A Superhero by any Other Name: Observations on a Brand
Close your eyes and imagine someone in a spandex jumpsuit standing on the roof of a building, cape flying in the wind, face obscured by a mask, fists firmly planted on hips, gazing out into the horizon. What is the first word that pops into your head? For many of us, that word would be “superhero.”
The superhero has infiltrated pop culture on just about every level, spanning age, gender, race, and ethnicity. And as a group, they have certainly made their way into our library collections and programs, and are incredibly popular with patrons of all ages. In this half of our two-part guest post, we’ll discuss a few casual observations we have made regarding our patrons’ responses to superhero trademarks and brands, with specific regard to our youngest patrons.
The superhero industry is huge and extremely profitable. This success is no accident. Companies such as DC and Marvel have spent millions on market research campaigns that are designed to reach a variety of audiences, including children and teens. These campaigns worked to create the Marvel and DC brands that now extend far beyond sales of comics and graphic novels and into blockbuster summer movies, Broadway, toys, clothing, and other merchandise. As a result, we have observed our younger patrons easily identifying different trademarked characters on sight. This identification also extends to individual character nuances: e.g., Superman’s weakness is kryptonite, Batman drives a Bat-Mobile, and Spider-Man’s secret identity is Peter Parker. Each of these trademarked characters has become its own individual brand within the larger brand of DC or Marvel.
However, despite DC and Marvel’s trademark recognition, the common components of the superhero—a cape, spandex, mask, chest emblem, etc.—are recognizable even without a trademarked designation. Present this set of characteristics to young children, and they can easily identify them as hallmarks of a superhero. This was the conclusion that Joe came to after observations made at a “Daddies and Donuts” storytime he presented for the Montville Public Library on October 13th, 2012. Joe gave the children, ages 3 to 9, colored pencils, crayons and paper and asked them to create their own superheroes from scratch. The finished superheroes were unique, new characters with different names, powers, and designs. While none directly copied a trademarked popular character, the majority consisted of figures wearing a combination of the cape, mask, boots, and chest emblem. This appears to be the unspoken set of physical superhero characteristics despite the large number of widely popular trademarked superheroes that possess only a handful or, in some cases, none of these characteristics. Iron Man, Spider-Man, Captain America, the Flash—most of these characters go without capes, and some, such as the Hulk, forgo all traditional superhero trademarks. However, most children created superheroes that reflected the traits most common in the earliest superheroes, such as Superman and Batman.
Our conclusion is that the generic superhero, one depicted through a combination the traditional stereotypical traits, has actually become a uniquely malleable brand in its own way. Within the broad confines of these generic traits, we can add individual characteristics and nuances to create new, unique superheroes that enjoy some of the popularity built over the years by their more widely marketed trademarked counterparts. When the children in Joe’s “Daddies and Donuts” program were asked to create their own superheroes, they were unconsciously tapping into this generic brand and modifying it to create their own superhero representations. They didn’t know it, but they were actively refining an existing brand to make it their own.
This generic brand doesn’t need to be confined to just physical characteristics. Many non-physical common superhero themes and characteristics could fall under the “generic” designation such as superpowers, specialized gadgets, secret identities, supervillains, and sidekicks. These themes are prevalent enough in superhero culture to be considered part of the generic brand but are likewise open for modification.
However, not everything about the generic superhero can be easily modified. Values such as justice, valor, truth, and sacrifice are such a part of our superhero culture that they cannot be changed. Superheroes represent these values regardless of how we modify individual characteristics. When you think about Superman, you also think about truth and justice. When you about think about Spider-Man, you see a young man sacrificing what he wants for the greater good. The superhero is a person of any race or gender who stands up against that which is wrong and fights injustice. These are values we would ultimately want to promote within out libraries.
In our next post we will examine how libraries can use superheroes to reach our patrons—how we can take the trappings of superheroes and give our libraries new ways to reach our communities.
[Here’s Part 2, “The Possibilities of a Cape and Mask: The Value of Superheroes in Library Programing.” -Peter]