Superheroes create cultural acceptance for popular oligarchy

11.00, Monday 3 Jan 2022

I wonder whether the worldview from the 1930s has been transmitted via superheroes through time, and has been re-imprinted onto today’s culture.

When Batman was created in 1939 the name will have had a double meaning: batman is a military role, a soldier assigned to be an aide to an officer, with roles including:

  • maintaining the officer’s uniform and personal equipment as a valet
  • digging the officer’s foxhole in combat, giving the officer time to direct his unit
  • other miscellaneous tasks the officer does not have time or inclination to do, etc (list from Wikipedia).

Use Google Books to search for “batman”: the term hits a peak in the early 1930s (before the comic book character) and doesn’t climb to the same level of popularity again till 2004.

So Batman is a pun.

I can only imagine that readers would have been aware of this. Batman-the-hero is working in the dark, doing the dirty work for Gotham, cleaning it up, just as batman-the-wartime-aide would be up before dawn getting things ready, dispensing of tasks before the officer wakes, doing the running behind the scenes.

Batman as servant to the city.

Even if this wasn’t explicit the semiotics are unavoidable – but will have changed over time. I wonder how the depiction of Batman evolved, in the comic, once a new generation of writers took the helm and the military term “batman” lost its wartime currency. Did the servant aspect disappear? Or is it still there under the surface?


Alan Moore (writer of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, etc) makes the connection between comic book superheroes and fascism.

From this 2017 interview:

While these characters were originally perfectly suited to stimulating the imaginations of their twelve or thirteen year-old audience, today’s franchised ubermenschen, aimed at a supposedly adult audience, seem to be serving some kind of different function, and fulfilling different needs. Primarily, mass-market superhero movies seem to be abetting an audience who do not wish to relinquish their grip on (a) their relatively reassuring childhoods, or (b) the relatively reassuring 20th century.

Nietzsche’s concept of the Ubermensch (1883) - translated: “superman” - became a Nazi ideal.

Moore continues:

I would also remark that save for a smattering of non-white characters (and non-white creators) these books and these iconic characters are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race. In fact, I think that a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as the first American superhero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks.

The Birth of a Nation (Wikipedia) was a 1915 America epic film, hugely successful, and acknowledged as an inspiration for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, which took place only a few months after its release.

I mean…

Is this a reach?


Is Moore making a statement about the unconscious cultural origins of the comic book superhero, the effects of which ripple on today?

Let’s take Moore seriously for a minute.

Let’s say that the idea of the Ubermensch and the KKK fall out of the same belief matrix, being this: that there is a hierarchy to the ability and the worth of human beings.

This belief comes and goes. Today’s “woke” culture (a badge to be worn with pride!) is anti these kind of hierarchies. But sometimes is fashionable. For example in the 1890s: H. G. Wells was like many progressives of his time, a believer in eugenics (source: The New Yorker).

And it will have been in the air in the 1930s (the Nazis didn’t appear from empty air).

Then when superheroes were created that same decade, Birth of a Nation and KKK had established in culture a convenient visual language: apex humans, prepared to put their necks on the line for the rest of us, would forge their own identities with masks and capes. So it makes sense to draw the new supermen the same way.


If this holds, if, does it matter?

I think origins do matter, yes.


The ubermensch isn’t necessarily fascist. There’s another way the story could have been told.

The comic book superhero is always someone special: an alien orphan, a traumatised billionaire, a genius transformed by radioactivity.

Compare this to John Campbell’s “competent man” archetype, from 1950s sci-fi, which I mentioned back in October: The “competent man” is the idea that there is nothing necessarily special or unique about the protagonist. Instead they are smart, clear-eyed, scientifically-minded, and, well, capable.

(If you’ve seen/read ‘The Martian’ then Mark Watney is the epitome of the competent man.)

The competent man is also ubermensch-y, it’s true, but it shows how differently the comic book hero could have gone:

Whereas there can be only one Superman, and it is very definitely not the reader, the idea of the competent man is that this is a role fully accessible to the reader. That could be me, imagines the reader, if only I can be smart and level-headed enough.

(Though it continues to be white, male, individualistic.)

What I mean to say that the creators of the superhero could have plotted a different course.

What does the current popularity of comic book superheroes, in culture, do?

It reinforces the idea of a hierarchy of human, with the ubermensch as its apex.

The superhero makes things alright without being asked. It looks after us, it protects, it cleans up the streets. It’s a parental role. (And, to Moore’s point, we’ve got these parental superheroes at the same time as we’ve basically got tech startups that do what our parents did for us: drive us places, give us food, fulfil whims on demand.)

It says that the superhero is someone other – it ain’t us. And that’s a good thing, it says.

Put like this, it seems like the concept of the superhero is softening us up for a popular oligarchy: an unattainable class of humanity which is super-wealthy with super abilities, and somehow championed by the rest of us?

Now I’m not saying that a popular oligarchy equals fascism. But, reading Umberto Eco’s 14 features of fascism, the two systems do rhyme.

So that closes the loop. The origins of the comic book superhero, returned.

Could you have the cultural acceptance of Elon Musk without the superhero Tony Stark?

All of which is to say two things:

  • maybe Alan Moore is correct and the comic book superhero and popular fascism have a shared origin story
  • maybe the early belief matrix of origin re-imprints on us today, decades later, and that’s something of which to be wary.

I sometimes imagine a chair made by someone who sits all twisted. Sitting in that chair yourself, you couldn’t help but to sit in the same way.

When a designer designs an object, their stance will be encoded and transmitted to the user. Imposed.

Is culture really passed on like this, not just with chairs or superheroes, but in a general sense?

Does it matter? e.g. does it matter that modern computing interfaces and the internet have their origin story in military money responding to situations seen with military eyes chasing military solutions? If it does, what should we do about it?

Maybe a fascist worldview is a memetic pandemic, one which blows up every few generations, for whatever dynamical system reasons, just as the Spanish Flu appeared in 1918 and a hundred years later we’ve got all of this.

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