Category: Non-fiction

Dietmar Dath
Superhelden. 100 Seiten
[Superheroes. 100 Pages]


The Evolution of Superheroes

Is it possible to depict the phenomenon of superhero comics in just 100 pages? That ought to be sufficient, but not in this case. For, since the late 1930s, this popular subgenre of the art form called comics has undergone a multiplicity of changes, from rather naive beginnings to today's elaborate books and films, such that it almost seems impossible to reduce it to a common denominator.

Yet Dietmar Dath has dared to discuss this subject in essayistic form, as required by Reclam Verlag’s series 100 Pages. The author, born in 1970, has an affinity for science fiction chiefly reflected in his journalism as film editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung but also in literary works such as his 2008 novel The Abolition of the Species (Die Abschaffung der Arten). Likewise, Dath has been intrigued by superhero comics since childhood. According to him, these stories continue to fascinate today’s children and adolescents to such a great extent because they wish to identify with heroes who surpass themselves. Dath thereby incorporates his own early reading experiences into his inquiry while still making it clear that there is also much to captivate adult readers in works that may only seem "incredible."

Dath addresses the first two of these heroes, the most significant representatives of their kind to the present, namely Superman and Batman. He examines the fundamental differences between these prototypes: one an extraterrestrial demigod born with supernatural powers, the other a human who has acquired them by hard work.

Their origins date back well before 1938, the year of the first Superman book. Dath cites a number of historians of literature and philosophy who had already anticipated the phenomenon theoretically, locating an important source in the age of Romanticism. In addition, he demonstrates the fantastic and mythical elements in various superhero series. He explains clearly terms that are essential to the genre, such as "golden / silver age" and "origin stories," as well as distinguishing between the two leading comics publishers, DC and Marvel. Dath introduces as well some of the most central superhero characters who are presently experiencing renewed popularity at the movies. By way of illustration, he delves more deeply into a few works that he considers important milestones for the genre, such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight, Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men, and Swamp Thing and Watchmen (both based on scenarios by Alan Moore). Dath attributes a key role to these writers inasmuch as they succeeded in adapting outdated ideas about superheroes to a new era. Particularly in the 1980s, these authors took up current social issues, reflecting upon them with intelligence. The superhero genre, which had been declared dead, was now revived by interrogating itself, practicing social criticism, and becoming political.

In his essay, Dath succeeds in providing a well-founded analysis of the pop-cultural phenomenon of "superheroes" and how it has developed, motivating readers themselves to discover or re-read some of the works that he has introduced.
Ralph Trommer

By Ralph Trommer, 08.05.2018

Ralph Trommer, Dipl. Animator, is a freelance writer and artist who is a regular contributor of reviews and articles on comics, graphic novels and films for a variety of media.

Translated by David A. Brenner