Superheroes appeal to a different sort of romanticism. Brian Chase draws a distinction between himself and other members of a hip e-mail list called Glamour: “Their idea of glamour would be to get invited to the right party. To me growing up, the idea of glamour was to be the guy who could save the right party from a meteor.” Says Richard Neal, owner of Zeus Comics, an upscale comics store in Dallas, “It’s not just superpowers but dashing good looks, villains you can fight, getting aggression out.” (Buff and business-savvy, Neal bears no resemblance to the classic comics-store proprietor, represented so memorably on The Simpsons.)
Superheroes are masters of their bodies and their physical environment. They often work in teams, providing an ideal of friendship based on competence, shared goals, and complementary talents. They’re special, and they know it. “Their true identities, the men in colorful tights, were so elemental, so universal, so transcendent of the worlds that made them wear masks that they carried with them an unprecedented optimism about the value of one’s inner reality,” writes Gerard Jones in Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book. “We all knew that Clark Kent was just a game played by Superman and that the only guy who mattered was that alien who showed up in Metropolis with no history and no parents.”
Comic-book heroes, like all glamorous icons, cater to “dreams of flight and transformation and escape.” Those words are from one of the best books ever written on glamour: Michael Chabon’s 2000 novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Like many a Hollywood story, Kavalier and Clay is wise to the perils of trying to live out glamorous dreams in the real world, again and again showing the tragicomic effects of such attempts. Early on, for instance, young Joe Kavalier almost drowns while attempting a Houdini-like escape designed to gain entrance to what he imagines is a glamorous private club for magicians. (It is, in fact, a rather run-down place whose dining room “smelled of liver and onions.”) On the eve of World War II, Joe and his cousin Sammy create a successful comic-book hero called the Escapist, whose villainous foes include Hitler himself. Their glamorous illusion is that such fights are easy to win.
Chabon explicitly defends the escapism of comics. After the war, his Kavalier reflects:
Having lost his mother, father, brother, and grandfather, the friends and foes of his youth, his beloved teacher Bernard Kornblum, his city, his history—his home—the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an easy escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf … It was a mark of how fucked-up and broken was the world—the reality—that had swallowed his home and his family that such a feat of escape, by no means easy to pull off, should remain so universally despised.
Still, glamour is always vulnerable to those who love it. The more we’re drawn to a glamorous person, place, or thing, the more we scrutinize it, seeking to fill in the details—which ultimately destroys the mystery and grace. Someone will always look for the hidden flaws, the seamy side of the story. Hence the demand for gossip about Princess Diana’s bulimia or Jennifer Lopez’s romantic problems. These Behind the Music–style revelations replace the transcendence of glamour with the mundane problems of mere celebrity. Beyond these grubby details is a more mythic kind of debunking: the artistic revisionism that warns of glamour’s dangers and disappointments. The power of such revisionism, however, depends on the emotional pull of the original. Someone who knows little and cares even less about Hollywood dreams will miss the pity and terror of Sunset Boulevard. Someone who scorns superheroes as infantile won’t understand the scary wonder of Watchmen, the brilliant 1987 graphic novel in which Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons deconstruct superheroes. To the wrong audience, glamour, even revisionist glamour, will seem like camp.
One way to balance the real and ideal while preserving glamour is to give the audience an insider’s view. So superhero comics now tend to situate their stories in a world like our own, with ubiquitous, sensationalist media and inescapable trade-offs between personal and professional life. To their audience inside the comics, the superheroes are powerful and mysterious celebrities subject to public adulation and tabloid attacks. The real-world audience, by contrast, gets a glimpse behind the mask, a chance to identify with the character and to experience glamour once removed—to imagine what it would be like to be glamorous, and how much hard work, sacrifice, and attention to detail that seemingly effortless power requires. This double vision acknowledges the art behind the illusion. Glamour may look easy, but it never is.
Photograph by Ohlinger Jerry/Corbis Sygma