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Superheroes as Grotesque Metaphors of Ethics

I love superheroes, but there’s something really insane about them as a cultural figure.
I don’t think this lunatic truism gets enough attention. While we can trace the history of how the idea of superheroes has evolved and how the figure is used in various media, it’s rare that someone points out the significance of the superhero as a figure and the (sometimes contested) genre that has grown around it. People attempt to draw comparisons between superheroes and fantastic beings from the past, but the superhero, I think, has become its own creature, resonances with past cultures aside. It mirrors the anxieties and desires that our social and cultural matrices often engender in us, exaggerates some elements, and codifies some imaginative needs and gives them an outlet: a warped, amplified outlet of caricature and extremes.
A discussion on Twitter over the weekend (under the #superthoughts hashtag created by Catherynne Valente) about the state of the superhero genre got me to thinking about what I read right now and what I see happening with superheroes. Increasing ubiquitousness is the most obvious thing, but as I thought about the figure itself, it occurred to me that superheroes are. . . grotesque, in a number of ways, and that quality intensifies the way that they represent, whether for entertainment or literary purposes, ethical behavior, how they are a distorted focus for thinking about responsibility, applied morality, and what makes us human.
The linkage between grotesqueness and ethics seems to be encased in the very word “superhero” itself, although it requires a bit of explanation. I am using “grotesque” here in a mostly literary sense, stemming partly from the definition of it as:
1. Characterized by ludicrous or incongruous distortion, as of appearance or manner.
2. Outlandish or bizarre, as in character or appearance.
Added to this is the idea of how the grotesque is conceived of in literature, with the twist that in comics and movies a visual representation (sometimes very overdone, sometimes more “realistic”) accompanies what the figure signifies and communicates as a literary creation. The most efficacious definition that I’ve found is: “the grotesque is not an expression of norms, but rather what results from the transgression of them.” I think this aptly qualifies what we find in the idea of the contemporary superhero.
The “super” part of the superhero figures refers to several characteristics: that the figure is endowed with abilities unlike those of regular people (or even regular heroes), often extreme abilities, but that the figure is also an extreme hero of some sort, embodying ideals or motivations not found in the average person. Superheroes are exaggerated people both in terms of their physical capabilities and their codes of action. Possibility is stretched beyond reason in superheroes.
The “hero” in the term also sets them apart from the crowd, but not in specific terms of extremeness. We also know heroes; hypothetically speaking, anyone can be a hero. It is a quality that all humans can aspire to emulate in specific actions or situations. It is an ethical choice to do so. And that idea gets definitively warped by the grotesque aspects of the super element in superhero.
Ethics are simultaneously mutated by and integrated into the grotesque in the idea of the superhero. Superheroes do heroic things that are inconceivable in actuality, and in fact their very presence alters the laws of reality in a story. They often have codes of behavior that are overly idealized or contorted, and often fantastical. We get not only stories of more regular heroics (defending the weak, fighting crime and corruption, etc.), we get epic tales of nigh-transcendental conflicts that are both caricatures and metaphors of more earthly concerns (like Marvel’s Civil War storyline). The stories often have to possess a cosmic import or embody avisceral philosophical conundrum. This is the result of the superhero figure being the center of attention; outlandish creations require outlandish stories.
In Warren Ellis’ and Juan Jose Ryp’s Black Summer, for example, Horus is an excellent representation of the grotesque ethical metaphor of the superhero. He’s virtually a mirror of Sherwood Anderson’s idea of the philosophically-embodied grotesque: “the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.” Horus decides that drastic measures are needed to change the U.S. political system, and has both the impossible power and the deformity of humanity necessary to act on his conclusion (both of which, in this series, the protagonists all chose to do to themselves). He acts in truly demented, exaggerated fashion, and even in a world in which superheroes have existed for some time his actions and their results are egregious and disturbing. This is a somewhat extreme but very resonant example of the grotesque in all of the forms I am advancing.
Grotesqueness is not always dark and nihilistic, however; it can also be comic and perverse. Take Jeff Parker’s and Leonard Kirk’s work on Agents of Atlas (the initial six-issue run). The Agents are all distinctively grotesque: only one of them is nominally human (Jimmy Woo), and he has actually been reborn and removed from any idea of normalcy by his regeneration and by his lineage. He is an overstated anachronism with his human flaws and strengths all magnified. None of the Agents are “regular folks,” and the one who comes closest is the quasi-immortal Gorillaman, who seems to be overcompensating for his form and the attendant curse he labors under by trying to be too human. The underlying running gag with the group is their collective exotic nature and how it affects the struggle they participate in against ATLAS. They are very explicitly odd outsiders fighting an organization that cloaks its own exoticism with “front” businesses.
What makes superheroes both compelling and preposterous is the joining of grotesqueness and exemplarity in the idea of the figure itself. While there are many different explanations for why this is so, I think we need to examine how this works, and how it plays out in the stories.
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