Fans find superheroes relevant in US political, social debate

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Posted on July 25, 2018, 8:00 am
6 mins

At Comic-Con 2018, fantasy can come to life. Fans dress up as Superman, Spider-Man and Captain America, just to name a few.

These names have become some of the most familiar heroes in American popular culture. The values they represent have captured the imaginations of fans from around the world.

Superman fan Dorian Black was dressed in a blue costume, a red cape, yellow belt, red boots and a big “S” on his chest.

At Comic-Con in San Diego, Black said he becomes the alien from the planet Krypton who represents the immigrant spirit. A story, he adds, that is just as relevant today as it was when superman was created in 1938.

“There was a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment happening at the time that he was created, and I don’t feel like that’s ever changed,” Black said. “We’d like to pretend that America has changed greatly from that time period. A lot of ways it has for the better, but we’re still having this argument of do we let in refugees? How much is too much?”

Relevant today

Superman is not the only superhero fans find relevant in today’s political and social climate in the U.S. The female comic book superhero Captain Marvel will be featured in a movie in 2019. Many female fans are excited about what she represents.

“Strength and female strength especially, which I think is really important in our current world,” said Hayley West, who dressed as Captain Marvel, complete with a red, dark blue and gold jumpsuit with a star on her chest.

Seeing a superhero’s relevance in politics and social issues is not a new phenomenon. Superman’s character first appeared during the Great Depression.

“He’s (Superman) almost a kind of anarchist, socialist,” said English professor Ben Saunders, who directs a University of Oregon comics and cartoon studies minor, the first of its kind in the U.S.

Saunders said Superman originally fought representatives of the oil companies and advertising executives who were out to fleece the public, and campaigned for prison reform. He then became more socially conservative in the 1940s and 1950s as American values changed, but what stayed consistent was Superman’s ability to always do the right thing, Saunders said.

“Of course, our notions of what the right thing is changed. It’s culturally contingent. It changes month to month sometimes, and that’s what makes Superman a particularly challenging character to write,” he added.

“The characters become the voice of whoever’s creating them at the time. Whoever the writer is or the artist. The things that are important to them are going to get interjected into those characters,” said Aaron Lopresti, a comic book artist who has drawn superheroes, including Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, for publishers DC Comics and Marvel Comics.

Lopresti said modern-day writers tend to have more liberal views on what is happening in society, which is often reflected in their work.

“When things change or different ideas come into view, I think a lot of times you see those things reflected in the characters or the situations they’re in, in their comics,” Lopresti said.

Timelessness of values

Fans, however, also see a timelessness in values held by their favorite superheroes.

“I believe that Captain America holds really good values of staying true to your family and really just making sure that you stick to what you’re going to say and what you’re going to do,” said 18-year-old Valencia Garcia, a movie fan who proudly held a replica of Captain America’s shiny red, silver and blue shield with a silver star in the middle.

“I like all of them. They’re all heroes to help save the people, and they do good deeds,” said Sonya Flores, a Laotian American who loves superhero movies.

Fans say these superheroes represent an ideal that people and those in positions of power should try to emulate.

“I feel like, as a society, we’re so jaded to the idea of power that if you have power, you’re just by default corrupted by it. And there’s that saying that absolute power corrupts absolutely. But Superman is sort of a counter argument to that. You can be all powerful and be good, but you have to try to be good,” said Black.

In Spider-Man’s story, there is a famous line that says, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

“There are people in positions of power today who I think will be well-advised to remember that power and responsibility go hand in hand,” Saunders said.

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