between good and evil with the love of her father and stepmother. And over time she reconnected with her community and became the goddess next door in the Isis series books. A neighbor people can go to in times of need and ask for help and advice. And like Superman, a friend. I think with great writers telling great stories again, superheroes can grow to become the friends to a new generation of readers.