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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Osama Bin Laden

Bill Seinkeiwicz, Captain Ahab

Imagine if George W. Bush had been forced to stay in office till he had personally gunned down Osama Bin Laden. Or if Obama can’t leave till he bags his own arch-nemesis, Edward Snowden. What would that sort of megalomaniacal mission do to a guy?

It turns him into Batman.

“The spiritual theme of Batman,” writes E. M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel, “is a battle against evil conducted too long or in the wrong way. Criminals are evil, and Batman is warped by constant pursuit until the knight-errantry turns into revenge.”

Okay, I’m lying. Forster wrote that about Meville’s Moby Dick. But swapping Batman for Captain Ahab (or Bin Laden for that big fat whale) shows how bizarrely time works in comic books. Or doesn’t work. Superhero time is both frozen and endlessly moving.

Batman’s parents were gunned down “some fifteen years ago.” That origin fact was first printed in 1939, so that meant 1924. Today it means 1998. Because Batman’s parents were always gunned down some fifteen years ago. That point in time is constantly shifting. Unlike U.S. Presidents (who, according to medical researcher Michael Roizen, age twice as fast while in office), Batman can’t age.

If his “war on criminals” were roped to real time, his character would become as monstrous as Melville’s obsessed whale-hunter. Batman is already carrying an unhealthy dose of the Captain in his utility belt, but without a time frame defining just how warped his mission might be, he skirts to just this side of self-annihilating megalomania. (Plus, according to E. Paul Zehr, he would only last three years—less than a Presidential term, but the same as an NFL running back. The human body can only take so much punishment.)

Superman lives in the same continuous present. In his 1962 essay “The Myth of Superman,” semiotician Umberto Eco analyzes that “temporal paradox.” (I’m not lying this time; Eco really does analyze a comic book.) Superman is mythic in the timeless, archetypal sense, while also adventuring in our “everyday world of time,” and so the “very structure of time falls apart.”

That requires some fancy story-telling. Eco particularly admires how DC created a dream-like climate in which the reader “loses the notion of temporal progression.” We keep looping back into Superman’s personal timeline to hear previously untold tales. When Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel was hired back to DC in 1969, his first assignment was a six-page script explaining how Clark Kent got hired at The Daily Planet. Siegel covered that in two panels back in 1938. The newspaper had been called The Daily Star then. No one minds the change, or even notices. It’s just part of the continuous dream.

At Timely (Marvel’s old name), superheroes refused to loop backwards. When the Human Torch reignited in 1954, it was 1954 for him too. He’d fought Nazis in the forties, and now he was fighting Commies in the fifties. We even got an explanation for his period of absence (he went supernova in the desert), and an explanation for his return (hydrogen bomb testing reawakened him). Timely time always marched forward.

Over at DC, superheroes only battled pretend villains, ones that bore little or no relationship to current events. Pick up an issue of Action Comics during World War II, and except for a patriotic cover endorsing government bonds, you wouldn’t have known there was a war on. Ditto for the Cold War. The Man of Steel never faced the Iron Curtain. It would have pinned him to real time.

Superheroes would have continued happily to inhabit their private, timeless planet, until Stan Lee came along and screwed things up. Like their Commie-bashing forebears, Marvel’s Silver Age heroes were cold warriors. They were literally timely. Rather than avoiding chronological progression, Stan Lee highlighted it. His captions even recapped past issues to nudge forgetful readers. No more continuous dream. Naptime is over.

And that created new problems. If tethered to our world, superhero time eventually falls out of sync. Batman’s “some fifteen years ago” is very different from the Fantastic Four’s origin-producing rocket launch. Parents can get gunned down in any decade. The Waynes weren’t scrambling to beat the Commies. The Space Race isn’t a mobile pocket in time. That’s 1961. That will always be 1961.

That’s also one of many many reasons why the 2005 Fantastic Four film didn’t work—and why I’m less than hopeful about the reboot now in production. No Space Race, no reason for Reed Richards’ botched radiation shields. The guy’s supposed to be a genius, but his girlfriend is shouting: “We’ve got to take that chance, unless we want the Commies to beat us to it! I – I never thought that you would be a coward!” The historical context is everything.

DC held out as long as they could. But by 1968 they ended their isolationist policy and introduced Red Star, their first Soviet superhero. California Governor Ronald Reagan made his first comic book appearance the same year. (Marvel wouldn’t notice him till he made it to the White House.) Because of Timely, superheroes had to stop reliving the same Daily Planet headlines. The planet was revolving daily whether they liked it or not.

I was on the other side of the planet, in Australia, when I read the Herald Sun headline: “Osama bin Laden is dead, US President Barack Obama confirms.” That was May 2011, so the U.S. government’s knight-errantry lasted just under a decade. The photo showed flag-waving college students cheering outside the White House lawn. Some of them would have been reading comic books when the World Trade Center came down. Bin Laden was their Hitler, their Lex Luthor, the monster breathing under their bed every night.

Imagine if we hadn’t caught him. Imagine America if that decade had drifted on some fifteen years. Or if September 11, 2001 weren’t a fixed point, but a whale-sized weight dragged forward by every new, time-warped President. Imagine a battle against evil conducted too long or in the wrong way. What happens to a country under a never-ending Patriot Act? To a government locked in a constant pursuit of surveillance? The national psyche can only take so much punishment.

A word of comic book advice to President Obama regarding whistle-blower Edward Snowden:

Time to move on.

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Benedict_Cumberbatch_blows_up_the_Gherkin_in_new_Star_Trek_Into_Darkness_posterworld trade center explosion

J. J. Abrams is not bashful about 9/11. He blew up the Vulcan home world in his 2009 Star Trek reboot and said afterwards he was aiming for the World Trade Center. The sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, literally spells it out with a 9/11 dedication in the ending credits. Not that anyone was going to miss the parallels. An enormous, hijacked spaceship takes a suicidal plunge into a 20th century-looking cityscape and levels a block of skyscrapers? I think we’ve seen this episode before.

I admit I was startled, teetering on repulsed, to see such extreme 9/11 imagery employed for mere box office fun.  And the movie really is fun. Osama Bin Laden is played by Star Trek uber-villain Khan, who’s played by—no, not the Corinthian leather guy in the white, Fantasy Island suit, but Benedict Cumberbatch, who BBC fans already adore as their most recent Sherlock (in addition to commandeering a starship, Benedict dethroned Basil Rathbone for most flamboyantly named Holmes actor).

Cumberbatch also plays Adolf Hitler. In Star Trek mythology, Khan is the abortive product of the so-called Eugenics Wars of the 1990s. Here on our Earth, we call that World War II. The Nazis were exterminating unfit races in the service of a cleaner, ubermensch-friendly gene pool. Cumberbatch’s Khan even boasts a strain of Dalek (a latent BBC gene presumably) and so wants to expand his extermination program to a universal scale.

I’ve written elsewhere (“Heirs of Slytherin the Virginia State House”) how eugenics keeps providing Hollywood with 21st century supervillains, including most recently Voldemort, Magneto, Red Skull, and the Lizard. In my theater, Khan was scheming a room over from Iron Man 3, where evil genius Aldrich Killian upgrades himself and his minions into the “new iteration of human evolution.” But Abrams is less interested in the war of the fittest than the War on Terror.

It turns out our C.I.A. drones are fueled, literally, by more of those evil supermen. The military brass want Kirk to fire them at a targeted terrorist. No trial, no jury, just a remote control execution, what the U.S. authorizes daily in the Middle East.  Obviously Spock objects. And soon we learn a rogue admiral is undermining the very principles that America—I mean, the Federation—was founded on.

The Enterprise was always a Cold War vehicle, so there’s some whiplash in the political retooling. The admiral is Peter Frederick Weller, reprising his equally treasonous role from season five of 24 (a franchise Fox is planning to reboot too). Weller wants to safeguard us against wars to come, but the real threat is the lure of vengeance (also the name of his ship). Even a liberal-blooded half-Vulcan can long to beat the murderer of his best friend into uber-pulp. But that won’t bring him back to life. Only the DNA-fit blood of a still-living superman can do that. So listen to your girlfriend, and keep phasers on stun.

Despite the glaring plot parallels, I doubt Star Trek Into Darkness is going to stir the same waters as Zero Dark Thirty. Which is too bad. More people have already seen it. Science fiction is an especially apt vehicle for allegory—though also one easily ignored (I’m still astonished how season 3 of Battlestar Galactica, an overt representation of the U.S. occupation of Iraq told from the sympathetic POV of human suicide bombers against their literally inhuman oppressors, all but escaped political analysis). American consumers prefer their entertainment entertaining, not thought-provoking. A fact Mr. Abrams fully embraces. His Star Treks are satisfying romps, spiced with just enough current events to create a pleasing patina of relevance.

The reboot of Khan is first and foremost a reboot of Khan. It even prompted my family to look up the original episode on Hulu. For all its talk of selective breeding, the 1967 “Space Seed” is, I was surprised to find, anything but eugenically correct. Ricardo Montalbán is Mexican, a mixed ethnicity any self-respecting eugenicists would have stamped as unfit. And he plays an Indian, the warlord of a continent far far below the standards of Aryan supremacy. Eugenicists wanted to weed out not just the East, but Eastern Europe, those migrating degenerates endangering the genes that produce the likes of, say, Benedict Cumberbatch.

I don’t object to Gene Roddenberry scrambling the history books, not any more than I do Mr. Cumberbatch finding lucrative employment (Sherlock was temporarily exterminated after The Hobbit abducted his Watson, Martin Freeman). He and Zachary Quinto’s Spock (remember his villainous days on Heroes?) are ideal opponents, two super-muscled brainiacs ready to kill each other for their loved ones. Nimoy’s Spock makes a cameo too (Abrams, thankfully, does not re-explain the not-quite-a-reboot reboot premise), reminding us that noble principles (I vow never to interfere with your timeline) are plot fodder when it’s William Shatner’s doppelganger on the line.

So, yes, vanquish the supermen of evils past, put the pesky military in its Constitutional place, and let’s get this five-year mission underway. To boldly go (fifty years later, and we’re still splitting that damn infinitive) where we apparently can’t help ourselves from going again and again and again.

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