In The James Bond Dossier, Kingsley Amis spends a chapter discussing the appeal of the secret agent. He ends the chapter with the proposition that this is due in part to the very nature of the secret agent’s work: “Not only have the [secret agents] no need to be outwardly different from other men; they must not be different. So our fantasist can say to himself whenever he feels it and without any special preparation: Under this fiendishly clever bank-clerk (etc.) disguise lurks intrepid ruthless 00999.”
I think that perhaps Mr. Amis also stumbled upon the appeal of superheroes.
The wish fulfillment aspect of the attraction of superheroes for teen boys has been discussed ad nauseum — the “power fantasy”. But upon reading Mr. Amis’ excellent book, I realized that the masks also play a part. Couldn’t war, private detective and secret agent comics fulfill these same fantasies? But they don’t. Superheroes hold a special place in comic books, even today.
Here is where the two overlap, I think: Every teen boy – and I don’t necessarily exclude girls here, but superheroes have been the domain of boys for decades — feels like an outsider, feels that he has things to hide (whether or not this is actually true) – just like superheroes who hide their identities (for a noble purpose, no less), and are sometimes considered outcasts by society (admittedly a late development in the genre).
Now, both Amis and I may be wrong about our conjectures, but I was immediately struck by his thesis when I read it many years ago.
Amis continues: “Any fantasy in which the subject is saying, in effect, I am not as other men are, is obviously very powerful. Its power will be increased in proportion as exterior forces say, You are as other men are.” I think this is where masks and costumes apply: Superheroes are so different from other men and the need to disguise this fact is so great that they must wear masks to conceal their true identity from the public. They even keep this secret from loved ones.
And yet, they also wear gaudy costumes that draw attention to themselves, which highlights – reinforces — their differences from the general public. This is a paradigm in psychology, which asks, “What does one gain by being different from others?”
Amis ends the discussion with this corollary: “Alternatively, the secret-agent fantasist is really saying to himself, You are all looking for 00999 but you won’t be able to shake my cover as a humble bank clerk, or more simply, You cannot identify me.”
What a powerful notion to a misunderstood teen. It explains the feelings of differentness, such that the teen is not worse for these differences, but better: He is, secretly, better than anyone else, but can’t let anyone know. He has to appear to be an ordinary person, misunderstood by others, all the while secretly their superior. What boy could resist this idea, even if he’s too young and immature to recognize its subconscious appeal?