May 31, 2010— -- It is a most basic human urge, the age-old, universal desire to overcome our limitations, to soar and to unlock superpowers hidden within us. Living out those fantasies is more popular now than ever before.
Nearly every weekend, somewhere in the United States, a convention is held to celebrate comic book superheroes. Thousands turned out for the C2E2 convention in Chicago, which celebrates the culture of superhero comics, artwork and graphic novels. While comic art and writing have long been popular, the genre is undergoing a revival of sorts.
"It's really the golden era of superheroes," said Jim Lee, co-publisher of DC Comics, who attended the convention.
There's been an explosion of superhero movies this past decade, featuring classic figures such as Superman, Batman, Spiderman and Iron Man. The recent hit, "Iron Man 2," has grossed more than $200 million since opening earlier this month.
But beyond the fun and the fantasy, at the heart of these stories is something deeper. Superheroes have long provided a window into the human psyche.
"They're empowerment stories, and what's better than that," said screenwriter David Koepp, who wrote "Spiderman," among other scripts about ordinary people who discover they have extraordinary powers. "The golden age of fantasy is often when society is going through a hard time."
As for why now, Koepp said: "I think 9/11 and the souring of the economy have had a lot to do with it, because people want fantasy. They want to escape to a place where they feel a fantasy of success and omnipotence, you're safe and you're protected."
It's no coincidence that our first great comic superhero, Superman, first appeared in an earlier age of deep anxiety -- the Great Depression. He reflected a nation's need to be uplifted. Soon, Americans were in the midst of a wrenching debate over whether to get involved in World War II. Superman and other comic book heroes were drafted to help convince a divided nation that the U.S should enter the war. Superman was even depicted battling Hitler.
"They became cheerleaders for the war effort," said Christopher Knowles, author of "Our Gods Wear Spandex." "These characters were very important, as sort of motivators for the populace."
Was Jesus the First Superhero?
Knowles said mythic figures have always been an important part of society, dating back centuries. "Superman is really the modern incarnation of Hercules."
In the ancient world, said Knowles, "gladiators would dress up as their favorite god or hero. You would have generals that would pray to a certain god, before they went into battle. So this is something that's very deep within ourselves. It's an impulse, this need to transcend human weakness and immortalize ourselves."
Every culture -- and every religion -- has its mythic heroes. Princeton University professor of religion Elaine Pagels, a leading expert on the history of Christianity author of several books, said even Jesus appeared to be imbued with certain "superpowers."
"He heals people with a touch," said Pagels. "He can raise the dead. ... When people feel vulnerable, they look at Jesus with the superpowers who's going to come in the clouds ... and right all the wrongs. What could be better than a God who could come and do all of that? "
Every era creates the superheroes it needs. There is currently a new wave of super-heroines, following in the footsteps of Wonder Woman and Bat-Girl.
Among those creating the new generation of female superheroes is writer Gail Simone. "We've got some great, strong, powerful female characters now that have their own fans," said Simone. "And, they don't have to have Superman in the comic with them to be successful."
And they don't have to wear spandex to fulfill the role.
"A really interesting example ... is Twilight," said Knowles, who contrasted the familiar image of a frightening Dracula with the new image of vampires as sexy and young. "They glow in the daylight. ... They're beautiful, they're intelligent ... they give young girls what they want in life ... eternal youth, eternal beauty, everlasting love. These are not vampires anymore, these are superheroes."
The recent surge in interest in superheroes has also created a market for early comics. Recently, New York comic book dealer Vincent Zurzolo sold a high-grade first edition of the 1938 Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman, for a staggering $1.5 million dollars.
"Superman ushered in the age of the superhero," said Zurzolo. "Before superman there were heroes, but nobody quite like Superman with super powers. "
Real-Life Superheroes Among Us
More than 70 years later, people seem to want more than ever to relate to and even become superheroes. In the recent movie, "Kick-Ass," actress Chloe Moretz plays a young girl who dresses up and morphs into a real-life wanna-be superhero.
And across the country, people are actually creating their own real-life superheroes personas. There are more than a dozen of these real-life superheroes, with names like "Thanatos," "Nyx," and "Life," who dress up and take to the streets to fight crime and help the needy.
"None of us are ever going to shoot rays out of our eyes and we're probably not going to fly any time soon," said "Life," who helps feed the homeless in upper Manhattan, wearing a black vest, hat and mask. "But ...we all have the powers to do something, and it's just a matter of using out own god-given gifts and putting them toward good and making the world a better place."
This month, Los Angeles movie poster photographer Peter Tangen is mounting an exhibit of those real-life superheroes -- including "DC's Guardian." Tangen photographed more than 20 real-life superheroes for a project that will help raise money for children's charity.
"It immediately caught my attention that there were these people that actually took it into the real streets and used it in their lives to try to make the world a better place," said Tangen.
Is there any end to this current boom in superheroes in sight? Not soon, according to Knowles. "When is the economy going to really rebound? When are we going to go back to those nineties boom times? When are we not going to be worried about terrorism? We need the fantasy ... it's a balm."
There's also a full slate of superhero movies over the next couple of years, including, "The Avengers," "Thor," "Captain" "America," "Green Hornet" and "Green Lantern." It's all part of that yearning to unlock the superhero within us.
"Superhero stories, all heroic myth stories teach us and tell us that it is possible, that you can do it," said artist and author Arlen Schumer. "In real life, we often cannot overcome our obstacles. We cannot get justice, we cannot right wrongs ... and we need stories to tell ourselves that we could be this; we could act this way."