Saints of a Secular Age. Or, why Superheroes & Fandom Creep me Out

Richard Caldwell, writing on the psychoanalytic function of mythological heroes observed the following and I quote; “1) Myths allow for the expression of unconscious, usually repressed, ideas in a conventional and socially sanctioned form, 2) Myths use the emotional content attached to these ideas to energize other, non-emotional functions of myth, 3) Myths provide a societal response to psychological needs, whether universal orculture-specific.”

SupergodTPB In my last post, someone commented: “Posting something even suggesting superheroes may be bad in a blog full of comic book fans is paramount to suggesting religion may not be “all that bad” on reddit.” This person raised a very excellent point.

My other degree is in Classics, and I’m unsure how many people are aware of this, but many mythological heroes were venerated or worshipped in the ancient world, after Zeus, there are more temples and shrines to Herakles (Hercules) than any other deity. In other words, hero worship, or fandom, is nothing new.

It’s no secret that in the first world religious belief and attendance is in decline, but the needs described by Caldwell are very much part of the human psyche, to quote Joseph Campbell: “People need myth.” I believe those needs, once filled by mythical heroes and gods, and later saints and messiahs are being transplanted onto superheroes, and fandom seems to be filling the void of ecstatic supplicant.

Think I’m being extreme? Some food for thought. The late Christopher Hitchens argued that religion was essentially a form of totalitarianism, and that totalitarianism thrives not on a hatred of others, but the expelling of unbelievers and heretics from within. Case and point, the Idiot Geek Girl memetumblr_lzecjbuB541r4x8u1o2_500. This meme was intended to be funny, but the website Feminspire rightly condemned it, calling it sexiest and exclusionary. Similarly, Dr. Beaty related to us a story of a Stormtrooper cosplayer who was looked down on by his fellows because he was also an Elvis impersonator. Why are fans and nerds so eager to root out the ‘imposters’ in their midst? Does it really matter that someone likes the Hulk because they enjoyed the Ed Norton movie? Or enjoy manga comics but not Hayao Miyazaki movies? And look out if you’re well groomed with a sense of style and claim to be a comics fan.

I myself am an avowed comics fan, ever since I got a copy of Watchmen for my nineteenth birthday, and since then I have had cause to wonder why the medium struggles for legitamacy in a way that books and movies do not? I would argue that it is fans that hold the medium back with their quasi religious mindset, which by definition must be inherently conservative. For my part I cannot think of better expalnation as to why superheroes never stay dead long, or are constantly re-fighting the same battles over and over and over again, with little in the way of personal growth.

I would like to end off my post by quoting from Warren Ellis’s Supergod, a story about an arms race to create a superman/god. The protagonist, Simon Reddin, gets drunk and decides to confront Britain’s god Morrigan Lugus who has killed three of his colleagues, and demands “What are you for?” to which the supergod replies:

“I am for that thing in your genome that demands it… Since you are stupid monkeys, you have no natural affinity for group altruism. And so you have evolved a genetic pump that delivers pleasant chemicals to your monkey brains. One that is triggered by awe and fear of an anthropomorphism of your environment… I am a thing born of lies… I am your stash.”

I find it hard to disagree, and that is why I find superheroes and their overly zealous fans more than a little creepy.

-Eli Wilkinson

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10 Responses to Saints of a Secular Age. Or, why Superheroes & Fandom Creep me Out

  1. alexmckay says:

    You state, “I have had cause to wonder why the medium struggles for legitamacy in a way that books and movies do not? I would argue that it is fans that hold the medium back with their quasi religious mindset, which by definition must be inherently conservative.”

    I disagree, and would argue the complete opposite. I don’t think fervent fandom has led to comics being treated as a pastime, as a lesser form of literature and a lesser form of art.

    I think that when something that people love so dearly (like, say, comics) is treated like the redheaded stepchild of the publishing world, it causes them to become even more protective of it. People rally around the thing they love, and try to protect it from the outsiders that they feel have shunned them for their interests in the past. “Oh, you think Hawkeye is cool now? So why did you make fun of my t-shirt in 6th grade?” The “lesser” treatment leads to an intensification of fandom, to me. Not the other way around as you argue.

    All the same, I think comics fans are a pretty damn inclusive group (if you can even call it a “group” since it’s so diverse). So I think you’re creating an issue where there may not be one at all.

    Also – I think Christopher Hitchens would find the Geek Girl meme hilarious. Because he was kind of a misogynist. Just sayin’.

    – Alex McKay

    • Eli says:

      All due respect comics fans are not an inclusive group of people. To be fair, I have met a lot of truly great comics fans, and I feel privileged to call some of them my friends, but for every one of those I’ve met I’ve met ten that have shunned me as an ‘outsider’ often for little more than how I dress.

      I think your post goes a long way to reinforcing my point. You realistically offered no rebuttals to my points, rather you pointed the finger at other outsiders like myself; “Oh, you think Hawkeye is cool now? So why did you make fun of my t-shirt in 6th grade?” as you so delicately put it. The only other point you offered really was that Hitchens was a misogynist… And? What exactly? Does that make his views on totalitarianism less valid?

      I think if you’re going to rebuttal someone in the future, you might want to reinforce your points with some legitimate points rather than just your opinion and the moral short comings of others. Just sayin’

      -Eli

      • alexmckay says:

        I thought I explained (respectfully, to boot) my POV fairly well — people can be protective about things they love if they feel they’ve been attacked for the things they love in the past.

        You sound bitter. Just sayin’.

        – Alex

        • elieli0 says:

          Not bitter, just pointing out that your POV does not exactly aid your cause. Already myself and another poster in this thread have related that our love of comics is often irrelevant to fandom because we don’t care for superhero comics. Furthermore, you did really answer my initial critique of you, namely that pointing out the shortcomings of others does not necessarily push your point. In fact its quite the opposite. Accusing me of being bitter or pointing out Hitchens alleged misogyny is really an underhanded way of trying to undermine the argument without actually addressing it by engaging with it. All in all I have to say you’ve done an excellent job at proving my point that fandom is inherently conservative and therefore exclusionary and in many respects intolerant.
          So… thank you… I guess…

          -Eli

  2. ericbailey says:

    I had never heard of Supergod but the concept of extending superheros as a divine substitute is very interesting. While the number practitioners of organized religion is decreasing in the majority of the Western world, I would disagree that superheros are replacing religion. Superheros gained their popularity amongst children during the late 1930s and 1940s because the of the novel use of fantastic elements like superhuman abilities and action oriented narratives.

    Today, people look to superheros as a source of entertainment. Movies like The Avengers attract audiences because they are action packed, easy to follow and almost always involve a triumph of good over evil. I think that the vast majority of people seek spiritual fulfillment in traditional religions, new age spirituality or reject it entirely. I have heard way more people trying to influence their lives through projecting positive energy into the universe or through prayer than anyone asking for Superman to save them. Superhero comics, like most any story, can serve to outline the innate human desire for good to triumph over evil or for entities beyond our limitations and weaknesses to assist us but I disagree with Campbell when he claims that superheros are replacing saints and gods in the terms of significance and practice.

  3. mclongman says:

    Interesting article and very well-written. This post raised a lot of points which had never occurred to me before, but which do make sense now that you bring my attention to them.

    As other commentors have said, I do think there are many comics fans who are quite inclusive and supportive of new readers, but I have to point out that in the comics fandom (as with most things) it is those with the more extreme views who are often the loudest and seen to define the community. As someone who enjoys comics but is not a “hardcore” fan, I have to confess that I often find the comics fan community, particularly of superhero comics, quite intimidating. The phenomenon of more devoted fans trying to weed out and ridicule impostors is not unique to comics, or even to religion — we all know music snobs who look down on anyone who isn’t a “real” fan, rather than supporting new listeners in enjoying songs and broadening their tastes.

    I think the superhero fandom tends to attract many of these extreme and judgemental fans simply because these series and characters have been around for so long, and as many fans have enjoyed these series for a large part of their lives. This can make for some fans being resistant to change, be it in the content of the stories or the makeup of the fan base.

    • alexmckay says:

      I agree – snobs are everywhere. Comic snobs can just be a little more vocal, but I think that’s because they feel like they’ve been looked down on for their passion so they’re a little bit more (and perhaps unnecessarily) protective of it from “outsiders.”

      Whatever “outsiders” really means — I’m all for inclusivity and bringing comics up the entertainment ladder so we can sneak above porn and WWE.

  4. jaselby says:

    Hey, I’m the guy you quoted in your blog! That just made my day slightly better. This blog has a pretty condescending tone to it, which bothers me a little, but aside from that I’d mostly agree with you.

    But, I wouldn’t say it’s the fans holding the genre back (or just the fans anyway). I’d say what’s mostly holding back superhero comics is that, frankly, they’re not very good. They’re not designed to be good, but they are designed to sell.

    Take a similar medium for example: Hollywood studios are where the money is in film, and they’re not concerned with making good movies. They’re solely avaricious, but good films are still made, just usually not in Hollywood (although some sneak through sometimes). If you want quality and innovation in a medium, then you probably shouldn’t expect it from where quality and innovation are the last thing on the financiers minds. Obviously quality and profitability aren’t mutually exclusive – anything but – but, when the objective is the latter, don’t blame the fans because you’re not reading Tolstoy level Batman & Robin.

    • jaselby says:

      Sincerely,

      James Selby

      • elieli0 says:

        Glad I could make your day a bit better.

        I want to start by acknowledging that you have a valid point about me coming down hard on the fans, and you are right that it is not just the fans holding the medium back, there are many factors, but the lions share does belong with them.

        But that’s not what the post was about really. It was more that I find fans to be frankly very disagreeable people, and I condescend because frankly most of these people are old enough to recognize that no good comes from exclusionary practices.

        On a personal note, thanks for your criticism of my work, I think you raised valid points that were backed by evidence, rather than just resort to nit picking my tone. The world needs more of that, don’t lose it.

        Eli

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