The Superhero Issue
In defense of supervillains
“I want to know what it is that a superhero can offer me, what problem a superhero solves for a skeptical black queer woman with a book and a customer service job. I want to know what I need a superhero for, exactly.”
As a black queer woman, I am expected to enjoy the narrative arc of a person we’ve all learned to see as small and ordinary, who somehow becomes something greater than any of us could have imagined.
I should cheer them on as they suddenly realize that they’re beyond us — here for some big, important reason, to right some big, important wrong. I should feel relieved as I watch them transform right before my eyes, as they go from an anyone like me to a someone special like them. I should be attracted to that kind of story because I benefit from its possibilities. After all, that super-person might have the power and timing to rescue me at the exact moment when I need it most, save me from becoming an ordinary victim. Or, they might inspire me to rescue myself.
“I relate to the conditions of villainy.”
Until they do, a superhero is something other than what I am. They are something different than what most of us are, or they can’t exist at all. They would have no uniqueness, no power or privilege. Superheroes remain among us solely for our own good. They watch out for what we refuse to notice, ready to sacrifice themselves in ways we can’t or won’t. They do this without the limitations of the increasingly vulnerable human body or the increasingly vulnerable human experience. They do this on the rooftops of multistoried buildings or at a Governor’s Ball in front of everyone who matters or in an alley late at night.
The Inverse Superhero Issue challenges the most dominant idea in our culture today.
I should love superheroes, need them, wish I could reap the benefits of their extraordinary existence without the complications of their quests and conquests. But I’ve never genuinely rooted for a superhero. They’ve never felt like they were on my side, no matter how much they try to convince me. Maybe because they hide so much of their complexity from the public—their origin story, their trauma, their conflict. Their nobility isn’t enough for me. I want to know how their heroism intersects with their humanity. I don’t know how to get behind the self-righteous indignation, the arrogance, the belief that their version of good and evil is so universal the rest of us should just surrender to it and wait to be saved. These are qualities that remind me of my own nemeses, the ordinary people who want me dead or vanquished. The ones who passionately disagree with me or who/what I am. The ones who think they should be running the world so much they don’t mind running right over me to do it.
I also don’t enjoy superhero costumes or cars or gadgets. I’ve never been particularly excited about their moment of transformation from presumed normal citizen to savior when they finally use the full range of their superpowers to win in the end. I’m more interested in what they can do without the super accessories of their super humanness. I’d like to see them win as themselves, without abs of steel or laser vision or a sentient vehicle with suicide doors.
“My mother taught me to root for the underdog, always.”
But I don’t know everything, so there’s always the chance I’m missing something. Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up on comic books or super team summer blockbusters. I don’t know anything about Wonder Woman or the Incredible Hulk. As a kid, my mother taught me to root for the underdog, always. The underdog is the better winner simply because they are the presumed loser, usually due to a disadvantage or injustice. For me, this made the underdog the proper narrator — me, us. The victory was so much sweeter when it belonged to the person who didn’t need a superpower to win.
We all carry the superpower of perspective, the special qualities of our individual narratives and what they’ve taught us about good and evil, who and what actually exists in the shadows we make. If we’re all that extraordinary, who’s actually making the sacrifice?
Sometimes this has meant rooting for no one. Other times, it has meant rooting for a villain with a compelling backstory, a softer side they must bury in order to stand a chance at winning. I am more curious about what the villain would do from the margins of defeat. How losing would shape their next move or best turn of phrase, like when Magneto gets so tired of the chaos he retires from the fight and heads off to his orbital base to live a life of quiet seclusion or the Joker finally says to Batman, "I don't hate you 'cause I'm crazy. I'm crazy 'cause I hate you." The villain is usually more honest about what they want and what they’ll do to get it. Living in a deceitful world as the many things I am, I find this level of honesty refreshing, far more refreshing than a white man with an enemy, armed with superpowers or a fleet of super-white super friends, indebted with a noble pursuit.
I relate to the conditions of villainy.
But writing about who I truly root for would make this an essay about ordinary (unique) people and villains, not superheroes. So, I spend an entire Monday making my way through a curated timeline of all the important moments in superhero history, decade by decade. I learn about the creation of early heroes, like Buck Rogers and the Flash. I read about how Captain America came to “embody the American spirit” during World War II. I move through a few decades, waiting for the diversity to show up and finally come to She-Hulk, Kitty Pryde, and the Falcon. I want to relate. I want to know what it is that a superhero can offer me, what problem a superhero solves for a skeptical black queer woman with a book and a customer service job. I want to know what I need a superhero for, exactly.
It’s an overwhelming task. There are too many cult followers and collectors. Too much to learn and not enough time. I try to divide all the superheroes into categories so I can better understand them. Some heroes are made through advanced technology, and I can relate to that a bit because I have an internet persona. Someone who is me, but with more charisma, fewer limitations, and better hair. A version of me only possible thanks to science beyond my understanding, but well within my reach.
Some superheroes are made by magic, and it’s uncomfortable to admit I can’t relate to that at all. Contrary to the persistent hashtags and cute t-shirts, I am not composed of or powered by coins, Cardi, or coconut oil. I am not constantly sweeping up a trail of gold glitter or mopping up my persistent drip as I cross identity barriers on my way to victory. I am more the product of nuance than nature. The only strange land I hail from is Oakland, so the ambiguous superpower of black girl magic sometimes feels more like a response than a calling.
“The villain is usually more honest about what they want and what they’ll do to get it.”
Some superheroes are human, and others are subhuman. This presents me with a possible point to make, but it’s a dull one. I could spend my time writing about how my identities — the ones that have been considered subhuman — give me super strength or make me an invisible person, unnoticeable. But often, they don’t. In fact, my identities seem to uncloak me, making it impossible for me to hide from what is considered more human, correct. They name all the ways I’m different, an outsider.
It’s not surprising to find that if you are anything other than white or a man, your actual superpower is some accessible feature of your culture or your reaction to whatever oppression you face in the “real world,” what you do to use that oppression against itself. And the story always seems to be that you are either born with the innate ability or learn through an unforeseen trauma how to weaponize that oppression and win against the many forces that oppose you. This part isn’t just for superhero narratives. It’s for supervillain narratives, too, like in X-Men, when it is discovered that Magneto’s powers actually degrade his psyche. The more he uses them, the more paranoid and delusional he becomes. For him to use his powers safely, his genetic code is altered without his consent.
Most of the superheroes who are black are also men. Of course. Spawn. Black Panther. Luke Cage. Blade. Steel. Cyborg. Usually, they have conflict hardwired into their narrative or their DNA or both. They live in environments where they’ve been exposed to community violence or radioactivity or both. Or they have escaped it all by becoming the token member of a super team, or by joining a top-secret government organization. Often, despite their superhuman abilities, they wrestle with the unusually relatable question: am I good or bad? They spend a lot of time fighting corrupt people who look a lot like them and even more time fighting themselves. Often their internal conflict is their greatest nemesis.
I wonder how black men feel about this.
The superheroes who are women are based on a Western feminine ideal. A fit white woman with God-like power whose real power is her ability to seduce a man into an early death or worse, a long-term relationship. They are also tokens among the usual suspects n. The first woman superhero was Fantomah — an ageless, shapeshifting, white woman with curly blonde hair who protects the jungle and its people/animals and transforms into a skull-faced creature with superpowers whenever someone threatens what she loves. Later, there are women descendants of established male superheroes (Supergirl, Lady Deadpool, She-Hulk, Batwoman, Batgirl, Spider-Woman), and women who fight crime without superpowers, but still in costume (Woman in Red, Lady Luck, Catwoman).
Superhero derivatives are important because that’s usually where diversity gets to exist. “Minority superheroes” are often based on majority superheroes. The “minority” serves as a replacement after the original superhero dies and leaves behind a void that needs to be filled. Of course, the standard has usually just gone on to access greater power/teams, and the replacements get to play the role of alternate, like Miles Morales as Spiderman or Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel.
A real identity win is when an established character’s racial, gender, ability identity is altered, or a new version is created out of a more identity-specific circumstance. This mostly happens when the established superhero (who is white, and often, a man) story is adapted to another continuity or media, “re-imagined as” to fit both our evolving technology and need for greater representation. Political correctness meant to inspire. “See what you can be once we’re done being it first?” The rest of us are once again left with the familiar promise of secondhand equality we can find in our everyday lives.
“Superhero derivatives are important because that’s usually where diversity gets to exist.”
Where’s the fantasy in that? Many superheroes hide behind a secret identity, a masquerade, an alter-ego. As a black woman, I am practiced in hiding what can get me arrested, killed, or experimented upon. Like how I feel about my role as subordinate, alternate, secondary. Like naming who I think the “bad guy” is instead of me. Like standing up for myself in ways that are too loud. Like naming truths that will disturb. Like saving the day without asking for permission first. I relate to this behavior most. I relate to a quiet public presentation, the kind of power and bravery that reveals itself only when it’s encountering the threat of petty crime or nemeses, a direct threat. Sometimes, showing what you know or what you can do makes you a liability, a dangerous aberration. Superpowers can be perceived as a threat if you don’t use them to protect the existing world, Gotham City or Metropolis, or Wakanda.
But maybe it’s not enough to relate to what isn’t even real. Do I really need another fantasy to root for, to believe in as a way of believing in myself? Do I need another unelected representative? I am surrounded by them in real life. Figures shaped by unwavering belief and collective dreams. If I have celebrities and politicians, athletes and influencers, what else do I need? Does believing in a superhero or a superstar just reinforce the hierarchy of who matters and why?
“I’ve never genuinely rooted for a superhero.”
It’s a relief to conjure up a superhuman, a powerful martyr who knows exactly what to do. A force that can’t lose, that will eventually save us all, just in the nick of time. Superheroes don’t delegate or hold humanity accountable for the villains (or superheroes) we’ve created out of our failures. Instead, they rescue us from evil without hesitation. They come when we call, and even when we don’t. They are law and order and revolution as long as it is on their terms. They’re whatever they assume we need them to be. They are our greatest collective ideal. An attractive, relatable God without the pressure of sanctity.
But they are not us. They don’t know the lessons of loss, the compassion of vulnerability. They are not doing all of this — surviving it — without special skills or unearned status. They are not magnificently ordinary. They exist only as an archetype, embodying a spirit that is beyond us, but of us.
I can’t relate. And I don’t want to.
The Inverse Superhero Issue challenges the most dominant idea in our culture today.