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The Lure of Comic-Book Culture: Why We’re Obsessed with Batman, Iron Man, and Other Superheroes

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la-et-2012-comic-con.14c_1The annual San Diego Comic-Con gathering has been called “the largest nerd mecca in North America.” And by all accounts, the nerds are having their revenge—and loving it.

Begun in 1970 mostly for white males who enjoyed collecting superhero comic books and rubbing shoulders with industry insiders and with each other, today this “pop culture free-for-all” attracts 125,000 people every summer, “including throngs of women, toddlers, school kids and teens.”

The latest Comic-Con finished up on July 15, to be followed by a similar event outside Chicago in August. Morgan Spurlock, who has released a series of documentaries on the phenomenon, says these gatherings are signs of a cultural takeover.

“There was a time when nerds were guys who sat around on their computers and geeks were the ones who read comic books and action figures, and everyone made fun of them,” Spurlock says. “But now, those two worlds—geeks and nerds—have collided, and today they control every aspect of the media and the entertainment business. Geeks and nerds are the ones who are creating those tablets we're using to read, the iPods we're listening to, the movies and TV shows we watch, the books we read. These people who were once seen as being fringe and weird have become incredibly influential.”

Indeed, the comic book has become a leading cultural icon. Movies, which used to be dominated by the Western or the action flick, are now the province of the superhero. A Wikipedia listing of movies based on English-language comics finds that fully 106 films (animated or live action, for TV or the big screen) have been released since the year 2000, including this summer’s "The Dark Knight Rises"—not to be confused with earlier Batman movies in 1943, 1949, 1966, 1989, 1992, 1995, 1997, 2005, and 2008. Another 20 are on the docket in the next several years.

"Spider-Man," released in 2002 and starring Toby Maguire, was the first film to reach $100 million in its first weekend, with mainly positive reviews. Two commercially successful sequels followed, in 2004 and 2007. Nonetheless, this summer’s "The Amazing Spider-Man" reboots the Spider-Man myth, with Andrew Garfield in the leading role.

Familiarity has not bred contempt, however. "The Avengers," based on characters from Marvel Comics, earned a record $200 million at the box office in its first three days earlier this summer. "The Avengers" has grossed more than $1.4 billion worldwide—making it the No. 3 film of all time, behind only "Avatar" and "The Titanic." "The Dark Knight Rises," which was released on July 20, is making a mint as well.

Those who don’t go along with the hype must face legions of avenging fans. A reviewer on the well-known RottenTomatoes.com site said of "The Dark Knight Rises" that "anyone forecasting serious Oscar love for this lumpish, tedious film has been smoking too much of that potent, prescription California weed.” Fans of the at-the-time unseen $250 million movie were not amused, deluging the site with so many outraged and hateful comments that the site had to suspend user comments for the first time.

America’s popular culture used to be much broader, and not all that long ago. According to David Gelernter, author of the new book "America-Lite," “In 1960, the whole country knew Robert Frost’s poetry; Leonard Bernstein was reaching large TV audiences for classical music with his Young People’s Concerts on CBS; theater and ballet were thriving, reaching larger audiences all the time; Hemingway was only the most famous of America’s serious novelists; and American avant-garde painting was a topic for Life magazine.”

Now we get a steady stream of superheroes. We see echoes of the comics in publishing, with the explosion of the graphic novel and the Manga craze. Superheroes have infiltrated our stage shows and our commercials. Growing numbers of television shows now are cartoons.

Yes, the superhero genre has been with us at least since 1938, when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold the character they had created to Detective Comics (later, DC Comics). But in those days, superheroes were mostly a fun and harmless diversion from real life, not the drivers of our common culture.

I remember that when my family would vacation in New Jersey’s once-sleepy Cape May Point, the first place I would visit was “the candy store” on a cul-de-sac down the street. This mom-and-pop establishment was always well supplied with sweets, magazines, and plenty of comics. My favorites were Superman, Batman, and a blind superhero named Daredevil. Now try going into a comic-book store and you’ll find a bewildering array of characters, universes, and plots. You’d need a Ph.D.—and a lot of cash—to keep up.

What might be behind this overwhelming fascination with comic-book heroes? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Technology (computers, social media, enhanced graphics software) has made comics easier to produce and share.
  • The phenomenon of extended adolescence has extended the attractiveness of comics as a pastime among many American adults.
  • In an increasingly complex, morally confusing world, people are drawn to media that still promote the idea of good vs. evil—a common theme in comics.
  • People want an escape from the grim and sometimes depressing news and events of the day.
  • With the dumbing down of the population due to an increasingly ineffective public education system, people today have less ability and desire to read and to think deeply, making the relatively simple themes and plots of comic books that much more attractive.
  • Despite (and perhaps because of) widespread cynicism in the culture, we still yearn for heroes.

How might Christians respond to this inescapable fact of pop-culture life? Many have noted the many parallels between Superman and Christ. As C.S. Lewis said, the classic myths point people to the ultimate, true Myth. These modern, comic-book myths can be used in the same way, because they point not just to new universes or superpowers, but to perennial human longings for safety, significance, power, and joy—longings given to us by God. These can only be fulfilled in Christ, the ultimate and only real superhero.

As Paul said, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

It’s a story worthy of a comic book—and much, much more.

Image copyright Kirk McCoy for the Los Angeles Times.

Stan Guthrie is author of "All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century," and coauthor of "The Sacrament of Evangelism." He blogs at http://stanguthrie.com.


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