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Angst among comic book superheroes is well documented, and has been part of the comic book tradition since its inception. Angst in fiction, however, predates comic books. Superhero suffering is simply another representation of the angst of any hero in the hero’s journey. However, the reasons for angst among comic book superheroes are numerous.
Outside of actual plotlines, one must first look at who reads comic books. Until the recent inception of popular graphic novels, most who read comic books were teenage or preteen boys. A conflicted hero, one with great gifts that he cannot reveal to the world, is a sure winner with most teenagers, especially teenage boys, the largest population of comic book readers.
The angst among comic book superheroes parallels the sufferings of pubescent boys. Superheroes who must undergo bodily change, like Spiderman, or who are born with gifts they must hide, like Superman, have alter egos that are constantly suffering. As boys mature, they face changing bodies and a sense that no one really “gets them.” Their desire to be loved, appreciated and understood is tied to fear of rejection.
Though plotlines differ, another reason for angst among comic book superheroes is that they are on the path of the “hero’s journey” as described by Joseph Campbell. Many of them are without their biological parents, like Zorro, Batman, Superman, and Spiderman. Though they may have loving adopted parents, they are still “children of the world” as Campbell would describe it.
Instead of simply making one’s parents happy, angst among comic book superheroes may be partially explained by their need to make “the world” happy. They sublimate their own desires in order to better the world. They belong to the world instead of simply belonging to themselves.
Superheroes have awful relationship records as well. Look at Peter Parker and Mary Jane or Clark Kent and Lois Lane. Angst among comic book superheroes is often in part a response to the fact that superheroes can’t serve their personal needs first. When they do, the result is usually tragic. This is the case of other heroes on the hero’s journey as well, like Luke Skywalker or Percival. Superheroes don’t get the girl, because their duties do not allow them to be in a simple relationship, or they don’t get to keep her because of their responsibilities.
Angst among comic book superheroes also arises because of secret identity. The superhero self cannot be recognized. In fact most superheroes must mask their true gifts and comport themselves as somewhat nerdy, like Parker and Kent, or somewhat insensitive like Bruce Wayne. Not only does this mean they don’t have successful relationships but it also means their true selves are hidden from the world. No one really recognizes just how super they are. Only a few intimates may know their true identity, which means they remain largely ignored by the world.
It’s fairly difficult to want to save a world that wouldn’t want you, and doesn’t like you. Peter Parker is one of the best at this. He’s a constant failure as Peter, and a constant success as Spiderman. However, few know this great side of Peter, and only see the nerd who can’t make it to appointments on time. He lives in poverty, ignored and unwept.
It is hardly difficult to wonder why angst among comic book superheroes exists, when one examines Parker’s life. Who would want a sacred duty when the world wants nothing to do with one? It is a constant struggle not to blurt out one’s specialness and deservedness of recognition.
Thus angst among comic book superheroes arises from multiple factors. It is relatable to readers, and sells comic books. Superheroes must hide themselves, cannot have relationships, and will never be recognized in their “human” form for their gifts. They give up their own lives to serve humanity, and must struggle between helping the world and the desire to be self-serving. Their pasts are generally tragic, and their future a laundry list of all the ways they must save the world. Deep emotional turmoil, anxiety, and conflict are necessarily the result.
@pastanaga - Honestly, that's one of my favorite things about comic book heroes. They face a lot of pain in their lives but they keep going. They have a lot of advantages and those could have led them to be selfish, but instead they are generous and work to help others.
I don't think it would seem nearly as noble if they had an easy life. It might be more pleasant for them, but it wouldn't be inspiring and it certainly wouldn't be fun to read about.
@pleonasm - To some extent I think that the larger than life story lines contribute to the massive amount of angst as well though. Heroes don't just have heartbreak, they have multiple family members murdered in front of them.
Because if you are reading about Superman and he gets stood up on a date you've got to wonder why he would even care. The man knows he has advantages.
So he can't just be matched by comic book villains, he's also got to experience comic book sized angst.
I think one of the reasons there is so much angst among comic book heroes is that they are often so much more than human, it can be difficult to relate to them.
So the writers make sure that things happen which can bring them low so the readers can relate to them. We might not be able to relate to someone saving the world, but we can relate to someone who has had their heart broken. We can relate to someone who is depressed or lonely, even if they happen to be able to fly.
If you don't have that emotional chink in the armor to bring them down to a human level, they basically become a little bit boring. No one wants to read about the perfect man or woman. We want to read about someone who changes over the course of the story and in order to change, they have to be imperfect.