Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Limitations of Superheroes

Earlier this week I wrote a post over at Comic Fodder about my disappointment lately regarding the editorial direction at DC Comics (its an ongoing theme. So sue me. Wait. Scratch that idea.).

The next day I received an e-mail from a gentleman questioning why I would stick with comics. He expressed how he had given them up several years ago, and as our conversation continued, I learned he'd experienced terrible family tragedy. And so, maybe, the promise of masked and caped do-gooders righting wrongs and saving the world rings a little hollow.

At the same time, I saw a post from Leaguer Lauren over at her site discussing that most complex of superheroes, Wonder Woman, in light of the animated movie coming to home video this spring. Lauren describes the Wonder Woman she'd like to see on the screen and it sounds very appealing. She also pulls a quote that describes the ongoing issues of gender equality in comics (I kind of flinched at the broad strokes, but it doesn't mean the quote wasn't a little accurate).

Where Superman cannot step from the screen or comic page to save the day in our real lives and personal tragedies, just as much, Wonder Woman may not be enough to carry the weight of expectation put upon a figure who was, in fact, intended to carry a philosophy and ideal of a world in which women were seen as equals. She must be proud of her body, but she must cover it. She must be strong, but serene. She must be able to fight, but peace-loving. I can think of few male archetypes who have that burden placed on them.

The truth is, these very contradictions have gone from being a problem with writing Wonder Woman comics to become the essence of the character. By necessity, she's become an Amazonian, battle-axe-wielding warrior on a mission to "man's world" to preach the values of peaceful co-existence. And, occasionally, she has to go stab a Gorgon or something.

There's also an insinuation in the LA Times piece that poo-poo's the second-class status of the straight-to-video distribution of the Wonder Woman project, ignoring the current home video animation strategies of DC, Marvel, Dark Horse and others (bottom line, Wonder Woman actually made it to video faster than I would have expected from the DCU line of characters). The title does not sell terrifically well on newstands, and DC's prior animated efforts have surrounded tried-and-true material.

But as I've debated for years with friends who are not neck-deep in this thing of superhero comics, these fictional characters wind up fighting "public perception" rather than the actual content of the material in which they appear. Naysayers seem to have never actually lifted a comic or read a single story (at least from the last 20 years of relevant publication). They cringe at straight-to-video releases and, with no context but what success means in Hollywood terms, fail to see what bringing ANY comic property to video as a feature length film might mean. And bring their own definitions of everything from feminism to what it means to save the day to these figures.

It's an odd thing, because the trio of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are American cultural icons. They do, in fact, command a certain power in the popular imagination far beyond their intended purpose as pulp characters. They've expanded beyond their contemporaries of Zorro, Doc Savage, The Shadow, etc... The gentleman I'd spoken with was not the first I'd read about to funnel his tragedy into superheroes. That's sort of the unspoken message of the documentary "Confessions of a Superhero", and I've seen articles on others.

Poor, long-suffering Wonder Woman has had her image co-opted as a feminine ideal by Ms. Magazine and Gloria Steinem, and has had her name co-opted to describe the ideal of the modern woman (particularly, and somewhat oddly, mothers) who feels that they must be busy or appear entirely too busy, but always keeping things in check. Meanwhile, her costume has become a sexy Halloween staple, and the none-too-threatening outfit of her first appearances has become increasingly less modest over the years (though DC has recently made moves on that).

And, of course, being fictional, its kind of hard for superheroes to speak for themselves. Especially when their only mode of speaking up is in a medium 90% of people believe is irrelevant and/ or not as important as "public perception".

My interests lie in those superheroes, so I hear about the tragedies that fall into the very real lives of people who may wind up channeling their own stories through the prism of the comic page. I do not hear the stories of people who were Simpsons nuts, or naval history enthusiasts, or who maybe knew every pro football statistic that was worth knowing. I don't know if that same emotional attachment forms during a tragedy, or if they roll their eyes at the co-option and debate over the "image" of figures in their area of interest, as if the code-breaking of single images were all there was.

What I do know is that there is a strange place in fandom of any sort where an invisible line exists, and you do well to enjoy your comics, but know that to take them too seriously, to put Faith (with a capital F) in the heroes within and the storybook crimes they fight is not a replacement for the world outside the page.

Superman can't stop your loved ones from illness, or stop the everyday stories that make the news.

Wonder Woman can't be the voice of whatever it means to be a woman in 2008/ 2009.

But I do think, if we can agree that they are cultural icons, that there's something there we can see behind the the promise of the characters. Superman's use of his abilities for others, Batman's unbending resolve, Wonder Woman's mission of peace AND strength...

It's just a thought.


Michael Corley said...

During my stint as a catholic, I heard a quote that applies to many things: "Many people hate catholics for what they believe them to be. Only a few for what they actually are."

How many perceptions about comics are just flat out false? After all, most Americans never read them, and those, like me, who sort of do, won't read 99% of what's out there.

There is no easy answer to lack of information replaced by speculation.

J.S. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J.S. said...

Superheroes are kind of like the Greek/Roman gods. They're powerful to the point of being awe inspiring, they represent various recognizeable human traits (mostly admirable ones, but not exclusively so), and they prove extremely disappointing when they don't fly down off Mount Olympus to save us when tragedy descends. Sometimes maybe it's just easier people to turn their backs on the entire idea of the hero rather than trying to reconcile it with the realities of life. (and I'm not saying that people actually think that superheroes exist, but turning their backs on them when confronted with tragedy is a way of 1) punishing oneself for an interest in something as optimisitic/"naive" as superheroes in the first place and 2) protecting oneself from dashed hopes or expectations- i.e., you're not going to be disappointed by the flaws in humanity if you convince yourself that we're not capable of being heroic)

The League said...

I am somewhat reminded of the ongoing accusations of President-Elect Obama of being a "secret Muslim". An image was taken years ago of the man participating in a ceremony honoring his father and heritage of him in distinctively non-western garb, and he happened to go to school in a country where religious institutions provide education (as voucher waivers would very much like to see here).

Despite overwhelming evidence which was easily uncovered, many, many Americans were happy to stand before cameras and pronounce that they would not vote for a Muslim.

I'm not saying that seeing Wonder Woman in a certain light is in any way as mind-blowing as the "secret Muslim" mantra. But it does remind you that people stick to their guns based upon some initial impression, often in the face of evidence, reason and logic, bringing their prejudices, fears, pre-conceptions, what-have-you with them. And that is, indeed, powerful stuff to overcome.