There is a very specific group of comics that exists in the world as sort of an ode to superheroism as a genre. I am, of course, talking about books like Tom Strong, Hellboy, and Atomic Robo, which I recently picked up with the handy “The Everything Explodes Collection” and do not regret reading at all. There’s a thread of commonality between them with an obvious charm. Each story works with a long-lived hero who starts as an innocent. He accrues experience and a grim sort of wisdom as the decades pile on, almost like they’re embodying the gradual cynicism that settles on the world with the years. And I think in the best ones, they offer a wonderful example of how we can come to terms with the things their heroes represent: acts we wish they had never committed, ways to attone, and the irreducible truth that without them, the world as we know it would not be here today.
This is an entry about a group of these books, which have existed in an underground capacity for many years and have finally found recognition in recent years.
Credit for this wonderful group of tales has to go to the illustrious Alan Moore, progenitor of not only Tom Strong but also the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, one of the early comic works that recognized literary heroes as super, and more importantly, recognized their stories as subjects of worship. That they are changed and made grander or more gritty as the times allow, and how we see something different in superheroes as we go. This is also how gods evolve, from the pacifism of a champion of the meek to the gun-toting, constitution-misunderstanding war-god of fundie America. Superheroes exist to save us, whatever “us” might be.
All three of the books I mentioned either begin or have an episode in the hopeful heyday of the late 1940s, at the close of World War II. This is because the original American superhero, Superman, had his beginnings in that time. And like the cruel sky gods of old that gave way to the compassion of Christ and Buddha later on, Superman himself was a corruption of the ubermensch idea that drove the Nazis, in itself a corruption of the relatively inoffensive idea begun by the great nihilist Friedrich Nietzsche. Hence the great chain of subsuming and evolving gods that form the very underoos of our current iteration of superheroes today.
Atomic Robo was built in 1923 by Nikola Tesla in an effort to make a more perfect man, who survives to modern day and reflects the growth of science through time. Hellboy is the son of an other realms being closely analogous to the devil, whose growth through time shows the slow death of faith in the harsh light of science. Tom Strong covers a bit more ground, living from 1990 on through the next millennium, but his power comes from both a mastery of science and a mysterious root related to tribal traditions. These three books form a very interesting interpretation of the growth of the superhero over the last hundred years. Has he been a product of our relentless pursuit of science? Or has science simply codified an ancient wisdom that is giving its life to birth the next spirituality?
Ironically, Superman himself has only two direct weaknesses: kryptonite, the stone that draws its power to ruin him from his very origin, and the indomitable mystery that is magic. Kryptonite is a way of saying that the very ideals that created a superman can be destroyed by understanding the horror that came from trying to achieve an ubermenesch. Magic, on the other hand, represents everything we still don’t know, and that confounds us despite all our advancements. So there lies a gray area that books like Atomic Robo address very well.
Retro Supers have far more weaknesses than Superman. But simultaneously, they also hold a lot more literary resilience than Superman, and their stories cover a lot more ground. Their plot armor protects them from becoming a one-note Jesus story like Clark Kent, because their weaknesses allow for so much storytelling. And each story becomes a different lens to see our own history as Americans. Atomic Robo, for example, spends many long decades battling the same Nazi scientist, representing our long struggle against the insidious intellect of fascism. Hellboy often ventures into unknown territories and diverse traditions with nothing but curiosity and a healthy respect for other peoples’ traditions. Tom Strong battles ideologies with an incredible optimism, even when he is facing down his own traitor son, the product of a dominatrix eugenics Nazi experiment.
So we see many intriguing ways that these heroes become deeper, more accepting of our mistakes, and less super to help us come to terms with our own history. I’m just thankful this is just a niche genre, retro superheroism, because they’re all so wonderful to read.