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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: The Myth of the American Superhero

I’m shocked to report that spending July 4th in Bath will mean no Fourth of July fireworks. For some reason England doesn’t celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. So this year I’ll have to settle for American superhero psychoanalysis instead:

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The Declaration of Independence is, according to Noam Chomsky, the first American superhero text. A student asked the world-renowned linguist and political commentator about the hordes of zombies invading TVs and theaters, and he explained that in American pop lit, we’re always “about to face destruction from some terrible, awesome enemy, and at the last moment we’re saved by a superhero.”

John Lawrence and Robert Jewett call it The Myth of the American Superhero: “Spiderman and Superman contend against criminals and spies just as the Lone Ranger puts down threats by greedy frontier gangs. Thus paradise is depicted as repeatedly under siege, its citizens pressed down by alien forces too powerful for democratic institutions to quell.”

“So you go back to the early years,” Chomsky explains, “the terrible enemy was the Indians,” those flesh-devouring monsters Thomas Jefferson called “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

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That includes those folks who mercilessly rescued the first boatload of pilgrims from starvation. Also please ignore the fact that Jefferson’s fellow founders signed a treaty with a horde that would have made the Delaware tribe the fourteenth state of the new Union. Like the vast majority of U.S. treaties, things didn’t work out as stated.

“It turns out,” says Noam, “this enemy, this horrible enemy that’s going to destroy us, is someone we’re oppressing.” He explains the reversal as “a recognition — at some level of the psyche — that if you’ve got your boot on somebody’s neck, there’s something wrong, and that the people you’re oppressing may rise up and defend themselves, and then you’re in trouble.”

So Jefferson put the focus on the supervillainous King George instead:  “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” The list of offenses includes plundering, ravaging, and completing “the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.”And for a final outrage, George also “excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers,” those aforementioned, George-like savages.

Since its founding document, America has defined itself as a champion of the oppressed—even when it’s been busy oppressing the oppressed. I grew up in Pittsburgh, home of the first recorded act of germ warfare. When two chiefs visited Fort Pitt in 1763 to offer its besieged inhabitants safe retreat from Indian territory, the British commander declined but presented them with a gift of smallpox-infected blankets, hoping they would “have the desired effect.” Next Rev. John “Fighting Parson” Elder was rousing hordes of merciless vigilantes to ride to the rescue and attack Indians living among settlers. “These poor defenseless creatures,” wrote Ben Franklin, “were immediately fired upon, stabbed, and hatcheted to Death!” When the Pennsylvania governor posted rewards, no one turned in the murderers because, Rev. Elder explained, “the men in private life are virtuous and respectable; not cruel, but mild and merciful.”

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America is schizophrenic. We were founded on alter egos. And yet Francis Parkman, while chronicling Pontiac’s so-called Conspiracy, declares the Indian to be full of “contradiction”:  “A wild love of liberty, an utter intolerance of control, lie at the basis of his character, and fire his whole existence. Yet, in spite of this haughty independence, he is a devout hero-worshipper; and high achievement in war or policy touches a chord to which his nature never fails to respond. He looks up with admiring reverence to the sages and heroes of his tribe.”

That same liberty-loving hero-worship infuses the schizophrenic character of our American supermen and their readers. Of course we adore alter egos. Robert Bird’s proto-Batman, Nick of the Woods, isn’t the only frontiersman suffering from multiple personalities: the Quaker-by-day doesn’t seem to know he’s also an Indian-killing demon-by-night. I prefer Doc Savage and the contorted narrative tricks his writer Lester Dent has to play to avoid the obvious. The character is named after a real-life Colonel Savage, “a hero of the Spanish-American War,” in which the U.S. seized Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines from Spain. In his 1932 debut, Doc Savage travels through Central America to find “the Valley of the Vanished” where no “outside races have intermarried” with “the high class of Mayan” believed extinct since Spanish colonization. Though a Mayan princess, apparently attracted by Savage’s racially ambiguous bronze skin, would love to intermarry, he returns to New York only with a gift of gold from “the treasure trove of ancient Maya” to finance his do-gooding missions.

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It’s a peculiarly American take on colonization, where the colonized are not only willingly plundered but must remain hidden in a static preserve unrelated to any of those actual Indians openly impoverished within the borders of the contemporary U.S.  John Carlos Rowe calls it our “contradictory self-conceptions”: “Americans’ interpretations of themselves as people are shaped by a powerful imperial desire and a profound anti-colonial temper.”

That duality also accounts for America’s “paranoid streak.” “The United States is an unusually frightened country,” says Chomsky. “And in such circumstances, people concoct either for escape or maybe out of relief, fears that terrible things happen.”  Chomsky’s list of later zombified fears include revolting slaves and “Hispanic narco-traffickers.” If his classroom Skype interview hadn’t lurched to the next question, I think he would have added the hordes of Muslims currently clawing at the gate of America wilderness fort.

Osama bin Laden’s “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places” bears an uncomfortable resemblance to “The Declaration of Independence.” Bin Laden wrote two fatwas before 9/11, both roughly the length of our founding text. He lists “crimes and sins committed by the Americans,” calling them “facts that are known to everyone.” Jefferson lets his “Facts be submitted to a candid world,” detailing England’s “abuses and usurpations.” Like King George’s “establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States,” America is “plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors.” Both declare the “duty” and “honor” of the oppressed to fight for “justice,” evoking Allah and “Nature’s God” in support:

“Our Lord, rescue us . . . and raise for us from thee one who will help!”

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A few nights after the Sandy Hook shooting, a father heard a strange noise coming from his son’s bedroom. The little boy—he’d seen his teacher and classmates gunned down days before—was pounding on his floor. “I know where the bad guy is,” he said. “I’m beating him up.”

It sounds like a superhero origin story. When Bob Kane drew Batman’s, he posed little Bruce in his bedroom too. “I swear by the spirits of my parents,” said the little boy, “to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.”

The father of the Sandy Hook survivor said his son was pointing at the floor because the bad guy was in Hell, the same place Bruce’s prayer of vengeance was headed. The child (his name is all over the net, but I’d rather not use it) wants to be a detective when he grows up. He wants to save other children. Meanwhile he’s wearing his old Batman costume to bed.

“People don’t hurt Batman,” his father explained. It’s his way to feel “in control.”

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Other shooting survivors take similar comfort in superheroes. An Aurora comics shop owner commissioned a drawing of Green Lantern protecting their local Cineplex 16 to help a twelve-year-old survivor after the shooting there. Three women left the Dark Knight Rises premiere alive because their dates died shielding them from bullets. “He always wanted to be a superhero,” said a family member of one of the victims, “he wanted to save someone or do something greater.” One was an honors student “who loved superheroes” and “wrote exceptionally about” Batman and “themes of good versus evil” in his English class.

Unfortunately, the shooter was a fan too. Police found a Batman poster hanging in his home and learned that he’d dyed his hair to look like the Joker. Jeff Kass, author of Columbine: A True Crime Story, theorized the killer “saw himself as some sort of a twisted superhero avenging perceived wrongs.” Hours after the shooting, Kass guessed the suspect “was trying to extract some sort of revenge. Possibly angry at some perceived wrong. This would be similar to the Columbine shooters, and similar to other shootings in the South and West of the United States where people feel compelled to take the law into their own hands.”

I won’t pretend to know the Sandy Hook shooter’s motives, but police suspected he was influenced by a Norwegian, anti-Muslim terrorist who killed 77 people in 2011. That gunman considered himself a kind of superhero too, the self-declared “commander” of his own, one-man “Knights Templar” acting out of “goodness, not evil.” The American Conservative likened him to a “movie supervillain” played by “an unfunny Garrison Keillor.” He titled his manifesto 2083, the year his speculative history of the future ends. The Sandy Hook shooter preferred video games. He may have just wanted to hit a higher death count.

It’s easy to see these killers as supervillains, a kind of Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. It’s even comforting in a way. Wearing a Batman costume, drawing Green Lantern above a mass murder site, calling a person who died protecting someone else a “superhero,” even writing English essays about good and evil, they’re all ways to feel “in control.”

The world is unsafe, but we feel safer when can see events in terms of familiar formulas. And right now, superhero stories are a cultural favorite. Perhaps because they are so violent. I’m not going to suggest that mass murder is the result of the mass marketing of costumed vigilantes. The relationship between culture and behavior is way beyond my abilities of analysis. But I think we can agree that the relationship is both circular and vicious.

A little boy witnesses murders and devotes his adult life to vengeance.  Why is that formula comforting? Isn’t it a deepening of the tragedy?

In The Myth of the American Superhero, John Sheldon Lawrence and Robert Jewett read the Unabomber and the Oklahoma bomber as homegrown terrorists twisting the American monomyth of redemptive violence to anti-government ends. McVeigh and Kaczinski believed they were acting out of “goodness, not evil.” And they thought violence was the best way of achieving it. It’s part of the American way. The country was born in revolution. Its borders grew through a century of expansionist wars. It remained unified only through civil war. And its second century was shaped by a sequence of foreign wars. Our national heroes, caped and otherwise, champion all that violence.

Is a non-violent superhero even possible? Bruce Willis never throws a punch in M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable. The Scarlet Pimpernel dispatches his arch-nemesis with a snuff box of pepper. But Willis’s enemy is a serial killer, and though Willis quietly strangles him, there’s the promise of more to come. And while the Pimpernel’s enemy is likely to face the guillotine for his failure, the guillotine itself motivates the Pimpernel’s on-going mission. The violence has to continue. It’s part of the formula.

But does it have to be?

A colleague in my English department, Leah Green, spent her summer in a Buddhist monastery in France.  She recently pulled me into her office to tell me about a comic book she saw there, The Secret of the 5 Powers.  She didn’t bring back a copy (backpacking Buddhists travel very light), but she emailed me the link:

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“3 Superheroes of Peace and nonviolence use their powers to change the course of world history.” The members of these non-avenging Avengers include: “Alfred Hassler, an American anti-war superhero, Vietnamese peace activist Sister Chan Khong and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.” Instead of supervillains, they fight violence itself and its “seemingly unstoppable escalation.” The creators hope the comic will “challenge the traditional notion of ‘the hero’ and what constitutes heroic action.” They even hope to redefine the “traditional dramatic structure” of superhero comics, showing “there is no good or bad, no white or black. There is only compassion and suffering.”

According to a related documentary, not only is Martin Luther King, Jr. a “Superhero,” but he was transformed into one by a comic book: “In 1958, Alfred Hassler had an idea to work with Martin Luther King, Jr. to produce a comic book – a comic book to be distributed in the South to young and old, African Americans and white Americans, to tell the story of the struggle for civil rights in Montgomery.”

Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story

Of course the one-off Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story wasn’t the first comic book about a non-violent hero. DC introduced “Johnny Everyman” into World’s Finest Comics near the end of World War II.  The non-costumed Everyman travels the world teaching racial and ethnic tolerance while “devoted to further understanding between peoples.”

World's Finest Johnny Everyman

Unfortunately you’ve probably never heard of Johnny Everyman. He vanished from the pages of World’s Finest in less than three years. You probably haven’t heard of Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story or The Secret of the 5 Powers either. Comics about peaceful superheroes aren’t exactly popular. The genre demands violence. It demands righteous punishment. The superhero formula, the very idea of good versus evil, maintains the problem it pretends to fix. It may be comforting to imagine that for every Joker there’s a counter-balancing Batman, but the reverse would be true too. For every Batman there’s a Joker. The equation maintains unlimited violence. The sense of control is an illusion.

Meanwhile, when my daughter returned to her high school this fall, the lobby included security doors. They’re a new state requirement, a direct fall-out of Sandy Hook. Hanging up pictures of superheroes would be less effective at keeping out gunmen, but probably not by much. The NRA would arm all the teachers, but, as my daughter’s principal told our PTA, “the top focus for security remains administration visibility and relationships.” That’s a boring premise for a comic book, but it might literally save my daughter’s life.

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