Friday, 30 July 2010

The Ignoble Rorschach, That Fascist Authority,The Adolescent Mr Terrific: How Childish & Anti-Democratic Are Our Super-Heroes? Part 2 of 2

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.

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Thursday, 29 July 2010

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


1. "Truth, Justice & The American Way"

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

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

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


2. With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

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

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


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

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


3. "I Shall Become A Bat"

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

What is that this "adolescence" actually describes?


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be concluded tomorrow:


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

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Monday, 26 July 2010

"Cargo Of Crime Comics From The States ..." Giles & A Prounced Lack Of A Moral Panic , "Sunday Express", October 10, 1954:- Comic Books Where You Least Expect Them No 1

I. As I know I've said before, I began my two blogs because I desperately needed to get my mind up and thinking again after a protracted, and now thankfully long-gone, illness. Anybody who's ever found themselves in a such a situation will know how fast the mind can loose its edge, its powers of will, of concentration and application. Deliberately choosing to write about mostly super-heroes has forced me, as I hoped it would, to write in some detail against tight self-imposed deadlines about a comparatively-narrow topic which, as must be obvious, I'm no expert in at all. In short, it meant that my mind had to work, and work was undoubtedly something that it needed to be doing.

Yet even now that I've published, between my two blogs, my 100th piece since February, and put to work some one third of a million words in doing so, I find that I'm still so enjoying learning about the construction of superhero comic books, about how they're produced and of the ways in which their various meanings might be read, that's it's hard to know whether it's time to stop or not. For although I'm very much dogged by the feeling that I ought to be turning my attention to some other more practical application of my time, I do enjoy what I'm doing a great deal. It's a luxury, and an education, and a splendid way to potter away the hours. And, in a strange fashion, it's been somewhat like being back at University, albeit bearing a self-set responsibility to no-one but myself to generate these pieces with the clock ticking and no idea where on Earth I ought to go now, let alone next. I suspect that if there'd ever been a degree for Assistant Editors of comic books, I might have happily sunk a good few years and some many thousands of pounds of student loans into the process. In the absence of such a course, and of any access to funding whatsoever even should one exist, I've ended up learning for myself how little I know anyway.

Yet, as ardent a love as my affection of the superhero comic is, I share my adoration, as I suspect do most of you few good and kind visitors who on occasion visit this blog, with the broadest span of what might for want of a better term be called "cartooning". Modernist transport posters from the Twenties and Thirties? Italy's Divisionist painters? Britain's Power Comics of the mid-to-late Sixties? Andrew Graham-Dixon on Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel? Just as the rest of us are, I'm absolutely entranced and quite utterly in awe of all of it.

Far, far too much to learn, far too little time.

II. Although I can usually resist the temptation to stray beyond my self-set territorial limits where the contents of this blog are concerned, I came across a cartoon in a somewhat-battered collection from 1954 by the English cartoonist Giles this morning in a local charity shop which seems to demand some discussion. It was published in the right-wing "Sunday Express" newspaper on October 10th, 1954, almost 56 years ago, and it's a movingly good-humoured commentary in part on the moral panic concerning the effects upon children of reading American Comics which exploded in the UK as well as the USA in that year. And where the daily sister-paper of the "Sunday Express" had spent the year spitting venom at the supposed perversion and corrupting influence of American "Horror" comics, here Giles shows in his own gentle way how unconcerned he is about this specific challenge to traditional British decency. For the whole cartoon is marked by an affectionate insouciance. With the exception of a couple of young tykes displaying a touch of high spirits to the lower-left-front of the frame, there's no suggestion here that these children are going to hell because of their four-colour hobby, or even headed in the direction of the local magistrates court. In fact, the serious and respectful, if demanding, kids even politely use "Please" as they half beg and half demand that the striking dockers go back to work so they can get their beloved "crime comics". The social problem here, if there's anything as a serious as a "problem" at all given the gentleness of the cartoon, is the strike that's stopping children getting their comics, and not the influence of the supposedly pernicious comics at all. (A series of strikes in the London docks were, however, of national concern at the time.) It's such a remarkably calm, and traditionally British, response to the hysteria of the gatekeepers of morality, and as such it's been making me smile fondly about Giles's benevolent view of the world since I first saw it some hours ago.

III. Giles has come to be seen by many who can recall his work as being something of, at best, a gentle old conservative, and, at worst, a spokesman for the blue-rinsed classes so vital to the pockets of the Fleet Street press barons. Yet you'll notice, to take just this one of literally thousands of examples, that the striking dockers in the cartoon above are portrayed as affable and fundamentally decent blokes. If Giles was no one-dimensional social realist, and if his work never contained a vision of poverty which wasn't yet respectable and comfortable, he also never displayed a contempt for ordinary men and women and the struggles of their lives. A son of the toiling classes of Islington himself, Giles's sympathy was always with the powerless against the powerful, and the very worst that might be said of those who challenge the status quo in his work is that they're the victims of their own immaturity and idleness. Uncommonly, where so much of the media of his time were concerned, there's little in the work of Giles of any finger-pointing disdain for, and demonising of, the working classes, and that's something which can be taken-for-granted when his cartoons are considered today. In its fond qualities of restraint and respect for most if not absolutely all of his fellow citizens, Giles's best work still reflects much that was, and still on occasion is, the best of Britain.

IV. Anybody who tries to explain the brilliance of Giles's cartooning skills in a few sentences is an idiot and should be ignored at all costs. Because, quite frankly, Giles could do just about anything with pencil, pen, ink and white paint that the best of his peers could, and only his reluctance to be biting and aggressive in his work holds back his reputation today. After all, critical history loves the artist of extremes and sudden transitions, the challenger of orthodoxy, the dangerous figure detailing horror and revolution. Giles, however, choose to portray the world that even today most of us live in much of the time; an existence marked by consensus and compromise, tolerance and community. That means that his work can be judged lacking in radicalism, in the furnace-shadows of the politically and socially committed, or indeed it might seem to be, until the reader realises that portraying a mild but convincing anti-authoritarianism and a quiet stoical good humour is in itself a radical political stance.

But those artistic skills of his are so numerous and so complete that any attempt to list them short of an epic biography would be futile. Perhaps its best to just focus, therefore, on this splendidly charming cartoon which his myriad skills so ably created. For his portrait of a long-lost London in "Cargo of Crime Comics ..." feels as if it's spot-on, though of course I hesitate to say that it is. But there's the warehouses, the winding cobbled streets, the ranks and ranks of cranes, the workmen in their characteristic flat caps, all of which I'm sure I can recall in some measure or other from the late Sixties. And, so tellingly in the gentle haze of the distance, across the Thames and from across another snaking bend in the river, there's a blur of pencil to summon up St Pauls. It's in part a social documentary of a laudable sort, of what was believed to exist if not what actually did, and it's never weighed down by an excess of spurious detail or the pretensions of a radical or conservative political gesture. (It's exceptional enough in the kindness of what it's saying.) And re-reading Giles, especially from his heyday between the Fifties and the early Seventies, is to catch glimpses of everyday realities from those times largely unrecorded in any other media except cartoons and comic books; the strange curves of the pavements of suburban British roads, as if nobody had thought a straight line might be more functional; the distinctive semi-rural railway stations marked out by wooden picket fences and oddly broad car parks; the bare wooden interiors of the pubs and dully functional cafes. And always, in every single cartoon, there's the obvious mastery of perspective and the capacity to create complex and crowded single-panel narratives shining out. A Giles cartoon, when he was at his height, was rarely merely a gag to swallow and rush on past, which, given that his jokes were perhaps the weakest element of his work, especially as the long decades passed closer to the Nineties, is all well and to the good.

V. I can't say if this wonderful cartoon has ever been reprinted. so it may be that you'll need to find it as I did in "Giles: Ninth Series", the collection of his work from 1954. Though my copy is extremely well-worn, I am already finding it quite easy to treasure. And in its quiet refusal to cash in on the popular distaste for American comic books which much of the press had so deliberately stirred up in that year, and in its portrayal of comic book reading as an essential part of the lives of young children, the cartoon I've scanned here is already one of my favourite works of, yes, art.


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Sunday, 25 July 2010

J. Michael Straczynski's "Superman": The Hero As Survivor Of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome


1. "No, The Question Is What Are You Doing Out There"

I. In the chapter on "The Screenplay" in J. Michael Straczynski's "The Complete Book Of Scritpwriting", Mr Straczynski writes that:

"... a screenwriter must develop a highly tuned sense of discipline, a willingness to write and rewrite the same story as often as necessary, to polish it until it is as hard and bright as a diamond. You have to have an almost infinite capacity to look at your own words and the objectivity to restructure and rewrite as necessary, without holding onto something just because it's what you wrote that first day."

And given Mr Straczynski's often-stated love for the art of comic book writing, and for the character of Superman in particular, it would surely be disingenuous to believe that any less an exhausting standard of self-examination and re-drafting would be at work in his scripts for Superman # 700 and 701. Yet, without repeating in detail the many and persistant criticisms of Mr Straczynski's tale of Superman deciding to walk across America, there's no doubt that the character of Clark Kent is shown there-in behaving in ways which we wouldn't expect him to, as the following scan might indicate;


Now, there's no doubt that the dog-walking stranger who accuses Superman in this sequence is at the very least behaving presumptuously, and in fact I'd peg him down as having been plain rude. And yet, faced with a superhero in costume, who's presenting that iconic "S" for "Superman" on his chest, there are some grounds for believing that his outburst is at least partially understandable. After all, it is Clark who choose to wear that the costume and Clark who has permitted the nickname "Superman" to become the title he responds to while in uniform. And he has constantly sold himself to the American public as a standard-model superhero, and consistently lectured his fellow citizens on the common duties they hold to truth and justice and whatever particular "way" is politically correct at the moment of publication. In essence, having played the role of super-hero for so long, Superman at the very least ought to expect to be challenged when he appears to be avoiding his self-proclaimed responsibilities.

Yet, whatever the rights and wrongs of verbally accosting Superman as he wanders past you on a suburban street, the fact is that Superman's response to the imposition is quite out of character. In fact, I can't remember a single time when Superman has met a non-violent challenge with the degree of self-absorption and intellectual snobbery that he manifests here. For Clark Kent is an exceptionally well-educated man, and he's a similarly exceptionally well-brought up man as well; he'll know that Thoreau isn't a household name among most of America's citizens, and that the political-backwoodsman's words are by idiom and content unfamiliar and difficult to engage with for most everyone he meets. And yet Superman doesn't even enquire whether his debating partner has an knowledge of Thoreau. In truth, he behaves exactly like a snobbish, intellectual bully would, lecturing contemptuously a man who hasn't a chance of debating with him, and even sarcastically leaning his head forward and stroking his chin as he closes his strange argument. (Thoreau's quote, after all, was concerned with the business of not paying taxes which would fund politically sanctioned violence. I'm unsure what's relevant and clever about applying those concepts to the radical political sacrifice of, er, walking across America. The "prison" of being a super-man in the eye of the media and the reality of being a prisoner in a small town jail for not paying taxes is one which only a rather confused or supremely arrogant Superman would make. To put it mildly, he doesn't seem to be thinking clearly at all.) And it's hardly in line with the picture we've been given of Jonathan and Martha Kent's son that Clark would then, having delivered his pretentious and inappropriate quote and extrapolation, walk off while his interlocutor is absolutely lost about what Superman has been saying. For that's the behaviour of a deeply condescending and arrogant man, pleased with himself for brow-beating and baffling a perceived opponent; the only metaphorical meaning I could take from such a scene if it were to be taken at face value would be that Superman is learning on his journey to ignore the views of anybody who doesn't know what he knows, and who can't debate in the particular terms that he chooses to.

But I suspect that this scene, and many of those which accompany it, aren't meant to be taken at face value at all.

II. It's not simply the fact that Clark is portrayed as being so out of character, and so deeply unpleasant and dismissive too, that should set our alarm bells ringing in this scene. For the behaviour of Superman in issues # 700 and 701 also seem to bend several of the rules of writing which Mr Straczynski himself repeatedly returns to in the various sections of his primer "The Complete Art Of Scriptwriting", and though he nowhere in the 426 pages of the Titan 1997 version of the book attends directly to the writing of comic books, I hope we might take it as read that certain principles hold to one degree or another across most if not all visual mediums. So, for example, in the chapter on "The Craft Of Telescripting", Mr Straczynski repeatedly counsels would-be writers against verbose speeches, of which there may be held to be several over the course of his two Superman scripts. And yet, tellingly, in the section on "The Screenplay", he recommends that such "long-winded" monologues may however be used to a specific effect;

"If the speaker is long-winded himself, or pompous, you can use the monologue as a device to reinforce this detail."

From which we can assume that if a character of Mr Straczynski's is suddenly rambling on, it's for the purpose of a deliberate effect, and that if he's apparently breaking his own "rules" of writing, it's to a specific purpose. Consequently, if Clark Kent has become transformed from a decent and polite man to a rather cruel and pretentious windbag, we're surely supposed to be asking "why?" rather than simply discrediting the speech as out-of-character.

III. There is a great deal of other advice from "The Complete Book Of Scriptwriting", which could be applied to the craft of writing for comic books, and I suspect that clues might be productively dug out from the text of it to help begin to deduce what's actually going on "Grounded". For in his chapter on writing for Television, for example, Mr Straczynski discusses how important it is to respect the pre-existing nature and boundaries of a character in serial fiction. ("The schematic has already been laid down. Your task is to plug your own ideas into that context, which for some writers is where the process becomes quite difficult. You're required to work with characters created by someone other than yourself .... and set aside your ego when when the producer says, "Our character wouldn't do that" ...) Now, since "Superman" # 701 is constantly providing us with an at-best rather baffled Clark Kent, and an at-worst vindictive and rather vicious Superman, one that nobody has ever seen before, we have to assume that there's a reason for that. (In essence, a writer of Mr Straczynski's stature and experience wouldn't carelessly, or even deliberately, radically reboot Superman in this fashion, because that would involve what he himself has counselled against; violating the "schematic.") And so when in "The Writer, the Language, The Formats", Mr Straczynski recommends that a writer should "End each act on a dramatic high note, a complication that makes the viewer want to stick around after the commercial break", we ought to notice that both Superman # 700 & 701 concludes with what seems to be a pair of rather undramatic notes, with, in the latter tale, the Man Of Steel just walking onwards, hard-faced, ignoring the man he was claiming to be engaging in high-purposed political discourse. Perhaps the "dramatic high note" is that Clark Kent has become - on some occasions if not others - such an apparently self-consumed and pompous man, and, again, perhaps the point of what we're reading is that we're supposed to be asking ourselves, again, why?

2. "What Are You Doing Out There?"

I. I'd suggest, therefore, that no writer of Mr Straczynski's stature and experience would simply ignore more than 70 years of "Superman", as these stories seem to do. There has to be a reason why, for example, Superman is simply ignoring the most fundamental relationships and responsibilities of his private life. It's simply inconceivable that he should walk out on his wife, to take but one beat of the tale, with so few words and so little explanation, particularly after having spent so long and so tragic a time away from her while on New Krypton. Similarly, the fact that he's effectively turning away from his widowed Mother at a time when even Krypto the super-dog has realised that her broken heart needs company can't be accommodated into any take on Superman I've ever seen.

But that doesn't mean that this apparently Superman isn't in some way "our" Superman. It simply means that something has happened to him to change him.


II. If Superman is behaving in such an atypical fashion where his private life is concerned in these stories, then it's worth considering what the consequences of his dealings in the public sphere since beginning his walk have been too. And on reflection, it's easy to see why so many critics have been moved to note a considerable degree of irresponsibility in the walking Superman's behaviour at several key moments in his journey. The least of his sins, and I use that word deliberately, given the strict old school Protestantism that many writers have associated with Superman's upbringing, have involved humiliating and scorning lippy pedestrians that he's past by, as we talked about above. Far more worrying behaviour can be observed in the scene where he aggressively hauls an irritating reporter high into the sky just to establish that Superman still has his flying mojo intact. It's an astonishing moment, for since when did the son of Jonathan and Martha Kent physically terrify fellow law-abiding if unpleasant Americans in such a way? That's the mark of a bully responding with what the courts could well judge violence, and yet Superman has always been portrayed as a man of restraint and reason. Similarly, Superman's short-term and crowing run-in with a drug-gang showed no concept of a reporter's understanding of how the drug-trade works or how lives are affected by it in any fashion whatsoever, and stands as the most ugly example of super-heroics I've seen short of a Red Arrow/Arsenal comic book for a long time. Surely the Clark Kent of "The Daily Planet" knows that the best case scenario for the gang after he's scared them away is that they'll set up shop elsewhere, and that the worse case is that a very violent situation is going to break out when whoever's next up in the chain of supply wants their money for their destroyed merchandise. ("Superman burnt it all up!" "Oh, sure....".) And, in what is perhaps the most despicable scene of all, where Superman recommends that a young boy threaten the gang with the prospect of his return while he wanders off never to be seen again, this portrayal of a Clark Kent to whom something deeply disturbing has occurred is capped and confirmed. After all, no Clark Kent I've ever read would advise a young boy to go threaten an already enraged gang of committed criminals; that would be at the very least a passport to a severe beating, would it not?

And Superman would never do that. He'd help out, assist in managing if not solving the problem, because Superman, like the good Samaritan, doesn't pass by trouble without stopping to properly help.

So what's happened to Superman?


3. "Nothing But The Shell"

The answer to the question of "what's happened to Superman?" might well be found in the walk across America that he's undertaking itself, because his reasons for undertaking the epic journey don't stand up to even the most moderate of scrutiny. For example, Superman is portrayed as being inspired to set out by the memory of his foster father's man-of-the-farm monologue which is recalled as having stated that;

"Anything that stays in the the same soil too long withers and eventually dies. I think that people are the same way. If we stay too long in the same soil, we start to dry up inside .... If we do the same things, in the same way, over and over in time, we fall asleep in our lives."

It's an odd speech to be inspired by, given that Jonathan seems to have spent decades after decades as a farmer in the same place doing the same things "over and over in time". Surely his advice is not intended to be taken quite so literally, or he would have needed to have followed his own words to a far more considerable degree. And it's also an incredibly banal speech, given that, yes, things left too long in the soil wither and die, but that, strangely enough, so do things which don't. It's also telling that when Jonathan's words advise Clark to ".. rotate back to fertile ground...to the soil that nourished you ...", Superman doesn't interpret this as recommending that he spend a great deal of time with Lois, or with his beloved and lonely foster mother, but rather as a homily suggesting that he ups sticks and wanders without specific purpose across America making passing acquaintances with strangers.

The words don't seem to connect rationally to Clark's decision, and this cognitive dissonance is, I suspect, the best clue we have to this mystery of why our Clark is behaving so strangely and so out of character. For I can't help believing that Clark isn't walking across America to find either it or himself, but to avoid finding himself.

Or to put it another way; he isn't walking to anything at all, but rather, he's walking away from something quite fearsome that he doesn't know how to face.


4. "Trust Me /You're Safe"

I. One of the key indicators of the devastating psychological condition known as Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) is often known as "avoidance and numbing". The individual who has been psychologically traumatised cannot engage with the pain they are feeling, and so they effectively turn away from their suffering and engage in excessive measures of distraction. These avoidance techniques can be as apparently minor as investing massive amounts of time and energy on apparently unimportant routines, from hobbies to work, and can often extend to crippling abuses of alcohol and drugs. Regardless of what path of avoidance is unconsciously chosen, the traumatised mind is desperate to numb itself, to cut off the possibility of communication with others, and to create a world where every minute of the day is spent holding any reminder of their suffering and its causes at arm's length.

What better explanation of Clark's walk across America could there be? For Clark can put one foot in front of another and simply keep going, never truly resting or in truth belonging anywhere, while whatever traumas he bears which might be revealed through intimate contact with wife or mother or friends can be repressed. Could it be, therefore, that Clark isn't seeking America, or humanity, or to save the one and not the many, or any interpretation of Jonathan Kent's parable of the ground where he can avoid withering and dying, but that he's rather running away from civil society? For why else would he turn away from Lois and Martha, and Jimmy and Bruce and Perry and all the rest of his many friends? What possible motivation could he have? For certainly nothing that we've been shown could possibly cause a man such as Clark Kent to simply abandon his life and begin walking the continent, particularly after returning from such a long exile and a war in space.

But then, there is that business of a war in space, and a long exile, and the death of a world, and the genocide of people, and the loss of a dearly beloved father too.

II. The causes of PTSD are now well-understood, even if the diagnostic process is still limited to being able to describe the problem rather than being able to reliably predict who will and who won't develop it. But Superman has suffered so many of those key events which are known to trigger the condition he's recently been in severe military combat, and suffered gruesomely life-threatening physical injuries. (His horrendous near death at Brainiac's hands was followed up with an attack with a Kryptonite knife from one of his own people, and then things got worse!) He's been effectively a prisoner of war, and he's been caught up in man - and superman- made disasters as what what is efefctively a combination of soldier and emergency worker. He's had the most terrible and elongated period of suffering.

And death has followed Clark Kent around as if it had a personal hatred of him. Jonathan Kent, dead, as a consequence of an assault by Brainiac. The great mass of his people, and the planet of New Krypton itself, wiped from existence, again by Brainiac, a figure so inhuman and relentless that it might as well carry a sickle so close is it to a symbol of the inevitable victory of death. And as to the degree of death that has followed Clark, it must be remembered that the end of the great mass of his people was undoubtedly an act of genocide, and that's above all what Superman is now a witness of, and a survivor of too, in so many ways.

Genocide.

The question is not whether Clark Kent has PTSD, I'd suggest. The question is how could any of us believe otherwise?

5. "The Slap..."

I. There is a substantial amount of further evidence in the two issues of Superman so far crafted by Mr Straczynski to support a working hypothesis of PTSD afflicting Superman. "The Snap Heard 'Round The World", for example, begins with a portrayal of an already desperately sad and disconnected Superman facing reporters emphasising how alienated the media feels he's become from his adopted homeworld. (A man returning from a war needs something more than reporters questioning his allegiance, especially when his loyalties are surely obvious and always have been.) But our Clark can't even engage with the reporters, as we'd expect a man so erudite and intelligent to be able to do so. "I .. I don't know." is his woeful response, accompanied by an equally woeful face. This is a Superman who was lost and shattered long before the apparent inciting incident of the slap and the widow's accusation.

In the light of this, Superman's response to the woman who blames him for the death of her husband "Richard" is hardly out-of-character so much as the product of a character under terrible stress and strain. For Superman has, in many ways, if he is suffering from PTSD, no character as such at all; he has a shell which his mind is desperately constructing to hold his pain at bay, and seeing the grief of one woman and the charge of his responsibility for it has surely torn through his defences and opened up all his unresolved feelings of loss and regret and guilt.

Well, of course he's going to walk away, and America is a very safe distance across to walk away over while avoiding everything that so unconsciously frightens him. As an act of "dissociation", it's so brilliantly effective that the reader can only fear for his sanity. Because that's what so many sufferers of PTSD do, they may walk away into an obsessive private life, or into abuse, or from the world entirely, for their very brain structure and chemistry is often being changed by the excesses of appalling emotion which they're bearing under, and escape is the only option they can consider.

And yet such escape is the worst thing that a sufferer of PTSD can do. It is in the re-engagement with the day-t0-day structures of their everyday lives that improvement can be found. PTSD itself cannot be run from. Modern techniques of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, to take but one example, can help the sufferer grasp that what they are feeling is not being caused by their environment, but by their trauma. But the survivor of PTSD has to be in an environment where they and others recognise that the problem exists so that help can be sought. And so, Superman isn't solving anything through his long walk, because he's carrying the trauma with him, and the world he was in was actually a better place for him to be in order to try to recapture the life he had than anything the mythical America before him can offer.

It could almost make me smile, if it weren't so terrible a thought, to realise that what Clark Kent is doing is chapter and verse the opposite of what the advice on PTSD recommends. "Don't go on holiday alone", sagely advises one patient's guide to the condition

II. We have evidence of other symptoms of PTSD too. Superman must surely be thinking of New Krypton and its loss when talking to the soon to be para-suicide on the top of a skyscraper, discussing as he does how he'd once believed that he was going to save the world and now can only truly accept the possibility of the saving of single lives. (We see him crucially having a flashback to the traumatic scene of his own escape from a dying planet, a scene he's seen through records and through time too over and over.) In addition, "hyper-vigilance" might be reflected in the fact that he keeps registering every slight, and not so slight, problem in the lives of the folks he's walking past, even as the scatter-minded problems of mental application lead him to, for example, diagnose an elderly gentlemen with what seems like serious heart disease without grasping that he ought to carry him to medical assistance. (He can't avoid noticing trouble, but he can't grasp how to engage with it either; he has to keep moving on.) He obsesses about the unhappiness he feels, the dislocation from the world he experiences, and yet he's escaped from anybody he has intimate bonds with who might compel him to face up to his feelings.

Similarly, Clark's irritation towards that dog-walking passer-by demanding he return to his super-heroic responsibilities, or his aggressive response to the demanding newspaper-man, all indicate a mind in denial and trying with some considerable force to avoid engaging with anyone that might behave in a challenging or disconcerting way. Irritation, anger and despair are the constant handmaidens of PTSD. And when Superman walks away from the drug-dealers and the community they live within, his PTSD is no doubt driving him to turn away from responsibility, pushing him towards the kind of laissez-faire attitude to law enforcement and community care which Jonathan and Martha, let alone Lois, would be appalled by.


6. "They Said You Were Doing Something Important"

I. A great deal of commentary on the interbloggofannet has focused on a contemptuous reading of the woman who slapped Superman and blamed him for her husband's death. And while that's understandable at first reading, it's surely plain from the evidence that she was herself quite traumatised. As a culture, we're remarkably disengaged with even the most basic psychological truths of our own nature, and in a strange way, life seems easier to bear and less frightening if our perceptions stay that way. But, I'd suggest, there's a strong possibility that neither the grieving widow nor Superman are in any way responsible for the irrational acts they undertake in Mr Straczynski's scripts. These are terribly damaged people desperately trying to make the pain stop.

But walking across America, or slapping a blameless traumatised man, won't help them. And neither will the folks around them, who watch without understanding, or even thinking to help.

II. Am I claiming that the above reading of Mr Straczynski's work is the correct one? Of course not. But I am saying that it would be consistent with the facts that we've been shown, and that all the events which have so puzzled and enraged internet commentators might actually be rooted in a solid narrative structure which has a far more deliberate, rational and moving purpose than is currently evident.

And if Clark Kent does have PTSD, and my belief would be that I can't see how he couldn't, then my fear for him is how he'll cope when he's finally helped to his senses and realises how many people he hasn't helped because he was uselessly walking across the USA. It might be enough to compound his serious condition and result in Complex PTSD, if he isn't already bearing that level of suffering already.

But then, perhaps a scene where he goes back and ensures that certain drug dealers receive both a fair trial and appropriate counselling, and one where he apologises to a vile reporter because that's the right thing to do, and another where he tracks down an inarticulate dog-walker and chats with him in his own language over a coffee or two, might close what has begun as a difficult experience for the reader too.


7. "... But It Must Be Important."

Or, everything's exactly as it seems on the surface of the story, in which I case I both respect the right of Mr Straczynski to tell his own story, and despair because of it too.



Ah, as is obvious, the promised Deadshot piece has had to be delayed due to my UTTERLY losing my copy of "Six Degrees Of Devastation", a desperately stupid act which left me with just a few hours to get a different piece up for today, when the ol'self-set schedule said I ought to. Deadshot will appear when the replacement volume of SDOS arrives from Amazon, to supplement the other Secret Six volumes again, and I hope to see you then, if not before. A splendid day to any and all who have made it down this far! Huzzah!


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