The Blog

Marvel Comics and Manifest Destiny

Spider-Man is going to India. Just how universal are America's most cherished comic-book ideals?

11:00 PM, Jan 27, 2005 • By DAVID ADESNIK
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

ONLY SUPERHEROES have superpowers. But are superpowers the only ones who have superheroes? Let me explain: In the six and a half decades since the birth of the superhero comic-book genre, a disproportionate number of super-powered men and women have--surprise, surprise--turned out to be American citizens.

Most were born in the United States. Others, such as Superman, were aliens (illegal, presumably, given the immigration restrictions in place when he arrived in 1938) who decided to make America their home. And thank God for that. Had that tiny spaceship from the planet Krypton landed in Munich or Moscow during the perilous summer of 1938, comic-book history might have turned out very different.

Yet perhaps it was no accident that the first super-powered alien landed on U.S. soil. From the earliest days of the Republic, American culture has been conducive to fantasies of omnipotence. After all, how else can one explain the conviction of the Founding Fathers that their remote little outpost, surrounded by enemy territory, would some day become the most powerful nation on Earth?

Fortunately, the American obsession with super-strength has been tempered by an almost messianic sense of obligation to the greater good. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was a superhero--the Amazing Spider-Man, to be exact--who expressed this idea most succinctly. In his very first appearance in August 1962, Peter Parker (the man behind the spider mask) learned that "with great power there must also come great responsibility."

Like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck before them, Spider-Man, Superman, and the rest of their cohort became global icons, thus generating considerable revenue for their creators. In recent years, two Spider-Man films each grossed more than $400 million overseas, just slightly more than they did domestically.

Yet buying a ticket is not the same as buying into an ideology. Dare I suggest that the combined allure of Kirsten Dunst and the descent of Manhattan into flaming chaos might even have persuaded numerous members of Al Qaeda to watch the film? (On a pirated DVD, of course.)

Idle speculation aside, a recent partnership between Marvel Comics and India's Gotham Entertainment Group has provided a fascinating opportunity to assess the cross-cultural appeal of the superhero ethic. In mid-November, the first issue of Spider-Man: India hit newsstands on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. For the moment, only four issues are planned.

According to Gotham CEO Sharad Devarajan,

It is one thing to translate existing U.S. comics, but this project is truly what we call a "transcreation," where we actually reinvent the origin of a property like Spider-Man so that he is an Indian boy growing up in Mumbai [formerly Bombay] and dealing with local problems and challenges. I have always believed that the superhero relates to a "universal psyche" already firmly established in India through centuries of mythological stories depicting gods and heroes with supernatural abilities . . .

Though we will remain true to the underlining mythos of Spider-Man, which is epitomized in the phrase "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility," the character will be reinvented so his powers, problems and costume are more integrated with Indian culture. Unlike the U.S. origin, which is deeply rooted in science, the Indian version is more rooted in magic and mythology.

Devarajan's aspirations are noble, yet it's interesting to wonder if American audiences will recognize this Spider-Man after his translation into the local idiom. Or, conversely, if Devarajan, born in New York to parents from India, will preserve too much of Spider-Man's American heritage and wind-up with a character that won't resonate with Indian audiences.

In short, Devarajan's attempt to transform Peter Parker into Pavitr Prabhakar forces him to confront the age-old challenge of separating the universal aspects of human nature from the particular characteristics of a specific culture. The success (or failure) of Devarajan's effort matters, because it may tell us something important about the validity of Americans' faith in the universality of our most cherished ideals.

THE FIRST ISSUE of Spider-Man: India demonstrates that Devarajan was dead serious when he spoke of preserving the Spider-mantra that "with great power comes great responsibility." In 1962, Spider-Man learned this enduring lesson when a security guard asked him to stop an armed robber in the midst of making his getaway. At that time, Peter Parker was an embittered teenager with no sense of obligation to the greater good. He refused to apprehend the robber.