What Superheroes Teach Us About Power

This is part 5 in an ongoing series about art and power

I’ve been reading and writing a lot about power, looking at some of the big power theories out there. But many of our everyday theories of power are not buried in academic libraries, but right in front of us in gleaming spandex. I’m talking about superheroes. If superhero comics are all about power, what kind of power are they talking about? What are they teaching us? Read on, true believer!

Power as the Ability to Act
Since Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics, most superheroes have been defined by one or more powers: flight, invisibility, healing factor, vomiting, etc. In this sense, a power  is an ability. This usage implies that we all have “powers,” though ours are decidedly less super. I, myself have the power to walk, to breathe, to protest, and to blog. In their typology of power, Lisa VeneKlasen and Valerie Miller would call this kind of powerPower To…the unique potential of every person to shape his or her life and world.” This use of the word power also assumes that power is something that an individual has and can use — though it can be taken away with some well-placed kryptonite.

Some community organizers, like Ernie Cortez Jr. of the IAF, speak about power in a similar way. Because they see building power in marginalized communities as positive, they separate the word power from negative ideas like oppression and domination. They often point out that power in Spanish — poder — simply means “to be able to.”

Power = Responsibility
Perhaps the most famous line in comic book history came from Spiderman: “With great power comes…great responsibility!” Superheroes are those who take up this mantle of responsibility to others, while supervillains do not.

This resonates with the ideas of Steven Lukes. Lukes says that one of the reasons we need to talk about power is because we need to figure out who we can hold responsible. He defines the “powerful” as those to whom we can attribute responsibility — either for acting, or for not acting. Just like Spiderman holds himself responsible for not stopping a thief, who later killed his uncle, we can hold powerful people like CEOs and politicians responsible for not protecting the environment (for example) even if they aren’t the ones doing the polluting. This is because they have the power (and thus the responsibility) to step in.

Power Corrupts
In one of my personal favorite comic book stories of all time, the Dark Phoenix Saga, the author (mis)quotes Lord Acton: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We see this corruption in action as Phoenix, who has the power to consume stars, turns into Dark Phoenix and does just that. In a more recent twist on this theme, the comic series Irredeemable shows how a superman-like character, with a bit of an inferiority complex, transforms into an unstoppable villain.

Today the casualness with which we approach corruption in government shows that we pretty much take this idea as a given. The “balance of powers” in governments like the US is an attempts to avoid absolute power and thus absolute corruption (though this balance seems to be deteriorating).

Money is Power
The X-men got their powers from genetic mutation, Superman from our yellow sun, and the Fantastic Four from “cosmic rays.” But Batman was just really, really rich (and a little crazy). This was enough to land him a spot among the worlds most powerful superheroes in the Justice League.

In his classic, much reprinted book “Who Rules America,” G. William Domhoff has thoroughly documented the connection between economic wealth and power over the history of the US. He doesn’t quite say money is power, but shows that money is a resource for power, money can lead to power, and money is an indicator of where power lies — showing us just how unequal power distribution is. We now know people like Bruce Wayne as “the 1%.”

Collective Power
While many comics celebrate purely individual power, there is also a strain of collective power running through the superhero world. The X-men in particular continually learn that while each has a specific, individual power, its usually only by combining their powers that they can succeed. As the recent Avengers movie showed, even the most powerful must unite when the big threats come down. Combining our powers makes us more than the sum of our parts.

The power of collective action is sometimes called “power with.” Bernard Loomer writes about a similar concept of “relational power,” which is the power that comes from true collaboration, from not only being able to change others but being open to change yourself.

What Comics Don’t Teach Us About Power
While there are many types of power at work in superhero comics, it is perhaps more notable which types of power are absent. There is little to no talk of the power of systems and institutions, or the power of cultural forces like mass media. What if power is not something a person can “have” at all, but something that surrounds all of us, shaping not only what we can do but what we even think is possible? I’ll be exploring some of these ideas in upcoming posts in this ongoing series.

Superheroes Fight for Boston Transit

It’s been a good week for superheroes. Friday saw the release of The Avengers (which was hot), and Saturday was Free Comic Book Day. But if you live here in Boston, you don’t need to go to the theater or the comic book store for a superhero fix — we’ve got our own team of spandex-clad do-gooders and they are asking you to join.

The Fast Five fight for affordable, quality public transportation in Boston. They have been spotted often across the city — at protests, marches, and transit board meetings — during the recent fight against budget cuts for Boston’s transit system, “The T.” Just as Batman lurks in his Bat Cave, the Fast Five base their operations out of the T Riders Union (TRU), part of the advocacy and organizing group, Alternatives for Community and Environment. Each of the superheroes is currently associated with a policy that could help save the T money — from renegotiating debt to drawing on snow-removal savings after a warm winter (that one ended up being approved).

If you’ve read this blog since the beginning, you know the superhero myth is one of my favorites, and I think it holds a lot of potential for framing activism, so I love that ACE has been using it. At the same time, the superhero myth’s focus on saviors is at times in conflict with organizing’s focus on collectivity and empowerment. You can see that the Fast Five campaign is trying to deal with this tension. Though the superheroes may be here to “save the day,” they are calling on others to make it happen, with the tag line “Be a Hero; Save the T.” It probably also helps that the superhero outfits are so self-consciously silly, with some quite literally having underwear on the outside. They give off a sense of “do-it-yourself” superheroism that is endearing.

While this year’s transportation budget battle is over, there is still much to do in the fight for justice in public transportation. Most of the solutions used for plugging this year’s gap are one-time, setting us up for another battle next year. And youth across the city continue to organize for an affordable 24/7 youth pass. So I have no doubt we will be seeing more of the Fast Five. If you’re in the area, grab your underwear and suit up.

The World Still Needs Heroes

“The decision to act heroically is a choice that many of us will be called upon to make at some point in time.”
– Dr. Philip Zimbardo

This past week DC comics — home of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman — began rebooting 52 titles, starting them at #1 and rewriting decades of complicated, often contradictory, fictional history. While this is a rather cheap ploy to excite readers and lift up declining sales, I’d like to use this moment in comic publication history to muse on the power of superhero myths, and the usefulness of these myths for social justice organizing.

As I discussed in a previous post, one of the ways that power is wielded in our society is through story and myth. Myths like the American Dream, or the Thanksgiving creation story, help to uphold the status quo as good or at least natural. At the same time, myths like the story of Rosa Parks help us to envision ways that individuals can change unjust systems. While the term “myth” is often used to refer to something that is not true, I’m using it here quite differently. A myth is simply a story that is retold time and again, and helps us to understand something about the way things are, and how the world works. The “truth” of a myth lies not so much in its literal truth (though that varies) but in its ability to guide our lives in useful and positive ways.

One set of myths that are as alive as ever in our society, marked by a current deluge of movies, are those surrounding the superhero. U.S. superheroes are a modern extension of the eons-old hero mythologies most famously outlined by Joseph Campbell — though they have arguably been adapted in peculiarly American ways. Superhero tales, introduced in their current form by Superman in 1932, offer us models of morality, and of how “wrongs” are made “right.”

On a literal level, traditional superheroes offer us a pretty weak model for how to improve the world. They generally function in stark binaries of good and evil, and their solution is almost always physical violence. There is no real accountability — people just have to trust that they will do “good.” They often work alone, and are seen to stand apart from the rest of humanity. And when they take on social issues like crime, it is generally by punching and arresting people in alleys, rather than addressing any of the systemic roots of the problem. (This is to say nothing about the underlying racism, sexism, and heterosexism rampant in the superhero genre, but that is a story for another time.)

Some of the best comic book authors have explored these limitations. In one of my favorite examples — Superman: Peace on Earth — Superman takes on world hunger. In an effort to inspire more equal distribution of food reserves, based on the charity model, Superman announces to the UN that he will spend one full day carrying massive amounts of food from rich countries to poor ones suffering from famine. It starts out all right — people are happy to receive free food. But problems begin piling up. In one country the food he brings simply isn’t enough. In another, nobody trusts the food and so it’s left for the rats. In another, a military dictatorship is more than happy to take the food, with no intention of sharing it across the country. Finally, seeing Superman as a threat to national sovereignty, one country fires a missile and blows him out of the sky. In the end it is a failure, both for this particular mission, and for the superhero model of change. (At the end Clark Kent, who after all grew up on a farm, teaches young people to grow their own food. Also not a systemic solution to world hunger, but a human-sized occupation that can have its own empowering results.)

It may be that this model of the individual hero — though not originating with superheroes — harms attempts to organize for social change, as we rewrite our lives to fit our myths. In many ways the civil rights movement is taught as something of a superhero myth, with Martin Luther King as Superman. This has the danger in the moment of discouraging the development of other leaders, leaving the movement in trouble when tragedy takes our hero from us. In the longer-term, it can leave us, as they say, “Waiting for Superman” rather than taking action to change things now. Would we be better off with more focus on stories that highlight the less hierarchical, collective work that formed the base of the civil rights movement? The work of SNCC and the Freedom Schools for instance?

Rosa Parks is a perfect example of this. Her myth is one of a single, principled individual taking a stand, and igniting a movement. This is for sure an inspiring story. But would it be more helpful if the myth clung closer to reality — the story not of an individual making a spur-of-the-moment choice but a trained and committed organizer working with many others to plan out an incredibly successful action?

But I am not ready to throw out superheroes all together. Perhaps it’s simply because I like reading comic books. Or perhaps it’s because I didn’t grow up on Superman so much as the X-Men. While the X-Men fall into some of the traps outlined above, they are far from the shiny, American Way Superman, or the rich, unstable renegade Batman. They are outcasts, facing constant discrimination. They have powers, but these powers are often odd and sometimes debilitating. X-Men generally can only succeed when they come together as a team, uniting their diverse skills. And they are flawed in clear and not-so-clear ways.

So to me, superheroes continue to be an inspiration, and a set of myths I come back to. One reason is because of their unabashed celebration of power (or “powers”). As Alinsky wrote decades ago, if we want to change systems we cannot shy away from the idea of “power.” Power does not equal oppression. It is the unequal distribution of power that leads to oppression. Power, in organizing and in superheroics, is where change comes from — whether power from collective social capital, or a radioactive spider.

I personally like to stress the collective aspects of superhero myths, since I believe collective action is the only route to systemic change. (After all, superheroes are forever forming “leagues.”) But we should not be too quick to discount the importance of the individual hero. My partner recently shared with me the writing of Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the famous Stanford Prison Experiment in which students pretended to be guards and prisoners. It got so brutal that it had to be shut down after six days — and that was already too long. Zambardo writes about the Lucifer Effect, the way that good people can end up carrying out evil acts through obedience to authority or passive observation. His solution? The celebration of heroism, of the individuals who resist inertia and choose to act differently. He has founded the Heroic Imagination Project whose mission is to “encourage and empower individuals to take heroic action during crucial moments in their lives. We prepare them to act with integrity, compassion, and moral courage, heightened by an understanding of the power of situational forces.”

Zambardo’s message could be summed up by the inscription Eric Masterson found on the hammer created for him by Odin, after he stopped being the superhero Thor. Despite their problems and limitations, despite their mixed history of success, and despite all the critiques offered above, “The World Still Needs Heroes.”