The Evolution of Accessible Super Heroes
The draw to comic books is as diverse and fascinating as the super heroes that inhabit the pages. We all have our own reasons for our fan-boy loyalty of certain super heroes. The Incredible Hulk has captivated me since the very first time I picked up his comic book. He was big, he was mean and he was a sensitive love-stricken protector of the innocents. Those characteristics should never change. Yes, we all enjoyed Mr. Fixit but how gratifying was it when the Big Green Monster came back? We like our super heroes consistent. It is an age-old adage, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Remember when Coca-Cola brought out New Coke? How about the debacle of Clear Pepsi? I hope we all still cringe when we think of Superman Red and Superman Blue. The comic book industry loves to re-launch and redesign their properties. However, at the core, the characters rarely change. Many changes are cosmetic and necessary to keep the look of the character current. When is it acceptable for a hero to change and make him/her more accessible to the readers?
Learning Confidence From Peter Parker
A largely underrepresented change that does not happen in comic books is growing up. Not just growing up as in aging but gaining real responsibilities; getting married, having children, getting a divorce, losing your job or home. As comic fans grow up and get older, our heroes do not experience many of the issues that surround our life. Other than Spider-Man, we have very few heroes who we have seen grow up, albeit not mature, but grow up. Peter Parker has fallen in and out of love. He has graduated high school, gone to college and worked a real job. Peter dated, broke up and married MJ and has become a more relatable super hero because of it.
When Peter Parker was in high school many readers had an immediate connection with the stereotypical nerdy science kid. Getting bullied and ignored by girls was all too real for many of us. Of course becoming a super hero is not going to happen to any of his readers, however gaining confidence can. As Peter Parker became more confident (as Spider-Man) he opened up and became a more dynamic character. His relationships evolved and he grew up. Soon he was able to talk to the pretty blonde in class and surprisingly she talked back to him. This gave all of Spider-Man’s readers hope. Hope that their lives could get better and they would eventually get to have a real conversation with a pretty girl.
Batman Looks Like My Grandpa
We cannot discuss a superhero growing up without referring to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns from 1986. A seminal read for all comic fans, but was Batman a more accessible character at his advanced age? Now that Batman looked mortal, did it help him relate to readers? I’d argue that we were given a logical depiction of what will happen to Batman if he aged as the rest of us do. He didn’t evolve as a character, he got old. Bruce Wayne did not go broke. He didn’t lose Wayne Manor and the Batmobile wasn’t repossessed. Batman remained true to his core and although his body began to break down, his spirit and resources were never stronger.
Batman was born of a such a tragic origin that comic readers did not need any further explanation into why Bruce Wayne became Batman. It is horrific to think of losing one’s parents. We accepted Batman for who he was from day one, year one. He is a hero that we may relate to in an all to real way. We want him to succeed against all odds. Whenever we find Batman in an unbelievable or ridiculous adventure like The Return of Bruce Wayne, we return to that infamous night in Crime Alley and know that Bruce Wayne has suffered as many of us have. Perhaps Batman is the exception. We root for him because he is like us. He has no super powers but through dramatic adversity has become a true super hero to the average reader.
Sweet Christmas! Luke Cage is a Daddy!
Comic books spoil us. Even when our heroes are at their worst or have hit rock bottom they are an idealized version of themselves. Our heroes do not age. Our heroes rarely die. They are perpetually fighting super villains in their prime and will always triumph. That is why we love them and continue to read their books. Very few of our comic heroes have events happen to them that we can relate to. A radioactive spider never bit me. As far as I know I was not rocketed here from an exploding planet and I have to keep a real job.
One hero that I have always loved is Luke Cage, Power Man. The original Hero for Hire was everything I looked for in a comic. He was a no-nonsense badass who fought for the little guy. Luke Cage has suffered for years for being a product of the 70’s. At his worst he was a stereotypical Blaxploitation action star with a disco wrapping. It took a while for Marvel to redesign Power Man into the Luke Cage we know today. Ditching the retro costume was necessary for us to take Cage seriously as an alpha hero in the Marvel Universe. The moniker Power Man also needed attention. It is unlikely that a tough guy from Harlem would be respected calling himself Power Man. Cosmetic changes complete, Cage did not need a secondary mutation or cyborg enhancements – he just needed readers to relate to him.
Growing up on the streets of Harlem and imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, Lucas Cage was given a second chance at life. After obtaining unbreakable skin via a jailhouse science experiment, Cage became our Hero For Hire and decided he would clean up the streets one criminal at a time. Arbitrary origin story aside, Power Man had a great run in the bronze and modern age of comics. Luke Cage did not begin to develop depth as a character until he fell in love and married Jessica Jones. With the birth of his daughter, he is now beginning to reach his potential as a hero. Luke Cage is now accessible. The hardened former hero for hire is now a family man. Cage went underground during Marvel’s Civil War and decided to have his wife and newborn leave New York. Cage finally had something tangible to fight for. No longer was he defending the little guy but fighting for a better world. A world he could raise his daughter in. A world he could be proud to say he helped save. Luke Cage has now become the hero of an aging comic book fan base.
Those of us that grew up loving Heroes for Hire and Power Man and Iron Fist’s swift and deliberate brand of justice now have a hero for our generation that has similar problems to us. Luke Cage struggles to fight The Wrecking Crew but also has to change diapers. For every battle with a super villain he also argues with his wife. Like it or not Power Man has grown up and his greatest battles are ahead of him. These battles will not come in the form of another Skrull Invasion or The Masters Of Evil but in the greatest adventure many of us can relate to, fatherhood.
Within the super hero genre of comic books we have years and years of continuity and stories to process. As a kid growing up reading these comics it is exciting to uncover super hero team ups and new villains in the back issue boxes. There was no greater joy for me than digging through long boxes and finding an obscure story from my favorite titles. As I got older, the harsh reality of growing out of comic books began to set in. I had a brief hiatus from comics in the 90’s only to return when Marvel’s Ultimate Comics debuted. The heroes updated and relaunched in today’s world. Amazing. I had a renewed interest in comic books and it was solely because I could relate to my heroes again.
An adult reader of comic books may need a little more reality in our heroes. When our heroes grow up and gain responsibilities it feels more realistic. These heroes do have something substantial to fight for. Peter Parker has loved, lost and failed in every facet of his life but he continues to press on. It would be acceptable to allow him to falter in life but his confidence allows him to persevere. Bruce Wayne has everything a man can ever want but has suffered the greatest tragedy any of us could have faced as a child. His origin is so unforgiving that we all root for his success even if we are jealous of his wealth. Luke Cage floundered for years as a stereotypical brute and when he found love with Jessica Jones and was lucky enough to have a daughter his hero status skyrocketed. These heroes grew up. They made life decisions that we as readers can relate to.
The aging population of comic fans have found new dynamics in our childhood heroes that we thought were lost. These added responsibilities and problems create a bridge of accessibility to some of our favorite super heroes. Who doesn’t want to read the issue when Danielle Cage grows up and brings her first boyfriend home to meet her father – Power Man? I feel privileged to join Luke Cage on this journey through marriage and fatherhood. I applaud Marvel Comics for their efforts to bring him to the forefront of their universe and hope that they continue to allow their heroes to mature. Many aging comic fans don’t want to grow up but it is welcoming to know we have our own heroes to team up with to help us navigate this story arc of life.
What do you think? Leave a comment.