The Sociology of Superheroes

Having been away from the blog-face for a while, I felt I should return with a suitably pretentious post title – and felt this should fit the bill.  There are only two (immediate) issues that I can see: (1) I completely lack an “-ology” and so will be relying on my memories of the Thinking Allowed podcast and (2) I know very little about superheroes.  However, I comfort myself with the knowledge that our political and corporate masters muddle through with far greater burdens of ignorance without any lack of confidence (and with exceedingly generous remuneration!).

Training in sociology just wasn’t on the cards during my school years, despite what BT might have tried to convince you via the acting of Maureen Lipman.  The weakness of my superhero knowledge may be linked to the lack of comic-reading as a child which has translated into a failure to read (view?) graphic novels as an adult.  Not quite sure why I bypassed the comic, but it may have been down to an accelerated desire to put away childish things – at least in the arena of reading (as this blog has made clear, in many other areas childish things are very much still “out”).  I do remember that I was reading Galactic Patrol by E E ‘Doc’ Smith by the age of seven.  Now, I do realise this is not exactly adult reading, but it certainly wasn’t aimed at children and is part of the only series of novels I have ever read which used the CGS system of measurement.  It was also an embarrassing number of decades before I realised that the word lenticular (used to describe the lens) meant shaped like a lentil rather than like a bracelet as I had long assumed.

But, in keeping with the primary theme of this blog, I seem to have digressed – frankly, I’ve found some nostalgia and seem to be wallowing in it.  I’ll just clean myself off and then we can resume.

My ignorance of the superhero genre has been somewhat ameliorated by the extraordinary extent to which it has been mined for movies and TV shows in recent years.  I presume that “once in a barrel, keep on scraping” is good career advice for those seeking employment in Hollywood.  This has led me to muse on the socio-economic background of superheroes.

I think we should probably ignore those with an alien origin, though both Thor and Superman seem to be scions of pretty high ranking members of their respective societies, and instead concentrate on the mainly human.  Far more of these appear to be billionaires than would be the case if they were randomly selected from the general population: Batman, Iron Man and the Green Arrow to give but three examples.  I can understand that access to significant unearned income is very handy to finance the gadgets that seem so important for the modern superhero about town – but I do wonder if this is saying something about the US.  Are these superheroes products of a society where the possession of obscene wealth is seen as good (even virtuous) on its own, and a bit of vigilante philanthropy is just the icing on the cake?  Better to go out and send a few oddly-costumed ne’er-do-wells to an early grave than pay some tax and help fund a decent welfare state, the Arts and the other essential accoutrements of a desirable nation state.

I struggled to think of many British superheroes: my best attempt at a complete list was Bananaman, Supergran and Superted – none of whom were from the upper or wealthier stratas of society.  The closest I came to an upper class superhero was Lord Peter Wimsey, but I fear I am rather stretching the definition there.  I suppose I could add John Steed and James Bond as not-really-superheroes, neither of whom would be considered working class – but I’m rather clutching at straws.

I do wonder if billionaires are so over-represented as a result of the decline of the print press, which otherwise seemed to provide a modest stipend to the less wealthy lycra-clad vigilante, e.g. Spiderman and Superman.  Perhaps we need some new superheroes drawn from blue-collar growth industries: the call centre, tattoo parlour or coffee shop?  Otherwise, we may be facing a future where even being bitten by a radioactive animal or exposure to an excessive amount of radiation (gamma for choice) can no longer offer a route to improved upward social mobility.

Having spotted this gap in the market, I shall immediately start work on my new superhero.  He (or she – but I know marginally more about being a “he” so I should probably write what I slightly know) will be a barista (in an independent coffee shop, obviously) who will suffer horrific injuries when his plutonium-powered Gaggia explodes making a particularly tricky latte.  When he finally recovers, he finds he has the power to raise steam, generate frothy milk at will and to inflict chronic insomnia on his foes or quickly perk-up his allies (some other powers may emerge later – he might, for example, need cake to regenerate his powers more quickly).  To further add to the biodiversity of the superhero universe, I feel he should be fairly short (5′ 6″, say), gay, ginger and lack a six pack.  He should also be very well-adjusted with a full set of both parents and grand-parents.  I have yet to decide on a name or costume (but it will not be figure-hugging or involve a cape – though I do quite like the idea that he only wears glasses in superhero mode and this is a key part of the “disguise”), but the steady stream of customers (regular and occasional) to the (re-built and decontaminated) coffee shop should provide the necessary narrative drive.  My only worry is the graphic aspect (as I dropped art in the 1970s), so I shall be taking a book on drawing out of the library at my earliest convenience.  My movie millions can be mere weeks away…

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