Saturday, September 16, 2006

Superheroes in modern Western culture

It is occasionally popular for literary critics to proclaim the death of or the general irelvancy of the traditionally defined hero for the modern age. And perhaps the surest harbinger of post-modernism, whatever that was, was the transformation of Space GHost from a violent basher of putative evil to a self-absorbed idiot hosting his own talk show. Personally I prefer the Space Ghost: Coast to Coast show to the highly over-rated orignal show. By that I mean if people have sentimental attachment to SPace Ghost I'll understand that but not loytalty to the actual and actually terrible original show. It's just a few steps up from Rubik the AMazing Cube or Turbo Teen.

But the mutation of Space Ghost from hero to moron was perhaps as emblematic as anything else in demonstrating the idea that the heroes of yore are not relevant the way they once were.
But that would be an utterly mistaken supposition.

The ob office numbers tell us a different story, a story that critics at the Village Voice or Salon may or may not want to pay attention to. Someone at the National Review may say that a good chicken mcnugget is just that but I bet I won't hear or read him saying that about his favorite rock bands even though the same elitist trope is more salient in snubbing the Beatles than it would be in snubbing Batman, Superman, or Spiderman.

Why?

Well, it's simple. The three superheroes that any non-comics reader would care about, per Paul Dini, all have a few traits in common which place them squarely in the traditional hero category despite us being in an age when people are supposedly too sophisticated to believe in those kinds of heroes anymore.

The differences between Superman, Spiderman, and Batman are real and obvious but fanboys tend to let those issues obscure the deeper points of commonality. In all three characters we see a few things in common.

1. ORPHANS

Each one of these heroes is an orphan and is raised by an adoptive set of parents. For Clark Kent the surrogate is obviously Jonathan and Martha Ken. For Bruce Wayne the surrogate parent is Alfred, the family butler. For Peter Parker the surrogate parents are Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Batman is the unusual member of the trio for witnessing the death of his parents first hand and for seeing them murdered. That accounts for the temperament he has but it's also true that that is not something to be set aside as being entirely different from the shared origin, the dead parents and the upbringing at the hands of a surrogate family.

Spiderman, of course, came about in response to Peter Parker's realization of his coimplicity with his Uncle Ben's death. He never knew his original parents So his story is unique amongst the three in that guilt over his part in the death of his surrogate father impels him to be a hero. BUt that gets us to the second point.

2. HEROISM AS A MEANS OF HONORING FATHER AND MOTHER

Despite what Christians might consider ostensibly pagan or neo-pagan trappings, Batman, Superman, and Spiderman all do what they do as a way of honoring the legacy of their parents. Honor your father an dmother, that's it. I think that here is probably the simplest reason for the appeal of the characters. If they were in it merely for revenge we wouldn't consider them heroic, would we? They'd be antiheroes. But that they are spurred to act on behalf of the death of people they love would be hard to dismiss as being something unheroic regardless of how we might interpret the way the characters are written.

3. RELUCTANCE TO KILL

This didn't become a common point until the Silver Age because in the Golden Age stories Batman and even Superman were perfectly willing to let people plummet to their deaths and don't get me started on Robin the boy wonder. That little punk killed four people in tthe first issue in which he appears. But over time and thanks partly to editorial fiat and partly to the Comics Code all three major heroes became reluctant to kill even though they all existed in settings in which it was easily within their power to do so.

The shared reluctance Superman, Batman, and Spiderman share with regard to killing seems to spring partly from phliosophy and partly from the realization that their parents died violent and horrible deaths. Ben was murdered. THomas and Martha Wayne were murdered. Clark Kents parents died on an exploding planet, which is pretty violent to say the least. In early c9omics Superman's parents BOTH died before he became SUperman so if we consider the earliest versions of the characters Spiderman was unique because he had one of his surrogates still alive and now dependent on him.

In the case of SPiderman, my favorite initial run, we get an interesting dramatic arc in the original run Stan Lee wrote. Peter Parker becomes Spiderman to make money as a professional wrestler and when he realizes he has become responsible for not stopping the mugger who eventually killed his uncle he becomes a hero. So complicity in his surrogate father's death by inaction spurs him to guilt which spurs him to become a superhero. At the end of issue 90 Captain Stacy, Peter's adoptive surrogate father via his girlfriend Gwen has filled the gap lost with Ben's death, for a short time. But ironically Peter Parker's activities axs Spiderman, specifically his battles with Doctor Octopus, actually CAUSE the death of his second surrogate father figure, Captain Stacy.

It's maudlin, of course, but most tragic arcs are. Spiderman's actioins as a superheo are the catalyst for the death of the second father figure where his refusal to act was the ctalyst for the first father figure. The dramatic irony is certainly obvious but no less effective if you are willing to set aside snobbery long enough to noitce the thematic arc across the 90 issues of Amazing Spiderman.

ANd you get a similar dramatic reversal with Norman Osbourne, the Green GOblin. After the death of his wife he is so obsessed with material success so he can provide for his son he becomes alienated from the person he loves most and his business methods become crooked. IN the process of trying to provide for his son with possessions he denies his son emotional and personal bonds that are what the son really wants. Finally Osbourn's experiments cribbed from a work associate backfire and he unknowingly develops a psychotic second personality in attempting to create human performance enhancers. They work, of course, but at the price of creating a personality he isn't aware of. The tragedy of Peter Parker's plight as Spiderman is he is all too aware of his double life and how it could harm his family. NOrman Osbourn is totally oblivious to his double life and how it came about from things he had already done to harm his remaining family. This is why the Goblin and Spiderman are such well-matched foils.

This is also why I submit that after Stan Lee's inital run most of the stories lionized by Spiderman fans are actually stunts in comparison. If a person didn't find Captain Stacy's death striking but found Gwen's death striking then they are more impressed with the less impressive story. It's really easy to kill off the pretty blonde girlfriend of the hero as a way of making drama. But it is a drama which in some sense is more alien to the nature of Spiderman and his origins than the losss of the second surrogate father.

Most comic book runs, especially comic book runs in superhero titles really DON'T have this level of literary value or, to put it another way, they don't really REWARD literary analysis at the level I've described, which itself is pretty basic. But that doesn't mean, as some of my old college associates have maintained, the superhero comics are incapable of dealing with serious themes. It's not a matter of art style because no one questions the lkterary value of Maus even though over time I suggest that repeated readings of Maus reveal that it is not necessarily more thought-provoking than Spiderman 1-90 by Stan Lee or even necessarily more subtle in its presentation of morality. Spiegelmann can object but I don't he has any reason to. Besides, I never said anyone shouldn't read Maus. Maus and Spiderman issues 1-90 are both great works of comics as an art form.

Of the three superheroes I'd have to say SPiderman is the only one with a continuous run by a single author that I think holds up with literary value. Batman and Superman easily have the characters, basic story, and potential to have stories that are of substantial literary value but I've simply yet to see many stories that fit that level of craft. There are some great and terrible tales in the DC titles. Some of the trouble is the tendency to obsess with c9ontinuity that should have come about naturally as the result of the creative work of a single cohesive creative team. Stan Lee had that with his company and DC didn't really have that despite having characters that in some ways are better and more enduring characters overall.

And if we consider heroic characters from earlier period sof literature we get Odysseus, Hercules, Beowulf, Samson, and a number of other characters who moderns tend to consider poorly sketched in terms of psychology or plausibility. This is one of the recurring mistakes of modernist and post-modernist literary criticism, which is basically to pretend that the nature of the reading experience must be the yardstick by which we assess narratives that frequently derived from more oral cultures. And in the case in which a story was written we are still looking at cultures in which paper was at a far greater permium than it is now. Paper was harder to come by and the reasons to use it tended to compell a different sort of narrative. It's not for nothing that pulp fiction was named what it was named. The real problem has less to do with pulp fiction than with pulp literature of every strip,, fiction or non-fiction. As Ecclesiastes put it, of the writing of books there is no end.

And, of course, the same goes for blogging.

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