The tears of Doctor Doom Superheroes battling the mainstream

For so long I’d thought Abraham’s legacy was mine: to retreat upstairs, unable or unwilling to sing or fly, only to compile and collect, to sculpt statues of my lost friends, life’s real actors, in my Fortress of Solitude.

— Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude.

When Scott Bukatman wrote his influential piece ‘X-Bodies (The Torment of the Mutant Superhero)’ in 1994, he tangentially spoke about how he’d be embarrassed to mention this topic at parties or to include superhero comics amongst his more credible, independent comic purchases (29). 

It’s hard to imagine academics gazing shyly at the floor while discussing the X-Men any longer. The booming interest in superhero movies, books and television has been mirrored by a landslide of academic attention. The appeal of superhero nar-ratives for theorists is obvious, especially when the hero-versus-villain conflict becomes remixed and replaced with battles between differing texts and traditions (30). In Planetary/Batman: Night On Earth (2003), heroes find themselves fighting shifting parallel-world versions of Batman, including both Miller’s Dark Knight and Adam West’s cheesy TV hero. Characters from strange, occasionally obscure parallel worlds remain in memory, instantly accessed and recycled to serve a new narrative function (31). Countdown: Arena (2007) literalises Collins’ meta-semiotic arena, forcing different versions of the same character – for example, Victo-rian Batman versus Vampire Batman, or American Superman versus Soviet Superman – to fight for textual legitimacy. Cold-eyed academics aren’t at all sympathetic to the tears of Doctor Doom and are more interested in the superhero comics that feel like action-packed, theoretical fictocriticism. Klock’s chapter ‘The Superhero as Critic’ suggests that comic books often blend action and theory into a single, blurred textuality (32).

As Bukatman’s anecdotal admission shows, however, the academic motive for writing about superheroes goes beyond interest in their chaotic textual permutations. Jenkins writes that reading particular Justice League comics gives him the “sense of returning home – of re-encountering the comics I remembered from my boyhood”; Fingeroth says his book on superhero psychology “quickly became very personal” (33); Bukatman admits that there is “an autobiography entrenched in ‘X-Bodies’” (34).

What is it about superhero analysis that brings out the autobiographer in its theorists? As with Pop Will Eat Itself’s subcultural namedropping, superhero theorists must prove their cultural credentials. It’s not enough just to have watched the appropriate TV and films. New York’s Spider-Man Week was, after all, inspired by Spider-Man 3, a film dealing with Peter Parker’s newfound fame and acceptance, and how it corrupted him. Spider-Man Week is exactly the kind of event – to awkwardly mix Marvel and DC metaphors – to function as Spider-Man’s own kryptonite. For those who possess the correct, long-term niche knowledge of the comic book fan, there is something inherently disquieting about superheroes thrust into the mainstream.

The current wave of box-office glory means wearing a Batman logo splashed across your chest is more likely fashion than fandom. Superheroes, however, always possess outsider status. It is part of their investment in perpetual adolescence, and the only thing that allows Steven T. Seagle an entry point into the Superman array to begin his It’s A Bird… graphic novel. His girlfriend finally convinces him to take on the project by explaining that Superman is “an outsider, just like you” (35). Without that status, the logic of the secret identity also short-circuits. The appeal of that secrecy is primal because it allows the possibility we might have an amazing or dangerous secret just underneath our everyday clothes: “Don’t underestimate me. I may not be who you think I am” (36).

Possession of the strange facts of fantastically trivial knowledge marks the comic fan as special, though some might publicly display their fan status with superhero collectables and T-shirts, while others keep their interest a secret (37). Their knowledge transforms potential ordinariness into the ‘calculated ordinariness’ of a heroic alter ego. By publishing their knowledge in an academic paper, theorists might be imagined as taking off their glasses, opening their shirts and revealing the true colours of fannish iconography hidden underneath.

So, with a wink out of the page at you – because I trust you not to reveal my secret identity – it seems only appropriate to admit that, yes, it was me, walking the streets of New York during Spider-Man Week. My reaction to the posters glibly reading “A Hero Comes Home” was split between critic and fan, secret and public, inside and out. I was touched to see so much love for poor, hard-luck Spider-Man spilling out into the mainstream. At the same time, I couldn’t help looking at all these so-called fans and thinking: A hero comes home? Spider-Man never left – where were you?


(1) Matthew Pustz, Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 1999, p. 6.

(2) Danny Fingeroth, Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society, Continuum, New York, 2004, pp. 169–70.

(3) Ian Gordon, ‘Nostalgia, Myth, and Ideology: Visions of Superman at the End of the “American Century”’, Matthew P. McAllister and Edward H. Sewell (eds) Comics & Ideology, Peter Lang, New York, 2001, p. 178.

(4) Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio, ‘I’m Not Fooled by That Cheap Disguise’, Pearson and Uricchio (eds) The Many Lives of the Batman, Routledge, London, 1991, p. 182.

(5) Fingeroth, p. 45.

(6) Pustz, p. 71.

(7) Fingeroth, p. 27.

(8) Luca Somigli, ‘The Superhero with a Thousand Faces: Visual Narratives on Film and Paper’, Andrew Horton and Stuart Y. McDougal (eds) Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes, University of California Press, Los Angeles, 1998, p. 290.

(9) Geoff Klock, How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, Continuum, New York, 2002, p. 5.

(10) Jim Collins, ‘Batman: The Movie, Narrative: The Hyperconscious’, Pearson and Uricchio, p. 170.

(11) Klock, p. 26.

(12) Henry Jenkins, ‘“Just Men in Tights”: Rewriting Silver Age Comics in an Era of Multiplicity’, The Comic Book Superhero, Routledge, New York, (forthcoming).

(13) Angela Ndalianis, ‘Enter the Aleph: Superhero Worlds and Hypertime Realities’, The Comic Book Superhero.

(14) Jenkins.

(15) Scott Bukatman, ‘X-Bodies (The Torment of the Mutant Superhero)’, Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century, Duke University Press, Durham, 1994, p. 54.

(16) Fingeroth, p. 152.

(17) Gordon, p. 177.

(18) Ndalianis.

(19) Fingeroth, p. 155.

(20) Ndalianis.

(21) Ibid.

(22) Bukatman, p. 54.

(23) Joseph Torchia, The Kryptonite Kid, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York, 1979, p. 7.

(24) Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude: A Novel, Faber & Faber, London, 2003, pp. 271, 179.

(25) Gary Engle, ‘What Makes Superman So Darned American?’ in Jack Nachbar and Kevin Lause (eds) Popular Culture: An Introductory Text, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, Bowling Green, Ohio, 1992, p. 341.

(26) Klock, p. 21.

(27) Fingeroth, p. 59.

(28) Newsarama 2006, ‘J. Michael Straczynski on The Other, The New Costume and More’, <>.

(29) Bukatman, p. 52.

(30) Klock, p. 154.

(31) Collins, p. 132.

(32) Klock, p. 168.

(33) Fingeroth, p. 175.

(34) Bukatman, p. 51.

(35) Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen, Superman: It’s a Bird…, DC Comics, New York, 2004, p. 20.

(36) Fingeroth, p. 60.

(37) Pustz, p. 69.