Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Fascist Superman, The Tyrant Aquaman, That Lil'Boy Spider-Man Too: How Childish & Anti-Democratic Are Our Super-Heroes? Part 1 of 2

1. "Truth, Justice & The American Way"

Superheroes, we are constantly told, are an adolescent power fantasy. A rather sweeping generalisation, you might think, about both adolescents and, yes, superheroes, but it must be true. And it must be true because it's a point that's constantly being stated and restated without ever seeming to be questioned. And for a common-sense truth which appears to have become accepted as fact simply through a process of repetition across the decades, it has a cardinal's college of highly esteemed, and rightly so, comic book professionals propagating it as gospel. Mark Waid, for example, in his essay "The Real Truth About Superman", wrote that;

"Comic book superheroes were created as, and always have been at root, an adolescent power fantasy."

And so, it seems that everybody knows that this business about the adolescent power fantasy and superheroes is undoubtedly true, and they know because, well, everybody knows, don't they?

2. With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

I. There's another "truth" about superheroes which is less generally held, but still commonly expressed as fact and even more commonly debated as a possibility, namely the inherent fascism of the very idea of the superhero. Here the sources are incredibly unlikely to include too many mainstream comic book creators, given how loathsome that word "fascism" is, but they are often well-respected cultural commentators all the same, despite their strange choice to follow in the footsteps of the still ludicrous Fredric Wertham. How the proud and crusading Dr Wertham of 1954, who claimed that Superman was a fundamentally fascist and racist character whose adventures cruelly deceived children about the laws of physics, would have likely approved of Lawrence and Jewett's "Myth Of The American Superhero", and their "Captain America And The Crusade Against Evil" too. In the latter, for example, we're told that;

"In the modern superhero story ... Helpless communities are redeemed by lone savior figures who are never integrated into them and never marry at the story's end. In effect, like the god's they are permanent outsiders to the human community ... We suggest this new myth system .... shows a democratic face in that the protagonist is an everyman, yet has a pop-fascist dimension in that these unelected, law-transcending figures exercise superpowers to overcome their foes ... The stories stories show that, when confronted with genuine evil, democratic institutions and the due process of law always fail ... This embodies the vigilante tradition, in which redeemer figures who often wear the white robes of the book of revelation rid the community of its ostensible enemies."

Quite frankly, if these men are to believed, there's more than a little something rotten at the heart of the concept of the superhero. The very notion of the superhero, Lawrence and Jewett are telling us, is "pop-fascist", and that's about as low a judgement of a storytelling tradition as one can get. Indeed, they might just as well have defined the superhero as "evil" and saved themselves a great deal of terminology. Yet, in not doing sparing the polysyllables, their thesis won the John Cawelti Award of the American Culture Association Best Book Award of 2002, and the Mythopoeic Society Scholarship Award In Myth And Fantasy Studies 2004.

This isn't simply the chuntering of internet posters grumbling away to each other, as you and I are doing here. This is material that is being treated seriously. The "pop-fascism" of the superhero, whether in comic books or in any other field of American entertainment, is apparently a profoundly serious problem.

3. "I Shall Become A Bat"

I. The term "pop-fascism", as used by Lawrence and Jewett, seems to be being used to describe the specific media product that is superheroes in order to highlight how the adventures of the likes of Superman, Aquaman and Spider-Man encourage the view that;
  • America should rule the world,because only American superheroes can save it
  • powerful American superheroes can achieve transcendentally more than even the apparently corrupt and incompetent American Government can
  • a selfless superhero-like leader should take control of America, and presumably the world, and rule in a pure and effective way which no democratically elected individual could
Now, I've written on this blog before about my concern that the American superhero is often positioned in opposition to the American state, especially where Captain America is concerned (*1), but that doesn't mean that the superhero is by its very nature a "pop-fascist" figure. There doesn't exist a storytelling form which can't be subverted by intent or incompetence to carry a "pop-fascist" meaning, if that must be the term we're supposed to be using here. ("Fascism" always seemed to be a perfectly applicable phrase to me before, but all those awards do confirm a certain weight to a term, don't they?) In fact, rather than conceding that the superhero is implicitly fascist, I'd like to suggest exactly the opposite, for it seems obvious to me that the superhero narrative is a profoundly democratic form which draws its power from the myths and values of Western liberal democracy, and that only in a specific set of carelessly-constructed circumstances can the superhero seem to be any other such thing, let alone an avatar of "pop fascism".

(*1) The three Captain America pieces which can be accessed from the "labels" menu to the right are concerned with that matter. Since I dealt with some of the circumstances in which a superhero comic might contribute to an anti-democratic ethos there, I'll not cover the same ground again here. Folks who may have already some of those pieces deserve not to have re-live the experience again!

4. "We Gotta Use That Power To Help Mankind, Right?"

At the heart of these claims that the superhero is an "adolescent power fantasy", or indeed a component of a fascist-inspiring ideology, lie, I believe, two major and closely related misunderstandings of what the superhero is and why it has appealed in a variety of mass mediums to such huge audiences for such a long period of time;
  • Firstly, it's often assumed that an enjoyment of the adventures of a costumed "superhero" is, in some vague and ill-defined way, dependent on the reader being able to engage with a sense of fury and impotence unique to a teenager coming to terms with their place in society, and;
  • Secondly, there is a working assumption that this taken-for-granted sense of fury and impotence both reflects and intensifies the superhero-loving reader's desire to impose their will upon the world in a profoundly violent, and possibly anti-democratic fashion.
But I can't help but believe that these premises are, as I hope I might show, quite flawed and, in truth, utterly unconvincing. Instead, I'm convinced that there's an at-least equally compelling case for arguing that the superhero is rather a symbol of;
  • the awareness of how the ideals of American democratic society and that societies management are to a greater or lesser degree out-of-sync, a sense of how the institutions and individuals of American society aren't always living up to the principles they profess to hold to, and;
  • a deeply conservative desire for the liberal-democratic ideals of the West to be followed in fact as well as principle by American society.

Or to put it another way, readers of all ages enjoy these tales of superheroes because we're aware on one level or another that there is a problem in our societies where the distribution of power is concerned. We love to watch those who violate and/or betray liberal-democratic values being dealt with, but not because we believe that a fascist state would be better than a democratic one. In fact, the superhero is a figure who serves to return, in narrative form, democracy to its ideals, where everyone is society is protected from the power wielded by those who care not a whit for fairness at all. For brought up as many of us in the West, and particularly in America, have been, quite consistently marinated in the popular tenants of democracy, we long to live in a world where the reality of our civil society and the claims made for it coincide more closely. And the superhero, rather than being a symbol of how the audience should turn to authoritarian government, draws its power from our knowledge of how democracy often doesn't work while desperately wishing that it did.

Therefore, the superhero is in its meaning a profoundly anti-fascist symbol. And the appeal of the cape'n'spandax crew is one which would stand for all age-groups rather than merely that of confused pubescents, because most if not nearly all of us long for a state which is in practise what it claims to be in principle: fair and just. That's not a property of youth, it's an unavoidable consequence of living in a democratic society. And it isn't anything to do with fascism, for it's concerned with an active freedom from fear and persecution rather than a capitulation to autocracy.

5. "I Think You're Marvellous - I Know You'll Help Me"

On reflection, it's astonishing that the superhero as "adolescent power fantasy" myth has survived for as long as it has, because it's patently an unsustainable argument. In the long decades of their existence, superheroes have appealed to an incredibly broad range of age groups, with the Dark Knight movies alone winning over tens of millions of adult viewers. If the superheroes existence in the form of radio shows, TV series, movies, books, stage plays and of course comic books is considered, then it must be obvious that there's a great deal more folks who aren't adolescent who've enjoy watching be-costumed characters righting wrongs than those who are. Unless all these folks are re-defined as having some "adolescent" qualities which make them susceptible to enjoying superhero adventures, and that would be a patently unfalsifiable proposition, then the fact must be accepted that being an adolescent is in no way an irreducible component of enjoying the adventures of Superman and his brethren. Anyway, to label so many millions of people over more than seven decades as being in some ill-defined way all "adolescent" is to make the term so broad that it's meaningless: if "adolescence" somehow extends across so many age-groups, then it would appear that it can't be "adolescence" at all that we're considering. Rather, it must be a common human quality that makes the superhero, under the right circumstances, so enjoyable and moving.

II. Even if we narrow our focus to the first wave of comic books themselves, as Mark Waid did in the above quote when he argued that superheroes were by designed targeted at adolescents, the argument is hard to support. For the initial audiences for superheroes were far broader than simply adolescents, and that mass market has often been described as including a huge percentage of children far below the threshold of pubescence. (Is this "adolescent" quality one which moves prepubescents too? Would that be a "premature-adolescent" quality then?) Similarly, we know that the War years saw substantial numbers of adults, particularly servicemen, consuming superhero tales, so, again, unless we choose to label all these groups as somehow adolescent, the term collapses in its applicability.

III. Was Christopher Reeve's "Superman" so loved because of the impotence and rage he symbolised, or the Adam West "Batman"? Or was it some other property common to adolescents which also seems to affect children and adults that, for example, permitted George Reeve and Tobey Maguire to become so popular and well-loved in costume? Is it childishness or naivety we're talking about? Immaturity or a festering desire to see other people sorted out before our eyes?

What is that this "adolescence" actually describes?

IV: Might I suggest that we agree to consign this "adolescence" business to the conceptual bottom-drawer and look elsewhere for the superheroes appeal? For I can't conceive of how it's become seen as "childish" to be able to engage in stories where the world is, while fundamentally often a hospitable place, regularly characterised by conflict and unfairness. Don't most of us feel ourselves to be often at the mercy of individuals and groups far beyond our, or apparently anybody's, control? Indeed, isn't that everyone's experience of life, adult or otherwise, who isn't blinded by ideology, a great accumulation of wealth or an enviable over-measure of optimism? It isn't adolescent or immature to be aware that even our revered democratic societies are full of predators and ignoramuses, and that it's sometimes hard to anticipate correctly which breed will get us first. Whether we're a child being bullied and finding that help is hard to come by, or grown citizens faced with exploitative prices in the shops and anti-social behaviour outside our neighbourhood stores, the sense that society isn't fair and won't respond to our needs is often an objective and valid one.

That's not a belief that's fascist, of course. It's not a rejection of democracy, so much as a wish that democracy would function more effectively.

And it's a belief that's intensified by the myths of democracy which we're fed as children and to which we're still exposed as we age. While a degree of unfairness, of even callousness, is to be expected by the members of some other political societies, now and throughout history, democracy sells itself on the holy writ of, yes, liberty, fraternity and equality. Democracy is a system where truths are self-evident, where the little person can rise to be president one day, and where everybody can have their say and live their lives their own way too. Except, of course, that for most of the time for most of the people, it's no such thing. No human society can ever be so benevolent and so excellently efficient for even most of its existence. No, as we all well know, democracy is a system founded on impossible ideals which yet works on the whole incredibly well, given the crippling limits of human nature. And although many of us are fortunate enough to have become familiar with the view that democracy is not so much about achieving our dreams as making sure that other individuals can't dominate government to achieve theirs, the popular understanding of it is often a quite Disney-fied one, a sentimental conception of shining cities on hills and lands fit for heroes and little people. In fact, regardless of how aware we are of the doctrine of the separation of powers and the primacy of the rule of law, that political sentimentality can strike down any of us at any time. How can this happen here, we ask ourselves, for this is America, Britain, or wherever? And we expect more because we seem to have been promised it, and we're disappointed because Bush and Blair seemed to be mendacious idiots, and Cameron and Obama appear to be no knights in shining armour. And it's tough at times, regardless of how sophisticated and cynical we regard ourselves to be, to haul ourselves back, put our sulking emotions securely into the box, and to remind ourselves that, as Churchill enjoyed repeating, Democracy is the least worst of all political systems, and that's its virtue.

It's not heaven on earth. It was never intended to be. We know that.

But democracy is an emotional as well as a philosophical concept. We expect a great deal of the various powers that be, whether they're within the state or subject to it. And, quite frankly, they're often not doing what our hearts expect of them. They're hypocrites and carpet-baggers, they're this and they're that, but we loose faith far more in them than we do in the system itself.
Suggest that all politicians should be nailed to a raft that's to be floated off to sea and there'd be some agreement that it's a good plan. But recommending that that purging should be followed up by the scraping of democracy would inspire a great deal less nodding and chuckling. For the West still seems to believe that on the whole the representative system is essentially a good thing, which could surely be made to work better if only we'd all live up to our common ideals.

Hence, the superhero, no more the enemy of democracy than the romance comic is the enemy of romance. Simply to say that democracy isn't sorting out many of its most pressing problems, as the superhero symbolically implies, isn't to demand that democracy be done away with, anymore than the existence of a tearful problem getting dates on Friday night implies that the whole business of love and romance should be shelved in favour of, for example, serial killing.

V. All of those who tell us that part of the process of leaving behind adolescence is learning to accept the world as it is, to "grow up", somehow manage to miss the fact that a "grown up" could only miss the inequalities in power and opportunity in the modern West through a conscious act of conceptual-repression. And so, to perceive our democracies to be grossly unfair systems, to be riddled with incompetence and crime and powerful special interests, isn't to be adolescent. It's to be the very thing which superhero fans are so often accused of not being, an adult, seeing the world for what it is. Nor is it fascist to want those grand ideals which underlie democracy to be referenced more often and more ably. In many ways, it's a desire that stands in direct contradiction to the values of fascism. The belief that the democratic system could be restored to working democratic order if only more of us were willing to put their shoulders to the wheel at great cost to themselves, and to great advantage for the people, surely occupies an antagonistic place on the political spectrum to the abandonment of responsibility demanded of by a Hitler or Mussolini?

For the superhero hardly ever wants to change society on a fundamental level, or overthrow it, as we'll soon discuss. The superhero just wants Wall Street to play fair, criminals to obey the law, citizens to be honest and understanding in their everyday business, and, overall, those truths which are self-evident to be commonly accepted and practised and, yes, evident.

Once we're all playing fair and by the rules, the superhero disappears. He or she shows us that there is an alternative to accepting the unfair and hypocritical aspects of contemporary life. Because the superhero is at heart, as it was in 1938 when Superman first appeared, a dramatic and colourful symbol for a more honest and meaningful way of living. And by pulling on those garish and absurd costumes, the superheroes declare by the fact of their very superheroic existence that social virtue is so worthwhile that it deserves human symbols who act anonymously and without reward, and then, job done, disappear.

VI. And it's there that the appeal of the superhero rests, drawing off our democratic sentimentality, our desire for a human society which treats itself well. The superhero is a ridiculous, heartfelt, colourful, two-dimensional shout that says that it's tougher out here in real life than we were promised, that it's dangerous and often inequitable too, and that there are times when it would be good to have a friend who'd help to even the balance between the individual and the powers-that-be. In that sense, the superhero is a worthwhile and understandable symbol to the reader of how the powers-that-be aren't always quite what they promised they would be. But in the language of symbols, that doesn't mean that the superhero by its existence suggests that democracy should be replaced by fascism, because its a love of democracy that motivates our disappointment and the superheroes existence in the first place.

And I think that the link between the superhero and democratic sentiment is so powerful, so fundamental, that it explains why superheroes who gain political power in their stories never appeal to a wider audience. For strangely, in a so-considered "pop-fascist" form, there are no superheroes shown taking over societies and governing well who retain any popular following substantial enough to float their own book. Thor stagnates and loses his popular appeal the more his adventures focus solely on Odin's son as a King of Asgard. The form just won't permit that to be acceptable, and so audiences diminish, and Thor is banished, or in rebellion, or unpopular with the gods for not wearing the right helmet, or whatever, because the underlying truth of the superhero is that the hero enables democracy, not replaces it.

And what could be a more effective example of this than Aquaman, a character who has been popular throughout the decades in a variety of mediums, who is time and time again almost a commercially succesful superhero, and yet who constantly flails around looking for an audience? Though undoubtedly flummoxed as a commercial proposition by a variety of problems, which of course we've discussed here at length, could it be that one of his recurrent narratives, namely that of ruling Atlantis or having to cope with not ruling it, alienates an audience that simply can't accept the story-logic of a superhero as a king in the first place? For the first demand that a superheroes audience instinctively makes of a King is that he frees his people? The crown and the costume are simply incompatible. (*2) And so for Namor, and Geo-Force, and Ka-Zar, and just about every other comic-book king that can be thought of, symbol and rank collide and the audience dribbles away.

The superhero, with perhaps the single exception of The Black Panther, which we'll discuss in a piece that's nearly ready for an appearance on this blog, is a figure which overthrows tyrannies and establishes democracies. That's the only kind of social revolution which the costumed supermen and women ever engage in, founded as they are in the belief that the default setting for human political organisation is representative democracy. (*3) And of course that would be so, for the superhero is, after all, fundamentally an American way of seeing the world, and most Americans want neither Kings or fascists giving speeches while wrapped in their flag beside the Washington Monument. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

*2 Very long-term readers will notice that I appear to have switched sides on the "should-Aquaman-be-a-king"debate, but I stand by my original wish to have him as a constitutional monarch come warlord, which is compatible with democracy, as we Brits seem to have discovered.
*3 Removing a dictatorship and replacing it with the ballot-box isn't a "revolution" to the Justice League or The Avengers; it's a kind and necessary reversion to humanity's natural state, and yes, that will be a point we'll be raising later on.

To be concluded tomorrow:

Part 2 will indeed conclude matters tomorrow, where I'll try to close this argument that the superman is counter-intuitively a profoundly democratic creation. At least I haven't picked the easy argument here. It would be splendid to see you there, perhaps, just as it is splendid to think of your day going, er, splendidly. To all who've reached this exit line, thank you!



  1. And I think that the link between the superhero and democratic sentiment is so powerful, so fundamental, that it explains why superheroes who gain political power in their stories never appeal to a wider audience.

    Do you think this might also be a part of why Neil Gaiman quickly moved his Sandman character away from the superheroing world after the first story arc? I wonder if he intuited that the idea of monarchy clashed undesirably with the spandexed heroes. I suspect that if Dream had been more liberally used by DC-proper, it would have been hard for most writers not to turn him into a villain. (After all, he does kidnap children and threaten pregnant women... power corrupts, and all that.)

  2. Hello J - and what a thought-provoking idea. I believe that Mr Gaiman wanted to pursue a fantasy book that was largely set away from the DCU because of his own tastes, but as to his thinking about where and to what degree the genres of superhero & fantasy can & can't mix, I can't speculate, though I'm deeply tempted to. Was it intuition or knowledge or taste that pushed him away from the DCU? Probably all three, actually. He is intimidatingly bright where it comes to the business of storytelling, isn't he?

    I meant it when I said your comment was thought-provoking, for I never thought of the Sandman when I was writing this and obviously I should have. My brain had the character compartmentalised over in Gaiman-land & yet you're right,the character interacted with superheroes both in SM & in the JLA too. That deserved consideration, and I'm really pleased you've raised the matter here.

    I suspect that of all of the comic book monarchs, the Sandman would prove the easiest to incorporate into a superhero narrative in one sense because those he rules seem to be other than human, limited in number & quite happy on the whole in service to him - the likes of ravens & immortal biblical killers & so on. They're less a people than a household, as it were. Of course, there's also the sense in which the Sandman rules all the dreaming creatures of the DCU too, which also seperates him from more mundane political matters such as human politics. He's not part of human politics, we're subject to his, which might help the character function free of the democratic metaphor.

    And you're so right, as far as we might conjecture, that Dream would be a figure which less-able, disciplined and/or well-read writers might find it hard not to cast as a villain. He did of course "get his" in his own tale, but not as a consequence of the normal comic book too-and-froing between good & bad costumes, democratic ideals and authoritarian ones. The sight of a king of any kind inevitably causes the superhero writer to identify a possible enemy, and combined with the "crimes" you've mentioned - oh, dear, can you imagine the Teen Titans fighting Sandman?

    The piece isn't even all up yet & there's a huge topic left unconsidered. Thank you for raising it here, J.

  3. ...oh, dear, can you imagine the Teen Titans fighting Sandman?

    I recall that Daniel-Dream made a few appearances in JSA while his parents were on the team (I know, I know, they're not "really" his parents, but still). At one point he stopped the villain Per Degaton from terrorizing the couple, even while saying he had no problem with the man terrorizing the rest of the world. I thought that was actually quite in-character, more so than you would expect from a popular superhero book (and one written by Geoff Johns, no less).

    There's also an incident to consider in John Orstrander's run of The Spectre, which frequently dipped its toes into Gaiman's side of the DCU. As the series was wrapping up, Jim Corrigan and the Spectre were having a crisis of identity, and as a part of their tour of the DC mystical worlds they arrived into the Hell ruled by Duma and Remiel. Duma offered the Spectre the key of Hell, offering sovereignty over the damned. As I recall—and my memory may be faulty—the Spectre refused because it wasn't a part of his mission. I would suspect that most superheroes would refuse sovereignty over any realm, on the same grounds. (A followup issue also showcased a conversation between the Spectre and the kingdom-abjuring Lucifer, who seemed perfectly happy without all that responsibility.)

  4. J – I’m really pleased for the steers you’re helping me with here. For I just can’t recall ever reading Dream’s appearance in the JSA, or those Spectre tales either. I’m certainly fascinated to learn that Dream did appear there, will admit that I’d like to see the scene where he so typically thinks of his own rather than any western concept of justice. I shall go look that up when I finish writing this. Thank you. I wonder how consistent the tone will be, or whether it’s obvious that two quite separate traditions are co-existing for a moment in the same story, together and yet never reading, as it were, from the same hymn-sheet.

    As for those fascinating Spectre stories you mention, I can’t help but feel that it’s a pity that they’ve never been collected in a cheap, thick phonebook format. Mr Ostrander did an incredible job in keeping a book alive where the lead was in truth too powerful to suffer jeopardy. I was with the book for a good long time, and regret missing the later issues I did. To the back-issue bins ….

    After reading your points, I’m wracking my brains to think of a superhero who would take, for example, the throne of, say, Albania or Canada if it were offered to them. And by that I mean, not as a short-term proposition, to save the nation or whatever, but as a lifelong commitment. Perhaps some of the younger, less intellectually engaged heroes might be swayed by the vainglory of it all. But overall, I can’t think of a one. The closest I can think of Black Adam in 52, who I’ll be mentioning in the next piece, but then, “hero” isn’t exactly the right word there, is it, to say the very least?

  5. There's also the recent case of the Spawn character, who, having conquered Hell, becomes the big villain of a major crossover (still in progress, I think). Is this another case of a ruler being inherently suspect, or is it just because he's ruling, well, Hell?

    The Black Adam arc came to mind as well, but you beat me to it. DC has been toying with making Adam a hero, but I think they actually managed to keep him in the villain sector—and Atom Smasher with him, at least for a while—in part by making him a ruler, thus implying moral ambiguity if not outright corruption.

    And I'm sure you haven't forgotten Marvelman/Miracleman, whose Moore-written arc ended with that wonderfully ambivalent tone.

  6. A compilation of Dream's appearances in JSA:

  7. Good morning, J - I appreciate the reference, and the examples too, which have convinced me that I MUST at all costs avoid trying to cover all the examples today when I finish this piece, or it will become a book and not a brief blog entry.

    You're absolutely right to mention, for example, Marvelman, though using the strip as an example would be complicated by the fact that the Gaiman sequence was never finished; no closure, no clear meaning, sadly, but now you've got me thinking of whether Mr Moran's adventures fit the model I'm struggling to make!

    And I think they do. For though the world simply doesn't need another psuedo-academic book about super-heroes, there is one on this topic of the fascist superman. I don't want to write one; I just wanted to feel secure that there was in my mind a clear grasp of an objection to those "adolescent" and "fascist" arguments. But given that, the relationship between the superhero and democracy is a curious one. For example, Black Adam; if the audience does adopt Black Adam after all he's been shown doing as an unambigious "superhero" figure, than I'll accept that my "thesis" is utterly wrong. Or at least, if he can play that role without some Hal Jordan-turnaround or a previously unseen-measure of repentence and redemption.

    Something to look out for, I guess. Thank you for keeping me on my toes!

  8. DC Comics is *all* about The Aristocracy, though. (a title Wildstorm never got around to, heh) Legacy characters, names and titles passed on to biological and ontological heirs (misusing that word, but anyway), families and dynasties and always always always a patriarchy, except when it's not.

    I wish I had time to really *read* and digest these essays, Colin. They are, to a one, absolutely blinding. I had better get back to work, though. One thing I will leave you with, as an interested party, is this small list of real-life superheroes:

    David Jones
    Edison do Nascimento
    Stefani Germanotta

    I would also disagree with any assertion that superheroes are a primarily American thing. I have this argument quite a lot, though, so I often feel like the last dry man on the Titanic (too soon?).

    They may have originated in, and be strongly identified with, the land of the free, but what a superhero is, *to me* if nobody else, is an absolutely concentrated, laser-light expression of identity. A superhero is Total Identity, is everything Ergo Sum, wrapped up in a spandex bullet and fired into the heart of the reader. And that is by no means dependent on time-zone.

    (have I said this here before? If I have, I'm sorry)

    (and there is nothing I hate more than when superheroes are named - or worse, dressed! - by people other than themselves. I mean, Ma Kent knitting a super-suit is one thing, but Bruce Campbell naming Spider-Man? Get outta heyah!)

    The Superhero - the name, the outfit, the powers - is an absolute articulation and assertion of personal identity, if not personal philosophy (God, what was it I read the other day about Identity and all actions as Art?). This is Who I Am. This is How I See The World. This is How I Choose To Interact With It. Superhero as metaphor for personal fulfillment, rather than social activist.

    I guess what I'm saying, in a not-at-all-putting-off-writing-my-next-comic way, is that I approach The Superhero from the point of view that they are a mirror of Self, as much or more than a mirror of Society. Possibly a funhouse mirror. Possibly a magnifying glass. Occasionally a robot.

    The salvation of self, sometimes through the salvation of society, but just as often, not. I dunno. I read too many Spider-Man comics, I think, and they seem to me to be more about Peter being able to look himself in the mirror than they are clean streets.

    That probably all sounds daft, and I think I'm taling myself round the Wrekin. I'll stop, now.

    Oh, hey, quasi-non-sequitor: Wonder Woman's swimsuit. It's camouflage, innit. An absolute expression of someone else's identity, that she might blend in better while spreading her own philosophy.

    Or is it just I - *shades* - who is a little cuckoo?

    YEAAAHHHHH... *guitars*


  9. Hello Matthew - and thank you for dropping in & riffing off that piece on super-heroes. That’s an incandescent list of ideas & associations & I’ve no hope of doing them all justice here, so apologies if I miss a point or five, but it’s been fun trying not to!

    1. As I said at the end of the piece, the superhero is whatever anybody says it is, as long as there’s not some logical problem with what they’re saying. The real intent of the piece was just for myself to see if I could put forward some kind of coherent objection to those ideas of the superhero as adolescent power fantasy or implicitly fascist figure. I hope there’s some grounds for thinking it’s a wider issue than the the issue & never irreducibly the second. But beyond that, it’s whatever you say it is! Huzzah!
    2. On the idea of the “American” superhero: yep, I can see how that would resonate, but I think it’s more that the superhero is located in the framework of the popular, and sentimental, American tradition of democracy. That doesn’t mean that the superhero can only be American, but I do think that the superhero looses its metaphorical power if it’s used to represent non-democratic interests which run contrary to the broad sense of representative democracy. That metaphor of the colourful powerful individual/group is only involving & attractive because they’re fighting for our rights. As soon as they’re fighting to take rights away – even down to the Sub-Mariner – then the superhero becomes a bully. That question of how we can feel the superhero represents us without becoming victims of this “pop-fascism” was my main concern. But within that liberal tradition, the superhero can “go” anywhere & be “anything.
    3. And of course, that doesn’t mean that the superhero can’t be exactly what you say; I tried to talk about the superhero as a big, colourful advert for a principle or two, but the superhero can of course be read to be that colourful concentration of identity too. I would say, on reflection after thinking about your comment, that the kind of character creation you’re talking to in music & the media does go back to before the superhero, meaning that though the two processes may be inter-related, they are still separate. That idea of the singer, for example, concentrating aspects of themselves into a spectacular abstraction of themselves is as old as the hills, though the infusion of superhero iconography into it by the likes of Bowie has put a fascinating & effective gloss on the process. But the superhero retains a narrative power over time which on the page, for example, Ziggy Stardust wouldn’t unless Ziggy was enmeshed into that “fighting for the people” tradition I was discussing. Ziggy, of course, fought for himself, meaning that in my mind that means that he looks like a superhero, but isn’t one; I don’t think that a book about Ziggy would work at all over time if it were just about Mr Jones fighting to be with Lady Stardust & claiming his next No One. The power of the superhero lies in more social concerns. But I mention that not to say you’re wrong: your comment just made me think & I thought I’d riff back.
    4. So I guess we’ll have to disagree on that “personal expression v social activist” point, though I think it’s rather splendid we’ve riffed too & fro on it.

    I hope your work went well, Mr M. And thanks for making me think! Really! I know we don’t agree here, but you really helped me start the day with that thunking.

    Ah, Pele ….

  10. I'm off to read your second installment, but I'm already in agreement with your refutation of the oft-repeated definition of the superhero as "primarily an adolescent power fantasy" that places its adherents on a slippery slope toward fascism. Great job of unpacking the assumptions that have made this canard so commonplace.

    Two thoughts before I join you in the second installment.

    First, The superhero who comes into a situation to remove villiany and restore fairness (I almost wrote "restore order," which is also true, but it is never just an authoritarian order, but a fair, democratic one.) (We're talking about fiction, after all), and then leaves--well that's not a plot limited to only SUPER heroes, is it? If Superman is a crypto-fascist, then so is Shane. I don't think so.

    Which is not to say that there haven't been executions of the superhero story that--consciously or not--do play up the adolescent-power-fantasy/fascistic approach. There are, including Miller's Dark Knight Returns and, of course, Watchmen and Miracleman--although it would be reductive to say that that is ALL those stories are. But the glittering but imperfect world that ends Moore's Miracleman stories doesn't make it impossible to tell great, delightful Billy Batson/Captain Marvel any longer.

    Okay, I'd better read on before I get carried away.


  11. Hello Mr M - I think it's fascinating the examples that you raise there, all of which I was deeply tempted to use & one of which I did. The Dark Knight Returns is a really telling one, because my interpretation of it is that for all the surface flash, it's a traditionally pro-democratic text. BUT, I do accept that that called all be changed if we could know what Batman's intentions are in that last scene in the cave. Up to that point, if memory serves, he's been the traditional hero restoring a better & more humane order, even going so far as to fight the Kryptonian SYMBOL of the corrupt order in order to undermine it. But I think the fact that Batman is associated with shadows and so on has obscured the fact that he's with the angels, more or less, here. He rescues children from the barbarism that the state has allowed them to fall into them, he takes on the criminals who prey on ordinary citizens who, for example, only want their family to be able to go to a fun-fair, and so on. The narrative is only "fascist" if in that last scene Batman intends for his new army to overthrow the purpose of restoring democracy in favour of a Bat-Dictatorship (Had to write THAT phrase!) which would be odd since Oliver Queen is there too, a strong symbol of the intention to incoporate all the traditional wings of non-extreme politics into the new order. (Both represented by millionaire superheroes, of course; ah, America!)

    I must admit that I didn't give the Miracleman stories nearly enough thought. I shall take that as homework too!

    I hope it's a good day for you. Mr M.