1. Was Scrooge Wrong?
On September 29th, 1725, in the same year that he wrote "A Modest Proposal" - unquestionably (*1) the most brilliant piece of satire in the English language - a somewhat weary Jonathan Swift wrote to Alexander Pope:
"I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is toward individuals: for instance, I hate the tribe of lawyers, but I love Counsellor Such-a-one, and Judge Such-a-one: so with physicians—I will not speak of my own trade—soldiers, English, Scotch, French, and the rest. But principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. This is the system upon which I have governed myself many years, but do not tell, and so I shall go on till I have done with them. I have got materials toward a treatise, proving the falsity of that definition animal rationale, and to show it would be only rationis capax. Upon this great foundation of misanthropy, though not in Timon's manner, the whole building of my Travels is erected; and I never will have peace of mind till all honest men are of my opinion."
By now 47, Swift had few if any illusions left about the species he belonged to. I have often imagined him as Gulliver after his return from the land of the wise and rational Houyhnhnm, shunning human company and talking to the horses on his farm far away from people.
And it's Swift, Gulliver and the horse-shaped Houyhnhnm that my mind keeps turning to when I try to engage with the script of "Green Lantern" # 52 and the matter of why it vexes - and indeed upsets - me so.
Because it does. It shouldn't. I do know that.
But it does.
(*1) Don't get me wrong. I'm a firm believer in the rule that there are no absolute judgements where the value of art is concerned. But that rule is plain wrong where it comes to "A Modest Proposal". That is all.
2. I'm Rather Fond Of Earth Myself, Mr Johns
I've spent far more time than is good for anybody, I suspect, worrying away at the issue of why I've been so vexed at "Green Lantern" # 52. And, of course, the truth is that there has be something more than coloured tights and many-coloured power rings going on for it to irritate me so. Even if that "something more" is merely a matter of personal importance to me, rather than an issue of a more serious and general importance, it's still there. It's still a-itching and a-pricking to get out.
And it tasks me. It's my own (very little) great white whale. I've written and deleted one piece already on why science and Geoff John's cosmology don't sit well together. And that didn't get to the nub of the vexing. So I wrote another entry applying anthropological and sociological concepts to the task of rubbishing Mr John's work. And that didn't do either. It was an entire waste of my time, and surely would have been of yours.
So, what is it? Why should anybody in their right mind be vexed at Geoff John's incorporation into the history of the DC Universe of the idea that intelligent life first appeared on Earth, and that Earth remains precious because of that?
It's just a story. It's just a big, long, money-spinning, water-cooler moment, pop-corn-tasting, multi-book crossover crafted with no little skill and a brilliant grasp of what the fanboy market demands. It doesn't matter.
But, you see, I think it does. I feel uneasy, even ashamed, to think that, but I do. I can't shift the feeling that I'm taking comic books too seriously, or failing to get the point that they have no point beyond fun-filled entertainment.
But I think there's a terrible and lazy arrogance at the heart of this new throwaway-double-sized-coke-and-chocky-drops take on creation and cosmology.
And I believe that I've belatedly reached the point where I think that even colourful and harmless little superhero comics have gotten so far above themselves that, without realising it, they're peddling more - or perhaps that's "less" - than just pleasurable nonsense.
3. A "Santa-Claus-Does-Not-Exist" Warning
I. It's not that I object to the impossible science of this wad of retro-continuity that's been lobbed into the DCU's past. To be able to read these tales of power-rings and Guardians and lords of the dead, and then decide that the evolutionary science is rather misapplied, would surely be the judgement of a big obsessed crazy person. Because, of course, superhero comic books are founded on a profound scientific ignorance. We know that. The Yellow Sun doesn't make Kryptonians super-powered. There are no Kryptonians. There are no super-powers.
It might as well have been the whole point of superhero comic books and indeed films to mock science and the public's total lack of interest in the scientific plausibility of their well-loved action icons.
II. I can recall as a boy trying to justify my obsession with American comic books to my Father by declaring that they were teaching me physics. Ever a man happy to help the guilty party tighten their own chosen noose around their scrawny little sinner's neck, my Father investigated the proffered issue of "World's Finest", with Dick Dillin art if memory serves. And there, faced with a declaration put into the mouth of Superman that his X-Ray vision would track the photon-trail of an escaped bad-guy, my Father's considerable powers of invective were punctured by the realisation of the depth of the ignorance before him.
"But it's rubbish." he said, with the air of a man defeated by my stupidity and the sacred holy writ of cloaks'n'costumes I used to defend it.
And he was right. It is all, pretty much, rubbish. We know this.
Radiation doesn't give you super-powers. Years of training can't turn you into a Batman. The Human Torch is such a colossally daft idea that it only works because the very idea of a man made of flames cleans out the mind's rational impulses like an intellectual laxative. It hits us right between the eyes with the full force of its' own stupidity and leaves us mentally drooling, mind-wiped and gurgling about how pretty those lovely fireballs are.
But that's OK. I rather like that, as I suppose is somewhat obvious. Willing suspension of disbelief and all that. It's harmless, except to my poor Dad's blood pressure, and, yes, I surely grasp that super-powers can act as a metaphor and aren't to be taken literally.
I get it.
So it's not the unlikely - as in "pretty damn well impossible" - science itself that bothers me. After all, even given what we know about evolution and the tenacious capacity of life to generate itself even in the most extreme and inhospitable environments, it's still more likely a prospect that life first evolved on Earth than that any human being could be as good an archer as Green Archer,(*2) or as fine a martial artist in her high heels as Black Canary.
No, it's not the dumb science. It's the dumb arrogance of the very idea that there's nowhere more important in the whole galaxy, and particularly this entire universe of us, than Earth.
And worse yet, on the dumb arrogance scale, is the regrettable and egregious belief that even more than Earth is wonderful, human beings are wonderful.
I mean, that's more than rubbish, or even dumb rubbish. That's actually dangerous rubbish.
(*2) I can't shift the voice of Bill Hicks in my head over this one: "Well, he could, Bill, if he, like, practised enough."
4. They're Absolutely Everywhere
There are somewhere between 200 and 400 billion stars in our galaxy alone. (I know this because I've just looked it up on Wikipedia.) And though I have no mathematical imagination at all, I think I can take it on trust that that's a great deal of stars, and that a considerable measure of space is required to sprinkle them through it.
How is it then that the Heavens of the superhero universes are knee-deep in Earthlings? We're everywhere. You can't turn around without bumping into the Fantastic Four, and sometimes it seems that every little planet of sentient raddishes thinks Superman is their hero. And how we human beings are involved in absolutely all of what's going on. We cause everything, we solve everything, we enlighten everyone, we pose with our glowing hands on our shapely hips and God himself must look down and think how he wishes we'd been around when that trouble with the Rebel Angels had broken out. We're just fabulous.
Don't you love us?
And though we can barely land a car-sized spaceship on Mars without crashing it in our "real" world, which might you may imagine inspire a little perspective and humility, out there in the superhero universes, everything's fantastic and everything's about fantastic us. The forgotten X-Man Vulcan conquered the entire Sh'iar Empire. (An entire Empire! The Allies have been in Iraq for more than seven years and it's still incredibly hard going there, for everyone that's involved.) The Inhumans have done the same to the Kree. Richard Ryder, a rather young Earthman, has saved the entire inter-galactic police force of the Nova Corp, and then the universe itself. Several times. The Guardians of the Galaxy, composed of Earthfolks and characters who've largely been defined by their fortunate exposure to the master-species, troll around the universe righting wrongs which all the other countless gazillions of more technologically advanced species strangely can't. Even Earth computer intelligences - would that be "viruses"? - such as Ultron seem to be able to overwhelm the tech defences of ancient cultures who've existed in a state of war, and therefore battle-ready defensiveness, for centuries.
Yes, there's always an explanation, a McGuffin of one degree of silliness or another, but it's still hard to swallow when, time after time, Ultron and the likes of Dr Pym's boy are taking on ancient alien civilisations and winning. We're well into downloading-the-virius-from-an-Apple-Mac-into-the-Mothership territory with every new example of that happening.
Out there, the non-Terran "good guys" may occasionally be a little alien looking, but on the whole they've learned to actually be good guys through their socialisation with, well, us! Huzzah! Huzzah for us! Warlock, jewel-headed version, Warlock, strange techy-kid version, the Silver Surfer; on and on goes the list. What would all those literally countless alien species do without us to save them, conquer them, and enlighten them, inspire them?
And it's exactly the same in the DC Universe, whose order is maintained by its own interstellar police force, the Green Lantern Corp, which is of course blessed to contain quite a few humans among its members. Ah, those human beings! (Particularly those mostly-white, middle-class, male American humans.) You'd think that the immortal Guardians who set up the Green Lantern Corp millions of years ago would have a little more knowledge and experience than a few 30-something "fearless" super-heroes, but you'd be wrong. You surely would be. For when disaster threatens, it's the guys from the blink-of-an-eye industrial culture on Earth who know what to do, and it's the immortal and massively experienced ones who dither around like fools.
And even where the slight possibility of human fallibility appears, it's so rarely that the alien, the truly not-like-us, is allowed to close the conflict, resolve the story, and show that Earthfolks aren't the be-all-and-end-all. Even when Geoff Johns portrayed the Humans of the 30th century as thoroughly unpleasant racists, or at least "specists", they still had to be saved by more of their own kind, or at least, good guys and gals who mostly look as if they were their kind. How I wish that "Earth-Man" and his cronies had been dismantled by some truly alien heroes. A big walking pit of slime and a twelve-armed goddess made of boulders would have done for me there. It would have been a relief.
And I didn't realise it until I wrote the last sentence, but it's absolutely true: I'm so sick of human beings being grand and wonderful that I think I want to set off a Doomsday Cobalt Bomb myself.
Life would go on. It wouldn't be human life, but it'd go on.
And I bet whatever it is that survives the nuclear holocaust, whatever slime or cockroach it is that munches it's way to the top of the radioactive evolutionary tree, they wouldn't waffle on all the time about how bloody great they are!
We're not. We're really not.
We're quite probably the opposite to so bloody great.
I'm with Swift, and I too prefer the horses. (*3)
(*3) This may be one reason for my fondness for Beta-Ray Bill, and indeed Comet the Super-Freudian-Nightmare Horse.
5. They're Absolutely Everywhere, And Yet We're Better Than Them
Human beings have a terrible habit of assuming that the group they belong to is inherently superior to everybody else's. And in truth, habit is completely the wrong word to use here. This tendency to divide the world into "in-groups", or our folks, and "out-groups", or those folks who aren't as good as we are, happens in every human culture and in every historical epoch. It's what human beings do; they get snotty about each other. And this may even be hardwired into our brain. It may be a byproduct of the interaction of our psychology and our physiology. It's certainly a tendency that's intensified and shaped by culture.(*4) It's the way we are.
Or to put it another way; we have a tendency to believe that we belong to special groups who are better than other groups.
And as soon as we think that, we're heading for the same trouble we've always been in.
We're better than you. God loves us better than you. We may just have to do some terrible, logically-indefensible things to you because, well, we're just better, you know?
Tuskegee. Abu Ghraib. Hola Camp. Auschwitz.
(*4 - Anyone who's curious and who hasn't tripped down the strange byways of social psychology could do worse than Google "Milgram", "Tajfel" or "Zimbardo". That would give a start on some of the different ways that we lovely human beings divide the world into "our side" and "their side", and what that can result in.)
6. Not A Digression: On "Star Trek: First Contact"
In "Star Trek: First Contact", Captain Picard tries his best to explain to Lilly, a woman he's encountered during a bout of time-travel to the past, how different his future world is to her capitalist present.
"The economics of the future are somewhat different. You see, money doesn't exist in the 24th century ... The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity. "
Now, imagine being an actor and being asked to pull off those stiff, self-righteous lines. But Patrick Stewart does so brilliantly, speaking them almost absent-mindedly, as if they were the fragments of a well-loved and familiar catechism learned by heart in childhood. An item of well-rehearsed and implicitly believed-in faith, as it were.
But, despite the technical brilliance of Mr Stewart's delivery, the content of the little speech is utter rubbish, of course, though it's a brave stab in trying to explain what gives the Federation the moral right to charge around the cosmos offering - on its' better days - to meddle in everybody else's affairs for everyone else's best interests. For the justification for the Federation and Starfleet is that they constitute a complete break with human history, that they are the consequence of an evolutionary leap ahead in terms of social morality and organisation. We're completely different from all the human beings that have come before us, says Picard, we're unselfish and that makes us a source of good.
It seems that that old devil money, and the greed it inspired, had always been the problem for humankind, and now that the Federation has the technology to satisfy everybody's needs and wants, Utopia is to all intends and purposes extant on Earth and, through Earth's men and women, the stars too. Humans have become Houyhnhnm. And what's left for us is a mission to fulfil our secret and true natures, and to become a source of trans-galactic goodness.
Which is, of course, as I'm sure many folks that I've not been fortunate enough to read yet have said before me, pure Marxism. It's exactly the same logical escape hatch which Marx left in his theories. (What's to stop the working classes from falling out among themselves after the Revolution's over about who gets what? Why, there'll be so much of everything that nobody will ever need to fall out again. Technology will liberate us from greed and see to that.)
And the Federation is, therefore, in all seriousness, another word for "Communism". It's another word to sign up how human beings will need to be utterly socially, morally and technologically transformed so that they're fit to Lord it across the cosmos.
Because we're not fit for that yet. And only a complete break with everything we have ever been will make us fit for that task.
Or to put it another way, whether its Communism or the Federation, or whatever Utopian vision for a worthy human society you care to invest your faith in, it'll never come about because we'd have to be the Houyhnhnm to be that splendid. Because we can't do that. We are hard-wired for prejudice, socially constructed for selfishness, historically and culturally hemmed in by ideologies of irrationality, of short-sightedness, of opportunism and selfishness. And it's all we can do, from one generation to the next, to try to tackle these big and terrible beasts that are part of us before passing the struggle on to the next generation, who'll do the same. And so it goes. (*5)
We'll never be like the Houyhnhnm. If we could, we'd be Houyhnhnm.
(*5 - John Gray's "Black Mass" is particularly strong on this problem, and I'd highly recommend it to you, though I couldn't say to be convinced by much of the conclusions.)
7. Special, So Special
The fundamental problem with Geoff Johns placing the origins of all "sentient" life on Earth is that it makes Earth special. In fact, it makes the Earth far far more special than everywhere else everywhere. And as soon as a place becomes perceived as "special", it warps the perceptions of those folks who feel that they belong there. It's a problem that's been part of human culture from as far back as recorded history begins, as far as anybody can tell, and it's hard to believe that human beings thought any differently before they started leaving records for us to obsess over.
Even today, it's hard to escape the conclusion that, for example, far too Americans are still driven by their ridiculous sense of American Exceptionalism, of Manifest Destiny and that shining city on the hill. It rarely has a good end to feel too special, not matter how feel-good TV psychobullshitters tell you otherwise. And we Brits are the same, and sometimes we still nostalgically and rather pathetically succumb to the dregs of the brew that summons up "Land Of Hope And Glory" and pride at Britannia once having ruled the waves. It's such a short hop from Shakespeare and "This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This other Eden, demi-paradise .." to the idea that stealing a quarter of the World and looting it for our own interest was a benevolent assumption of the "white man's burden".
We all do it. It isn't excusable, but we all do it. And as part of "it", there's always that sense of a magical, pure, morally-exalted place that somehow makes the people who live there more special than those who live over the next hill.
But being a Roman, or a Londoner, or an inhabitant of the "real" America, or even "America", is hardly a moral qualification for anything more worthy than the selling of postcards.
And "Earth" really isn't in any way important, except, of course, to us. To us, it's home. It's the only home we've got, and it's the only one we'll ever have. It's a shame, really, that we've had such a damn good go at buggering it up, but there you are and so it goes. In those so-familiar words of Douglas Adams, we're "... an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy." We're twenty-six thousand light-years away from the centre of that galaxy, and we're so far from anywhere that matters that we think we're pretty neat.
8. Modesty: The Superior Person Carries Things Through
But so many of the comic book creators of super-hero universes just can't seem to conceive that modesty and a less ethnocentric view of the universe might be the way to go. No, to them there's simply no power in all of creation that human beings aren't superior to. Apokolips of Fourth World is brought to its knees and destroyed by Brother Eye and the Pied Piper. Asgaard is destroyed by ordinary bombs in "Seige" last month. (*6) Sorcerer Supremes and Scientist Supremes have to come from Earth, and from America too.
It's a damn good job that Neil Gaiman has retained some measure of control over "Sandman" or some clan of fools will have the Justice League invading the Land Of Dreams and ending the tyranny of Dream.
Look at how super-human beings race across space in little aircraft somehow souped up with unimaginable technology to allow light-years to be crossed in between panels . Zipping from star to star has become as interesting as a bus ride from one shopping centre to another, because human beings simply have to be able to do anything and everything that any alien race can do. It all feels oddly like a kind of ideological suburbanisation, in which all the wild lands of our imagination, all the challenges and all the differences, get paved over with banality so that we're left with a universe where I'm sick of how often and how easily we drop in on Rann or Kree-Lar.
I think I'd see a super-hero comic book set in a recognisable New Jersey or Swindon as being more exotic than one more jaunt to the barrack rooms and communal dining halls of Oa.
And I think that we've long past the point in comic books where we have to be a little careful about preserving the different, the strange, the worlds where America isn't either the model or the solution. Those concepts of Alan Moore's that the Green Lantern creative team has been demystifying and rationalising over the past few years? They retained their power and fascination because they weren't rationalised and their strangeness was deliberately ill-defined. But on we trundle, paving over the different so we can have another big super-powered punch-up on it.
And as we constantly waffle on about how we're better than everyone else, about how nobody can beat us, about how our little bacon-foil spacecraft can turn back huge invasion fleets, how our Gods will kick their Gods back into their inferior mythological somewhere-elses, how nobody in the whole 200 Billion star-systems in our galaxy is as smart as Reed Richards or as pure'n'punchiful as Superman, well; it bleeds out the mystery, it smooths out the fear, and it's also quite unbelievable. I can happily accept a man who can run faster than the speed of light, or even an Android who can walk through walls and fire recycled sunlight through his head, or his eyes, or whatever. It doesn't matter, I'll believe it.
But Earth, the most precious place in all of existence? And you and me, the saviours of the universe? And most every time too?
Oh, please. It doesn't even work as a dramatic conceit.
Isn't anyone else bored by this? It's not just insidious. It's dull.
Or as my old man would say: "But that's rubbish!"
(*6) I certainly got that wrong. Thanks to Ben who points out in the comments how it was the Sentry who destroyed Thor's home. His well-worth-reading comment is below.
9. In Closing: My Own Lack Of Humanity, or: Why I'm Not Fit To Rule The Cosmos
I. Very occasionally, I would have a good idea in the classroom.
Once, in order to try and help my RE students come to grips with Christian teaching, I suggested they imagine in their head the worth of their favourite possessions. (I never asked them to tell anyone else what this sum might amount to. Having come from a - what can we say? - less prosperous home in my youth, which I can tell you did not go well in the affluent Grammar School I mistakenly earned a place to, I'd no intention of embarrassing anyone.) And then I placed in front of my students a checklist of life-changing, even life-saving, medical and social provisions in front of them. Are these possessions you've thought of as being your most precious belongings essential, I'd ask them, challenging them to consider whether they could do without them? And then we'd have a general discussion of how much non-essential possessions might raise if they were sold, and how that money might be spent on what probably should never be called "doing good".
So, if everybody in the class had something they could sell for a pound, and we all shared that profit, we calculated that we could pay for a 15 minute operation that'd allow one trachoma sufferer to keep their sight. And then I had the students investigate Trachoma, and they reported back on how, for example, the disease causes the eyelashes to grow into the sufferer's eyes, and how the sight is painfully damaged and then irreparably destroyed.
And we talked about what it would be like to be suffering this, and knowing what awaited us as the pain increased, and how tough it might be anyway in a developing country, and how much we might want somebody to come across the horizon and save us.
You know, like Superman. Giving us our eyesight back.
And they were great about it, and that form had a collection of spare change every week, which they ran, and which I play-grumpily contributed to, and at the end of the year we had enough for about three and a half people to undergo the operation. (We decided that we'd saved seven eyes instead. It felt better than wondering and giggling about the half-a-person.)
II. But that was all very well and good. I felt useful and shamefully worthy. And perhaps it helped explain Christian ethics and perhaps it even encouraged a few students to reach into their pockets every once a while. But now I look at the little bookshelf we asked our neighbour to build us in return for my wife helping his daughter with her reading, and I look at the three Absolute Editions I have there, and the two Marvel Omnibus editions, and I think, that's five people's sight there. No need to debate about morality or worry about trickle-down economics. No excuse that giving a few pounds might intensify the culture of poverty or get swallowed up in the administrative costs of some top-heavy charity. Nope, those books up there are simply resources that can be swapped for five people's eye-sight. It's a straight swap.
All I have to do is sell them on and in a few week's time, five people who are painfully losing their sight will be free of that awful spectre.
And it's not as if I need those books. Oh, I worked for them,and I damn well did work for them, and I do love them, but I don't need them.
Not like somebody I've never met needs their eyesight. Not on any level at all.
But I don't sell those books.
I've not been selling those books for years.
And I doubt very many of you do that either. Perhaps I'm being cynical, but most of us don't. Not because we're evil, or even particularly selfish. But because we're people. And "people" aren't generally the sort to set the universe to rights, to lecture Gods, redeem galactic empires, or save all of existence from the Infinity Gauntlet. We're not even very good at selling our books to help other people who really do need our help.
You're mostly the sort of folks like I am, I reckon; the sort of folks who don't benefit at all from hearing how unique and peerless and moral we are. Because we know what we are, and it doesn't help us to keep hearing how cosmically wonderful, how universally essential we are.
And I'd like to see to more of us and what we're actually like and how we truly live in the comic books that we read. Not as "relevancy", or misery, or hectoring and lecturing.
I'd just like us to stop pretending we're so damn gifted and good and special.
We're not Houyhnhnm, and we never can be.
10. Lost In The Stars
Jonathan Swift wrote that "We have just enough religion to make us hate each other, but not enough to make us love each other." Which is, I suspect, where most of human thought is concerned, religious or otherwise, still largely true. And so I do think that we might leave the Guardians and the Kree and the rest of them alone for a while as we work on cracking our own problems. Or, at the very least, that we might work on not being so heroically in denial about what it's like simply to be us.
At least, even though I accept that 70 comics a month from Marvel detailing the running of the super-hero volunteer hospital wouldn't help anything, we might at least have an end to the bilge and cant. (*7)
And as for the Earth being special, I rather think of it as being precious and somewhat somehow displaced, as evoked by the song "Lost In The Stars" by Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill;
"Before Lord God made the Sea and the Land,
He held all the stars in the palm of his hand,
And they ran through his fingers like grains of sand,
And one little star fell alone ... "
(*7) Except for this bilge and cant, of course. This is my bilge and cant. I needed to put it somewhere. So I put it here.