Analysis of Two Superhero Graphic Novels

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Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and Watchmen by Alan Moore are both highly appraised graphic novels that were published in the same year which is proven by the events that take place in both novels. The Dark Knight Returns is about Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement while still dealing with his inner demons and facing the threat of Superman’s immense power if he does not stop his vigilante ways. Watchmen is about a group of crimefighting superheroes coming out of retirement to solve the murder of their fellow companion and other crimes while coming to terms with their past and present.

Not only do the authors explore the current events that were going on at that time, but they also show how even the most powerful superheroes struggle with conforming to the gender roles set in society; especially when it comes to how masculine a man should be. Frank Miller’s the Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen are both good examples of how hypermasculinity does not make an ideal heroic superhero and instead exposes how the concept of masculinity and power does not only affect the superheroes within the novels but how it can affect the average male in real life.

The words “masculinity” and “hypermasculinity’ are crucial to the argument presented in this paper and need defining to understand the difference between the two as well as the importance of them. Masculinity in a nutshell is all the characteristics used to describe what makes a man a man. On the other hand, hypermasculinity is an exaggeration of the stereotypes used to identify a male and emphasizes the main things that make a male “manly.” The idea of hypermasculinity has to do with emphasizing a man’s physical strength, their sexual relationships, their defense mechanisms and lack of emotion, and their aggressive nature. It is extremely common for this to be portrayed in things such as comic books and other types of media that has to do with superheroes.

Many male superheroes include factors of hypermasculinity and even some female superheroes display a few masculine characteristics in order to appear more powerful. According to an article titled “Toxic Masculinity Is Killing Men: The Roots of Male Trauma” by Kali Holloway the idealization of masculinity has long term effects that turns “emotionally whole little boys into emotionally debilitated adult men.” In society, young boys are taught that emotion is a sign of weakness and that with great mental and physical strength, hard work and money comes a lot of power and the possibility of being a “hero.” They learn this through the things they are told by adults, what they see in the media, and by what they see from other adult male figures throughout their life. By being taught these different elements of what makes a man a man and applying it to their life they may face psychological harm in the future.

It is wrong to put in a young boy’s head that the emotions they feel make them weak and they should try as hard as they can to not show what they are truly feeling because that is just a factor of being human. The article also states, “the resulting displacement and dissociation leaves men yet more vulnerable, susceptible, and in need of crutches to help allay the pain created by our demands of manliness.” This means that because society wants men to suppress their emotions and block off that part of them that claims to show weakness it is in fact harming their mental health and pushing them to find other outlets that will alleviate their pain. These outlets may actually cause a lot more harm than good because they may include substance abuse and violence. Several of the superheroes from both of the novels that were introduced are facing the long-term effects that their extreme display of masculinity has caused them.

One main reason why both of these stories expose how hypermasculinity can break a superhero rather than make it is because of how both the extremely powerful and extremely masculine male characters struggle the most with keeping in touch with their humanity. Superheroes have always been seen as something young boys should look up to and an example of the kind of people they should aim to be when they grow up. The more powerful a male superhero is the more masculine it is made out to be and the greater young males hope to identify with it.

Alan Moore’s character, Doctor Manhattan, is a human turned into an extremely powerful, alienlike superhero due to a lab experiment gone wrong. He now has blue skin and is extremely muscular which is emphasized in the way he is drawn. The powers he holds are unlike any other superhero’s in the novel and he takes advantage of that to fight crime even going as far as killing people and states, “the morality of my activities escapes me” (Moore 124.) He knows he is beginning to lose touch with his humanity and is starting to take action in ways that are not right. He is made out to be a superhero, but if the reader starts to think about it some of his actions are not in any way heroic and are hurting people rather than helping them.

People that read this novel, especially males, most likely want the power and masculinity that Doctor Manhattan holds, yet fail to realize the heroism in his actions is beginning to fade away the more he gets used to his power. An example of another superhero portrayed as hypermasculine but does inhumane and unheroic things as a result of the power they have is The Comedian, also known as Edward Blake. He is known as a war hero to the people of America even though behind the scenes he has done awful things that would make him a villain rather than a hero. He may have helped America win the war but the inhumane acts he did during his time should not be praised. He enjoys the idea of being hypermasculine and takes advantage of the power the government gives him. Doctor Manhattan describes Blake as “deliberately amoral” (Moore 129) because of how ruthless he is and how he does not care about what happens to humans during the war. He does things that are cruel but does not care about the consequences due to his status with the government.

This goes hand in hand with how power does not always make someone a hero or an ideal man because it used incorrectly at times and conflicts with what is humane. Frank Miller’s version of Superman is another example of this because he is a government sanctioned superhero that is used to put a stop to Batman. The government gives Superman the right to unleash his power when needed just like the government gives Doctor Manhattan and The Comedian the right to do what they must to protect the government and win America’s wars. Superman understands he is being used by the government but still allows them to use him as an end to Batman. He disposes of a nuclear bomb and explains how he feels about humans by stating, “Mother Earth you have given them everything…they are tiny and stupid and vicious but please listen to them” (Miller.)

He lives to protect humans even though he feels they take a lot for granted and struggles with what they are using him to do. He is still going to fight Batman even though Batman is just working to protect the citizens of Gotham from the actual evil that lurks within and that is an example of how he is not using his power in a humane way. This provides evidence of how superheroes may have the title of being national heroes that only serve to protect citizens but they at times really struggle with seeing the difference between right and wrong and do things that should not classify them as a hero.

Another main reason the male characters in the novels show proof of how being overly masculine and powerful can do more harm than good is because many of the superheroes express a loss of purpose and torture within that causes them to withdraw from human interaction and that no amount of power can heal. The idea of being manly just like the superheroes portrayed in the stories, often times includes showing no emotion to other people because it is a sign of weakness. Frank Miller’s version of Batman is a dark, tortured soul that to the outside world comes off as tough and someone to fear.

Bruce Wayne explains, “I’m a zombie, a flying Dutchman a dead man, ten years dead” (Miller 3.) This is how he truly feels because of the loss he has endured and the lonely life he lives but once he comes out of retirement, he puts on the brave persona everyone fears to display great strength rather than the pain he feels inside. This is how many males have to go about their lives in the real world in order to maintain their masculine image and not let it show that they too feel human emotions the way females do. Bruce Wayne lives a wealthy life isolating himself from the city “in a million-dollar mansion miles away” (Miller 4) which is an example of how he disengages from human interaction. Wealth equals power and that is what many men are out to get even though money does not buy happiness. Even though he is unhappy he does not express it to anyone because he does not want to ruin his image and likes to hide behind the perception people have of him.

Doctor Manhattan is another good example of how his hypermasculinity has finally taken a toll on him to the point that he can no longer stay on Earth because humans have become too complicated and he wants to isolate himself from them. At the end of the novel after he kills Rorschach because he would tell people of Adrian’s plan he states, “Human affairs cannot be my concern. I’m leaving this galaxy for one less complicated” (Moore 409.) Doctor Manhattan was in a relationship with Silk Spectre but he gets so caught up in his power that he disconnects from her forcing her to leave him.

His power has caused him to lose his sense of purpose on Earth which ties in to why hypermasculine superheroes should not be idolized because they do not cherish human connection and show how blocking off emotions affects their relationships. Although superheroes are portrayed as having a lot of power and models for what the idea of masculinity is, they lack some of the most important factors that make humans human and a hero a true hero. Alan Moore’s and Frank Miller’s characters within their novels are prime examples of how shielding off human emotions affects even a superhero’s will to live and find happiness due to being caught up in the power they have and the masculine image they want to display.

Ranging from losing touch with their humanity to struggling with emotions that do not conform to how a tough man should feel, overly powerful and masculine superheroes are not always good examples of what the average male should aspire to be. Encouraging the idea of having as much power as possible and acting as manly as possible is detrimental to the minds of the youth and setting a standard for them that is impossible to reach. The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen both expose how even the greatest superheroes have their flaws and experience things that do not fall under what masculinity is made out to be. They may be drawn as hypermasculine and have superpowers that would make them so, but if the reader looks deeper into the stories, they will realize having powers does not always make you a hero and that being powerful is not a source of happiness. Masculinity and power should not define what makes a true man because that only holds them back from what they are naturally born with that internally makes them human and allows them to live a mentally healthy life.

Cite this paper

Analysis of Two Superhero Graphic Novels. (2021, Oct 06). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/analysis-of-two-superhero-graphic-novels/



How do superheroes influence society?
Superheroes influence society by representing the best of us. They inspire us to be better people and to stand up for what is right.
What genre is superhero books?
Superhero books are usually a type of action comic book. They often feature characters with superhuman powers who fight crime.
Why are superheroes important in our culture?
Superheroes are important in our culture because they are symbols of hope. They remind us that we can be better than we are and that we have the power to make a difference.
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