Heroes of Darkness and Light

My essay, “Heroes of Light and Darkness,” went up this morning on smartpopbooks.com, and will remain available until Wednesday at 12:00 AM at
To whet your appetite and pique your interest, here is the opening.

1. Dark Knights and White Knights

My girl tells me that she would never date Superman.

She reads comics with a woman’s eye, so perhaps she sees something I don’t see, but she assures me that of the iconic superheroes of comicbookdom, the one with the most animal magnetism, the one the ladies swoon over, is the Batman.

Why is it that Batman has the romantic allure of Zorro, whereas Superman has no more sex appeal than an Eagle Scout? On the other hand, if Batman has all the glamour, why is it that Superman has a steady girlfriend, and he does not?

The two heroes are as different as day and night. There is something in the souls of three generations of readers that reacts to these characters with a shock of delight and recognition: as if by instinct, we recognize that they are icons or archetypes, a modern pantheon of the demigods like those who fought before the walls of Troy.

Some dismiss cartoon characters as childish; and so they are, but not in the way that word is normally meant. Children, learning about a world as castaways might learn about an undiscovered mystical island, find out first about the most important things, the deep things from the roots of the world, the eternal things—it is for adults to concern ourselves with daily surface details. The noble self-sacrifice of heroes is one of the first things children read about when they read adventure tales. It is one of the basic truths of the world. When heroes act selfishly, or for personal gain, they lose what they cherish most: that is the message of every story about superheroics penned, ever since the day Achilles lost his temper.

This essay intends to explain the inexplicable, and say why glamour and mystery shroud the Batman, the most famous of the famous heroes of the night, and to contrast him against Superman, that most glorious of the brilliant heroes of the day. This essay will attempt to say in what part of the human psychology they find their roots.

The quickest shortcut to examining human psychology is to talk about romance, because it is the one issue that is touched by all others: find out what kind of girl a guy is attracted to, find out what kind of girl he attracts, and you find out all about him.

2. Criminals Are a Cowardly and Superstitious Lot

The Batman is all about fear.


  1. Comment by Stephen J.:

    A magnificent essay, sir. I tip my hat.

  2. Comment by valancycarter:

    I enjoyed reading your essay. I enjoy watching Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel but if I ever marry I would marry a Gilbert Blythe type. Romantic heroes are all very nice but I can’t see Batman walking around with a Snuggie or watching Avatar : the Last Airbender with the children.

  3. Comment by Mary:

    having a steady girlfriend already is not attractive to some women. 0:)

  4. Comment by Mary:

    Super President could be kinda fun if you have enough obstructive bureaucrats and whatnot about him to hamper him in the role.

  5. Comment by Paul Weimer:

    I am happy to share the essay with all and sundry. :)

  6. Comment by Malcolm Smith:

    What I can’t understand is why you said The Phantom was millionnaire Jimmy Wells. In which universe? If he is the same Phantom who lives in a cave in Skull Mountain, then his name is Kip, and he goes by the name of Mr Walker when he walks the streets as an ordinary man. But he doesn’t have any alter ego in civilised society.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Lee Falk originally wrote the Phantom strip with Jimmy Wells, playboy millionaire, in mind as ‘The Ghost Who Walks’ alter ego, but changed this to give The Phantom a less formulaic, more savage jungle background reminiscent of Tarzan.

      In the recent movie version, however, they used the millionaire playboy alter ego of Jimmy Wells.

  7. Comment by Dan:

    Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Back does include a rapprochement between Clark and Bruce — but only when Clark embraces his Nietschean Übermännlichkeit and sets himself up as a god. Frank Miller just doesn’t quite get Superman.

  8. Comment by Base Delta Zero:

    It’s possible there is very little Frank Miller actually does get.

    Perhaps Batman’s relative popularity (among both men and women…) also has something to do with his percieved ‘coolness’ compared to Superman, who is often viewed as overpowered and, frankly, boring. The fact that there has been a recent spate of excellent Batman-related media, and the latest Superman movie was years ago and of questionable quality.

  9. Comment by Suburbanbanshee:

    There were a lot of mythic things in the shortlived Canadian cartoon Cybersix. One of the cleverest was that Cybersix (a genetically engineered young woman fighting crime in black Bat-type cape and Shadow-type hat by night — with a black panther! — and hiding by day from her evil ex-Nazi creator under the secret identity of a nebbishy male teacher) was in love with a non-powered, smart, gentle guy who was pretty much built and ethicked like Superman or the stereotyped superhero brick. (Or Steve Trevor, but only the non-annoying versions of him.)

    The sad thing is that most kids did not actually get the humor of crossing the “woman dressed in men’s array”/”beautiful woman dressed as frump” tropes, because the creator had reached back a little too far into the fun tropes bag for them to recognize it. Or possibly they were confused because the woman wasn’t doing it as the adventure portion of her program.

    (And no, the Nazi thing wasn’t all that cliche. The comic was written and set in Argentina for Argentinans. You’re probably happier not looking into the original comics too closely because they were certainly not for kids, but dang, there was plenty of good stuff in the cartoon.)

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