It’s the Little Things: Why are shrinking superheroes so popular?

When you’re building a superhero team, there are certain things you need to include. Someone with super-strength, someone who can fly, someone with super-speed, someone who has no powers and relies on gadgets … and, for some reason, an archer and a character who can shrink.

It’s one of those things about the DC and Marvel Universes that’s so fundamental to their identities that it’s hard to see how odd it is. Superheroes fundamentally appeal to power fantasies; not only do we like to imagine ourselves with powers and abilities beyond those of ordinary mortals, but we like to think that we’d use our powers to help others. It’s easy to see why we daydream about being superhumanly strong, or able to soar above our troubles — and people have fantasized about being invisible since Plato wrote about it in The Republic. But shrinking? Archery?

And yet these tropes have persisted throughout the whole history of superhero comics. We’ve had Green Arrow for over 70 years, and even though he’s never been a breakout star he’s become the basis for a whole corner of the DC Universe with heroes and villains all themed around archery. I suppose it’s partly because of the Robin Hood thing and partly because it quickly became established that comic-book heroes don’t usually carry guns. But it’s surprising that it’s become such a prominent part of both of the Big Two universes.

The same goes for shrinking. It’s easy to see how growing larger would be part of a power fantasy; we’d all love to feel larger than life, to feel like we could just step over — or stamp on — the things that get in our way. But shrinking? And yet both Marvel and DC have core shrinking heroes; three different Ant-Men and two different Wasps at Marvel (one of whom is also an Ant-Man; it’s confusing), with three different Atoms at DC (or four, depending on whether you count Atomica). Not all of them have been fan favorites (who remembers Adam Cray, the infamous Fishing Vest Atom?), but they clearly have staying power. And in addition to these big names (see what I did there?) there are other size-changing heroes like Blue Jay or Doll Man.

It would be nice to attribute the popularity of shrinking heroes simply to 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man, but both Doll Man and the otherwise unremarkable Tinyman predate it. So where did it come from?

My theory — and I’m open to alternative views here — is that it’s an artist-driven phenomenon. After the first shock of the new, flying or super-strength can get a little dull. But size-changing heroes are the gift that keeps on giving for artists. A world of mundane items becomes an action-packed playground for an artist’s creativity. Writers also get in on the act; think of Grant Morrison using the Atom’s shrinking powers to take down Darkseid during his run on JLA.

And it’s nice to be able to report that the new Ant-Man film takes full advantage of this. Not to give too much away, but there’s a scene in the film where a giant Thomas the Tank Engine toy crashes through the wall of a house and lies in the street with an ant the size of a dog scuttling past it; moments later, we shrink down to a tiny, sub-atomic level and the 3-D effects go completely nuts trying to give an impression of this unreal nano-universe. Only a superhero film could stick those two images into the middle of an otherwise-normal(ish) heist film and have them make perfect sense within the context of the narrative. In a way, it symbolises the entire superhero creative project.

I hope this doesn’t mean I like shrinking heroes now; I have enough goofy comic enthusiasms already. Except Ryan Choi; everyone likes Ryan Choi.

About James Holloway

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