How I Learned to Love Superhero Comics

This is a guest post from Elisa Shoenberger. Elisa is an academic out of academia. She is a freelance writer, historian, oral historian, musician, performer, and general troublemaker. Elisa Shoenberger writes the travel and art blog Not Without My Bowler Hat and is working on an oral history about women in the arts in Chicago called: “It Will Keep Your Heart Alive.” She is the co-editor and co-founder of the Antelope Magazine. She publishes regularly with the Chicago Northside Mini Maker Faire. She co-founded and manages APRA Illinois Blog for professional prospect researchers and managers. She has had work published by City Creatures blog for the Center for Humans and Nature, Sonderers, the Reset, and more. Follow her on Twitter @vogontroubadour.


I categorically turned my back on superhero comics. While I enjoyed reading graphic novels and newspaper comics, I just had no interest in them. I was interested in the minutiae of life; the particular challenges or the fine-tuned satire about our cultural norms. I felt that superhero comics dealt with neither in depth. I saw superheroes as akin to godlike figures (or sometimes actual gods) solving larger than life problems with a few punches; there were no solutions there. Superhero comics almost felt that the solutions to injustice were basically deus-ex-machina.

On the other hand, graphic novels and newspaper comics felt so much more concrete for me. As a child, I read newspaper comics religiously; my parents got both Chicago newspapers every day and I devoured them. I loved the absurdity of the Far Side or life in general from Calvin and Hobbes. Later I stumbled upon graphic novels, thanks to a religious school teacher who had us read Art Spiegelman’s Maus. I was delighted to find a whole genre of literature in comic form that dealt with heavy issues like the Holocaust, the Iranian Revolution (Persepolis). These were things I could relate to: one man’s account of living through the Holocaust, a son trying to understand his father, a teenage girl trying to grow up in a increasingly conservative society. There was also Gabriel Ba and Fabian Moon’s Daytrippers about living a good and full life that was the perfect comic to read while turning 30. These were comics I could get behind.

Then webcomics became a big part of my reading life in college. I gazed into the mirror that was Richard Stevens III’s Diesel Sweeties, laughed extensively at Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics, and so much more. As time went on, there were more and more amazing works like the historical/literary silliness that is Kate Beaton’s Hark a Vagrant or sheer brilliance of Randall Munroe’s XKCD.

And increasingly as time passed, superhero movies became very popular. And I went to them. I thoroughly enjoyed Spider-Man with Tobey Maguire (and the iterations after that). Here was an awkward kid trying to deal with the challenges of high school. Then it became part of a long line of movies expanding my little world of superheroes with The Avengers, Deadpool and more. Despite enjoying many of these films, I still swore off superhero comics. The movies were action films, popcorn flicks. I went to the theater to be entertained, but I wanted my comics to be grounded in reality—not that this precluded magical realism. The line was drawn in the sand.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1And then there was a squirrel sized crack in the dam. I followed Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics on Twitter and learned that he had a role in some comic called The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. So I dipped a toe into the deep waters of superheroism. And the water was very inviting. Squirrel Girl is hilarious, progressive, and exceedingly clever. It was fun to watch her in her “regular” life AND her superhero life. You have to love a comic that includes footnotes on almost every single page. But what I loved about her is that she would find unexpected ways to win the day.

And then the dam broke.

A coworker introduced me to DC Bombshells, a series that was populated by the female superheroes from the DC Universe fighting Nazis. I demurred at first but the cover was a nod to the beauty of WWII propaganda posters. Wonder Woman dressed as Rosie the Riveter? Sign me up, please! The story was fun, popcorn fun. Who doesn’t want to see these amazing women fight the Nazis, fall in love with one another, and generally be kickass. The Vision popped up on my radar as well: a truly human tale of a family doing what they need to survive and have dignity. In this time and place, it’s extremely chilling.

But it’s not a completely inundation of the superhero genre in my life. I tried some of the more popular mainstream series like Ms. Marvel, Captain Marvel, Black Panther and they didn’t intrigue me in the same way. I dabbled in Deadpool, as a result of the movie again, and despite a curated experience by a person in a comic book shop, this one did me no favors.

Unsurprisingly, my taste in comics is a lot like my taste in fiction. I tend towards works by women or about women, stories with a surreal twist, or something historical. Or a combination of the three. I’ll keep wading in the ocean of superhero comics and try new ones out. Fall in love with some, discard others. I’m now a proud reader of superhero comics; I’m even thinking about dressing up as Squirrel Girl for Halloween.

I’m glad I was shown the error of my ways. All thanks to a squirrel.

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