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Why superheroes are (or must be) orphans?

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Superhero’s orphanhood it’s defined by melancholia. We will understand the melancholia concept, according to Real Academia Española de la Lengua (2017), as a deep and vague sadness born by physical and/or moral causes, calm and permanent. The superhero concept will be disposed by Mark Waid in Los superhéroes y la filosofía. La verdad, la justicia y el modo socrático (2013) as an extraordinary powerful person with weaknesses, who’s dignity and courage guides him to do valuable and meritorious actions (35). 

In “Mourning and melancholia” (1917) Sigmund Freud explained and compered mourning from melancholia as different concepts that could be confuse for the patient thanks to their similarities. Mourning it’s defined as the loss of a loved person or the loss of a loved object or abstraction as liberty, homeland, etc. (241). On the other hand, melancholia is singled out by a strong sorrow, desinterest for the external world, lost of the ability to love, self-loathing, denigrations and the pursuit of self-punishment (242). In synthesis, mourning and melancholia represent an ailment in the human being (241), where the main symptoms are fear and sadness (Villavicencio 17).

Why superheroes are (or must be) orphans?

As we read, we can accord that mourning and melancholia have so much in common, however, the main difference between this concepts is that the mourning process has an end when the painfull labour is finished; and just then, the being is free (Freud 243). Also, mourning anchors the loss object to the awareness, contrary to melancholia that makes evident a missing part in the mourning process (243); that is to say, in the mourning process the world has become empty and poor; contrary to melancholia, where the being has lost a piece of himself (243). In this point we can encounter orphanhood as a melancholy detonator when the subject has to deal with a parental loss (mourning), understanding orphanhood as Real Academia Española (2017) determines: a said of a person under age: Who’s father and mother have died, or one of both. In summary, the loss of the love one, the loss of a pice of himself.

The orphanhood quality in superheroes it’s crucial an almost the must important one. How do superheroes live their orphanhood?, How do they deal with their orphanhood and melancholia?, What is the meaning of being an orphan?, How can they differentiate their mourning from melancholia and viceversa?, Why superheroes are (or must be) orphans?


Aristoteles, in Problem XXX, argued about one of the four humours/temperaments of the human being: the black bile, the temperament that shapes the human being nature as the wine does (Pigeaud in El hombre genio y la melancolía (problema XXX) 15). What does the last sentence mean? The black bile offers all the dangers and happiness of the drunkenness (15): charlatan, eloquent, self-confident, enterprising, violent, crazy and finally the brutalization state (27), properties of great melancholic subjects: Heroes like Hercules (Aristoteles 79) and Ayax (81). The black bile is the principal fount of melancholia (Pigeaud in El hombre genio y la melancolía (problema XXX) 18), a mixture that contains heat, cold and air (19). In consequence, melancholic men have all the human temperaments in one body and the way they deal with it makes them prodigious and unstable (15).

We can describe Superman’s and Batman’s temperament as prodigious by their superheroic fight against injustice and evil, but we could also picture their temperament as unsteady when they have fits anger, extremely pain and fear; as we see, our two superheroes are a truly temperament blend: their body and mind are lacerated due the mix (heat, cold and air). As a result, those humans beings have constantly violent desires, but also they may find pleasure to chase away pain (Freud 45).


According to Arsitoteles, as we have read, melancholic men are exceptional human beings, and also we can apply this characteristic to Batman and Superman, who’s melancholia will be impregnated with a moral pain, another characteristic of melancholic men according to Freud (244). This moral pain arises in different ways for both superheroes thanks to the comic tales that portrays lively the damage that can affect their daily lives, for example: crazy scientist, politicians, organized crime, terrorism, thieves, assassins, etc. (Loeb and Morris 41). Events that are a constant memory to what they have lost with their parents death: security, family and protection for the evil of men. As the subjects do not know what have they lost in the melancholic process, our two superheroes will have to fight a lot of battles to know/understand what have they lost when they were just children.

For the moment we will stay with Superman, who’s melancholy process started with the “knowledge” of his ascendance, the disaster of Krypton and his parents’s sacrifice that will result in Superman’s orphanhood.

Superman’s orphanhood it’s described in Superman: Man of Steel series:

Superman: Man of Steel, was the official origin story of Superman from 1986 until 2003. By this time Superman was codified as the Mythical hero of America. In Man of Steel, he became embroiled in all manner of American cold warrior anxiety. One significant change that critics have pointed to when discussing the Man of Steel series was Kal-El was no longer a baby when they shot him away from Krypton. Instead, his parents placed him in a gestation chamber as a fetus, and then he was born on Earth when he arrived. Not only was Superman born on Earth, but also he was born in America. Superman was no foreigner alien defending us, he was American born and American raised. (McWiliams 63-64)

It does not matter if  Kal-El was a baby or a fetus once he was send to the earth, it really does not matter if he “born” in a small town call Smallville, the point is that Kal-El’s parents are dead and he will be raised by the Kent family as an orphan. Superman, “The man of steel”, will melt his strength and his mission on earth around melancholia. We will find suffer behind the big “S”:

His Fortress of Solitude evidences this melancholic desire. The Fortress is a memorial, but also rebuilding, of Krypton. Every piece of Kryptonian memorabilia Superman [(Kal-El, by his kryptonian name)] can collect he keeps in the Fortress. The word “memorabilia” implies that there is some kind of memory attached, of which Superman has none. The Fortress became a monument to a place he had never really been. (McWilliams 68)

Superman is earth’s stepson son, a son who do not know how he really is because he has just a few (none) clues about his past. The Fortress of Solitude is a solitary place where Superman can silence the outside world.


This Fortress is a hidden place “located” in a polar zone: The Artic. The Fortress is an invaluable place for Superman, it contains information about his parents, Krypton and the legacy he represents. The Fortress of Solitude is the place where Superman can set loose his melancholy pain, and the gap where he could expel his obsession around returning home (MacWilliams 68). In a simil with Batman: Superman’s Fortress of Solitudes is as Batman’s batcave.

The extinction of Krypton will be the “call for adventure” (Garret 35) in Kal-Lel’s life, these event is his power source and his biggest “scar” at the same time. For Superman, Batman and others superheroes like the X-Men, Spider-Man or Star-Lord in Guardians of the galaxy, the “call for adventure” is accompanied by the aceptante for being different, the capability of having powers that separates them from their friends, also by their peers and their parents in terrible ways (35). Superman, Batman and even Spider-Man are superheroes that have had a tragical “call for adventure”: Krypton extinction, The murder of the Wayne family and Peter Parker’s responsibility for not stoping uncle Ben murderer. (Garret 35).

Ora McWilliams explains –in Hey Batman, What are you parents getting you for christmas?”: The orphan narrative and non-traditional familias in american superhero publications (2009)– Superman’s orphanhood through narrative characteristics: 

By the 1980s, Superman’s orphan origins had been wiped almost completely in favor of making it clear that he had a human, american, family, to which he could turn. Simultaneously greater stress was asserted on Batman’s orphan status with the complete destruction of the Batman Family. (iv). 

Bruce Wayne transforms himself to Batman as a response for his parents murder: a personal vendetta (LoCicero 219), one of the firsts steps to melancholia. As Freud said, mourning brings grave conduct aberration in normal life (242). Now we can find the “place” where Batman’s monstrosity is found: the death. Remember that Batman is a vampier as Dracula is (219 LoCicero), both of them are sons of the night and they like to sheer the terror they produce.


This conduct aberration is shown in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) by Frank Miller when Martha and Thomas Wayne got shot in front of their son by a criminal (22-25), the moment where we are witnesses of the Wayne’s murder, in this scene we are going to find Batman’s birth. Batman will be born by death, by the aberration of a murder.

No Batman origin story showed Martha Wayne’s pearls breaking before Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Return (Miller [DKR]). After that, the pearls become iconic and folded into the myth, so mucho so, in fact, empirically many fans have sworn that they were a part of the origin as if since the beginning. (Mc Williams 66)

Unlike Superman, Batman is a melancholy monster, a character that wants to show a terrible face  (the face of melancholia: pain and suffering) to the murderers, thieves and villains in Gotham city. Batman is the face of melancholia since it represents the loss causative by it. What did Bruce Wayne loss in his parents murder? Does he know what he has lost in it?

For Bruce Wayne, a part of himself died when his parent died. Unlike Kal–El, Bruce knew his parents; he was about ten years old when they where killed. Further childhood is typically depicted as happy and his relationship with his parents as warm as loving. (Coogan 103)

So, the subject Bruce Wayne, knows who/whom has he has lost around his parents shooting, but he does not know what have he has lost (Freud 243) in it. The consequence for this “ignorance” will devour himself (244) which in return will develop nostalgia affects, thus, he will feel as an object of extreme injustice (246), a martyr in other words, one that can be explain with narcissism (248). “In contrast to Kal-El, Bruce Wayne has outgrown the Oedipal stage when his parents were murdered. Their deaths ended Bruce’s childhood. His obsession with revenge took over and he essentially became an adult, in charge of the Wayne family/Wealth (Coogan 104). Bruce’s childhood loss is one the consequences of his parents murder, at this spot we can think about Freud’s ideas around melancholia where the being has lost a piece of himself (243), a moment where the subject “goes through” the loss of the love one; in Bruce case is childhood and his family. 

Batman and Superman know exactly that they have lost their families, but they do not know what did they miss without them around their lives: fraternal love, sense of belonging and a safe future, thus, the past list is the loss of the self, around the loss of the love one (Freud 247).The loss of fraternal love, sense of belonging and the pursuit for a safe future are sufficient reasons for fighting against the bad guys in Batman and Superman cases… Are those truly in off reasons? Yes, remember the moral pain caused by melancholia, these suffering comes with a sense of debt and guilt, the next question is to whom? To their parents or paternal and maternal figures, and to their family legacy: Wayne family and Krypton race.

Stop right here, it’s obvios that Bruce Wayne and Kal-El can’t “pay” the “price” of their family legacy. It’s imposible, as a son, to devolve/repay all the knowledge, time, love, etc. that our parents gave us with all their love. Thanks to the unpayable debt, Bruce Wayne and Kal-El will redeem their moral pain and guilt through heroic acts to/with society. They want to expel their moral pain and guilt away, and this is the only possible way to finish their due.


Bruce Wayne has lost his parents and Kal-El lost his entire race, a past that he doesn’t  even know (not mentioning: Supergirl, Superboy and other kryptonians). The lasts facts are constantly arguments for giving a meaning to their superhero rol and the source of their black bile illness at the same time: madness or stupidity (Pigeaud in El hombre genio y la melancolía (problema XXX) 35), heat and cold range in black bile spectrum respectively to Aristoteles (93). 

In another order of ideas, the Batman suit is the representation of what Bruce Wayne has lost, Batman is an open wound, remember the grave conduct aberration in normal life caused by melancholia (Freud 242): The illness of the soul (Pigeaud in El hombre genio y la melancolía (problema XXX) 44), this illness is caused by the loss of the self and the transformation in someone else, a character (48): Bruce Wayne as Batman and Kal-El as Superman and Clark Kent.

The bat characterization in Bruces Wayne’s superhero/alter ego is the way he understands the fear and anger he feels about his melancholia. We must remember that “most of Batman’s villains adopted costumed identities to make sense out of the world, just as Bruce Wayne took on the Batman identity to make sense out of the world in which his parents were killed” (Coogan 103).

Batman’s monstrosity reveals a deep melancholy pain where the desinterest in the external world (“real world”) and the seeking for loneliness it’s the beginning of an illness, Batman is a monster who is in constantly pain. Sigmund Freud interpret the melancholia sufferer as a sick who might be affected by mania (250), this malady can be treated with therapy based in the main causes of the grief and the pursuit of the self in what he has lost (245) in the mourning process. 

Bruce Wayne, who’s melancholia will be even more acute than Superman’s, almost to madness/mania as Ayax’s “The great” ( Pigeaud in El hombre genio y la melancolía (problema XXX) 10) who’s melancholy feelings (black bile) led him to suicide after dishonored his sword through animal killings or Hercules when he murdered his wife and sons (Aristoteltes 79), those examples are one extreme of the melancholia spectrum (heat) as Aristoteles thought, the one where Batman and Superman are settled. 

Bruce Wayne will see, almost in nightmares when he could beat insomnia, how his mother’s pearls heckles are broken again and again, a scene that we have watched in Batman (1989) by Tim Burton to Gotham (2014) by Bruno Heller and Frank Miller’s graphic novel. Insomnia caused by melancholy is the testify of the open wound (Freud 250), the reason Batman lives in the shadows.


Batman and Superman will feel guilty and bleak in each comic story – approximately from 80’s and beyond–, those characteristics are common factors in melancholic subjects (248), remember the moral pain and guilt that melancholia can bring on. 

Superman sees himself as weak and inadequate because of survivor guilt. He feels anger at having been abandoned by [the] Kryptonians. At the moment of the planet’s death, he was not no super,  he has impotent; a spineless Clark Kent fleeing the destruction of his home and people instead of a powerful, potent superman. (Coogan 101)

As Batman suit represents Bruce Wayne’s melancholic feelings. In Kal-El’s instance Clark Kent and Superman are the faces of his melancholia, those lonely, friendly, lovely and Luisa’s Lane stalkers are Kal-Lel’s melancholic “suits”. In this way, “Kal-El is the orphan, but Clark Kent [and Superman are the adoptive names, the ones that are inspired on earth’s hospitality]. The reader does not typically think of Superman as humanized unless he takes on the roles of Clark Kent.” (14). In this meaning,  Kal–El is doubly melancholic but not as much as Bruce Wayne is. Kal-El is “free” to self-involved in his Fortress of Solitude where he can think about the past he does not know. Also, he can count with the Kent family, a homely atmosphere.

Retaking Batman’s moral pain caused by guilt in the melancholia desease, we can argued that this is the cornerstone between him and his subordinates.

In April 1940, Batman gained an assistant in this ongoing struggle, a “Boy Wonder” Robin, who was named after the famed altruistic hero Sherwood Forest. Together, the dynamic duo, as they came to be known, shared a common basis for their hatted of the underworld: the parents of both had been murder victims. (LoCicero 219)

By this idea, we have arrived to the main question, Why superheroes are (or must be) orphans? Why they have to cross and pass for all these painfull life? In an interview for these articule, Adolfo Córdova, journalist, writer, scientist and reader promote living in Mexico City. Master in Books and children’s literature by Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona (2012-2013), response to the question:

The great majority of them [–superheroes–] are orphans or, as well, they have parental figures or missing parents. We will be able to explain those characteristics in a narrative way, because superheroes are part of a main historical construction that links up their orphanhood in a very natural way to theirs life history, that is to say, is good to them to be orphans because orphanhood will allow certain liberties to them.

What liberties is Adolfo Córdova talking about? The liberty to risk their lives on each day, the liberty to go out in the night, the liberty to disobey their parental figures, the liberty to be superheroes. Also, as McWilliams said, the orphan condition binds with the outsider, the person who can “act in particular ways that might not be in accord with society’s ideal[s]. This reason renders the orphan as a figure of transgression” (6). Batman’s and Superman’s orphanhood is the quarry (and suit) where they can configure their moral thinking and pain as superheroes, in a certain way, the superhero is an alienated, just think about Kal-El’s origin, his an E.T. and Batman is a guardian of the night.


The parental figure in Bruce Wayne life is his butler Alfred Pennyworth, how play de rol of the lifeguard of Bruce Wayne in Gotham (2014–…) where we can watch the great love they have to each other. Kal-El paternal figure is the Kent family.

Significantly, for the Superman Family, Jonathan and Martha Kent remain alive into Superman’s adulthood in this continuity. This allows writers the ability to have Superman fly back to Kansas, or phone home, and ask advice when facing a crisis. Hard-working American families, by proxy, could solve the crises Superman faced. (McWilliams 64)

The Kent family is the reason why Kal-El’s melancholia is less acute than Bruce’s, inasmuch as Kal-El has a “regular” family, a place that he could call “home”, a safe place that Bruce Wayne has lost a long ago no matter the great relationship between he and Alfred.

In both cases, the paternal figures will be and proceed as voices of reason and matureness, at the same time, these paternal figures are the reminder of theirs orphanhood and the parental loss since they were children, the one that is lost forever.

Following Adolfo Córdova’s ideas, superheroes are orphans in reason to their literary tradition which they belong, and also by the arquetipe they represent (Campbell 2014) that unites them to the fairy tales, accordingly, to children’s literature:

These could by powered by two motives: historic and psychoanalytic. The historic one is about orphans story in literature and arts. We can find a lots of orphans in real life, we can find clear signals about them in the fairy tales, in the helpless character as a central figure. Fairy tales are part of an historical context where life expectancy, from children to adults, were totally different form now days. The oral tradition taught –a training– about detachment to children and adults, in their reality the survival fact was very difficult.

We can reach classical orphans characters in literary history, for example “Victorian Era with novels such as those of Dickens and Twain” (McWilliams 1): Oliver Twist (1838) and The adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). “Stories of ancient times and the Victorian Age are clearly influential on the various superheroes stories” (McWilliams 3). These is one of a large list that supports comic books as a part of literature, an idea that is not relevant to this paper work but it is always important to name it.


In conclusion, despite the painfullness factors that I have referred, the orphanhood quality in superheroes will make them heirs of their past (Recalcati 132). By the superhero struggle either Batman or Superman will win the Wayne’s and Krypton’s legacy as a reconquest, as a redeem of their moral pain and guilt caused by melancholia through heroic acts to help and serve to the society, they will be the truly heirs of their parents legacy in each battle they fight against crime and human injustice. How can they do that? How can they redeem themeselfs?

Batman and Superman will overcome their melancholia illness only by affronting their orphanhood condition, at the same time they will no longer need their melancholia suits: neither the shadow of Batman nor Superman outfit nor Clark Kent’s life. By this acts, Bruce Wayne and Kal-El are going to know what they lost along time ago. Either Bruce Wayne or Kal-El will become in what their parents were once. In Bruce’s case: philanthropists, entrepreneurs with social commitment and hard workers. In the other hand, in Kal-El’s case: Krypton leaders, warriors for peace and reflective beings. In this way, they will recover (Recalcati 40) what they had lost in childhood. And just at that moment they would rebuild their lives history and they would understand their orphanhood as the best thing that could happened to them over time, an incident occurred in their childhood that forged their strength not only as superheroes, also in a human way by taking the responsibility to fight for the weak, the needy and the innocent, characteristics that they were once. Without orphanhood they couldn’t had been superheroes and they wouldn’t be heirs. 

Inherit is not about receiving something, inherit is about bringing meaning to the world, and just then, Superman and Batman won’t be necessary no matter what happens to the external world. Bruce Wayne and Kal-El are going to have the chance to converge the past and their present to be happily ever after: the possibility to gave a sense to their lives.

But wait, let’s not forget that both of them will must inherit what the have won a cross the struggle of being superhero, we are talking about the compromise to society. To whom would they inherit? That’s the next question. It seems that they will not concede their legacy to their allies: Supergirl, Robin, Superboy, Nightwing, etc. Why neither Batman nor Superman grant their superhero responsibility to someone else? Apparently, their melancholia illness would be the answer, as a response of the black bile that controls their souls, as the drink controls the drunken. They could be victims of the black bile effects, executing atrocities to their love ones as Ayax and Hercules did, this would be Batman’s and Superman’s nature, unless they dare to affront their orphanhood through mourning, not melancholia.


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Luis Mario Reyes

Soy zurdo y tengo el pie plano. A veces no puedo aprender nada, y eso me gusta. Editor en jefe de Libertimento y maestro de primaria retirado.

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