Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Challenge of the Super Friends: A Scholarly Counterpoint

For those who read my recent analysis of the state of superhero culture—or perhaps, given its uncalled-for length, you’re still reading it—my friend J. Edward Ritchie, whose debut novel, Fall From Grace, was studied here on the blog, just this morning published a friendly, thorough rebuttal to it on his website.  Jeff has been an avid comic-book consumer for most of his life, and spent many years in Hollywood pitching, developing, writing, and selling screenplays to major studios, so he comes from a background comparable to mine, yet brings a perspective to this matter all his own.  I encourage everyone to take a few minutes to read his take and leave a comment (just so long as you make sure to agree with me!).

Upon reading “The Great Escape,” my wife suggested I change the blog’s tagline from “Writer of things that go bump in the night” to “Highly academic discussions of really dumb shit”!  My thanks to J. Edward Ritchie for being my kind of discourser—for engaging in exactly the type of highly academic discussion I think this really dumb shit deserves.

Fall From Grace is available through

UPDATE:  Here’s the counterresponse I posted under Jeff’s article:


Thanks so much for engaging me in a lively debate on this complex subject!

Rather than offer a point-by-point counterresponse—anyone interested in my views on these matters can read “The Great Escape”—let me instead offer this:  When I began to ask why Gen X in particular loves superheroes so much—and, more to the point, what that says about us as both a generation and a collective culture (good, bad, or indifferent)—I came to the understanding that superheroes are a reminder of the linear, analog world we lost as a consequence of the Digital Revolution.  We are the last generation that will have known the “analog world,” as it were, and make no mistake:  We are emotionally traumatized by that (in ways we have not yet begun to understand or process).

Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, upon whose work much of my own writings are based, posits that the popularity of zombie fiction right now reflects a longing for a simpler existence—one free from the omniscient telecommunications hum of text messages and Twitter and Facebook—and that when we can no longer envision that for ourselves, the imagination tends to indulge apocalyptic narratives:  In the zombie apocalypse, after all, you may have to worry about a monster jumping out at you from behind every closed door… but at least, suggests Rushkoff, you’ll never have to answer another e-mail.  In that context, The Walking Dead isn’t a nightmare scenario—it’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy.

As is, I would argue, the superhero story in its current incarnation.  As I’ve written about previously, superheroes express our yearning to exercise control in a world where we feel powerless against the digital onslaught—that is the emotional need they fulfill in us at this moment in our history.  But, here’s the lesson that teaches us:  that once we learn to control all these pervasive, inescapable digital technologies the Information Age has wrought instead of what we’ve done so far—let them control us by misapplying them based on obsolete Industrial Age notions of how to use our time and resources to further capitalistic growth—and embrace the true, heretofore untapped potentials of a digital, postnarrative era, “where the object is no longer to win, but to keep the game going,” only then will we have a sustainable, non-zero-sum model of society in which we no longer need zombies or superheroes anymore to deal with our anxieties about the world that was versus the world that is; at that point, we’ll simply be focused on the would that can be.

So, for me, “The Great Escape” was ultimately an investigation into what our cultural fixation with superheroes—something you yourself don’t deny—is trying to tell us about ourselves, and extracting a larger takeaway from that.  And what it tells me is this:  that we don’t need fictional superheroics to feel vicariously empowered to effect actual change in the world around us—our own mere humanity is superheroic enough, provided we confront our apprehensions and empower ourselves through the technologies we’ve devised (and thus far surrendered control to).  That’s the kind of meaningful lesson superhero stories can offer us if we’re willing to look in the mirror and ask ourselves why, as a culture, we’ve venerated the children’s characters of a previous century.  I suggest we all take a closer look at our favorite wish-fulfillment fantasies, examine what wishes they fulfill, and then see if we can’t do that on our own without them.  That would be a superheroic evolution indeed.



  1. Posted a reply on Ritchie’s site.

    • Hey, thanks for that — for joining us in this cross-platform debate! It doesn’t look like your comment’s made it out of moderation yet, but I’m looking forward to reading it as soon as it does…

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