Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us about Ourselves and Our Society
Lawrence, John Shelton, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)
Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us about Ourselves and Our Society Danny Fingeroth. New York: Continuum/London, 2004.
Books about superhero comics are typically written by fans, creators, or scholars. Danny Fingeroth's work transcends the usual limitations of perspective that we find in such books because his life has encompassed all three roles. He was an eager reader as a child; he worked editorially at Marvel Comics for a couple of decades; and he has now settled into a period that combines analytic writing, editing the WriteNow magazine, and teaching at New York University. Participating in one of PCA/ACA's finest traditions, Fingeroth came with his informed insider book to the 2005 meetings at San Diego.
As a long-term manager for the Spider-Man character and consultant to the 2002 blockbuster film, Fingeroth reports that he "had firsthand knowledge of what those stories meant to readers of all ages who told us in no uncertain terms what they meant to them" (174, emphasis in original). In addition to being "the caretaker of superhero icons," he "also created some brand new superheroes from scratch" (174). This background affords an unusually practical knowledge of costumes, dual identities, special powers, and requirements to differentiate between competing heroes-all compounded by the demand to create marketable products from the unstable ingredients. Influenced by the clamorous voices of fans, his knowledge of the sales charts, and recent scholarship, most of Fingeroth's thematic treatments emphasize some form of reader identification with a heroic fantasy. While this approach has been applied to comic books at least since Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent (1954), Fingeroth brings elegant nuances.
Chapters deal with the longer history of the superhero concept, dual identity, orphans, female superhero, angry superheroes, the superhero families, the values that underlie heroism and villainy, and the superhero tale's future. While many categories and insights are familiar to those who have read works such as Richard Reynolds' Superheroes (1992) or Gérard Jones's Killing Monsters (2002), most readers will find an original touch or a significant speculative question associated with each theme. (Fingeroth leaves many of his vexingly challenging questions for others to grapple with.) I will list some sample observations.
On Gratitude. The hero of masked dual identity "doesn't want to get used to being thanked" (49). Drawing on Lenny Bruce's "Thank You, Masked Man" routine, Fingeroth suggests that the convention of the Lone Ranger escaping from the rescued community allows the purity of the deed to stand alone. The stance of selflessness is a cliché for the genre. What Fingeroth adds here is how the escape-from-thanks maneuver appeals to an audience wanting heroes who emphatically do the right thing for its own sake.
The Primal Appeal of Secret Identity. The hidden identity of the superhero, when identified with by the audience, permits an enlarged fantasy about myself, the reader, as source of justice: "IF ONLY THEY (whoever your they may be) KNEW THE TRUTH (whatever that truth may be) ABOUT ME (whoever you believe yourself to he), THEY'D BE SORRY FOR THE WAY THEY TREAT ME" (60, caps and emphasis in original).
Orphan Heroes. There are legions of orphans in the heroic world, a tradition that goes back to Moses, Oedipus, and Hercules. The orphan status intensifies the secret identity theme but also reflects an existentialist form of individualism. Without families, "we are all alone. We fight our own battles, make our own rules, defy those who would destroy us" (70-71). The Incredibles film of 2004, which appeared after Fingeroth's book was written, cleverly plays with this idea by showing how difficult it is for a superhero (Mr. Incredible) to be embedded in a family and work situation. Thus, the orphan with superpowers becomes the ultimate American individualist.
The Amazon Pattern. In exploring the difference between the relatively mediocre success of the Wonder Woman character (1942-present) and the smash celebrity of television's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), the author suggests a gradual evolution in public taste for the female heroic. Buffy built upon the success of Ripley in Alien (1979), Sarah Conner in The Terminator (1984), and Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider games (1996-present). Although all these characters have been scripted by men, the heroines have become liberated from earlier restrictions on feminine expression: "This new archetype is ... allowed to cry and wear makeup and heels, and still credibly take on the most powerful forces of villainy. And she does not have to be evil to be powerful" (93, emphasis in original). Fingeroth takes some wellaimed whacks at scholars Lawrence and Jewett (Myth of the American Superhero 2002), who paid insufficient attention to this important set of developments.
The Family Pattern. Fingeroth sees a tension in popular culture between a longing for individuality and wanting to belong to a group that affirms one's worth as a member of it. This motivation makes attractive "a family of freaks" possessing special powers-especially if their powers result from a tragic, deforming accident: "You need a surrogate family, one composed of those the world has abused and persecuted the way you have been all your life. Especially in adolescence, the romantic notion of belonging to a persecuted minority ... has great appeal" (107). The X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and the Justice League fit this pattern. Fingeroth believes that with family relationships in rapid transition, the notion of highly special individuals forced by fate to live together has special resonance.
Driven by Anger. Fingeroth, who wrote some of the Hulk episodes for Marvel Comics, describe "the engine of rage and entitlement" that differentiates figures like Daredevil, Batman, Elektra, the Punisher, and Wolverine from the centered and friendly "do-gooders" such as Superman. In addition to indulging the fantasy of unrestrained rage, the raging superheroes gain their idealistic dimension by seeming to fight, as Fingeroth suggests of the Wolverine, "for every persecuted mutant. ... He kills for our sins. And it is good" (136).
The Rise of the Teen Hero. This is the key for the Spider-Man treatment, and Fingeroth has a compelling suggestion about why this neurotic character would eventually define so many of the superhero conventions. He believes that "the trick with selling fantasy to children and teenagers is that no one wants to experience entertainment about their own group or younger ones. Everybody wants to see what the next stage of life will be like, to have a foretaste through the stories they consume" (144, emphasis in original). Parker/Spider-Man as a transitional teen is endlessly tortured by the circumstances of poverty, abusive bosses, and rejected affection, yet he has the courage to keep hoping that life will become less precarious, more enjoyable. His mask allows him to project a manhood that he has not achieved, a convention that the Spider-Man filmmakers artfully exploit in using the young face of the actor Tobey Maguire. The continuing irony in Peter Parker's life is that regular success as community benefactor does not create the stable satisfaction that he wants for his private life. In this regard, Spider-Man shares much with the X-Men, Harry Potter, and Frodo in Lord of the Rings.
The Larger Pattern of Values. With Richard Reynolds, Fingeroth sees the superhero as reactive-conservative rather than proactive. It is the villains in the world of comics who have schemes to change things. This is the standard pattern that has permitted the caped/masked characters to make their transition into blockbuster movie venues. There are comics currents that run against the reactive stance- The Watchman and The Dark Knight Returns, for example, but the deconstructive story is for a reader elite that enjoys play with the archetypes. And Fingeroth believes that the spread of irony about the superhero within the comics world is eating away at the reader base. For him, the survival of the genre with a mass audience depends upon a "superhero who has no axes to grind, no agendas to put forth and pursue" (162). In this regard, he would argue that the spirit of the superheroes, rather than that of antidemocratic vigilantism, is that of conserving democracy. "We don't want to be relentless crusaders against evil. We just want to go to work and enjoy our time with friends and families. We will take up arms if need be, but the values our best selves hold to are those of fair play and equality under the law" (167).
As we well know, this interpretation is endlessly debatable and is opposed by those-such as this reviewer-who argue that the symbolics of superhero culture are antidemocratic in both ideology and social effects. This argument will surely continue because superhero fantasies are here to stay, as Fingeroth emphasizes. There is no reason to disagree on that point. This book is recommended for all collections.
-John Shelton Lawrence
Emeritus, Morningside College…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us about Ourselves and Our Society. Contributors: Lawrence, John Shelton - Author. Journal title: Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA). Volume: 28. Issue: 4 Publication date: December 2005. Page number: 453+. © 2004 Blackwell Publishers Ltd. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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