Heroes for Our Time: 21st-Century Superheroes


IF THE PROPHECIES FROM early days of comics had come to pass, we’d all be driving jet cars, you’d have a relative living on Mars, and being best friends with someone with superpowers would be unremarkable. But we’ve moved past the dystopian fears of 1984 and the sf benchmark of 2001. The unimpeachable heroes who once embodied our highest ideals fought for truth and justice in postwar America, but in post-9/11 America, in which all the meaningful details of our lives are held in computer servers and a tone of jaded cynicism has crept into popular culture, who are our heroes now?

The 21st-century superhero is not easy to define. Some look more like pop icons than beacons of a strong nation; others are apocalyptic survivors, heroic in their simple refusal to submit; and still others are just regular people doing selfless things in an increasingly insular world of apps, tweets, and status updates. Among these current variations, two types stand out as the most popular and plausible: dystopian survivors—unwilling heroes created by circumstance—and those more recognizable as part of the everyday world. The latter truly exemplify the definition of superhero: ordinary people doing extraordinary things under extraordinary ­circumstances.

Heroes with allure

These changes do not mean that traditional superheroes have lost their allure; shelves of Batman and Spider-Man books will always circulate. But that archetype of the unimpeachable superhero—your Superman, your Captain America—has been saddled with a lot more angst than he once carried. And that angst, that darker concept of heroism, born in 1986 with Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, has become fully integrated into popular culture, as more and more comics, films, and video games blur the lines between traditionally defined heroes and villains. Today’s protagonist is often not heroic at all but simply a version of a villain with which readers can identify.

DC and Marvel Comics once had series called “Elseworlds” and “What If?,” respectively, that featured stories outside of a character’s continuity: Batman could be a vampire; Superman could be a Soviet paragon. That kind of twist on identity was once reserved exclusively for noncontinuity titles, but as the mild cynicism and anxiety underlying those side projects has gone mainstream, the sanctity of an unwavering identity and consistency of purpose is up for grabs. On the other hand, in an increasingly GLBT-aware culture, the distinction between one’s public face and one’s “secret” identity has taken on new levels of meaning. This does not mean that the Superman/Clark Kent dichotomy is dead, but instead a much greater sense of power can be found in characters staying true to themselves. The issue of identity is further complicated by superheroes in comics who become tabloid targets and spokespersons for products, as contemporary culture continues to morph the heroic landscape.

In the end, books about Batman and the Avengers are popular and should remain on library shelves. But a vital collection that truly reflects the brilliant work in the field must showcase these other heroes: the ones we can actually aspire to be like, whom we are like, and whose stories can truly change our lives.

Starred titles (redstar) are essential additions to all collections.


Harris, Joe (text) & Martín Morazzo (illus.). Great Pacific. Vol. 1: Trashed! Image. 2013. 144p. ISBN 9781607066842. pap. $9.99.

In a future in which the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has developed enough mass to support a settlement, Chas Worthington stakes his claim on this bizarre “country” with the flair of a libertarian, environmentalist land baron. Harris and Morazzo turn a far-fetched notion into a fully plausible story with social and political resonance. (Ongoing series.) (LJ 9/15/13)

redstarKirkman, Robert (text) & Tony Moore (illus.). The Walking Dead. Vol. 1: Days Gone Bye. Image. 2006. 144p. ISBN 9781582406725. pap. $14.99.

This series features the finest example of the dystopian hero: the survivor. The continuing story of police officer Rick Grimes, his family, and other survivors of a zombie apocalypse, this is a nuanced portrait of human nature, fear, hope, and desperation. Yes, it’s violent, but it is brilliantly written and illustrated and an absolute must. (Ongoing series.)

Seeley, Tim (text) & Mike Norton (illus.). Revival. Vol. 1: You’re Among Friends. Image. 2012. 128p. ISBN 9781607066590. pap. $12.99.

This twist on the zombie revolution features the dead in a small Wisconsin town coming back to life. But these are not “traditional” zombies; they are people who died and were brought back to life almost just as they were. With wonderful illustrations and a measured pace that slowly draws readers into the story, this is a great addition to the genre. (Ongoing series.)

Taylor, Tom (text) & Jheremy Raapack (illus.). Injustice: Gods Among Us. Vol. 1. DC. 2013. 192p. ISBN 9781401245009. $19.99.

A great example of the recent trend of combining comics and gaming, this prequel to the video game of the same name shows Superman responding to tragedy by using his power to control the world rather than help it. Other heroes must decide whether to join him or ally themselves with the Batman-led insurgency. (Ongoing series.)

Wood, Brian (text) & Kristian Donaldson & Gary Brown (illus.). The Massive. Vol. 1: Black Pacific. Dark Horse. 2013. 152p. ISBN 9781616551322. pap. $19.99.

In a postapocalyptic world, an environmental group called the Ninth Wave (a fictional version of Greenpeace) has remained partially intact and roams the seas in its two ships, one of which has gone missing. When you’re an activist and your cause is turned inside out, being a hero becomes equal to being a survivor. (Ongoing series.) (LJ Xpress Reviews, 12/20/13)

Superheroes Among Us

Guibert, Emmanuel (text & illus.) & others. The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders. First Second. 2009. tr. from French by Alexis Siegal. 288p. ISBN 9781596433755. pap. $29.95.

A remarkable look at war and hardship in northern Afghanistan during the 1986 fighting between the Soviets and the mujahideen, told through a combination of illustrations and photography. The photographs were taken by photojournalist Didier Lefèvre (1957–2007) when he accompanied a Doctors Without Borders mission that was transformative for both the medical team and those they served. (LJ Xpress Reviews, 7/7/09)

redstarKelly, Joe (text) & J.M. Ken Niimura (illus.). I Kill Giants. Image. 2009. 184p. ISBN 9781607060925. pap. $15.99.

A heartbreaking yet inspiring story about Barbara, a schoolgirl who has trouble letting anyone get close to her and who is certainly battling some monsters. The question is, where do they come from and why? This undeniably universal story explores the power we all possess to open up to others and vanquish our demons, by understanding and coming to terms with them.

Satrapi, Marjane. The Complete Persepolis. Pantheon. 2007. 341p. ISBN 9780375714832. pap. $24.95.

In her portrayal of her childhood in Tehran, young adulthood in an Austrian school, and eventual return to Iran, Satrapi exemplifies that heroic ideal of not simply surviving a life-threatening situation but bearing witness to it by sharing it with the world. Her simple yet evocative art perfectly captures what is unique yet universally human about her story.

ljx140601webcdSTITCHESredstarSmall, David. Stitches: A Memoir. Norton. 2009. 336p. ISBN 9780393068573. $27.95; pap. ISBN 9780393338966. $16.95.

Small’s powerful memoir traces his life from childhood to adulthood but focuses on his teenage years, when a growth on his neck revealed not just an illness in David but severe failings on the part of his parents. In a work that’s both deeply sad and cathartic, Small’s heroism resides in his role as historian of the agonies of youth. (LJ 7/09)

Trautmann, Eric & Brandon Jerwa (text) & Steve Lieber (illus.). Shooters. Vertigo. 2012. 144p. ISBN 9781401222154. $22.99.

A powerful look at a soldier’s return home from the Persian Gulf after a traumatic tour, his attempt to find a way back into family life, and his eventual return to Iraq as a contractor in search of closure. Honest, unflinching, and sensitive to the delicacy of its subject, this story is beautifully told and truly captures the lingering costs of war.

Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. Square Fish. 2008. 240p. ISBN 9780312384487. pap. $9.99.

Jin Wang is the only Asian American boy in his new school; Danny is a young man deeply embarrassed by his visiting Chinese cousin, portrayed deliberately by the author as an ethnic cliché; and the Monkey King, a figure from Chinese lore, is desperate to be treated like a god. This humorous, insightful story relates how three characters overcome hurdles to find satisfaction within themselves. A wonderful take on the coming-of-age genre and the challenges of assimilation. (LJ 3/15/07)

Vaughan, Brian K. The Escapists . Dark Horse. 2007. 176p. ISBN 9781595823618. pap. $14.95.

It’s impossible to discuss 21st-century super­heroes without mentioning Vaughan. Working with various artists over the past decade or so, he has written some of the finest creator-owned work in comics. His stories are deeply rooted in reality but incorporate an element of the fantastic, and they showcase human possibilities rather than superhuman clichés. This exceptional story treats the Escapist—a comic book hero invented by Michael Chabon in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay—as a forgotten property rediscovered by three young comic lovers who decide to bring their favorite hero back to life. In this case, the heroes are the creators themselves, who use comics to transform their lives.

Vaughan, Brian K. (text) & Tony Harris (illus.). Ex Machina. Vol. 1: The First Hundred Days. WildStorm. 2005. 136p. ISBN 9781401206123. pap. $12.99.

Vaughan blends politics and superpowers in this tale of Mitchell Hundred, who becomes mayor of New York City after he stops Flight 175 from crashing on 9/11. Hundred, who has the ability to communicate with mechanical objects, vows not to use his powers in office, transforming himself from a superhero into a crusading politician. (Multivolume, completed series.) (LJ 7/05)

Vaughan, Brian K. (text) & Fiona Staples (illus.). Saga. Vol. 1. Image. 2013. 160p. ISBN 9781607066019. pap. $9.99.

Vaughan’s latest series can be described as Romeo and Juliet with a Star Wars twist. Alana and ljx140601webcdSAGAMarko, the stars of this book, must deal not only with war and political upheaval but, more important, parenthood, prejudice against their newborn biracial (actually, bi-species) daughter, and a truly bizarre cast of supporting characters and baddies. (Ongoing series.)

redstarVaughan, Brian K. (text) & Pia Guerra (illus.). Y: The Last Man. Vol. 1: Unmanned. Vertigo. 2002. 128p. ISBN 9781563899805. pap. $14.99.

In this first volume of one of the finest series to come out in the past 20 years, we follow Yorick Brown and his pet monkey, Ampersand, as an unexplained plague wipes out every other male mammal on the planet. As an exclusively female society tries to rebuild, Yorick and his companions travel the globe seeking answers. (Multivolume, completed series.)

Pop Culture Shift

redstarBendis, Brian Michael (text) & Michael Avon Oeming (illus.). Powers. Vol. 1: Who Killed Retro Girl? Image. 2001. 207p. ISBN 9781582401836. pap. $21.99.

This first volume of a brilliant 15-volume series focuses on Walker and Pilgrim, two detectives who are on the “powers” beat in a version of Chicago in which superheroes are the norm but have a way of frequently turning up dead. Filled with plot twists, this series both exalts superheroes and places Layout 1them in a real-world context. (Ongoing series.) (LJ 12/11)

Bourdain, Anthony & Joel Rose (text) & Langdon Foss (illus.). Get Jiro! Vertigo. 2013. 160p. ISBN 9781401228286. pap. $14.99.

Almost a modern-day version of the 1961 Kurosawa film Yojimbo, this is the story of a humble sushi chef who enters a Los Angeles in which the restaurateurs are crime lords waging a war of ideals: exotic cuisine vs. organic, farm-to-table fare. Cowritten by celebrity chef Bourdain (Kitchen Confidential) and journalist and novelist Rose (Kill Kill Faster Faster), this beautifully drawn send-up of foodie culture stars the ultimate lone hero determined to stand his ground. (LJ 7/12)

Ennis, Garth (text) & Darick Robertson (illus.). The Boys. Vol. 1: The Name of the Game. Dynamite Entertainment. 2008. 152p. ISBN 9781933305738. pap. $16.99.

This powerful series tracks a CIA-backed group monitoring superheroes who have taken liberties with their powers, becoming a danger to the public. Known for his iconoclastic and hyperviolent takes on archetypes, Ennis expertly invokes the decline of faith in superheroes. (Multivolume, completed series.)

Luna, Joshua (text) & Jonathan Luna (illus.). Ultra: Seven Days. Image. 2008. 232p. ISBN 9781582404837. pap. $17.99.

In this believable miniseries, superheroes appear on billboards endorsing products and their love lives are tabloid fodder. The authors chronicle the lives of popular but lovelorn superhero Ultra andljx140601webcdULTRA her best friends in a more serious version of Sex in the City. With sharp and realistic dialog, the Luna brothers have both humanized and commercialized the superhero ideal.

Criticism & Analysis

Porter, Lynnette. Tarnished Heroes, Charming Villains and Modern Monsters: Science Fiction in Shades of Gray on 21st Century Television. McFarland. 2010. 308p. index. ISBN 9780786448586. pap. $35.

Porter (humanities & social sciences, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Univ., FL.; Saving the World: A Guide to Heroes) offers an insightful study of the 21st-century hero on television, where the “white hat/black hat” dynamic has been all but dismantled. Discussing such characters as Doctor Who, the author shows how today’s heroes must modify their behavior in response to the complexities of a given situation rather than act on a prescribed sense of right and wrong.

The 21st Century Superhero: Essays on Gender, Genre and Globalization in Film. McFarland. 2011. 204p. ed. by Richard J. Gray & Betty Kaklamanidou. index. ISBN 9780786463459. pap. $40.

This collection of ten excellent essays selected by Gray (French, Carson-Newman Coll.) and Kaklamanidou (film, Aristotle Univ., Greece) examines how such factors as globalization and changing gender roles have influenced post-9/11 superhero films. Many of the essays explore the ways in which these films interpolate or expand upon recent cultural events and societal trends.


Kick-Ass. 2010. color. 117 min. Lionsgate Home Entertainment. DVD UPC 031398121350. $9.99; DVD/Blu-ray UPC 031398121381. $14.99.

The controversial tale of Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl—a 16-year-old boy and a ten-year-old girl, respectively—who take to the streets to fight crime. The film, and the original comic, portray a violent and profane yet funnljx140601webcdSCOTTPILGRIMy world in which children becoming vigilantes does not seem so strange. The equally audacious sequel is Kick-Ass 2 (2013).

redstarScott Pilgrim vs. the World. 2010. color. 113 min. Universal. DVD UPC 025192035289. $14.98; collector’s edition Blu-ray UPC 025192049880. $19.98.

In Edgar Wright’s perfect take on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic series, 22-year-old Scott Pilgrim becomes the unlikely hero of his own life in his quest to win the love of Ramona Flowers and defeat her seven evil ex-boyfriends. An amazing blend of comic and gaming references and stylistic touches makes this film—and the comic series—a must-have.

Wanted. 2008. color. 110 min. Universal. DVD UPC 025195016674. $12.99; Blu-ray UPC 025195051354. $14.99.

Loosely based on Mark Millar’s limited series, this film follows 24-year-old office worker Wesley Gibson as he learns that his father was a master assassin and that he himself possesses the talents to avenge his father’s death. Blending constant action, violence, and a dark comic sensibility, this film plays heavily with the idea of the ­villain as hero.

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  1. Matt says:

    Even some traditional superheroes are creeping a lot closer to being the “heroes among us”. Buddy Baker’s family takes center stage in Jeff Lemire’s New 52 relaunch of Animal Man. Hawkeye’s landlord is hardly the kind of supervillain he’s fought in years gone by, but Matt Fraction turns him into a legitimate antagonist in issue 1.

    Also, Brian K. Vaughan’s work can’t be praised enough. In addition to the titles listed above, he knocked it out of the park on Marvel’s Runaways. He created a great YA title with characters and conflicts every bit as deep as those in his work for adults.

    • Nice list, and I completely agree with having so many Brian K. Vaughan titles on it. But so few of these books involve people with super powers, I don’t see the point in mentioning superheroes in the title. Heroes are “ordinary people doing extraordinary things under extraordinary ­circumstances.” Superheroes are heroes with powers not found in ordinary people.

  2. Peter Thornell says:

    To address Mark’s point, the lack of super powers was kind of the inherent idea in what constituted a “21st Century” superhero, in my approach. Some might say that in a culture as increasingly insular and distracted as ours is becoming, an ordinary person doing something extraordinary qualifies as a super power. I was just trying to stretch the boundaries a bit.