A new series launching from Image Comics in April titled America’s Got Powers will tell the tale of superheroes competing in an American reality show for a place on a superhero team.The series, helmed by British television personality Jonathan Ross and fan favorite penciller Bryan Hitch, is told from the perspective of a character that enters the show without the aid of superpowers. While little is known about the highly-anticipated new series, the initial premise as it has been described to the various comic book journalism outlets appears to explore themes relating to the nature of superpowers, as well as that of celebrity and reality.
As the web site Bleeding Cool recently explained, America’s Got Powers is not the first comic to use the premise of a reality show as a means of superhero recruitment. The idea had previously been used in the comic Idolized by Aspen as well as the Image series Wildguard. The article goes on to point out that the concept of auditioning for a superhero team is also not new, and was previously employed as far back as 1958 in Adventure Comics #247, in which the cover portrays a panel of judges (Cosmic Boy, Lightning Boy and Saturn Girl) telling Superboy he bombed his audition for the Legion of Superheroes.
Furthermore, the concept of the superhero as a celebrity is not new either. Peter Milligan and Mike Allred did it to great effect with their version of Marvel’s mutant team X-Force, which later became X-Statix. The series told the story of a group of superheroes who co-opted the X-Force team name in order to garner media attention and live as mutantkind’s first real superstars. The catch here was that since the team was inserted into actual battles worthy of a proper superteam, the life expectancy of the team members was extremely low, making their fame very short lived. Milligan took Marvel’s merry mutants and used them as an allegory for people so sick and desperate for acceptance that they sell the rest of their lives for 15 minutes of fame and adoration.
A similar path was taken by Grant Morrison for the Marvel series New X-Men. Morrison, who once told Stan Lee that he felt mutants were analogous to rebellious youth who were considered dangerous and frightening to older generations, set his X-Men in a world of mutant celebrities and fashion designers, and even showed human teen poseurs that would dress up like mutants to upset their parents. Morrison’s work has always been very inspired by the punk and counter-culture movements, and it’s not hard to deduce that he saw the X-Men, with their purple hair, day-glo outfits and social persecution, as the quintessential punk superheroes.
None of this is to say that Ross and Hitch don’t have a perfectly exciting and original new series on their hands, however it is fascinating to reflect on what this says about the growing influence of pop culture on the superhero and vice versa. Fame used to be something given to a chosen few people; beautiful people who were perfect enough to merit our undying adoration. Like royalty. Now we’re living in a time in which reality shows take scores of average, often unremarkable people and make them overnight celebrities. Meanwhile, the Internet has turned a camera on every single person on the planet, and now everyone can pretend to be admired in their own little way. Fame and reality are slowly becoming the same thing, which means that those who are legitimately famous for possessing objective, verifiable talent, are having to evolve in a way.
“Screams from the haters got a nice ring to it. I guess every superhero needs his theme music,” Kanye West raps in the song “Power” from his ridiculously fantastic 2010 album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” While I would be reluctant to call performers like West, Lady Gaga, Daft Punk or Rihanna superheroes necessarily, they are something very close (although Gaga, Rihanna and Katy Perry did all appear in the recent comic Batman, Incorporated: Leviathan Strikes!). It’s hard to doubt that they are pulling inspiration from the same four-color heroes that we comic book fans look up to, but I wouldn’t consider them perfect representations of those characters. It might be more accurate to label them something like Pop Heroes. These musicians are making characters of themselves, similar to David Bowie or Marilyn Manson, for the purpose of elevating the concept of celebrity above the watered down social club it has now become. They’ve become super pop stars to preside over the swell of stardom that has encompassed America, and to guide us all as we learn to adapt to the new presence of fame in our everyday lives. Personally, it’s hard for me to look at someone like Lady Gaga, who can seemingly alter her gender and species at will, and not think we’re approaching a world similar to that which Milligan and Morrison prophesied.
Which brings us full circle back to America’s Got Powers and superhero reality shows. Morrison once said that superheroes have a capacity as ideas to vet, and sometimes overcome, other human ideas. For instance, put Superman against the A-Bomb and Superman wins. Put Captain America against Hitler, and Cap wins. As we find things that puzzle us or frighten us, we put them against the superheroes to see if those guys can figure it out for us. This could be what’s behind the recurring use of mutant celebrities and superhero reality shows. As the superhero himself becomes more famous, with the most recent Batman movie winning Oscars and earning $1 Billion worldwide, we are also exploring the nature of fame and reality using the concept of the superhero world. At the end of the day, we’re probably calling in the superheroes to make sure that this new mode of human existence is safe for us as a society. After all, it’s not by accident that the main character of America’s Got Powers has no powers at all.