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Superman in the Mirror and Other Forms of Hero Worship

Danny Fingeroth, a longtime writer for Marvel Comics, was at a comic book convention in San Diego last year when he touched a nerve in his audience.

Fingeroth was reading a chapter from his new book, “Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society” (Continuum), then a work in progress, in which he discussed DC Comics’ “Justice League” and Marvel Comics’ “The X-Men.” He began musing on what each of these teams of superheroes meant for their fans and how deeply these characters had lodged themselves into the American popular consciousness.

After Fingeroth finished his lecture, things became tense. “The audience — during the Q & A section — broke down,” Fingeroth told the Forward. And there it was, a room divided into two camps: “Justice League” versus “X-Men.”

The “X-Men” fans accused “Justice League” fans of being “uptight and elitist,” Fingeroth said. The “Justice League” fans countered that “X-Men” followers are whiny, annoying and self-involved.

But what, exactly, is an “X-Men” personality? Can a “Justice League” type turn into an “X-Men” type as the result of childhood trauma? “Superman on the Couch” examines the psychological impact that comic books have had on American art — Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry is, of course, a superhero minus a cape, Fingeroth argues — and why they’re so meaningful to so many of us. The book is part of a recent smattering of intellectual musings on comic books (from Michael Chabon’s novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” to Jonathan Letham’s “Fortress of Solitude”) and an explosion of comic book movies (“Hellboy” is in theaters now and “Spider-Man 2” and “Daredevil” are eagerly awaited — and recent films like “American Splendor,” “Ghost World” and “Crumb” all have their origins in the comic book universe).

Most comic books today are read by adults who have been following the plotlines for years. “When I was a kid, you could go into any candy store and get a comic book,” Fingeroth said. But children today, it seems, tend to be mesmerized by video games and movies and TV cartoons, not comic books. The plotlines of “The X-Men” or “Batman” are so involved that newcomers, unfamiliar with the characters’ long histories of tragedy, love and loss, often find an issue too complicated. Reading a comic book series requires a deep and serious commitment — as well as a love of the characters.

Among comic book aficionados, there have long been theories on the appeal of certain characters. Rabbi Cary Friedman of Linden, N.J., has long believed that “Batman is a metaphor for Jewish ethics, and therefore appeals to Jews, a position he expounds upon in the book he is working on, tentatively titled “Wisdom from the Batcave.”

“I have a lifelong obsession with Batman,” Friedman told the Forward. “Batman, he was dealt a really lousy hand, but he took that experience and he turned it into something good.”

“Because of my obsession with Batman I studied martial arts, I worked out, I did great in school and I originally became an electrical engineer.” While attending a lecture by a rabbi in West Hartford, Conn., Friedman said, he heard the speaker say that the word ‘rabbi’ in Hebrew came from the word reev, which meant struggle… precisely what Batman did. Friedman began thinking about Batman as a Jewish teacher, a rabbi. The thought inspired Friedman to enroll in a yeshiva and became a rabbi.

Jordan Gorfinkel, a longtime editor of “Batman” for DC Comics, was a Robin fan as a kid.

“Why did I like Robin?” Gorfinkel mused. “Well, he got to ride in that sidecar with Batgirl… but I think that he got to be Batman without the pressure of being Batman.” Gorfinkel, an admitted introvert who was raised by his mother after his parents’ divorce, said he yearned for a fatherly Batman to take him under his wing.

Many of the comic books of the age dealt with misfits and orphans; a lot of comic book fans loved every character (although some more than others).

The only comic book that Gorfinkel remembers hating was the Norse comic “Thor.” “There was nothing — absolutely nothing — appealing to me about Thor,” he said. “Spider-Man? Fine. Daredevil? Fine. But Thor? He’s got a hammer? He’s got long hair? His mom couldn’t tell him to get a haircut?”

Might Gorfinkel, a Jewish boy, have felt some sort of rivalry with the Nordic Thor? “I never thought of that,” Gorfinkel admitted. “Methinks the newspaper writer has a point.”

Whereas movies, art and television have all spawned great works of psychological speculation, ever since Dr. Fredric Wertham penned his controversial 1954 book, “Seduction of the Innocent,” there has been a dearth of strictly psychological musings about comic books.

“Seduction of the Innocent” claimed that comic books bred cruelty, dishonesty and juvenile delinquency. It led to a series of comic book bans and congressional investigations into the industry.

Wertham’s book didn’t attack the Harvey Pekars, R. Crumbs or Art Spiegelmans of his era, the cartoonists of the counterculture. Instead, he focused on Superman (who, he claimed, was a fascist), Wonder Woman (whom he denounced as sexually deviant) and Batman and Robin (who, he claimed, were acting out a classic homosexual fantasy).

The subsequent writings about comics have come almost exclusively from English professors and comic book artists themselves, and Fingeroth is no exception. While he has no background in psychology, he does teach a course called “Writing for Comics and Graphic Novels” at New York University.

Fingeroth decided that the time was ripe for the analysis of comics, and so he sifted through the pop-culture firmament to trace the impact comics have had. “These phrases are part of our vocab,” Fingeroth said.

“‘X-Men,’ ‘Smallville’… shows like ‘Buffy,’ ‘Xena,’ ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Harry Potter’; they all re-create the superhero fantasy.”

“Superheroes as metaphors and icons are here to stay,” Fingeroth writes. “They are part of the DNA of our culture…. If some nuclear or ecological disaster should engulf our world, superhero stories will still be told — and will probably be needed more than ever.”

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