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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Clark Kent

I can restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in three words.

But first a lesson in grammar.

Passive voice. Ever heard of it?

Super-grammarian Geoffrey Pullum has. Daily Planet editor Perry White has too. But White, according to Pullum, has no idea what it is.

In J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis’ Superman: Earth One, Mr. White explains to cub reporter Clark Kent: “Active sentence structure versus passive structure. A good reporter always goes for the former, never the latter. It’s ‘A dog was killed last night,’ not ‘Last night, a dog was killed.’”

Clark Kent and Perry White discuss passive voice

And then Pullum swoops in through a window: “It looks as if the editor of The Daily Planet thinks that it is passive sentence structure to use any adjunct constituent set off by commas. So he would condemn sentences like Michael Corleone’s You’re out, Tom, or Today, I settle all family business, for being passive!”

In his Chronicle of Higher Education article “Passive Writing at the ‘Daily Planet,’” Pullum bemoans the sorry state of grammatical knowledge among not just fictional newspaper editors. Your “freshman-comp TA” and writing gurus Strunk and White get it wrong too. Pullum considers it a serious educational issue.

I teach first-year composition, but my concern isn’t educational. It’s moral.

Passive voice is evil.

If you accept Stan Lee’s superhero prime directive, “With great power comes great responsibility,” then passive voice is a supervillain’s weapon of choice.

Which might explain why politicians use it so often. The Fat Man and Little Boy of literary examples were both launched by the Nixon administration. When press secretary Ron Ziegler was discussing Watergate, and when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was discussing Vietnam, both deployed the same phrase:

“Mistakes were made.”

Who made the mistakes? Impossible to say. The sentence is missing its subject, the agent, the actor of the action. And there lies the villainy. Passive voice erases responsibility. It’s how bad guys make their escape.

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Look at Mysterio. He routinely eludes Spider-Man by dropping smoke bombs and ducking away in the confusion. If you rewrite the sentence

“Mysterio dropped a smoke bomb,”

as

“A smoke bomb was dropped,”

then Mysterio (subject and villain) vanishes twice. He ducks away in the syntactical confusion. Passive voice writes him right out of the sentence.

Perry’s example, “A dog was killed,” actually IS passive voice (whether it happened last night or not), because the sentence masks the identity of the dog-killer. Did Mysterio kill the dog? Did Richard Nixon? Nobody knows.

Which is why reporters like Clark Kent sometimes use passive voice. The police, like the readers of the sentence, are still searching for the killer.

But what if the information is known and the writer obscures it?

That’s where things get ugly.

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Reaching past my shelf of comic books, I have The Palestine-Israeli Conflict in hand. Instead of dual-statehood, Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Dawoud El-Alami settle for dual-authorship. And that’s about all they agree on. Each pens his own history. The book is a journey down the same river twice, but in very different boats.

When describing events of 1948, Dawoud El-Alami writes: “Jewish terrorist organizations . . . carried out a massacre of men, women and children in the village of Dier Yassin.” That’s active voice. The subject of the sentence carries out the massacre. In contrast, Dan Cohn-Sherbok describes the same incident with the phrase: “the policy of self-restraint was abandoned.” That’s passive. Who abandoned self-restraint? His syntax doesn’t want to tell.

Cohn-Sherbok goes on to describe a similar incident from 1982: “More than three hundred refuges were massacred.” Passive again. And Dawoud El-Alami, to no surprise, employs active voice again: “The militia massacred between seven hundred and one thousand people (some reports say two thousand).”

Technically, the two pairs of sentences don’t contradict (even mathematically, since two thousand is “more than” three hundred). But Cohn-Sherbok employs passive voice at its immoral worse. His syntax erases responsibility.

Now I’m not suggesting that the “Palestinian Perspective” half of The Palestine-Israeli Conflict is any more accurate than the “Jewish Perspective.” Dawoud El-Alami has his own array of rhetorical maneuvers for ducking blame.

If you’re wondering about my political biases, I find myself agonizingly sympathetic to both sides. The most guilty party is England, who, desperate to fight Nazi Germany, promised the same homeland to two different aspiring nations. The results were horrifically predictable.

But if you don’t think England is responsible, then this is a job for passive voice:

“The Jews and the Palestinians were promised the same land.”

Promised by whom? By Mysterio’s trademark cloud of syntactical smoke.

But at least Clark Kent is too fast for him. Clark recently escaped the grammatical misinformation of Perry White to strike out on his own as a blogger. It was big news. Last November, after a discussion of the Israel-Hamas cease-fire, NPR’s Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan explained:

“After more than 70 years as a mild-mannered reporter, Superman quit his day job at The Daily Planet. A fed-up Clark Kent delivered a diatribe in front of the entire newsroom on his way out the door. ‘I was taught to believe you could use words to change the course of rivers,’ he said, ‘that even the darkest secrets would fall under the harsh light of the sun.’”

Clark quits the Daily Planet

Are you listening, Dan and Dawoud? Your words are changing the course of rivers. Take responsibility for your subjects, even their darkest secrets.

That’s the first step in this English professor’s plan for world peace:

Ban passive voice.

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[And for the super-grammarians out there, I should point out that both “The dog was killed” and “The dog was killed by Richard Nixon” are examples of passive voice, even though the second sentence apprehends the killer. Only the first, the agentless subgroup of passive voice, is evil. The second is just criminally clumsy.]

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That’s what the folks at MuggleNet want to know. They were looking for a guest speaker to discuss “the comic book superhero qualities of Harry Potter’s adventures” during a podcast interview. My dean, Suzanne Keen, MuggleNet Academia’s first guest, recommended me. How could I resist?

So is Harry a superhero?

The popular answer is a no.

When a student wrote to Yahoo! Answers asking if he could dress as Harry Potter for Superhero Day, the top ranked responder said, nope, Harry’s no superhero (but go as him anyway). 79% of poll participants at a CAWS (Create a Wrestler Superstar) online discussion board agreed. Same opinion at Wiki.Answers.

It’s true, Mr. Potter has no mask and cape, but I have to go against conventional wisdom and answer: Pretty much.

To explain why, let’s break the question into pieces. Definitions of a superhero vary, but here are some basic qualities.

Does he have superpowers?

Well, for starters the kid can fly, teleport, turn invisible, and talk to animals. That puts him right up there with Superman, Night Crawler, Invisible Woman, and Aquaman.

But the issue seems to be whether this makes him special. The yahoo at Yahoo! thinks “the defining characteristic of a superhero is that they use a unique, super-human ability that nobody else possesses.” Wiki.Answers got stuck on the same sticking point, declaring Harry just “a wizard like many others.”

It’s a reasonable objection. Especially when you look at early Golden Age comics. Men in unitards tended to stand alone back then, each in his own universe, with little or no crossover. Even the Justice Society of America started as a reprint omnibus, with characters sharing a cover but not adventures. The idea of a community of superpowered heroes in a single universe didn’t really launch till the early 60’s. Stan Lee even included footnotes, so every episode in every title was part of a continuous web.

Which mean the “unique” criterion is wrong. Lots of superheroes overlap powers. Look at the Captain Marvel family, or everyone who’s ever been named Flash (Daniel Radcliffe said he’d like to add his name to the list). I count about a half dozen guys who can stretch their limbs into knots. Green Lantern belongs to a literal army of identically-clad Green Lanterns. Ultimately the Harry Potter wizarding world is a lot like the superhero world, a community of the superpowered.

And if you really want to push the “unique” angle, Harry’s that too. The sole wizard fated to defeat the greatest villain in history.

Okay, but does he have a dual identity?

Oddly, I’m going to have to go with yes.

He doesn’t have an alias or codename (unless you count “The Boy Who Lived”), or a colorful costume under his robes, but there is plenty of duality. Rowling’s just transferred it from her hero to the world at large. Instead of mild-mannered Clark Kent, we have the mild-mannered muggle world, our world. Which, unknown to us and all the other Lois Lanes, overflows with magic.

Book One strips off Harry’s Clark-like glasses so he can see he is a member of a secret superpowered community. Jump inside a phone booth and suddenly you’re in the Ministry of Magic.  Instead of wearing colored tights under his street clothes, he wears his muggle street clothes under his Hogwarts robes. Rowling’s just flipped the trope.

She’s also overturned a common fantasy convention. Most speculative worlds exist somewhere or somewhen else. Rowling conjures the superhero’s secret identity trick to bring sorcery into the here and now. Usually it’s one or the other. Middle-earth, for example, is here but not now. Narnia is now but not here. Le Guin’s Earthsea is neither here nor now. Harry is both.

He’s also King Arthur and Merlin in one. The boy born for greatness must discover his real self. (The BBC’s Merlin had great fun with the secret identity trope too.)

So what’s next? Super orphan?

Harry’s parents, like Bruce Wayne’s, were brutally murdered. Superman lost his parents plus his entire home world. Ditto for Harry. Except that his Krypton was only hiding until his twelfth birthday. In the meantime, Harry was raised by apes. I mean muggles. (Jesus, the secret superpowered son of God, was raised by Jews, but that’s probably a different discussion.)

How about a superhero symbol? Does Harry have a bat or spider or capital “S”?

Yep. Look at his forehead. Captain Marvel sports the same icon. A thunderbolt. And like every good superhero, the icon codes his identity. Captain Marvel shouts “Sha-zam!” (the name of his sponsoring wizard) and down comes a lightning zap to transform him. The same way baby Harry was transformed into a horcrux by Voldemort’s magic blast.

Though I’d say Rowling is more in sympathy with Silver Age comics. A hero’s power is also a curse. Billy Baston’s thunderbolt is a free ticket to superpowered fun and games. Harry’s is a death sentence.

And if you’re going to say a superhero’s emblem has to be worn on his chest, wrong again. The 1930s Phantom sported his iconic skull on his belt buckle. Before that, Johnston McCulley (you know him from Zorro) preferred hoods with his hero’s symbol sewn into the forehead. In fact, guess the name of the proto-superhero he wrote right after Zorro.  The Thunderbolt.

Next up: Is Harry a vigilante?

I know, not the first thing that pops to mind when you think “superhero.” But most of them are. Even a government-employed super-soldier like Captain America has to go AWOL on occasion to demonstrate this his superheroic soul is not for sale.  Plus governments, all those Commissioner Gordons of the world, are innately incompetent. How long did it take it the Minster of Magic to even acknowledge that Voldemort was back? Meanwhile, the Order of the Phoenix was already in full vigilante mode. To protect the law we must break the law. By the last book, Harry switches to Zorro mode. The government isn’t merely incompetent, it’s corrupt. Voldemort is running everything.

Which brings us to arch nemesis.

Yes, Harry has one, but the superhero parallels run deeper. The ur-supervillain of the Golden Age of Comics, the uber-thug who turned comic books into a massive mass market money maker through the 40’s, was Adolf Hitler. AKA, Tom Riddle.

Rowling did more than scribble a new Lex Luthor or Doc Ock. Lord Voldemort’s DNA was cloned from the ultimate villainy of the 20th century. Eugenics. He’s not just a ruthlessly authoritarian dictator.  He Who Cannot Be Named believes in genetically pure bloodlines. The Slytherin agenda is the wizarding equivalent of Aryan supremacy. Muggles are inferior. Wizards who mingle with them muddy the gene pool. Voldemort is Hitler on magical steroids.

And only Harry can stop him. It’s the ultimate battle of good vs. evil. The battle comic book superheroes started in 1938 with Action Comics No. 1. Back when the U.S. was watching fascism sweep across Europe, afraid that democracy could be facing its end.

I could add a bit about Hermione being a mutant (superpowered offspring of normal parents), but I think I’ve made my superhero point.

And now I’d like to apologize to my daughter.

I ran all of this past her after picking her up from high school track practice today. She read all of the Harry Potter books a dozen of times each, literally. And that was after her mom and I and spent years reading them aloud to her and her brother. It’s how they became literate.

After a brief objection or two, she agreed with my superhero thesis. “I never thought of it like that,” she said.

I laughed. “No reason why you would.”

“That’s true,” she said. “But, you know, it depresses me when you say stuff like this.”

“That Voldemort is Hilter?”

“All of it. You’re destroying my childhood.” She was laughing, sort of. “Stop destroying my childhood!”

I’ll tell her to avoid the podcast.

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