4 Weird Similarities Between Superhero Comics and Musicals

Billy Arrowsmith
TV Arrowverse
TV Arrowverse DC

With The Flash and Supergirl musical crossover episode upon us, we have a lot of questions about this, the first of which is WHY? WHY DID IT TAKE YOU SO LONG TO DO THIS? OH MY GOD, YOU’VE HAD GRANT GUSTIN FOR TWO SEASONS ALREADY. HE SINGS LIKE A SEXY ANGEL. HAVE YOU NOT SEEN MELISSA BENOIST KILL IT ON STAGE LIKE THE INEFFABLE POWERHOUSE SHE HAS ALWAYS BEEN? BenoitGustin and Darren Criss (who plays the Music Meister in this episode) are all a part of the Glee family… which, of course, I’m linking to here because every fan of either show should watch these even if you hate Glee.

I’m stoked as hell about this personally because I have always loved the combination of superheroes and musical theater. It’s bizarre to me how much criticism this pairing usually gets. I guess because both mediums are seen as so inherently ridiculous that the combination seems like flying too close to the sun? To which I have always thought “Screw you, Daedalus, I’ll fly too close to whatever I want, you’re not my real dad just because you eat breakfast with my mom.” It is insane to me that they’re seen as so different when superhero comics and musical theater have so many similarities. They’re basically the same exact thing, just packaged differently for different types of weird outcast nerds. Let me break down why.

4. They’re Both Collaborative Multi-Media

This is the most superficial similarity, which is why I’m bringing it up first. I don’t just mean they’re art that multiple people work on, because that’s true of almost all popular media. I mean comic books and musical theater are both very distinct blends of two popular mediums, and for some reason, people hate them for that.

For all the stereotypes we have, comic books boil down to “visual art + writing” and musical theater boils down to “music + theater.” Those are all individually popular things, but for some reason when you combine them, they invite a ton of negative stereotypes. You know the kind of person I’m talking about, who thinks all comic books are “Biff! Bam! Pow!” and all musicals are just “Hello Dolly” or “Hello Dolly But This Time We Added Some Rapping.” That is insane to me because I’m racking my brain, and I honestly can’t think of another medium popular today that invites so much cultural dismissiveness based on what it was like 50 years ago.

This view is slowly changing as they both become more mainstream, but I still find myself having to defend my love of both to the uninitiated. I still find myself meeting people who are convinced they could never enjoy a comic book or a musical, which is weird because you don’t hear that about any other medium. Like, I’ve never met a person who just categorically refuses to try listening to music or watching any movies.

3. They Both Use Unrealistic Conventions to Examine Human Problems

This is one of the biggest difficulties I have in explaining the appeal of superhero comics to people. Inevitably, when somebody thinks they’re stupid, I have to defend against the argument that they’re “just a lot of fighting for no reason.”

It is absolutely true that many superhero comics are nothing but senseless violence, and I’m not gonna lie, I love those too. They’re not the comics I would introduce to mom… but when I’m parked behind a dumpster at 4am too drunk to drive home, I can rely on them for some fun in the backseat. The great comics though, the ones that make me love and want to defend the medium, aren’t using superhero fights just as fun action, they’re using them as the representation of a conflict between ideas.

The best Batman stories aren’t about Batman beating the Joker because Batman is good and the Joker is evil. They’re about Batman beating the Joker because the idea that you should dedicate your life to making the world a better place for everyone creates stronger people than the idea of nihilistic absurdism. It’s a philosophical debate that comics choose to portray through artistic metaphor instead of through, I don’t know, Socratic dialogue. When Spider-Man gathers the strength to lift Doc Ock’s deathtrap and save himself, he’s not just showing off physical prowess, he’s a young man finding the strength within himself to push harder while it feels like everything is against you and you just want to give up.

Similarly, yes, sometimes songs in musicals are simple fluff, and again, that can be fun too! But the best musicals use songs to express intense emotion, advance the plot, evoke feelings in the audience, and explain what the characters are thinking. It’s a tool for delivering narrative that allows writers to go beyond the literal. They use different conceits to accomplish this, but my point in comparing them is that they usually receive the same criticism. “This is unrealistic, so I don’t like it.” That’s a totally fine opinion to have, but I’ve always felt like it kind of misses the point. To me, that feels like reading a book of Aesop’s Fables and saying, “This is so unrealistic, animals can’t talk, I was completely distracted by the talking animals.”

2. They Both Reflect the Evolution of Storytelling

This is more true of superhero comics than musicals, but it’s a huge part of the reason why I love both. My favorite thing about superhero comics is they’re not one story, they’re a storytelling tradition that gets passed on. Batman is fascinating from a cultural perspective, not just because he’s so popular, but because so many creative voices have had a hand in contributing to his legend.

If you look at the number of writers and artists who have told Batman stories over the years, it’s in the thousands. I honestly believe it’s the closest thing we have to modern mythology – a story that gets passed down through generations, changing over time as different storytellers adapt it to suit their circumstances and aesthetic. Some of them have been complete unknowns, some of them have been world-renowned, but all of them have shaped a piece of the legend. Even if the piece they shaped was Bat-nipples. You don’t really get this with regular novels, film, or even TV, outside of the occasional remake/reboot.

I love theater for a similar reason. This isn’t specific to musicals, but my favorite thing about theater is that thousands of different voices get a chance to tell the same story with the same characters and show how they would tell it differently. I love the contrast between seeing how a story is told by professionals on a Broadway stage versus how it’s told by middle schoolers selling brownies to afford costumes. It really gives you an appreciation not just for the value of the story, but for the value of storytelling in general.

1. They Attract the Same Types of People

I said this earlier, but I’m gonna say it again – the people who love comic books and the people who love musical theater are the exact same people. I don’t mean literally; I’ve hung out with both groups and many think people in the other group are stupid. They are both… just… the biggest nerds though. They are nerds obsessed with incredibly unrealistic porn about what they would like their life to be like and how much they would like it to matter. They are people who love to imagine that their conflicts are as important as a superhero battle, and when they triumph, it’s a blow to the abstract concept of evil. They are people who love to imagine that their problems are a solo sung in the spotlight on a darkened stage as an audience watches silently rooting for them to succeed. It’s a fantasy world that we’ve all chosen to live in, and I’m personally a huge advocate of that since I believe life should be as unrealistic as we can make it.

They’re also both underdogs. They are people who get no respect. They are the abnormal black sheep “Helga Pataki” younger sisters of people who like respectable things such as legitimate theater and literature. That’s why it puts such a smile on my face whenever I see somebody working on a superhero musical. It makes me feel like nerds are working together and learning to see the best in each other instead of putting each other down.

Billy Arrowsmith
Billy Arrowsmith is a senior editor & administrator on several Wikia sites including the DC Comics Database, the Marvel Database, and the Valiant Comics Database. He is very hard-working and funny and handsome and you should hire him.
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