The past few years have provided us with a spate of superhero movies, most often in the form of action-flick blockbusters.  Of the top grossing movies of 2016, for instance, 5 of the top 10 were based on characters who originally appeared in comic books.  As is perhaps to be expected from the top grossing movies, these superhero films fall pretty much entirely into the blockbuster, turn-your-mind-off-and-enjoy-the-special-effects genre.

Captain America: Civil War, for instance, presented its viewers with some great hand-to-hand fight choreography, as well as an epic battle between superheroes that excitingly integrated individual characters’ powers into the scene’s airport setting.  And while Dr. Strange’s casting choices veered heavily into whitewashing territory,  perhaps the movie’s one redeeming quality was its visual effects, in which the world could literally be turned topsy-turvy by characters’ magic.

If special effects and hand-to-hand combat aren’t your thing (I have a friend who asked what the point of seeing The Avengers was, since “half of the characters’ powers are just super strength”), you might be less than inspired to investigate these movies’ source-material. In passing up these comics, though, you’re also passing on some deeply nuanced considerations of the human experience.

Marvel’s recent series The Vision, written by Tom King and drawn by Gabriel Hernandez Walta, follows the character who moviegoers first met in Avengers: Age of Ultron.  Rather than an android superhero who helps the Avengers save the day, however, King’s story focuses on the Vision’s grasping of what it means to be human.  A family—wife, son, daughter, and dog—is a common expectation for a human life, so Vision builds them.  Literally.  The series opens as the new Vision family has moved into the suburbs and tracks them as they grapple with human experiences and emotions of love, grief, fear and guilt.  Being a superhero, the Vision does fight supervillains in this series, but only while also taking a phone call from his wife about how their two teenage children are adjusting to school.  A suburban drama about the quest to fit in, King’s series is a heartbreaking work that explores the responsibility and demands of family and what happens when those demands are placed against other moral codes. 

Another series that focuses on the humanity that lives in a superhero world is Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker’s co-authored Gotham Central.  This award-winning series doesn’t follow the Caped Crusader, but rather the police force that must administer the law in a town saturated with supervillains and superheroes.  More police procedural than one might expect from a series set in Batman’s hometown, Gotham Central places its readers alongside the cops who must patrol Gotham, exploring how these professionals remain motivated in a place where crime-fighters also work outside of—and perhaps more effectively—the law.

Moving away from the superhero genre of comics opens the doors even more widely for different strategies for narrating history and memories.  Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize, is probably the most iconic example.  Depicting both Spiegelman’s troubled relationship with his aging Jewish father and his father’s experience of the Holocaust, Maus narrates the horror of the Holocaust and its lasting impact while simultaneously reflecting on the process of its own storytelling.  More recent graphic memoirs that have also been widely recognized for their storytelling are Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis: A Story of a Childhood and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.  Satrapi’s memoir depicts the daily life of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution and the often bewildering contrast between her home and public lives.   Bechdel’s text, recently adapted into a Tony-award winning musical, traces the process of her coming of age, both as a woman and a lesbian.  Also crucial here is her relationship with her distant, possibly bi-sexual, possibly homosexual father, one that highlights the two’s very different choices in realizing their sexuality.  Thick with literary references ranging from Greek mythology to James Joyce, Fun Home is an unflinching look at parent-child relationships and the process of growing up.

Not sure where to start?  Check out your local public library!  Many have full graphic novel sections that stock both the action hero genre of comics as well as more “independent” graphic novels.  Browse the shelves to see what catches your eye, or make use of Inter-Library Loan and work off a list of recommendations (here’s one with a fair amount of superhero titles, here’s one that excludes superheroes altogether).  Regardless, have some fun exploring the medium where words and pictures meet!

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