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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Monthly Archives: May 2012

There’s no name in comic book history more vilified than Fredric Wertham. Tom De Haven calls him the “industry’s real-life supervillain.” After his 1954 Seduction of the Innocent, comic book sales capsized, and over 400 titles went under. Wertham’s book sparked a Senate Subcommittee Hearing into Juvenile Delinquency that forced publishers to adopt the Comics Code or face government censorship. No single author has had a larger or more negative impact on comics, and yet De Haven says his arguments “made no sense.”

Wertham, a German psychiatrist who left Germany before the rise of the Nazi party, called superheroes “an off-shoot of Nietzsche’s superman” and joked that Superman, a “symbol of violent race superiority” should wear an S.S. on his chest. “Hitler,” he told the Senate, “was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry.” After interviewing juvenile delinquents, he concluded that Superman readers showed “an exact parallel to the blunting of sensibilities of cruelty that has characterized a whole generation of central European youth fed the Nietzsche-Nazi myth of the exceptional man who is beyond good and evil.”

In short, superheroes are fascists.

Les Daniels calls Seduction of the Innocent “a classic of wrong thinking.” Most scholars don’t bother debunking it. Gerard Jones simply acknowledges that Wertham was “genuinely concerned” but ultimately misguided in his tendency to “see fascism” “when he saw any hero using physical force.”

But Wertham wasn’t the only one reading comics through fascist-tinted glasses. In fact, he was the last in a very long but now very forgotten line.

Marshall McLuhan was just as unhappy about Superman’s “strong-arm totalitarian methods” and his readers’ “political tendencies” to “embrace violent solutions” three years before Seduction was published.

Go back two more years and Gershon Legman was calling Superman a “provincial apotheosis” of “the Nazi-Nietzschean Ubermensch” who “save[s] us” by “peddling a philosophy . . . in no way distinguishable from that of Hitler.” He thought Superman comics had “succeeded in giving every American child a complete course in paranoid megalomania such as no child ever had, a total conviction of the morality of force such as no Nazi could ever aspire to.”

Legman and Wertham had teamed up at the Association for the Advancement of Psychotherapy’s 1948 symposium “The Psychopathology of Comic Books” where they warned against comic book in which “Fists that smash against faces settle all problems.” But they weren’t the first post-war voices complaining about superheroic violence. Robert Southard beat them by two years. Superhero comic books, he said, are “paper incarnations of the devastating Nietzsche Nazi Philosophy of force.”

The idea had gone mainstream the year before. With Hitler six months dead and Hiroshima and Nagisaki smoldering, Time magazine asked, “Are Comics Fascist?” Walter J. Ong answered yes, “Superman is a Nazi.” Comparable to “Hitler and Mussolini,” the superhero “is a super state type of hero, with definite interest in the ideologies of herdist politics” and, in the case of Wonder Woman, even “Hitlerite paganism.”

But this wasn’t just a post-war phenomenon either. Reverend Southard launched his attacks in 1944, condemning the unintentional “anti-American, dictator propaganda in the glorification of these wrong-righting supermen.” The U.S. was “ready for a Hilter” and we “would not now have a war on our hands” if “German youth” had not been similarly “persuaded that [Hitler] was a superman with a mission to right the wrong of the German state . . . the Hitler way.”

But Southard wasn’t the trend setter either. The year before Thomas F. Doyle asked “What’s Wrong with the ‘Comics’?” reminding his Catholic World readers of the link between Superman and that “Nazi pamphleteer” Nietzsche.

And fascist accusations were just as popular before the U.S. entered the war too.

Sterling North warned in 1941 that the “Superman heroics” and “cheap political propaganda” found in comics books were “furnishing a pre-fascist pattern for the youth of America through the principle of emulation.” The “chances of Fascism controlling the planet diminish in direct proportion to the number of good books the coming generation reads” instead of comics.

James Frank Vlamos also saw Superman and his imitations as “Hitlerite,” “the nihilistic man of the totalitarian ideology.”A year earlier, Slater Brown, familiar with the black “arts of modern demagogy,” “understood why this new comic should have become so generally and fantastically popular.” Brown recognized Nietzsche in “this popular vulgarization of his romantic concept” and condemned the pro-fascist adults in “Nietzsche’s own native land and in the neighboring country where he lived . . . who have embraced a vulgarized myth of Superman so enthusiastically.”

Even Germany saw Jerry Siegel’s Superman as a Nietzsche knock-off. According to Das schwarze Korps, the weekly newspaper of the German S.S.: “Jerry looked about the world and saw things happening in the distance, some of which alarmed him. He heard of Germany’s reawakening, of Italy’s revival, in short of a resurgence of the manly virtues of Rome and Greece. ‘That’s fine,’ thought Jerry, and decided to import the idea of manly virtue and spread them among young Americans. Thus was born this ‘Superman.’”

So Wertham’s fascist-tinted shades had been a popular prescription long before Seduction of the Innocent. And plenty of contemporary readers are squinting through the same lenses.

Amy Kiste Nyberg sees Wertham as “largely misinterpreted by fans and scholar,” arguing that “the image of Wertham as a misguided pioneer in media effects research is erroneous.” Bradford Wright, with ample misgivings, agrees with Wertham, calling his “basic argument . . . perceptive and prophetic.” And David Hadju, with even more misgivings, sides with Wertham too, declaring that the “the comic book war” fought and won by Wertham and his allies “was worth the fight.”

Of course the fight worth winning was World War II. And if Superman was a bit of a totalitarian bully, at least he did his strong arming in the name of democracy. But that sort of contradiction can only last so long. Once democracy wasn’t under siege, fascist-fighting fascists were harder to stomach.

The Superman later generations came to know and love was very different from the superpowered vigilante Siegel and Shuster introduced in 1938. Their Superman routinely took on the police and army if they got in the way of whatever agenda he chose that month. Too many traffic accidents? Superman demolishes a car factory. Too many juvenile delinquents? Superman demolishes the slums.

Wertham demolished comic books for the same reason. But he wasn’t the lone voice crying “Hitler!” He was just the voice that America finally listened to.

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It was a big weekend. Obama officially launched his reelection campaign, the French equivalent of a Tea Party President lost his, and The Avengers swept box offices. The Monday was also the anniversary of Germany’s unconditional surrender. Coincidences? Obviously. But revealing ones.

The Avengers is a love-to-hate-you letter to Adolf Hitler. Marvel Entertainment is telling us that without a supervillain to focus us, America can’t reach its superheroic potential. And it’s not just any supervillain we need. The Cold War’s Evil Empire only gave us nuclear deterrents. Global warming just gives us something to bicker about. But Hitler, he gave us unity.

Nazi nostalgia is ingrained in the superhero formula, but director-scriptwriter Joss Whedon makes it explicit. Nordic ubervillain Loki declares his dictatorship in Germany, and the star-spangled Captain America is the first to sock him on the jaw. The World War II hero is the heart of the film, showcasing the “old fashioned” patriotism that launched Golden Age superheroes and still keeps them afloat.

But America has changed in seventy years. Our worst enemy isn’t a Democracy-stomping dictator. It’s ourselves. We’re like a bunch of superpowered leotards bounding off in contradictory directions. We waste our time smashing our hammers against each other’s shields. The Avengers are at their worst while Loki is chilling in his cell. No threat, no unity.

Once things start exploding though, we know how to rally. Democracy is messy, but when it really matters, it works. Even narcissists like Tony Stark, the ultimate 1%-er super-CEO, eventually fall into line. Those equally self-righteous religious types finally stop talking about Asgard and start taking orders from the American flag. Why? A cop on the street voices the question, and Whedon answers: anyone standing on the front line blocking bullets for you (or whatever those shiny blasts of energy are) is the guy to get behind.

Being truly democratic, the team also includes some of our darker sides on its roster. Black Widow reminds us of all the blood on our national ledger and our collective need to atone for it. And lest we think the ledger ended with the sexy Soviet Union, Hawkeye murders his victims right on screen. But it’s okay, he was brainwashed by a demagogue, so let’s not torture ourselves by counting up the number dead (in, say, Afghanistan or Iraq). It’s the lesson that matters: America is always angry, always capable of unthinking destruction, but we can learn to control that rage and use it for good.

The trick is how to inspire unity. Nick Fury learns that barking orders isn’t enough. You have to make us want to be a team. Sure, trading cards are dorky, but they’re about childhood. They’re about believing in simple truths. So what if Nick dipped them in blood for dramatic effect? He did it for the right reason. Which I guess means Whedon does too when he plays the 9/11 card at the end of the film. It’s okay to copy ground zero memorial footage as long as you show America coming together as a result.

Though it turns out disunity is important too. Fury isn’t just taking orders from upper ups. Some in-fighting is necessary. It’s evidence of our national health. In fact, it makes us stronger. So when the space portal opens and the legions of doom descend, we’ll be the best team possible. Not a government mandate, but a grass roots majority guided by its own (slightly manipulated) will.

Too much government is a will-devouring dictatorship, too little is nation-splintering anarchy, but The Avengers serves democracy just right. It’s the baby bear balance suitable for all political persuasions. It’s also a nifty way to earn $417 million in two weeks.

When the fight’s over, we splinter again, and that’s okay too. Because we’ve reminded ourselves and the universe that America is always secretly ready. Plus, now that we’ve proven we can pull together, we’ve earned the right to be free of government surveillance. Fury and Whedon turn off the cameras, and we all go home feeling good about being Americans. We can hardly wait for the next catastrophe to make us all feel even better.

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I’m teaching my Superheroes seminar again this Spring term at Washington & Lee University, and Marvel very kindly scheduled The Avengers to fit on the syllabus. So my students and I abandoned our classroom and strolled downtown to our smallville theater. Here’s their analytical verdict.

Ryan Scott: “Though The Avengers features many of today’s biggest film stars and relies upon state-of-the-art special effects, in many ways the film harkens back to the earliest superhero comics, especially in the level of violence carried out by the heroes.  Just as the original Superman of Siegel and Shuster flings his enemies into the sunset, so do the Avengers rack up an impressive body count in the film’s climatic battle.  And just as Bob Kane’s Batman packs a pistol in his first few appearances, so do Captain America, Black Widow, and Nick Fury spend much of the film shooting their enemies.”

Lauren Woodie: “One of the main themes that I have observed in my reading of superhero comics is the superhero’s ability to act above the law. Superman constantly takes the law into his own hands and will sometimes even fight against the police. This theme is highlighted in “The Avengers” mainly by the fact that the Avengers operate under the control of an organization called Shield, which seems to transcend all governments much like the superheroes it encompasses.”

Mihai Cirstea: “To viewers like myself, who are not avid followers of the superhero genre, The Avengers was successfully appealing because of its constant humor that lightens up the heavier comic book influences. The scene that I found particularly amusing was when the Hulk smashes Loki back and forth against the floor like a rag doll. Stark’s humor, of course, also adds levity to the movie with his constant sarcasm. These moments of humor reminded me of the Superman comics, in which Siegel often offset the heavy plot with a snarky quip from his hero.”

Marie Spear: “To my surprise, I found that I had to stop myself from reading into all the different tropes and traits we have looked at class while watching The Avengers so that I could focus on the fun happening onscreen. I like how the director was able to bring in heavy undertones like god vs. science, such as with Thor, or the struggle of dual identities, and still have the movie be a ton of fun. My only criticism is that it is a little too long.”

Anna DiBenedetto: “Whedon’s The Avengers takes a comical stance on the powerful and almighty superhero triumph.  After the Hulk and Thor have a battle against one another on the starship, in a later scene, after they have both teamed up to defeat the flying, bad fish, they are standing over the dead corpse.  Then after a moment of silence, the Hulk punches out his left hand and sends Thor flying away.”

Paul Nguyen:  “The foremost appeal was the action and hilarity, but besides that, there was an intriguing use of superheroes of many types. None fell into the shadow of another. Captain America’s patriotism was well emphasized as well as his physical prowess. Thor’s god-like presence was well felt, but his obvious superiority to the others did not overshadow the overall awesomeness of the Avengers. Iron Man’s wittiness came through well. Hulk’s violent hilarity was strong, especially in his thrashing of Loki. It was about the superheroes as a whole rather than a single superior superhero.”

Anna Dorsett: “The Avengers, while thoroughly entertaining, does not skim over the darker portions of a superhero’s struggle. Dr. Banner, for example, overcomes his inner struggle and finds balance with his human self and super human self with the acceptance and support of the Avengers- he, as a human, found a positive purpose for his destructive power, which he formerly despised. Each character has incredible power, but also a weakness within- some form of humanity that works against them to give the storyline more drama and make the character more relatable. It’s a great thing to watch.”

Nick Lehotsky: “The Avengers proves entertaining, reflecting the reversed tropes seen in superheroes like Hancock. The indifferent, often aggressive attitude society maintains towards these “freaks” because of their massive property damage and pseudo-celebrity attitudes [I’m looking at you, Tony Stark] still resonates with audiences. It is as if we are continually perplexed by the superhero’s interactions with our society, and the hope that they shall always continue saving humanity. The Avengers is just what it is promised to be-a witty, action packed, Marvel stamped [via Disney] money making monster. I just hope the sequel provides more character depth.”

Adele Irwin: “I found the relationship between Tony Stark and Bruce Banner to be the most intriguing. Each as individuals are likable characters with level headedness, senses of humor, and scientific intellect. Their friendship within the Avengers is appealing because they bond before the entire group comes together. Rarely have alliances between Superheroes been seen up to this point in our reading, making the collaboration between these two characters within the Avengers group entertaining and original to me, taking the superhero trope of selflessness to an entire new level.”

Shannon Nollet: “The Avengers, unlike some of the earlier superhero stories, gives a female a strong role. Not only is the Black Widow human, but she is able to fight the aliens just as well, if not better, than her male companions. No longer are the women simply the damsel in distress or doting love-interest. In Whedon’s The Avengers, women fully take part in the action.”

Chris Levy: “Each character has a well-defined fatal flaw, and these flaws almost lead to the failure of their mission. Tony Stark has major humility issues, threatening his ability to work with the others. Captain America’s long slumber has caused him to be somewhat outdated. Thor is not mortal, and thus does not truly understand human behavior. As the Hulk, Dr. Banner’s flaw is obvious, while the Black Widow struggles to put her dark past behind her. These characters are superhuman, yet still struggle with flaws like every other human.”

Zabriawn Smith: “My favorite character and message was Captain America. The time capsule jokes by Tony Stark were hilarious, but when it came time to battle it the old stars and stripes that led the way. I enjoyed the theme of returning to roots to move forward. He had a lot more edge than he did in the comics; seeing Captain America allow one of his teammates push his buttons was startling and eye-opening.”

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[Addendum 5/10/12:

I want to extend an apology I gave to a friend and colleague in my English department today. He happens to be Mormon and so, quite reasonably, took offense to some of my comments below about Mitt Romney. He dislikes Romney as much if not more than I do, but I let my dislike of the candidate spill into unrelated religious issues. If Romney were Catholic, Muslim, atheist, etc. I would dislike him just as much, and if Obama were Mormon, my vote and praise wouldn’t change one bit.

For the record, I don’t see much difference between Mormonism and any other branch of Christianity. The biggest difference between the smallville of Palmyra and the smallville of Bethlehem are the two thousands years of insulating distance. I grew up Catholic and so know first hand its range of absurdities. Mormonism is no worse or better, just easier to poke fun at because of its comparative youth. Mormonsim, like any other religion or philosophy, has the very powerful  potential for finding profound meaning. And based on Mitt Romney’s behaviors as a political candidate, I don’t believe he’s found much.

Or, to return to the superhero metaphor, he’s not using his powers for good.]

The Democratic National Committee has told us since January that Mitt Romney is “two men trapped in one body.” I assume they mean in a shifting policy sense, rather than, say, Bruce Wayne’s bat fetish, or Bruce Banner turning into a green-skinned rage-monster when his blood pressure spikes.

Before the Florida Republican debate, Romney wasn’t even supposed to have blood pressure. There wasn’t room for duality in his mild-mannered character. According to Robert Draper’s analysis last November, Romney’s campaign wanted to make him “exquisitely one-dimensional: all-business man, the world’s most boring superhero.”

The bad news for Democrats is how less boring the talented Mr. Romney became while dispatching his GOP teammates. After Romney came back from his loss in South Carolina, political blogger Markus Ziener complimented him for his choice of weaponry: “The only way one can win against a brawler like Gingrich is to trade in your stiletto for a bazooka.” Ross Douthat quickly reversed that combat advice: “The howitzer worked to dispatch Gingrich, but it won’t work a second time. Instead, to beat Santorum and close out the nomination contest, Romney will need to learn how to campaign with a stiletto.”

A bazooka, a howitzer, and two stilettos. It sounds more like Dr. Doom’s battle armor than Batman’s utility belt. Or maybe adaptability is Romney’s real weapon. Paul Begala draws the former governor as “Plastic Man”: ” a political shape-shifter who will renege on any promise, abandon any pledge, betray any principle to please his audience.” Even one of Romney’s own aides likened him to a human Etch-A-Sketch.

Despite the list of other super-malleable heroes Romney might resemble (Elongated Man, Elastic Lad, Mr. Fantastic), I’ll offer another twist. To understand the policy decisions of the heroic U.S. Federal Reserve vs. the cowardly Europe Central Bank last year, Robert Smith and Zoe Chace of NPR’s Planet Money broke it down in comic book terms: “You can always explain the difference between superheroes by going back to their origin stories, to their founding myths.”

For Romney, those founding myths are literally founding myths, written less than two hundred years ago in the smallville of Palmyra, NY. To political pundits, superpowers are metaphor and hyperbole. In Mormonism, it’s the real deal. Which means the DNC’s dual identity tag may really be the best fit. Literally. Stan Lee called his Marvel superheroes “long underwear characters.” And Mitt, like Peter Parker, wears amazing threads under his streets clothes.

According to many Mormons, Romney’s underwear endows its owner with supernatural powers, most notably invulnerability. There are tales of temple garments, worn as reminders of Church covenants, protecting faithful wearers from fires and car wrecks. The Mormon Church has revised its not-so-ancient scriptures (a kind of Etch-A-Sketch rewriting that comic book companies rely on too), but objects such as divining rods and seer stones used to be strapped to the spiritual utility belt too.

Romney, a former Mormon bishop, also has the power to baptize dead people. His church’s retro-flock include Elvis, Anne Frank, and Adolf Hitler. But when asked on the campaign trail what superhero he would like to be, Bishop Romney went with Superman, a character known for his own boring one-dimensionality. He should have said Dr. Deseret, the Mormon superhero from Marvel’s 1990’s comic book Captain Confederacy. On that alternate Earth, Deseret is a Mormon nation larger than our world’s Utah, and Dr. Deseret is, like Romney, its “special agent of God.”

But then Dr. Deseret is only a drug-enhanced Ninja with abilities far below Romney’s ambitions. Superman says a lot more about him and anyone else who qualifies for celestial glory in the afterlife. Forget the Presidency, Mitt wants actual superpowers. If he puts in the necessary time and training in the spirit world, the former governor of Massachusetts will be eligible for literal godhood. And not just a god of a state or nation but an entire planet.

On Captain Confederacy’s Earth, the South won the Civil War — a possibility Newt Gingrich explored in his own history-altering novel, Gettysburg. Hopefully when Romney becomes god of his own Earth, he won’t Etch-A-Sketch its history too.

Which means Massachusetts would get to keep its Romneycare, a socialistic program that blankets 98% of its population, as opposed to Obamacare’s scrawny 95%. Maybe Massachusetts will also get to keep its corporate taxes, those loopholes in the state tax code that the governor closed to cover his $2 billion budget gap. But as a God-in-Training, Romney promises to provide corporations an instant 20% tax break (up from 10% a few months ago). Fortunately, that will have no negative effect on the national budget and deficit because he will have already lassoed them in the protective power of his undergarments.

I assume there will be no abortions on Planet Romney because high school abstinence education will prevent all unintended pregnancies. That way Romney the God won’t have to reconcile his pro-choice scriptures of the early 2000’s with his revised pro-life scriptures of his two Presidential campaigns.

Also, no gay people on Planet Romney. Not because Romney doesn’t love them – he supported their serving openly in the military and achieving full equality at a pace faster than Edward Kennedy promoted – but because even God wants to be at least a little consistent. So ditto on immigration, campaign finance reform, stimulus packages, and government bail-outs. All mention of these words in the Romney scriptures will be shook out of existence.

As will his tax records. For Romney, Planet Money isn’t the name of a show on NPR. It’s where he was born. When Krypton exploded, it flung Superman into the middle class life of a hard-working farmer’s son. Romney’s one consistent political aim is to keep himself and Planet Money from the same fate. Everything else–social issues, family values, religious convictions–can be endlessly revised and rebooted. But not wealth. It’s the one founding myth Romney will never rewrite. He will protect his home planet, even if the planet the rest of us have to live on suffers for it.

You can see why his campaign wanted voters to think he was boring. Mitt Romney: just your average, magic underwear wearing, godhood aspiring, dual identity, super-malleable, multi-millionaire ubercandidate.

It’s enough to make the first African American President of the United States sound like the conservative choice.

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