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Symbolic Power Among Marvels

Fantastic heroes both dress themselves in symbols and become symbols themselves.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Aside from the obvious iconography that people might commonly think of when they hear the word symbol, a symbol can be so much more. A symbol is anything that represents anything other than itself. Words are symbols. Metaphors are symbols. Symbolic ability may be the key thing that sets homo sapiens apart from other species, because that ability lets us analyze, store, recall, and share information in so many ways. I write and edit books about fantastic heroes, using them as a lens for taking a different look at very real issues while taking a step back from many of our existing expectations and biases. Using these characters and stories as symbolic representations of real human nature helps me convey concepts and engage audiences in lines of thought they might never otherwise have followed.

People think of the word symbols as referring to specific, representative visual imagery, perhaps even more specifically as icons or simply emblems. The word has much broader meaning. Like I said, a word is a symbol. It's a combination of sounds or letters with meaning that's not inherent or fully natural. That's why different languages exist. The combined sounds or letters that form the word symbol represents symbolism itself differently to different people.

Superheroes clothe themselves in such symbols. What other kind of hero so consistently puts on a costume in order to go out and do a good thing? The characters' symbolic power could be greater than their creators may have anticipated. Interestingly enough, those superheroes who adopt symbolic colors and emblems subsequently become symbols themselves. I was invited to write about the symbols of Marvel superheroes for another project. The following is not what I wrote for that project, but these thoughts did grow out of that.

Timely Comics, the company that would later become Marvel, enjoyed its greatest success with a superhero whose costume represented the American flag and whose story represented the hope that anyone, no matter how frail, might become able to stand up for what’s good and right. In both costume and characterization, Captain America embodied values of the time. His first readers enjoyed indirect fulfillment of a growing desire for America itself to stand up to the world’s evil: The cover to 1941's Captain America #1 spoke to people as Cap debuted by punching Hitler in the jaw.

Early comic book superheroes offered rebel heroes who challenged heroes in a complicated world, taking on gangsters and other menaces where authorities seemingly could not. After World War II, superheroes’ popularity waned to the point they nearly disappeared in the 1950s. The Marvel Age of Comics began in 1961, when Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and others began spinning stories that spoke to them on a deeper level, both overtly and covertly representing something new for a generation that still wanted heroes, even as the world grew more cynical: They made their marvels human.

The Fantastic Four arrived as the heralds of the Marvel Age, and their first issue marked its beginning. Their appearance, personalities, and superpowers arguably fit the classic Greek elements: stone, the Thing; fire, the Human Torch; air, the Invisible Girl; and (in perhaps a bit of a stretch) water, the flexible Mister Fantastic. The number 4, in turn, becomes their symbol as the mere sight of that numeral makes others think of them. Any icon associated with heroic figures gains the power to inspire fear among those who would do evil and hope among those in need. Ordinary citizens who see the Human Torch trail a fiery 4 in the sky may feel a thrill simply for knowing that someone is out there in the world trying to help others and set some things right. In 1961, The Fantastic Four #1 signified an ascension from previous ways of telling tales.

Creators at Marvel proceeded to unleash one complex creation after another, juxtaposing heroic strengths with human foibles. Through depictions of complicated human nature, these superheroes collectively represented the idea that no one needs to be perfect to become a marvel. Stan Lee said that when conceiving Tony Stark, “I took all the thing the hippies hated and I let Iron Man represent them,” depicting a munitions manufacturer who has a change of heart (in more ways than one) to become a hero in a time of growing opposition to war.

Ant-Man and the Wasp adopt an insect motif, declaring themselves miniature but mighty. Spider-Man and the Black Widow name themselves for arachnids even more difficult to like. The ant is an ancient symbol of diligence, patience, and loyalty, the wasp of control over one’s own life, and the spider of mystery, power, and intrigue, but who wants bugs to hang around? Each also evokes negative connotations, and each of these heroes struggles with negative perceptions. Spider-Man, in particular, has been referred to as the poster boy for neurotic superheroes. Regardless of his powers, Peter Parker’s adoption of the Spider-Man name may reflect his discomfort with himself.

Daredevil, too, assumes a superhero identity that may represent his own self-loathing. Though named for a feature of his personality, his fearless nature, he adorns himself with a symbol based on the last part of that name, a symbol that represents evil in the minds of many. It also represents eternal judgment and punishment of the wicked. He wants to side with the angels, and yet he dresses like a devil. His devil motif hints at what’s right and wrong deep inside every soul.

No matter what a hero represents or where that character comes from, the marvel’s humanity is the critical part of character. Mythological beings throughout the ages have represented both human traits and the forces of nature, and it seems no coincidence that when Marvel incorporated mythological deities into its collected of heroes, it began with the one known as “god of thunder.” Despite being a god, Thor hails from the most human of the classic pantheons, the adventurous Viking gods who aged, knew their time would end in an apocalypse, and thus possessed greater awareness of mortality than did deities of the Greeks and Romans. Marvel’s versions of these gods remain subject to the same semblance of physical laws that bind mortals.

Symbolic representation may be deliberate or accidental, conscious or unconscious. When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the X-Men, did they intend for the mutant heroes’ lives to represent civil rights conflicts of their time? Perhaps they did so not because they had conscious intention but instead because the comparison resonated in their subconscious minds. Or such comparisons may have simply been inserted after the fact. They may or may not have meant for Professor X and Magneto to serve respectively as imperfect analogs for civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X. Symbolically, though, the creators’ intentions may not matter if the work speaks to its audience in unanticipated ways, and later storytellers actively made these comparisons. Themes seeded in 1963’s The X-Men #1 spoke to people, then grew and flourished until the X-Men became the analogs for individuals alienated and stigmatized for race, ethnic identity, sexual orientation, or immigrant status.

Even among mutants, those who look less human receive different treatment. Nightcrawler’s physical shape evokes uneasy responses from those who associate this appearance with demonic imagery. His blue color, though it further sets him apart, may be to his advantage because it is not devil red and because it keeps him out of the uncanny valley, that range of appearance that looks disturbingly close to human and yet clearly nonhuman. Blue skin or fur will announce that Nightcrawler, Beast, and Mystique are not typical humans, and yet it is a color people like, the color of the sky. More unusual colors such as purple, green, or fiery red more often appear on the skins of evil mutants or monsters.

Colors stimulate us for reasons both natural and learned. The Hulk’s skin is usually green, a color associated with life and growth for its ubiquity among plants but also with sickness or with strange and alien nature for its dearth among mammals. Perhaps it is for these reasons that superheroes rarely wear green while supervillains such as Doctor Doom, the Green Goblin, and agents of Hydra often do. The Hulk’s monstrous visage symbolizes the monstrous potential in every human being, which Bruce Banner unleashes from time to time like Jekyll and Hyde, but it also represents the potential for every person’s worst qualities to accomplish some good things.

For the Black Panther, the color in his superhero name refers not only to the large cat but also to racial issues. He becomes a symbol of Africa, strength, and human potential. His homeland of Wakanda becomes a symbol of fantastic possibilities, representing the wonderful things some might have achieved if allowed to progress free from European intruders and the hope for what might yet be achieved in the real world. Despite his debut in 1966, the Black Panther does not get his own title or tackle more overt social issues until 1973 at the start of comics’ Bronze Age, when darker story elements related to serious social issues spread throughout comic book stories.

To many readers, the death of Spider-Man's girlfriend Gwen Stacy in 1973 marked the Silver Age’s end. Some say the arrival of the Punisher, coming to punish Spider-Man for that death, marked the true beginning of the Bronze Age that ensued. Both the Punisher and Ghost Rider, agents of retribution who debut in the early 1970s, are represented by skulls, the kind of symbol previously associated only with villains. For them, the fear-inducting symbol would represent ultimate judgment and punishment.

Marvel’s Civil War storyline reflects the post-9/11 change in how we look at heroes. We want heroes, but we know the issues are complex. Captain America embodies the hopes and ideals that America carried into one war whereas Iron Man represents values behind America’s entry into a less popular conflict in the 1960s. Even though many other characters logically could have led the superhero fights over freedom vs. security during Marvel’s Civil War, symbolically it had to be these two. Not only are they the most superheroes to come out of twentieth-century wars, but they also each personify the different ideals that took America into each respective war. The leader who dresses in the America flag fights for liberty, while the leader who wears a machine the color and blood and money (usually gold, occasionally silver) fights for security. Neither side in the conflict needs to wave a banner because their leaders are their living emblems.

Symbols obvious to the eye abound throughout these stories. The eagle in SHIELD’s emblem suggests something proud, American, and predatory. The dragon on Iron Fist’s chest declares his power while suggesting something mystical and from the East. The list goes on. The characters also become symbols in and of themselves, images that fans include in their clothing, tattoos, and homes in order to wear symbols of strength, power, and a bit of rebellion. The superhero images represent the hope that someone can and will stand up to do the right thing, and that the human being has the potential to amaze.

We can all share a sense of marvel.

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