Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Signal Watch: Corrupting Young Minds

So... Sunday I rolled out of bed, looked at my Blackberry and saw that a high school student had asked if she could interview me for a paper she was writing for school on the concept of heroes vs. anti-heroes. It seemed as if she was going to be comparing and contrasting Superman and Marvel's The Punisher.

She had found me through an old article at Comic Fodder, the glibly titled Superman: Not Complex or Cool

Unfortunately, it seems that I am not the clever writer I believed myself to be, and the article had read to our young scholar as a treatise on why I didn't like Superman. The article was intended to explaining my feelings on Superman as a middle and high schooler and how Superman struck me as a younger person.

As we progressed, it seemed to me that our interviewer was being helping, asking questions about why Superman might now be irrelevant in comparison to a more modern hero, such as The Punisher. However, I was unable to answer the questions in a way which she might have found useful to support her thesis.

I realize that (a) yes, I was over-writing, but that I felt the need to discuss the position of the less edgy heroes, which have all but disappeared from existence. And that (b) this student was going to toss my responses immediately into the waste bin. Which, of course, is part of the research process. Hopefully this represents more of my time wasted and less of her own.

Before responding, I asked approval to repost my responses here, and the permission was given. So, here goes:

Everything below is from the email I sent back in response to my list of questions.

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I think its important to note: some of the article I wrote was reconciling how I had initially come to Superman as a kid, and how my impressions of Superman changed over the years, often using exaggerated declarative statements to emulate the enthusiastic certainty of a 13-year old who feels like he's unlocked a great secret. Until I was in college, I would squirm when people knew I was into comics and would ask if I liked Superman. Today, I am an enthusiastic Superman fan and collector of all things Superman. I truly like Superman as a pop figure icon, a curious American insertion into the zeitgeist, and as a symbol of power used for doing the right thing.

I hope my answers are helpful. However, from the angle of many of your questions, I suspect that my responses will not be useful in writing your paper. I more than understand if you choose not to use any of what I wrote below.

1.The 1978 New York Times review on Donner's "Superman: The Movie" labelled him "good, clean, simple-minded fun". Do you think this kind of hero would be practical in today's society? Especially where achieving justice in concerned?

It's difficult to fully explain that in 1978, superheroes were largely considered adolescent entertainment, and that enjoyment of superheroes by an adult suggested mental incompetence, emotional immaturity, and/ or certain deviance from accepted social norms. Canby's review is not incorrect (it's an opinion, after all), but it's also emblematic of the prevailing attitudes surrounding superheroes and comic heroes by several generations, and which superheroes only recently seem to have shed, in part. Keep in mind, this review was written only 12 years after the campy Adam West Batman television series and Donner's version of Superman in 1978 and about 20 years after the US Congress put comics on trial for corrupting the youth of America. For context, I highly recommend David Hajdu's "The Ten-Cent Plague" and "Men of Tomorrow" by Gerard Jones.

Your query can raise the question of "what is justice?", which is a very malleable concept. Some believe justice is revenge. Others might believe justice is that which you're able to demonstrably prove a case, allowing for a system of laws and directives to prove (as best as fallible humans can) that a person is innocent or guilty and deserves the fate which awaits them for their acts.

Superman, as he appears in the 1978 Donner film, is interested in the second form of justice. He does not kill Luthor for killing. Instead, he delivers Luthor and Otis to the proper authorities to stand trial and let the courts decide the fate of a near-mass murderer.

Just today I watched Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight". In "The Dark Knight", Batman chooses not to kill The Joker, even after The Joker has killed many, many people, caused havoc across Gotham, placed people in impossible situations (such as choosing to blow up the other ferry), and killed the woman Batman has always loved (he will later learn that The Joker has also corrupted the one man who could have cleaned up Gotham without a mask). Batman chooses to let law and order govern his actions, letting the courts handle the situation.

We might accept The Joker as a reflection of our times more than we would a slightly daffy villain like Lex Luthor, but the end result is the same. These characters do not represent revenge, they represent "justice".

Its unclear that any superhero is "practical" in any society. Unlicensed, anonymous vigilantism is always difficult to support. However, if we look at the sorts of activities we see occurring on the screen in "Superman: The Movie", I have a hard time believing that anything Superman does is impractical (well, saving that cat from the tree... But we can assume Superman had some free time.). He uses his abilities to stop robberies, keep a neighborhood from being washed away, keep California from falling into the ocean, saves a train load of people, etc... not necessarily acts of "justice", but certainly acts of heroism. If doing good because one can is irrelevant in 2010, I'm ready to get off this rock.

2. In your article, you said that after reading "Dark Knight Returns", you saw Superman for what he was: "A chump. A patsy. Powerful but dim-witted". In what way? What was it about the "Dark Knight Returns" that made you come to this conclusion?

I was 12 or 13 when I read "Dark Knight Returns", and I no longer hold the conviction that Superman is any of those things. Frank Miller wrote DKR from the perspective of the very bright, very driven Batman. Batman did not have Superman's advantages or perspective. As DKR is narrated by Batman himself, we see that the philosophical differences between Batman and Superman have caused a rift between the two. Superman has chosen to continue to work under the supervision of the US government (which we understand to be deeply corrupt in the story) rather than give up his opportunity to help people. We understand that Batman compromises for nobody, and sees Superman as a chump and a patsy. We can only infer from cues in the art and from our prior knowledge of Superman that he may not have been quite as ridiculous as Bruce tells himself. And, of course, we are never given Superman's point of view.

What I intended to indicate was that I mistook Miller's writing from Batman's perspective as an official line on Superman. In DKR, because Superman had not used his power as Batman would, Batman sees Superman as a fool. However, we can see in the sequel, "The Dark Knight Strikes Again", exactly what would occur were Superman to flex his will as well as his muscle. And it means that Superman can, as a single entity, take over the earth. Which, of course, Superman would not normally see as a good idea or "just".

3. You also wrote: "Superman with hands on hips and his reputation for helping old ladies cross the street seemed like little more than a relic".
Does this mean contemporary heroes shouldn't/don't have to be chivalrous? Do you see chivalry and such behaviour as a weakness or simply outdated? And is this because of your own personal views or because you believe that a chivalrous hero would be ineffective in today's society?

Certainly in the 1980's, when I began reading superhero comics in earnest, "Dark Knight Returns" and "Watchmen" were busily changing attitudes about how a superhero could exist in a "real world" context. The quote reflects how I felt at the time and is not how I've felt for many years.

I would very much like to see the definition of "hero" in movies, comics, etc... mean that the "heroes" should be able to reflect a certain level of chivalry. However, it does seem true that popular storytelling has managed to create many different models for chivalry, from shining knight to Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone films.

I often wonder if a modern audience may be unwilling to believe that a lantern-jawed hero outwardly bent on doing good is untrustworthy, partially because we read/ watch/ hear so many stories where the supposedly chivalrous behavior is a ruse and a means to an end for a secret villain, or as ineffective in comparison to a loose-cannon hero "with his own special brand of justice".

I do not see chivalry as outdated, and certainly not as a weakness. Creating and writing a character who can be chivalrous in the context of a modern crime or superhero story is a complicated thing, as audiences believe they do not expect that behavior out of their characters. However, we're also a society in which we believe no less in the heroism of chivalrous police, soldiers, firefighters, nurses, etc...

Popular culture has always had a fascination with the clever criminal, and often, in order to find middle ground that does not overly romanticize criminal behavior, characters are recast as modern-day Robin Hoods, acting as criminals but with supposed noble intentions at their core. It seems that this often means that wearing a public face of trustworthiness is dropped from the equation as the character who will compromise for nobody goes about their mission.

4. You summarized Superman's mission in: "he is here to try to rescue people, for no other reason than because heroes assist people who cry out for help." Do you believe Superman's irrelevance stems from this? From the fact that nowadays people are more capable of saving themselves? We don't need a saviour, we need a warrior?

I see no appreciable way in which people are more able to save themselves in 2010 than when Superman first appeared in 1938 or when the first film appeared in 1978. We've seen that again and again in massive natural disasters, in humanitarian disasters such as Darfur, in the constant warfare across the African continent, and countless other cases. 21st Century technology and medicine improve our chances, but a plane flying into a building is going to cause many more problems in 2010 than it would in 1938. In today's era of light speed mass communication, we're far more aware of disasters as they occur across the world than we were in 1978 and absolutely more quickly than we might have learned in 1938, if we learned of disasters at all.

Warriors we have. The US Army has been able to recruit just fine in the middle of two ground wars. We look at professional athletes as "warriors". And, I would ask, a warrior fighting for what or against whom?

Superheroes tend to be characters about wish fulfillment. In real life, we are easily able to fulfill the role of a warrior, and military recruiting ads count on the fact that teenagers fantasize about their potential as a warrior to convince otherwise rational people that a sound career move is to get paid a poor salary shoot at other people. A savior is not interested in merely imposing their will (or those of their bosses) by force, but in ensuring the welfare of those around them. An idea that in popular media has become decreasingly less visible over the past 15-20 years.

Superman's irrelevance seems much more rooted in the fact that Superman is an icon that's been passed down, with very little thought to what Superman actually does in comics and movies, and much more about Superman as a straw man for authority and seeming complicit relations with status-quo enforcing authority. Its an unfair assessment, and mostly groundless, but action movies have long romanticized the hero who stands outside the law, and seemingly paves their own way. Superman does not reflect our belief that the rules do not apply to us when we are crossed, as he continues to follow the rules as part of his pursuit of justice.

5. You also wrote the need was for "a character who can stand up for truth and justice, and do so in a context that fully embraces the possibilities of the character as an Ace of Action, too". Did you intentionally omit The American Way? If so, why? And what character do you believe fulfils this criteria? The Punisher?

I very much intentionally omit The American Way when discussing Superman. Firstly, it was added during America's rather ugly anti-communism scare of the 1950's. Its also been firmly established in the comics, movies, etc... that Superman may be based out of the US, but that he is neither subject to its government, nor does he confine his activities to the US, nor should relief or charitable or scientific organizations. Also, one of the two key contributors to the creation of Superman was actually born in Canada, and I don't think that should be forgotten. The symbol of the character should be about power used wisely, and for benefiting those who can't help themselves, rather than for promoting any particular agenda.

I do not believe the Punisher fulfills ideals of truth or justice. The Punisher, as established in the comics, kills rather indiscriminately. His only criteria seems to often be that the people he kills are somehow affiliated with "the mob". He has taken it upon himself to take life on a routine basis and on a grand scale. Of course, the taking of life is the very thing he holds against the mob. They did, after all, take the lives of his own family. Beyond the actual few people who took the lives of Frank Castle's family, Castle has multiplied the death count by an unknown factor. Even with "revenge" as our working definition of justice, every person killed beyond that exceeds the original toll.

If we want for Castle to reflect the meaning of "The American Way", we also have to recognize that "America" is a collection of laws and concepts, almost all of which Frank Castle has decided to throw away to pursue his vendetta.

6. (Assuming you're familiar with the Punisher and have watched "Punisher: Warzone"..) Do you think Frank was justified in exacting his unique brand of brutal heroics? Do you think that suffering a loss like he did is reason enough to take the law into your own hands?

I have not actually watched Punisher War Zone, but I have read Punisher comics on and off since the mid-80's, and I have seen the two prior movie incarnations of The Punisher.

In the real world, of course taking the law into one's own hands is a romantic concept, but, basically illegal and a great way to get killed. Of course, since the very first appearance of Superman, taking the law into one's own hands has been the primary task of costumed superheroes with colorful names. Superman was originally conceived during the Great Depression of the United States, and was intended to reflect the fairly populist viewpoints of the creators, especially in situations where economic disparity seemed like it could be bridged by someone with amazing strength and speed.

From the standpoint of a fictional standpoint, world, Superman and The Punisher do differ greatly. And, its instructive that Batman and the Punisher, who at least have something similar in their origins and motivations, behave very, very differently. Batman and Superman seem to have some hope that criminals may choose a better path, either before they are arrested or after they've landed in a jail cell, but they've given them that chance. Castle believes that crime is reason enough to kill.

And, of course, Frank Castle has forebears in action movies, specifically the "Death Wish" series of movies, which its widely believed the Marvel creators drew their initial inspiration (and its worth mentioning that The Punisher was originally conceived as a villain, as a demonstration of what we don't want our heroes to look like).

7. What is it (do you think) that the Punisher can do for society that Superman can't?

Keep gun manufacturers in business?

I'm not sure the Punisher has anything to teach modern society. Instead, I'd reflect on what the popularity of The Punisher says about how we believe meeting violence with overpowering violence is a sound resolution. We certainly do have a strange relationship with fictional vigilantes, just as we do with real-life vigilantes such as Bernhard Goetz from the US in the 1980's. At the end of the day, we do live by a social contract which most people recognize as the law of their own country. The Punisher's entire mission is eradication and murder, which in no way honors or values life. In many ways, Castle is far more selfish than the mobsters he casually kills. We know the mobsters likely did not want to have to kill Castle's family, and they were a limited few.

We also know that Castle in the comics and as would occur in real life, would do little but escalate how an organization of criminals would approach their problem.

The Punisher represents a complete loss of faith in the rules of society. By his model, the proper model for any action that occurs that directly affects you (The Punisher did not take up arms when others were killed, just his own family), is to retaliate on your own terms, assuming whatever occurs will be justified by your personal loss.

Superman does lose his planet, and some have read that many of his actions convey his expression of guilt as a lone survivor. However, he does not need the catalyst of the loss of Krypton to explain his actions. Instead, what he can show society is that if you have the ability to help others, you can do so.

8. Who would be more effective in achieving your idea of justice in society: The Punisher or Superman?

I do not personally subscribe to the idea that revenge equates to justice. Nor that a person should be so certain of the moral rightness of their actions that they believe their path of "justice" is absolutely correct. That, very specifically, is why we have courts of law.

In the US, we see acts of violence perpetrated upon people on a routine basis because someone firmly believed they held unquestionable moral authority, and their beliefs were a means to an end. This can mean the killing of ministers, doctors, nurses, etc... who fall on the other side in contentious issues such as abortion. In my own hometown of Austin, Texas a man flew an airplane into an office building that happened to house some government offices (and many other offices), because he believed the Internal Revenue Service was being unfair and he did not feel the US government had any moral authority. He managed to kill a decent man doing his job.

We may not find Superman "edgy" enough, or willing to see the "real" problems, but we also have to understand that he's a fictional character living in a fictional universe, where bank robberies are a pretty big concern and mad scientists occasionally pilot robots down the street, rampaging and terrorizing the populace. We understand that Superman is far more likely to capture and arrest a herd of mobsters and let them go to trial with evidence against them, and will never simply use his heat vision to fry them up like sausages. By letting the justice system run its course, Superman does reinforce the idea that we need to have faith in our system to handle injustice. And if those same criminals buy their way out of the court system, he can still be there to make operating in Metropolis a whole lot harder.

I hope that this has been helpful. I do not dismiss the value of Frank Castle as a fictional character. I continue to find him interesting upon occasion, especially in the comics written by Garth Ennis and drawn by Steve Dillon. He's an interesting mix of tragedy and a classic story of revenge, stemming from the same sort of fiction that created some of my favorite books and movies of the 1970's - 1990's. I hope you're able to find some of the Punisher comics (I've heard that Australia has some great comic shops, especially in the bigger cities). I wish you luck on your paper, and if I can help in any other way, let me know.

By the way, the person who runs The Superman Homepage is a fellow Australian. Should you want an Australian's interpretation, I highly recommend contacting Steve Younis.


Ryan Steans


J.S. said...

People like the Punisher because they don't trust the courts or the government to get the job done (well, for that matter, I think they just don't trust "the system"). People like the Punisher because he represents the fact that a single person can strike back and try to implement their own version of "justice" even when the system completely fails them (and I think that most people these days are pretty cynical about and skeptical of government and the justice system as a whole. They see the justice system as just a big bureacracy that ultimately fails as many victims as it helps). Sure, the Punisher kills lots and lots of people, but the people who die are criminals, so people think they deserve to go. This is just an extension of the sort of mindset that Batman and other comic books have carried for years- where almost all criminals are seen as sort of one monolithic class of malevolent "bad guys" and where it's totally fair to wage a war against this army of baddies who are threatening the decent society that ordinary folks want to live in. In a post O.J., post Michael "child molester" Jackson, post Bin Laden, post Polanski age, where criminals rarely seem to get punished, and then typically don't receive nearly a severe enough sentence when they do (post Enron, post Madoff, etc., etc.), I think people just want to feel like single, solitary, angry individuals can still give the bad guys something to be genuinely afraid of.
By the way, as a prosecutor, I think that the justice system actually works a little better than it gets credit for, but I think that the public perception is that it sucks (fueled by a media who tends to highlight the failures).
I think it's hard to relate to Superman when most people think of him as a nearly god-like being who really can't be hurt, and therefore doesn't have too much to lose (I know he has enemies who can hurt him, but they're few and far between, and most of the really dangerous ones are so powerful that people understand/relate them on a level even worse than they do Superman).

Just a few of my thoughts...

The League said...

Absolutely. Clearly Superman was created as a "magic bullet" solution to what Siegel and Shuster saw as the issues of their day (and I think I mentioned that). Ever since, its been a problem with superhero comics, especially with plutocrat Batman wailing on the underclass. I do think that's part of why the companies backed off a bit in what sort of stories they could tell, and were completely hamstrung once the CCA got involved.

Miller hit it on the nose when, in DKR, Batman gleefully admits that they must be fascists.

I am, of course, a bit of a fan of The Punisher, of Arnie movies where he wipes out entire islands full of "criminals" (Arnie had to have killed everyone from maintenance workers to chefs in "Commando"). Entertaining, sure... But these characters aren't very good models for "justice", and that seemed to be the question.

What I didn't say to the student was that I DID actually feel that these sorts of characters have either influenced our thinking enough, or are actually representative enough of our own thinking, that I do believe that they represent the zeitgeist of draping self-serving, solipsistic views of the world in platitudes about liberty and justice. I'm not ready to be that cynical with a high schooler.

We've endlessly discussed the god-like-being angle, but... I'd say that anyone with a bigger gun than yours (literally or metaphorically) has the ability to take life, and that's god-like power. And in that way, I don't relate to the Punisher's belief that he is arresting officer, judge, jury and executioner.

These days, I find the idea of "if only I had a big gun, I could clean up this town" the far more juvenile idea between The Punisher and Superman, who seems to be acting as an agent of the court of law and hoping the system works. Its a tremendously optimistic ideal.

What strikes me particularly is that the idea that being proactively helpful is called out as a reason that Superman was mentioned as why the interviewer believed Superman is irrelevant.