Yes and no. Superheroes have and will always remain a key and significant part in todays entertainment. Walk down a street and ask anyone which superhero they adore and the chances are you’ll be rewarded with a wide range of choices. But the likelihood of a character such as Captain Marvel or Clark Kent having more of an impact today may be less crucial than it once more. I know that’s a controversial statement and I’ll stand by it.
Though the reason for this may be more diluted that at first glance. Superhero comics have long been the great centerpiece of comics but with the rise of independent comics, the role of superheroes is really in question. And with more and more superheroes characters being created by the major publishing houses, one has to question whether the legibility of heroics themes, that was rife during the Golden Age, remains a key part in today’s culture. We have become so overwhelmed by the wide variety of comic titles and characters, that it is possible for us to ignore their relevance and cultural impact on society.
Captain America: The First Avenger does many things well but what it does extremely well is highlight how crucial and important the character of Steve Rogers was during its inception in 1941. I will not bother stating the obvious stuff but it is important to remember that characters like Captain America, Superman and Batman were born out of the desire for a better future. They served as a symbol of what the everyday man could be in the fight between good and evil. The thematic outcry of patriotism and bravery was something that was interwoven in the desire for justice and freedom, a common theme throughout most superhero titles.
Captain America by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby is probably even more symbolic in representing those themes. The character of Steve Rogers is important not because of his powers but because of his ideals and beliefs. When Chris Evans delivers the line, “You start running now, you’ll never stop”, there’s a feeling of admiration and belief in the character because not matter how often he gets beaten down, he somehow always picks himself up. The film is representative of something that was once considered sacred during those war torn years and is what makes the film successful. The themes of justice, freedom and bravery are all elements that we are familiar with and remains a significant part in today’s society.
In the years after the war, the superhero craze has diminished somewhat but is far from ignored. Today, the themes have shifted slightly towards ideas of personal morality, equality and friendship. It’s fair to say that as society changed, culture and the ways in which they are represented have also altered to reflect the issues that are important to us.
However, superheroes have a problem where commercial publishing houses are trying to infuse their titles with complex characters and huge arching plot lines. The villains are no longer just out to dominate and control the world and the concept of a superhero has become more transparent as many titles often see different factions often in contention with each other. In the midst of all the convolution, the simplicity of good versus evil have been submerged. They are not gone but rather hidden within the recesses of major events such of team comics such as Justice League or X-Men. Title such as these represent a much wider spectrum which sees teams of superheroes banding together against a much greater threat.
This is where the problem of schlock lies. Many team titles such as Green Lantern Corp and Uncanny X-men have such huge arcs that span years to develop and resolve that there is very little room for readers to become invested and intimate with the characters. As such, the problem of thematic significance is sparse in these titles and the personal ideals and triumphs of the characters no longer become apparent. I’m not saying there’s no character in these. I’m simply stating that the priorities in these comics are more in line with the story arc and less with the characters. With so many characters in the multiverse, it is inherently difficult to give attention to every single character. Instead, the main characters are revamped with new designs and associations to refresh them and make them seem viable while some of the lesser known characters are either forgotten or eliminated altogether. This is not always the case but is often seen during or after major comic events such as Final Crisis or Decimation.
There are however, ways in which comic fans have often been able to connect with the key players in the superhero world. Many commercial houses have created individual self-contained stories for several characters, which deals with issues of the self and psyche rather than the wide scope of justice. That’s the area where the true themes and significance of those characters lie. Titles such as Batman: Year One takes the superhero and either puts them in situations outside the mainstream storyline, with their own individual narrative or they stay from the main arc and through some unforeseen circumstance, go their own way and develop from there.
The point I’m trying to make is that superheroes will always be a major part of comic books. Yes they will go through different changes and yes the themes will change in response to our own life but at the end of the day, they’re comics. They provide us with enough entertainment to keep us wanting more and they still can, to certain degree address the important themes and issues that are in our society.