Released last week, Noah Berlatsky’s Your Favorite Superhero Sucks is, from title onward, designed to get a rise out of fans of superheroes, and a satisfied chuckle from those who’ve grown tired of the genre (or never liked it to begin with). A collection of short essays originally published in various online venues like Splice Today, Playboy, and Berlatsky’s own The Hooded Utilitarian, the book’s approach reminds me of Barthes’s if his usual ranging riffs and analysis were narrowed to such a degree as to stick on one thing alone. So like A Lover’s Discourse (well, A Hater’s Discourse) with a kind of acerbic charm that wins you over, but ultimately does not so much reveal as reduces.
Berlatsky’s collection challenges its reader with every page turn, and dares you to be the over-serious curmudgeon that his prose frequently mocks if you don’t laugh at his hyperbolic take-down of superheroes. The fun here, however, is only in the mocking; the analysis itself drains any remaining fun to be had from superheroes in its insistence that (as the introductory essay maintains) there is some “serious” way fans of superheroes are expected to engage with the object of their fandom. Who is doing the expecting? I’m not sure. Some strawman fan? Some specific critic or scholar? Berlatsky doesn’t have time for that. Sure he references a handful of other critics and scholars (including my own essays on Black Lightning and the incoherence of Spider-Man’s identity), but except for his explicit engagement with Ben Saunders’s Do the Gods Wear Capes?, he mostly uses these as a springboard for his own takes.
And what takes they are! These are the hottest of hot takes culled from the internet and cooled down to form an e-book. Such a format calls on a writer to reflect and revise some, however, Your Favorite Superhero Suck doesn’t demonstrate much of that. I may be influenced by the fact that I read many of these essays in their original forms and see little difference in them, and thus wanted just a little more for my (theoretical) money (in reality, Noah Berlatsky sent me a free review copy). One example of this shortfall is Berlatsky’s claim in his essay on superhero origins that “the DC film Batman v Superman looks like it’s at least partially going to avoid starting out with the Bruce Wayne origin for the gazillionth time,” when obviously, to anyone who had the misfortune of seeing the film, the inevitable origin scene was not only not avoided, but in pearl-popping slow motion. This is a missed opportunity to pour some more vitriol on superhero films and reflect on how the mind-numbing power of “origin” in superhero stories seems unavoidable.
The most valuable aspect to Your Favorite Superhero Sucks is its token resistance against the seeming inevitability of superhero cultural hegemony. Berlatsky’s dissenting voice is a glib, but relentless, cry against the invincible appeal of heroes grounded in fascist ideology and white supremacist assumptions. I certainly wouldn’t argue against these points. I would not deny the impulses and contexts he brings to bear in these 31 (very) short essays, but I also cannot believe that that is all superheroes can represent and can be. Maybe my own deep engagement with superhero narratives and counting myself among the “serious” scholars he mocks keeps me from accepting his conclusions as ultimately defining the genre.
But no, what keeps me from wholly accepting Berlatsky’s form of criticism is his penchant to reduce all superhero stories to the context of our real world. While I think such a perspective is an important one, and it is certainly interesting to consider (as he does in one essay) how Batman and Superman could do more good for humanity by doing something about disease-carrying mosquitos than they do fighting crime, the context of real world ethics and global problems is not the only way to read these kinds of stories. In fact, I would say they are far from the best way. (Also, while mosquitoes outweigh bank robbers in potential for global crisis, how do they measure against Darkseid?) Yes, in my own work I frequently refer to historical contexts and the complexity of lived experience when analyzing comic books, but the literal one-for-one examination is too limiting (and as I suggested above, reductive). The most egregious is his essay on Ben Saunders’s well-regarded book Do the Gods Wear Capes?, in which he challenges Saunders’s argument about Superman as a near Christ-like model for goodness. Using an example from All-Star Superman, Berlatsky recounts Saunders’s claims that “The goodness Superman offers…is the goodness of providing complete physical protection while simultaneously allowing the object of that protection to not know what is happening.” Berlatsky uses this to claim “[human beings] can’t actually be good in the way Superman is being good.” This seems so utterly beside the point as to not even worth addressing. No one, not Ben Saunders or the most naïve superhero fan is claiming that Superman’s actual acts are the ones we should be emulating. This is the kind of argument that usually comes from critics who claim we should all be reading nothing but realist fiction, but coming instead from someone who regularly claims that one of his favorite parts of the Marston/Peter Wonder Woman are the giant space kangaroos.
Berlatsky gives very little attention to genre conventions (except to dismiss them), nor is he interested in how fans engage with these narratives or (in the case of comic books) material objects. He’d rather mock any adult who enjoys superheroes at the same time as he reminds us that comics and superhero films aren’t very good for kids either. There is a confusion (as in his review of the Deadpool film) between what is meant for children and what is childish (the latter is not always the wrong call in media for adults). In his otherwise thoughtful consideration of how fans engage with their faves, “Aquaman is Not a Badass,” Bertlasky only acknowledges the loudest and potentially most lucrative (for the corporate entities that own the rights to these characters) elements of fandom, those who will not be satisfied and affirmed until their favorite pet superhero appears in a billion-dollar movie franchise. I get it. I find those kinds of fans annoying and misguided, too, but they aren’t the only kind of fans out there.
There is not an ounce of generosity of spirit in these essays. And yet, I kind of love this book. I thoroughly enjoyed the frustrations of its arguments and found myself arguing against it out loud—grumbling and shaking my fist.
Moreover, there are moments of insight even if I think they are left dangling for some other critic to take up. In the same Deadpool review mentioned above, Berlatsky writes, “Superhero stories are written by adults…[w]hich means they’re very often a conversation between grown-ups and kids about what it means to be one, or the other, or both.” I am fascinated by the productive potential that might emerge from these conversations, what the stories mean and demonstrate viewed through the lens of talking across generations. He goes on to write, “[Superheroes are] a genre that will never grow up, because it’s about what it means to want to be, and not to be, grown.” The liminality of that desire is compelling, and I personally would get a lot more out of exploring it than dismissing it as merely the childish idea of adulthood (or the adult desire for child-like freedom). I also find his reading of early Hulk comics through the lens of racial subtext fascinating and ripe for more engagement (though I don’t know why that makes the Hulk suck), and his examination of the baked in sexism of the recent Ant-Man film articulates its many problems.
There are some really funny moments, too. As when Berlatsky reviews a random Geoff Johns-penned issue of Green Lantern or describes the atrocious cover to Marvel Divas.
I see this collection as the source for a potential exercise, a challenge to write responses to every single one of these essays (even if I won’t do it myself, I can imagine using them with students). I admire its relentless focus, even if I can imagine better and more developed versions of these essays revised to take into account some more reading and research, and the thoughtful comments and angry rhetoric of responses to their Hooded Utilitarian originals.
It may be unfair of me to expect more from a self-financed self-published e-book (and I bring that up not to put-down self-published work, but to address the material limitations of such labor), but having enjoyed his book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948 (published by Rutgers University Press) I can’t help but want more of the extended close-reading and research of that project. So if the question is, should you buy it? I say, for $3.99 (free on Kindle Unlimited) you’d be missing out not to, but just be ready to rail against Berlatsky’s contrarian streak and be left wanting more. Your Favorite Superhero Sucks is ultimately a bunch of sketches waiting to be fleshed out, if not by Berlasky then by someone else with the time and inclination, and hopefully a little bit of the love that I think the best criticism cannot do without.
Your Favorite Superhero Sucks is available exclusively on Amazon (free on Kindle Unlimited).