Post-modern Superheroes

Richard Graham’s blog series on comic books

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Being an academic who reads comic books, it’s not surprising to me (though a tad tedious) when my colleagues want to talk about “post-modern superheroes.” These discussions tend to involve the usual suspects–Alan Moore’s Watchmen or Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. Whether there’s really anything “post-modern” about them is contentious, but it’s actually quite rare when one finds a true depiction of Nietzchean imperatives. My favorite out of those rare representations of the ubermensch and his attempt to convert humanity is Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme.

Released as a mini-series by Marvel Comics in 1985, Squadron Supreme pastiches DC’s popular Justice League of America, with “analog” clones of Superman (Hyperion), Wonder Woman (Power Princess), Batman (Nighthawk), and so on, giving readers a familiar iconography while they are confronted with some hard truths of those beloved characters.  The plot of the series explored the possibilities of a pantheon of American superheroes that, after a third world war, decide to rid the world of all its deficiencies and impose their utopian regime. They tackle hunger, poverty, war, and crime, although the vast majority of the series concerns itself with the moral ambiguity of a behavior modification machine, which was originally invented to rehabilitate criminals, but inevitably used for the selfish ends of one of the main characters. If these characters like Superman can impose a utopia, then they can also impose a dystopia, and it’s only a small matter of ideology that saves us from one or damns us to the other. Thus, the series is more about the corruption of superheroes failing to be held in check, and as long as superheroes are acting like super humans, their ‘‘human’’ aspects will fail to emerge. Nighthawk, the Batman-clone, takes exception to the implied fascism to affect such widespread social change, and rallies a resistance group to battle the Squadron’s utopian efforts. To him, without the Squadron to enforce the utopia that it helped to create, humanity will quickly revert to the dystopian life that ran rampant before the Squadron’s efforts.

The social problems and philosophical questions make this one of the most deep super-hero comic series ever. Many of the major political talking points of today were already covered in this series. The characters are severely flawed—it was really the first time I ever saw a “hero” being showed as a condescending, arrogant jerk—but I can’t help but feel bad about them. It’s a mind trip to see how these characters fall from grace and how skewed and mentally unhealthy they are at times.

 One other interesting thing to note—Gruenwald was a lover of comics, and put himself into his work, literally. After he passed away from a heart attack in 1996, his friends and family decided to honor his legacy by including his ashes in the ink for the first-run trade paperback print of his Squadron Supreme series.