Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us about Ourselves and Our Society

By Lawrence, John Shelton | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), December 2005 | Go to article overview

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. …

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