Continued From Yesterday;
6. "Clark Decided He Must Turn His Titanic Strength Into Channels That Would Benefit Mankind"
I. What's most remarkable about the persistent attempts to ascribe "pop-fascist" meaning to the superhero is how the pro-democratic narrative traditions of the genre are so readily ignored. It's as if the simple fact that superheroes tend to close their conflicts with violent punch-ups, combined with their habit of paradoxically breaking the law in order to maintain it, must mean that an authoritarian message is encoded within their adventures. This is such an odd position to take, rooted as it is in a puritanical left-wing ideology that perceives both the expression of power and the belief in the virtue of individual action as being by their very nature against the interests of the "people". (It's as if a perfect world would be by definition one in which conflict never had to be closed by coercion, and in which individuals would only take action when sanctioned and directed by the collective, and it's as idiotic a philosophy as that of its opposing political fairy story, Libertarianism.) Particularly perplexing is how "theorists" from Wertham onwards have abstracted the superheroes' typical methods and considered them in isolation from their typical ends, as if the very fact of punch-ups and law-bending is of itself proto-fascist regardless of why it occurs. Now, putting to one side the fact that this all places practically every adventure story that hasn't been deliberately written to extreme-left-of-centre principles in history into the camp of the fascist, wouldn't it surely be sensible to take into account whatever it is that the superhero wants, sacrifices for, and, perhaps, even sanctifies by all that effort and spandex? Isn't it important to consider why the superhero fights as well as how all that aggressive fighting gets done?
II. There is in fact an entire long-standing sub-genre of superhero tales where the cape'n'spandex brigade seek to overthrow constitutional government and impose "order" on the world. By casting an eye over these stories, the reader can quickly be disabused of the notion that the meaning of the superhero is to be found solely in his or her violent methods. For though much of the M.O. of the superheroes presented in the pages of, for example, the"Squadron Supreme" and the "Watchmen", is as violent and illicit as any other costumed adventure tale, the meaning ascribed to the punch-ups and energy-blasting is quite different. Put simply, the fact that the superhero hits things and breaks the law doesn't determine the purpose of the text: what determines that is the end that the superhero is fighting for. And in the case of the above-mentioned books, and in all those of the "superhero-gone-wrong" sub-genre, the closure of these tales is always the same; the citizenry themselves have been fundamentally damaged by the superheroes' attempts to accrue political power to themselves, for whatever apparently good reason, and society can only be saved by some kind of action to remove the super-folks from their abuse of due process. (*4)
In "Watchmen", for example, the consequence of the costumed heroes helping to suppress human rights at home and abroad is in part the strengthening of the perpetual Nixonian dictatorship. (From what we can tell, Nixon has fixed the system so he's in place for pretty much forever. It may look like a democratic society, but the sense is that the system is neither legal nor benign, as we'd expect from an America so ruled by the trickiest of Dickies.) And none of the "Watchmen" survive that process without becoming either disconnected or emasculated individuals. They certainly don't continue as superheroes. Regardless of what Mr Moore and Mr Gibbons meant the meaning of their text to be, the fact is that fighting for the wrong side precedes the emasculation and enforced retirement of their "heroes". And however cynically the reader might approach "Watchmen", it's hard not to see the suppression of the prison riot by three of the superheroes later in the text as marking a point where the narrative gathers the force and power generated by the "democratic" metaphor underlying the appeal of the super-hero. By shifting from suppressing the freedoms of both Vietnam and America to taking on the Nixonian corruption of the prison where Rorscach is incarcerated, Nite-Owl and Silk Spectre become impressive and superheroic figures again, rather than sad purposeless individuals in daft costumes. Yet it's not the fact that they're suddenly acting violently that re-creates them as superheroes, for if they were attacking a meeting of civil rights protesters, we'd not be engaged on their side, though we might enjoy the detail of the incident. No, we fall into line behind them during their attempt to free Rorscach, despite the distrust and even contempt in places for the idea of superheroes in Alan Moore's script, because they're taking on the corruption of an undemocratic state. And in doing so, characters which at first seemed daft and rather pathetic become impressive and admirable. It's not being a violent superhero that does that, but rather being a violent superhero in the right cause.
Democracy doesn't just make every man a king. It makes most every well-intentioned costumed oddity a superhero too.
III. All of which raises the odd prospect that perhaps Rorscach's worrying appeal lies not in his violent psychopathy, but rather in the reader's understanding on the level of symbols that his single-mindedness and, yes, madness, is what's required for a superhero to persevere all alone in a world that's stranded as far from hopeful democratic principles as the one in "Watchmen" is.
Just a thought, of course. Perhaps the conclusion drawn from "The Dark Knight" and "Watchman" by so many editorial staff and creators - that brutal violence appeals of itself to the audience - utterly missed the point. It would at least explain why the overwhelming majority of nasty little brutish superheroes which have followed in the wake of Rorshach and the Dark Knight have failed to resonate lastingly with the mass audience at all. Perhaps its the symbolic relationship between the level of violence expressed by a particular superhero and the absence of democratic principle and freedom present in the state they operate within that counts in winning audiences over. If so, Rorshach "works" in part because of the squalid, hopeless, and democratically-constrained circumstances Mr Moore and Mr Gibbons place him in.
But drop Walter Kovacs into a typical summer's day street scene in Action Comics or Spider-Man and he'll be just another pathetic, loony, self-deluding public menace, and no one will care for him except at best to laugh at him and pass onwards, no matter how nifty the shifting designs on his mask might be.
IV. The fact that the superhero tale simply will not work if the protagonists are fascist in their intent can even be illustrated with reference to Mark Millar's "The Authority", where a team of superheroes are shown to be effectively taking over the world in a laudable defiance of apparently unfreely-elected governments. Yet Mr Millar's narrative has had to significantly twist the traditional components of the superhero tale in order to help the reader swallow such a story. Or, to put it another way, a standard-model superfolks story wouldn't permit a fascist meaning to be sympathetically presented to the audience, and so Mr Millar has to have it that the governments of the Authority's Earth are all utterly un-democratic and unworthy of our support. Consequently, the Authority by contrast can be represented as standing for the best intentions of right-on Hampstead socialism. Of course, this re-weighting of the elements of the familiar superhero plot in order to make the reader associate with the frankly anti-democratic Authority does rather weaken the book's satirical intent. For Mr Millar has so loaded the dice that there's no point in the satirical game, though the tales are in parts still fun to read. Yet if Mr Millar really wanted to discuss the elements of the superhero tale which were apparently "pop-fascist", he ought to have had at least depicted recognisably real-world Western governments facing down his super-characters. But then, for all their weaknesses, stupidity and partial allegiance to sectional interests, having a believable US or UK Government in "The Authority" would immediately have revealed how Jenny Sparks and her super-powered troops were in truth the tale's fascists, puncturing the meaning and intent of the book at birth.
You just can't mess with that anti-pop-fascist metaphor, regardless of what the experts tell us, for the superhero doesn't exist as a character in isolation from the traditions of the society that it was born in. And even in its most emasculated form, even in the depths of the frightened fifties when the Comics Code and low ambitions led to every superhero being an accredited boy scout or girl guide serving their local city, the underlying truth was there: the superhero only acts when the system fails to prevent citizens from being preyed on by more powerful interests. And so, up pops the superhero, not solving the problem, because the same fights will have to be fought tomorrow and tomorrow and the day after that, but by their presence pointing out that the state isn't either, though it surely could.
Helping out the powers-that-be to do their job better, rather than replacing them, is the only way that the superhero tale as traditionally constituted can work. The superhero helps individuals against the over-powerful, and thereby saves the democratic state. There is, after all, a word for a costumed character who takes power away from the people and the state and rules instead for themselves, no matter how sympathetically they're portrayed, and that word is "super-villain".
7. "You, Who Sacrificed Your Life To Save Mine, Have Been Avenged"
I. The superhero, therefore, operates in that conceptual space between the ideals which the state preaches to its citizens and the deeds that occur in a democratic society. And the superhero is a symbol of the desire for people to live in a society where everyone does what they say they will, and where those stated intentions are founded on constitutional principles. All of which explains why the mask is so important in the superhero tale, since the superhero traditionally doesn't act for themselves, but for the community. The superhero isn't seeking to lead the people, or even to suggest that someone such as themselves does, but rather demands by their very existence that anybody who assumes responsibility plays by the rules of the game. The business of restoring the game to its default "fair" setting is of course naive, but it's exactly the same kind of naivety which initially powered the civil rights movement, and feminism, and worker's rights, and so on, the so-called "naivety" which suggests that our common values ought to underpin our common social existence. And so the superhero, in their bright colours or their dark threatening uniforms, are there to close that space between rhetoric and practise. The mask protects them while they do so, and also protects the very thing they're fighting for, namely their everyday lives, for the superhero is fighting to have a normal existence where the costume is unnecessary. The superhero doesn't seek to be a superhero, but a redundant superhero, and not a leader, but a citizen.
II. And I'd suggest that most attempts to mess with this formula where the superhero tale is concerned miss the point that readers in the West have a tremendous, albeit it naive, wellspring of emotional affection for the vague principles of fairness which the state and its media constantly trumpet. Readers of superheroes don't want radical changes to society, and that's just as well, because the superhero hasn't been by intention and chance designed to deliver that. Superheroes, like Cincinnatus, disappear back to their equivalent of the farm when the need for the fighting is over. All of which, I'd suggest, is why radical theorists have usually either ignored the superhero or held it in contempt. (Gloria Steinem's understanding of Wonder Woman as an enabling force for women of all ages is one noble exception to the rule.) Somewhere in the revolutionary mind is the awareness that the superhero is never going to be with the programme that advocates the barricades going up and the fundamental structures of society being redrawn. For if and when that happens, the same conceptual purpose that has Batman pursue the Joker and Captain America track down the Secret Empires' President Nixon will, in the reader's imagination, also see Superman taking on the new fascist or communist vanguard. For if the superhero is disappointed by democracy in practise but not theory, the superhero is appalled and disgusted by authoritarianism.
III. The superhero, therefore, likes the West pretty much as it as, albeit with the radical proviso that bullied children should have the protection of supportive teachers, that scared citizens should be able to look to the guardianship of the state, and that disadvantaged stratas should be able to look to the government for support rather than oppression. And oddly enough, wherever the superhero is placed, in whatever culture they're positioned, they have the same fondness for what the West regards as fundamental political and social rights. And if a "foreign" superhero should be portrayed as serving, or even ruling, an undemocratic state, then they'll stand revealed as being no superhero at all. At best, they'll be portrayed as an untrustworthy anti-hero, but mostly, they'll be super-villains.
Mom's apple pie. Baseball. Squirrel Girl.
It's not the violence and the illegality that counts, it's the purpose.
IV. And so the superhero is only adolescent if we believe that the world is fair and consider that a citizen in the West has nothing to be scared of where the powers-that-be in our nations are concerned, and only fascist if the esteemed cultural commentator making such a point ignores what fascism actually is and how the superhero works in the context of the very society that created it.
8. "And I Shall Shed My Light Over Dark Evil ... "
I. It's noticeable that where there are examples of superheroes acting in an extreme way to undermine democracy through their actions rather than their intent, the narrative nearly always draws attention to the fact. When, for example, the current "X-Force" ignores due process to such a degree that assassination becomes a commonplace practise, the immorality of this is regularly referred to and debated by those X-men who know of the whole murderous business. To say that this debate in "X-Force" has been presented in a sophisticated, balanced or convincing manner wouldn't be possible, I'm afraid. (What's more, the appeal of Wolverine alone depends on Marvel turning a blind eye in part to that character being regularly used in often unnecessarily unsavoury ways.) But even at the worst extremes of such tales, superheroes who kill independent of legal sanction are typically enmeshed in a debate where the main assumptions of the text are that such extraordinary and illegal acts must be at the very least justified and never committed on a whim. And so even when the laws of a democracy are being broken by superheroes to a deeply worrying degree, the representation of this tends to take place within the terms of a democratic argument. So, no matter how certain strips try to normalise the business of extreme immorality and illegality, the context of the superhero narrative still as a whole strains to control the profoundly anti-democratic nature of such stories. (The audience know this is happening too, and so the likes of Arsenal and his dealer-beating dead cat are held in contempt not just for how his actions are portrayed, but for what those actions are and mean.) And in most cases, the law in its broadest sense still triumphs most every time, even though the superhero itself rarely suffers the punishment under the law which their actions often justify. (But we've discussed that elsewhere too, so I'll not repeat myself here.)
Yet should the bleakest excesses of authoritarian vigilantism become the norm, and debate about such behaviour simply disappear from the pages of the superhero's tale, the genre will, I believe, undoubtedly simply shrivel and die too. Because the readership will not be being presented with a narrative about how to question while serving the democratic state, but instead be being encouraged in effect to contemptuously overthrow it, and the whole symbolic purpose and power of the superhero tale will have been quite sullied and dissipated.
II. This is not to say, of course, that careless writing and inattentive editing haven't created a host of superhero tales which can be read to support vigilantism in its least pleasant symbolic form. But that unpleasantness isn't a fundamental property of the superhero figure, anymore than all pop music influences listeners to take drugs just because some songs encourage tuning in and dropping out. There is undoubtedly a degree of small-minded vindictiveness as well as ideological ignorance amongst some comic book creators, and their work has sadly produced a great deal of worryingly vile comic books. And yet the majority of superhero books operate just as they always have, placing their superhero leads within the broad framework of the law, arguing not that the system is fundamentally broken so much as it needs to live up to its own ideals.
III. In the last analysis, if the superhero, in all its forms and across all the mediums it appears in, is indeed an evil fascist-inspiring "monomyth", as argued by Lawrence and Jewett, well, it's not a very powerful one, is it? All of the hundreds of millions of Americans who've been exposed to this supposed conceptual carrier of ideological degeneration over the decades and there's still not a single academic study that can link the superhero to any form of fascism, or even simple delinquency, at all. (It's not that I'm saying that we should measure a pernicious text solely in terms of its real-world influence, but rather that there's no perceivable influence to be seen here at all.) And even if the superhero is presumed to be carrying such an anti-democratic contagion, how much more time and energy is going to have to be unknowingly invested into the enterprise before we can see the slightest influence of "pop-fascism" which can be traced back to it? For though I wouldn't deny that there's a worrying development, particularly in America, as regards an apparent decline in respect for the due process of law, it's telling that most of those folks who seem keen to so subvert the rule of law don't seem to come from the superhero-reading, or even watching, classes at all. In fact, the irony must surely be that many of the most fervent proponents of the need for an unconstitutional form of government in America today draw their strength off the myths of a quite different and yet far more popular form of fiction than superhero comic books, namely the Old Testament.
But there's a row for someone else to pick up and run with. Superman versus God. Let's hope that if someone does run with that one, they do a better job with the concept than Star Trek V did.
9. "Henceforth, It Shall Be Your Sacred Duty To Defend The Poor And Helpless..."
To say that showing a "superheroic" character breaking the law creates in the real-world some unmeasurable degree of fascism is to show a profound ignorance of how adventure heroes have been perceived throughout time. The existence of ballads concerning thieving bands of robbers in the woods, or fearsome pirates, or laughing throat-slitting highwaymen, throughout England's past, for example, never meant that the Monarchy itself was under threat of being ideologically or practically undermined. These tales of fearsome outsiders, all far less law-abiding and respectable than the standard-model superhero, were nearly always perceived - as far as we can tell - as being directed not against the system, but against its representatives. (The King was just, but some of his men were cruel, for example, and patently needed replacing.) Similarly, superheroes aren't perceived, I believe, to stand against democracy, or for the right of violent and adolescent-like individuals to impose their will savagely upon others. Or, to put it in comic-book terms, super-hero readers tend to be against Norman Osbourn, but not the concept of the President's right to appoint certain senior public servants, and though they oppose the Sons Of The Serpent, they're not against pressure groups advocating unpopular concepts in a constitutional fashion.
10. "Dad, Wherever You Are ... I Kinda Hope You're Resting Easier Now"
Of course, I can't prove any of the above. It's as much supposition as any theory of "pop-fascism" or "adolescent power fantasies" is, though I hope I've managed to show a few flaws in the basic principles underlying those arguments. For in the last regard, what a superhero is or isn't can't ever be objectively established. We know this. The superhero is whatever somebody says it is, as long as they don't get their first principles scrambled before they come to argue their piece. For me, however, I did just want to make sure that I could gather together a semi-coherent response whenever those "adolescent power fantasies" and that "fascism" was mentioned. After all, a fine protection against being annoyed by ill-considered arguments is to have an argument, ill-thought through or not, of one's own.
But for me, I am convinced, for today at least, that the superhero's meaning can be found in that distance between what we say we believe and what we actually do in today's West. And given that that space between principle and action will always be there, accepting that Heaven-On-Earth is a contradiction for all but the most religious of us, so too then will the superhero, or some such figure, advertising the fact that at least some folks feel that the powers-that-be, right down to you and I, aren't living up to what they promised they'd do.
Which means, thankfully where my taste is concerned, that as long as liberal-democracy lasts, so will the superhero. But, if democracy should fail, and it can on occasion look quite likely these days, to be replaced by a system which doesn't believe in some significant measure of free speech, then the superhero will probably disappear too, or at least be symbolically and therefore functionally emasculated. For no authoritarian state, and especially no fascist one, would countenance stories of anonymous private citizens trying to help the law put the world back into kilter, because no autocracy would accept that private citizens should be even thinking of anything so liberal and inclusive.
Superheroes: another name for what we all know we should be doing if only we weren't so bloody selfish, and human. Not jumping off roofs and flying though the air, because that's the language of symbols, silly. But being true to what we believe where these strange democratic societies that we've been born into are concerned.
Not the worst of us, therefore, these superheroes, but the best, and the most ridiculous too.
11. "We'll Fight Together Or Separately, If Need Be."
When the distance between a symbol and its meaning is too close, the literalism of the whole enterprise discourages the reader from caring. It all becomes too obvious. Place "Democracy Girl" before an audience in this week's new comic books and it had better be a brilliant satire, or an unexpected work of satire-free genius, for why would anyone care for a character that was hardly a character at all? Similarly, "Adolescent-Boy" would be a non-starter, but "Spider-Man" leaves enough space between concept and practise for the reader to not feel patronised.
Yet there is one over-literal, and unsuccessful, superhero that I sentimentally feel belongs here, at the close of this piece, and that's because he of all costumed adventurers sums up the pro-democratic business that we've been discussing. So, regardless of the fact that Terry Sloane, Mr Terrific, was and remains a daft and ineffective character, he carries with him so much of the decency and self-sacrifice associated with the superhero that I can't help but be tremendously fond of him. A man once so purposeless and depressed that he seriously considered suicide, Mr Terrific put aside his private interests in order to find meaning in serving the needs of his fellow citizens. (He was rich, so he could afford to, though it's noticeable that money alone certainly didn't buy him happiness.) And on his costume, in unadorned letters which weren't even contained within a symbol of some kind beyond a yellow blob that might have been meant to be a bell, were the two words which for me best summon up what the business of the superhero is. No, not "pop-fascism", of course.
But "Fair Play".
Next time:- "Daddy Deadshot", promised but not delivered due to my losing a graphic novel. So, at the cost of £15, including post and packing, there'll be a look at Deadshot's career over a few TPBs, and after that, perhaps something on Alex Harvey's "Vambo", the greatest Scottish superhero of all time! My sincere thanks to all who've made it down to my sincere thanks here! A splendid day is wished for all of you.