Superman on the Couch - Danny Fingeroth

In his 2004 volume Superman on the Couch comics industry veteran Danny Fingeroth aims to go beyond the history of superhero comics and analyze the reasons for our persistent fascination with them and what this can tell about our societies.
For his analysis, Fingeroth identifies certain key elements that are common amongst superhero comics starting with their dual identity and their orphanage, moves on to their built-up anger and the values they represent. But before tackling with these individual aspects, Fingeroth addresses the question, where do superheroes come from and what they represent.

According to Fingeroth, a superhero represents what we believe is best in ourselves, he/she is a standard to aspire to as well as an individual to be admired.
In general, then, a superhero is an individual who possess extraordinary skills and abilities, with a strength of character and a set of values. The superhero is determined to protect these values with his/her abilities, regardless of the circumstances. Fingeroth points out that these exact identifiers can also be applied to a supervillain. An interesting observation that he later picks up in his chapter on values.

Defining superheroes as such, Fingeroth also states that they relate to many important social an psychological issues on many levels and that they have a timeless quality that can be adapted by an endless variety of media and audiences.

After providing a brief history of superhero comics, Fingeroth moves on to the key issues he identifies within them, starting with the dual identity. Arguing that dual identity is appealing to the readers because it lets them imagine themselves as superheroes deep down, Fingeroth also mentions the particular attractiveness of such a setup to a young immigrant generation, which was a principal audience of the comics in 30's and 40's. Fingeroth argues that the immigrant experience of a divided identity between an everyday American on the street and an ethnic minority at home amongst family is well-represented by, especially, Superman.

Speaking of the family ties of the superhero, the next issue Fingeroth takes up is the orphanage of the superhero character. He argues that being an orphan leaves the young hero free of parental guidance and lets himself invest into his pursuit, while all his achievements will be even more impressive for they are accomplished without any external support.

Following these issues that concern the individuality of superheroes, Fingeroth turns his attention to women in superhero narratives and observes that traditionally, women who acquire great power would eventually become evil characters, but recently this trend is being abandoned and powerful female superhero characters like Buffy are becoming very popular.

Next topic addressed in the book is the family relations as they are represented by the superhero comics. Fingeroth argues that throughout their history, superhero comics have presented many opportunities to analyze and fantasize about family from the 'real' family issues of the Fantastic Four to the chosen, surrogate, family of the X-Men.

Fingeroth then return to issues surrounding individual superheroes and takes up the issue of anger, which play a very central role in the characterization of some of the most important figures of the genre, most prominent of which is the Batman. Fingeroth compares Batman's determined and rationally channeled anger with the uncontrollable rage of the Hulk, which he likens to the primal scream resulting from our daily existence. In contrast, Batman takes this existential anger, combines it with the anger towards a system corrupt to the core, and puts it to a constructive use.

Another important aspect of the superhero character, and hence the subject of the next chapter, is the teenage sidekick. When the likes of Robin the boy wonder, were first introduced,they primarily served the purpose of keeping the hero company and giving him someone to talk to. Also, they were aimed to provide a character to be identified with for the teenage audiences. But with the changing times the role of the teenage sidekick has changed as well and finally with Spider-man, a teenage character has become the superhero, and not just any other one but the one of the most interesting and popular characters ever created.
After his analysis of Spider-man's unique characteristics, Fingeroth argues that Spidey is the apex of the superhero genre.

Finally, Fingeroth considers the values superheroes represent and the villains that they fight against. Although his analysis of this issue is not as deep as some other works like the American Monomyth, he asks some relevant and important questions and, like others, mentions the self-reflective character of the latest movement in the comics. An interesting observation that Fingeroth makes is that the movie adaptations of superhero stories are aimed at non-jaded newcomers that are not bothered by the simplistic morals of the the stories, therefore the movies generally can afford presenting them while the comic books themselves are bought and read by an audience that is learned in these simplistic ways and are ready to question them.

Overall, Superman on the Couch points to a very useful set of issues concerned with superhero comics, some of which are dealt in a more detailed way elsewhere but some unique to Fingeroth's study. Although the analysis accompanying the identified issues are not always dealt with great depth, the inquisitive approach of the author is exemplary and his work can be considered as an excellent entry volume into a better understanding superhero comics and hopefully inspire its readers to further the very interesting research agenda attempted by Fingeroth.