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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Glenn Greenwald

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Paul Revere died in 1818 and was reborn in 1861. His resurrection gave him the strength of three men and the power of bilocation: He was both in the church tower swinging a lantern and on his horse across the river receiving the message. Fellow riders, William Dawes and Samuel Prescott, stumbled and vanished into the white space between the stanzas of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride,” the poem that created the larger-than-life American hero. When the actual, human-sized Revere died, his obit writer didn’t even mention that not-yet-legendary midnight ride.

Paul Revere is one of several super-Americans Tarek Mehanna, a Pittsburgh-born pharmacist convicted of supporting Al Qaeda in 2012, named as his role models. Batman was at the top of the list. “When I was six,” Mehanna told his sentencing judge, “I began putting together a massive collection of comic books. Batman implanted a concept in my mind, introduced me to a paradigm as to how the world is set up: that there are oppressors, there are the oppressed, and there are those who step up to defend the oppressed.”

Tarek Mehanna court drawing

After Batman, school field trips and high school history classes showed him “just how real that paradigm is in the world.” He admired the oppression-fighting Paul Revere, Tom Paine, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, John Brown, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. “Everything a man is exposed to in his environment becomes an ingredient that shapes his outlook,” Mehanna explained. “So, in more ways than one, it’s because of America that I am who I am.”

Judge O’Toole sentenced him to seventeen years. Glenn Greenwald calls that “one of the most egregious violations of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech,” one that history will condemn along with “the architects of the policies he felt compelled to battle.” It could be a while before history makes its ruling, so meanwhile O’Toole’s stands—a panel of judges rejected an appeal last month.

Like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Tarek Mehanna is a writer. He supported Al Qaeda by pen rather than sword. Longfellow was the first American to translate Dante’s Divine Comedy into English. Mehanna translated “39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad” and posted it online from his bedroom in his parents’ suburban Boston home. That sounds considerably less poetic than a midnight gallop, but like his hero, Mehanna is a messenger.

“I mentioned Paul Revere,” said Mehanna,  “when he went on his midnight ride, it was for the purpose of warning the people that the British were marching to Lexington to arrest Sam Adams and John Hancock, then on to Concord to confiscate the weapons stored there by the Minutemen. By the time they got to Concord, they found the Minutemen waiting for them, weapons in hand. They fired at the British, fought them, and beat them. From that battle came the American Revolution. There’s an Arabic word to describe what those Minutemen did that day. That word is: JIHAD, and this is what my trial was about.”

That’s not a definition most Americans know. The FBI, however, defines “Terrorism” as “acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law” and that are intended to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population” and/or “influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.” There’s a Spanish word to describe that:

Zorro.

Johnson McCulley’s grasp of colonial history is even looser than Longfellow’s, but the pulp novelist knew what Americans loved: Champions of the Oppressed. Zorro waged his one-man war on the corrupt regime of Spanish California. His activities included whipping judges, disfiguring soldiers, and killing at least one military officer in open combat—all with the aim of coercing a tyrannous governor into reversing his abusive policies. Batman co-creator Bill Finger was six when The Mark of Zorro hit theaters in 1920. Finger included stills of the masked and swashbuckling Douglass Fairbanks in the scripts he handed Bob Kane to draw.

When Mehanna was collecting Batman comics in 1989, Michael Keaton was playing the caped crusader in theaters, but the paradigm was the same. “Muslims should defend their lands from foreign invaders – Soviets, Americans, or Martians,” Mehanna told Judge O’Toole. “This is not terrorism, and it’s not extremism. It’s what the arrows on that seal above your head represent: defense of the homeland.”

Whether you think Mehanna was unfairly convicted or not (my jury is still deliberating), he is a devout follower of American Superheroism. He, like many of his fellows Americans, likes things simple. He sees the world through a six-year-old’s eyes: the good guys and the bad guys they battle. That’s a black and white universe, with all the poetically inconvenient nuances dropped into the stanza breaks and panel gutters. Longfellow sacrificed Dawes and Prescott to preserve the simplicity of his heroic vision. Madeline Albright, argues Mehanna, sacrificed “over half a million children” who died due to “American-led sanctions that prevented food, medicine, and medical equipment from entering Iraq.”

The figures are contestable, but the Department of Defense considers “incidental injury” to non-military targets lawful “so long as it is not excessive in light of the overall military advantage.” So a Stanford Law School study, for example, estimates that drone attacks in Pakistan have killed up to 881 civilians, including 176 children. Such “collateral damage” differs from terrorism because the deaths, although premeditated, were not the overt goal—a distinction irrelevant to the victims.

Longfellow would leave the body count out of any poetic rendering of the War on Terrorism. We prefer our Paul Reveres heroically purified. Eugene Debs, another of Mehannna’s role models, was six when “Paul Revere’s Ride” was first published in Atlantic Monthly. Debs grew up to be a champion of oppressed laborers and was sentenced to ten years in prison under the Espionage Act of 1917 for speaking against U.S. involvement in the first World War. President Harding commuted the sentence after the war ended. Perhaps some future, post-War on Terror President will do the same for Mehanna, but I doubt it. America loves its Batman paradigm too much. It would take another Revolution to overthrow it.

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[A version of this piece first appeared in the Roanoke Times on November 30, 2013.]

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Iron Patriot from IM3

The culminating twist of Iron Man 3, declared Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, “signals both the making of Iron Man 3 and, with any luck, the possible unmaking of the genre.” It was an early review, so Lane had to be coy about specifics, but a few weeks and a few hundred million box office dollars later, we can take the spoiler gloves off and just say it:

“This war is not a means to any end but rather is the end in itself. Not only is it the end itself, but it is also its own fuel: it is precisely this endless war – justified in the name of stopping the threat of terrorism – that is the single greatest cause of that threat.”

Oh, wait, sorry, that’s not Iron Man 3. That’s Glenn Greenwald on Assistant Defense Secretary Michael Sheehan’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the twelve-year-old foreign policy franchise formerly known as the War on Terror has another two decades of sequels left in it.

What I meant to write is completely different. That Iron Man 3’s supervillianous corporate  technology genius invented his own Osama Bin Laden to mask his R&D and drive up government demand for his ever-expanding arsenal of military products, locking American and the rest of the planet in a self-perpetuating cycle of unwinnable war. But that’s just a movie. The kind that now pretty much defines the Hollywood blockbuster. Director Shane Black even goes the extra metafictional mile and includes the villain’s blue screen movie studio, the same corporate tech keeping Tony and his pals alive.

Iron Man and War Machine without the CGI

“From here on,” writes Lane, “the dumb-ass grandeur around which superheroic plots revolve can no longer be taken on trust.” Greenwald thinks the same about Obama. The war on terror, like the Hollywood superhero, will never end on its own because so many “factions reap a bonanza of benefits from its continuation.” Black lifts the edge of the curtain, but that glimpse will hardly unmake or even marginally slow the onslaught of forthcoming productions. Captain America 2 is shooting in D.C. as I type. That’s D.C., our nation’s capital, and so not technically a Warner Bros or Marvel Entertainment branch office.

The modern superhero movie first took flight in 1978 with Superman: The Movie (the subtitle says it all), with the total number of productions tipping just over forty in 2001. How many since 9/11?  Fifty. In less than half as many years. So, no, 9/11 is not the box office superhero’s origin story. It’s merely the transformative accident that doubled his powers. Like the Golden Age’s Blue Beetle. When his comic book incarnation debuted in pre-war 1939, the Beetle was just another mystery man in a domino mask and fedora. Listen to his first radio broadcast a worn-torn year later and the guy’s ingesting the power-inducing 2-X formula from his pharmacist mentor.

Novelist Austin Grossman recently told my Superheroes class that when he started writing his supervillain-narrated Soon I Will Be Invincible in 2001, he had to ask himself, “Am I just writing about a terrorist?” Austin’s brother, The Magicians author Lev Grossman, penned his own superheroic response, “Pitching 9/11.” The short story is a sequence of failed pitches for adapting 9/11 to screen. Here’s my favorite:

“Lonely, misunderstood Dominican elevator repairman (John Leguizamo?) finds himself trapped by fire after the second plane hits. In agony from the heat and smoke, near death from asphyxiation he jumps from the 83rd Floor. Instead of falling he hover in midair, then rockets upward. The trauma of the attack, and of his impending certain death, has awakened latent superpowers he never knew he had. A handful of others have undergone similar transformations—they hover in a cluster over the collapsing buildings, like so many swimmer treading water. As the roof sinks away below them into nothingness, they choose colorful pseudonyms and soar away together in formation to take vengeance on evil everywhere.”

Lev’s other pitches include scifi thriller, Discovery Channel documentary, and a filmed performance piece, but superheroes are the ready-made absurdity 9/11 was meant for. Diverting the path of an airliner? That’s a job for Superman. The pre-emptive prequel would star Batman. According to The 9/11 Commission Report, President Clinton was so annoyed with the lack of options for taking out Bin Laden he said to one his generals: ‘You know, it would scare the shit out of al-Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.’”

Substitute “ninjas” with the superhero team of your choice and you’ve got your very own dumb-ass grandeur plot.  But according to Blake Snyder (a friend leant me a copy of his Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need), the Superhero genre isn’t just about “guys in capes and tights.” It’s what happens when an extraordinary person is stuck in an ordinary world. In addition to Bruce Wayne and the X-Men, Russell Crow’s Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind are his go-to examples of misunderstood Gullivers shackled by Lilluputians.

I’m more than a little skeptical about Snyder (he argues Miss Congeniality is a better film than Memento), but he has a point. Especially when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. Superheroes soared after 9/11 because Hollywood cast America as the planet’s mightiest super being and the rest of the word population as those moron Lilluputians willfully misunderstanding him. Weren’t they listening when Bush Sr. explained New World Order?

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. was the lone superpower, to be loved and respected by a planet of grateful mortals. When some of those ingrates go and topple the Fortress of Solitude, what choice does America have but to declare a War on Lilluputianism? “It is hard to resist the conclusion that this war,” laments Greenwald, “has no purpose other than its own eternal perpetuation.”

But then in his own superheroic plot twist, Obama, days after his Assistant Defense Secretary was arguing for an unlimited renewal of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, declared: “This war, like all wars, must end.” The Associated Press boiled the President’s 7,000- word speech down to a sentence: “Barack Obama has all but declared an end to the global war on terror.”

Congress is balking of course. And so is our Democracy’s fourth branch of government, Hollywood. While Obama declares war on perpetual war, Marvel has two superhero franchises in post-production (Wolverine, Thor), three filming for 2014 release dates (Captain America, Spider-Man, X-Men), and another four announced for 2015 (Guardians of the Galaxy, Fantastic Four, Avengers, Ant-Man). Throw in the S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show that premieres next fall, and the superhero war isn’t dialing back—it’s surging.

But all those capes and tights flying across our screen have been an inverse shadow of real troops on the ground. So what happens when we finally leave Afghanistan? What happens if the drone war on al Qaeda really does die down? I’m no pre-cog, but the pop culture tea leaves are telling me 2015 will be the last big year for dumb-ass superhero grandeur. Though I wouldn’t underestimate Hollywood’s shapeshifting powers either. Both Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness were already in theaters, literally blowing up their representations of the U.S. drone armada, when Obama dropped his own policy bomb of a speech.

Box office superheroes will endure. Just scaled back to their pre-9/11 levels, where they belong.

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