Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Nature of Superheroes

A new recruit to comic book geekdom, I recently spent some time familiarizing myself with the genre. I figured heroes were just people running around in costumes, beating up on bad guys. Turns out, there's a lot more to it. While I could probably write an entire thesis on the subject (possibly throwing in some more pretentious literary theory and critical analysis), the most important thing to understand is this:

There are three kinds of superheroes – those who are born, those who are made, and those who become. For those that haven't spent time researching the topic, here’s the breakdown...

1.  Born Superheroes:
The first type of superhero involves those born with special abilities. They often come from other places, sympathizing with humanity despite their differences, and selflessly use their powers to protect the human race. The most common, and perhaps most celebrated example is Superman. Born Kal-El from planet Krypton, his abilities include super-strength and speed, flight and invulnerability. Like many heroes from this category, “Superman” is his true persona, human alias Clark Kent his disguise. Wonder Woman, the Amazonian princess, Thor, member of the Asgard race, and all the X-Men mutants also belong to this category.

Though I don’t discount their good deeds, I typically enjoy reading about this type of hero least. Some call Superman the best of his kind, but I find a hero defeated by one whiff of green kryptonite slightly overrated.

Exception: The X-Men are perhaps my favorite comic book series, and not included in my disinclination for “born” superheroes. Though gifted with powers upon birth, they share more in common with “made” superheroes. Born on earth, rather than aliens from a foreign land, they’re more human than others in this category, suffering in a society that detests their differences. 

2.  Made Superheroes:
The second category depicts regular human beings who become superheroes after their DNA is altered in some way. Peter Parker for example, bitten by a radioactive spider and given his “spidy” sense. Or Bruce Banner, hit with a high dose of gamma radiation and transformed into The Hulk. Even the Fantastic Four team, altered by cosmic rays. These characters deal with a whole host of problems as they grapple with the aftereffect of their transformation, from the loss of their old lives to their new roles as superheroes. Though often resentful of their obligation to protect humanity, they nevertheless follow the sage wisdom of Peter’s Uncle Ben (“With great power, comes great responsibility”) and continue defending mankind.

As previously mentioned, I much prefer “made” superheroes to “born”. Having my own fears of radiation and cosmic rays (they say the ozone layer’s disintegrating right? It could happen), I find their struggle more interesting and easier to identify with. Like going through puberty, radioactive mutation is never easy.

3. Becoming a Superhero:
The third and final category covers humans with no powers or magic abilities, but become superheroes by turning their own strengths into superpowers. The two most recognizable are Iron Man and Batman – Batman uses his financial situation and desire for justice/vengeance to drive him to heroism, while Iron Man utilizes his incredible cunning.

Personally I find this the most interesting type of superhero. First, because they must overcome their human weakness in order to rise as superheroes. And second because if I were to become a superhero, this is how I’d accomplish it. Step 1 – get rich. Step 2 – use my superbrain to invent a special suit that allows me to fly. Step 3 – find a few bad guys and kick butt. 


  1. I think the most interesting superheroes are those who choose to be them...shows a strength of character

  2. Um... Rob did his undergrad thesis on Zelda Wii, conducting experiments on the effects of music and sound effects in gaming. If he can get away with that crapy excuse for an educational project, I think a Superhero thesis would definitely qualify!! Haha ( :

  3. I think that rather than the source of their superpowers (born with them or developed through some freak accident) the more important element for categorizing superheroes is when the powers manifested.

    This classification is largely similar to your classification, but allows the x-men to be classified along with the other cool superheroes. Additionally, I think that it does more to explain the psychology of the characters than whether they were born with the powers or not.

    So to recap: Nature or Nurture?

  4. That's not a bad analysis. Though in some ways that would then split the X-Men into different categories since some of them developed their powers at different times, which would make an easy reference guide (what I was going for) more complicated.