I'm a fan of comics. This is something that I think people think I should apologize for (I won't) or be embarrassed of (I am.) In fact, the first time I wrote that opening sentence, it read: "I'm still a fan of comics," as thought it's something I should have grown out of, like pooping my pants or making poop jokes on the internet. Poop.
To be honest, and painfully accurate, there are many good reasons to be embarrassed for and of comic books. However, I have to start with what I would hope is the most obvious, and the most painful for me to witness, which is the costumes. Exhibit A:
This is Cyclops. And not only is this Cyclops, but this is Cyclops at the height of whatever cool-looking phases he might've gone through, drawn by Jim Lee, widely regarded as being one of, if not the very best artists working today. Personally, I think this costume is his best one, with the shoulder straps and excessive belts, but it's still pretty stupid. There's just no getting around that. Try as I might, I can't force my brain to think that wearing spandex to the middle of a fight is anything but weird. However, this isn't even what I wanted to talk about. The real problem is in Exhibit B:
This is Witchblade. I never really read Witchblade, but she got me through some awkward years. (I won't say which ones.) Now, I have a problem with Cyclops and his yellow undies, but sexist drivel like this is pretty much a deal-breaker for me. Books could be written on this subject, and unfortunately, it won't be me, or at least it won't be me right now. Needless to say, if someone caught me looking at a comic with the Jim Lee Cyclops in it, I would be a little shy about it. If someone caught me looking at Witchblade, I would feel downright shame. And rightfully so, for that matter.
However, as is the common theme among superheroes, that which can be used for evil can also be used for good. For every blatantly puerile depiction of woman, there is a Storm. Just for reference, when Witchblade looked like that, Storm was being drawn like this:
Why yes, that is a full-body suit on a superheroine. While I was growing up, I was reading about women who were more mature than I will ever be. (Poop!) Not only mature, but fully-developed and rounded characters who were sexually active in ways real women are. Jean Grey was of course married to Cyclops at this time. (She also wore a full-body suit.) Rogue was involved in a long-term sexual tension relationship with Gambit, and was not at all shy about admitting that she wanted to be touched, like a real person would. (Guess what she wore? Full-body suit with a jacket over it.)
These days, I'm pissed as hell whenever I see the White Queen on the page. (If you saw X-Men: First Class, you'll probably understand why.) However, Storm is still there, telling Cyclops that he sounds like a goddamn asshole, or Magneto that he sounds like an egomaniac, or reminding everyone that violence has consequences. Not only is Storm not a piece of eye candy, but she's the wisest, most level-headed member of the team.
Again, books could easily be written on this subject, and sadly I have to gloss over these points. However, Storm's character leads me into a strong point on superhero comics: Superheroes provide good role models, in a weird, but not uncommon way.
You may think I'm an idiot for thinking that a fictional character in a medium largely associated with adolescents would be a good role model. The truth is, we use fictional characters as role models all the time. Probably the most common example is Jack Sparrow. After Pirates came out, I imagine that everyone who saw that movie spoke a little smoother or tried to sound a bit more witty and aloof. And I can promise you that you know somebody who went through a phase of saying "savvy?" for no good fucking reason.
The panel of Storm I posted above is a good example of using a fictional character as a role model. In case you can't read it, she is saying, "I don't believe in violence." That's wild. Storm's character is capable of creating a tornado inside your ass until you are dead. The ways that she could kill a person are endless, and even in a world where people shoot lasers from their eyeballs, she's pretty powerful. She could do whatever the hell she wanted but she doesn't. She could easily get whatever she wanted, but she doesn't. She doesn't believe in violence. By virtue of being an adult male in my 20s, I'm stronger than half the people I will see on any given day, and I'm lowballing that number (or maybe not, because I'm a nerd that reads comics and therefore allergic to exercise.) Just like Storm, I don't go around kicking people's asses just to get what I want. I don't believe in violence. I can't say specifically that I learned this lesson from Storm, or even comics in general, but I can certainly say that I never learned it from any professional wrestler, boxer, MMA fighter, veteran, military personnel, or head of state. So, yes, fictional role models do exist.
As I sit here, so many examples come to mind. Spider-Man teaches us that it's much better to be smart than strong, and that we all have the power to help. Captain America, especially in recent years when we need it the most, teaches us that love of country does not mean total obedience. Professor Xavier teaches us an almost Sisyphean idealism. I believe all of these lessons are both important and painfully absent in American society today.