The Superhero Mystique

//The Superhero Mystique

The Superhero Mystique

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?


By | 2017-09-23T15:34:52+00:00 September 23rd, 2017|Uncategorized|Comments Off on The Superhero Mystique

About the Author:

Jeff Deischer is best known for his chronologically-minded essays, particularly the book-length The Man of Bronze: a Definitive Chronology, about the pulp DOC SAVAGE series. It is a definitive chronology, rather than the definitive chronology, he explains, because each chronologist of the DOC SAVAGE series has his own rules for constructing his own chronology. Jeff believes his own chronology to be the definitive one – using his rules, which were set down by Philip Jose Farmer in his book, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life. Jeff was born in 1961, a few years too late, in his opinion. He missed out on the Beatles, the beginning of the Marvel Age of comic books and the early years of the Bantam reprints of the DOC SAVAGE series, the latter two of which he began reading when he was about ten years old (on the other hand, he was too young to go to Viet Nam ….). Jeff had become enamored of Heroes – with a capital “H”, for these were not ordinary men – at a very young age. He grew up watching DANIEL BOONE (to whom he is distantly related, by marriage), TARZAN, BATMAN, THE LONE RANGER and ZORRO on television. There is a large “Z” carved into his mother’s sewing machine that can attest to this fact (as you might imagine, it did not impress her the way it always did the peasants and soldiers on ZORRO). This genre of fiction made a lasting impression on his creative view, and everything he writes has Good Guys and Bad Guys – in capital letters. As an adult writer, he tries to make his characters human, as well. Jeff began writing as a young teenager, and, predictably, all of it was bad. He started to write seriously while in college, but spent the next decade creating characters and universes and planning stories without seeing much of it to fruition. This wasted time is his biggest regret in life. In the early 1990s, Jeff began a correspondence with noted pulp historian and novelist Will Murray, while he was writing both the DOC SAVAGE and THE DESTROYER series (THE DESTROYER #102 is actually dedicated to Jeff). Jeff currently consults on Will Murray’s DOC SAVAGE books (as evidenced by the acknowledgements pages in the novels of “The Wild Adventures of …” series), a privilege that he enjoys. Will Murray’s sage advice helped turn Jeff into a true author. Producing few books over the next few years, Jeff’s writing finally attained professional grade, and, after being laid off from the auto industry in 2007, he was able to devote more time to writing. From 2008, he produced an average of three books a year, most of it fiction, and most of that pulp. Reading so much of the writing of Lester Dent, the first, most prolific and best of those using the DOC SAVAGE house name “Kenneth Robeson”, Jeff’s own natural style is similar to Dent’s. He “turns this up” when writing pulp, and “turns this down” when writing non-pulp fiction. Jeff primarily writes fiction, and, combining his twin loves of superheroes and pulp, began THE GOLDEN AGE series in 2012. This resurrected, revamped and revitalized the largely forgotten characters of Ned Pines’ Standard, Better and Nedor publishing companies. These characters, drawn from superhero, pulp and mystic milieus, fill the “Auric Universe”, as Jeff calls it. Jeff’s webpage is, where he posts the first chapters of his novels, so that potential readers can peruse his work without having to spend several dollars on a trade paperback to find out if they like it or not.

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