The academic study of comic books — especially superhero comic books — has predominantly focused on the analysis of these books as texts, as teaching and learning resources, or on children as comic book readers. Very little has been written about adult superhero comic fans and their responses to superhero comics. This chronicle explores how adult comic book readers engage with superhero comics. The analysis of fans who talk about superhero comics includes their reflections on how masculinities are represented in these comics and the complex ways in which they identify with superheroes, including their alter egos.
The chronicle examines how superhero comic book readers present themselves in their interactions with other readers. Comics “geekdom,” fans’ interactions with one another and their negotiation of gendered norms of masculinity are discussed. The contrast between the fan body and the superhero body is an important theme. Readers’ discursive constitution and management of superheroes’ bodies, and their engagement with representations of superheroes are related to analyses of the multiplicity of individual identities and current theories of audience reception and identification.
Comic books are a highly variable medium: from dark noir crime stories to romance and science fiction; war stories to political and media satire; unusual animals to superheroes and adaptations of literary texts. While all of these genres are interesting in their own right, superhero comics are the focus of academic study, not only because they hold the greatest market share, but also because of the gendered nature of both the genre and its readers. The superhero genre has been around for over three-quarters of a century, and the predominantly male superheroes still offer a very limited range of gendered actions and practices, most of which represent the (current) dominant ideals of masculinity.
The comic book superhero character type first appeared in 1938 with Superman’s debut in ‘Action Comics’ first issue. He was the creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who drew on the pulp fiction heroes Doc Savage and Gladiator as inspiration. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster thought there was a need for a hero of superhuman ability to inspire people at a time when dominant discourses of masculinity (strong, hard working men who supported the family) were being challenged by the The Great Depression. It was also a time when there was an international interest in defining a “super man.” Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Shaw, and Adolf Hitler for example, all talked about a “perfect man” who was truly superior, in body and mind, to ordinary people. Superman is probably still the most well-known superhero around today.
Superman’s introduction was quickly followed by the launches of Batman in 1939 and Wonder Woman in 1941. After the United States of America joined World War II, the rapidly expanding register of superheroes was enlisted to assist in the war effort. They broadcast propaganda, and fought Nazi and Japanese villains, while asking readers to buy war bonds, and providing light entertainment for the troops.
Superhero popularity dropped after the war ended and stayed low throughout the 1950s, but with new battles to fight, came new heroes. Spider-Man and the Hulk debuted in 1962 in the climate of the Vietnam War and the lead up to the Cuban missile crisis. Spider-Man brought with him the ideology of power and responsibility and explicitly contained the view that if one has the power it is one’s responsibility to use that power for the greater good. The Hulk’s origin was the outcome of a weapons testing accident that turned Dr Bruce Banner into a green, uncontrollably rampaging monster whenever he was angered. This could be seen as symbolic of both the power of nuclear weaponry and the risks associated with them. The 1960s and 1970s also saw the creation and rise of the superhero team, the X-Men, who were a team of mutant superheroes. They fought against villains and the society they protected in a constant political battle against bigotry and inequality, echoing the civil rights and feminist movements of the time. President Ronald Wilson Reagan and the cold war were critiqued in the comic books of the 1980s, the most significant of these being Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ ‘Watchmen’ and Frank Miller’s ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.’ The bodies of the superheroes also changed in the late 1980s, becoming larger and more unrealistically muscular than ever before, reaching their peak in early 1990s. The sudden explosion of superhero muscularity occurred against the background of criticisms of “new men” as having become too sensitive and feminised and increasing attention to the reinvigoration of the strong, hard man.
The collapse of communism in 1989 and the end of the cold war in the early 1990s coincided with a collapse in the comic book sales, as much of the content of the comics after the second world war had been based on cold war politics. The comics industry leaders, Marvel Comics and DC Comics, attempted to increase comic book sales through the production of collectable issues, which temporarily attracted interest from collectors and speculators, but through the mid-1990s sales continue to plummet and their empires began to crumble. In September 2001 the world gained a new super-villain in Osama Bin Laden, and the first decade of the twenty-first-century saw a slow but steady increase in superhero comic book sales.
Female superheroes and the representations of femininity in comics and fan engagement with these are very important and interesting areas which also need considerable academic attention. However, because of research constraints, this article focuses on masculinity and male heroes. While there are a lot of female superheroes, there are very few ‘first tier’ female characters. No female superhero titles (including those of Wonder Woman, the most well known female superhero) have featured in the top 100 comics sold each year since before 2000 unless their franchise was relaunched (when a popular title is stopped for a time and restarted afresh, debut issues always sell more than any other similar issue as these are popular with collectors).