August 2011

For all of humankind

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He had me at “Shazam!” Grant Morrison, the comic book writer and author of Supergods, rubbed the magic lantern of my memories and re-ignited my lifelong love affair with comic books. He helped me recall being a young boy and placing a dime and two pennies into a vending machine to fetch the latest issue of Superman. And the times as a college student, rummaging through cardboard boxes at a used comic book store to find old editions of Batman and the Fantastic Four. More recently, thanks to reading Supergods, I’ve invited my 12-year-old son to join me in paging through the 300-plus yellowing comic books I have stored in the basement.

Like me, Morrison is a comic book aficionado, and his passion for comic superheroes bursts through the pages of his book, subtitled “What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human.” Supergods is an examination of the evolution of superheroes and how they symbolize the changes in our culture, and it begins, appropriately, with the debut of Superman in 1938, a time when people were longing for a hero who could fight the forces of evil bent on world domination. On the two-dimensional pages, the criminals were Brainiac and Lex Luthor, but in real life, the villain was Adolf Hitler. In the turbulent 1960s, the superheroes developed an anti-authority edge, as seen in the popularity of Spiderman and The Incredible Hulk. By the 1980s, as society settled into a great malaise, the comics turned darker, typified by the rise of anti-heroes like the X-Men and Watchmen.

But Supergods doesn’t just offer us a reflection of ourselves throughout our recent history; it tackles important social issues such as feminism, illustrated in the comic book form of Wonder Woman and the Invisible Girl, and diversity in the guise of Black Panther and Storm. Morrison also notes with insight and irony how comic books, once considered subversive to youth, are now a reliable source of income for Hollywood.

Supergods is an enjoyable read for both rabid comic book fans who want to take a trip down memory lane and casual readers who want to understand how these colorful, sometimes crude books offer us a glimpse at how far we’ve come as a society. In Morrison’s words, comic books “tell us where we’ve been, what we feared and what we desired, and . . . speak to us about what we could be.”

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