Since childhood, one of my favorite superheroes was Iron Man. Certainly, part of the appeal was the cool crimson-and-gold armor with all the high-tech gadgetry in it. But as I look back, even as a kid I think something about the man inside the armor…Tony Stark…spoke to me.
He is a man who was both idealistic and massively capitalistic (you kind of have to be to be a billionaire). He is heroic but also arrogant. A womanizer yet somehow not a misogynist. A genius who wants to change the world, and yet also an insecure alcoholic.
I also gravitated to the X-Men early on, also a Marvel Comics staple, and there was a group of young heroes (and later adults) who dealt with angst, infighting, bigotry and all sorts of heavy issues, and they didn’t always do it cheerfully or appropriately.
The Fantastic Four, who were as much a dysfunctional family as they were a super-team. Doctor Strange, who found his calling as the sorcerous defender of Earth only by hitting rock bottom, losing everything he had, and being forced to confront his arrogance. And even then, having redeemed and reshaped himself, you can see some of that overarching pride still in place, and an aloof nature that keeps him as firmly separated from people (heroically) as when he was a prominent physician (and doing so arrogantly).
I mostly shunned DC Comics until later in life, both when I could appreciate them more for their own character and when, frankly, they started dealing with a few more real-life issues like Marvel had been for some time. Too many DC characters were very “goody goody” and you hardly ever saw them do things that were flawed or selfish in those early days. They didn’t ring true as people.
And maybe that’s also why of all the DC heroes, Batman remains one of my favorites, because he deals with so many issues himself. Unresolved grief, a dual identity that puts him at odds with himself, and a rogue’s gallery of villains who are quite deranged. Superman never really appealed to me much. He was too much the Boy Scout in an annoying way, with too many powers. He didn’t seem to really have problems, and despite attempts over the years to give him rougher edges and more depth, he still seems flat and unappealing.
Which is probably why, when I bought a pair of graphic tees recently, I chose a Batman one that was very much standard Batman style in terms of logo and coloration, and a Superman one in which the color scheme of the shirt was nothing like Superman’s, and his insignia was given a fiery twist.
That is to say, I take my Batman straight-up, but I can’t take Superman without tweaking him immensely.
I like the notion of heroism. I like to think that I would be heroic if a situation called upon me to be so. But I’m also a realist, even in my fantasies. I am a cynic, sometimes, thanks to being a journalist by trade. In short, I don’t see a place for perfection in this world, not even with comic book heroes. I want these men and women to bleed like me (if less often due to armor or impenetrable skin) and to share my fears and insecurities.
Anything less rings false, and makes the heroics seem like nothing more than some hollow act of goodness without context or purpose.