What is a Superhero? by Robin S. Rosenberg and Peter Coogan (editors)What is a Superhero? by Robin S. Rosenberg and Peter Coogan (editors)

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsWhat is a Superhero?, a collection of 25 essays edited by Robin S. Rosenberg and Peter Coogan, doesn’t aim to present “the” answer to this oft-asked question. Instead, it throws open to the door to an array of answers (some of which are directly contradictory) from people across a wide spectrum of fields: philosophers, psychologists, comic book creators, cultural critics, etc. If, as is almost always the case in any collection, the individual essays vary in quality of insight, depth, and style, taken as a whole, What is a Superhero? makes for an always enjoyable and sometimes insightful or thought-provoking read.

The book is divided into four broad sections: a definition of the superhero centering particularly on the three-legged stool of “mission, powers, and identity,” an examination of the role of “context, culture, and costume” in the genre and how these aspects create problems of definition; an exploration of supervillains; and finally a series of essays from comic book writers offering up their personal definitions of the superhero (the authors in this section are Stan Lee, Danny Fingeroth, Kurt Busieck, Ivory Madison, Jeph Loeb, Dennis O’Neil, Tom DeFalco, Joe Quesada, and Fred Van Lente). The essays range in length from three to over a dozen pages, with most in the 5-7-page range.

As mentioned, they do span a breadth of quality and depth — none are “bad,” but several felt a bit slight or self-evident in their conclusions/analysis. Rather than focus on those ones though, I’m going to highlight a few (not an exhaustive list) of my favorite ones.

“The Hero Defines the Genre, the Genre Defines the Hero” by Peter Coogan.
This essays sets the up the “mission, power, identity” triumvirate that is referenced by many of the later pieces. Coogan uses the trio to separate the superhero from the merely heroic, in particular earlier pulp heroes, Western heroes, and science fiction heroes. He delves into the details of each aspect and offers up a slew of concrete examples, as for instance when he elaborates on the lack of “requirements” for the prowess:

Superpowers can come from extraordinary abilities, like the X-Men’s mutant abilities (extra-ordinary in the literal sense); advanced technology, like Iron Man’s armor; or highly developed physical or mental skills, like Batman’s martial arts prowess or his supreme tactical abilities. Superpowers can also include mystical abilities that result from years of study and training, like Dr Strange’s mastery of the mystic arts.

He is also quick to point out that this is not a proscriptive definition; many heroes will be missing an element or two: “The Hulk is a superhero without a mission… Batman… [is] a superhero without superpowers… the Fantastic Four debuted without costumes [part of the “identity” element]. The latter part of the essays moves away from a focus on the superhero character and into a broader look at the superhero genre, and how it blurs lines even as it distinguishes itself from other genres, such as the Western or the Adventure story.

“What is a Female Superhero” by Jennifer K. Stuller
This relatively brief essay does a nice job of concisely analyzing how the female superhero tends to differ from the male one via three broad elements: the female hero collaborates with others rather than following the typically male “lone wolf” style; the female hero’s story often has love “romantic, filial, platonic, or as an ethic… as narrative motivation;” and the female hero is usually mentored by a father figure while mothers are “absent or inconsequential… when girls kick ass, it’s because of the assistance, guidance, and teaching they receive from men.” Stuller leaves it to the reader to answer whether or not these difference “exaggerate or reflect culture gender norms,” though she suggests that the answers to such questions will not be universal, but instead must be determined on a “case-be-case basis.”

“Superheroes and the Modern (ist) Age by Alex Boney
An examination of how the hero grew out of chaotic and sometimes threatening cultural shifts, such as the movement from an agrarian to an urban society or from a pre-industrial to a post-industrial society. This was one of my favorite essays for its sharp insights and detailed yet concise “close reading,” as in this passage:

Whereas the power of the cities often overwhelms the protagonists of traditional modernist novels, the power of uncontrollable modern forces was counteracted by the strength of superhero protagonists. Although trains and automobiles are recognized as powerful and dangerous, the superhero is able to control, destroy, or redirect these… In what is probably the most iconic single image of Superman — the cover of Action Comics #1 —  the hero hoists a car over his head… He isn’t dwarfed by skyscrapers but leaps over them in a single bound… Batman, Starman, and Green Lantern were all rendered soaring high above the lights and buildings of nighttime cityscapes. These characters seemed to be able to control the cities that threatened to assert control over everyone else.

Sorting out Villainy: A Typology of Villains and Their Effects on Superheroes by Robin S. Rosenberg
Anyone who makes lists or likes categories will like Rosenberg’s essay that distinguishes amongst several sorts of villains, as well as ranking them from least to most interesting: the “straightforward criminal” who “seeks material gain… or power and acts illegally to get it” a la Kingpin or Penguin; the “vengeful villain” with a “personal vendetta,” such as Lex Luthor; the “heroic villain” who “has a goal that isn’t selfish, although it might be a bit twisted… From their point of view, they are heroes, and their ends justify their destructive means” (think Magneto); and the “sadistic supervillain who wreaks havoc simply because he or she can and who enjoys it,” such as the Joker. Rosenberg also explains how each sort of villain has a different impact on the superhero and evokes a different sort of response, such as wrestling with their own motives or actions.

“Superheroes are Made” by Tom DeFalco
An intriguing look at DeFalco’s “construction process” with regard to four characters he created/worked on: Spider-Man, Spider-Girl, the original Thunderstrike, and the heir to Thunderstrike. It was an all-too brief look behind the scenes at a fascinating creative process.

These five were, in my mind, the strongest of the collection, but many were close in quality and enjoyment and as stated above, none of the essays were bad or a chore to read; even the slightest ones offered up some tidbits and were written in an engaging style. What is a Superhero?, makes for a nice overview/introduction for those new to the superhero world (it would, for instance, make a good classroom starter text). And if those better versed in the genre will find less they hadn’t thought of before, the specific examples, generally strong writing, concise nature, engaging voices, and reference to fondly recalled characters and events will more than make up for the lack of “I never thought of that!” moments. Recommended.

Publication Date: August 1, 2013. It’s easy to name a superhero–Superman, Batman, Thor, Spiderman, the Green Lantern, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Rorschach, Wolverine–but it’s not so easy to define what a superhero is. Buffy has superpowers, but she doesn’t have a costume. Batman has a costume, but doesn’t have superpowers. What is the role of power and superpower? And what are supervillains and why do we need them? In What is a Superhero?, psychologist Robin Rosenberg and comics scholar Peter Coogan explore this question from a variety of viewpoints, bringing together contributions from nineteen comic book experts–including both scholars in such fields as cultural studies, art, and psychology as well as leading comic book writers and editors. What emerges is a kaleidoscopic portrait of this most popular of pop-culture figures. Writer Jeph Loeb, for instance, sees the desire to make the world a better place as the driving force of the superhero. Jennifer K. Stuller argues that the female superhero inspires women to stand up, be strong, support others, and most important, to believe in themselves. More darkly, A. David Lewis sees the indestructible superhero as the ultimate embodiment of the American “denial of death,” while writer Danny Fingeroth sees superheroes as embodying the best aspects of humankind, acting with a nobility of purpose that inspires us. Interestingly, Fingeroth also expands the definition of superhero so that it would include characters like John McClane of the Die Hard movies: “Once they dodge ridiculous quantities of machine gun bullets they’re superheroes, cape or no cape.” From summer blockbusters to best-selling graphic novels, the superhero is an integral part of our culture. What is a Superhero? not only illuminates this pop-culture figure, but also sheds much light on the fantasies and beliefs of the American people.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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