Tuesday, July 25, 2006


Absurd and Childish Elements Of Superhero Comics, and Why I Like Them Anyway
Part 3. Getting Motivated

By "John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL"

"Whenever I hear the word 'culture', I reach for my pistol."

"Do you see any Beanie Babies in here?"

Just when I think I'm out... they pull me back in.

Apparently, I'm not finished talking about how the superhero genre is essentially a fantasy genre, inherently unrealistic, and therefore, one intended for the amusement, entertainment, and, at its best, the enlightenment and education of, children. Children of any age, mind you, kids from the ages of 10 to 110, and definitely including that big 39 year old brat currently typing this sludge. Evidently, I'm not yet through pointing out that in fact, this is not an insulting characterization for superhero comics, or at least, I do not perceive it as such when I make it. It seems I still have more to say on the subject.

Now, I grant you, there are those fans of superhero comics who will be deeply and fundamentally offended by my assertion, above, as to the essentially childlike qualities of the superheroic mythos. For the vast majority of these deeply irritated folks, it's understandable; they are adolescent comics fans, probably between the ages of 13 and 19, and at that tender age where the assertion that they, or anything they enjoy, are in any way 'childlike', is going to be met with outrage and denial. This is an age group that is still in some doubt as to their status as adults, and that covets such status, and that becomes deeply, bitterly defensive when anything seems to threaten that status. As I say, I understand it; hell, I remember it somewhat more vividly than I recall what I had for lunch two days ago.

However, there are other superhero comics fans, around my age, or a bit younger, or somewhat older, who will similarly become entrenched and adamant at the thought that their favorite superhero comic books might in some way be juvenile, or immature, or childish, or any of the other many, many adjectives that the adult world uses to insult, demean, and denigrate any viewpoint, attitude, or perceptual context that allows one a willingness to invest belief and nurture an emotional connection with something that is essentially fantasy, and that never could actually exist, in the real world as we all understand it to be.

These guys will argue endlessly that, in fact, the Avengers and the Fantastic Four and the Justice League of America aren't inherently 'ridiculous' or 'stupid', that they really COULD realistically exist, that a group of putative adults who spend all their time waiting for a very specific sort of crime to take place so they can fly to the site of that crime and beat up on a very specific sort of perpetrator, all this while generally wearing their boxer shorts outside their leggings... that all this is not necessarily inherently 'childish'.

And, again, this all comes down to the same thing: the peculiar perspective that nearly all human cultures seem to have which is perhaps best summed up by a horribly oppressive, unwise, and disturbing Biblical quotation I am now going to mangle the hell out of due to my far from photographic memory: "When I was a child, I behaved as a child did, thought as a child did, and played childish games, but when I became a man, I put away childish things."

There is, to my mind, no more depressing, stultifying, irritating, or just plain misery-generating quote in that whole depressing, stultifying, irritating, misery-generating morass of badly translated, often psychotic, barely comprehensible gibberish many many manage to call Holy Scripture with a completely straight face than this one... and yet, apparently, for some reason I will never understand, our culture seems to have embraced this deranged nonsense fervently.

It's disgusting, annoying, and in many ways, I think it's unhealthy, but nonetheless, it's true... we are raised to believe that when we are children, we do as children do, but when we become adults, we put aside childish things... ALL childish things, FOREVER, presumably so that we can become good, productive factory drones most of the time, and in our relatively few remaining hours of consciousness, become equally dutiful consumers of the factory products our fellow drones have assembled for us.

Yet this article is not about the essential dichotomy/abyss our culture fosters, enables, supports, and in every conceivable way not only validates but absolutely mandates between the life experiences of children and adults. Perhaps it should be, perhaps that's an article that needs to be written, but in point of fact, while I think that the gaping chasm between one lifestate and another is a fundamental underlying reason why there is such fervent resistance among so many to the notion that something they love is fundamentally childish, and THAT'S OKAY... it's still not what I'm writing about here.

For one thing, I can't win that argument. The people who simply won't accept it... well, they simply won't accept it. It's emotional to them, and you cannot rationally demonstrate anything to someone who is emotionally involved in the issue you're discussing.

However, for the record and with utmost sincerity... I do not, in any way, mean to deny the fundamental heroism, decency, reliability, trustworthiness, honesty, and innate nobility of Peter Parker... at least, the Peter Parker at the end of AMAZING FANTASY #15's origin story, the one at the beginning is rather a punk... when I point out that it is essentially ludicrous, from a real world standpoint, to expect to find such innate decency, valor, altruism, trustworthiness, and depth of character in someone who spends more than half their life in a context of deceit and aggressive, confrontational, even brutal violence. Realistically, the life any superhero leads would leave terrible psychological scars on him, and no matter how idealistic or noble their motivations when they started, they could not spend more than a decade hiding their true natures from everyone they love, and engaging in the most viciously violent brawls with amoral and predatory individuals who are trying their damnedest to kill them, without it affecting them in profound and, for the most part, negative and dehumanizing, ways.

That these experiences have not so affected Peter Parker, or Steve Rogers (who, in addition to the usual superheroic experiences, also went through one of human history's most horrific wars and saw nearly ALL of its worst horrors, as well as some that didn't even exist in our own 'real' timeline, up close and personal) isn't something I'm arguing with. These two remain decent, iconic, heroic, clean, noble, and trustworthy, the finest examples of what we really mean when we use the oft abused phrase 'civilized', untainted by nightmares or psychosis or the slightest tinge of moral compromise. They have never killed (an absurdity in its own right, and one we may examine in more detail further down) nor ever sunk into viciousness or brutality, nor needed to retreat into the various vices, addictions, and self abuses humans use to escape from overwhelming stress.

That this is grossly unrealistic any combat soldier or street cop of a few year's experience in a violent urban area, or especially, any psychologist who has ever worked with same, would affirm in an instant.

It is, in fact, utter fantasy.

And there's nothing wrong with that, because, honestly, every aspect of the superhero mythology is fantasy. If our culture teaches that 'fantasy' is another word for 'ridiculous', well, there's something wrong with our culture... and when I use words like 'ridiculous', 'ludicrous', and 'absurd' to describe various elements of the superheroic mythos, I am not doing it to insult that mythos. I am using those words in the context of the culture I live in and, to a certain extent, abhor. I am not demeaning superhero comics, I am exalting them.

Yes, that's what I said. To my mind, there is not only nothing wrong with this essentially unrealistic, even ridiculously false to fact, characterization, which is a fairly common one for Golden and Silver Age superheroes... but there is something very positive and right about it.

It does not demean Peter Parker, or Steve Rogers, or Clark Kent, or Bruce Wayne, or Hal Jordan, or Hank Pym, that they are unrealistically heroic. It elevates them. It makes them better than us, and for god's sake, aren't our heroes SUPPOSED to be better than us? At one time, at least, we thought so. And that is why, when I say that only a child can truly accept that a human being can be as iconically decent as any costumed hero from the Golden or Silver Age of comics, I am not insulting the Golden or Silver Age of Comics, and I am not insulting children. If I am insulting anything, it is the adult cultural viewpoint that says, basically, there are no heroes like this in real life, and therefore, you are not allowed to enjoy reading about heroes like that in your recreation time if you are an adult.

But, as I say, that's an argument I can't win; there will always be people out there who are going to hear 'childlike fantasy' in connection with their beloved hobby and immediately reach for their pistols, certain I've just kicked their dog, pissed in their pool, and posted a nude photo of their wife on the Internet. Rather than continue to debate whether or not the very idea that superhero comics are for kids is, in some way, essentially degrading to the entire sub-genre, I'll just discuss a few more aspects of the superheroic mythos that I think irrefutably make that point clear.

The Code Against Killing -

I covered this briefly under the Simplified Morality paragraph in my last chapter, but it's worth a more intense look. The inherent lack of reality about the near universal (at least, throughout the Silver Age) moral imperative against taking a human life is one that is not reflected in any real world crimefighter's policy.

Cops, for example, do not have a code against killing. The occasional real life vigilante who undertakes an almost always brief career meting out street justice generally has no such self imposed limitation. And this Code was one of the first things to go when superhumans crossed the gulf between Silver and Modern Ages; Superman, the one time archetypical champion of the Code Against Killing, took a large number of alien lives very early on in his John Byrne helmed-reboot. Hawkman was not only shown to be a killer in Tim Truman's HAWKWORLD, but to be a patricide.

I do not specifically know if the Modern Age Batman has ever killed in the comics, but I'm very aware that his much more widely known film incarnation likes to rake crowds of Gothamites with machine gun fire and air to ground missiles from the Batplane, as well as to discourage thugs from congregating around the Batmobile by dropping grenades in their midst. And that's not even mentioning the wave of relatively Modern Age characters who kill rather casually, like Deadpool, the Punisher, Hit Man, Preacher, the Vigilante, and I'm sure countless others.

Having a superhero who is willing to kill, if necessary, is something that most would agree moves superhero comics closer to 'reality', and that, in and of itself, is something that most would agree is a positive thing. That classic and oft-referenced story of 'realistic' superheroes, WATCHMEN, begins with the murder of a superhero, and we eventually learn that not only was he killed by another superhero, but that he, himself, had more than likely killed a rival superhero in a grudge match years previously... although, of course, that pretty much pales next to the flashback scene where we watch that self same 'superhero', in a drunken rage, pull a gun and callously murder a woman carrying his unborn child. Code Against Killing? Yeah, right.

And the Comedian, along with his eventually revealed killer, are hardly the only murderous 'heroes' in the series. The watershed moments in the careers of two other characters from that mini series also involve an act of deliberate murder; in Rorschach's case, his vicious, near sociopathic murder of a child killer is the first act denoting his essential step away from the basic lines of good and evil that define classic comic book superheroism, and towards the end of the book, that murderous circle closes when Rorschach's realistically insane devotion to that same black and white moral code forces Dr. Manhattan to kill him in cold blood, as well. And, well, by the time the series ends, Ozymandias has bodies accumulating in drifts and piles around him from his pursuit of an improved global society.

This is only one isolated example, but it shows my point well. So intrinsic to the traditional concept of superheroism is the Code Against Killing that having a hero transgress it is almost, in and of itself, enough to define them as 'adult' and 'realistic'.

All of which says, at least to me, that our culture's viewpoints on 'adult' and 'realistic' are... well, a kind word for them would be 'cynical'. But then, cynicism itself has become an inherent part of the 'realistic', Modern Age, superhero comic book.

The Code Against Killing is, in fact, such an entrenched and traditional part of the 'standard' superheroic mythology (by which we generally mean, the Silver Age superheroic mythology, as most of the superheroes that our general culture is aware of crossed over into television and movies during the Silver Age, with the exception of the film version of Batman already noted above) that it got written into the CHAMPIONS superhero roleplaying system as a nearly standard Disadvantage.

And I'm not just bringing this up to firmly credential myself as a geek, which I'd think would have been obvious by now, anyway, but because I find it interesting, in the context of this discussion, that in CHAMPIONS campaigns I myself have run and participated in, I have found that other players resent me when I build characters with Codes Against Killing, because they're 'too goody goody' and 'they won't let anyone else have any fun', and many players will rant histrionically against the totalitarianism of any gaming referee (like me) who dares to mandate that all so called superheroes playing in HIS campaign must take Code Against Killing, usually at some point in these rants touching on the concept that a Code Against Killing is both 'unrealistic' and 'ridiculous' (as well as, you know, 'goody goody' and 'no fun').

In all honesty, I don't disagree that a Code Against Killing is unrealistic and ridiculous. But, again, as with virtually every other unrealistic and ridiculous fantasy element that makes the superheroic subgenre one that generally appeals to kids and annoys adults, I don't find this to be a flaw. In fact, it reminds me of something a guy I once knew used to say at work a lot (his company manufactures computers):

"It's not a problem. It's a feature."

Now, it should be fairly obvious why a Code Against Killing is so 'unrealistic' and 'ridiculous', not only according to me, but according to many CHAMPIONS players I've known, as well as such worthies as John Byrne and Tim Truman... it puts superheroes at a distinct disadvantage.

And there's no argument with that. If Daredevil is engaging the Gladiator in hand to hand combat, he's already at some fairly staggering disadvantages (like, the Gladiator wears heavy armor and has whirling, razor sharp buzzsaws on his wrists that, in some appearances, he can even fire like missiles... I mean, this is not someone you want to fight if you're a blind adventurer with no real superpowers except heightened senses, and all you have between yourself and those buzzsaw blades is a leotard and your acrobatic skills).

If you add in to those factors that Daredevil is for some reason (some silly, silly reason, like, you know, he's a HERO, imagine that) constrained from using deadly force, while the Gladiator would like nothing better than to splatter DD's innards across a store front, well... it does seem a bit unreasonable to expect the Man Without Fear to have a particularly lengthy career.

Wouldn't it be a tad more realistic if we allowed him to, at the very least, use his hypersenses and keen knowledge of the pressure points of the body, in combination with his infallible aim and his lead-weighted billy club, to go for killing or permanently disabling blows?

Well, sure it would. For that matter, it would be considerably more realistic if we let Daredevil carry around a gun, and it would be most realistic of all if we let him stay home and get head from the Black Widow instead of running around in tights fighting nutjobs like the Gladiator and the Man-Bull and Angar the Screamer. And the point I'm trying to make there is that superheroism is inherently unrealistic, and the ways in which it is inherently unrealistic are not only ways that appeal more to the young at heart than the mature, jaded, and cynical, but are also, in many circumstances, ways that elevate the superheroic subgenre to a level above that of mundane reality, and that elevate the characters themselves into something we can admire, respect, and perhaps, in our own inadequate and realistic ways, aspire to emulate.

Beyond the fact that classic superheroes do not, ever, deliberately kill anyone, an even more unrealistic aspect of this is an editorial policy (at least, during the Silver Age) that they will never accidentally kill anyone, either. Sometimes this is taken to truly, I mean, staggeringly, absurd extremes, as under Jim Shooter's aegis at Marvel, when he dictated that the Hulk had never caused even one accidental death in any of his insane rampages through crowded inner city neighborhoods (if he had, Shooter declared, Bruce Banner would have committed suicide as soon as he heard of it) and similarly dictated that Captain America had never killed anyone, even in World War II (if he had, Shooter told us, it would 'profoundly alter' his view of who Captain America was).

In perhaps the most extreme Silver Age example of the Code Against Killing I can think of, Star Boy was once thrown out of the Legion of Superheroes after he killed some bad guy in self defense. The Legion code allows killing in self defense, but Brainiac Five demonstrated at Star Boy's hearing with a cute little diorama that Star Boy COULD have used his powers to break a branch above the bad guy's head, presumably just incapacitating him (hey, it worked for Superboy on Lana Lang), instead of blasting the guy to vapor with a ray gun, as he actually did. (Imagine how much THAT would suck, having The Android With The Computer Brain acting as prosecutor at your expulsion hearing. "Your Honor, I can definitively show that had Star Boy only thought of it, he could have used his super power of increasing the density of objects to cause the Earth itself to shift minutely in its orbit, which would have made his attacker stumble and fall to the ground, dropping his weapon." Geez. Just give me my bus ticket NOW, guys, I'll save you the trouble of a trial.)

Ridiculous though this was, it's always struck me that this is the embodiment of the standard, Silver Age, superheroic Code Against Killing... yes, it's allowed in self defense, but you'd darned well better have not had any other choice but to die before you do it. Naturally, REAL heroes like Superman and Batman never get into situations like that, they ALWAYS find some way to bring the bad guy in alive. (Where, you know, he gets buggered by all the big bull queers at the Metropolis Prison, at least, we presume he does if he's some weedy scientific genius like Luthor or some nerdy type like the Toyman... but never mind that. The weird interactions of actual morality with the Crime and Punishment meted out in superhero universes is fodder for an entirely different article.)

While, again, 'ridiculous' and 'unrealistic', the overall effect of this universal revulsion towards killing in Silver Age superhero comics was a very powerful and persuasive one. As a kid, I simply learned to accept without question that human life was sacred, that the ultimate crime was murder, and that even a fully justified killing was still something that had to change a person forever.

The Code Against Killing even extended, in the early Silver Age, to the villains, it was a rare bad guy that ever actually killed anyone; most of them just robbed people, or tried to conquer the world, but when Doc Ock killed Captain Stacey by accident, it was a huge thing, and when the Goblin actually, deliberately knocked Gwen off that bridge pylon just to be a bastard, it was a moment that many still argue, and that Kurt Busiek seems to have presented in his re-enactment of Marvel's Silver Age in MARVELS, as being the actual end of the innocence at Marvel Comics.

And, to my mind, anything that could impart this kind of basic reverence for human life to a person as a child, in such a way that it still reverberates powerfully in their basic beliefs even well into adulthood (as it does in mine)... well, that's not only a good thing, it's a great thing... and not something I feel should be lightly tossed aside, especially merely for the sake of adding 'realism' to a fictional genre that not only doesn't need that sort of realism, but that is clearly better off without it.

There's also the unfortunate fact that, in addition to a reverence for human life, the other things Silver Age superhero comics, and the superheroic mythos in general, teaches to young kids is that violence is not only morally justifiable in certain causes, but, in most cases, it's an acceptable, unthinkingly reflexive, first resort in the ongoing battle against injustice. Superheroes rarely offer supervillains a chance to surrender (I grant you, because supervillains never take it, but still, they should probably try) nor do most superheroes ever expend the slightest effort to avoid a fight; in fact, they seem to look forward to the fights and enjoy them. In addition to that, prior to the era of Frank Miller, comic book violence was all what we used to call in college 'potato sack violence'... everyone gets knocked around a lot, but no one ever really gets hurt.

If superhero comics are going to teach kids that violence is not only expedient, but actually fun, and has no long term consequences (either physical or psychological)... and, let's face it, they did then, and they do now... it seems to me that the least we could ask is that they also teach kids that Killing Is Bad.

Letting Daredevil, or Superman, or Hawkman, or Batman, or anyone else, actually resort to deadly force and kill their enemies, other than in the most extreme circumstances (extreme circumstances meaning, it shouldn't happen every issue, or even every year, it should happen maybe once in a publishing era, to a particular character upon whom the psychological consequences have been carefully calculated) is, yes, I grant you, more 'realistic' in the context of the violent, confrontational lifestyle most heroes pursue.

It also demeans them, and demeans the subgenre they are part of, and demeans the whole heroic ideal they represent. It's cynical, and I do not believe it is actually humanizing, I think it's dehumanizing. It's a way for adults to say 'okay, we give up, we'd rather not be expected to measure up to an impossible standard, and even more, we'd rather not teach our kids to try to do that, either'.

Perhaps isolated projects like WATCHMEN, which explore exactly what the superhero mythos might be like if it actually happened in something more like our 'real' world, are not, in and of themselves, objectionable. No one, after all, is trying to do an open ended WATCHMEN miniseries. An argument could be made, though, that an entire generation of comics fans and rising comics professionals was enormously influenced by WATCHMEN, and that they incorporated that series' lack of morality into their own work, all of which had an extremely dark effect on superhero comics as a whole from the late 1980s onward.

For myself, all I can say is, a superhuman who commits murder casually, or a story which depicts superhumans doing so with no moral consequences to the act, is not, to my mind, a story about superHEROES. It may be an interesting, well written, fascinating, even brilliant story exploring various aspects and themes of the superhuman condition and superheroic mythos as it might be transformed by its immersion in a more 'realistic' world view.

And I will go so far as to say that as long as that character or story is clearly defined as not living or taking place in any of the detailed, fictional, Silver Age super-universes I have an emotional attachment to, I may be able to enjoy it, and even condone it. I enjoy, overall, WATCHMEN, despite its many flaws, and my favorite movie of the year 2000 remains M. Shamalyan Night's UNBREAKABLE, despite the fact that the 'superhero' in that movie eventually kills the first 'villain' he fights. Those stories aren't set in the Marvel or DC Universes, and their heroes are specifically shown as being more 'real' than the average superhero.

However, I do not consider the 'heroes' of WATCHMEN, or the indestructible, superhuman, real world guardian portrayed by Bruce Willis in UNBREAKABLE, to be 'better' than my favorite Silver Age superheroes because they are more 'realistic'.

The Code Against Killing is, probably, the single most unrealistic and 'ridiculous' element of the overly simplified and unrealistic superhero comic book moral context. It's one of the first things that got jettisoned when the Silver Age became the Modern Age. And... to my mind... it's one of the most defining elements of what makes superheroes essentially something designed not only to entertain kids, but to educate kids in basic social ethics... and the superhero genre was far, far better because of it.

Well, that's enough of that yammer, now let's move on to another element I neglected to mention in the first two parts of this:

The Heroic Motivation -

Put simply... and this is a point I completely neglected to make in previous chapters, probably because it seems so obvious... superheroics are fantasy because, in the real world, real people don't do that. They never have. They apparently never will. About the only real world, historical examples our rather shabby and deprived timeline has of people dressing up in costumes and masks and going out to enforce their own ideas of social justice through violence, if necessary, are... er... those Ku Klux Klan guys that none of us superhero fans much like to talk about. (The 'superhero comics can be for grownups' crowd are now rolling their eyes and giving exasperated sighs, as they mutter to themselves "oh, God, he just had to mention the goddam KLAN, didn't he?").

The fact that the Ku Klux Klan are, to date, the only real world, historical example we have of the form that the 'superhero' would take in actual reality is something that modern comics fans simply don't like to talk about. It's embarrassing, and we prefer to just gloss over it, all the while wishing desperately, if somewhat petulantly, that someone ELSE would come along, someone more decent and noble and genuinely heroic, who would put on a mask and a ridiculous costume and cruise the streets protecting little old ladies from muggers and foiling bank robbers. (Someone not quite as ridiculous as Captain Sticky, thank you very much.)

However, it's not going to happen, and the reason it's not going to happen is that, here in the real world... a world much poorer for this, I think... real people do not go out and risk their lives to fight crime as a hobby, or just because they know it's the right thing to do.

There are many reasons for this, and while I suspect the greatest one is that, you know, they don't want to get shot, others almost as significant would be fear of looking ridiculous, and the knowledge most of us have absorbed through our day to day life that in point of fact, street crime, even in the most dangerous urban areas, is much more difficult to find in real life than it is in comic books.

There's also the very real general assumption that anyone who WOULD go out and place themselves in harm's way for no personal reward is straight up crazy, and, last but not least, on the very rare occasions when people do take the law into their own hands and launch their own personal campaigns against... something... they generally either get killed (if they go about it half assed, or just get unlucky) or they eventually get arrested and locked up (if they actually go about it sensibly, which is to say, with a gun, and enough common sense to be sneaky about it, rather than openly confrontational).

And, probably worst of all, we all have a sneaking suspicion that if we were to actually go out and do something like this... we wouldn't get any respect for it. The newspapers would vilify us. The cops would think we were nuts, a dangerous unprofessional lunatic making their jobs harder. Criminals wouldn't care, because criminals don't care about stuff like that. We would not be feared, or admired, or regarded as heroes by the public at large. The best we could hope for would be that, when we were eventually caught and tried, if we didn't get off on an insanity defense, we could at least appeal to the sympathies of one juror by pointing out that the only people we'd really hurt were violent criminals.

But the general approval and hero worship that socially positive superhumans in the Marvel and DC Universes receive... it's not something that would happen in the world we all live in. And very few people have the heroic moral fiber of Spider-Man, or Batman, or the X-Men, and could keep doing something risky and uncomfortable and annoying if everyone apparently hated and feared us while we did it... or worse, laughed at us and thought we were nuts.

I suppose this could change. If some ultra-wealthy eccentric were to establish and widely advertise the existence of a trust fund that would pay, say, $5,000 to any person actively participating in a citizen's arrest of a violent criminal, I suspect a lot of wannabe vigilantes would take to the streets. I doubt many of them would wear colorful leotards, but chances are, some sort of generalized 'vigilante' outfit would quickly come into being, composed of comfortable, non restrictive clothing like sweatsuits and sneakers, sleeveless tshirts, overlaid with whatever protective gear that particular vigilante had access to... anything from standard athletic pads to military body armor, and including protective eye gear, groin protectors, and carefully wrapped tape supports for the wrists, elbows, and ankles, as well.

Assuming gun control laws weren't relaxed, few would openly carry firearms, or even obvious weapons like baseball bats, but I'm sure there'd be a big run on tasers at Radio Shacks throughout the land. To an extent, this would almost simulate the superhero phenomenon, although, of course, there wouldn't be any superpowers, or colorful code names, and, most importantly, these people would be doing this in the hopes of getting paid.

In other words, they wouldn't be superheroes, for the simple reason that not only wouldn't they be 'super', but they also wouldn't be 'heroes'. I suppose, eventually, at least some of those who made successful careers out of it would become celebrities and 'heroes' to the extent that NASCAR racers or professional athletes are 'heroes', but... they wouldn't REALLY be heroes. A real hero would do this sort of thing without the financial incentive... and that doesn't happen.

There are some who might argue, at this point, that this psychology is largely a product of the fact that in the real world, no one has super powers, and therefore, a crimefighting career is far more obviously futile than it would be if, say, we had the powers and abilities of a human spider.

To that I say two things: first, if the only reason Peter Parker or Steve Rogers or Clark Kent does good and fights crime is that it's easier for them than it would be for a normal person, that's not particularly heroic, and therefore, I reject that reasoning as it applies to the superhero mythos. Fictional superheroes do not battle evil because they have superpowers, so even if we accept that real world people MIGHT battle evil if they had superpowers, that has nothing to do with the essentially unrealistic heroic motivations of the members of the Justice League.

The second thing I say is, horseshit. As award winning writer Kurt Busiek used to rather cynically intone, "If I had superpowers, I wouldn't be a superhero, I'd be rich."

To me, that's inarguable. It's yet another way in which the real world is a somewhat meaner, shabbier place, and the real people in it are somewhat meaner and shabbier folks, than the fantasy worlds and fantastic figures that we find in superhero comic books. It is, in short, another way that those worlds are better than ours, and those people are better than us.

Look... if the average person... even the average decent person... were to wake up tomorrow with the ability to, say, predict the future, they aren't going to use that ability to prevent crimes and warn people of encroaching disasters. For one thing, they'll get laughed at until they manage to prove they can do it, and for another, once they do manage to prove they can do it, they'll be surrounded by folks who want to study and exploit them for the rest of their lives. (There are other issues that come into play here, as well, that they would have to establish through direct experimentation, namely, are they seeing a possible future than can be prevented, or is what they see simply predestined and beyond their power to change?)

All of which would be a good reason for them to maintain a secret identity, and a much better reason for them to simply keep their powers a secret forever, and use them only to do the immediately obvious things everyone WOULD do with such a power anyway... namely, buy winning Lotto tickets and/or place a lot of wagers at the race track.

The fact that in superhero fantasy, people get superpowers... or sometimes, don't... and decide to spend the better part of their lives fighting crime, or protecting the innocent, for no actual remuneration... well, it's simply not realistic. That's not a bad thing about the subgenre, it's a good thing. We'd like to believe that people would really do this, and that, if people really did this, they wouldn't be crazy or obsessed or fanatical or have unsavory psychosexual motivations like in WATCHMEN, but would just, honestly, be heroes. It's not true, but we want it to be true, and unfortunately, indulging ourselves with 'we want it to be true' is, in our culture, something that is thought of as childish.

All of this is one reason why, when I fantasize about having superpowers, I very rarely fantasize about having them in a real world context. Generally, I fantasize about having them in the Marvel Universe, early in the Silver Age, when I could hang out with my heroes and help them fight crime and have adventures.

Being superhuman in THIS world is a whole different sort of daydream, and usually involves entirely different sorts of super powers, as, honestly, while being able to fly and benchpress Cadillacs would be kind of nice in this world, it doesn't get me much; I'd rather have mind control powers, or the ability to teleport, or to turn invisible and/or intangible. (In a superhero reality like the Marvel Universe, such powers almost always lead one into a career as a supervillain; in the real world, well, they'd probably also cause one to become something technically like a supervillain, but (a) I wouldn't hurt anyone... well... anyone who didn't deserve it, and (b) in a world without superheroes, the status of 'supervillain' really doesn't mean much, it would be more accurate to call a real world, 39 year old, frustrated comics geek with such powers... especially mind control powers... simply a Very Rich Influential Man, or, more concisely, Sir.)

The simple fact is, I don't simply long for power, I long for heroism. And heroism doesn't really exist in this world, so if I'm going to be a superHERO, I have to do it in a superhero WORLD.

I repeat, again... realistically speaking, and leaving aside all the other fantasy elements like the secret origins, the super powers, the costumes, the secret identities, and the overly simplistic, confrontational moral context... people simply do not behave like superheroes in real life. Which brings us, after much meandering, back to the particular fantasy element of the superheroic mythos I started out to discuss here: The Heroic Motivation.

Superheroes seem to be roughly divided into two camps... those who behave in a heroic fashion simply because it's their nature, whose original progenitor and archetype would seem to be Superman himself, and those who have an overwhelming psychological motivation for fighting crime and/or protecting the innocent, whose originating icon seems to be Batman.

In the Superman school, you have characters who were apparently simply parented well, or if not, are so iconically Decent and Right that, given powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, they never even think twice about applying them in any fashion other than the service of mankind.

Reed Richards is like this, as, apparently, is Don Blake/Thor. Neither of them has any particular reason to be heroic, or to use their vast superhuman powers (in Richards' case, this very much includes his intellect) in the altruistic service of humanity... but they do.

Most of the Golden Age superheroes other than Batman, and thus, most of the revived/converted Golden Age heroes rebooted into Silver Age heroes by DC in the 50s and 60s, are in this general group: they have no real heroic motivations, they're simply good and decent because, well, they're good and decent. (Amusingly, Barry Allen seems to have become a costumed crimefighter named the Flash upon gaining superspeed because he was a comics fan, and specifically, a fan of the Golden Age Flash, thus, his heroic motivation comes directly from the influence of superhero comics, much like mine would, if I were to wake up tomorrow in the Marvel Silver Age with superpowers.)

That it's somewhat 'unrealistic' and 'ridiculous' for people to simply be good and decent for no reason other than their innate goodness and decency is something no one would really argue with. That this is a way in which the real world is a much poorer place than the fantasy worlds wherein superheroes dwell... well, it's not something I'd argue with, anyway.

However strangely derived the Silver Age Flash's heroic motivation may have been, the fact that he has one puts the Silver Age Flash in the 'Batman' group, of characters with distinct heroic motivations. These are arguably somewhat more realistic characters, in that their creators have at least acknowledged the fact that without some transformative and enlightening event or epiphany, a real person is not going to be inclined to pursue a career as a superhero no matter what powers they have. For Batman, it was seeing the grisly murder of his parents when he was only five; for Spider-Man, it was the guilt that came from knowing he could have prevented the murder of his Uncle Ben if only he hadn't been such an asshole, and a determination to never be that kind of asshole again.

Many more characters from Marvel's Silver Age have actual, discernable heroic motivations than DC's did. Spider-Man, Daredevil, Ant-Man, the X-Men, and Dr. Strange all have clearly stated heroic motivations. More obscure are the motivations of other Marvel characters like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America.

Cap, for one example, was motivated by zealous patriotism back in the 1940s, but his reasons for continuing to act as a superhero in the modern age are vague at best for much of the Silver Age, and until Englehart took over the book and put Cap through his own particular voyage of enlightenment, never particularly far reaching... he needs someone to hang out with and a place to stay, so he joins the Avengers, then they dump the leadership of the team on him when they all want to retire... and after that, he simply seems to continue through inertia up through the Englehart run, when he finally realizes why he has to continue being a superhero (because he's a born adventurer and can't live without the life) and why he has to keep being Captain America (because, apparently, if he doesn't do it, other people will, and they'll get hurt trying to do a job that he made too dangerous for anyone else to succeed at).

Later on, other authors added to this, as with the story where Cap gives up the costume again, and it's taken over by ultraconservative whacko John Walker, aka The Super-Patriot, who promptly turns 'Captain America' into a symbol of violent neo-fascist extremism so horribly objectionable that eventually Steve Rogers takes the Cap cowl back simply to re-establish a good example for Americans again.

Still, even those characters with specific reasons for fighting crime, such as Batman and Spider-Man, can be seen from an adult perspective as being unrealistic.

John Byrne has noted that he has always found Batman to be a boring character, because he feels that once Batman caught Joe Chill, the thug who killed his parents, he should have been 'done', and hung up his cowl for good.

I myself have pointed out in a past article that, realistically, Peter Parker's guilt might well have motivated him to dedicate his entire show business career to the memory of his Uncle Ben, setting up memorial charity funds in his Uncle's name and trying to lend financial support and publicity to causes his Uncle would approve of, but the notion of going out and actually getting into fistfights with deranged super-folks in the name of the gentle old man who always loved and protected spindly bookworm Parker is simply silly.

Yet people seem to think that when I say this, I'm making the same general point that Byrne is also mistakenly making... namely, that I'm sneering at Spider-Man the same way Johnny Redbeard is sneering at Batman, that by saying both are essentially unrealistic, I'm insulting them, and saying they're lousy characters, and somehow, need to be 'fixed'.

And, again, I'm not. To my mind, the Heroic Motivation, while definitely an unrealistic fantasy element of the unrealistic fantasy mythos we call superhero comics, is a good and admirable thing.

However, it is definitely an unrealistic fantasy element, and again, I think that's obvious from the lack of people in real life who have decided to devote their lives to fighting crime and protecting the innocent for nothing but the pleasure and fulfillment they get from doing it. It's also obvious from the fact that, for the most part, the characters revised from the Silver Age to the Modern Age, and those characters original to the Modern Age, do not have 'heroic motivations'.

Image characters, for example, have no discernable motivation to be heroic (and usually aren't); generally, they're just fighting to survive. The Modern Age Batman, as psychologically re-defined by Frank Miller, is not motivated to heroism by the deaths of his parents; he is instead mentally ill, and perhaps even actually possessed by some sort of ancient 'bat demon'. That this demeans and, in the absolute sense of the word, dehumanizes the character of Batman seems to me to be self-evident, and makes it equally self-evident that the heroic motivation, while 'unrealistic' and 'ridiculous', is also something that exalts the superheroic archetype, while more 'realistic' motivations for putting on costumes and beating up criminals, such as Miller advances in DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and Moore explicates in WATCHMEN, merely bring the whole genre down to the level of the gutter.

Moore can be admired for his work, as he never tried to make WATCHMEN into an example for comics as a whole (although large numbers took it that way anyway) but Miller set the tone for how one of comics' most archetypical superheroes would be presented for an entire new era and generation, and that's something I have a great deal of difficulty condoning or forgiving him for.

From the above, and all that I've written previously on this subject, it seems to me to be inarguable that superhero comics were originally conceived as and intended for, children. The best of them can be read with equal delight by adults and children both, but it is, to my mind, nearly always the very worst of them that are deliberately modified to an 'adult' viewpoint. Obviously, there are always going to be comic book fans who will be offended by such a declaration, and who will strive mightily to refute it, out of their own need to believe that 'childish' is bad, and anything they like so much must be 'adult' and 'realistic'. I had no intention to offend these people, and I regret doing it, but I'm not going to try to argue with them further, either.

Superhero comics, at their very best, are intended for kids... of any and every age... and I'm happy to be one of them. Your mileage may vary.

* * * * * * * * **** * *

John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, is perfectly happy to have a Code Against Killing, although I admit to being a little shaky on a heroic motivation. Is wanting to hang out with Hank Pym and eventually talk my way into the sack with Crystal the Inhuman good enough? If not, then some relative of mine will just have to volunteer to be gunned down by a burglar I myself lazily refused to turn over to the police on some previous occasion, or, you know, we'll all just have to agree to suspend disbelief and accept that I am fundamentally so Good and Decent that I would never ever consider abusing any super powers I might have in any way. Yeah, right. Okay, then, how about fear of having the snot kicked out of me by Spider-Man if I go rob banks as a heroic motivation? Super powers or no, I'm still a big baby at heart. If you can think of a more 'realistic' heroic motivation for the Manhunter, hit the comment link.


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