Why Are So Many Superheroes Orphans?
Most of the most popular superheroes in American comics are orphans. Coincidence or something else?
Janet Daley, an American living in Britain who writes for The Telegraph, wonders why almost all male comic superheros are orphans:
The most subtantive question is not whether the invincible saviours in tights are Right wing, or even whether they may only be American. No the critical question is: why are they are all orphans? (Superman, Batman, Spiderman – think about it.)
This is, I would argue, fundamental to their mythical function within the American psyche: in a land of immigrants they personify the individual who is estranged from (or abandoned by) his race, his family, his emotional homeland. Finding themselves displaced persons in a new world (literally in Superman’s case) they must re-invent themselves: become omnipotent personae who can protect themselves from the terrors of the unknown. They are all - with their assumed identities – Gatsby figures who are not what they seem. They have come from nowhere and must seek acceptance by using their preternatural gifts in the service of the land which has adopted them. (It is interesting how many of Superman’s powers are enhanced perception capacities – super-hearing, X-ray vision – which would serve a traveller in a strange culture peculiarly well.)
The superheroes are the ultimate individualists – living out the American dream of the grateful stranger who has triumphed over the loss of his roots and emotional security to serve the nation.
Since I’m not a huge comic book fan, I don’t know off the top of my head if all superheroes have been orphans, but it’s certainly true of the three that are most well-known to the general public — Batman, Superman, and Spiderman — although it’s unclear if there’s a connection between that fact and their popularity. Nonetheless, it is an interesting observation. It’s only been recently that people have treated comics as something deserving of serious literary or artistic consideration, and one wonders if the creators of these characters had any of the themes that Daley mentions in mind when they created their characters. As is often true of popular literature, they were likely more interested in creating something that people would enjoy rather than making some grand artistic statement.
Nonetheless, Daley points out an interesting coincident, so what might the reason be?
I think the “ultimate individualist” argument is perhaps part of it, but I’d also note that there seems to be a tradition in Western literature of heroic figures with tragic pasts an perhaps that’s where the comic book creators got the idea. You see similar themes in old westerns with the idea of the mysterious hero who arrives out of nowhere, with no ties to anyone, and saves the day (think High Noon, or The Lone Ranger). Like this superheros, these Western heroes are in the the world in which they move, but they’re not really a part of it. Or, perhaps the idea is that the life of a hero isn’t for someone who has family connections and emotional attachments, a theme that has been part of the stories of Superman/Clark Kent, Batman/Bruce Wayne, and Spiderman/Peter Parker for years now.
The idea of the loner-as-hero is not a new one, and it’s not really surprising to see it being repeated in comic books.
Anyone else have any ideas?