As superheroes enjoy a cultural renaissance on the big and small screens, Lawrence Rider looks to history to ask why these very American icons seem to thrive in times of political uncertainty.
09 February 2004

Superheroes are somewhat popular at the moment. It seems you can't move without facing some kind of superhero-related product, be it action figures, movies, TV series or even, yes, comics; they're everywhere. The men in spandex have invaded, and are making their presence known.

Flash back about five or six years and superhero fans would have been laughed at for having an unhealthy love of such things, and would most likely have found themselves relegated to the corner of a darkened room with the role-players and the anti-social indie kids who nobody really liked anyway. Now if you have a passion for those men in tights, you can walk relatively freely among normal people, no longer afraid of their scorn, while your dice-hugging companions are still in their corner, only venturing out to see the latest instalment in the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy.

So what's changed? Why have superheroes entered the public consciousness in such a way that they seem to be propagating and spawning new versions of themselves?

Perhaps it's to do with the climate of uncertainty in the world today, a world where we're almost constantly bombarded with the threat of global terrorism and radical religious groups trying to erode our freedoms. Maybe that's what makes us long for heroes.

'Superheroes gain in popularity during periods of recession and war.' The longing for someone to save us is as old as time, tracing its way back to the early religions, when the Gods would protect our ancestors from being eaten by marauding beasts, and provide them with the essentials of life. This followed through into later religions where the Gods became civilisers, but still remained our protectors.

The Gods of old can be seen in many ways as the superheroes of their day, fictional characters designed to bring comfort and order to a world that was quite disturbing and made very little sense. In this way they laid the groundwork for the superheroes that arose in the early 20th century.

The concept of superheroes came from the newborn American comic industry, at a time when the world was getting ready to go to war. The idea of beings that could save us from these impending horrors was particularly appealing to an American populace that had just emerged from the Depression only to head straight into a looming conflict with the Axis powers.

After the war, the superheroes waned, and people turned to other heroes on the silver screen, and fantasies about little grey men that wanted to reorder the universe. Then came the Sixties, a period of radical social upheaval. The Sixties brought the civil rights movement and Vietnam, anti-war protests and free love. It's no coincidence that superheroes underwent a renaissance at that time. People were crying out for something to believe in as their world seemed to turn upside down. And superheroes gave them that fantasy, one of a world where champions of justice would protect the innocent and the good. Superheroes became the fictional gods once more.

They've waned again since the Sixties, but have always seen a resurgence in their popularity, during periods of recession and war. It's no coincidence that comics experience a spike in sales during times of economic recession, when you would logically expect people to be spending less on such an unnecessary indulgence. Which brings us back to the present.

'The concept of superheroes came from the newborn American comic industry.' The world is currently entering a more conservative period, as wars are started and a fear of terrorism runs rampant through the public consciousness, and the superhero pantheon has returned to popularity in an almost unprecedented way.

SPIDER-MAN and the X-MEN are setting box office records, with BATMAN and SUPERMAN planning their returns to the big screen. A younger Superman appears regularly in SMALLVILLE, and the JUSTICE LEAGUE cartoon is a regular feature on the Cartoon Network. Perhaps most crucially of all, superhero comic sales are on the rise as the craving for heroes sets in once again.

Though superhero comics may never again achieve the sales they saw in the 90s, the superhero revival in popular culture shows no signs of abating. As uncertainty about the future - and about the justification of the actions being taken in the name of freedom - continues, the need for clear-cut moral champions continues as well, driving the hunger for heroes in the public consciousness. These characters will seemingly remain popular until such time as the world arrives back at a state of relative stability.

Superheroes are American gods, a pantheon created by a young country that is still in many ways seeking a cohesive identity. Their development over the past century has followed the rise of that country to its current position as the major power in the world, with characters like Superman embodying the ideal of America, while characters like Batman embody the darker underbelly of a nation that has set itself up as a moral guardian without having fully conquered it's own demons.

Importantly, though, these American gods are human and fallible, learning from their mistakes as they try to make their way through life. The superheroes are generally ordinary people who have had greatness thrust upon them, forcing them to take up their heroic roles, much as many Americans see their country's role in the world.

Superheroes are a curiously American phenomenon, enjoying the most success in the country of their birth. When they transfer to the hands of creators from outside the US, they end up corrupted by power, or becoming inhuman monsters. Superheroes created outside of America are rare, and generally fail, as their audience isn't as eager for them as the American audience. While comics may sell well in Europe and Japan, superhero comics have never been big business in those markets.

Superheroes will always be icons in the US; shining lights in times of uncertainty. Their popularity will wax and wane along with the tides of the public mood, but they will always be there, on the fringes, providing a form of comfort for those who seek it.

A country with as violent a history as America needs its moral guardians. As long as that is the case, superheroes will survive.

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