No Really: What if Superheroes Were Real?

There was a scene in New Avengers #14 where all of New York was falling apart, and our heroes were dong their best to fight the Nazi war machines, and there were all these innocent New Yorkers running for lives, trying to get away from the destruction (it's to the left). At one point, one of the heroes, I think it was Captain America, suggested that The Thing help the people get to safety, and Ben responded something to the effect of, "You'd think they could figure that out on their own!"

It was a quip in the heat of battle, but I can't really get it out of my head. I mean, you're walking around town, sweating from 85% humidity, trying to get home to see your daughter at dinner, and suddenly half of the east side is falling on top of you, and you are suddenly running for your life. Again.

For whatever reason, I just got to thinking about what it might be like to grow up in the Marvel or DC universe. It's a silly thought, I know, but bear with me a bit. 

There was some talk about this during Marvel's quickly forgotten Civil War epic, but that argument was more about whether or not we should know a hero's true identity or not, and less about man's relationship to those who have powers beyond mortal men.  As I look out the window from my soulless tan cubicle, I let myself imagine what it would be like to see a few people just flying outside, streaking towards downtown LA, which is now smoking, thanks to large explosions emanating outside of the Library Tower building. 

What would that be like? Would I stop working and load up a news website to see what was going on? Would I call my friends to make sure they are okay? Would I pack up my stuff and head home?  Or would I just be so used to this kind of thing that I would send a few text messages and hope that traffic was not going to be too crazy when I headed home?


It's a silly, even ridiculous thought exercise, but after seeing so many superhero movies this summer, I guess it makes a bit of sense that brain wants to get it out of its system. I wonder what a world would be like if even some of the fantasy that we go back to, week after week, came true. And, of course, there is no shortage of stories that talk about this subject — but I guess I wonder what our psyche as a society would be like if we had these metahuman saviors helping us get through our mundane, earthbound problems.


I think about Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immomen's Superman: Secret Identity, where a regular guy in our world named Clark Kent actually takes on the powers of Superman, and how he works with the government to go in and fix things. I think we've seen that kind of story before, where the government somehow takes control and keeps things secret as to not make people crazy. And I guess I can't help imagine that people would, indeed, go crazy, especially now, when everything is so upside down, where the economy is going to the toilet in so many parts of the world, where people are rioting, getting slaughtered, starving to death — people would most likely treat some kind of powered superhero as some kind deity here to save us from ourselves.


But, after awhile, what would happen if there were a bunch of these heroes, and we got used to these miracles, like we did with launching rockets into space.  I mean, for awhile, the space program was all anyone could talk about, it defined a large swath of a generation. But aside from the last two shuttle launches, it seemed that no one paid any attention–it just wasn't that big of a deal anymore.


What would happen to literature? Popular culture? I always get a kick out of stories that have, say, a teenage (or younger) character who has posters of superheroes in their bedroom, or when Peter Parker will complain how he should get royalties from the lunch boxes they make about him, or when Superman pokes fun of Batman after watching a couple of actors portray them in a movie. I love that, I love it when the writer just kind of takes it head on, because it does point to a world that is used to superheroes, and, in the end, it's not all that different from the world we have today, at least from a consumerism point of view.


But I can't help but admit to myself that I might have to side with Lex Luthor, deep down. I would think that having superheroes flying around solving problems for society would hamper society's sense of inspiration. Like, when I started this article earlier today during lunch in my stupid cube, I would imagine that if I saw Superman and Green Lantern flying across the skies to deal with some kind of explosion in downtown LA, I would have serious doubts about just how much my contributions to society actually mattered (okay, it's not like I am contributing that much, but I do try in my own small way–nevermind, let's move on)—I would just feel…small, somehow. Like, no matter what I did…compared to a real, honest to goodness superhero?  Pfft.  (Of course, I kinda feel that way around doctors, firefighters and artists, but you know what I mean.)


Given how polarized society is today, I can imagine that, not too long after superheroes became "every day," you'd start to see a backlash against these heroes—these aliens, these freaks of nature. I seem to remember quite a few comic storylines that hinted at this, with heroes getting sued by regular people due to injuries a civilian might suffer while the hero protected them from a falling building. That was the whole thing with the JSA and Watchmen, right? How the heroes became the enemy of the state, of humanity. 

There's a delicious comfort in imagining things that you can never, ever have. I remember when I was a kid how I would go through the "if I could have one super power what would it be" game with myself and found myself having a harder time with that game as I got older. For example, at first I thought that super-speed would be awesome, because I could clean my room up quick, but then I realized that even though I was doing it quick, I would still have to pick up the damn laundry. I remember later thinking that a good power would be one that could stop time so I could just take whatever I wanted (yeah, yeah, I was using my power for shop lifting more than saving people from getting hit by cars), but later thinking that if time was stopped that everything would be frozen in time and I couldn't move it (then I added an extra power that allowed anything I touched to become unfrozen, but then it just got too complicated).  


It's been fun watching these superhero movies, but I never really get to see the faces in the crowd that are kind of suspicious, or nervous, or scared that everyone is gawking at the flying dude in tights.  I know, that's not the point of the story, but part of the superhero thing really is the civilian who sees the arrival of this new hero as a sign of darker days to come. Sounds like a good movie for next summer.


So, that's my midsummer thought-exercise. I won't drone on about it and I thank you for your patience with me as I ruminate with you on this old trope. I'd apologize, but, really, isn't this what comics is all about? As a kid, isn't this the kind of things comics would make you think about? Debate with your friends about?  Every so often, it's kind of fun to put down the comic and go, "What if?" again — even if only for a few minutes. 


So…which super power did you want?


See ya next week!


Mike Romo is an actor in LA who, in his dreams, knows exactly which muscles to use to fly. (It's all in the chest.) Email/twitter/facebook.


  1. This reminds me of a documentary I watched last night on HBO about “real-life superHeroes” called appropriately enough “Superheroes”. It was really good and both really sad (some of these guys are pretty pathetic and live very dangerously) an kind of inspiring (they would help out the homeless by giving them care packages with food and toilettries. Although, none of these “real-life superheroes” had actual superpowers 😉

  2. @mikegraham6  –i watched that same documentary last night and i had the same reaction. The helping out of the homeless was inspiring and we definetly need more of that. But taking on drug dealers and muggers….man they’re gonna wind up dead. 


    the out of shape guy who decides to live out of a van to have more money for hero-ing was damn sad. 

  3. I was reading Marvels, another Kurt Busiek classic, the other day and thinking the same thing. It’s such an interesting book to see what people in those worlds experience and just how that might affect a person, especially a journalist who puts themselves out there in the middle of the action.

  4. @mike&wally
    I haven’t seen this but its funny because I recently got my film production degree and infer of my early classes was to pre produce a documentary. Mine was about real life supers called “reals”. I probably communicated w. some of those guys. Kind of makes me wish I went thorough w. It. (but yes some of them were nuts).

    @romo. great article. if supers actually came out, there would be sooo many j jonah types id think. Also thanks for helping me finally figure out what that superman story was caller.

  5. It’s been ages since I read it, but I think Busiek talks about this in the introduction to the first Astro City collection. When I get home I’ll have to dig it out. I remember one of his main points about comics being fundamentally unrealistic was how they really didn’t change the world that much. Other than people going around doing these fantastic things, the world around them was largely the same. The average person’s life was mostly untouched.

    Look how much a single comic book-style event (9/11 isn’t that different from things that happen all the time in comics) changed the world. Look how much airplanes changed the world – now there’s people who don’t need the plane. Look how much the telephone changed the world – now there’s people who can think a message across the world. Even something as simple as “Aliens are definitely positively real.” would rock our world to its foundation. (Not to mention “One lives next door to you. Also, the only thing standing between their domination of our world is that kid who lives down the street.”)

    It’s a fascinating thought exercise. There are probably comics that have dealt with some of these things.

  6. Grant Morrison actually touches on this in Supergods when he describes Alan Moore’s work in Watchmen and Miracle Man. In both places, he took the superhero concept to its logical conclusion on both ends of the spectrum. You can’t really go much further than that (i personally prefer the Utopian MiracleMan universe than the Watchmen one, but to each their own 😉

  7. No matter how many people in real life dress up, no matter how many “realistic” stories we get in comics or film, this is a question that will always be attached to the superhero genre. It will also never have a complete or satisfactory answer, and that is what makes superheroes great. There is no real world analogue, but there can be approximations.

  8. @ Romo – Busiek covers this in a few ways, there’s one that focuses ona family new to the Metropolis analog, their freak out when gods and heroes fight on their doorstep and their eventual decision to stay, also he talks about the fallout from time altering battles in “The Nearness of You,” bring a tissue for that one. 

    @mikegraham6 – Alan Moore also took it to its conclusion in Swamp Thing, which was probably some of his best work. As for the MiracleMan utopia, that seemed pretty sinister. If i read it correctly then, it ended with the extinction of the human race. The super people took our bodies and forced us into another reality where we would lay dormant. We didn’t become super, they traded us for them. The world became a utopia, for the small price of genocide. 

  9. A few random thoughts I had while reading this.

    1. Think about how many innocent people die during big “events.” Usually, it’s not touched on much. How many people do you think died in Final Crisis? I’d guess it was a crapload. But then after the event, everything goes back to normal. How many times have we thinned the herd in the DCU alone?! At least in Flashpoint they’ve shown the devestation and impact on normal people in some of the books.

    2. I think it would be worse than JJJ. Imagine Bill O’Reilly et al continually whining about Superman, wanting to see his birth certificate… Great Caesar’s ghost indeed!

    3. Our legal system would grind to a total and complete halt. First, there would be an exponential explosion of civil suits. “Spider-Man broke my arm when he caught me, I demand satisfaction!” Not to mention the added strain to criminal cases, where many more suspects would be apprehended by all these vigilantes. How many cases would get thrown out? Heck, sneaky lawyers can get the legit authorities now on civil rights violations, evidence mishandling, racial profiling, and so on, that it might be hard to make charges stick. Not to mention having a masked hero testify in court:

    Attorney: “So, Mr. … Batman, is it?”
    Batman: “MRRR HURRRR” (in that gruff Christian Bale voice)
    Attorney: “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”
    Batman: “Err, yes.”
    Attorney: “And how do we know you’re really Batman?”
    Batman: “Um, what?”
    Attorney: “How do we know you’re really Batman? You could be anyone under that mask.”
    Batman: “Uhh, because I am?”

    And so on.

  10. Attorney: “So we’re just supposed to take your word for it? You could be anyone and say anything to convict my client, even if you didn’t witness anything.”
    Attorney: “Ï thought you were Batman.”
    Batman: (grabs defense attorney by lapels and whispers) “I’m Batman.”
    Attorney: “But you just said you were the night, whatever that means.”

    I must stop.

  11. The talking head news shows would just explode. Fox News to TMZ. every night its all they would talk about. Poltical discussion, hate mongering, fashion critique….imagine ESPN: “Is Superman a better Athlete than Deon Sanders?”

    I think we’d be scared sh#tless of people who had actual superpowers flying around and doing stuff. 

    Plus the costumes….i mean if we take all those roid’ed out spandex, armor and latex costumes with overflowing boobs and put em in the real world…yeah i dunno if a vast majority of our most beloved superheroes could be taken seriously as anything other than crazy people.  

  12. I never understood the whole “lack of inspiration” angle or the “hate and fear” angle against superheroes. I just don’t get it.

    As for real life? I think “Hancock” actually did a pretty good job of portraying some of it.

  13. I’ve often thought that I’d love to read (or write, actually) a miniseries about a real estate agent in Marvel’s New York City. Or a year in the life of the Tourism Board.

    If we really lived in the Marvel universe, we’d have to start putting antidepressants in the drinking water just to get people to leave the house.