Top 5: superhero social commentaries

A peek behind the masks of comic books reveals much more than catching bad guys and leaping tall buildings in a single bound

Southeast Asia Globe
June 27, 2013
Top 5: superhero social commentaries

A peek behind the masks of comic books reveals much more than catching bad guys and leaping tall buildings in a single bound


In the 2001 title, What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way? the man of steel comes up against a new team called The Elite, which has begun killing off villains and argues that Superman is washed up; that his morals no longer apply in a modern world full of terrorists and rogue dictators. The reader is encouraged to see the core truth of Superman: that he can kill with ease, but the fact he chooses not to makes him more human than those he protects. A televised fight against The Elite is arranged but, after a night of agonising, Superman refuses to stoop to their level and is killed.
Top 5: superhero social commentaries
Released in 2001, at a time of great geopolitical strife, Superman becomes a metaphor for the US. Like the man of steel, America has the power to obliterate any foe, but needs to temper its strength. Later in the story, Superman returns (he faked his death) and challenges The Elite to a secret rematch, away from the cameras. Superman knows he must betray his own morals this time, raising the intriguing question: What would America do if the world wasn’t watching?


Released in 1993, Venom opens with Batman struggling to come to terms with the death of a little girl he was unable to save, when he could not move a boulder under which she was drowning. The dark knight’s lack of true superpowers is to the fore, but a solution comes to light – a small pill known as Venom that instantly triples his strength. The drug is highly addictive, however, and Batman soon becomes a junkie, stooping to any low to get his fix, including almost killing his long-time associate, police chief Jim Gordon. With only one source for Venom, Batman becomes the pawn of a dark dealer in a story that examines the extremes of drug addiction and offers a tidy morality tale about there being no shortcuts to greatness.

Iron Man

Addiction is once again present in 1979’s Demon in a Bottle, widely regarded as the quintessential Iron Man story. A new bad guy, Justin Hammer, is introduced and sets about ruining Tony Stark by making his Iron Man armour kill an innocent. As a murder suspect, Stark is forced to spend part of the story on the run, before eventually foiling Hammer. The stress of the situation leads to a drinking binge of superheroic proportions, leading Stark to confront his alcoholism. For a large part of Demon in a Bottle, there is no supervillain; alcoholism is the bad guy. It was a revolutionary approach in comic books at the time, and a defining element of the Iron Man/Tony Stark character that remains to this day.

The Green Lantern

Rarely has a comic made such a splash in the mainstream media as 2001’s Green Lantern story, Hate Crime. Kyle Rayner (the Green Lantern)’s assistant David is an openly gay character, whose boyfriend is brutally beaten in a homophobic attack. Rayner has to deal with the boyfriend’s homophobic father who blames David for the attack, and a police force seemingly intent on overlooking the crime if it can be proved that David and his partner were hitting on the perpetrators prior to the attack. Frustrated, Rayner ignores his moral code and tortures one of the attackers, who is in custody, until he reveals his accomplices. The Green Lantern comics followed up this storyline by rebooting the character in June 2012, making the Green Lantern himself the first openly gay superhero.


With the civil rights act passed just five years earlier in the US, the 1969 Spiderman title, The Night of the Prowler, took up an issue that was at the forefront of the national mindset. The comic introduces Hobie Brown, a brilliant African-American who can find no other work than washing high-rise windows. When Brown goes to his boss with a series of inventions that could revolutionise the industry, his boss refuses to listen.
Rather than showing explicit instances of racism, the comic depicts Brown getting a tough time and leaves readers to draw their own conclusions. Dejected, Brown retreats to his apartment to work on his ideas and realises his flair for inventions can render him a superhero, although he soon succumbs to greed and becomes The Prowler, one of Marvel Comics’ great antiheroes.
Also view:
“Top 5: female film directors” – Five women who have brought a feminine touch to the male-dominated world of movie making in Southeast Asia
“Historically, art has always been at the forefront of social change” – Partizan Creatives produces comic books infused with social and educational commentaries. Formed by Jose Encinas (‘the illustrator’) and Nick Wood (‘the writer’), and based in Phnom Penh, Partizan’s goal is to bring the joy of reading and an understanding of key messages to a wide variety of people.

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