An essay in the New York Times about Comic Books and identity issues raises a point I’ve heard before: that the best quality of superheroes is that they are wholly egalitarian.
To quote Umapagan Ampikaipakan:
But for some of us non-Americans, the genre doesn’t need to apologize for itself, no matter how quintessentially American it is. The superhero comic is the American dream illustrated, and by definition the American dream must be accessible to all. However monochromatic its characters, the superhero comic’s message has always seemed universal.” … “I could never be Ganesh or Krishna; they were deities. Yet I could be Spider-Man, because I already was Peter Parker.“ … “After a bout with a radioactive spider or some Terrigen Mist, it could be you or it could be me.”
Comics do have the seeds of egalitarian heroism in their DNA: their message is very much that when put in extraordinary circumstances, ordinary people can rise up to the occasion and be heroes.
But then what? What does being a superhero mean?
Just because a dream is theoretically open to anyone doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. And superheroes very quickly turn from egalitarians into … something else …
… look, I like superheroes as much as the next guy, and probably more since I actually read capes & tights comics during my formative years. But one of the biggest downsides to the huge popularity of the genre now is the fact that, at heart, it has fascist tendencies.
Craig Ferguson once said (well, sang) that the great thing about Dr. Who is that it represents the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism. Which is to say it is a fundamentally humanistic show: the title character refuses to carry a weapon, never solves a problem with martial might if he can negotiate out of it (or even run away), and never pretends that might makes right.
The superhero genre, by contrast, always ends with a rousing fight for control of the world. Characters who do not fight do not get to be heroes, and negotiation ultimately never works. The characters may claim in rousing speeches that might doesn’t make right, but the conventions of the form always demand that ultimately the good guys are able to beat the bad guys up – which is another way of saying that good guys are only effective when they are maritally strong, which is another way of saying that one must be martially strong to be good.
Unless the writers are extremely careful, superheroes always come down to brute force and cynicism.
Superheroes – as much fun as they are – are inseparable from the seeds of fascism. If you give the genre enough room to grow, it always tells fascist stories in the end.
I was reminded of this when catching up on season 3 of “Green Arrow.” I’m not proud to be binge watching this show – it’s not TV I’d actually recommend to anyone. But here we are: I drank in superheroes at a formative age and now I have a taste for them.
But even in a season so full of holes that it’s nearly impossible to drive a plot from beginning to end, I was shocked and horrified to hear one character (“John Diggle,” in Season 3 Episode 12) explain to his fellow heroes that “There’s never been an armed occupation in history that wasn’t overthrown by force.”
I was drunk at the time, but if I’d been sober I would have been shouting at my screen even louder. WHAT THE FUCK?
I mean that’s demonstrably not true … has anyone in the writer’s room ever heard of Gandhi? He’s kind of famous?
Or Lech Walensa? Or Vaclav Havel? And how countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia had peaceful revolutions in order to leave the Soviet Union? Anybody remember that? It wasn’t so long ago …
… Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, East fucking Germany … the list goes on …
This is a show in which people resolve their differences through violence telling a bald faced lie to justify the idea that violence is the only answer. This lie is neither accidental nor incidental: it’s what the show, as an aesthetic universe, has to believe about itself. There’s no other way. Nothing else works.
Implicit to the assumption that the best way to improve a city, a state, or a country, is to don a mask and engage in vigilante justice, is the belief that problem solving comes down to determination and violence. Heroes are required to do what the people cannot do for themselves, and never consented to, because they are weak.
However egalitarian it is on the front end, it is fascist at the back.
I’m not saying that it isn’t possible to split the difference – to emphasize the good and not the bad, to keep the genre’s inherent fascism in check. Of course it is. The new Ms. Marvel, the comic that Ampikaipakan and so many others rave about, is apparently doing a great job keeping that message clear. Kieron Gillan’s “Kid Loki” series was also exceptionally good at beautifully negating the genre’s potential for fascism and replacing it with something better. Spider-Man is probably the all-time champion of this: not only was Peter Parker a social outcast at school and a struggling freelancer at work, but it is from his origins that we are reminded that “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Or at least, Spider-Man was the all time champion at fighting superheroes’ innate fascism. This past year Marvel rebooted him as a world-famous tech tycoon. He’s rich, famous, handsome, super-powered … a real ubermench, that Peter Parker.
He may still sympathize with the little people, but he’s not one of us anymore. He’s much too good for us. He had to be elevated. A character whose tagline was once “Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” literally no longer lives in the neighborhood. He doesn’t hobnob with the people he saves.
And thus, though he may be an unbermensch, his heroics have far less to offer us than those of struggling religious minority Kamala Khan. Comics work when ordinary people are given a chance to be heroes – not when they’re separating themselves from the riff far.