Back in the days before Hollywood made comic-book stories familiar to the masses, and most folks thought superheroes were kid stuff, we comics fans knew better. We knew that certain characters told some universal truth, or touched a vital nerve in the human psyche.
But lo, we wandered the wilderness, knowing this vital truth but fearing to speak it, lest we tempt ridicule. And comics publishers avoided a high profile for fear of persecution, after psychiatrist Frederic Wertham's infamous 1954 screed against comics, "The Seduction of the Innocent," helped lead to mass comic-book burnings and nearly the end of the industry.
But how things have changed.
Superheroes are boffo at the box office, comics are no longer lazily dismissed as kid lit ... and like a phoenix, the anti-Wertham has arisen. Yes, comics fans have a champion of their own now: Professor, author and clinical psychologist Robin Rosenberg, whose latest book confirms everything we knew in our hearts to be true.
"The best origin stories [of superheroes] feel psychologically 'right,' " Rosenberg says in "Superhero Origins: What Makes Superheroes Tick and Why We Care" (CreateSpace, $12.59). "Many of these captivating stories reflect certain aspects of human psychology that were confirmed by psychological research decades later."
But Rosenberg doesn't stop there: She brings her considerable erudition to bear on superhero origins to explain all the stuff we didn't know.
For "Superhero Origins," Rosenberg uses a cross-section of characteristics to come up with seven superheroes to discuss. She wanted both supercharacters and non-super ones; some created in the Golden Age and some a generation later; heroes both male and female; characters primarily from both comics and TV; origins both well-known and obscure; heroes who launched from both physical trauma and psychological journey; and those whose origins have changed over time. The list she came up with consisted of Batman, Wolverine, Wonder Woman, Iron Man, Buffy, Spider-Man and Green Arrow.
And in each case, this 50-year comics fan learned something new.
On Batman, fans still debate whether he's on a quest for vengeance or trying to save others from suffering as he did. Rosenberg cuts through the clutter: "He is trying to make sense of the senseless and random murder of his parents and of his own survival. ... He creates a trajectory for his life that makes sense of the events of that seminal evening. His life's work is to protect innocent people from such events and to bring perpetrators to justice."
I've been reading Batman stories since the early 1960s, and even this jaded veteran learned something new on every page.
Full-disclosure time: This book came out almost a year ago, and I'm just now getting around to reviewing it. (Books without pictures take longer to read.) And in the meantime, I've had an essay accepted for Rosenberg's next book (on Spider-Man). But essay or no, I'd recommend this book anyway.
"Superhero Origins" finally explains all the things that we felt were true but couldn't explain.