An Essay Upon the Matters of Superheroes and Psychology

In 1986 a comic known as “Watchmen” was released to the public. To many, it has since become one of the most important and influential comics ever created. It, along with “The Dark Knight Returns” (Henceforth referred to as “DKR” and released around the same time), serve as well written and thought provoking deconstructions of “the superhero.” Both comics strove to bring comic books into a somewhat more realistic light, “Watchmen” more so than “DKR.” These comics, whether you like them not, had a profound effect on comic books as a whole, causing the field to become darker and more concerned with the fallibilities and flaws of superheroes. Comic books began to be less for kids and more for cynical disenchanted adults. The fun was lost and “dark and shocking” moments became a very real problem afflicting the medium.

Deconstruction can be fun, in a pure and base sense: satire and parody come from this. It can also be educational, as the best reason to deconstruct something is to learn how to put it back together better. I am not the first to feel this way about the subject, but lately it has been bugging me more and more so now I put my words to paper, so to speak. Most people reading “Watchmen” and “DKR” in the late 80’s saw only the pure shock of grim and “realistic” heroes struggling with life. Very few noticed the subtle weavings in the characters that actually strove to tell a good story. The nuances and problems that the characters had were not there out of hate; they were commentary on life and strove to make those characters interesting so that we actually cared what happened to them.

One thing that sticks out is the supposed rational that it takes an “extreme” personality to put on a mask and costume and go fight crime. This is derived from the fact that all the heroes in “Watchmen” seem to have psychological fallibilities of their own; some have rebelled against this stating that it is not unlikely that heroes do these things simply to do good. I see a debatable topic there and feel that the notion of extreme personalities as required. The problem comes in that most believe an “extreme” personality means that the person having it is secretly a sexual deviant, violent, running from life, or actually in possession of self doubt.

I see this phenomenon differently. As humans I believe we are naturally good people; selfishness and cowardice are also intrinsic, but not entirely evil. Both are methods of self preservation which is not an evil thing. When we see, or hear, something bad happening it is not uncommon to wish to help, but sometimes we don’t because something tells us we could get hurt and there is a very practical sense to that; If one is killed while trying to save anther then that is a total loss of two and thus useless. A person who fails to act to save someone is not necessarily a bad person, just inhibited by his natural coding. To break free from the bonds of nature one must possess a personality that exceeds nature’s control.

To say that one has an “extreme” personality because they are mentally unhinged is erroneous; you are describing a character trait, not personality. An extreme personality to me is someone who feels so strongly about something that they have no choice but to act. This can be for god or for evil, and falls along a standard scale.

At the base level are normal people, inherently good but ineffectual. Some may have a problem referring to people as “inherently good” but as this is a discussion of superheroes I feel we all share a common belief in good, thus the common level for people should be “good” otherwise why do we believe they are worth saving? Beyond that are those who recognize the need for good, they are opportunists, acting for goods purpose when they have the chance and are in low risk; examples might be “big brothers,” shelter volunteers and such. Even more are those who choose to put their life on the line, admittedly with at least some promise of safety, I would place cops and firemen in these situations. Beyond that are those who join more elite groups with greater risk of danger, providing that their enlistment saves them from greater blame and hopefully some damage; Here I see soldiers and advanced response groups, people who strive to do good and are willing to risk a lot for it but hope that their training and compatriots will save them. At the top level are those who will do good no matter what the cost, their safety is not their concern all that matters is the mission; these are the Gandhis of the world, thus Gandhi possessed an extreme personality.

I try to use this rationality when developing my own characters and heroes. For examples I will use two of my own creations: Titanium and Fire Devil. Titanium an example of the extreme personality, in his civilian identity he was a well adjusted person, but aimless and with very low levels of responsibility. Titanium felt very strongly that good should overcome evil, he was the “listener” of the group constantly trying to help his friends and always looking for some way to be useful. He knew that putting on a costume and fighting crime would get him killed, but one day when he saw someone about to be struck down he acted and saved that person’s life. He had no care for his own life, and as a result he was struck with a beam that should have killed him, instead he got super powers, as many scientific accidents do. Once blessed with even the hint of being able to do good his true heart came forth and he began to throw himself into hopeless situation after hopeless situation. He is not the greatest hero, many greater than him could be named, but he keeps trying because his desire for good, and his need to help people falls into the extreme. He has no major flaws other than being somewhat lame and a nerd, he’s just a hero.

Fire Devil is a different breed. While his initial outing could classify him with the extreme people he falls somewhere below. He was a good man, brother to a fireman. After his brother died in suspicious circumstances he acquired the ability to help and set out against an evil greater than him to take it down. He was a hero, and he fought evil, but I would not classify his personality as extreme. He lacks constant motivation to keep fighting crime, believing that there were others already doing what needed to be done. However he keeps his abilities and readily joined a team in an effort to do good. His personality is not extreme, but he is a great man willing to put his life on the line, as long as he has the ability to do so.

In opposition to this are the villains, their personalities just as extreme, but the motivating factors behind them lead to a darker past. Had Titanium been an abused child, or lacked the friends he so often helped he may have been a simple opportunist, or a petty thief. Had he acquired powers past that he might have progressed into a crazed murderer, using his image and powers for the sake of murder and evil. Take away Fire Devil’s brother, give him a deviant back ground, and perhaps he would not be the hero and instead would join the sinister six.

“Watchmen” is a brilliant story, and no less so is DKR, but a side effect of their brilliance was a wave of darkness that permeated comics. Some of that darkness is fading away, and truly we may be headed into another age. I write this as backup for why we should keep changing and not revert to the days of darkness. We now know what makes heroes and what makes them tick, we know the horrors they face in their job and the bad things that can happen to them. We don’t need to write about those, instead we must use that information to make our heroes better, stronger, and more…well…more heroic.

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One thought on “An Essay Upon the Matters of Superheroes and Psychology

  1. The dark, violent heroes of the nineties really made us consider what our heroes might be made of, especially if we follow the trail of their motivations against a backdrop of supposed realism. Most writers did use this to make our heroes less heroic, in a kind of post-modern, nothing-is-sacred mentality. I agree with you, that the coming age in comics should use what we’ve learned, and what we’ve gained, to build heroism to brilliant heights as we cheer for those that stand against the darkness without and within and are inspirationally triumphant.

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