First we’ve got John Pistelli:
I don’t wish to be naive about this: there’s nothing inherently progressive, inherently of the left, about this enlarged imagination of the possible. The very form of much current far-right discourse takes the form of: See, I said [women are inferior/Mexicans are dirty/Arabs ought to be tortured/etc.] and nothing happened; you can say it too, and then we can act on it! A teenager’s first encounter with the broadened possible is usually an encounter with this version of it in libertarian/latentyly fascist science fiction books, movies or comics, in Frank Miller or Robert Heinlein or Ayn Rand or whoever the kids are reading these days. You are special, you are Batman, thou art God, these books and writers say, and the horizon of what is possible for you is bounded only by communal standards, collective man, the valorization of altruism or some other manifestation of society (which doesn’t, on this view, exist).
Now here’s Alphonse Von Worden:
The problem is not the superhero superman fantasy insofar as it is a dream of self-expansion and glory; the sickness is not only that this fantasy requires the superman superhero to be surrounded by inferiors; the sickness is mainly inculcated in the consumer through the fact that the superman superhero is celibate, lonely, frustrated; this portrait is accompanied by the conviction that the expansion of human individuality achieved by the superhero superman is consequent to the sacrifice of love – of physical love specifically – and indeed is the reward for and the very form of this sacrifice. Nietzsche appeals to adolescent boys because he chooses to celibrate, in a ludicrously schmaltzy manner, a self-imposed physical isolation which is similar to that imposed upon them externally, and portray this agony and loss as a kind of achievement and triumph.
Do adolescent boys really want to be invisible, part spider, freakish agents of vengeance and scourges of other people’s wrongdoing, frantic minders of other people’s business, dealing out punishments? I never was one myself, but knew plenty, and it seems to me no, they want to be lovers. Of course. And if only permitted to be lovers, they can do without Aol-Time Warner’s fucking moronic and mean-spirited anthropology of resentful and merciless alpha male freakdom.
It seems obvious to me that any adolescent boy would have to prefer Casanova’s delightfully written Histoire de ma vie to Beyond Good and Evil. Casanova was a superman too, possessed of one specific superpower and a handful of related better-than-average powers. But this model and this superpower is not one comic books for boys involve. That is, the one superpower which might really concern adolescent boys is the one of which all superheroes are deprived. (Is this a glitch in the market?)
Perhaps that superhero – he’s really unimaginable as such – would be a bit dangerous for the publishers’ stockholders.
In response to which, I say–“Alphonse (and adolescents everywhere!), meet Starfox.” (see, he’s even waving back!)
I’ve always loved this character–particularly as written by Roger Stern in the Avengers in the mid-eighties. Perhaps his time has come?
But seriously (not that I’m not serious about Starfox: The Series–I’d love to write that!)–I must object to the one-pathology-fits-all diagnosis of the superhero that Alphonse puts forward. This ties in with a discussion that took place on The Foragerblog quite a while back–i.e. how did the superhero become linked–culturally–with (to me, hateful) things like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and, you know, all of the other Campbellian fantasies that gross teenage boys enjoy? (In my mind’s eye, Joseph Campbell invariably sports a mullet and a Metallica shirt).
I know, I know… I can’t wish these associations away. They’re out there. I can’t stop you from thinking that Sam Raimi was the perfect choice to make a spider-man film. You’re wrong, of course, but where does that leave us?
All I can do is insist that the whole genre really went south when Batman (especially as conceived by Frank Miller) became its representative specimen. I hate Batman. He is exactly what van Worden (and the whole “superheroes are fascist” brigade) fears he is–a creepy preemptive strike against loneliness. (“You don’t want to date me? Well, fuck you, I’m too busy smiting crime anyway!”) The really fascinating thing–given the context of this discussion–is that Spider-Man, the most famous character created by an avowed Randian (Steve Ditko), is not a Randian at all. Peter Parker’s (40-year plus!) saga (in the comics) has been a sustained adjudication between the competing claims that intersubjective relationships and intrasubjective “duty” make upon its protagonist. It is manifestly not a choice between “feminization” (personal/physical comfort/fulfillment/accomodation to the status quo) and (alpha male) “integrity”. The best superhero characters have always striven to work for a better future whilst enjoying the present (and by this I mean taking pleasure in their respective human environments). Of course, this is the kind of thing that the expression “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” was invented to deal with, but the point is that Spider-Man, Animal Man, Doctor Strange (especially as written by Roy Thomas–but forget about that now that Straczynski’s Pottersvillean plot is a-brewin’–“you’ve got your wish–you never existed”–talk about thick-headed revisionism!!!!!!!!), Captain America in the right hands (i.e. Gruenwald), the Barry Allen Flash, etc. never slink away from the table to go eat (and participate in) scraps in the Batcave. These characters are virtually defined by their refusal to embrace the apocalyptic mode (and in this they are much more Emersonian than Nietzschean). Yes, there is a better world to come. And it’s worth fighting for–but always with one foot planted firmly in the ethical/intersubjective realm. Otherwise, what’s the point? If more teenagers actually understood these stories in the way that I read them, there would be a lot fewer soldiers in the world.
Good Afternoon Friends!