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.
Friday, 30 April 2010
Friday, 23 April 2010
"In which the blogger discusses (1) his sincere regard and respect for the world-renowned criminal psychologist Dr Robert Hare, (2) touches on the issue of diagnosing psychopathy, and (3) asks whether Lex Luthor can be said, in a amateur-diagnosis-sort-of-way, to be psychopathic."
1. Who Is Dr Robert Hare & Why Should Comic Book Fans Care?
I've got lots of heroes. Lots and lots of them. Many of them are fictional, but many hundreds more are not. Doctors, nurses, care workers, teachers, vets, police-people, fire-folks, ambulance drivers. Folks who live with pain and make other people's lives more splendid. Folks who are good to their neighbours and principled in their dealings with strangers. Honest craftsmen and women, skilled artists, decent chaps and chapesses. The list really does go on and on.
Sometimes I think I have more heroes than there actually are - or ever have been - people.
And then there are the individuals who have done something brilliant and significant, something which one way or another ended up benefiting everybody who I'd like to see benefited. (So, not Nazis and paedophiles, and the like, obviously.) And of these folks, one of the least well-known and yet most admired in our little bolthole here at TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics is Dr Robert Hare, the criminal psychologist.
Now, you may be thinking, if you haven't already done so and since disappeared, that you have no idea why you should care about Dr Robert Who-ever-he-is. And being that this is a blog about comic books and not criminal psychology, that thought is a pretty fair one. But, if you don't already know, then you should know, because, unknown even to himself, Dr Robert Hare is actually a comic book super-scientist who by some cosmic accident - and to our great common benefit - was rocketed from somewhere not unlike Marvel-Earth or Earth-DC only to arrive here on our tawdry little globe in 1934 instead.(*1)
(*1) - I may be lying here, but stick with it. It's relevant.
In a comic-book universe, Dr Hare would be a colleague of Dr Leonard Samsom, helping to diagnose and treat super-villains who threaten the fate of the solar system. Or he'd be the only man that Batman could turn to when he couldn't diagnose whether Villain-Y was schizophrenic or just plain pretending-to-be-wacky. (Any qualified psychologists will notice how I'm applying actual psychological terms here in a very impressive fashion indeed.) In the worlds of Tower, First and DC, Marvel, Pacific and Image, Dr Hare would undoubtedly play the role of the hero's donor and the heroine's dispatcher. He'd be Metron inventing the Boom Tube, Reed Richards discovering Unstable Molecules, Tony Stark improvising the construction of the heart-stabilising chest-plate out of scrap metal and old radio transistors in Vietnam.
Because that's the kind of achievement Dr Hare and his team have contributed to the discipline of criminal psychology in our world. For here, on Earth-Real-Earth-Not-Comic-Book-Earth,
Dr Hare is the man who painstakingly worked out how to reliably diagnose psychopathy, a fiendishly impossible conundrum whose solution couldn't even have been dreamt of just a relatively few years ago. And that diagnostic method has quietly and vitally revolutionised our world. Earth-Real-World.
That slightly duller and safer Earth without the costumes or the planet-eating aliens.
Or: let me paraphrase this in a Ghostbusters vibe: "He's discovered shit that will turn you white!"
*1. Maybe it happened because Superboy was hitting dimensional walls or something. I don't know. Does everything need a continuity-based explanation? OK. Superboy was hitting dimensional walls and the vibrations reached back in time and .... and .... why am I losing the will to live here?
Before Dr Hare set to work, the standard method for diagnosing criminal psychopaths was to, er, well, ask them if they were criminal psychopaths. I am not making this up. Self-report was the only method that psychologists could devise to use in the diagnosis of psychopathy. And many of you will immediately notice a slight problem with this approach. Yes, you've guessed it. (I can't sneak anything past you.) The problem was that one of the qualities which defines a psychopath is their ability to lie and cheat and manipulate others without conscience, meaning that their faking their way through a self-report diagnosis was often no problem for them at all.
Now, Dr Hare's approach to diagnosing psychopathy is a very complex business, and I'm only going to attempt the briefest summary of it here. (Anyone who wants to learn more ought to visit the good Doctor's web-site, or buy his books "Without Conscience" and "Snakes In Suits", which I highly recommend.) But, essentially, Doctor Hare designed a diagnostic pincer movement to trap the psychopath, and the pincer movement is known as the PCL-R checklist, which can and should only be used by highly qualified criminal psychologists.
And not me, of course.
Especially not to try to playfully diagnose whether Lex Luthor is a psychopath or not.(*2)
*2. And especially-especially since I was terribly biased when I began this. I thought Luthor was a psychopath. I thought nothing would challenge that point of view. A-hem.
Psychopaths have a common and distinct way of thinking and behaving, of course, and Dr Hare's long years invested in studying them - which included some periods of being fooled and manipulated by them - has revealed statistically significant data which allows the difference between one of them and one of us to be reliably established. (I'm assuming that you are one of "us". If you're one of "them" psychopaths, I'd ask you leave, but then, if you were one of them, you wouldn't go, would you?) So his PCL-R checklist involves, on the one side of the pincer movement, the criminal psychologist assessing the mass of evidence from the subject's past in a case study, and you'd be amazed how much evidence of, say, promiscuity and impulsivity and the habit of parasitically preying on others can pile up. (Because that's what psychopaths do. They don't suddenly become psychopathic. They're psychopathic from an early age, at least, and they then follow the psychological stages of a psychopathic career.) So, the case study is one thrust of the pincer movement, if you'll allow that I'm massively simplifying here. And the other thrust is an extended clinical interview, which is brilliantly structured so that the psychopath simply can't avoid showing typical factors such as a glib charm, a manipulative nature, a complete lack of regret, and so on. Because psychopaths behave predictably, and they can't resist revealing themselves when the appropriately controlled circumstances are presented to them.
Dr Hare's PCL-R has been tested across the world and found to be reliable, which means that the same results can be expected to be found regardless of which trained professional administers the test. And the tests are excellent predictors of who is likely to go on and display dangerously psychopathic behaviour in the future too, which means that Dr Hare has developed the holy grail of criminal psychology. Not only does the PCL-R mean that we have a valid, reliable and representative descriptor of psychopaths, but it also predicts how the subject psychopath is likely to behave in the future.
Boom tubes. JLA teleportation devices. Quinjets. Time bombs. The PCL-R checklist.
It's all so brilliant that I'm in awe. And yet it's so much more complicated and beautifully elegant than I can explain here, so I know I can trust you to just sit yourself down one afternoon and study it yourself. But, and here the neophyte might want to brace themselves, there's a few other things I haven't told you about yet, and which, if this is new to you to one degree or another, you really ought to steel yourself against.
Those psychopaths? The conscienceless creatures who neither care nor can care about anyone else except themselves? The violent ones who use physical aggression without reference to principle or regret? The "industrial" breed who may not be directly violent, but who bully and manipulate and break people around them just because that's what they do?
There's alot of them.
An awful lot of them.
In fact, it's estimated by Dr Hare that about one in every hundred people in America is "highly psychopathic". (*3)
(The figure is estimated by other authorities at about one in every two hundred in Britain.)
And the figures rise considerably in urban environments as a percentage of the surrounding population too.
Worse yet, although Hare and his team, as well as many other fine researchers all across the world, are working on treatments, there are no effective treatments for psychopathy and no likelihood that a psychopath reintroduced into the world from being detained, whether or not they've been treated, will in any way reform.
In fact, some studies indicate that treatment actually intensifies psychopathy.
So, "Secret Invasion" didn't tell the half of it. We're not knee-deep in Skrulls. Folks, we're knee-deep in psychopaths. I mean, if you're American, that figure of 1% of your population is just the "highly psychopathic" group. That's just the really bad ones. There's lots more who, to one degree or another, aren't "highly psychopathic." (*4)
It's an incredibly important business, this psychopathy. Our societies are in, shall we say, a fair degree of denial about it. (America isn't really thinking about the social problems caused by 3 091 070 "highly psychopathic" citizens, nor Britain about its' own 306 915 psychopaths.) But sooner or later, this is something folks are going to simply have to deal with.
*3 Think about it. How many people were in your school? Do the maths. The figure you get won't actually give the truth of how many psychopaths you shared a locker-room with, because that depends on the gender distribution in your school, and whether you were in a rural or urban environment, and chance, and lots of other variables too. But it makes you think, does it? Does it? Don't care? It doesn't bother you? Mmmmm. Take the test!
*4 They're the "just middlin'" psychopaths, I guess or the "sometimes-slightly" ones. That's OK, then!
3. Comic Book Criminal Psychology
So, those of you with a little knowledge of criminal psychology are thinking two things;
a - That's a damn poor summary, Col-boy. It's so simplified it's practically a lie
b - What's this got to do with Super-Villains? What's it got to do with Lex Luthor?
The rest of you, if you've made it this far, who are newer to this psychological stuff, are asking two things too;
a - How many in every hundred? You're frakking kidding me? My milkman looks mean ....
b - What's this got to do with Super-Villains?
I can't tell you about your milkman.
But one of things that has always confused me about comic book writers is why most of them don't read just a little bit more of criminal psychology. It's not as if there aren't popular books about it stacked up all over the place, and some of them are even worthwhile reading. But, better than that, why not read some of the work written by the key players themselves which they've targeted at a more popular audience. (I'd highly recommend "Mapping Murder" by the splendid David Canter, a bloke I have another of my mind-respecting man-crushes on, as a starter.) Because the literature about why folks commit crime, from the everyday crimes of impulse-mismanagement to the making-Mum-into-a-car-rug specialisms, are so well described now, if not understood, that it's as if there were hundreds of "here's-your-next-convincing-story/villain/conflict" textbooks just lying around for the taking.
And if writers and editors could just agree a little about the diagnosis of their villain's problems, we might get even more consistent and better-grounded stories.
Hey! Marvel! DC! Put out a call to Dr Hare to undertake a mass diagnosis of your characters.
Because, well into his seventies and engaged in such important enterprises as he is, I'm sure he'd be really pleased to help. (*5)
(*5) Dr Hare's website has written upon it the fabulous "don't-even-try" words "Please be advised that Dr Hare does not make clinical assessments." But Marvel and DC could try. If they can afford to give away thousands of plastic rings and variant covers, they can surely tempt Dr Hare away from his vitally important work!
4. One Final Warning: This Is A "Points-On-The-Curve" Blog Entry; This Is What That Means:
The "Points On A Curve" pieces on this blog are based on the premise that many of us don't rely on corporate continuity to inform our understanding of our favourite comic book characters. Instead, we build our own versions of our beloved heroes and villains and Foggy Nelson by selecting the stories, and even sections of stories, which we've most enjoyed and been most touched by through our long years of comic book reading. These individual and composite takes on corporate characters are to me far more interesting than the "real" things, and I, for example, was absolutely fascinated to read folks' comments about their own versions of Aquaman when we were discussing that much-maligned character. (There's such a rich and beguiling mixture of comic-book love, creative synergy and individual experience involved in the working out of a personal version of a character that I love reading other people's POAC takes on pretty much anything at all.) So, although I'm going to be discussing Lex Luthor here, be warned that he won't be synonymous with whatever version of the bald-but-splendidly-awful arch-villain currently holds in DC-land. (*6) In fact, it won't be the version of Lex that was ever, at any one time, the party-line. Naw. I'll be taking panels from stories all over the place, from the '40s and the '90s, from 'continuities' which are mutually exclusive, but which are perfectly compatible in my own head, in my own personal mythology of Luthor-ness. (*7)
And since I'm just bound to ignore key and relevant evidence, because I've either not read it or I've not enjoyed it or I've just plain forgot it, and since I'm being so selective that, frankly, I could fix any diagnosis of Lex Luthor that I wanted to arrive at, I'd like to make this as transparent a process as possible, so, please;
This is my truth: tell me yours!
If you think I've not touched on a brilliant, or even usefully relevant, example, or if I've misused a panel in a sneaky and unethical way, add a comment and let me know.
*6 - I nearly described Lexxy-boy as a "mastermind" here, but the PLC-R has made me think that might not be the most appropriate label for him!
*7 - And, as we'll discover, I come a cropper in trying to diagnose Luthor as a result of that choice too
5. The Psychopathic Personality (The Interpersonal & the Affective Dimensions Of The PCL-R)
But it does all feel a bit dodgy, something of an impertinence, to use the PCL-R to try to diagnose Lex Luthor, since (a) I'm the one who's going to be cherry-picking the evidence to support my own hypothesis that he is a psychopath, and, most importantly, (b) I'd need about 10 years of formal training and practise to be able to use the checklist adequately. But what I thought might be instructive to do would be to see whether there's any evidence I know of that supports a general picture of Lex Luthor as a psychopath. Let's imagine, if you will, that the following is being done by one of Inspector Henderson's young police recruits working in their private time, by a young officer who's studied something of Dr Hare's work and is thinking of recommending to his boss that Mr Luthor might need to be formally assessed before he's transferred out of the holding cell he's in for reckless driving in a very fast sports car and, of course, trying to take over the world on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday last.
So, in search of quite how psychopathic Lex Luthor is, let's begin with looking at some of the elements associated with the "aggressively narcissistic" personality that Dr Hare's PLC-R tests for. We can't cover the whole - or indeed even a tiny - part of the diagnostic criteria here, of course, but there's a few points we might productively touch upon.
One Of Dr Hare's major breakthroughs has been to establish that psychopaths aren't necessarily people who express their conscienceless nature in directly violent ways. More often than not, the "successful" psychopath will choose instead to steer as direct a path as possible to those high-status social feeding troughs where money, status and power are readily available, be that the armed forces, the world of entertainment, financial organisations or even - oh, shockingly! - the institutions of Government. (*8) (Dr Hare himself has said that if he couldn't study psychopaths in prisons, he'd look for them in the major financial centres like Wall Street.) And the typically non-violent, successful and exploitative psychopath tends to score particularly highly on the part of the checklist which describes the qualities that we're about to sneak a peak at. And Lex Luthor does indeed seem to display a significant number of those qualities which we'd expect to see in the "industrial" or "social" or "successful" psychopath.
*8 - Don't just think President Luthor. Think President Nixon, folks. Retrospective diagnosis is a dodgy business, but I've talked to criminal psychologists who've said they were willing to lay money that Tricky Dicky was a Psychy-Wycky.
a. The psychopath has something of what's known as a "smooth" social style. (You can see Lex being "smooth" and apparently calm in the above panels by John Byrne and Dick Giordano from "Action Comic" # 600) And we know that to the world at large Lex Luthor can indeed be terribly "smooth", can be beguiling and charming . He can choose to be an entertaining conversationalist, he's brilliant at flattery, he wears his power well and impressively, and he's a superb, superb liar. (You can see how brilliant a liar he is in the panels from Superman # 149 by Jerry Seigel and Curt Swan which I've placed before section 4. It's absolutely typical of a psychopath that he can brilliantly argue for his own reformation while actively planning the brutal murder of Superman.) In essence, Luthor might here be suspected of presenting what's known as "shallow affect", where he mimics normal if super-competent social behaviour without it reflecting his own true nature.
b. The psychopath is also determined to always be dominant in their relations with others. And Lex Luthor has had no relationships with anybody else that I can find where those relations are ever allowed to come before his own aims and objectives. (And that's so even given that the typical psychopath has far less concrete aims and objectives than you might expect.) In fact, though many "successful" psychopaths may unexpectedly have marriages and children and what seems like friends, the psychopath's attitude to these people is that they are no more than possessions. And so it is with Lex Luthor's relationships with anyone you'd care to mention; if they don't do what he wants them do, there's misery and far worse in their future.
c. The psychopath always conceives of themselves as being, in Tom Wofle's famous phrase from "Bonfires Of The Vanities", "Master Of The Universe". Everything revolves around the male or female psychopath as far as they're concerned, because they lack the capacity for empathy to emotionally grasp that they belong to - and are reliant upon - human society. And this arrogance is of a degree almost unimaginable to most of us. It's cosmic self-centredness, it means the psychopath conceives of itself as being the sole reason for every breath and every leaf that falls. And, of course, human history and the welfare of nations is as nothing to the psychopath chasing their own fluctuating goals. You can see this colossal narcissism below, in what to my mind is the most brilliant depiction of this quality in Lex Luthor that we've ever seen. You can note the utter lack of empathy for the victims of his terrible crimes in the court-room - "The puny ants!" - and also the characteristic complete lack of guilt on the psychopath's part. (I'm giving my conclusions away far too early, aren't I? Ah, perhaps not.) Again, these panels come from the peerless "The Death Of Superman", which gets my vote for the single best Superman story ever created, and note how disconnected from and contemptuous of his own trial for Superman's murder Luthor is. (Anyone who thinks that DC Comics from the early '60s always lacked power and subtlety: sorry, you're wrong, here's the evidence.)
d. If Luthor is a psychopath, he should appear to be calm and in control of himself during his everyday - and even any extraordinary - dealings with others. Circumstances which make others show, for example, anger or distress shouldn't influence his responses. And his calm conversation with Maggie Sawyer, placed at the head of this section, could be said to display that; the stakes are high, Ms Sawyer is aggressive and demanding, but Mr Luthor is all apparent restraint and politeness.
e. Fear, to take but one emotional response, is actually something which many psychopaths only experience at much higher levels of stimuli than ordinary folks do. It takes more to get 'em scared, if you like, and the psychopath can even enjoy putting themselves in situations where the adrenalin rush associated with extreme levels of fear kicks in. Below we can see - from Mark Millar, Aluir Amancio and Terry Austin's "Family Reunion" from the "Last Son Of Krypton" digest - Lex Luthor brazenly facing down some Kryptonian super-villains who could fry the skin from his bones simply by focusing their heat vision on him. Most of us would be very quiet and also moving in whatever the other direction would be at this moment, but Luthor is clearly enjoying the whole business. He's getting a self-righteous high off his act of suicidal defiance, he's the one standing up for humankind, and it's scary too, which makes it all the more pleasurable for him.
f. However, the apparent detachment, the supposed surface of calm, the shallow effect, mentioned above doesn't mean that the psychopath actually is always calm and detached when they appear to be. In particular, psychopaths will feel intense and difficult-to-control frustration at anyone or anything which stands in the way of their goals, no matter how slight or significant, long-standing or transient, those goals are. And we know that Luthor will, as if he were a psychopath, sometimes explode into tirades of anger and even physical violence if his designs are compromised. (I've placed an example of this below just before the "conclusions" from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's splendid "All-Star Superman" to illustrate this point.) (*9)
*9 - I wish I could always place all the "evidence" exactly where it's most relevant in this entry, but lots of it can be applied in different sections. and I didn't want to duplicate the scans or add any more to an already scan-heavy entry.
g. A psychopath will readily, as we'll discuss further on, enter into emotional contracts, into friendships, marriages, amorous affairs, and will, when it suits them, maintain them in what seems to be a normal and acceptable fashion. But the psychopath will also compromise those relationships at a drop of the hat. They will, for example, suddenly and unexpectedly disappear from view and return without explanation after days or longer away. They can shift their allegiances without a second thought if they perceive an advantage to be gained from doing so. They may on a whim seriously damage those they've previously shown devotion to, abandon and asset-strip those who up until that point they've seemed absolutely loyal to. (Just as, of course, it may suit a psychopath to remain in a long-term relationship where they can terribly and recurrently abuse their partner.) There is, therefore, a fatal discontinuity between what psychopaths say, what they commit to, and what they actually do. We'll mention the data-trail this discontinuity leaves behind - the divorces, the bankruptcies, and on - later, but here the key is to consider the difference between what the psychopath pretends to be and what they actually do. And Luthor, of course, constantly displays this "discontinuity" between what he says he believes in and what he does: he's the undemocratic President, he's the staunchly capitalist market-fixing businessman, he's the man of the people who holds the people in contempt.
h. Psychopaths tend to be proud of their ability to lie, and they will lie constantly. Sometimes they do so to achieve a goal, and sometimes they will lie just because they enjoy to do it; the deception and manipulation of others is part of their very nature. (Above we can see Luthor convincingly playing the penitent and reformed prisoner just before mounting a successful breakout.) And one of the lies that psychopaths tend to tell is the one about having a hard, difficult past - particularly spinning a yarn involving a trying childhood - where they faced and nobly overcame incredibly difficult challenges. In truth, many successful psychopaths come from affluent, even super-rich, homes and they never faced anything more challenging than a chipped toe-nail or a lost hockey stick. But they invent their "suffering-child" narrative and stick by it. Now, I can't help but feel that the old "Superman-destroyed-my-hair-and-made-me-evil" story from the Pre-Crisis continuity was actually a complete and ridiculous invention on the part of Luthor himself, which, as time passed, didn't so much come to be believed by Luthor as transmute into a gospel that he demanded the world accept as truth. To deny it would to deny his right to decide what is and what isn't true, which surely would be unacceptable to the man at the centre of the whole wide world. And it's central to the psychopathic personality that they are never to blame. Never! Which is why Luthor constantly blames Superman for everything that he's ever done wrong, whether it's because Supes destroyed his hair or that Supes is destroying the hopes of the human race. (And if "your" Luthor comes from a world where the "Superman-destroyed-my-hair" business never happened and/or was never mythologised about, then you will surely be able to spot parts of Luthor's oh-so-terribly-hard past in the stories you've come across. Or, you will if he actually is a psychopath. We must try to suspend judgement here!)
6. The Case Study (The Lifestyle and the Anti-Social Dimension Of The PCL-R)
As we've discussed, along assessing whether the subject displays signs of the psychopathic personality, Dr Hare's PCL-R involves creating a case study of the subject's past to uncover evidence of early-onset, persistent and serious anti-social behaviour. Here the search for evidence of the subject having a long-established socially deviant lifestyle comes into play, because, as we've said, the psychopath will have a consistent history of abusing and manipulating others from a young age, and the evidence shouldn't be too difficult to establish.
In many cases, the findings from the case study component of the PCL-R are far more significant predictors of the future behaviour of violent psychopaths than they are of white collar industrial ones, so we might expect Lex not to score as highly as he did in the measures for identifying the psychopathic personality. There are many reasons for this. A bright lad such as Luthor should, for example, have been able to at least keep out of the law's gaze more than a less-able and more-openly violent psychopath could, not least because the socially successful psychopath can get away with violence and other forms of bullying in their guise as rich young citizen, popular class-mate, charming and attractive partner, or whatever, than the less successful and more brutal psychopaths can.
But this is where my attempts to fake an application of the PCL-R fell completely apart, as I alluded to above. Because any attempt to build a case study of Lex Luthor's past immediately quite collapses given the compulsion of comic book creators to continually re-write their character's history. (*10) Pre-Crisis Luthor, post-Crisis Luthor, Earth-1 Luthor, Earth-2 Luthor, Superboy Luthor, TV Luthors; there are so many Luthors that it defeats the will to consider which one is the "real" one, and too many of them to refer to them all. It'd take a very brilliant criminal psychologist indeed to conduct a definitive case study of a character's anti-social behaviour across a few dozen continuities where the facts of what came first and why are never set in stone anyway.
And the same problem arises if the "Points On A Curve" approach is followed, because the whole point of the POTC method is that a character's past doesn't have to link up in a precise and logical fashion, but rather an emotional one. The linkages between one event and another, between, for example, 1940's red haired Lex and 1970's green'n'purple fighting suit Lex, can be fondly accepted "givens" without too much continuity wrangling. (Because, as we know, that way madness lies, and endless flaming wars on many boards will follow, forever and forever without end.)
The truth of it that you can't fake a case study. I know, I wrote this whole section of this blog before and it didn't work. I had to dump the lot. Faking a case study where the detail patently came from quite different and utterly incompatible sources failed to pass even the disgracefully low standards of my blogging if we're trying to put the PCL-R to work.
Or to put it another way: I got nicked breaking and entering into a psychological tool where I had no business being!
*10. - Is this a form of fiction-wrecking bullying? Are there psychopathic tendencies underlying the impulsive, short-termist, self-interested behaviour of certain creators to particular characters? I think we should be told!
Given that, for the reasons stated above, there's no way to boil down Lex Luthor's many pasts to a coherent and detailed chronology, and given that accepting any one take on his history is, well, frankly against the anti-corporate chronology policy of TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics, I thought the best approach would be to focus on two issues here:
- particularly striking issues from my own composite fond take on Luthor which would allow key issues that the PCL-R case study searches for to be discussed, and;
- things which the PCL-R would expect to find when investigating a suspected psychopath which might not be present in any of what I know about Luthor's past.
So even the trained psychologist on Earth-DC might find it tough to uncover the key data about Lex Luthor's past. I'm not trained at all and I found it absolutely impossible.
a. An example of diagnostic criteria which Luthor doesn't seem to meet is where evidence of parasitism is concerned. Psychopaths are predators who much prefer to have others support them, and they enjoy taking as much as they can from the folks they're living off before moving on. They have no concern for how they can destroy other's lives, and the only limit to their greed in real terms is their tendency to slacken off where making a serious and protracted effort on their own part is concerned. So, that executive who drove that bank into the ground while doing nothing but live well off other people's hard-earned cash? Typical psychopath. And yet, Lex Luthor often isn't a typical psychopath in this fashion. For while there's no doubt that Luthor will drive anyone into poverty if there's the slightest gain to him in doing so, including the thrill of hurting someone else when it really wasn't necessary or even cost-effective to do so, he doesn't always tend to do so at the cost of his own interests. Where his enterprises fail, and of course they often do, it tends to be because he over-stretches his resources in order to destroy Superman. When "the Kryptonian" wasn't around to constantly enrage Luthor, he seemed very able to engage with determination and care in building up his own self-perpetuating empire rather than just leeching off others. Thieving and cheating were part of his business portfolio of market-skinning skills, but there was alot more to what he was doing than just thieving and cheating. He wasn't, for example, just making a few million from a "Ponzi" scheme which, sooner or later, was inevitably going to collapse. That short-termism was never Luthor's way.
Lex Luthor didn't sit around doing nothing while somebody else keep him in shoes and ready salted crisps. He worked for himself.
Which means that there's one area of the case study where Luthor isn't going to score so very highly. That doesn't mean that he isn't psychopathic, of course, and to my relief, though I am not biased, because the final score generated is of course a total which reflects all the relevant criteria. But we can say that at the very least Luthor has some individual differences where psychopathic behaviour is concerned.
b. We would expect a psychopath to pursue a lifestyle characterised by consistently impulsive behaviour, and this is true to a degree of Luthor. He doesn't seem to be able to suppress a brand new bright idea to wipe Superman off the face of the globe, and the number of plots and scientific developments which he has running at any one time must be phenomenal. But then, the psychopath doesn't tend to resist temptation, and they try their damndest to avoid any kind of routine and obligation. Perhaps Luthor has his bright ideas and just as easily relegates them to a team from his staff when a new scheme comes to mind. (We are constantly being shown one group of Luthor-financed specialists after another beavering away on projects which he's delegated to them.) I can't say there's anything but circumstantial evidence for this from my knowledge, but I'm willing to go for anything at this point which helps my case.
c. We expect the impulsiveness associated with psychopathy to express itself in sexual promiscuity where the psychopath is concerned. And here there's certainly evidence to support the idea that Lex Luthor will indulge himself sexually without concern for morality or kindness. Just a few lines up from this sentence is a panel from Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo's "Lex Luthor: Man Of Steel", where Luthor is declaring his love rather extravagently and self-indulgently to a robot which thinks it's a young girl. (*11) Lex Luthor may be the robot's boss and father figure, and he may have apparently complicated relations with at least one other woman, but that doesn't stop him doing whatever he feels would be pleasurable at any given moment. (The more that relationship is considered, by the way, the worse it becomes. It's every shade of despicable and it invents new ones too.) And directly below these words are three panels from John Byrne's run on "Superman" which very strongly implies that Luthor's sexual needs are not only unrelated to conventional moral relationships, but that they are met through the means of bullying employees into what is effectively rape and sexual slavery.(*12) This is a man who sees no reason to restrain his desires regardless of other peoples feelings and needs, and he is, without qualification, a beast. (We'll come back to this point later. Dr Light is hardly the only sexual predator in the DC Universe.)
*11 - I have no doubt that Mr Azzarello is convinced Luthor is a fully-blown psychopath and wrote him consistently as if such were so.
*12 - Just to make this absolutely plain, whether Luthor is a psychopath or not, for these crimes if no other, I'm subscribing to the "this man deserves to burn in Hell" school of condemnation.
c. But other areas of Luthor's life don't generate the evidence for impulsiveness that we might expect. For example, psychopaths are keen to express goals and describe their ambitions, but they aren't very interested in achieving them through hard work. Certainly the earning of formal obligations and socially-valued experience is something they prefer to avoid as long as they can acquire the advantages usually associated with them. (*13) They are possessed by grandiose ambitions, but they tend to try to achieve them through bullying others and riding whatever tide of good chance they can find to surf. Yet Luthor does appear, in many of his different manifestations, to have worked and worked hard and worked hard over a protracted period on at least some key aspects of his life. Perhaps he did gain his first one or two fortunes through a strategy of impulsiveness, talent and flat-out gambling, or perhaps he worked his heart out, albeit in an often immoral and illegal fashion. (Perhaps if we knew how hard he has to apply himself to come up with his miraculous scientific breakthroughs, we might have a better idea of how focused, disciplined and relatively unimpulsive he is. Do the ideas for better, brighter death rays appear out of the blue, or does he have to apply himself week in and week out for years and years?)
But just to be selfish and criminal doesn't make Luthor a psychopath, and there just isn't, in my limited knowledge, enough evidence to definitively nail his bald head to the wall on this one.
(If you'll forgive the, a-hem, uncharacteristically unobjective turn of phrase.)
Still, we'd expect, as I briefly touched upon above, and as I barely understand myself, the more successful psychopath to tend to score relatively less highly on this issue, so maybe walls may yet be decorated by nailed-up-to-them hairless heads.
*13 - I do wonder if Lex Luthor ever finished high school or College? I wonder if he achieved the staggeringly degree qualifications that his intellect deserves? I must say, I doubt it.
d. Psychopaths start practising anti-social behaviour at a young age, and they commit anti-social acts more regularly and with less regard for others than even children brought up in savagely poor and abused circumstances. We would therefore expect Luthor to have begun his cruelty, whether it involved law-breaking or not, at an early age, and we'd expect there to be a paper-trail showing his vileness to others extending forward to the present day from that young point. Psychopaths are of course by their very nature rule-breakers. They don't even keep to their own rules, because the only rules they recognise are (a) what they want now, and (b) what they want now, now.
The pre-Crisis Luthor gave us the most detailed evidence about such early-onset anti-social behaviour, and even if it can't be used here to condemn Luthor in his present day guise, I thought that the cover above was well worth touching upon. It's from "Superboy" #92, by Curt Swan (*14) and Stan kaye, and glanced at with a contemporary eye it's a quite horrifying document. There can be no doubt that this Lex Luthor is already psychopathic, though not an adult old enough to cast a vote. (Training a super-dog of his own to dismember Krypto and assault Superboy using home-made equipment in his own back garden is both absurd and chilling. This is a boy who will undoubtedly grow up to be an empathyless killer, which indeed, he did, the sort of boy who began experimenting on his neighbour's pets and soon graduated onto experimenting on the neighbours.) (*15)
Now, when Luthor began his criminal career in the Post-Crisis world and the degree to which the neighbourhood pets were pinned down and teleported into alien suns is something of which I know nothing. Perhaps my dear reader - hello, you! - might know of some data that might illuminate my paltry case study here?
e. One of the factors which leads young psychopaths into anti-social behaviour, and which continues to drive them as they age, is that they just can't seem to grasp the concept of punishment. Consequences, as we've touched upon, are for other people. You can note this in the last scene I'll present from the peerless "The Death Of Superman", which I've placed above. Note how Luthor is absolutely confident that, despite his murder of Superman, the Kryptonians in the bottled city of Kandor will free him if he offers to restore them to their normal-sized life in the outside world. He simply cannot imagine that the Kandorians will decline his offer in order to pursue their principles of justice, because to Luthor there is (a) no such thing as an external, social code of justice which applies to him, and (b) he cannot conceive that he's actually going to be punished for his crimes. He's killed because he wanted to, and yet he can't comprehend why anyone would care to hurt him in return. It's not as if Superman mattered, is it? Not compared to Lex Luthor.
*14 - Didn't Curt Swan consistently draw the most expressive and chilling Luthor ever? There is a case for saying that Mr Swan's artwork lacked on occasion the dynamism of a Kirby or a Kane, but there were more subtle fundamental pleasures ever-present in his splendid work.
*15 - For we Brits faced constantly with the media-storms associated with the killing of poor Jamie Bulger, this is not an easy image to see represented on the front cover of a children's comic book.
Well, when I set out on this playful tip of my under-qualified hat to Dr Hare, I couldn't help but imagine that our imaginary young police officer under-taking this preliminary review would end by racing along the corridors of Metropolis Police HQ screaming "He's not a charismatic businessman! He's a psychopath! Test him! Test him!". And when I imagined that, I also hoped that Lex Luthor didn't somehow hear our officer saying that, though no doubt there's was a hope that even if he did, Luthor would be distracted by some more involving and exciting prospect, like proving how great he is by destroying Superman, as psychopaths can be. Because "psychopath" was a label I was sure I could confidentally stick onto Luthor's gleaming, bright forehead. (*16)
But what I've discovered is that even a playful tilt at the PLC-R isn't able to generate a playfully conclusive answer. The PLC-R is just too rigorous a method to even allow an idiotic adaption of itself to occur. The case study dimension only accentuated the sense of ridiculousness which my discussing the personality markers raised. This a tool that can't be adapted by fools. And I think that's rather splendid, actually, because idiots couldn't fly a Quinjet or the Batplane either: these are all comic book splendours and they should be beyond my grasp!
And yet, as well as increasing my already stratospheric-levels of respect for the PLC-R and Dr Hare and his team, it's also made me see Luthor in a different light. Because rather than being able to label him as a stereotypical psychopath, I've been able to conceed that there are areas where he seems both more and less psychopathic. Now, of course, these differences have no doubt been generated by my cack-handed playing with the PLC-R, but in terms of informing comic-book characters, maybe this technique has some small virtue, because no matter how absurd it is in real-world terms, it does generate a debate about the degree to which a character does and doesn't fit a psychological category. It's certainly sharpened for me a sense of who Luthor "really" is, and my Grud, I think he's absolutely terrifying. From the adolescent Luthor practising Krypto's assassination in his back-garden to the executive-sexual predator, this is the most appalling man, a beast far far worse than I concede I ever imagined. (And as stated, I came into this with a very low opinion to start with.)
Yet, if I had to come down in my unqualified way on the issue of psychopathy and Luthor, I think I'd still view him as a man who has severely psychopathic tendencies, and as a man who probably is "seriously" psychopathic.
But of course, that counts for nothing except to make me think abit more.
If Luthor really does has a mind wired up in a totally different way to 99% of the American population, this, in combination with his prodigious mental abilities and his presence in a universe characterised by so many oppurtunities for cosmic-level mischief-making, makes him one of the most dangerous individuals in the DC universe. (Of which, of course, there was no doubt already, though I think I feel that more than I did before.) And under the circumstances, I can't help but think that there's every grounds for dumping him in some desolate parallel universe where he can do no harm to the folks of Superman's Earth. Because if he's a fully-blown psychopath, then he never can reform, and he never will reform. He's beyond hope. All the citizens of the DC Universe can do is wait until he destroys himself or them, or both.
Yet, of course, the same moral backbone which informed the Kandorian's refusal to bow to Luthor will surely inform Superman's refusal to dump Luthor anywhere other than a legally sanctioned American prison. Because Superman is everything that Lex Luthor isn't, and he doesn't even abandon world-threatening psychopaths without reference to due process. That's why he's Superman.
*16 -I am a man of, er, severely-restricted hair growth myself. I am not meaning to be baldist here.
8. Briefly, On Luthor's Hatred For Superman
And in the light of this, it's surely obvious that Luthor doesn't hate Superman because Kal-El is an alien, no matter what Luthor says and no matter what he undoubtedly has convinced himself that he believes. It's not about Superman being a simulacrum of a perfect human being, insulting human ingenuity and depressing human achievement and ambition. No, Lex Luthor hates Superman because (1) Superman is obviously superior to him in too many different and significant ways for Lex's ego to cope with, and (2) destroying and even killing Superman is too tempting a great challenge for him.
Which, if this pseudo-diagnosis is correct, is all the better for Superman. For looking at the evidence in my own PointsOnTheCurve take on Lex Luthor, I'd say there's one thing which has so far saved Superman from Lex Luthor's undoubted hyper-intellect and cunning, and that's Lex probably is a psychopath. And if that's true, then there's a good chance that Luthor never really worked as hard and as long enough at anything as he could have, that he leaves what he sees as boring tasks to underlings, and that he changes course irrationally and unexpectedly without noticing he's doing so. Luthor is undoubtedly super-bright, but perhaps there's a sense that if he could really focus himself for long enough on one particular murderous direction, if his psychopathy didn't keep distracting him with a million schemes and frustrations, with a thousand arrogant and different strategies where one would do, if Luthor could just sit down for what Malcolm Gladwell calls the "10 000 hours" of hard study and concentrate solely on killing Kal-El and ruling the world, well; he'd do it. Like that. Or rather, like that after 10 000 hours work.
But delayed gratification isn't something the psychopath finds hard to conceive of. Thankfully, for the DC Universe, and her favourite son.
9. Last Thoughts On Empathy
And if Lex Luthor is a true psychopath, then there's a convincing school of thought which argues that it can't be said that he's to blame for his crimes. Because Lex Luthor, as a psychopath, literally cannot care for others, and cannot generate concern for the consequences of his actions where other people are concerned. He simply doesn't have the emotional capacity to care, and he can't develop the capacity to do so. Without empathy to allow him to look at others and realise that he and they are remarkably similar creatures, everyone else becomes an alien to Lex Luthor, and aliens from a lesser species too. In a sense, psychopaths are perfectly natural and normal, as well as being always very bad news for most everybody caught up in their cruel, conscienceless lives.
Lex is what he is. And he can never be "well", never be like us. Never know the experiences which empathy allow us to feel. He can't even consider that such experiences would be worth feeling. They are beyond his capacity to grasp, like advanced calculus to an earthworm. Irrelevant, beyond any field of reference. Useless.
What would Superman think of that? You know, I think Clark would empathise - if not pity - with Lex Luthor even more. I think it would break Superman's heart to see this man of such potential wrecked by irrationally, isolation, and counter-productive grand schemes without hope of reform and redemption. I think Superman would, if it can be said in this way, love Lex Luthor even more than he currently does, in that deeply traditional and old-school Mid-West Protestant Christian way that so characterises Clark Kent.
Because the difference between Superman and Lex Luthor isn't that between human and alien, or mind and body, or costume and suit. The difference is this. Clark Kent can love, and he does. He can't help himself, and he doesn't want to. He's one of us and because of that, he wants to look after us, and to belong with us. Whereas Lex Luthor never has felt love, and never can, and wouldn't care less about the whole business of love if God himself sat Lex down and told him all about the finer feelings in life.
Because Lex Luthor is the Master of the Universe. But it's not our universe, or the DC Universe. It's that universe where there is no love, and no need for it either. Not ever.
Please do remember, dear reader, that this is a brief summary and entirely spurious pseudo-application of Dr Hare's work. It's not intended to detail the slightest fraction of the PCL-R's purpose, method and content, which I suspect I don't grasp anyway, but I hope you've found it interesting enough to read further on the subject of Dr Hare's work. Because this was intended in a rather tiny and exceptionally unimportant way as a show of respect to Dr H and his colleagues, as well as being another shaky platform for displaying how I really am TooBusyTalkingAbout Comics. I'm now going back to do abit more studying, since I obviously don't know a fraction of what I should! I hope this has been a tolerable investment of your time, and please do let me know your extra, and no doubt contradictory, evidence from your own version on Lex Luthor, because, let's face it, I fixed the above result, even editing out in particular Luthor's tearful sorrow at allowing Lincoln's assassination, which must prove he's not a psychopath at all. (I'm not making that up either. Luthor was truly all cut up that ol'honest Abe got shot!) Thank you and rest well.
Soundtrack To The Writing Of This Blog - "Best Of 1994" part 2
In the best traditions of full disclosure, the following was on continuous play while I wrote the above;
1. "Wakafrika" - Manu Dibango
2. "Strongman" - Luscious Jackson
3. "Surf And/Or Die" - Walter Becker
4. "Spiritual Sky" - Heliocentric World
5. "Hug My Soul" - St Etienne
6. "Sick And Tired" - The Cardigans
7. "The Lazy Sunbather" - Morrisey
8. "This Is Yesterday" - Manic Street Preachers
9. "To The End" - Blur
10. "Let Me Be The One" - Matthew Sweet
11. "No No No" - Terry Hall
12. "Checking In, Checking Out" - The High LLamas
13. "Another Rider Up In Flames" (BBC session) - The Charlatans
14. "There's A Limit" - The Mutton Birds
15. "Cigarettes & Alcohol" - Oasis
16. "Rip It Up" (live in Phoenix) - Iggy Pop
17. "Fantastic Planet Of Love" - Marshal Crenshaw