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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Plastic Man

It was fun while it lasted, but let’s face it. The election is over. Why wait till November to vote? In fact, why wait till January for the Inauguration? We could get both out of the way this week.

At least that’s what they’re doing over on Earth-1610. Marvel Comics moved Inauguration Day to Wednesday September 26th.  And who’s that guy in the flag suit with his hand on the Supreme Justice’s Bible?

Write-in candidate Captain America of course.

The Earth-616 version of the character died four years ago, so it’s a hell of a comeback. It also says a lot about Presidential politics.  (Why, for instance, do candidates limit their flag-wearing to lapel pins?)

I’m not sure if Marvel is leaning left or right this election cycle. Their masked Commander-in-Chief has no party affiliation, and his earlier incarnations have bounced all over the political spectrum. In the 50s, he was a right wing Commie-basher. But he thawed into a liberal in the 60s, and even discarded the flag outfit briefly in the 70s.  More recently, he protested against Marvel’s version of the Patriot Act, but then surrendered rather than see his nation further divided. (Not the sort of high minded compromise we see much in our current Tea Party climate.)

Although DC elected Lex Luthor back in 2000, it’s rare for Presidential politics to bleed so deeply into comic book culture. Usually things flow the other direction. Americans love to talk about their politicians in terms of superheroes.

Look at Mitt Romney. Newsweek called him “Plastic Man” for his political shape-shifting (it didn’t help when his own campaign likened him to a human Etch-A-Sketch). The New York Times Magazines went with “all-business man, the world’s most boring superhero.” Rush Limbaugh drew the unfortunate Bain/Bane comparison during the Dark Knight Rises release. And, most recently, James Carville dubbed Romney’s running mate “Wonder Boy,” a thinly masked variation on Batman’s Boy Wonder.

Commentators throw plenty of leotards at Obama too. A New Yorker essay about the President’s family history was titled “An Origin Story,” and a June New York Times op-ed about his then flagging campaign appeared under the headline: “Captain America?”

Obama has provided a few of the superheroic comparisons himself. His ex-girlfriend Genevieve Cook told biographer David Maraniss that his desire to “play out a superhero life” was “a very strong archetype in his personality.” While first campaigning for the White House in 2008, he joked at an Alfred Smith dinner that right-wing rumors about his birth certificate were true: “I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father Jor-El to save the planet Earth.” His website even featured a photograph of the Illinois Senator posed in front of a Superman statue.

Mitt Romney is a Superman fan too. When asked last winter which superhero he like to be and why, he went with the Man of Steel. He didn’t say why, and from his expression (and 1947 birthday), Superman may be the only superhero he’s ever heard of.

Obama had a fuller explanation for his other favorites. He told Entertainment Weekly: “I was always into the Spider‑Man/Batman model. The guys who have too many powers‑‑like Superman‑‑that always made me think they weren’t really earning their superhero status. It’s a little too easy. Whereas Spider‑Man and Batman, they have some inner turmoil.  They get knocked around a little bit.”

Obama has been knocked around a bit himself, but like Captain America or any other good superhero, he’s back from the grave. National polls have him moving 4 points ahead of Romney, and his lead in the electoral votes promise a November blow-out.

But if you can’t wait that long, tune your Bat Dials to Brazil. Their October elections promise to usher in a horde of masked do-gooders. Campaign laws there allow candidates to use almost any name on a ballot, so how better to grab attention than throwing on a leotard?

My favorite is Piracicaba city council candidate “Geraldo Wolverine” and his slogan: “Vote for the guy who has claws!” There are five Batmen (Batmans?) running too. But fear not Obama fans, it looks like the President is going to win big down there too. Sixteen candidates are using his name. One copycat (“Obama BH”) explained:

“Barack Obama is more than a politician; he is an icon.”

That doesn’t make the guy a superhero, but it does look it will get him a second term in the Bat Cave.

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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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