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
(*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.
- 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!