–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Superheroes Were for Children

by | Jun 13, 2023

If you were a kid in the 1970’s and loved superheroes you were lucky, because your childhood coincided with Marvel’s magnificent Bronze Age, with the even better Silver Age only proverbial minutes behind. These are just three of who knows how many comics I bought at my local stationary store, Adelstein’s, which was a five minute bike ride away from my house. Anyone in the know will recognize them as classics.

Silver Age comics were easy to find in stores that sold used comics, so I was able to purchase these (and many others) in excellent condition with the allowance-money I’d saved.

Superheroes were also a significant part of children’s television, both animated and live action. George Reeves’ Superman and Adam West’s Batman ran regularly in syndication, and the Bill  Bixby/Lou Ferrigno Incredible Hulk, Lynda Carter Wonder Woman, and Nicholas Hammond Amazing Spiderman aired weekly. Add to this the animated superhero series being broadcast at the time – Spider Man, Batman, and Super Friends, just to mention a few – and a superhero-loving kid in the 70’s was spoiled for choices.

Our parents didn’t read or watch these, and they tolerated our enthusiasm for them only to a limited degree. If you consumed too much superhero fare – i.e. instead of playing outside or at the expense of more substantive children’s literature and television – it would be a cause for concern. My parents didn’t care if I pored for hours over Alice Through the Looking Glass or A Wrinkle in Time or watched The Electric Company or Zoom, but they rationed how many superhero shows and cartoons I watched, just like they did with the sugary sodas and fast food I ate and drank, which were permitted only on selective occasions. 

There is nothing about superheroes per se that makes them the literary or audio/visual  equivalent of McDonald’s or Pepsi. They appear in serious satires like Watchmen (1986) and Super (2010) and in political fiction like V for Vendetta (1982). They also can serve as a basis for profound, literary storytelling for children: William Steig’s Dominic (1970) is about what is essentially a dog superhero, but the writing and themes are as far from pulp bravado and melodrama as can be. Dominic is no Underdog, but literature of the highest order.

So my point is not that there is anything strange or untoward about adult enthusiasm for juvenile arts and entertainment. From a literary standpoint, the best children’s books are as worthy as their adult counterparts, they may be masterfully illustrated by artists of the caliber of a Steig or a John Tenniel, and it makes perfect sense that a person would enjoy the memories of childhood and adolescence that revisiting old favorites can facilitate. (I revisit my favorite Robert Heinlein juveniles every few years, for precisely this reason.) But to whatever extent and in whatever ways adults enjoyed things made for children and adolescents, they were different from the ways in which the children and adolescents did. It is this that has changed. Superheroes are now an adult enthusiasm.

When we were children, superheroes provided much of the material for our active play. Heroes and villains were chosen, and we would chase one another around the backyard, pond, neighborhood, etc., shooting pretend-energy beams, feigning punching and kicking, and shouting our favorite slogans from the relevant comics and TV shows. If we were really invested and could be bothered, we added makeshift costumes to the mix. During Halloween, we might have put on store-bought or parent-made superhero costumes for trick-or-treating.

My friend David as Superman [R] vs. Me as Satan (dad-made costume) [L] 1974

Today, however, it is as likely that adults will be in superhero costumes as kids. If our parents took us trick-or-treating – and more often than not, they left us to do it on our own – they certainly didn’t wear costumes themselves and typically stood at the curb while you did your business, but today it is common to see the whole family making their way from house to house, dressed as The Avengers or X-Men. And when you focus on the hardcore enthusiasts, the “cosplayers,” you’ll see adult investment in superheroes far beyond anything we could have imagined or had the patience for as children.

Traditional, “franchise” oriented superhero comics are characterized by juvenile interests, sensibilities, and tastes. Preening, posing, and bombast. Melodrama. Kids-eye-view romance. Garish outfits. Fantastical situations and action. Impactless violence. Hyperbole throughout. These are taken straight-on by a young mind still ungrounded, undeveloped, and prone to magical thinking. To the adult mind, such things commonly were objects of ironic appreciation or nostalgia. But adults did not take superheroes and their hijinks straight-on, in the manner of children and adolescents. When my friends and I were eight-years old, we fought over who’s better, Superman or Batman. Our parents did not. We fiercely debated whether Captain America’s shield could withstand a blow from Thor’s hammer or the Hulk’s fists. Our parents couldn’t care less. We were rabid in our brand partisanship: DC or Marvel? To our parents, they were all a waste of time and money.

Today, contrastingly, adults are more likely than their youthful counterparts to take superhero comics, movies, and shows “straight-on.” One can watch painstakingly researched video essays devoted to which supervillain is the toughest or which superhero is the strongest, as well as many-hours-long timelines of this, that, and the other. None of these are made by children or adolescents. Spend even five minutes on social media, in the various superhero-themed online ecosystems, and you’ll discover a lot of adults who take their superheroes very seriously: ever at the ready to defend them against Martin Scorcese, The New Yorker, and other myriad agents of cinematic and televisual snobbery; always inclined to incorporate them into every manner of social-political controversy; and even making them a part of one’s personal identity and value system. One finds the latter not just among adult superhero fans but those of adjacent genres, like juvenile science fiction and fantasy, with the outrage over the views of Harry Potter creator, JK Rowling, being just the clearest of many examples. It’s one thing to despise a writer’s or artist’s views. It’s another to be so invested in the fictional superheroes and wizards they created that one feels personally crushed and betrayed. Or to be inclined to fight to the death over whether Doctor Who should be played by a woman or whether a cast of aliens, monsters, fairies, and other non-existent creatures is “representative” of whatever it is one thinks needs representing. These are adult interests and investments, played out within the landscape of superhero comics and other branches of genre-juvenilia.

In superheroes’ earlier days, action was punctuated and made “super” by adding “BAM!” and “POW!” and other such exclamations, both in print comics and in TV shows like the 1960’s Batman series. And though technical and budgetary considerations certainly had something to do with this – they weren’t going to offer 2001: A Space Odyssey quality effects in a kid’s TV show in the 1960’s – it also reflected an understanding of the intrinsically juvenile character of the genre and of the way we played superheroes as kids. It’s not real. It’s ridiculous. It’s all imagination. It’s for kids. So why make it more “realistic” than the kids do (or want)? 

The old way of representing a “super” punch [L]; The present way of representing a “super” punch (or in this case, technically, grab) [R]

Today, these shows and movies are hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars affairs boasting the most advanced CGI and audiovisual effects available. And while this didn’t cause the shift in superhero investment and enthusiasm from juveniles to adults that we’ve been talking about, it is an expression of it. The sheer amount of money involved in these blockbuster-extravaganzas suggests that they are not being made primarily with children in mind – whose natural credulity and rich imaginations require no such investment – and beyond the criticism that efforts to render the fantastic “realistically” inevitably age poorly (one I offered in “Genre and Illusion”), there is a low-imagination literality to them indicating that the superhero audience has changed and in quite a fundamental way. 

I say all of this not as an expression of surprise or dismay, but because it provides a lens through which to examine and understand the ways in which both children and adults – and childhood and parenthood and fandom – have changed over just a handful of decades. I’ll never see in superheroes what so many adults younger than me today are seeing, but it’s fascinating to watch the trajectory this once kids-centered genre is taking nonetheless. And while I’ll always love the art and the aesthetics and the nostalgia that comes everytime I see them, any serious investment I had in Captain America, the Silver Surfer, Mister Fantastic, and the like remains firmly back in the 1970’s and my childhood.