Theory of Fantasy Literature 102: On Superhero Fiction


The first installment of the series covered the most prominent sub-genres of fantasy, but it has not explored everything that fantasy has to offer. This continuation of the series will look into sub-genres that have been omitted from the previous one. However, it will also discuss some adjacent genres, like science-fiction, fables, and fairy tales, all of which are fantastical, but none of which constitute an actual sub-genre of fantasy.

Theory of Fantasy Literature 102 is divided into six chapters including:

1. On Dark Fantasy

2. On Urban Fantasy

3. On Superhero Fiction

4. What About Science-fiction?

5. What About Fables?

6. What About Fairy Tales?

Among all fantasy sub-genres, superhero fiction has risen to the top of the contemporary cinematic production. Some of these are adaptations of comics, but most allow themselves significant departures from the “canonical” storylines. Yet, all of them preserve the core ideals established by the tradition of the superhero genre. After a brief overview of the origin of the (sub)genre, its place among other fictional products will be discussed in order to explore whether it can have a proper position in academic discourse.

Figure 1. Heroes in Crisis Cover Art. Mann, C. 2019.

The central element of superhero fiction is, of course, a superhero-like protagonist. Such a character can be identified using “the definitional characteristics of mission, powers, and identity” (Coogan, 2006, p. 30). One could say that the mission is what makes one a hero and the powers they possess earn them the adjective super. The third facet “comprises the codename and the costume, with the secret identity being a customary counterpart to the codename” (Coogan, 2006, p. 32).

These theoretical markings are best understood when demonstrated through an example. If one considers the character of Superman, the symbol of hope on his chest perfectly encapsulates his character's mission of being the protector of Earth and mankind; his powers are widely known and they include, but are not limited to, flight, superhuman strength, and solar energy absorption; his costume successfully hides his adopted identity of Clark Kent.

Such “specific genre identification” can be traced to “Journey into Mystery #83 (August, 1962), the cover of which specifically identifies Thor as “The Most Exciting Super-Hero of All Time!!”" (Coogan, 2006, p. 26). However, the first character that possessed traits of the modern superhero is Spring-Heeled Jack, an urban legend adapted into fictional stories that ascribed to him a troubling origin.

Figure 2. Spring-heeled Jack #1 Penny Dreadful. Anonymous. ca. 1860s.

It is striking … how deeply [he] is immersed in colonial narratives. In Alfred Burrage's (1885) first treatment, Jack’s father makes his fortune in India before dying, allowing a cousin to cheat Jack of his inheritance through the aid of family lawyer who claims Jack's “Indian plantations” … The outlying colonial possessions both initiate the plot and provide its fantastical solution … With the aid of [his] “magical boot” which “savoured strongly of sorcery,” Jack robs his enemies until his inheritance is restored. He is a colonizer who has taken an Asian’s fantastical object to gain power at the metropole (Gavaler, 2014, 108)

He is a character that started as a "real" person in suburban London (part of the English folklore of the Victorian era), became a villainous figure in penny dreadfuls, and over time evolved into a hero. At first, his mission was entirely self-centred, but he assumed a role of a protector of the innocent in latter texts. Jack's being marked by colonial ideas is to be expected as the character stems from the Victorian era; however, “the unexamined repetition of fossilized conventions that encode the colonialist attitudes” (Gavaler, 2014, p. 111) continued with later additions to superhero fiction.

Figure 3. Doctor Strange #10 Variant Cover. Quesada, J. 2018

Even though simplified, the best way to understand this notion is to consider a character like Doctor Strange, who ventures eastward in order to obtain mystical powers. The idea of the East being a mystifying, different “other” is a complex notion that carries with it the baggage of colonial past—even when unintentional, using entire cultures and their traditions as mere banks of abilities that Western men take back to their homeland is doubtless a problematic practice. Doctor Strange is merely one of the myriad characters whose origin story is somehow tied to the East; for example, when Green Lantern was first written, his powers stemmed from a lantern that irrevocably evokes imagery of the Arabian Nights. The character and his source of power were later changed to be significantly less specific and “inspired”.

It would now be the time to claim how such practices are a part of the past for superhero stories and that is largely true. However, superhero fiction is a uniquely massive type of literature and it is “unlikely that a single person can, or will, experience all parts of the fiction in a manner appropriate for the interpretation, evaluation, and so on of the fiction” (Cook, 2013, p. 271). This presents a two-fold problem: any insights on the superhero (sub)genre are necessarily overly generalized and the very size affects the proneness of any critic to make detailed claims as to the nature of a character/story.

For example, by a rough (and conservative) calculation, I estimate that, if on reads one comic page per minute, two hours per day, seven days per week, three hundred sixty-five days per year, it would take (approximately) five years of sustained effort to read every comic book in which Batman is the main character of a regular member of the headlining team (Cook, 2013, 271).
Figure 4. Batman #86 Cover Art. Daniel, T. S. 2020.

The above paragraph was written in 2013 and new Batman comics have been coming out regularly since then: what once took five years of sustained reading may now take six or seven. The point is that no one can be expected to consume all of that content in order to construct an accurate and fully informed image of who Batman is as a character, especially when content including him has been coming out for over eight decades. But even a more recent superhero phenomenon, if one may step aside from written fiction for a moment, has quickly become ungraspable.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) began in 2008 with the first Iron Man. The last movie in which this character has appeared (as of now) was released in 2019. Therefore, to get a full grasp of the character as played by Robert Downey Jr., one had to follow the storyline for eleven years across nine different movies. Yet, despite how strange it sounds, people did follow this character for that period of time. In fact, people still follow that same cinematic universe and each movie within it even today, fourteen years later. And even though Batman debuted in 1939, any new fiction released featuring him still gathers large public interest.

The reasons for this are surely complex and too many to be enumerated, but there exists one interesting notion that might begin to adress why superheroes have retained their popularity.

To consider the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), then, is to dive deeply into the mythical realm of Faerie wherein humans have adventured and imagined for centuries, now reinterpreted in new ways for a new age (Holdier, 2018, p. 74).

Holdier ties superhero fiction to the long mythological and mythical tradition of superhuman, super-powered humanoids and monstrous enemies that have inspired stories and peoples for centuries. If one cannot find any other reason why superhero stories ought to be a subject of interest for proper literary critics, then this connection may offer at least one.

Figure 5. 80 Years of the Emerald Knight Deluxe Edition Cover Art. Lee, J. et al. 2020.

Comics/graphic literature have been circulating in academic circles, but it usually includes “the nonfiction genres of confession memoir and journalism”; however, it might be “the height of academic arrogance simply to assume on this basis that nonfiction is the “strongest” genre in comics or that the critical marginalization of other comic-book genres is justified” (Saunders, 2009, p. 293). This creates a sense that if a comic overtly deals with a real-life problem/topic, it is worthy of analysis. However, if such questions are masked and handled through a colorful superhero narrative, it is not worthy of serious discussion.

Figure 6. The Boys; Homelander’s Murderous State. Amazon Prime Video. 2022.

Yet, superhero fiction need not always be fun and colorful; in fact, it can directly address myriad aspects of contemporary society and offer poignant commentary on it. Recently, two series have had remarkable success by twisting, altering, and parodying the very idea of a superhero: The Boys and Invincible. Both originated as comic book series and have reached main stream success as Amazon adaptations. The comics/shows feature some classic superheroes, but their most appealing factor stems from the downright malicious "heroes" that put on a facade of goodness. Invincible's Omniman and The Boys' Homelander are both akin Superman, at least as far as their abilities are concerned. However, whereas Superman puts on a mask to hide his Clark Kent identity, Omniman and Homelander mask not only their appearance, but their intentions.

Earlier in the article it was stated that a superhero is comprised of a mission, powers, and identity. In the case of corrupt and malignant "superheroes" presented in the two aforementioned series, each of the three aspects is additionally veiled by a new metaphorical costume. Thus, outwardly it seems that Homelander's mission is to be a symbol of hope akin to Superman, that his powers are natural to him, and that the suit only modifies his physical appearance. Yet, the audience quickly learns that Homelander is a selfish person whose entire power is derived from a pharmaceutical product. In both Marvel and Detective Comics (DC), there exist characters known as anti-heroes, such as Deadpool, Punisher, or Black Adam. They kill and torture, but with a goal of achieving something generally beneficial for the well-being of the populace at large; they are sympathetic in their goals, but their methods are gruesome.

Figure 7. Invincible; Omniman Teaches Invincible a Lesson. Amazon Prime Video. 2021.

Homelander and Omniman, however, are not heroes at all: they are vicious, vengeful, and entirely evil. Omniman's goal is to spread the Viltrumite empire and to eventually lead a conquest against Earth after weakening it; Homelander desires to be worshipped and cherished by the people, but has repeatedly acted with disregard for human life. In the infamous plane scene, he allows for all the passengers to die becuse he did not want a blemish on his record; when he is to help with a girl who is about to commit suicide, he forces her to jump even after she had changed her mind. The Boys, therefore, present a significantly grimmer, more realistic world than classic superhero comics—if people were to gain superpowers, it seems like a safe bet that there would be a lot more Homelanders than Supermen. Furthermore, the show does not shy away from political/cultural commentary which makes it that much more engaging and relevant.

The emergence of these new approaches to the superhero narrative speaks to the complexity and potential of the (sub)genre as a whole. This is not to say that most comics are as provocative, interesting, or deep as classic literature or that Lee and Kirby have had the same ripples of influence as Shakespeare or Austen. However, comics are a unique merger of narrative and visual art—their very medium allows them to be an experience unlike any other. Therefore, perhaps their analysis should be unlike any other, trying to explore the complex interaction between illustrations and text in order to reveal the potential greatness within. Yet, one must always remember that the true task of superhero stories is to delight and, perhaps, inspire—everything else achieved by the medium builds on those two aspects.

Bibliographical References

Coogan, P. (2006). Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre. MonkeyBrain Books.

Cook, R. T. (2013). Canonicity and normativity in massive, serialized, collaborative fiction. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 71(3), 271–276.

Gavaler, C. (2014). The imperial superhero. PS: Political Science and Politics, 47(1), 108–111.

Holdier, A. G. (2018). On superhero stories: The marvel cinematic universe as Tolkienesque fantasy. Mythlore, 36(2 (132)), 73–88.

Saunders, B. (2009). Divisions in comics scholarship. PMLA, 124(1), 292–295.

Visual Sources

Author Photo

Dino Mušić

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