An eye-opening exploration of the toxic masculinity and sexism that pervades the superhero genre.
Superheroes have been exciting and inspirational cultural icons for decades, dating back to the debut of Superman in the 1930s. The earliest tales have been held up as cornerstones of the genre, looked upon with nostalgic reverence. However, enshrining these tales also enshrines many outdated values that have allowed sexist gender dynamics to thrive.
In Not All Supermen: Sexism, Toxic Masculinity, and the Complex History of Superheroes, Tim Hanley examines how anger, aggression, and violence became the norm in superhero comics, paired with a disdain for women that the industry has yet to fully move beyond. The sporadic addition of new female heroes over the years proved largely ineffective, the characters often underused and objectified. Hanley also reveals how the genre’s sexism has had real-world implications, with many creators being outed as sexual harassers and bigots, while intolerant fan movements are awash with misogynistic hate speech.
Superheroes can be a force for good, representing truth, justice, and courage, but the industry is laden with excessive baggage. The future of the genre depends on what elements of its past are celebrated and what is left behind. Not All Supermen unravels this complex history and shows how superheroes can become more relevant and inspiring for everyone.
Tim Hanley is a comic book historian and author whose work focuses on the American comic book industry. His books include Wonder Woman Unbound, Investigating Lois Lane, The Many Lives of Catwoman, and Betty and Veronica: The Leading Ladies of Riverdale (Rowman & Littlefield). He has also written for The Atlantic, Polygon, and The Comics Journal. Tim lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, between his massive stacks of comic books.
About the Author
Comic historian Hanley looks at how toxic masculinity has long been a part of superhero literature, noting that women were missing from comics unless they were love interests who needed to be saved. The author also notes the impact of World War II on comics: Heroes were strong men, while villains often showed features of common negative stereotypes of Japanese and Black Americans. Starting with comics, then TV shows, and ending with the current movie franchises, Hanley shows how world events impacted characterization, usually resulting in superheroes that were straight white males. He also discusses how toxic masculinity not only inspired sexist comics but racist and homophobic comics as well and it doesn’t end with comics--it’s in TV series and movies as well. Hanley concludes that whether or not this culture changes is up to the fans. If fans want to see change, they must demand it, or superheroes will continue on the path they have been on since the beginning. This book gives fans a great starting point, a place to learn the history of superheroes. Chapter-by-chapter source notes and a bibliography are included. Well-researched and written, this title is a must-have for any library to give some new insights on superheroes as well as their true origin stories.
Tim Hanley explores the origins and persistence of sexism, racism, and homophobia in the superhero genre through the lens of comics history. This wide-ranging examination of the roots of toxic masculinity in superhero comics spans decades to identify key moments for comics titles, characters, creators, corporate owners, and fan communities. Tim Hanley asks two important questions: what factors drive this continued devotion to an outdated paradigm of straight white male supremacy, and what might move the genre toward diversity and inclusivity?
Hanley’s entertaining educational style is always engaging to me. It’s like hanging out with a cool teacher in a comic book shop for extra credit…. I highly recommend it to not only comic book/superhero fans but to those interested in seeing how influential our ongoing debates about gender roles in society are showcased in such a public forum.
7/14/22, Choice: This book was featured in a roundup of forthcoming books in “Performing Arts & Mass Media.”