It can easily be argued that superhero narratives have a concrete sense of literary and artistic legitimacy, and have done so for quite some time. This may come as a surprise to those people whose knowledge of the genre consists of little beyond an image of the stereotypical ‘geek’ fan and an awareness of the current fad for superhero movies. However, serious superhero narratives in comic-book form have been around for some time, and have proven to be highly influential on the contemporary crop of superhero films, which tend to either treat their subject matter rather seriously (Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, Drew Goddard’s Daredevil series, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Pete Travis’ Dredd) or approach it with serious intent (Marvel’s ‘Cinematic Universe,’ Greg Berlanti’s The Flash series, Josh Trank’s Chronicle, Bryan Singer’s X-Men series and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman series).
This sense of legitimacy began in the 1980s, primarily thanks to writers Alan Moore and Frank Miller (Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, respectively). Their literary deconstructions of the superhero genre were as satisfyingly ‘super’ as they were postmodern, and their reworking of the themes inherent to the genre were carried out deftly. Where they began, others followed: Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, Garth Ennis’ Preacher, Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, Brian K. Vaughn’s Ex Machina and Bill Willingham’s Fables (to name but a few) have all proven their credentials as ‘serious’ superhero narratives, existing within the genre and at the same time expanding the reader’s expectations of what the genre can contain.
However, even these examples have one thing in common which can often work against their best efforts at attaining legitimacy—the capital-h Hero, a self-explanatory and seemingly inescapable presence in superhero narratives. And where there’s a hero there must be a villain, and if the hero is ‘super’ then it’s only fair that the villain is as well, and from thereon things can get a bit silly—superpowered vendettas and grudges can disconnect a serious superhero narrative from any sense of realism that has built up, while the concept of an archenemy/nemesis/adversary/call-it-what-you-will has existed for so long that it now tends to reek of cliché.
But what if a writer did away with the villain? What if they took this radical idea even further and did away the concept of the capital-h hero? What if their protagonist(s) were merely normal people who just happened to be ‘super?’
In essence, Steven Amsterdam’s novel What the Family Needed strives to answer these questions, and it does so beautifully. It follows the domestic lives of sisters Ruth and Natalie and their extended families, examining their emotions, behaviours and actions and delving into the ways that the after-effects of each member’s actions can cause a ripple across the other members’ lives. So far, so family-drama. However, Amsterdam’s central conceit is that as each individual character struggles to cope with the stresses of family life, they discover a hitherto unknown superpower that offers to help them on their way. These superpowers are typical of superhero narratives: invisibility, flight, super-strength, psychic powers, time travel, and so on. But unlike in the vast majority of superhero narratives, none of the characters in What the Family Needed use their newfound powers to fight crime, right wrongs or proclaim themselves a hero. Instead, their powers merely act as metaphorical extensions of their interior and exterior lives—the teenage Giordana, suffering from the usual adolescent social-anxiety and torn between her warring parents, longs to disappear and thus is bestowed the power of invisibility; unlucky-in-love Sasha discovers a cupid-like power, whereby he can make any two people fall for each other if he touches them simultaneously, and yet is unable to improve his own romantic life; beleaguered mother Natalie, exhausted from dealing with her ‘difficult’ son, is given the power of super-strength; Ben, who feels trapped by the reality of domestic life and fatherhood, discovers that he can fly; the widower Peter realises that he can alter reality with the power of his mind, and yet is unable to bring his dead wife back to life.
The result of this conceit is that the power that each character possesses eventually proves to be both a blessing and a curse. And yet, at the same time, each power is neither—they are simply a part of the characters’ lives, something that they may believe they need (hence the novel’s title). However, they ultimately prove unnecessary to the resolution of their individual problems. This is a devastating and deeply-moving narrative device because it is so easy to relate to. It doesn’t matter how strong or smart or practical or attractive or quick-witted we are—it doesn’t matter what real “powers” we possess—because they can fail us when it comes to dealing with our own families. Love is what really matters, and communication, affection, effort, perseverance, understanding and acceptance. These are the powers that all families need, modest though they may be. Ultimately, powers like invisibility, flight, super-strength, and time travel exist on the sidelines of the family that dominates What the Family Needed, just as their real-world analogues (strength, smarts, practicality, attractiveness, quick-wittedness) exist on the sidelines of our own.
The first two seasons of the TV show Misfits (2009-2013) work in a similar way to What the Family Needed (its latter seasons, sadly, fall into stereotypical superhero narrative territory, relying on superpowered battles and supervillians and superheroes). This time, however, rather than a family, the group of characters gifted with powers are ‘juvenile delinquents’ working in a community service program. But just like in Amsterdam’s work, the varied powers that each character in Misfits possesses act as metaphorical extensions of their interior and exterior lives—Kelly, a chav who hides her insecurities behind an obnoxious, loudmouth persona, develops psychic abilities and can ‘read’ people’s minds; Curtis, filled with regret regarding a mistake in his past, finds that he can rewind time; Simon, an ignored and overlooked young man, realises that he can become invisible at will; Alisha, a sexually voracious young woman, suddenly sends people who touch her skin into a sexual frenzy; the reckless, headstrong and impulsive Nathan becomes functionally immortal.
Once again, these powers are typical of superhero narratives. Once again, they are both a blessing and a curse and yet, at the same time, are neither. What really differentiates Misfits from What the Family Needed (apart from the obvious) is the bond that develops between these most-unlikely of friends, a bond that is formed from their status as underdog ‘juvenile delinquents’ (hence the series’ title) and from the shared and publicly-secret burden that they carry together (being superpowered, yet another play on the term misfits). In many ways, they become a family, reliant on each other for support, love and understanding; just like real families, they are held together by something that no-one else can really understand. And while the narrative arc of the first season hinges on them covering up the death of their caseworker, who they killed in self-defence after he too was gifted with powers and subsequently attacked the group, series creator Howard Overman seems much more interested in having his characters explore how to go about their ordinary lives now that they each possess something extraordinary. The combination of these two factors—the metaphorical function of the different characters’ powers and an exploration of how these powers effect the characters’ ordinary lives—serves to elevate Misfits above most other superhero narratives, in much the same way as Amsterdam’s use of these techniques in What the Family Needed. But Overman’s choice to focus his series through another fact of life that we can all relate to—youth—means that Misfits triggers a different emotional response than Amsterdam’s work, and that we empathise with its characters in a very different way. Haven’t we all been young and felt somewhat isolated and a little bit lost? Haven’t we all, when we were younger and sillier, clung to our peers and seen them as a surrogate family? Haven’t we all had to face the fact that what makes us special doesn’t necessarily make us better or make life easier?
Andrew Kaufman’s All My Friends are Superheroes is a very different beast. Unlike the sense of realism and seriousness that permeates What the Family Needed and Misfits, it possesses a great sense of fun and more-often-than-not makes you laugh aloud. This isn’t to say that it’s shallow or somehow lesser because of its unserious tone and voice —its emotional weight is every bit as deserved and convincing as that of Amsterdam’s and Overman’s work. It exists in a liminal genre-place somewhere between fable, sublime absurdism and outright ridiculousness, these different techniques and trappings almost daring us not to take it seriously. Narrated partly in present tense and partly in flashback, it tells of the relationship between The Perfectionist and Tom, who is an ‘ordinary’ man whose friends are all superheroes, hence the book’s title. The story opens with The Perfectionist and Tom having recently separated; she was hypnotised by their mutual friend Hypno and so literally can’t see Tom, despite his constant presence in her life. Believing herself abandoned, she has decided to move cities and has booked a flight; Tom has booked the seat next to hers, and has until the plane lands to make her see him again.
Straightaway, we can see one the biggest ways if differs from What the Family Needed and Misfit—All My Friends are Superheroes is explicitly concerned with superheroes, although they are superheroes more in name than in deed. The Perfectionist’s power is that she is the ultimate perfectionist; just about everything in her life turns out right because she is so devoted and/or obsessed with order. Hypno doesn’t really seem to really hypnotise people; instead, he seems to be excessively charismatic, and uses the force of his charm to convince people to make the wrong decisions. Other characters have actual powers, but these powers act as ridiculous extensions of very human desires and obsessions —The Elongating Woman, who lost her lover in an accident, wishes she could ‘reach into the past’ to right what went wrong, and so can stretch her arms Mr Fantastic-style; Spooner, who has a strange instinct that guides him into the homes of lonely people asleep in bed, whereby he then spoons with them and comforts them. Others simply wear the title as a sort-of nickname for an annoying habit—Loudmotorcycle (self-explanatory); The Impossible Man (someone who can’t stop raving on about silly ideas that are actually impossible).
As the parallel stories of The Perfectionist and Tom’s relationship unfolds —the present tense narrative set on the plane and the history of their relationship told in flashback—the initial silliness of much of what is occurring soon begins to morph into something that it is both light-hearted and touching—a gentle and affectionate exploration of all the ridiculous and incredible things that make us what we are. The bizarre superhero names and the weird and whacky powers that they possess become nothing more than reframed examples of the crazily illogical and wonderfully contradictory behaviours that make us all human. Likewise, the strangeness that runs through the relationship between The Perfectionist and Tom, which is presented as due to her status as a superhero, is just another way of showing the stresses and strains and joys and rapture of any relationship.
By the end of the book, having been happily confronted by so many eye-opening and almost naively optimistic metaphors, symbols, fables and absurd examples, my view of humanity was refreshed, as it was when I finished What the Family Needed and Misfits. Maybe that’s the true value behind superpowers—they can act as symbols of hope.
(Originally published in Aurealis #84, September 2015)