Diverging from Deconstruction: Vigilante, Enforcer, Oppressor, Stranger
DC’s Wonder Woman is a Greek goddess. Marvel’s Thor is a Norse god. But even they are not essentially superior to Steve Trevor or Jane Foster, their respective human lovers, nor do they understand themselves to condescend to them, however elevated the gods’ sense of their own stations.
The idea that superheroes are superior to human beings—legally (vigilantes), politically (enforcers), morally (oppressors), or in their being (strangers)—has not been argued at length in any essay that I know. It has only been posited in the occasional perfunctory retort. But it has been amply explored in superhero tales.
The foremost representatives of superheroes who are vilified as vigilantes are Batman and Spider-Man. One better example than them is Frank Castle, the Punisher. Castle very simply murders criminals, although he understands himself to be executing their punishment. He makes a better example because the Punisher is an antihero but he must be understood at an angle from superheroism. Superman himself is opposed as a vigilante by the establishment in Grant Morrison’s “Bruce Springsteen” reinvigoration of the character with Action Comics #1, part of DC’s “New 52” relaunch last September.
Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s The Authority is said to explore superheroes as enforcers or oppressors. The Authority is a team, complete with a Superman analogue named Apollo–but there my knowledge ends. In the animated Justice League series, the League of another dimension enforces their own fascist oppression after the death of The Flash. They call themselves the Justice Lords. The episode in which they appear, “A Better World,” has its basis in a 1964 story in Justice League of America about mirror images of the JLA, a team called the Crime Syndicate of Amerika, complete with Superman analogue Ultraman.
The locus classicus for the theme of a superhero as an enforcer or oppressor may be Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which is also being adapted into animation. A thrilling, moody Part 1 is out now, and Part 2 will be released in the coming months, both true to the graphic novel’s spirit. In the graphic novel, an aging Bruce Wayne retakes the cowl and faces off against Superman himself, who has become an unquestioning agent of the US president. The theme continues in parody form in a tribute to TDKR, “Time and Punishment” of Disney’s Darkwing Duck. No Superman analogue appears, but Darkwing himself becomes a sort of enforcer, who targets even jaywalkers with near-to-extreme prejudice after he believes Gosalyn dead.
The American Way
Superman is known for fighting “a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” The phrase does not seem to originate from the pages of Siegel and Shuster. Brian Cronin writes: when the “never-ending battle for…” phrase originally appeared, it was in the popular Adventures of Superman radio series that ran from 1940-1951. But the phrase is relatively “ancient” and by now well-attested. More importantly, it seems to give expression to Superman’s morality.
The phrase may seem too earnest for a nation whose citizens have endured a glut of half-supported wars and political scandals. In the 70’s, Captain America exchanged the stars-and-stripes for a dark costume and assumed the alias, Nomad. In 2006’s Superman Returns, Perry White did not complete the phrase but said, “truth, justice, all that stuff.” The theme of that film was succinctly expressed in the title to Lois Lane’s major piece, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.”
“The American way” is pertinent, though, not only for making a nice turn of phrase, but also for signifying an element of morality that superheroes do not share with all other heroes. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Here, in The Declaration of Independence, is the morality of a people for whom principles take priority over regional boundaries.
The Genuine Thing, Superman
Superman is the genuine thing. First of all superheroes, sometimes cited as the best of all superheroes by other DC heroes, and generally accepted among readers as the foremost superhero, if not the most interesting. The invention of the character, by two young Jewish boys in Ohio, is itself legendary. Jerry Siegel lay awake one night, perhaps tossing and turning, when the concept came to him: a strongman, like Hercules, Samson, and other legendary, mythical heroes, who uses his strength for good. Throughout the night, another piece of the character’s story would come to him, he would write it down in his notebook, and he would lay back again before another piece would come.
In the morning, he ran twelve blocks to his friend and creative partner, Joe Shuster. Shuster drew a muscular man in skintight blue and red bearing a shield with the letter “S” on his chest. Shuster outfitted him like a gymnast or a circus strongman with a belt, briefs, boots, and cape. More can be said about colorful tights as a design choice, but for the time being I will point readers toward Michael Chabon’s intriguing reflection, “Second Skin: An Essay in Unitard Theory.”
1932 rolled over into 1938 before Superman saw publication. One publisher told Siegel and Shuster that the hero would never catch on. They were also told that the character was too juvenile. Another publisher accepted the boys’ story pitch, if only they would rewrite it in prose. Interestingly, they felt that their story belonged in the visual medium of sequential art, and when Action Comics #1 hit stands, Superman was an immediate sensation. This is confirmation of the iconic quality of superheroic action—that it belongs in the frames of an image rather than in fluid text.
I had the great pleasure of presenting a lecture at a weekly seminar on October 5th. The title named the topic: “Heroism.” I may have an occasion later to say more about it, but for now I will say that I made these two claims: first, there is a godlike quality in every act of heroism, but second, a hero is more heroic the more moral the action is that he or she performs.
I cannot help but be reminded of St. Augustine’s Confessions, in which he penned the unforgettable sentence: “Our heart is restless until it rests in you” (I.i.1, Henry Chadwick’s translation), and the “you” to whom he refers is the one to whom he makes his confessions, God himself.
Late in the book, St. Augustine asks who it is whom he loves (X.vi.9):
I asked the earth and it said: ‘It is not I.’ I asked all that is in it; they made the same confession. I asked the sea, the deeps, the living creatures that creep, and they responded: ‘We are not your God, look beyond us.’ I asked the breezes which blow and the entire air with its inhabitants said, ‘Anaximenes [a pre-Socratic philosopher who made air out to be the highest being] was mistaken; I am not God.’ I asked heaven, sun, moon and stars; they said: ‘Nor are we the God whom you seek.’ And I said to all these things in my external environment: ‘Tell me of my God who you are not, tell me something about him.’ And with a great voice they cried out: ‘He made us.’
The saint’s readers may be surprised to hear creatures be so talkative, and he explains this dialogue: “My question was the attention I gave to them, and their response was their beauty” (ibid). Creatures’ beauty tells him about God, and so the saint can exclaim at last to this same God: “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you” (X.xxvii.38, emphasis added). The love is late, I take it, because it comes after loving those creatures that God, so to speak, comes before.
So also do the beauties of heroes speak to me of the divine, and the more moral the heroic action, the more it says of the divine.
The defense of beauty may itself be heroic. Not unquestionably so, I think, and yet I cannot but admire the defense made by Fred Ross at the Art Renewal Center (art renewal.org), who closes one lecture in this way:
The modern world is a boiling cauldron of all sorts of great and absurd ideas, feelings, pathos, pathologies, psycho pathologies, humiliation, and dehumanizing ideas … and yet … yet even beauty, too, is still here amongst us, here in this hall and throughout the world, and her manifestations in modern times have been insufficiently expressed. So, find her in your homes, find her in the streets, find her in your communities and in nature, and especially, find her in each other … and save her … save her … protect and cherish her … and exalt her back to her rightful place … a place of supreme prominence, and bring her back into these our greatest institutions and our highest citadels of society and culture.
The defense that Ross makes against modernism of one and another sort seems to me to be rather harsh in tone at one place and another in the lecture. Perhaps a greater harshness than he displays is validated by the attempt made on the virtue of beauty, if that attempt is regarded as occurring in this place and at this time, but this harshness, I think, does not obliterate the heroism of Ross’ mission at ARC. Besides the heroism of bringing the attack upon beauty to naught, and besides the heroism of bringing about the increasing fame of beautiful works of art, which he accomplishes–although neither seems moral in the strong sense–there is, I would say, the morality of beauty. A morality in a weaker sense, perhaps, but a morality, nonetheless–performing actions because they are beautiful, for example, defending something because that thing is beautiful–and there is a heroism to that.
Laud, then, Ross, you my readers. May he spread the fame of many beautiful works of art, may his heroism be ever more beautifully performed, and may he manifest, too, with the works of art whose fame he spreads and in the performance of his spreading it, ever more of the divine.
Why the Costume, the Name, the Secret Identity
The personal dimension of heroism, I can say now, is the essential reason that a superhero keeps his or her civilian identity a secret, whether he or she hides it or not. On the one hand, the civilian identity is irrelevant during dire circumstances. On the other hand, the heroic identity is irrelevant during circumstances that are not dire.
The secret identity, of course, may be explained in some other way within a story or in some additional way outside of it. Some other reasons are: (1) to protect the superhero’s loved ones from enemies; (2) to preserve loved ones from excessive worry for the superhero; (3) to permit a superhero to recuperate from battles without withdrawing from human interaction; (4) to give a superhero access to assets that will be useful to their superheroics, like places, knowledge, money, or equipment; (5) to allow a superhero to live a normal life, which a person might also want to do (see Brad Bird’s The Incredibles); (6) to be completely armored against attacks; or (7) to offer life support in hazardous conditions. Those are mostly in-story reasons.
Well-Rounded and One-Sided Heroes
From a certain point of view, the heroes who are the most well-rounded are those least formed by their heroism. They commit only within the bounds set by a need, and when they meet that need—or when it abates for some other reason—then they set aside their heroism and resume their “ordinary” lives. They might not even view themselves as heroes, because they do not form their identities around heroism but around what they count as “ordinary.”
The only heroism less personal than this well-rounded heroism, from the same point of view, may be the unintended heroism or the heroism achieved in spite of the intentions of those who suppose themselves to intend something “ordinary,” amoral, or outright villainous. Jack Sparrow comes to mind, and other thief-heroes.
From this point of view, the more that heroism forms a person’s identity, the less well-rounded the person will be. Superheroes, then, would be the most one-sided of all. Perhaps I will not surprise the reader when I say that I do not hold this point of view.
Therefore, there is another sort of heroism, I have to say, and another point of view. That is the heroism of those who are like superheroes but perhaps not so one-sided. Soldiers and police officers serve their country and serve and protect their city. Doctors and nurses, too, make commitments of this sort to improve and in the last instance to save others’ lives. The same goes for spies, lawyers, firefighters, and the like. These heroes take actions that follow from a commitment that seem to be unbounded by any circumstance of dire need, like a crashing plane. An enthusiastic person might be excused for calling these occupations heroic. Let us call the enthusiast a patriot, even if that means a person enthusiastic about one’s city, neighborhood, or region, and not only about one’s nation.