Superheroism, Role-Playing, and Adulthood

Stephen Clouse

Stephen Clouse

Stephen Clouse is a Political Theory PhD candidate studying Aristotle and the American Founding.

Related Post Roulette

87 Responses

  1. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    I’ve always appreciated how Marvel approached it with the Spiderverse. Peter Parker is still white and middle class, but Miles Morales is not, nor is Anya Sofia Corazon, etc.

    DC has done something similar with the Green Lantern corps, although how many lanterns does our sector really need?Report

    • Avatar Jesse says:

      Eh, the problem with this it that it means effectively, all of the Tier 1 Superheroes and characters that will be merchandised and be most in front of audience the vast majority of the time will be white folks, in a nation that looks less and less like that every year.

      There’s no reason why if Marvel does a reboot of their universe, that Peter Parker or Tony Stark or whomever can’t be of another race.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

        When was the last time a universe reboot worked well?

        Better to craft a new hero, with a more relevant background, than to try and squeeze an existing one into a new backstory. Like Miles, or Riri Williams. Allow the old person to retire, and a new one to take up the mantle.

        Put it this way, Miles Morales, Riri Williams, and Anya Corazon, are interesting characters on their own. A black Peter Parker could work as an alternate story line, much in the same way as the black Batman described down thread, but there would always be that baggage from decades of story lines of that character. Not the hero, as such, but the character behind the mask or cape.

        The thing is, those Tier 1 characters were all born in a time when the main consumer was white males. White males are still, IIRC, the largest consumer demographic of print comics, so you mess with their icons at your peril. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and attract other demographics with icons that they relate to.

        It shouldn’t be about telling the industry to recast venerable icons , it should be about telling the industry to give those new icons a fair shake at capturing the public imagination. Green Lantern was first Alan Scott, then Hal Jordan, then John Stewart, etc. John Stewart didn’t erase Hal Jordan, he just took up the mantle from him, and as a character, he was incredibly well done and received (when you watch the Justice League cartoon, it wasn’t Hal Jordan dressed in green).

        Honestly, this is where DC & Marvel drop the ball. Not because they don’t recast the old, white characters, but because they flinch too quickly when they get any kind of push back on retiring the old ones and letting new characters fill their shoes.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

          I will add that it’s not impossible to recast a character like you suggest. Nick Fury used to be a white guy with greying temples. Then he was, quite intentionally, recast as SLJ* in the comics, and everyone loved the hell out of it.

          *Marvel Ultimates, I believe?Report

          • Avatar Maribou says:

            Yeah, it was Ultimates. And I have no idea if this is factually true or just too good a story not to tell, but SLJ says he found out from reading the comics too:

            *no shade to SLJ intended, just “stories that are fun to tell on Jimmy Fallon” and “true-life facts” are not two sets that I assume have 100 percent overlap.Report

        • Avatar Jesse says:

          I mean, I have no problems with those characters, but I’d make the argument that why can’t we have a black Peter Parker and Miles Morales? After all, we went decades with plenty of characters who had multiple versions of themselves who were all white.

          Plus, unfortunately, the problem is that the same people who hate the changing of race of main character also hate having “their” heroes retire and when they get any power, as what happened when former fans become writers in any generation, they do their best to set things back to the way things were when they were twelve.

          I mean, you make your Green Lantern analogy, but the original “replacement” of Hal Jordan (with just another white guy, so that takes the race/gender thing out) ignited one of the earliest fandom backlashes to something like this ( Unfortunately, Jordan & Rayner are still the main two GL’s in the comics right now and more importantly, especially now that they’ve got their token non-white character, I’d bet you a Trading Places dollar that WB will choose Jordan over Stewart despite the fact, that thanks to more independent and less fan-weary parts of DC, like the animate team, were allowed to create media that meant to anybody under 30, Jon Stewart is likely their Green Lantern.

          Also, I’d argue that the main goal of the print comics is to not lose money and create IP that can be mined for later and that frankly, the dropping number of middle aged white dudes who tend to control the narrative of what sells in print comics should largely be ignored when it comes to non-print media.Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

            You make my point for me. Marvel and DC are businesses, and they exist to make money. There is no physical or legal barrier that prevents them from making Peter Parker a black kid from Queens, but for the foreseeable future, there is a business case to not do that.

            Luckily, the business case does allow them to create Miles, and Riri, and Anya, and they can at least tell those stories and hopefully change the demographic of the customer base.Report

          • Avatar Maribou says:

            @oscar-gordon I don’t necessarily disagree with you but I feel the need to point out that Marvel and DC are pretty bad at understanding their own business cases. AFAICT, the only reason Miles, Riri, Anya, America, and my personal favorites of the moment Lunella, Nadya, and Doreen are still being published is that when Marvel started to make noises about getting rid of them (all of them! at least one point!), they had vocal fan outcry from fans who were educated enough in the behind-the-scenes stuff (including a decent number of the writers and artists that work for the companies, themselves) to say LOOK AT THE TRADE PAPERBACK NUMBERS YOU GOOFS. Some wonderful stories survived that purge, some did not, but none of them would’ve if someone(s) hadn’t given the ‘business case’ focused guys a good talking to about the actual business case.

            Just saying. Marvel and DC are often dumb about what people will actually pay for vs what they assume people are willing to pay for and need to be shook up to get the message through. Some of those titles really came close to being wiped out entirely.

            Bombshells too, early in its run. “But the figurines aren’t selling all that much and neither are the single issues”. HOW ARE THE TRADE PAPERBACKS DOING YOU EXPLETIVE DELETEDS? “Oh.” *publishes many more issues*

            They seem to have caught up for now, but there’s no reason they might not get as out of sync with their own business case again in future… granted they’ll readjust eventually but a lot of good stories can get lost in the crush, judging by how often that’s happened in past comics history.

            Part of the reason I’m so into supporting any Image comic I enjoy, these days. Far more sustainable business model that’s far more tied in to the creators and the fan community than either of the majors…. not that I don’t spend money on the trade paperbacks from the big 2, obviously, but I feel a lot more secure that Image won’t cut a great series out from under me as a reader.

            Anyway, that’s a big tangent and overall I agree with your assessment that balancing the two is their best business strategy right now in this moment. People will put up with a lot of pandering to the entitled, as long as they get enough stuff they unreservedly love out of the bargain. At least, people who aren’t used to getting stuff they unreservedly love can do so.Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:


            Yes, the two big imprints focus way too much on single issue sales over TBPs. Personally, I’ll take TBPs over single issues any day because I prefer to read a story arc in one sitting, rather than one chapter a month.

            One of the reasons I love Comixology (and pay for the Unlimited subscription) is because I can find the TBPs a lot easier, and there is just a wealth of fun stories and great art to mine throughout the site. I get how important DC and Marvel are to the industry, but there is just so much more than those two that I can’t be too concerned with their missteps.

            But I am glad the fans spoke up about and saved those characters. Their existence is a boon to the industry.Report

  2. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    Really, really liked this essay Stephen. This part struck me the most:

    “Aristotle argued that human beings uniquely learn through imitation or role-playing. He notes that this is what makes us enjoy things which are imitations or representations when we are adults. It isn’t that we are re-engaging in that role-playing activity but that we are using those patterns of learning to recognize the relationships between the imitation/representation and reality. This same imitation pattern also gives us insight into why superheroes have become so popular. If you grow up learning of the trials of Hercules, the rage of Achilles, the cleverness of Odysseus, the wisdom of Athena, you are going to more fully appreciate those elements when they are presented in art than someone who has a passing, or even trivial, appreciation of those characters and their characteristics. ”

    For reasons I won’t go into I have been spending a lot of time exploring the resurgence of Heathenry/Neo Paganism. One of the things they talk a lot about is the idea that you don’t worship Odin, Thor, etc. They talk about how those gods serve as models for ideal behaviors so, for example, you might say, “Odin, grant me wisdom,” but it’s really intended to be a self-affirmation where you focus on the wisdom you already possess or you strengthen your resolve to obtain knowledge you do not posses. I think especially the Roman and Greek approach to their gods and heroes was very much in this same mentality.

    With that said, I agree that superheroes are intended to serve the same purpose. The old Action comics especially were very much about painting an idea of the moral good. I started reading comics in the 80s and at that time they were starting to wrestle with more complicated issues. Tony Stark’s alcoholism. Speedy’s drug addiction. These were stories about trying to find redemption from addiction. I think they decided that there was glory in the struggle and to point out human flaws was comforting to people. I can see an argument both for and against that approach.Report

    • Stephen Clouse Stephen Clouse says:

      Thanks Mike! Thank you for taking the time to read it and respond.

      On Greek religion and it’s viscosity, Jon Mikalson’s Ancient Greek Religion is good. So is his book Honor Thy Gods. Also, Jean-Pierre Vernant’s Myth and Thought among the Greeks is worth reading.Report

      • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

        I will add them to my list. I have been going deep on Germanic paganism for a few months now but I want to eventually expand this to a broader look at the all of the major pagan pantheons.Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    How do you wrestle with the problem of theodicy if you don’t believe in God?

    Given that the old Religious texts have calcified and the new ones are quickly and easily dismissed as either heresy or new age hippie crap (remember the 20 minutes when everybody was reading The Celestine Prophecy? Good times), if we want to be able to play with moral ideas, we’re stuck using superheroes.

    Why is there evil? Well, because god is either not all-powerful or not omni-belevolent.

    What if God doesn’t exist? Why is there evil?

    So one thing that people can do is postulate powerful people who are good to play with both of the ideas of what it means to be powerful and play with the ideas of what it means to be good.

    When it comes to powerful, we have plenty of stuff to choose from. Superman and Batman are the two obvious ones from DC. What does “powerful” mean? Strong? Smart? Fast? Resilient? Rich?

    Well, what does “good” mean? Superman is one kind of good. Batman is another kind of good.

    Would they be able to eliminate evil? Well, why not? Is it because they aren’t good enough? Because they aren’t powerful enough?

    And we’re stuck trying to figure out what evil actually is and how we can fight it.

    And the best superhero stories leave us where we were when God was still around. We know that being powerful enough won’t do it, even if you’re good. (The worst ones are just good rip-roaring two-fisted action tales where a good guy defeats a bad guy and returns everybody to the status quo.)

    After the death of God, we’re still stuck wrestling with the problem of evil. Only we no longer have sufficiently good entities nor sufficiently powerful ones.

    Hence: Superheroes.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      The answer of the comic book skeptics is that you deal with the problem of evil or theodicy without God by philosophy and politics. Marxists would argue that we have evil because of various structural reasons. It is built into the system in many ways. Feminists argue that our problem with evil exists because of the patriarchy, by eliminating the domination of men we can reduce the amount of evil the world. Of course not everybody agrees with these diagnoses and prescriptions just like not everybody believed in one religion’s arguments on theodicy.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to argue about whether Marxism or Feminism has done a better job at resolving the problem of evil than superheroes have.

        We’d be stuck all day defining our terms.Report

    • Avatar James K says:

      That’s a silly question – theodicy is a problem created by religion (and even then, only some kinds of religion), not solved by it. If you don’t believe there is a moral force controlling the universe, there is no reason to wonder why evil might happen.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        You’re mixing up “ought” and “is”.

        I’d say that it’s ironic but I’m tired.Report

      • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:


        I think the point is that there is a human impulse to define things as Good and Evil and to position yourself as a moral actor for Good. In the absence of religion, people will search for ways to satisfy that impulse elsewhere, hence the social justice Left.Report

        • Avatar James K says:


          OK, sure but I’ve never heard the word “theodicy” used to describe people’s motivations for being sanctimonious.Report

          • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:


            I had to Google the word after Jaybird used it, however it does make a lot of sense if you consider the social justice Left as a secular religion.Report

          • Avatar Maribou says:

            @jame-K Sanctimonious literally developed as a word through a path where it was mostly used to talk about people who were overly concerned about holy things. (that’s the ‘sanct’ part of the word, right? i feel like you must know this) If you’ve never heard it used as a word to describe those people’s motivations, it’s possibly because your education focuses more on the here and now than on the last 2000 years of sanctimonious people. Jaybird’s focused far more on the last 900 years (minus 100) than on the here and now.

            tl;dr Sanctimony literally was identified as a label for human behavior in the context of systems where theodicy is a central motivator.Report

          • Avatar Aaron David says:

            (@mikedwyer, as you are of a religious background and an avid outdoorsman, may I recommend Annie Dillards Pilgrim at Tinker Creek? Though it doesn’t spell it out, it is a central theme of that work.)Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:


      I’ll check that out. Sounds a bit like Sand County Almanac or Wendell Berry.Report

  4. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    “How do you wrestle with the problem of theodicy if you don’t believe in God?”

    Philosopher Peter Boghossian (and several others) have suggested this is what is driving the social justice Left. He argues that the movement meets all of the characteristics of a religion and it makes sense considering they have a higher % of atheists in their ranks than most other groups. Fighting for the ‘moral good’ and positioning the opposition as evil satisfies the theodicy impulse.Report

  5. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    I’ve heard the argument that Peter Parker could, or even should, be black. He has a black biography: He lives in Queens with a member of extended family, and has experienced a violent death of a family member. This is pretty common for black kids in Queens. Marvel hasn’t gone there, but we have Miles Morales, who is a different character, but lets us experience how it both matters and doesn’t matter. That’s an important message.

    This is not a thesis that could be explored without the existence of superheros.

    In contrast, I don’t know that Bruce Wayne works as a black person (Batman would, though). How many black people do you know that have inherited billions and a sprawling business enterprise from their parents? I mean, there might be one or two I just haven’t heard of, and we do have black billionaires.

    I’d be happy to see a black Batman, I don’t know what to do about Bruce Wayne. But maybe that’s an important point.

    As a young man, I grew up with the assumption that everybody was the same, and it was bad to even point out any difference. This meant it was fine to use one’s own reactions as a guide to how others would react, you could universalize them. This turned out to be wrong, but it didn’t come from a place of evil.

    Experiencing things like Miles Morales, or a Black Batman, would allow us to play with these ideas in a far less threatening (to most anyway) format.

    Oh, and by the way, I feel totally validated for ignoring Bill Maher.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

      “In contrast, I don’t know that Bruce Wayne works as a black person (Batman would, though). How many black people do you know that have inherited billions and a sprawling business enterprise from their parents? I mean, there might be one or two I just haven’t heard of, and we do have black billionaires.”

      For me, Bruce Wayne’s philosophy of not killing villains was rooted in his wealth, not his race. It was his wealth, not his race that kept him safe. He had the ‘luxury’ of not eliminating the threat because he was protected from it. Basically, if the Riddler escapes from Arkham and causes mischief, he could probably ignore it and never suffer any ill-effects himself. The superhero as savior is a dynamic comics (and movies) have explored for a long time now, but that will forever remain the inescapable idea that they somehow feel responsible for protecting the lesser members of society.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      Gentleman Emeritus Jamelle Bouie has a rather excellent thread on how he’d do a Black Batman. Here’s the first one so you can read the whole thing.



      • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

        Damn, that would work. Be a very different character, but most certainly one that resonates with the target community..Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          Make Joe Chill a cop and, suddenly, you’ve got a very interesting Batman indeed.

          Let’s face it, the Gothamverse has a rather large number of stories dedicated to crooked cops (Branden, and Flass might be a couple of names that ring a bell, maybe) but having it be part of how Batman became Batman? That’d be pretty awesome.

          And it changes the relationship to Gordon! But makes some things possible. But other things impossible! It’s fertile soil!Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

            Especially if Joe Chill was a dirty cop running a racket the Waynes ran afoul of (like a protection racket, or he was selling seized evidence back to criminals, the deal went south, and the Waynes got caught in the crossfire – either way, the PD, being just as corrupt, covers it all up, etc.)

            “And it changes the relationship to Gordon!”

            Yep, no Bat signal on the roof of GCPD, that’s for sure. Gordon and Wayne have to develop a series of covert messages and dead drops, etc.Report

          • Avatar Burt Likko says:

            Maybe there can be a Bat-signal, even one projected on the sky, but it needs to be more surreptitious, something Gordon can carry around with him, like a laser pointer.

            But in this day and age, it’d more likely be Gordon using a burner phone to send Wayne a text message.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            The recent GCPD comic kicked off with a storyline about the Batsignal and the intern hired to turn it off or on. The intern couldn’t be a police officer, you see. The cops couldn’t touch the thing. So they had to hire an intern to turn it on or off.

            That said, the Batsignal has a lot of interesting messages. Not only to Batman but also to criminals and to supervillains and the Average Joe on the street.

            Taking away the Batsignal and turning it into something that only Batman receives removes a *LOT* of symbolism.Report

          • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

            Isn’t the Batsignal supposed to be roughly the equivalent of hanging a flag upside down?Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            I’ve seen stories where the Batsignal is a way for the GCPD to say “BATMAN! HELP US!” and then Batman can go there and they can say “Mister Freeze is doing stuff on the waterfront!” and Batman can say “WHERE IN THE HELL DO YOU THINK I CAME FROM QUIT TURNING THAT SHIT ON UNLESS YOU NEED ME!”

            I’ve seen stories where the Batsignal is a way to set up a conversation with Batman about the nature of crime and law enforcement while Gordon smokes a pipe and then, when the conversation is over, Batman just disappears.

            It does different things in different stories.Report

          • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

            It does seem fairly ridiculous in light of cellphones. I haven’t read a Batman title in about 15 years. Are they still using it?Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            It’s mostly used, nowadays, as a setup for the GCPD to decide that they’re never going to use it anymore.Report

      • Avatar bookdragon says:

        Wow. I’ve always enjoyed the original Batman, but I would absolutely love to see this version too. Sooo many avenues for character development…Report

      • Avatar Doctor Jay says:

        That was really good. I had no idea he wrote here.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        This is both good and sums up what I, as a Jew, see as a problem with identity politics as a Jew. Identity politics seems to give every persecuted group a right to be angry at their treatment but the Jews. Jews are not allowed to be angry despite being continually blamed for the world’s problems for the past two thousand years or so. We are just told that we need to fight for others but not ourselves and trust the people who persecuted us because it is politically convenient.Report

        • Avatar Dark Matter says:

          Magneto seems pretty angry.Report

        • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:


          Progressives have always had a difficult relationship with Jews. AOC cozying up to Jeremy Corbyn and Omars comments are just the latest.

          That has always been the problem with the Big Tent, too many competing self-interests.Report

    • Avatar Pinky says:

      Black or white biographies? Isn’t that exactly the direction we don’t want to go, either in comic books or in society?Report

      • Avatar Doctor Jay says:

        We, which is to say, I, definitely aspire to racial equality. But I would like that aspiration to be linked to, to be rooted in, the reality of our time, which is definitely full of factual, empirical differences between a black experience and a white one.

        Those differences both matter a lot and don’t matter at all. One really good way to make that point artistically and dramatically, is to show someone with a very different biography that ends up making similar choices – the hero’s choices.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        Q: “If we as a culture want to get to a place where race is irrelevant, why don’t we start treating race as something irrelevant?”

        A: “The way to get from where we are to where we want to be is not to pretend that we’re already there.”Report

        • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:


          At some point in the future, if we truly want to be a post-racial society, we will have to stop talking about it. As we discussed in another thread the other day, if the goal is zero, we will never get there. I’m not saying we are at the finish line, but I think we are closer that some people want to believe.Report

  6. Avatar Aaron David says:

    Before superheroes and villains, we had, Space! and science fiction. Before that, it was Westerns, which of course came after War, which came after…

    If you notice with all of these, they start relatively black and white, with easily identifiable good guys, truly bad antagonists, and clear cut themes. But as they start to age, and the audience with them, they get murkier. Who is the bad guy, who am I rooting for, what are the moral implications of this? Think The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. And eventually, we get such revisionist westerns as Blood Meridian. Meanwhile, the cycle has already started with some new set of white and black hats. Because we have started using simple cardboard cutouts as a place for questions of morality.

    I have never been a comics fan, I think I bought one or two issues as a kid, and they really didn’t captivate me. Which does put me out of sorts with my generation (I am 48) but it maybe allows me to see things a little more clearly. And what strikes me the most is this need to give people of different ethnic groups hand-me-downs. And like when I tried to give my son my old motorcycle jacket, sort of keeping the tradition alive, he looked at me like I was a fool. Which, in retrospect, I was. For who am I to tell him what is cool, what he should wear, what others will think of him. And as we saw the groundswell of enthusiasm for Black Panther, from all groups, we again see the folly of the hand-me-down.

    Imagining and trying to create a black Batman, or Spiderman, when the new generations coming of age can find and create their own superheroes speaks more of hubris than most things imaginable. Because, while currently, superhero movies are the popular genre, the reality is that action is the popular genre. And that they are just wearing a superhero mask. But what the next mask will be is up in the air.

    Jaybird is right, we need some method to deal with questions of morality, but there is nothing to say that the icons of today will be the icons of tomorrow, as they weren’t the icons of yesterday.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

      I agree with Aaron on a lot of this. I think one of the challenges is that it’s really hard to write a new story for heroes. As a species we have been telling hero stories since our very beginnings. So in order to be interesting, the story tellers start tinkering around with the setting and/or the biography of the character, so they can (hopefully) create fresh interactions with the old hero story.

      For a while there it was very popular to try to surprise the audience with the big reveal that a character was gay. TV writers especially really liked to monkey around with this trope. The tough guy that you just saw kill a a bunch of baddies? OMG he likes dudes! Shocking! Now I am even more impressed with his talents, because I just assumed gay men couldn’t fight. You all really made me question reality for a minute! I guess it worked because there were probably a million articles written about the ‘big twist’ on last night’s episode of [insert show here] and how brave they were for going there. This trend has not completely run its course but (thankfully) now that is a ho-hum moment for most audiences. I think the constant tinkering around with changing the gender or race of a hero is also scoring cheap points, but again, telling new stories is really hard, hence the reboot mania that has infected Hollywood.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

      This is why I like what Marvel did. Don’t recast Peter Parker, introduce Miles Morales. He’s not the original redone, he’s his own hero, with his own, very different backstory, issues, motivations, and set of powers.Report

      • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:


        At the time they announced Miles Morales, it felt a lot like they were just trying to figure out how many intersectional boxes they could check. I haven’t read the titles so maybe him being gay and Latino changed the way he approached the classic challenges of the hero…but does it?Report

        • Avatar Maribou says:

          @mike-dwyer Not only have you not read the titles, you don’t even have your facts straight.

          Morales is not gay, not in canon anyway. (The question of him being bi, is I suppose, an open one, but “bisexuality is an open question for some, but the main writer of the character has spelled out that he’s straight” is pretty different from “him being gay”.) Him being Afro-Latino changes the challenges he has to overcome, in that his context and struggles are different from Peter’s in believable ways – they’re also similar in believable ways – but not really a huge change in his core heroic nature (which is, perhaps, as it should be).

          Or you know, as Oscar said in the very comment you replied to, he has “his own, very different backstory, issues, motivations, and set of powers” – just like many of the other alternate Spider-folk out there.Report

      • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

        @oscar – My bad on saying he was gay. I had to check the internets and it appears my information was from reports that it was considered during the character’s creation. It still confirms my point though about checking intersectional boxes.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

          I’m more concerned with how those inter-sectional boxes are treated in the character. What strengths and weaknesses does X bring to the character. Do those make sense, or are they presented and treated in a stereotypical or hamfisted way?

          Think of it this way, one of Miles powers is the ability to become effectively invisible. Is that just a power, or is it connected to how, as a young, bi-racial person, he often feels invisible? Not sure if that is ever spelled out in the comics (I haven’t read them all), and I kinda hope it isn’t, because sometimes you should just let such things hang there…Report

          • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

            I like th idea of introducing new and interesting characters that are a more accurate reflection of our population. At the same time, it’s when they start checking multiple boxes that, sorry the pun, my Spidey Sense flairs up.

            I think your other comment about introducing new characters is spot-on. Making Thor being a woman isn’t very interesting, but a new character gives a lot of people a chance to get behind them and feel like he/she is ‘theirs’. Regarding the MCU, they are about to introduce Captain Marvel and while fanboys and fangirls know the story, I assume a lot of younger kids, especially girls, are going to love her, especially considering what a badass she is. My youngest daughter was about 17 when Wonder Woman came out and she didn’t know the backstory so she absolutely lost her shit. THAT potential with new characters is huge.Report

    • Avatar George Turner says:

      My housemate has remarked that once DC had Superman, he couldn’t see the need for any other superheroes. “Superman is here! You other guys can go home now.” If your superhero is too omnipotent, there’s neither need nor room for any others. And the logic we use to imagine our superheroes can have real world consequences, sometimes rather tragic ones.

      The largest school of Sunni Islam, the Ash’arites, completely avoided serious
      questions of morality and good and evil by denying that the answers are accessible to human reason. Along the way they also decided that God doesn’t use morality or reason either, and that by definition anything he does is good and anything he forbids is evil, and he can reverse what is good and evil at any time, for no reason at all. He is pure will.

      I bring this up because it comes from the same strands of human thought and philosophy that we use to debate the nature of a superhero. Suppose you had a superhero of infinite and total power, and omnipotent being. If he is constrained by logic, reason, or morality then he really isn’t infinitely powerful because his will is bound by an external force. That was unacceptable to the Ash’arites.

      As they took it further, they also rejected cause and effect because that too would be limitations on God’s power. Even in the farthest fringes of Western religious thought, God had set up some rules that operate the universe absent his personal intervention, but the Ash’arites rejected that idea because then you have God sharing power with his own rules. There can be no other power, so God does everything directly, all the time, just like The Matrix.

      Your potted plant, from instant to instant, only remains a potted plant through God’s direct intervention. He continuously destroys and recreates all the atoms of the plant, and determines their particular arrangement, and to us it appears the plant has a continuous existence, but that is an illusion. God tends to let the plant continue as a plant, but at any moment it might become a talking moose. There are no miracles, nor a possibility of a miracle, because every thing in every instant is itself a miracle.

      And since good and evil are purely determined by God’s actions, and since God doesn’t use morality or reason to guide or constrain his actions, then good and evil are not deducible by man though the use of logic or any other sense that man may possess. The only guide to behavior is what God has compelled, encouraged, permitted, discouraged, or forbidden in the Koran.

      At that point there’s no room for superheroes, or really any man or other being acting with his own agency. There’s no good and evil that would make any sense, and no room for any other being to know good from evil or to act on that belief. But there is an element of free will, in that we choose between actions that God allows us, even though he’s the one making us perform the actions. So we are held responsible for things God makes us do.

      These ideas took over in Baghdad slight after 1000 AD, displacing the Muʿtazila school of thought that held that God was pure reason and that only through reason and logic can we understand him, and understand good and evil. Those believers were purged, with many fleeing to Iran. Later political changes spread the Ash’arite school elsewhere through the Middle East, where it remains dominant today.

      So we live in a part of the world where we can debate the morality of superheroes, and use superheroes to explore questions of good and evil, but only because we’ve left room for them in our imaginations, and held on to the idea that we can discern good from evil. Indeed, we love to conjure up scenarios that fall along the blurry or chaotic line between them.Report

      • Avatar Doctor Jay says:

        My own personal theology (or maybe it’s heresy, I don’t know) is that God loves us, but in the same way that an author might love the characters in her novels. The love is there, but she puts them through terrible things, just for the sake of entertainment, or maybe because she so enjoys it when they are brave, and kind, and strong, and good.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        The problem with Superman is that it is so very difficult to write him well.

        I’ve read a handful of really good Superman stories, mind… but nowhere near enough to sustain a monthly (let alone weekly) comic book.

        As a supporting character, there’s none better. As an occasional character in JLA, none better.

        But, for the most part, if you have a character with Omnipotence as well as Omnibenevolence, you’re not going to get a good *STORY*.

        The best Superman stories come to the same conclusion as Kushner: Hey, maybe he’s not omnipotent omnipotent. He’s just really potent. But that’s not enough to stand up against… well… evil.

        In any given Joker vs. Superman storyline, you can see who the writer sympathizes with. I have seen stories where Joker mops the floor with Superman (well, metaphorically… he hit him with a pie in the face when there was a reporter nearby) and I have seen stories where Superman beats Joker handily (“I basically just had to keep you talking while I triangulated the frequency of the devices that were sending messages to the detonator you have hidden in your pocket, after I did that, it’d take less than a second to send them in the direction of the sun. They’re about 230,000 miles away by now.”)

        How far down do you want to push your thumb on the scale?

        Well, if you want a good story… you probably need to push less hard than that.Report

        • Avatar George Turner says:

          Ronald D. Moore related the same problem with Star Trek. By giving the Enterprise too much tech, they made it really hard to write an interesting story because in theory, the captain or crew could just push a button and all would be made well.

          So about 15 minutes of every episode was coming up with some bizarre phenomenon (“the ion storm is blocking our transporters!”) or tech failure to strip the crew of their super powers so that the episode could present some kind of dilemma or obstacle that requires human agency.

          As he put it, the show wrote itself into a corner where it wasn’t even about a crew that goes around fixing things, which is not very dramatic, it was about a crew that is always having to repair their tools so they can then go fix things, which is even more boring.

          Basically, they had to constantly burn screen time to introduce some new form of kryptonite so that Superman faced a challenge. The only reason that was necessary was that they had already written in too much omnipotent technology.Report

          • Avatar Dark Matter says:

            George Turner: By giving the Enterprise too much tech, they made it really hard to write an interesting story because in theory, the captain or crew could just push a button and all would be made well.

            IMHO it was more “Too many people were wearing white hats, and they were following the communist “everyone acts for the collective” ideal”, and they weren’t willing to pick up their own plot lines.

            They have a planet where the local “advancement” guy introduces Nazism, and it was evil, and he dies, and everything is made good. Everything is black and white and it’s boring.

            How about a planet where the local rep is a total scumbag, everyone hates him, and they can’t replace him? Worse, how about his methods are actually working? Better yet, put him on the ship, not subject to the captain’s authority.

            Introduce messy politics, interpersonal relationships, corruption, unintended consequences and the show would have gotten a lot more interesting.Report

    • Avatar Doctor Jay says:

      You are both correct, since we are more interested in Superman than Hercules, and wrong, since we have been interested in Superman for maybe 80 years now.

      One of the things that mythic heroic figures allow is intergenerational interpretation. Each generation gets a new, modified Superman, even while trying to hang on to what was good and valuable and important about Superman. Or Batman, or Professor X, or Captain America, and so on. I like this.

      One of the things the current generations wants to play with is racial and gender issues. How much tweaking can these mythic figures stand? How far is too far? They want to know, they want to play. I say let them play. That’s what this stuff is for. (cf. Winnicott and “potential space”).Report

  7. Avatar Maribou says:

    “The underlying issue is not with Batman, nor even in the constructing of a racial identity, but in needing to make public things conform to my private identity. ”

    This would be a stronger criticism of the “Black Batman” game if making Batman conform to one’s private identity hadn’t been a thing for most of Batman’s history.

    I’m not talking the same old same old whiteness is innately identity politics argument here (though I agree with that one), but just about Batman.

    People deciding Batman is great but he’d be even greater if he was more like me (and / or the Batman that I like best is the one I identify with most closely, and all other Batmans are inferior, and/or some new Batman is just more fun to play with than existing Batman) is a *defining feature* of Batman at this point. Check the recent Batman essay on this very site… it’s making a different point but includes this one. Or just read more Batman! At this point I’ve read a few thousand single issues worth of the stuff (#blameJaybird) and watched some (not all) of the audiovisual offerings and games, and Batman’s malleability of identity is right up there in terms of character notes.

    So heck yeah, whoever wants to play that game should get to, on whatever basis they want.

    tl;dr: If Adam West Batman and TAS Batman and Frank Miller Batman and Batwoman, especially Bombshells universe Batwoman, why the heck not black Batman? And why cast revision and improvisation (another fundamental component of play!!) as rigidity / inability to empathize sufficiently rather than being part of a long-standing tradition of riffing on Batman in all kinds of ways? Doesn’t seem to fit the evidence under review.

    Does make me dubious as to why suddenly *this* riff is a riff too far and needs pushback. Not dubious of you personally – I don’t know you at all – but just dubious in general about the backlash to the idea, and the generalized enthusiasm for participating in it. Seems to have gone more viral than upset at Bombshells or even upset at mpreg Batman ever dreamed of being…. but maybe that’s just recency bias on my part.Report

    • Avatar Doctor Jay says:

      This is something I wanted to say, but didn’t know how. You said it, and well.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      IIRC there was a lot of excitement about maybe Idris Elba being cast as the next James Bond. And a lot of backlash to the idea too.

      The current James Bond is portrayed as a high-performing employee who is nevertheless well on his way to a mandatory sexual harassment training. Which seems like a nice balance point between the traits of the classic character and the changing social realities of the contemporary setting of his world.

      IMO, that’s the same discussion as “can we have a black Batman”.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Remember when Timothy Dalton came out with a James Bond movie where he didn’t have sex with anybody because of the HIV Crisis?Report

      • Avatar CJColucci says:

        A few years back, Scientific American had a piece on a study a couple of scientists published on James Bond’s health problems caused by his enormous alcohol consumption. He ordered his martinis shaken, not stirred (heresy!) because if he tried to stir his martinis in front of others, they’d see that he has a serious case of the shakes. He was also likely impotent. So maybe he’ll end up in front of employee assistance rather than human resources.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

        I think Elba playing Bond is easier, because Bond is never really a person, he’s an archetype. At least in the movies, we never really get a backstory for James Bond (is that his real name, or an alias he’s grown fond of?). Hell, at this point, James Bond could be a title for all we know. “Whoever so holds the 007 LTK is henceforth known as James Bond!”

        But Batman and Bruce Wayne are linked in a more fundamental way, and Bruce Wayne is the definition of wealthy white privilege. Sure, we could do Bouie’s Batman (& I would probably read the hell out of that), but a permanent recast is a very tricky thing. Do it wrong, and it’ll blow up in DCs face.

        But, as I said, it’s not impossible. Nick Fury isn’t white anymore and no one seems to mind.Report

        • Avatar Dark Matter says:

          Fury hadn’t had a standalone comic since either 1968 or 1989. He’s a great supporting character, he’s great redone, he also wasn’t popular enough to stand a comic up himself. Popularity is a measurement of how many people identify with him and/or how risky a move it will be to redo him.

          The problem with a redo of Superman is he’s the main figure in 4+ comics. Having said that, there’s certainly room in the DC universe to have a Black Superman(ish) character… however I think they’ve tried that more than a few times and they don’t become popular enough to support their own comic.

          Granted, part of that is Superman has already taken over that role iconically, but that’s only part of it. Captain Marvel (now Shazam) was effectively a Superman clone. I’ve long lost track of how many characters we have which copy Superman on some level.Report

    • Avatar Pinky says:

      I strongly support the #blameJaybird groundswell.

      But there’s a big difference between interpreting Batman as a psycho or a troubled social worker or whatever and interpreting him as black. First of all, it elevates skin color to a personality trait. Secondly, you can cast the psychology of the character in any number of ways without changing his story. Black Batman has a different story, or at least everyone here has presented him as having a different story.Report

      • Avatar CJColucci says:

        Black Batman has a different story.

        Well, yes. I thought that was the point.Report

        • Avatar Pinky says:

          But what does that say?

          Bruce Wayne is an outlier among whites. He’s an outlier among rich whites, and among rich whites whose parents were killed when he was young. He doesn’t represent the white experience. If you say that black Batman is different, you’re saying that changing the single trait of skin color changes a person’s behaviour. You’re literally saying that you can judge the content of a person’s character by the color of their skin.

          Batman is not the inevitable result of socioeconomic forces. He’s unique. If skin color changes Batman, then skin color changes our innermost nature.Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

            If you haven’t, you should read Bouie’s proposal (follow the Twitter link). He specifically talks about how a black Wayne family would be very different, and not just The Waynes with dark skin.Report

      • Avatar Maribou says:

        No, it doesn’t elevate it to a personality trait. It elevates it to something which can reasonably be understood to have most likely shaped the environment and the experiences of the character in such a way as to have shifted his backstory and motivations, especially within an American context. Plausibly, not necessarily, done so.

        Secondly, I don’t agree that changing the psychology (and the behavior) of the character as broadly as the many Batmans have, even *if* they stick with the exact same biography (not a given), doesn’t change the character’s story. I would argue it absolutely *does* change his story, and that one’s childhood is far from the primary aspect of one’s story, even if it is important and interesting.

        Finally, if you think the plethora of other Batmans don’t take liberties with his backstory and with many other plot elements, you haven’t read as many Batmans as you should have ;). Or at least as Jaybird would’ve made, er, STRONGLY ENCOURAGED you to read were you in a position to #blameJaybird for your comics habit. just for starters, although they are a bit narrower than I would be in defining “alternative versions of Batman” and I can think of several that I would include that they don’t…

        When I gave my examples in the original comment, I was attempting to stick to ones that random people who didn’t know that much Batman would recognize. Apologies if that gave the impression I was only talking about “flavors” of Batman. If you take the time to actually read through that whole Jamelle Bouie thread – which I assumed was the spur for this OP since that’s where this whole conversation-on-the-internet is coming from at this moment, but perhaps the OP never read it either – I think you’ll see the playfulness I’m talking about.

        “What if Batman was X?” or “What if Batman did X?” or “what if Batman never had X seemingly crucial aspect of his traditionally-canon-backstory?” has, paradoxically enough, *become* canon Batman at this point.Report

      • Avatar Doctor Jay says:

        The most salient part of being a black American is the circumstances and people around you as you developed, as well as the reaction of the larger “white” world to that community. Not your skin color, per se.

        Much like I’m a certain kind of rural, high-prole, outdoorsy, quasi-redneck. I’m much more than that now, but that’s how it started. While it’s nothing like being a black American, it’s not hard to find people with bad reactions to the kinds of people I grew up with. Not hard at all.

        Some of the people I grew up with let that upbringing define them. They may not realize this, but that was a choice they made. It doesn’t have to define you, and circumscribe limits to your life. Though breaking out can be very, very difficult for some.

        So, the skin color and the personality are not at all the same, I agree. And why not demonstrate that on film with a race-swap of a very well known character?

        Black Batman would have a different story, because black Americans have, in general, a different story than white ones. But does that mean that Batman would stop being Batman? The assumed answer is no, it wouldn’t. That’s important.Report

      • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:


        I think I disagree that being black doesn’t come with some unique views of the world, but I see where you are going with this. it’s the idea of black skin and black culture being the same thing.

        With that said, Black Batman, assuming the same wealthy background, is basically just the Black Panther. I mean, I loved the movie, but it was really just The Prince and the Pauper or My Fair Lady or Coming to America, except instead of the two protagonists becoming friends or romantically linked at the end, one of them dies. But it’s the same trope; peasant teaches rich person of privilege humility. Basically a social justice fairy tale except it would have been more woke if the guy getting taught was white. And I do think they dropped the ball by having his protagonist be American. That’s still far too much privilege no matter how hard his childhood was. It would have been much better if he was some poor kid from the next country over.Report

        • Avatar Dark Matter says:

          The tale being told isn’t about inequality, it’s about injustice. Just like Black Panther (BP), Killmonger is superior, not equal, to everyone else with some very rare exceptions like Ironman and the Winter Soldier. Similarly Wakanda, the only black country to be spared slavery and colonialism, is the richest and most advanced country on the planet.

          Killmonger is the walking embodiment of black rage. He was created by someone wanting to stand back and do nothing about oppression. He should have had what BP had and even now he has the same potential. However while Black Panther is spiritually one with his universe, Killmonger spiritually can’t move past or outside the room where his father died. He can’t get over the injustice of his creation. His present is a direct result of his past.

          Killmonger is destructive, self destructive, and at war with the world, but he didn’t create himself. He is correct on the facts although not what to do about them. In many ways he’s a Black Magneto.

          Hmm… if we follow that logic I hope the writers knew what they were doing when they killed him.Report

          • Avatar Maribou says:

            @dark matter

            Good comment.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            Huh. That last part.

            Was it Killmonger’s pride that prevented him from being taken captive? Seems strange to have Magneto be humble compared to anyone short of Galactus or Reed Richards. Was it that Killmonger, for all his hardship, was free (in the sense of not being in prison) and Magneto, for all his hardships, spend enough time in really bad ones to know that whatever hole USG put him in, it wouldn’t be *THAT* bad.


            I dunno.Report

          • Avatar Dark Matter says:

            The optimist in me says it was because the next few Black Panther movies aren’t going to be about Black Rage, and/or if they’re planning on killing BP every now and then they probably want his sister to be next in line for running the country and not Killmonger.

            The pessimist says it was because they hadn’t thought that far ahead.

            The neutral says between Wakanda’s level of technology and super powers, “death” may not be all that long lasting.Report

    • Avatar Jesse says:

      Yeah, in short, if you’re OK with the difference between Morrison’s BatGod, 1960’s goofy Batman, and Frank Miiller’s Batman all basically being the “same” Batman, including in many cases, being part of the same continuity depending on whose in charge of DC at the time, but think Batman being another race is going too far, well…I’ve got some questions.Report

      • Avatar Maribou says:

        @jesse Just to be clear since you said “yeah” and then basically re tl;dr’d my tl;dr paragraph only with the more directly confrontational and personalized pronouns ….

        My dubiousness/questions are not aimed at the OP’s, or Pinky”s, conscious opinions in this case, but more about our culturally built-in structures that lead to SOME things being cast one way when OTHER things are not.

        I have no questions for any individual here about their reasons for this particular personal opinion – other than “so have you actually read the thread that all the fuss got kicked up about?” – possibly just because it seems like I’ve probably read more Batman than they have, but also because I prefer not to conflate cultural, structural, or institutional racism with personal biases (or lack thereof).

        And I’d rather be able to question the former without being bandwagoned along to the latter, for any number of reasons, and I’m not sure that your comment leaves me able to do that. Without this clarification.


  8. Avatar Tracy Downey says:

    I truly enjoyed reading this for several reasons. Superheroes install the values we strive to hold. The greater good, the struggle with our super I’d versus doing the right thing. Inner conflict. Eventually i’d like to turn my books into graphic novels. My heroine is a modern day superhero. Back in the 30’s 40’s it was the catholic Church that tried banning comics-my heroine is a Catholic Clairvoyant that witnesses murders before they happen, winds up rescuing sex trafficking victims, battling the Russian Bratva, all while trying to discover who she truly is. -Comics help break down the basics- when you’re a kid, you imagine everything is possible. After growing up, you hope this inner childhood dream still exists.Report

  9. Stephen Clouse Stephen Clouse says:

    Let me add to this thread, since there are several interlaced conversations here to which I cannot reply to all the participants, I just wanted to say thank you for reading my little piece here. I had no idea it’d cause such a discussion and reflection. Perhaps I will write a follow-up to this in the future, addressing some of the avenues I did not consider.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      Aw, come on! Get in the comments and throw some elbows!Report

    • Avatar Maribou says:

      @Stephen Clouse, I would love to read such a piece. Please don’t take my criticisms as anything other than engagement! We strive here to run as many pieces as possible with which at least one involved editor strongly disagrees (often at the behest or solicitation of that editor :D).Report

  10. Avatar Zac Black says:

    Just wanted to note that *technically*, Iron Man came out about eleven weeks before The Dark Knight.Report

  11. Avatar Zac Black says:

    Also, this was an excellent piece and I hope you write for the site again.Report