Sunday, August 06, 2006


You Will Believe A Man Can Fly
by John Jones, Manhunter from Marathon, IL


Having just finished the preceding 15,000 word article on just exactly how and why superhumans can and do perform superhuman feats, I'm brought jarringly back down to one simple realization:

It was, ultimately, a pointless thing to do.

By which I don't mean it was a waste of time. I think there was some good writing there, I think I made some interesting points, and got in a few good jokes, and if anyone ever reads it and enjoys it, then certainly, it wasn't a waste of time, and if anyone ever reads it and actually THINKS about it, for even ten seconds, then, well, I'd say the time and effort I put into it is entirely justified.

Still, when I say it was a pointless thing to do, I mean, well... it kind of missed the whole point of superhero comics.

M4M was, basically, in its entirety, an intellectual exercise. The sort of cold, calculating, clinical thing one might expect Mr. Spock to produce, if Mr. Spock were a fan of Silver Age comics. It was, all told, an effort to force my favorite superheroes, supervillains, and the worlds they inhabit, make rational and intelligent sense. To say to the nitpickers, who come along and apply relentless, remorseless reason to every single aspect of fiction, "Hey, look, we CAN make it work".

And, you know, again... I missed the point.

The Flash and Johnny Quick and Quicksilver and the Whizzer just run really fast. That's what they do. They run so fast they can create updrafts that will support falling passenger planes. They run so fast they can outrace sound waves. They run so fast they don't sink into water. They run so fast they can vibrate between the atoms of solid walls. They run so fast they can catch bullets in test tubes and knock down rockets in mid air and let Captain America's shield pass right through the after image they left behind.

And we love them because they run so fast. Because we wish we could run that fast and do all that really cool stuff.

Yeah, sure, the nitpickers like me with our anal little needs to make everything all neat and sensible come along and carp and snivel and whine. "They'd break their legs," we whimper. "They'd dig huge trenches in the earth," we mutter. "They can't possibly SEE anything when they're moving that fast," we fuss.

And, yes, sure, nitpickers and carpers and whiners like me can sit down and furrow our brows and postulate mobile bubbles of heightened entropy or bioenergy transformations and other such foolish pointless drivel. And perhaps some or all of those explanations actually sort of make a kind of coherent rational sense, at least, within the limited constraints of our dim grasp on the actual workings of the universe.

But we're missing the POINT, which is that we love the Flash because he runs really really fast. And we wish WE could run that fast. And while it may be intellectually satisfying to reflect and pontificate on the possible fact that the Flash, as he launches into his first running step, actually subconsciously transforms his biological human body into some sort of living electrical force that he then psychokinetically projects along the surface of the Earth... when we actually stop our solemn intellectualization process and go back to reading the darned comic books, we realize that that explanation isn't any fun.

It was fun to juggle the events and start rationalizing and arguing and to finally come up with the explanation, and kind of satisfying to think there WAS an explanation. But then we go back to our issues of the Flash and we say to ourselves 'okay, right here, where he's running past Captain Boomerang and vibrating his arm to make a draft that blows all the bad guy's weapons away, he's ACTUALLY a sort of bio energy living electricity being, and THAT is why he can do it..." Well.


Bottom line: The Flash does all that cool stuff simply because he can RUN really fast.

And however ridiculous and absurd and stupid that is, when we look at it analytically, the simple fact of the matter is, superhero funnybooks are not actually supposed to be looked at analytically. Oh, we CAN. And it's kind of fun to do the analysis and run the numbers and arrive at the ultimate resolution that all superstrength is actually psychokinetic. Just like figuring out any difficult intellectual problem is enjoyable and satisfying.

However, in the end, it's like Schroedinger's Cat. It's certainly fun and kind of interesting to speculate on the uncertainty principle and how we can never know both the exact location AND the exact speed of any particle and how until we open the box, the cat's life or death is simple a warm fog of probability. In the end, though, we have to open the damn box and let the cat out, and at that point, the concept of actually trying to apply all this hypothetical subjective yahooing to real, objective reality loses all emotional appeal. The cat is either alive or dead. It was fun to speculate about it, but now, we have to deal with the actual reality.

And in actual reality, we have a choice... either that cat is alive, which is kind of fun, or the cat is dead, which is boring and, ultimately, a nuisance. My explanations, as posited in the previous three chapters, on how Triplicate Girl divides herself into three equal bodies and the Atom shrinks and power rings work and the true function of Mjolnir were fun to write and hopefully fun to read. But now we've reached the end of them and if we actually try to accept them as 'real' and apply them to our favorite fictional realities, then we have chosen the no-fun option.

We have opened the box and found a dead cat.

Enjoying superhero comics is primarily an emotional experience. We have fun reading them because these people can do things that we cannot, and wish we could. We want some explanation for it, sure, man is an animal that wants answers and if we can't find them, we make them up... but we are also an animal that, by and large, is willing to settle for nearly ANY explanation, as long as we find it to be kinda, you know, fun. We're perfectly happy to believe that thunder is the sound made when the Gods go bowling, and similarly, on the same level, we're perfectly happy to believe that Hawkman can fly because his wings are made out of an antigravity metal. That the Flash can run really really fast, because he got covered in electrified chemicals. That Superman can move the Earth out of its orbit if he wants to, because he was born on a distant planet. That Green Lantern has a power ring that will let him create anything he can imagine, as long as he doesn't mind it being bright green.

We love this stuff, and we really don't need to have it explained. It's fun coming up with explanations sometimes, and it's fun reading about someone else's theories and arguing with them. But in the end, Superman is just really really strong and can fly through space, and the Flash can run really really fast, and Green Lantern can do anything he can imagine, and Hawkman has great big wings and hits people with a mace, and beyond that, who cares?

The sense of wonder... the capacity to let our emotions rise up and, for brief moments, conquer our intellects... to let our hearts soar on the back of a friendly hero in a red cape who can do anything just because he's SUPERMAN... this is much too priceless a thing to sully and besmirch with endless carping 'but it can't work that way's and 'that wouldn't happen's and 'logic dictates that...' s.

It's not LOGICAL. It's frickin' FUNNY BOOKS.

I should note here, while I'm busy deconstructing most of my work for the last week, that there are many comics characters with powers I did not try to explain because, like, they just defy even psuedo logic. Spider-man, for example, cannot cling to sheer surfaces. I'm sorry. He just can't. His pores do not exude some sort of adhesive-sweat that is under his subconscious control. He does not have long, nearly invisible, very strong hairs that project out of his arms and legs and let him cling to rough sheer surfaces, like actual spiders do. And he certainly does not control static electricity, as Peter David once hypothesized, even if Electro somehow managed to remove his wallcrawling abilities by absorbing all the static electricity in the area. The idea is ludicrous, if only because emotionally, it has nothing to do with spiders.

He crawls on walls because he's Spider-man and Spider-man crawls on walls! Yeah, okay, he's probably subconsciously psychokinetic and I don't CARE. It's just something he DOES.

Captain America and Daredevil both have to have some kind of subconscious psychokinetic control over their shield and billyclub, respectively. It's just ridiculous that either one of them could throw the darn things so that they bounce all over the room, off fifteen Hydra agents, and then return to their hands otherwise. It's the only possible explanation, and boy, doesn't THAT suck. If any Marvel writer ever actually wrote a story in which Professor Xavier mentioned that he had, indeed, used Cerebro to establish that Cap and DD did actually have this ability, and, incidentally, that Spider-man is psychokinetic, I'd vomit. It SUCKS.

It's as bad as the weird bit in AVENGERS Vol. 1, #5 where Cap opens up his shield and shows all sorts of microcircuitry built into it by Tony Stark, with magnets on his glove that make it return to him. Marvel just kind of very quietly let that idiotic idea drop with no fanfare whatsoever after a couple of issues, and the reason is simple... it's no fun. It's a dead cat. Cap CAN bounce his shield all over the room and have it return to his hand, just because he's so damn good, and if you don't like it, TOUGH.

(Exactly how Tony Stark split open an indestructible shield to install microcircuitry in it isn't anything we want to think about, either.)

That sense of wonder is perhaps most aptly summed up with the tagline to the first Superman movie.

"You will believe a man can fly."

We DID believe it, even though the movie pretty much stank on ice, and the scene where we most believed it was the scene that stank the most, that awful mental love poem sequence where Superman is flying over Metropolis holding Lois Lane's hand. It's a scene worthy of Ed Wood, and we STILL believe a man can fly. Why do we believe it?

Because we WANT to.

Superman doesn't fly because he has autokinesis. He flies because he's SUPERMAN, and because we believe he CAN.

Any further explanations are pointless, and a waste of time, other than for the entertainment value we get out of writing or reading them.

John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, no longer dwells in Marathon, IL. If he seems to contradict himself, then he contradicts himself. He is vast. He contains multitudes. He is, however, not as vast as Chris Claremont, Peter David, or Kurt Busiek, but that's okay, because they all make a lot more money than him.


Blogger Matthew E said...

The use of psychic powers to explain all superpowers is a sensible one, and well-explored in your articles, but you aren't the first to walk this ground. I don't know if you're familiar with the Wild Cards shared-world series of superhero(ish) novels, but in one of the appendices to the first volume, the authors use the same explanation for how all the wacked-out powers in their books work.

11:49 AM  
Blogger John Jones said...

I am familiar with the Wild Card novels, but it's been a while since I've picked one up. I tend to credit Byrne with the idea without thinking, as I believe it was he who first mentioned the 'psionic superman' concept in an actual mainstream superhero comic book. But thanks for the reminder.

4:15 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home