Capes and Flags, Part 2: “Men of Steel: Superhero bodies and Industrial Crisis”

Although issues of American global warfare and modern social political concerns saturates superhero fiction, (read my last post on this, here) one can view these issues as a facet inside a larger, more important reality that serves as the stage on which superhero comics and film dance. That is, superhero comics and movies usually deal with the problems that humans must face after Industrialization. By Industrialization I simply mean anything that involves the new technology that spurred from American’s jump in economic and infrastructural possibility in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including the invention of cars that allowed wider transit, assembly lines and metallurgical advancements that allowed mass production and larger, more populated cities; and the creation of bombs and modern military tactics that allowed the moving away from face-to-face warfare and to the ability of mass destruction on civilian populations. In view of their history and popularity, superheroes are most popular during periods of such industrial crisis upon the human body. Spider-Man would not exist without a need to save people from falling from skyscrapers, speeding trains, and modern medical experiments gone awry – threats only made possible by the circumstances of industrial progress. Superhero comics find their inception alongside of the musings of WWI and the Great Depression, while the present day eruption of superhero films and the resurgence of superhero comics occur directly after the event of 9/11 in New York City. Superheroes, I want to argue, are inconceivable without these crises of modernity, and like the movies exegeted above, find their most potent political constitution in these moments.

Superheroes relate well to for people who are going through moments of crisis; whose bodies are falling, being crushed, or under the threat of annihilation. The superhero, in his or her most basic sense, is a limitless and protected body, one that can resist these uncontrollable threats. Watch any superhero movie, read any superhero comic book, and you will see the human body taken above its limits. Spider-Man’s body transforms from a gangly teenage body to one that can crawl on walls and ride webs above the streets of New York. Iron Man and Batman’s bodies, although normal, cover themselves in suits, use technology, and master abilities that make them utterly invincible. Superman’s body is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and can leap over buildings in a single bound. What sets these heroes apart is just that: they are super, able to do that which normal humans cannot. Although some superheroes have an unimaginable intellect or ability to bend space and time, superheroes are most known for their physiological attributes. The visual appeal of large muscles and skin-tight costumes are undoubtedly the main attraction in comics and superhero films. However, the overt shock and awe of the superhero’s abilities sometime mask over the less apparent political ramifications that their bodies convey.

What makes superhero fiction such fertile ground for political commentary? What is it about superheroes that work so well with these industrial crises and political happenings? Although superhero comics seem to mimic and regurgitate the political hostilities of their time in their own form, in what ways do comic books try to deal with the social anxieties that come along with industrial fear? What do these super-humans achieve for the not-so-super humans?

Scott Bukatman’s work is helpful in its focus on the importance of the body in comic-book fiction, especially in understanding the key dynamics in the relationship between the normal body and the super body in moment of crisis. Bukatman notes that when comic-book fiction is working properly, at its most basic level it can become a place to consider and deal with social and political existence and the anxiety, trauma, and occasional beauty that accompanies it. The body, however, is key for Bukatman in that comic book stories cannot be told without the body as its “prime vehicle”: “Superhero comics present body narratives, bodily fantasies that incorporate (incarnate) aggrandizement and anxiety, mastery and trauma . . . [they] present a significant somatization of modernist and postmodernist concerns” about “attitudes toward flesh, self, and society.” The body is at the center of the superhero’s creation and appeal.For Bukatman, film and comics do exactly what plain narrative cannot do: embody the words and give form to the scene. One of main reasons why superheroes are so appealing is that they (visually) overcome the bodily limits of reality, and give ordinary humans a taste of the extraordinary. The body is not just an attribute of the appeal of superhero, but the key focus, Bukatman notes:

Comics narrate the body in stories and envision the body in drawings. The body is obsessively centered upon. It is contained and delineated; it becomes irresistible force and immoveable object. The body is enlarged and diminished, turned invisible or made of stone, blown to atoms or reshaped at will. The body defies gravity, space, and time; it divides and conquers, turns to fire, lives in water, is lighter than air. The body takes on animal attributes, merges with plant life, is melded with metal. The body is asexual and homosexual, heterosexual, and hermaphroditic. Even the mind becomes a body: it is telepathic, telekinetic, transplantable, and controllable . . . The body is an accident of birth, a freak of nature, or a consequence of technology run wild. The superhero body is everything . . .

Superheroes are only as good and interesting as the abilities their extra-human bodies allow, the villains they can overcome with those empowered bodies, and the attractiveness of the high-tech suits and consumes (or lack thereof) that cover their exquisite physiques. Concisely, one could define the superhero as nothing other than a body that is imbued with super-power and coded by social anxiety.
The superhero’s significance is that he or she emerges on the other side of industrialization, able to combat these new fears and weaknesses. Bukatman points to the particular social attitudes and anxieties that were involved in the genesis of the superhero, suggesting that the superhero is a product of the human body trying to deal with the trauma of industrialization. Industrialism opened up possibilities that were before thought impossible, dawning a new age of human social and technological progressivism. Still, however progressive industrialization was for humanity, it also created dangers that the human body had never encountered. Now bodies had to deal with catastrophic damage that the assembly line’s powerful machines could inflict. As buildings grew taller, machines more powerful, and people more gathered around such forces, the risk and fear of death increased exponentially. The atomization of firearms and the invention of the modern bomb revolutionized war, making mass death a constant reality. Technology surpassed the body’s limits at such a rate that humanity had to catch up and deal with its helplessness in whatever ways it could, or at least find an outlet to deal with the trauma that industrial life brought with it.

Looking back at some of the most famous comic books and the history of the mediums most popular characters shows an obsession with industrial tropes. Take the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics 1 for example.


Arguably the first comic book featuring a true superhero, the cover of Action Comics No.1 depicts the Man of Steel amazingly lifting and destroying the car of couple of gangsters after they attacked Lois Lane. Superman saves the damsel in distress from the crime of the industrial city, along with the technology that makes it possible. The invention of the automobile revolutionized the way humanity lived, traveled, and interacted. It also extended the boundaries of organized crime. Here is a super-human protecting an innocent woman from a threat that industrialization made possible, taming the uncontrollable like no human could imagine (hence the terrified bug-eyed fellow in the foreground). Superman had a “new kind of body- only the Man of Steel has the constitution, organs, and abilities equal to the rigors of the Machine Age.” What makes this cover even more interesting is that the car depicted in the drawing is a believed to be a 1937 DeSoto, and, as seen in DeSoto’s 1930s advertisement, there is a tension between the pre-industrial lifestyle and the new, technological world the car brings.


This juxtaposition between the old, agrarian world in the Desoto ad and the new, industrial world holds together nicely with Superman’s origin story. Although Superman is originally from Krypton, a highly advanced industrial world of super beings, he is raised in Smallville, Kansas, a very rural farming town in the middle of nowhere. Unlike Spider-Man, a hero born and bred in the city, Superman is a creature of the small town America. However, Superman finds his heroic calling in Metropolis, a sprawling industrial twin of New York City. Superman, an alien among humans, embodies the narrative of migration from the countryside to the city. Many Americas underwent the same process, moving from farm to the city in heaps in the early 1900s. Immigrants from other countries were undergoing the same anxiety of moving to a new world. Clark Kent, Superman’s alter-ego, overcomes the fear of moving from horse to car; rural America to city; citizen to alien. Still, inasmuch as Superman embodies this anxiety, he is ultimately unlike the normal human – able to outrun the gangsters, tame the new technology, and blend in perfectly within the city’s demographic.

Superman’s cultural draw extended past industrial tropes and into the very heart of American political sentimentality in the post-Depression society. As Lawrence Maslon and Michael Kantor put it in Superheroes!: Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of the Comic Book Culture, Superman “saved things. And in so doing, he found a receptive audience.” Malson and Kantor quote Jules Feiffer as supplement:

Superman came at a time when, as many people saw it, particularly the Jews, a Superhero in the wheelchair had entered the White House – and that was [Franklin Delano Roosevelt]. The notion that you could have a superhero who was going to stand up for you, who would be our advocate, was connected to the hope brought on by this larger-than-life figure in the White House. Crippled though he was, F.D.R. had a secret identity, taking off into outer space and solving problems with the New Deal and creating a whole new feeling with the New Deal. Superman was an underground New Dealer.

Just a year after Superman’s debut, Marvel Comics predecessor, Timely Publications, released its first take on a superhuman with Marvel Comics No.1 starring the FireHuman Torch. Unlike the modern incarnation of the Human Torch from the Fantastic Four, Carl Burgos’ Human Torch was a synthetic android whose skin bursts into flames when exposed to oxygen. After the press makes his creator, Professor Horton, bury him in a capsule underwater before “Some madman can grasp its principles and hurl it against our civilization,” the Human Torch escapes and wreaks runs the streets among terrified bystanders.Frie 2


It is no coincidence that the reader encounters a superhero with the ability to resist fire during this period when housing projects became larger and more populated, causing the risk of fire and subsequent death to increase alongside of the mass movement to the city. One can view the Human Torch as the embodiment of the fear of burning alive that so many felt, whether it was in the crowded metropolis or the fiery dangers American soldiers faced under stress of bombs and artillery in Europe during WWI.

Captain AmericaOne can read the origin and purpose of almost every major superhero in the vein of industrial possibility and fear: Batman is trying to battle his past by utilizing technology to police Gotham City’s (a reflection of Chicago) criminal ways and to tame its sprawling streets that the primary authorities no longer able to help; Iron Man is forced to create a suit to communist Asians who kidnap him and demand that he make weapon’s of mass destruction for their military; Captain America punches Hitler and fights off the Nazi invasion.


At first glance, Superman’s body is able to save, whereas normal, human bodies need saving. However, it is clear that Superman has a different kind of body from a different reality, a reality that is as alien to humanity as the new industrial threats were to early 20th century Americans. In his introduction to the Neil Gaiman’s highly acclaimed Sandman vol. 2: A Doll’s House graphic novel, fantasy and horror fiction guru Clive Barker describes the effects of invading fictional realities:

One [kind of fantastic fiction], the kind most often seen in horror novels and movies, offers up a reality that resembles our own, then postulates a second invading reality, which has to be accommodated or exiled by the status quo it is attempting to overtake. Sometimes, as in any exorcism movie . . . the alien thorn is successfully removed from the suppurating flank of the real. On other occasions the visitor becomes part of the fabric of “everyday” life. Superman is, after all, an alien life form. He’s simply the acceptable face of invading realities.

These new bodies, bodies like Superman’s, are always ready to deal with the threats of the new technological world. Like Superman, the hero can protect against the abrupt death of world war; survive and help others survive falling off the tallest building; allow citizens to sleep in peace as he fights off the impending dangers. Accordingly, the superhero embodies a cognitive barrier between subject and the new, dangerous world. But what makes Superman and these other amazing, bodies so appealing? If Superman, like Barker notes, represents such a different and insane reality, what makes his face ‘acceptable,’ other than the fact that he might “save” us? In other words, does it matter if Superman is man, or that he has big muscles? If so, what effect does that have on our views of overcoming crisis and our views on what our leaders should look like?

**My next post will attempt to answer this question of salvation, focusing specifically on how super-heroism is written and draw with a sense of hyper masculinity. Stay tuned.  


One thought on “Capes and Flags, Part 2: “Men of Steel: Superhero bodies and Industrial Crisis”

  1. Pingback: Capes and Flags, Part 3: “Manly” Salvation and The Rest of Us | Barn Burners

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