A new superhero Humanism?

This article originally appeared on Fumo di China #272 (http://www.fumodichina.com/rivista/fumo-di-china-1.html)

Introduction

The relationship between ordinary men and beings with superpowers has been one of the crucial themes of the superhero genre since its inception. Furthermore, we argue that this theme has been the main spur to the development of the forms of expression of the genre itself. Over time, superhero stories have expressed existential, social, political, and cultural tensions through various types of superheroes: avengers or outcasts trying in search of social integration, figures with a monolithic or a fragmented individuality, role models or self-referential subjects.
However, lately we have been witnessing a new trend, with works that adopt different perspectives to the theme. It is our opinion that this new approach is the result of a peculiar narrative necessity. It is less a question of stylistic uniformity than of common poetics, namely the need to tell something that emerges from our human nature and is inevitable in our times. We define this new poetics as New Superhero Humanism, and we argue that this is, potentially, the most fertile framework in the current superhero fiction.

In this article we concisely analyze the expressive approach adopted by some of the main authors in this new course of superhero comics. We start with those authors whose work actually prompted our reflections, i. e. Tom King, Jeff Lemire, and Jason Aaron. Not only do these works show a high quality, but also a varied approach; moreover, they all appeared in the same period.
Other authors are following in the same path, from Greg Rucka (Wonder Woman), to Saladin Ahmed (Black Bolt) and Cullen Bunn (X-Men Blue). Our aim is neither to confine nor label these works, but rather to prompt a discussion on the relationship between poetic urgency and expressive modalities, and understand the reasons and the modes behind the representation of humankind conveyed by the superhero genre.

Tom King: death and necessity of exploring the human being

Tom King is, undoubtedly, one of the most representative authors of this new Superhero Humanism. In his works, in fact, he continuously develops the theme of the human being hidden behind the almost-divine mask of the superhero.    

The whole point of stories is to tell about the lives of others and to illuminate and reflect on those lives. To me, humanizing doesn’t feel like a choice. It doesn’t matter if they’re natural heroes or unintentional heroes. Do you ask, “Why do you get wet when you swim in the water?” It is just the nature of water. (Interview: PanelxPanel #4)

King has the striking ability to represent this search for humanity even through characters that are anything but human, as exemplified by the contradictory desire for normality of the android Vision – from the Marvel Comics maxi-series of the same name. The irrational nature of human desire undermines Vision’s formalistic approach to existence when he is confronted with the ultimate question of human life: death. The murder committed by a member of his synthezoid family is, in fact, the event that triggers Vision’s identity crisis.

“To assert as truth that which has no meaning is the core mission of humanity.” (Vision #1)

The experience with death, i.e. the protagonist’s attempted suicide, is the starting point of Mister Miracle, a running DC Comics 12-issue series about a God of New Genesis. Also Swamp Thing Winter Special #1 (February 2018) is similarly centered on the inevitability of death.
Although the frequent resurrections of these super-characters have somehow weakened the concept of mortality, death is still the elephant in the room and perceived as a threat. As a matter of fact, in King’s stories death is an unsettling presence, the ultimate end of existence. Furthermore, in order to have a stronger emotional response in his readers, he usually opts for the limited-issue maxi-series format, which itself posits the finiteness of his characters’ adventures. In sight of this, Batman is the most human hero, therefore (or rather, because) he is mortal. Then, it is no coincidence that King’s first story on the Dark Knight deals precisely with the boundaries between life and death.

A lot of my stories are about Batman’s mortality. To me that what makes Batman interesting or makes him sort of unique in the DC universe is that he’s like us, he can die, he can sacrifice himself. He’s not Superman, he’s not a god. He’s just doing the best he can with his will and his wits. (Interview: Comicbook.com)

Jeff Lemire and the value of identity

The common thread that connects the whole authorial and mainstream production of the Canadian author Jeff Lemire is a reflection on the hero’s identity and role within a family or a group context.
In Black Hammer Lemire clarifies, or better, codifies this narrative paradigm. In his award-winning Dark Horse Comics series, the author relates the question of identity with that of family role. The six protagonists share an everyday life that forces them into unwanted and unsuitable roles, members of a fake family that they had to create in order to appear normal in the eyes of the society.
Presenting their idiosyncrasies and difficulty in communicating with each other, Lemire analyzes and shows the usual dynamics of the family-microcosm. In doing so, Lemire seems to suggest that no family is really normal, and that family roles are, more often than not, the result of an imposition than free will, both for children and parents. Employing the superhero character as a narrative device, the author can foreground sentiments such as the desire for acceptance or the fear of conflict that remain unspoken in an ordinary family. Lemire’s superheroes end up being human on account of their faults and pettiness, and their legitimate pursuit of happiness in life and in the roles they are subjected to. Their anger, despair, and depression are their personal hell. Their soul is, in sum, an amplified version of ordinary people’s.

As previously mentioned, the notion of family role is strictly connected to that of identity, of which all heroes are in search throughout their whole career. Identity – be it personal, expectation-driven, or gendered – is a dynamic factor, it changes over time and forces each character to pursue an incessant, frustrating quest, which they have to carry out – especially when they play roles that differ from those performed by superheroes. In Lemire’s work, then, humanism is the representation of heroes’ intrinsic inability to be role models: they will always be human and, as such, unable to overcome their weaknesses and meanness cruelty, which make them part of human nature itself.

Jason Aaron and “The Goddess of Thunder”: on superheroes and weak gods

The superhero genre is a “modern” device to investigate human nature: its tireless quest for identity and answers, its endless struggle with doubts and sense of inadequacy. Nevertheless, it is mythology that provides the right tools for this investigation, along with the prototypes and archetypes of this never-ending journey. This is the reason why a character like Thor offers an additional interpretation to our analysis. In representing a point of contact between the superhero and the myth, Thor enables a direct comparison between man and god, which is the highest expression of humans’ search for their origins and life purpose.

If Walter Simonson and especially Dan Jurgens had investigated quite thoroughly the themes of the divine nature and the mortality in Thor stories, for Jason Aaron the relationship with a superior being becomes a moment of profound reflection on the mankind. Aaron, who is an atheist, develops a complex, multilayered discourse on men’s religiosity, spirituality, expectations, and doubts through a twofold narrative process: on the one hand, he attributes a human dimension of doubt and uncertainty to the divinity, on the other he elevates the mortal to a divine condition, taking the bad with the good in it. When he starts questioning himself and his own divinity, in fact, Thor becomes unworthy of wielding Mjolnir, but from his loss of faith he embarks on a path to re-discovering his own “worthy” identity.

Instead, the mortal Jane Foster has to fight the hardest battle of her life against her incurable illness – a condition that reveals how fundamentally frail human life is and, in denying the future, undermines one’s own individuality and sense of self. However, because of her condition she is deemed worthy of wielding Mjolnir. Not only does Jane gain a new identity, but she also acquires a new purpose and role as a heroine and a goddess. Jane’s encounter with the hammer represents her coming to terms with her own self, her willpower and courage, her potentialities and ambitions, and her lust for life. At the same time, it reveals God’s limit and humans’ limit to be the same: both cases illustrate the impossibility of saving everyone and everything and the necessity of making painful decisions that involve irremediable losses.

Thor and Jane similarly portray a humankind that is in search of God but finds out that God himself is humans’ own limit: he is but an ideal for which to strive, but actually impossible to reach, and a boundary that contains us but with which we never stop confronting ourselves.

To be continued…

The stories that we have here presented as examples of this so-called superhero humanism share a significant trait, that of being centered on adult age. These protagonists are all searching for and rebuilding their sense of being alive, and they expect to have a specific identity and a role in their society. They are not threatened by single emergencies, but instead by a condition of constant change, which jeopardizes the consolidation of their identity into a stable form.

The aforementioned authors re-elaborate the elements and narrative structures that underlie the superhero genre in order to convey the sense of disorientation caused by this unstable world. From this perspective, it is striking how they depict the superhero’s body, at times ill, weak, old, imprisoned in a discordant shape that does not correspond with the character’s self-perception.
On the other hand, our decision to posit the adult age as a constant of these works could be considered an interpretative limit, in that we are led to neglect products like Gwendolyn Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel, Jeff Lemire’s Plutona, or Cecil Castellucci’s Shade the Changing Girl. We realize that, on another occasion, our argument could be expanded by obliterating the distinction in age stages with their specific roles and responsibilities. In fact, we do not claim to have exhausted the topic. Our aim is to share inputs, suggestions, thoughts, and analyses. Should you find any weakness, we hope you would consider it an opportunity to exchange your opinions with us and together develop a more comprehensive proposal.

Article by Simone Rastelli, Emilio Cirri, Andrea Gagliardi, David Padovani
Translation from Italian by Sara Dallavalle

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