A question sprang up into my head at one point: why are there no Soviet superheroes? Sure, sure there were those created by American publishers as somebody for their superheroes to fight. And naturally, if America had superheroes in real life, the Soviet Union would have come up with its own to counter them. But these superheroes are still American creation. Other countries created their own, Canada had their own, but they were drowned out by market dominance of American ones. Same could be said of other countries. But Soviet Union controlled its imports, so it could easily prevent American superhero comics market dominance. So why are there no Soviet superheroes?
We can’t dismiss this question by saying that Soviet writers just were not talented enough to create their own. When comic chase like Tom and Jerry became popular in the West, Soviet Union created its own Nu, pogodi! (Well, Just You Wait!), and it was a success. The answer to American western genre was eastern/ostern genre, with films like Dauria (1971), which substituted the Western landscape with Siberia and cowboys with Cossacks. Science fiction genre existed with such works as Sto let tomu vpered (One Hundred Years Ahead, 1978). The Soviet Union made a study of western literature and film, the Russian formalist critics are still deeply respected by literature professors. So why are there no Soviet superhero comics? Why such popular American media had no alternative in Soviet Union.
To answer this question, let’s consider the American superhero comics and their nature. The comics have superheroes physically fighting their villains, something that would not have passed the Soviet censors. They would have seen it as excessive physical violence in media for children. To this day there are people who lived during Soviet period, who see actions films as just crazy violent genre, which has no redeeming qualities. But the Soviet superheroes comics did not have to be as physically violent as the American ones. Nu, pogodi! managed to do physical comedy of comic chase without falling rocks, anvils and Duffy Duck’s beak being shot off. So let’s look at the actual premise of the superhero genre for our answer.
Superhero genre could be descried as re imagining of ancient Greco-Roman myths, but in modern day. And the superheroes clearly are inspired by those myths. The wings on the Flash’s costume are clear homage to Hermes/Mercury, who wore winged sandals to travel quickly. The heroes of the Greeks were often individuals, who were children of the gods, Heracles and Perseus come to mind immediately. And there were plenty of those children around, since Zeus slept with anything female, human or not. So these heroes had something special about them, their divine blood that gave them superpowers. Sounds familiar doesn’t it. Superheroes get their superpowers, not from gods but from radiation, or other scientific causes that change them. Sure, radiation is not divine blood, but it is as close to godly powers we came as humans. And, well Superman came from the heavens to Earth, might as well be a god. And yes, yes there is Batman and Iron Man who have no superpowers, and I will talk about them later.
In Soviet Union, this idea of superpowers through change at genetic level would not have flown. Why? Well for starters Soviet Union scientifically for a while rejected idea of genetics, because it flew in the face of the idea that anybody could become anybody. If some people had genes that made them better at something and worse at other things, this meant that no amount of hard work could help to make the person more successful than similar gifted person. And hard work was important in fictional narrative of Soviet Union.
The fiction in Soviet Union was created with idea of fitting into “socialist realism”. Thomas C. Foster, English literature professor, called “socialist realism” an oxymoron, and also said that one of his colleagues referred to it as a love story between a boy, a girl and a tractor. Why a tractor? Well, for a while, fiction in Soviet Union praised the blue collar workers, and the story often revolved around them. Take for example, Devchata (The Girls, 1961) a film that takes place in a logging camp, where male hero not only gets the girl, but also finds a better way to cut down trees and make the production more efficient. Vysota (The Height, 1957) tells the story of construction worker that through ingenuity finds a way to complete construction faster, and he also gets the girl. This was the message of the Soviet fiction, hard work and ingenuity is what leads to success. So a superhero with superpowers was not needed, just a regular representative of the proletariat was all that was needed. Well logging trees and building skyscrapers might not be the tasks the superheroes are used for; they generally fight against obstacles beyond the powers of ordinary humans.
Well, Soviet Union had that kind of narratives. World War II provided plenty of narratives of ordinary humans overcoming insurmountable obstacles. The Young Guard (1951), a novel that tells the real story of teenage resistance cell in occupied eastern Ukraine, who used their wits to cause damage to the Germans. Neulovimye mstiteli (The Elusive Avengers, 1966) tells a fictional narrative of teenagers outwitting the White Army during Russian Civil War. In Beloye solntse pustyni (White Sun of the Desert, 1970) an experienced soldier, no rank is given, along with young recruit and reluctant former customs officer take on the large gang made up of former local warlord, and remnants of White Army. The narrative that constantly runs through these works, and others, is that wits and hard work make the success possible. And these heroes were not bullet proof, and villains did not have bad aim. Almost all of the Young Guards are captured, tortured and executed by the Germans. The hero of White Sun of the Desert finds himself standing alone at the end, his comrades are dead. In V boy idut odni “stariki” (Only “Old Men” Are Going Into Battle, 1973) in the end the former newbie pilots fly out to meet the enemy, because all the experienced comrades have died throughout the film. The superhero narrative could not work for the “socialist realism” because it said that every working person had the potential of the superhero, and to become one there was no need for super serum.
Now this is not to criticise the superhero genre, for it carries its own moral lessons and provides plenty for analysis. Just take Batman, he witnessed murder of his parents and ended up growing into an adult who dresses like a bat, there plenty for psychological analysis. Rather this is more of an explanation why with those like me, who grew up on fiction produced in Soviet period, superheroes do not resonate. And talking of Batman, I did say I will talk about Batman and Iron Man. Well Batman Begins (2005) and Iron Man (2008) were films that I liked, and I think it is because the protagonists of the films did not have any superpowers but won based on their wits and hard work. Now, of course they would never been published in Soviet Union, the two heroes are clearly representatives of bourgeois class. But times are changing, the superheroes films are shown in countries that made up the Soviet Union, and in Russia there are now superhero comics.