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.

Book Review: To Teach: The Journey, In Comics

In the spirit of some of the comics-related posts I’ve been doing, I wanted to share a book review I wrote for the Harvard Educational Review on a fabulous graphic novel about teaching, by educator and activist Bill Ayers.

To Teach: The Journey, In Comics
by William Ayers and Ryan Alexander-Tanner
New York: Teachers College Press, 2010. 128 pp. $15.95

“Teaching at its best is not a matter of technique—it is primarily an act of love.”
– William Ayers

If I am left with only one lingering feeling from reading To Teach: The Journey, in Comics, it is love. This book exudes love: love for the profession of teaching and the brave, creative souls who engage in it; love for the children and youth who inspire, challenge, and teach the teacher; and even, in the end, love for the educational bureaucrats who are lampooned at various points in the book. William Ayers and Ryan Alexander-Tanner obviously adore teaching in all its messiness, and that adoration is infectious.

This book is a graphic novel adaptation of William Ayers’s classic work To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher, first published in 1993. The original text has been brought to life through striking black-and-white cartoons from artist Ryan Alexander-Tanner. As in the original, the graphic novel is made up of eight chapters, each delving into a different aspect of teaching. The ideas are grounded in Ayers’s time as a kindergarten teacher, his experiences as a parent, and the work of other innovative educators. To Teach is a book about what is possible; the educators featured are real people making real magic in real classrooms.

Ayers and Alexander-Tanner offer an impassioned plea for sloughing off the “myths” of teaching, such as the idea that children are worse than they were in the past or that a teacher’s work is to “save” students…Click HERE to read the full review

Drawing out the Truth at Occupy

When journalist Susie Cagle was arrested at Occupy Oakland, she was busy covering the protests — a press pass hung around her neck, and a sketchbook in her hand. Cagle is a comics journalist, a cartoonist-reporter harnessing the accessibility, symbolism, and visual nature of her art to illuminate this budding movement.

Cagle is not alone. A number of comic journalists have hit the ground at various occupations, documenting the stories and individuals that make up the movement. Unlike their more traditional newspaper-based relatives, comics journalists are unabashedly subjective — they forefront their own vision of the world in every line they draw, reminding us of the fallacy of “objective” reporting. Their word-image combinations bring the occupations to life in ways that speak not only to our intellect, but to our instincts and emotions as well.

A page from Stephanie McMillan’s “American Fall”

The first part of Stephanie McMillan’s Occupy coverage, The Beginning of the American Fall, was posted last week, documenting the merging of the Occupy DC and Stop The Machine protests. Speaking with the Washington Post, McMillan said American Fall was meant to explore (more…)

The Most Political Art

Cartooning has become eternally linked in our collective imagination with childhood, Disney movies, and frivolousness. At the same time, no other art form has been so consistently intertwined with US political life. Over the next few posts, I will be paying tribute to this most political art, and the many ways that it has intersected with politics and social change.

The word “cartoon” — originally referring to the preparatory drawings for Italian frescoes — came to be used in London in the 1840’s to refer to humorous, and often political, drawings printed in magazines and newspapers (Harvey, 2009). Nowadays the term “cartooning” has broken free of any one particular form, referring as well to art that shares a set of conventions such as thick, black outlines and the use of caricature and symbol.

Pennsylvania Gazette, May 9, 1754

The art of political cartooning in the US dates back to at least 1754, when Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette printed his “Join or Die” woodcut advocating unity among the states. Now it is a fixture of political magazines and editorial pages across the country, and it has been given new life online where such cartoons proliferate wildly.

Meanwhile, cartooning took another step towards becoming a staple in our lives in the late 19th century — this time in color. The Funny Pages were born along with the color printing press, and in the early 20th century were popularized by major newspaper publishers like William Hearst. The wall between the funny pages and the news has always been porous, with titles like Doonesbury and the Boondocks taking on the political establishment, and often making there way to the editorial pages.

The Boondocks, by Aaron McGruder

The next logical leap forward was the comic book, extending cartooning into long-form storytelling. Comics, like their strip-based forebears, were cheap, targeted at children, and largely seen as disposable. But as a popular art form, comics were both barometers of the times and players in the political game. Superheroes, for example, have served as working-class heroes, pro-war patriots, and cultural critics (Morrison, 2011). A rich, underground comics scene erupted as well, serving as a visual language for the growing counter-culture.

Today comics — along with their elder siblings the “graphic novels” and their more popular Japanese cousin, manga — are reaching into ever-new arenas. Now we have comic journalism, comic history, comic-based curriculum materials. The web has given comics and cartoons new, interactive elements. Cartooning is more relevant than ever.

Visit in the coming days for more on cartooning, the “most political art.”


Harvey, R. C. (2009). How Comics Came to Be. In J. Heer & K. Worcester, A comics studies reader. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Morrison, G. (2011). Supergods: What masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville can teach us about being human. New York: Spiegel & Grau.