Superheroes are everywhere these days. This is true even in the adult world, but for children they are ubiquitous. You can’t swing a cat in a Baby GAP or Toys ‘R’ Us without hitting a Batman onesie, Ironman lunch box, or Superman Mr. Potato Head. All of this has led me, a devoted comic book fan since I was old enough to read, to ask a previously unthinkable question. Have superheroes become too big a part of the popular culture?
Maybe I’m overreacting. Kids have always liked superheroes, and I seem to recall a certain set of Superman pajamas that I wore until they nearly fell off my 5-year-old body. But I don’t think superheroes have ever before been quite so dominant. When I was a kid, superheroes were often overshadowed by the latest cartoon craze—He-Man, G.I. Joe, Transformers, etc. You could find Superman pajamas, sure, but you didn’t have islands of superhero regalia dominating the central aisles of posh children’s boutiques.
The thing is, when I was a kid superheroes were cool precisely because (most) adults and even a lot of kids didn’t get it. If a kid got a superhero lunch box it was because he thought it was cool. But today it’s often parents buying superhero merchandise because they, the parent, think it’s cool. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and I’m as guilty of it as the next parent. But I earned it. I’m a real fan.
And there’s the rub. If your typical mainstream parents that have never read a comic book in their life are buying their kids superhero clothes because everybody now finds that adorable, then is there anything geeky about it any more? Isn’t the thing that distinguishes geeky from mainstream the fact that it connotes some separation from popular culture? It’s not what everyone thinks is cool. It’s what a particular subculture thinks is cool.
One of the best things about the superhero is the notion that he or she stands apart from the crowd. A superhero is not like everybody else. There is a tension between society’s desire to control the hero, and the hero’s own sense of justice. Superheroes are outsiders, and they appeal especially to kids that don’t quite fit in. Superheroes give those kids permission to be different. They send the message that sometimes it’s okay to think and act apart from what other people expect. They save the day precisely because they’re different.
So, have superheroes in pop culture become too much of a good thing? I can’t say for sure. But I hope that superheroes don’t become so much a part of insider culture that they lose their resonance with the outsider. That would be a loss to every geeky child.