We all know those people who profess that anything animated or with a lot of pictures is inherently for children and shouldn’t be noticed by a grown man or woman. But, much like any piece of truly great literature, popular and successful animated shows and comics are generally popular with a broad audience for a reason. Filled with the same kinds of characters and the same important lessons as such profound pieces as “Oedipus Rex” or “The Kalevala”, these alternative forms of media offer important lessons and inspiring characters. The only difference is that these people may be great supernatural fighters, or mutants, or futuristic robot pilots rather than kings, sorcerers, or princes of long-forgotten realms.
While a lot of these examples may seem a tad old-hat for people who read comics or watch animated television, we’ll take a look at some of the more wide-reaching and well-known figures to really draw out why even people who have never picked up their show or comic can immediately recognize them.
Let’s start off with the biggest classic of them all in both animation and comic books: Superman
Superman is easily the most recognized superhero ever created. But why is that?
Sure, Superman has powers beyond any other superhero. The Man of Steel is known for being able to always be as strong as he needs to be to overcome an obstacle. But that’s not what makes Superman so wonderful as a character and as a teaching tool. The fights aren’t what’s important. What is important is the idea of Superman.
Superman shows us what it means to be a hero. He shows what it’s like to feel like a freak, like a weapon waiting to blow. It’s not the amazing feats of strength and power that make us love him so much. Rather, we connect with his feelings of isolation, and we feel the very real pain of failure along with him. But, no matter how hopeless the situation may seem, Superman tries to always do what’s right, regardless of what sort of personal cost this may come at, or what sort of pain he may be faced with. To quote The Green Arrow: “It’s not how we live that makes people want to be a hero, it’s how we die.” There’s a reason Superman is always looked to as the leader of any group of heroes he’s involved with. It’s because of his willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good, and his constant reminders that fighting for good and peace sometimes means making the tough decisions.
One of the most unique things about Superman is that he doesn’t like to fight. He doesn’t revel in the idea of the glory of combat. Superman teaches us that there’s no honor in killing. But, he also teaches us that a life spent in the protection of others IS something honorable, even if it means we don’t live quite as long or as happily as we hoped we would. Superman is willing to give up everything to protect the planet and the people that he loves more than anything else. He is the ideal to strive towards. He’s the good inside of everyone. He’s the hero that every little kid grows up wanting to be.
To sum up Superman, there’s a great quote from the “Man of Steel” film: “You will give the people of Earth and ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. But, in time, they will join you in the Sun. In time, they will help you accomplish wonders.”
Next up we have a hero that we’ve followed from childhood, and a staple character in a lot of young people’s nighttime television schedules. This man, is: Son Goku.
On an Earth populated not only by humans, but also by aliens and anthropomorphic animals of all shapes, sizes, and demeanor, Goku is an oddity among this carnival of the strange. An alien from the planet Vegeta, Goku is one of the very few last remaining Saiyans, a race of super-powerful warriors known throughout the galaxy for their fighting ferocity and skill. This sets the stage for much of Goku’s life, as his saiyan heritage both brings in constant streams of new foes, but also allows him to eventually overcome such obstacles.
A lot of parallels are drawn between Goku and Superman, which has spawned the internet debate of who would win in a fight. The debate’s been pretty heated, but it seems to be settling down now. However, despite their similarities, the main points of Goku and Superman diverge pretty significantly when you move beyond their origins and want for justice and peace and all that good stuff.
Where Superman avoids conflict if he can, Goku actively seeks out strong opponents to prove himself against. Where Superman is all about what it means to be a hero, Goku is more focused on the important of believing in yourself and overcoming major obstacles. They both seek to find the best in yourself, but in very different ways.
Throughout his career, Goku is often faces with an enemy who is seemingly unstoppable. Through hard work, focus, and an unbreakable will, Goku is usually able to overcome these foes, even if it means self-destruction. Goku is another hero who is willing to give up everything to save the people he cares about, and he does more often than one would expect.
He always wants to fight his opponents at their strongest, often ignoring the ability to simply annihilate a foe and have done with it if they’re initially weaker than him, or if they reveal some crippling environmental weakness. He doesn’t take the cheap way out. Goku is all about fairness and a good fighting spirit. Although this ends up backfiring on him more often than not, the main point of Goku is to show that you should never back down from something you know that you can do. If you get knocked down, you get back up. If that doesn’t work, you go Super Saiyan!
The next example is a group of characters who are far less all-powerful than our previous two examples. They’ve been Amazing, Uncanny, and even Giant-Sized. These, are the X-Men.
The X-Men have been around for a long time. Beginning in the 1960s with their team of five, Dr. Charles Xavier’s team of mutants has grown into one that hovers at around forty members, with some coming and going quite frequently.
One of the things that makes the X-Men unique is their sheer diversity, and I’m not talking about just their powers. Hailing from all nationalities and numerous religious creeds, the X-Men epitomize the idea of the united minority. Under the threat of serious and very real oppression, these people have come together from around the world to work for a better tomorrow. Hell, even the bad-guys are normally trying to seek out a better life for mutants, if in a somewhat questionable way.
Most people can recognize a good chunk of the main cast, even if they just know them simply as X-Men. Jean Grey/Phoenix, Gambit, Wolverine, Emma Frost, Nightcrawler, Magneto, and Prof. X just to name a few.
The most common parallels to X-Men fictional canon are the real-world civil rights movements. Prof. X is very often compared to Dr. King in the 1960s, with Magneto holding more similarities to a young Malcolm X. We see remembrances to the lynchings and mob brutality of the early fight for African American rights, as well as references to the Ku Klux Klan in organizations like Stryker’s Purifier and Friends of Humanity, who seek to expunge mutants from the planet. We also see instances of apartheid like what was happening in South Africa and surrounding countries. This also draws in comparisons to the plight of the Jewish population of Europe in World War II. Magneto himself is a Holocaust survivor, and we see a number of mutant internment camps and death-camp ghettos throughout the history of X-Men.
X-Men in general is a metaphor for accepting people for their differences and unique gifts, regardless of how outlandish or alien they may initially seem. It calls for an end to prejudice based on appearance or ability. The X-Men stand up for every kid ever picked on in school. They stand for people who feel unappreciated and misunderstood. They fight for every downtrodden person who the world makes to believe that they’re not good enough; that what makes them special makes them a freak.
When you look at the X-Men you can find almost any ethnic group, nationality, religion, sexuality, or anything else among them. It’s hard not to look up to a group so diverse and full of life.
The next group is a terrorist group, strangely enough. Not like al Qaeda or Hammas, though. More along the lines of a Sons of Liberty kind of group. These are the resistance pilots of Gundam Wing
The characters of this show had a very interesting concept. A motley crew of independent soldiers, the pilots are part of a secret organization to bring down the oppressive and militant United Earth Sphere Alliance and the Organization of the Zodiac, or OZ. Set in a time where space colonies are built and tied to the oppressive rule of the Alliance, these freedom fighters (basically terrorists with popular support) seek to throw down the corrupt Alliance as well as OZ.
The politics of Gundam are not entirely hard to understand, but they are indeed complex. Factions on both sides seek to usurp one another’s power in their quest to destroy the Gundams and destabilize their power centers. The show explores the concept of right and wrong quite frequently, most notably around the identity of the Gundam pilots as both terrorists and freedom fighters. The Alliance and OZ see them as militant usurpers trying to upset the status quo, whereas the common folk see them as a hopeful light in the darkness cast by the Alliance.
While this theme is especially prominent in Gundam Wing and the newest series Gundam 00, this theme is very commonly explored in the mech-genre in Japanese animation, all of the Gundam shows especially. The idea of the freedom fighting few or those who seek to end world conflict is one that is often underscored in other media. When it is talked about or addressed, it’s either only for a short while or it’s extremely black and white.
Gundam Wing is interesting and very important as a concept because it explores the concept of necessary evil. Both the Alliance’s vision of the world and the pilot’s vision have advantages and grave disadvantages. Sure, the Alliance are oppressive and authoritarian, but they also provide unheard of stability and consistent peace. The Gundam pilots may be fighting for a more free tomorrow, but it’s a tomorrow filled with disjointed nations and probably further bloodshed.
In other words, Gundam Wing and much of the other series in the Gundam franchise are important because they aren’t afraid to address the tough questions. They aren’t afraid to look into the dark places of reality and question whether or not adhering to something is better than fighting, and if the fights we are conducting could be better handled through other means.
So as to not draw this out too much I’ll leave you with one final example. He’s notable for walking the line between a superhero and a regular person. I’m talking, of course, about your friendly neighborhood Spiderman.
Peter Parker never planned on being a superhero. He wasn’t born with these powers, but rather he had them thrust upon him through a cruel accident. Parker went from being a nobody, stepped on “nerd” to being an inhumanly strong and fast mutant of sorts.
Peter Parker and Spiderman are two vastly different personalities and character types. Even with his new powers, Parker is still a nervous, “dweeby”, scattered supergenius guy. Spiderman, on the other hand, is cocky, self-assured, and able to put his life in danger quite frequently. Now, the two aren’t mutually exclusive personalities. Rather, they’re two aspects that Peter constantly fights between. He’s never sure if he should focus on being a regular guy, or on being Spiderman. His two love interests tend to highlight this struggle.
Mary Jane Watson is the women who stops a room in it’s tracks. Basically the woman the old-timey noise “va-va-voom” was made for. You can just imagine the slow-jazz music that must follow her around everywhere. But, most importantly, she’s Peter’s anchor to reality. While she knows what he does is important, she constantly worries about his well-being, and often tempts him to stop being Spiderman and to focus more on being a regular guy like she knows a part of him wants to be.
On the other end we have Felicia Hardy, or Black Cat. A borderline-sociopath at times, Black Cat is the darker part of Peter, always tempting him to forsake his life as a regular person and to fully embrace the idea of Spiderman. She asks him why he feels the need to walk among the weak, and why he can’t be content with indulging in his ability to be Spiderman at all hours of the day rather than just when he needs to be.
Peter Parker/Spiderman walks that very fine line in the middle of a normal human and a superhuman. Because of this, he provides a look into the psychology of being a hero. We peer into the mind of someone who simultaneously wants to use his powers to protect people and to enjoy himself, while at the same time wishes he could stay at home and have a normal life and job. Spiderman represents the very human element of the superhero, and he shows the downsides to being the way he is. All of those obligations are messy and they get in the way of the more mundane goals someone may have. We look up to Spiderman because he constantly has to make those tough choices, just like we do everyday (even if ours are usually far less consequential or epic in scale). He represents the doubt and conflict in us. But, in the end, he always shows us that there’s a way to compromise.
Comic books and cartoons (which, as you’ve seen, are often about the same people) make us better people because they show us the real-life struggles of people blown way out of proportion to make them easy to understand. Through the use of metaphor, hyperbole, and sheer acts of awesome, these characters and many, many more teach us hard lessons about why it’s important to accept people, and what it means to be a hero; to be a good person. I think that that’s the most important thing about these heroes. Yeah we like seeing them fight, and I know I didn’t think much else was cooler than Gambit’s flaming cards or Phoenix’s psionic ass-whooping, but it’s the substance underneath the surface that really make us love them. This isn’t to say that we should use these over books. I’ll be the last person to suggest anything that means less books and reading. But, a good inclusion of this sort of thing, especially for younger audiences, can improve the mindset and morality of even the most aged viewer if they really look to see what these characters and stories are saying. These characters leave an impression just as lasting as that of Odysseus or Roland. They’re just drawn by hand rather than scrolled by the pen.
I hope you enjoyed today’s little foray into comic books and reading! Until next time!