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Last Updated: Friday, 2 June 2006, 12:26 GMT 13:26 UK
Whatever happened to the superheroes of old?
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Batwoman as seen in DC's 52
Batwoman has been reinvented as a 'lipstick Lesbian'

With Batwoman reinvented as a lesbian (see picture, right), Spider-Man beset by personal problems and the X-Men hailed as a parable of scientific oppression of minorities, the old-fashioned comic superhero seems to have been vanquished.

When Superman first appeared in the 1930s, he was for many a symbol of patriotism and pure-spirited heroism in an increasingly fragile world.

As the cataclysm of World War II approached children could take solace in the simple notion of a Man of Steel who was capable of stopping any enemy.

Today, we are in the grip of a wave of success for comic book conversions at the box office, with the Spider-Man and X-Men series proving monster hits.

And the characters are proving to be in close touch with the Zeitgeist, tapping into an overwhelming feeling of global self-doubt best exemplified by Tobey Maguire's take on Peter Parker.

He is a Spider-Man whose personal life and existential crises become so serious that his powers begin to fade and he decides to quit the hero business.

Until probably the late 1960s everybody was a 'neutral' white Anglo-Saxon Protestant
Danny Fingeroth
Comics critic

The adjective "cartoonish" is usually taken to mean a gross over-simplication, and yet we are now used to seeing comic superheroes rich in complexity and reflecting the diversity of a multi-cultural society.

Danny Fingeroth, a former group editor of Spider-Man comics and author of Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society, says comics have changed to reflect society over the years.

"Until probably the late 1960s everybody was a 'neutral' white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Even if you had a street scene in New York or Chicago everybody was white.

"The move towards realism was originated by Stan Lee and his collaborators in the Marvel Comics of the 1960s. They put in black characters, Hispanic characters. Along with that came an attempt to have more realistic personalities and reactions to things."

Marginalised group

"Along with the complexity in personality, came the complexity portrayal of society."

Many believe Superman to be an emblem of Jewishness
Both his creators were Jewish
His Kryptonian name, Kal-el, sounds Hebrew
His story can be viewed as an allegory of immigration & assimilation
There were early liberated female characters like Wonder Woman, an Amazon picked to fight the Nazis in 1941.

But as Fingeroth notes, they do it "while wearing stiletto heels and heavily padded brassieres and generally show more flesh than the men. It was still a fairly marginalised group".

Ethnic minority superheroes made a leap forward with the first black central character in 1966, the Black Panther, the king of a fictional African country. Ten years later Storm, a black female character, now played by Halle Berry in the X-Men movies, arrived.

These are the pre-cursors of DC Comics recent decision to reinvent the Blue Beetle, a superhero whose alter-ego used to be white and is now a Hispanic teenager, or Martha Washington, Dark Horse Comics' black hero from Chicago's notorious Cabrini Green housing projects.

Alongside this diversity, the flaws, doubts and moral ambiguousness of characters has mushroomed. But if movie fans were to read a modern comic they would see a world of darkness a million miles away from the original Man of Steel.

In 1993 Superman was killed (although, in a move that wouldn't be unfamiliar to soap opera fans, he was later resurrected). In the recent DC series Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis well-known characters are killed, turn evil, and in some cases are even raped.

Graphic novels

Suitable for eight-year-olds they are not.

Since the 1960s, "the audience is no longer mostly children, it's more and more adults," says Fingeroth.

The Blue Beetle's alter-ego (centre)
The Blue Beetle has become a Hispanic teenager
"The current crop of superhero movies are where the comics were in 1967. In Spider-Man there is a certain amount of complexity but he is essentially the guy who means well and has a pure heart."

Comics historian Peter Sanderson, writer for the online journal Comics in Context and author of the Ultimate Guide to the X-Men, cites the rise of the graphic novel, a more ambitious and lengthy art form than comics.

These novels, pioneered by Will Eisner, have gone much further in their attempts to explore more difficult issues like the politics of immigration, race, sex, and authoritarianism.

The novels, with their parallels with movie storyboards, are popular choices for conversion by Hollywood: Alan Moore's V for Vendetta being a recent example.

"They can be sold in bookstores, stocked in libraries," says Sanderson. "The audience has got older and more literate. You have writers who have had to do more sophisticated material and sometimes to their own surprise there is an audience for it.

Jane Czyzselska, editor of lesbian glossy DIVA, welcomes the new Batwoman
'Why not have gay characters. It shouldn't be a big deal'
'It seems like the comic writers do have more of an outsider sensibility'
"But children are exposed to so much through the new media, these days even they are getting more sophisticated."

And in the more conventional comics a constant challenge arises because of the incredible longevity of the characters.

Fingeroth says perhaps only James Bond has been doing his action thing anywhere near as long as the likes of Superman, Batman and Spider-Man.

"Comics are read by aficionados. Everybody in the world knows Superman and Batman and yet very few people actually buy comic books. In order to appeal to the jaded, sophisticated reader you will find stuff introduced of a controversial aspect to a character."

But away from the rise of multi-culturalism in the comics, there are some who feel the parallel descent into darkness has gone too far, and long for an age of more heroic heroes.

"There are a number of people in the comics business who do want to recapture a sense of pure heroism in the characters.

"They think that something has been lost with the increasing stories that focus too much on the character flaws and the dark side of the heroes."

Here is a selection of your comments.

Heroes with 'problems' mirror the characters in the popular soaps. I therefore suspect it is a way for typically insecure (though undeniably gifted) media people to project their personal problems on the rest of us while also evading the increasingly difficult task of originating new dramatic plotlines by focussing on emotional hang-ups. The aforementioned gifts notwithstanding, this is much easier if you, the writer, suffer from the same kind of disturbances and are even more stressed out by encroaching deadlines. But in this way, unhappily, both popular soaps and action-hero movies have steadily down-spiralled from the good old comic-book narratives of the 1950s and early 60s, when I was a lad.
Alan O'Reilly N. Yorks

Heroes in the 1940s were simplistic, but with noble and self-sacrificing personalities. In the 1960s they were neurotic and self-doubting. By 2000 they had become thugs, killing foes they regard as subhuman. You can tell a lot about a society by who it regards as a hero.
Richard Hough, Vancouver, Canada

Interestingly, while mentioning Superman as one of the old guard, a point this article doesn't really raise is that, amidst all the titles and characters it's discussing, there are still Superman titles being put out that establish the character (seen by too many people as boring and one-dimensional) as the noble, shining light of superheroes. The major in-continuity Superman titles, for example, currently consist of a quite uplifting, and very movie-like in tone, story with all the classic elements intact; while there are spin-off titles such as Grant Morrison's "All-Star Superman" that quite deliberately hearken back to the fondly-remembered older days of the character.

The diversification of comics characters is, of course, to be welcomed; but sometimes it's nice to see that fashionable "gritty darkness" and social angst don't always make their way into every corner of superhero comics - and that it's still possible to see the likes of Superman as a beacon of hope.
Seb Patrick, Oxford, UK

Jack Bauer is the only true superhero. He would defeat Batman, Spiderman, Wonderwoman, Superman in the space of 24 hours
Barry, Scotland

What about just enjoying stories, movies, comics and books for what they are... stories. Some people take things too far. Stop analysing everything... it's sad!
Gareth Punton, Hong Kong

Superman did not start out as a patriot, but a Depression-era leftist radical vigilante. Spider-Man has struggled with personal problems and existential angst since he was first introduced back in the early sixties. Super-heroe stories in general have been making a serious push towards complexity and social-consciousness since the 70s being spear-headed by writers Dennis O'Neal at DC Comics. Batwoman is not even the first gay super-hero. She's just the first one to be associated with a character that the non-comic-reading community can recognize.
Jacob R, El Sobrante, CA

Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Art Spiegelman... the list of comic book writers who have tackled challenging and powerful themes goes on and on. Not all are successful, but what is certain is that this is nothing new. Even when Frank Miller's "Dark Knight Returns" burst onto the scene in the mid-Eighties and redefined Batman for the modern era writers had been producing mature and intelligent comics for some time.

Additionally, comic books can be used encourage young reluctant readers to explore literature, which is why we should see more books like Maus and Watchmen in public libraries and even on school curricula.
John Kearney, Worcs

It surprises me that this article did not include the state of current British comic superheroes, eg Pendragon et al. British comics and science fiction should be better known in North America and throughout the English speaking world.
Donald A. Petkus, Bloomington,, Indiana USA

Killing off large numbers of characters, some of whom (like the second Blue Beetle - Ted Kord) were lighthearted and much loved, and some of whom were powerful women (Jade), and torturing and raping other mostly cheerful and heroic people doesn't seem the right way to go about it. Nor is the representation of minorities that simple.

Early black characters, such as the Black Panther and Storm were never actually Afro-American. I think the first home-grown streetwise one was probably Luke Cage, Hero for Hire - and most people will not have heard of him. What's more, his book ran longest when he was teamed with a rich, white male (Iron Fist.)

While there have been non-white, female and gay characters for a long time now, very, very few of them can 'carry' a comic series. Though there are a few female super-heros who have their own on-going book (Wonder Woman is the most notable example, and please note she is not human in current continuity) most female, non-white and gay characters are in supporting roles or part of a team.
Lil Shepherd, London, UK

Spiderman and Tobey Maguire's version on him, the films actually pretty closely reflect the comics. The character of Peter Parker is forever in turmoil over the responsibilities his abilities give him and how this affects his personal relationships.
Kev, Manchester

I think that comics have grown up since I started reading them 30 years ago. Not a bad thing, as I regard some works such as Hellblazer & The Sandman as rich literary and artistic creations. They provoke thought and imagination in the reader the same way good poetry, writing and art can. Society has become less prim and proper to some degree and real life issues are not swept under the carpet and comics reflect this. There is always room for "superheroes" with depth. Just look at Tolkien's guilt ridden Frodo!
Krish, Bath

As a fan of DC and Marvel Comics, I'm all for all sorts of diversity and twists to characters and storylines. However, I'm not of the opinion that a certain stereotypical character (gay, hispanic, etc) should be created purely because there isn't one around at the moment. Characters should be carefully nurtured before being delivered to the fans, not just put out for the sake of it. I'm sure the new Batwoman and Blue Beetle, however, will be successes.
Dave, Ferndale, Wales

Diversity in comics... I seem to remember that in the '50s the "Blackhawks" were composed of a 'Multicultural' collection of characters...and we readers always suspected that "Frenchie" was "that way"
Dan Kurtzweil, L.A CA USA

Comics do reflect society. There is no pure hero anymore, like Superman of old, because society has lost its sense of clear right and wrong. Compare Harry Potter with Narnia, for example. Pity the society that lets Superman die, for without the sense of right which creates heroes, we are left in an apocalyptic fight with only loosers.
Mark Nelson, Tallinn, Estonia

Whats the big deal - there have been lesbian and gay characters in the comic books for years. Mystique is bisexual, Northstar is gay and Sunfire is lesbian. Surely they are just reflecting culture as a whole? I dont even see why a lesbian Batwoman is even a newsworthy item.
Stewart, Sheffield

What happened to the Superhero of Old? Like the author says, Marvel comics and others left the simplistic hero behind decades ago. In fact X-Men and Spiderman (both Marvel comics) have held deeper meanings throughout my entire lifetime. I think what movies like X-Men and Spiderman have done is open the stories of these comics to a wider audience and dispelled the myth that these heroes were in any way simplistic. Batman is another good example, the popular Adam West TV series portrayed a lighter, goofier Batman world to a large audience. But to assume that this portrayl came before the darker character would be to ignore Batman's fundamental role as "The Dark Knight."
Robert, Chicago, US

Why do we insist on giving comics all of this jounalistic and academic attention? They appeal to a relatively small group of people and do not, as many claim, offer any great insight into any society. They tell us a little about geeky, unpopular white guys, but little else.
Rick Gilman, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, USA

While comics are becoming more sohpisticated in their outlook and the issues they deal with, the Japanese have been doing it for decades through their own comics - manga.
Karn G. Bulsuk, Bangkok, Thailand

It seems odd that our society goes to great lengths to "cover all the bases" in terms of ethinic, social and physical diversity - which is a good thing - yet places so little importance on truth and courage when we're looking for heroes. I think it's a shame that we have no old-fashioned "good vs evil" heroes anymore...Our role models have become Z-list celebrities who are famous for being famous (or infamous!) - it's no wonder even our superheroes are questioning their reason for living!
Miranda , Stourbridge, UK

Literate older readers are actually the problem the comic book industry faces. There is very little being done to attract the game playing, TV consumed youngsters to mythology based "Super-lit." Sales continue to drop at the stands as the publishing machine sells the creative library off to film franchises. Meanwhile to find ANY audience, the books get older, darker with heroes that used to be our ray of light.
Craig Wilson, Vancouver, Canada

I always liked the "human" in "superhuman". Is a lesbian Batwoman a step too far? Like most red-blooded males I'll be saying "no" because it is a character I like but I don't identify with, but I can imagine the outcry if they tried to portray an established mainstream hero like Batman or Superman homosexual.
Anon, UK

Superheroes (and heroines)! are supposed to inspire.... we don't go to the cinema to see people moralising - we go there to get away from this world into one of good and evil, black and white....
Gareth James Thomas, Oxford, UK

To be honest I'm getting a little bored of superheroes being dark and edgy. When every superhero has some dark psychosis, or has their supporting cast raped/murdered/turn evil (or all of the above) it's a little dull.
David J, Cardiff

Comic fans have known that Batman has an existential crisis for years. He was the first hero who had a dilemma as to whether he was there to get the bad guys or to be an avenging angel, a pull between justice bringer and fascist vigilante.
Paul, Brighton

Sheesh! It's a comic for crying out loud. My trusty pile of 2000AD more than makes up for the dubious colour of my bathroom suite and I certainly don't get all existential in my moments of deepest concentration. Unless it was a really good night. Enjoy the artwork and the stories for what they are - escapism and a bit of fun.
Nige, Taunton

I think Superman dying was crazy. I grew up on believing that superman was indestructable through comics, films etc. All of a sudden i was in a comic book shop in 1993 or just after and saw Superman Dead! it just wiped out my entire belief that a hero(superman) was indestructable.he was just like anyone, he could be killed.
Anon, UK

We no longer live in a world like that of America during the Cold War where nations stood behind their governments to make the right decisions and fight for "true causes". As a society we don't have faith in those who have the power to be our heroes and that lack of belief is reflected in our fiction. Perhaps it's a lack of naivety that those who represent us are always on the side of "right" or perhaps it is the degeneration of our fictional heroes through trying to include all the diversities and complexities that societies now carry. I like to think that it is a people who feel more independent and stronger themselves, more empowered to be their own heroes and want that reflected in those they aspire to be.
Stephen F, Belfast

There's nothing wrong with having lesbian, gay or transgendered superheroes. The problem is that they're often being reinvented from old established characters. Batwoman always was a straight woman with an odd love-hate relationship to Batman. To suddenly make her a lesbian arouses the suspicion DC Comics are jumping on a LGBT bandwagon. After the media have ceased to be bothered, they'll probably put Batwoman quietly back the way she was. Why not a new lesbian character?
John Gammon, Brighton, UK

Comic books of the recent generation have grown up into an alternative form of literature. Now children don't read comics, they play computer games and watch TV. The age of "The man of steel" has passed and the simplistic ideals they represented have been replaced with something more 'real'. Stan Lee has created heros people can associate with and as such are more believable. Spiderman is a perfect example, a teenager trying to balance his private and 'super' lives.
Stuart, London

This is just a cynical way of plagiarising all the old, familiar stories whilst giving the superhero a new identity, so that the story can appear to be different. Batwoman is exploiting the modern-day obsession for kinky sex at the cost of our children's innocence.
Paul Dermot, Swindon

In addition to comics reflecting society they can also have a knock-on effect on society. It is all very well portraying comic book hero's as flaw-filled people with huge problems of their own but this has the potential of reducing the faith on society that anyone can be completely good and self-sacrificing. comic books used to be an escape but now they seem to be more "real" than life itself. Bring back the simple good triumphing over evil that we saw in the 60s and try to do something about this jaded view of society. What happened to people trying to see the good in others?
Andy, Liversedge

Superman as indestructable seems to be making a bit of a comeback, but there are two problems with an invulnerable superhero. First, there were Superman comics in the 1950s that played on relationship difficulties in the life of Superman (fans will know what I mean), and those were the interesting ones. But ones that ignored relationships with other people were quite boring.

Second, someone who is invulnerable has to be presented with a challenge for the comics to be interesting. Fighting mobsters and pushing trains when the power fails isn't interesting, because "any superhero can do that". Only when a superhero is presented with a real challenge (e.g., city-eating monsters or the darker parts of human nature) do superhero stories get interesting. Who wants to read yet another action comic? They're a dime a dozen.
Joseph, New Jersey, USA

Thank goodness the good old British comic - 2000AD - haven't changed much. Judge Dredd is still out there, oppressing the masses. The personal problems that Dredd has gained from all these years (namely his fear of being replaced because of his age) is a logical step forward in the story progression rather than some kind of transparent attempt to conform with political correctness. I'm sure there's a lesson to be learnt here.
Karl, Guildford

I find it strange that only now the media is picking up on whats happening in comics. Batwoman is being brought back as a lesbian, so what. Characters in comics have had all sorts of real life issues and vices for years, during the image comics boom of the early 90's. Shadowhawk was a character with aids and he was black. Blade(made famous by the films) started his comic book career in 1973 and has been going ever since.
Paul Jones, Newcastle upon tyne

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