Superheroes on the Couch
A Psychoanalytic Speculation 

Peter Parker leaps to mind at once. If ever there was a superhero in need of analysis, he's it. But never fear: your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man will emerge from this session with all his endearing hang-ups entact. We might find out something about the psychological roots of his problems, but we'll keep Peter's psyche as riddled by doubts and misgivings as ever. The kind of psychoanalysis I want to engage in here is the kind that attempts to discover in what ways superheroes appeal to us through our subconscious.

            In literary circles, the game is called psychoanalytic criticism. While I don't want to fog the windows by exploring all the implications of psychoanalytic criticism at this sitting, the major tenets of the theory doubtless need a brief rehearsal. So if you'll bear with me for a couple of ruthlessly theoretical paragraphs, I promise you some fascinatingly scandalous revelations later on.

            Most of us in these enlightened times accept the notion that we have subconscious (or unconscious) mental lives and that the preoccupations of our subconscious have some affect on our conscious behavior. In the cavern of our subconsciousness is collected the residue of our earliest imaginings and cravings—libidinous impulses seeking instant gratification and the shadowy phantoms of infantile fantasies. As we grow through infancy, we discover that many of the impulses of the Id are not socially acceptable, and so in an unconscious effort to placate society, we learn to control these impulses—and in the process, we acquire a conscience or Superego. Our control is usually achieved through compromise: we substitute or sublimate for the forbidden desires of the Id some acceptable alternatives. But however much control we gain in this way, the secret desires remain—and so do the shadowy phantoms of the fantasies by which as infants we granted our secret wishes.

            Psychoanalytic criticism assumes that in the plot structures and characterizations of literature are shapes and intentions that vaguely echo those of the fantasies in our subconscious. When we encounter these configurations in literature, the emotions associated in our subconscious with the fantasies are activated, and their resonances affect our conscious response to what we read. Thus we are all still Jung and easily Freudened, and as our conscious desires are satisfied by the working out of plot, so are our parallel but forbidden subconscious wishes gratified. Our conscious emotional responses are thereby reinforced by subconscious responses. Or, if subconscious wishes are not gratified in conscious plot resolutions, the resulting disharmony undermines our conscious satisfaction and leaves us vaguely unhappy with a story's outcome.

            The experience, they say, can be theraputic: as we consciously follow the turnings and twistings of plot, we subconsciously indulge otherwise forbidden desires, and their vicarious gratification temporarily exorcises them from our system (or renders them less potent for the nonce). From all of this, it is probably obvious that what this country needs most is a good five-cent analyst. And what comes next is but my humble contribution—about 2 cents' worth.

            To begin with the obvious: most comic book superheroes are split personalities. On the one hand, they are highly visible public figures, all-powerful fighters against crime and evil. On the other, each one has a private personality—a "secret identity" of modest and unassuming dimensions. In most instances, the private personality is the "real" person: it is this identity that has a personal history (birth, parents, education, livelihood, etc.). The private person usually becomes a superhero through some accident by which he acquires special powers or through special training of some kind. After that, the superhero is arguably as "real" as the private personality.

            The essential quality of the dual identity, however, remains constant with virtually all superheroes: the identification of the superhero as the private personality (or vice versa) by the public at large is to be prevented at all costs. Various reasons are advanced by way of justifying the vigilant effort necessary for maintaining the secret connection between a superhero's two identities. Most of them can be reduced to a single assertion: the effectiveness of the superhero in combating crime and evil would be impaired if everyone knew he were "really" such-and-such a private individual. His family or his beloved or his nieces and uncles and his aunts—all would become targets for the bad guys, who might threaten them with bodily harm unless the hero gives up his crusade for Truth and Justice. This supposition is almost wholly unsupported by any real-life experience. No police officers in real life wear masks to protect their families from vengeful acts by their criminal quarry. But such considerations are irrelevant to the psychic function of the superhero and his dual identity.

            Whether justifiable or not, the circumstance of most superheroes is that their dual identities must be kept secret. And the fervent protection of that secret casts an evocative shadow across the responding subconscious of every reader. In its largest dimension, protecting that dual identity looks to the responding subconscious very much like guarding a guilty secret. It is as if all the private personalities who are also superheroes must keep their identities as superheroes secret because those identities are somehow forbidden or unacceptable aspects of their personalities.

            If we translate this situation into psychological terms, the subconscious reasons for maintaining the secret become clear. In their guises as super-powerful crime-fighters, most superheroes are rampantly aggressive. In the human subconscious, aggression is associated with acts that are usually forbidden—acts performed out of a desire to satisfy the powerful cravings of the Id for some object or gratification that civilized society would rather that people satisfy in other, sublimated, ways. Moreover, although superheroes act nominally in the name of law and order, most of them work outside the forces of law and order—and, indeed, they violate the systematic procedures of law enforcement as they bring their foes to "justice." (No superhero, for instance, is much concerned about the constitutional rights of the criminals he pursues.) In flouting customary law enforcement procedures, superheroes defy the dictates of society (shorthand for the strictures of conscience or Superego). In their customary endeavors, then, superheroes are tainted by two characteristics normally associated in the subconscious with forbidden behavior: they are excessively aggressive, and they challenge authority. Thus, it would seem that the secret identity that is being protected so guiltily by those private persons who are also superheroes is an aspect of human personality—the aspect that seeks gratification without regard for propriety or decorum or duly constituted authority: the Id, that well-spring of libidinous desire that bubbles beneath consciousness.

            Whenever a superhero dons his colorful battle garb and goes forth to "fight crime," he is also indulging in a subconscious act of wish-fulfillment—a libidinous desire to lash out against all the restricting and confining social mores that are normally internalized in conscience (Superego). His headlong aggression, his very nearly lawless acts of violence, symbolize both defiance and desire: usually forbidden, such acts represent the indulgences that the Id yearns for. With every blow he strikes in the name of justice, the superhero satisfies at the same time the unconscious cravings of the Id for freedom from the dictates of the controlling Superego. Unlike the rest of us, the superhero overtly indulges his forbidden desires. And that is the guilty secret.

            But the superhero's acts of violence represent more than generalized libidinous indulgence. As Leslie Fiedler observed years ago (New York Times Book Review, September 5, 1976), there is an element of sexuality in superheroics. Comic books began for Fiedler, both personally and historically, in the late 1920's as 8-page bibles—those irreverent assaults on conventional morality that depicted popular comic strip characters in orgies of sexual fantasy. The "respectable second start" made by comic books in the late 1930's appealed, Fiedler says, to the same appetites as had the 8-pagers—except that the essentially violent sexuality of the Tijuana bibles was transformed into its more acceptable version, physical violence in the name of law and order. Thus the exploits of Superman were just as "essentially phallic, horrific, and magical" as Tillie the Toiler and Mac's "sexual acts beyond the scope" of Fiedler's 12-year-old fantasies a few years before.

            Fiedler's notion receives support in the graphic conventions of superhero comics. The depiction of superheroic anatomy is markedly sexual. Every muscle is drawn as if it were flexed to the utmost, suggesting the turgid phallus aroused for sexual activity. Moreover, aggression is itself a characteristic of phallic behavior in the human subconscious—and the sexual act is unconsciously perceived as an act of violence. (Batman, incidentally, was initially a creature of the night, who did "violent deeds under cover of darkness"—an almost perfect description of the "primal scene" as Freud calls the sexual encounter as envisioned by subconscious infantile imagination.) According to Freud, the sex act seems itself a guilty secret because its precise nature is somehow kept from infants' knowledge for as long as possible. The reason for maintaining at all cost the secret of the superhero's dual identity now emerges in all its urgency: among the forbidden desires that the superhero indulges is the craving for genital sexuality.

            None of this indulgence appears blatantly, of course. Like most unconscious wish-fulfillments, the subconscious nature of the superhero's activity is protected, disguised, by the mask of its more socially acceptable aspects. And here, in the usual fashion of subconscious fantasy figures, the superhero becomes a self-contradictory personality: his mask of acceptable behavior contradicts or denies the unconscious motivations for his acts. His acts of aggressive violence are performed in the name of good—of law, order, country, and decency. (Even so, the superhero's gratification of forbidden desires is, like all such forbidden behavior, punished: he often receives as many blows from his opponents as he gives them.) As a force for law and order (however lawless he may sometimes be), the superhero partakes of the character of the Superego. He is an authority figure, whose behavior (insofar as it suggests patriotism and championship of the law) is held up as inspirational. In this aspect of his complex make-up, the superhero is part father-figure—the authority figure who is to be both imitated and obeyed.

            Viewed from a psychological perspective, comic book superheroes are seen as intricate mechanisms of the subconscious, devices which permit the otherwise prohibited gratification of libidinous desires while at the same time posing as socially acceptable figures of lawful respectability. In this regard, according to psychoanalytic literary criticism, superheroes enact the same kinds of unconscious fantasies as any other fictional creation. There is nothing remarkable about the seemingly contradictory unconscious function of a comic book superhero. Nor is there anything threatening or dangerous. A reader of comic books responds unconsciously to the fantasies represented by superheroes just as he does to the fantasies underlying literary fiction in general. His vicarious engagement in this kind of fantasy acts as a harmless outlet for the subtle expression of his own similar unconscious impulses and desires—forbidden impulses and desires that he shares with all human beings.

            With the foregoing as background, let me now try to shed some light on one of the more fascinating questions to have been raised about one superhero. In the Great Comic Book Heroes (Dial, 1965), Jules Feiffer poses an intriguing question about Superman. Superman, he observes, is really Superman; Clark Kent is the phony. So why does Superman reject the woman Clark loves?

            If we rely on commonly offered explanations of Superman's appeal, we find that Feiffer has posed an irreconcilable problem. We are all Clark Kents, goes the reasoning, scorned by the girls we love so passionately. The Superman legend reassures us. We are better than we seem to be: under our mild-mannered exteriors, we are really supermen. As such, we are admired and loved by the Lois Lanes of the world. At this point, the Superman formula ceases to work as reassurance. In order to be entirely reassuring, it would seem that somehow Lois Lane and Superman/Clark Kent must be brought together. Either Superman must acknowledge a love for Lois, or Lois must find out that Clark is really Superman. Either development would bring about the happy solution to our romantic dreams. But neither happens. Until quite recently. For most of Superman's four-color life, for decades of it, he pretends he has no particular feeling for Lois; and Lois remains ignorant of his secret identity as Clark. And so, for decades, since Clark never gets his girl (and his girl never gets the object of her affections), the usual explanation of Superman's appeal does the reverse of what it purports to do. Instead of relieving adolescent frustration through reassurance, it compounds that frustration by preventing a happy romantic resolution. A psychoanalysis of the situation yields a more satisfactory conclusion.

            Feiffer's question obscures the issue somewhat by emphasizing the "real"identity of Superman/Clark Kent. That the "real" Superman rejects the object of his "phony" self's affections seems puzzling. But as I implied earlier, the question of which identity of a superhero is "real" is largely immaterial; the essential fact is the splitting of the whole personality.

            The splitting of the Superman personality gives our drama three actors. And the Superman/Clark Kent/Lois Lane relationship suggests with a triangulation all too familiar to the subconscious the classical Oedipal situation. The Oedipus complex involves a son and his father in competition for possession of the mother. Here, the powerful and authoritative Superman represents the father, the unassuming Clark serves as son, and Lois acts as the mother for whose affections they compete. (Although Superman professed no romantic interest in Lois for years, she nonetheless loves him, so Clark is forced into competition with Superman regardless of Superman's supposed feelings.) The Oedipal desires in the Superman formula are indulged by balancing the hero's two identities against each other, letting one give expression to the impulse that the other disapproves of (or tries to ignore).

            Like other superheroes, Superman is both Superego and Id. As an agent for lawful behavior, Superman functions with the authority of the Superego, the social conscience. And in his role as father in the Oedipal triangle, he duplicates the same function. But he's also the powerful Id, clamoring to achieve its forbidden desires. In the subconscious, the Id is the real "self" from which we are alienated by the control of the Superego, which forces us to play harmless Clark Kent roles. Superman as father figure is beloved by wife/mother Lois; Clark as son is rejected by her as an incestuous lover. Superman as Superego must reject Lois' love for the same reason that she rejects Clark's: he can't love his mother. But as Id obliged by Superego to assume a harmless identity, Superman, as Clark, can express his otherwise forbidden desire for Lois—without the fear of punishment since he subconsciously knows that she will spurn him (as a good mother should under these incestuous circumstances). Click to EnlargeComplicated, I know—and confusing. In the shadowy  Subconscious, the roles being played out shift back and forth, first enacting one fantasy, then the other, exchanging characteristics freely to suit whatever imagined threats loom. The unconscious defensive maneuvers built into the Superman mythos permit indulgence of the Oedipal impulse but only when it is expressed through the identity least likely of consummating the desire: harmless Clark Kent is as non-sexual as Superman is phallic, so Clark's expression of desire for Lois cannot be interpreted as incestuous sexual craving. The answer to Feiffer's question is that Superman rejects the woman Clark loves for the same reasons as the superhero guards his secret dual identity. In keeping his superhero identity secret, the superhero's private personality denies that he is gratifying the prohibited desires of his libidinous impulses. Superman's rejection of Lois acts as a denial of Oedipal, sexual, desires.

            The psychoanalytic explanation for the appeal of the Superman mythos seems more valid to me than the conventional reassurance explanation that I outlined earlier because it is ultimately satisfying to a reader—not frustrating. The reader whose unconscious sympathies are engaged with Superman is allowed to indulge a romantic vision of himself as an attractive male—a circumstance that is socially forbidden in its unrestrained sexual aspect. At the same time, the Superman fantasy is structured to deny that it is indulging any such idea. In effect, the Superman formula is a perfect cover for thinking "dirty thoughts."

            And then we have Spider-Man, the modern prototypical hero with hang-ups. At the core of Peter Parker's difficulties is his ambivalence about being Spider-Man: sometimes he likes being a superhero; sometimes, he hates it. Other superheroes these days may suffer the same attacks of uncertainty, but they are mostly following in Peter's footsteps. So it is safe to say that no other superhero consistently expresses as a part of his personality as decided a dislike for his super identity as does poor Peter. And that's odd.

            Peter's dislike for Spider-Man is often tinged with vague feelings of guilt: his superheroic preoccupations take him away from Aunt May who needs him, and they prevent him from providing for her more adequately. On the face of it, there's nothing suspicious about the guilt—on either conscious or subconscious levels. After all, if the activity of the superhero identity represents subconsciously an indulgence of the forbidden wishes of the Id, we might expect some guilt feelings to accompany that indulgence. But as I said before, the pummeling a superhero receives from his foes usually represents on the subconscious level enough "punishment" for gratifying secret forbidden desires. But not with Spider-man. Peter's dislike is too intense—his guilt too pronounced—to be assuaged or expiated in the usual manner. It is as if the "crime" for which he feels guilty were somehow greater, more heinous, than other superheroes' crimes. And so, in fact, it is—when we discover the subconscious underpinnings of the Spider-Man formula.Click Here to Enlarge

            Peter Parker is plagued so unremittingly by guilt because he killed his father. Yes, once again we come to Oedipus' door. When Peter dons his Spider-Man costume, he—like all superheroes—gratifies general libidinous impulses. But Spider-Man to Peter also represents the murderer of his father, and in being reminded of that, Peter carries an extra burden of guilt.

            It was Christopher Melchert, long a student of this medium, who first brought to my attention the Oedipal roots of the Peter Parker/Spider-Man personality. His examination of Spider-Man (in his apa zine GOBS No. 3, 1973) is more comprehensive than mine here: he explores Spider-Man's relationship with other characters in the context of his Oedipal situation. I'm focusing on only one aspect of the Oedipal dilemma, and I see it from a slightly different perspective than Melchert (there being different ways of applying psychoanalysis to literary creations), but I'm nonetheless indebted to him.

            The Oedipal triangle in the Superman formula stresses the competitive nature of the situation; in Spider-Man, the guilt associated with the Oedipus complex is emphasized. In the classical Oedipus situation, the son is not only in competition with his father for his mother: the son also desires the death of his father so that the mother will be entirely his. Aunt May and Uncle Ben are the only mother and father Peter Parker has ever known. As Spider-Man, Peter declined to help police apprehend a burglar; and later, that burglar killed Uncle Ben. The death of Uncle Ben represents to the subconscious the gratification of a forbidden impulse—the granting of one of the secret wishes of the Oedipus complex. Moreover, since Spider-Man is virtually an accomplice in the murder of Peter's father figure, he is as guilty of murder as the burglar—particularly in the subconscious. One does not slay his father, even if only in the subconscious, without feeling guilty. And here the murder is accomplished in real, conscious terms: the actual fact represents the ultimate fulfillment of a subconscious desire. No wonder Peter feels so much guilt.

            Ostensibly, Spider-man becomes a crime-fighter after Uncle Ben's death because Peter realizes that "with great power must also come ... great responsibility." His powers must be used for the public good. On the subconscious level, Spider-Man as Superego takes up the fight against the lawless in order to atone for the crime he committed as Id. But his crime is too great; apparently just fighting outlaws isn't penance enough. He can't be so easily redeemed or forgiven. Nor can he, by simply fighting crime, deny his own criminality. So Peter Parker is doomed to be plagued by guilt feelings forever after. Not only that, but as Spider-Man he is publicly branded a criminal, his guilt proclaimed to one and all.

            Peter's dislike for Spider-Man grows out of his guilt about what his secret identity as done in so blatantly satisfying one of the forbidden Oedipal urges. The subconscious fantasy in the Spider-Man formula lies much closer to the surface than in the fantasy configurations of many superheroes. And in the guilt and ambivalence about superheroics, Peter Parker/Spider-Man expresses more explicitly than most other superheroes the disturbing feelings that are subconsciously associated with indulging libidinous drives. So great is the guilt and so disturbing the feelings that they are not balanced in Spider-Man (as in so many other superheroes) by the sense of satisfaction that subconsciously results from allowing the Id its rebellious pleasure in superheroic rampages. And so Spider-Man reigns as the last word in guilt-ridden superheroes. And Peter somehow learns to live with it.

            As I mentioned a while ago, the reader's subconscious responds sympathetically to the fantasies it sees below the surface of conscious literature. To some extent, our satisfaction is greater when a literary creation closely approximates our own psychological state. And in this connection, it is provocative to speculate about the popularity of Spider-Man in the sixties and the popularity of Superman in earlier decades.

            Sociological psychology is scarcely my field, but consider the fact that when Spider-Man first appeared, we were in the midst of an uprising of American youth—particularly on college campuses, where Spider-Man found a new audience for Marvel Comics. Youth always rebels against its elders, but one could say with some justification that many of those growing up in the sixties were more overtly rebellious than their fathers and mothers were when they grew up. Rebellion against the establishment is, psychologically, an assault on the controlling Superego. Subconsciously that rebellion creates guilt (perhaps consciously too). Perhaps Spider-Man became as popular as he did at the time because the Spider-Man mythos provided his youthful readers with a vicarious way of dealing with their guilt—by facing it subconsciously in fantasy and by seeing how one guilt-ridden Peter Parker managed his guilt, compensated for it, and lived with it.

            On the other hand, the Superman formula, which emphasized the competitive aspect of the Oedipal situation rather than the guilt associated with indulging its impulses, was doubtless better suited to earlier decades when youthful readers more willingly accepted from their elders the validity of the traditional American ethic championing competition.

            No: nothing startling in those sociological observations, I suppose. But sociology has been described before this as the science of battering down open doors. Besides, two Oedipus complexes in one session are probably excitement enough. In any event, I see that our time is up for today: the receptionist will have your bill ready for you on the way out.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Comics Journal. Actually, it was this essay that appeared there; I've changed only a few words here and there.)


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