Industry Professionals, Historians and Scholars Try to Answer, 'What is a Superhero?'

There is no easy one-page answer to the question of “What is a Superhero?” because there are just too many definitions for any one scholar to unfold. How about a collective of scholars from no less an institution than the Oxford University Press?

What is a Superhero?

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Length: 200 pages
Author: Robin S. Rosenberg, Peter Coogan
Price: $24.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-08

If there was ever a book that summed up the question of “What is a Vampire”, it would be I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, which tells a brilliant and exciting post-apocalyptic narrative that simultaneously collects, compares, contrasts and reconciles the varied different mythologies surrounding folklore's terrifying and enchanting monsters. As diverse as vampire lore can be, it does tend to revolve around a few basic things that are constant in most every story. Superheroes, on the other hand, are vastly less bound by rules and can take on as many forms as the world's greatest creators can dream up.

What is a Superhero, really? Does a hero require costumes and super powers to be truly super? If so, how do you explain Batman, and was (erstwhile Green Lantern) Guy Gardner any less a superhero when he doffed his super-tights for more two-fisted adventure wear? Does that take into account the difference between naturally powered heroes like Superman, inheritors of power like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, science-fiction powered heroes like Green Lantern and accident-born heroes like Spider-Man? There's no easy one-page answer to the question of “What is a Superhero?” because there are just too many definitions for any one scholar to unfold.

How about a collective of scholars from no less an institution than the Oxford University Press? The book is called, appropriately, What is a Superhero? and was edited by comics scholar Peter Coogan and psychologist Robin S. Rosenberg. On one hand, this book does a fine job of both explaining and defining what a superhero really is, while easily conceding that there is no single easy definition. Accordingly, there are no less than 25 individual essays from a respectable panel of scholars, doctors, teachers and, yes, comic book professionals.

On the other hand, the question of how necessary this book really is can easily be asked. Why? Because Coogan recently wrote Superhero: The Secret Origin of the Superhero and Rosenberg just released Our Superheroes, Ourselves, both of which cover a great deal of the content of this tome. So which of these is “Brand X”? There is room for all three (and the similar works out there) but the end result may be a case of six-of-one, etc.

Here, Coogan and Rosenberg divide the book's essays into four sections, focusing on powers and mission, the problem of definition, supervillains and the definitions from the experts themselves. While the question of “What is a Superhero Expert?” might be as complex as “What is a Superhero?” there are a few names that unquestionably qualify, like Paul Levitz, Denny O'Neil, Jeph Loeb, Tom DeFalco, Joe Quesada and, yes, of course, Stan Lee. All of them make their appearances and contributions here with varying degrees of impact, but also without ever quite coming off as smug or holier-than-thou in their super-knowledge of their craft.

O'Neil was among the first to address major social issues like drug addiction in his Green Lantern/ Green Arrow stories of the '70s, right around the time when Stan Lee was doing the same thing in The Amazing Spider-Man. Unsurprisingly, O'Neil focuses on the social impact of superheroes and when they cross the line, but also shines a light on the history of comics (much of which he wrote himself).

DeFalco, a veteran writer who also served as Marvel Comics' editor-in-chief for two decades delves into the superhero creation process, level by level. Marvel's current editor-in-chief is Joe Quesada, who brings up the question of the dividing line between superheroes and other costumed adventurers like Zorro and the Phantom.

Stan Lee (possibly the most recognizable name in comics that didn't originate on the gridded page itself) argues that there is no formula for creating a hero. Surprisingly, Lee, the father of so many of Marvel's biggest heroes, acknowledges that DC Comics' icon “Superman was the start of the whole superhero thing.” Unsurprisingly, Lee's brief (barely two-page) article is among the most poignant of the collection, even in his most simple observations. “I don't know why,” he says, “but the human condition is such that we love reading about people who can do things that we can't do and who have powers that we wish we had.”

These experts make up some of the most immediately knowledgeable and adept essays (with a brevity many of the others lack), so naturally Coogan and Rosenberg left them for last. This is an intelligent move to say the least, considering the quality of the articles, but in saving these for last, the editors also make these seem rather repetitive of the prior essays in the book and this takes away quite a bit of the power and impact these might otherwise have had. This isn't to say that the other papers in the book are wastes of time either.

Rosenberg's own essay covers the effect of supervillains on their heroic nemeses while Coogan's, works on defining the genre of the hero. Although his is the first essay of the book, Coogan is already repetitive of his own intro (written with Rosenberg) which covers much of the same ground. Likewise the foreword was written by no less a heavyweight than Michael Uslan, producer of every one of the Batman films starting with Burton's 1989 film and continuing to Nolan's 2012 The Dark Knight Rises as well as the two Swamp Thing films, the ill-fated Catwoman and The Spirit films as well as the upcoming adaptation of DC/ Fawcett's Captain Marvel character. In short, his foreword provides a fine intro without the repetition.

Then again, while there are too many answers to the anything-but-simple question of “What is a Superhero?, with a different answer coming from everyone you ask, isn't it reasonable to assume that, just as all superheroes since 1938 have had something in common with Superman, many of the answers to this question would have a great deal in common as well? What is a Superhero? is a good reference for comics fans as well as the casually interested. It may not lend itself perfectly to a straight-through read, the individual essays are worth the occasional thumb-through.


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Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

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(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

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(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

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(Available from Arrow Video)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

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(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

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