18 March 2014

Subservient Gods

Being a longtime comic book/superhero fan, I've of course heard countless times over the years about how superheroes are the modern equivalent of the mythological gods of old. Michael Uslan, executive producer of all the Batman movies of the last quarter century, taught an entire course on the subject of Comic Book Folklore, exploring the thematic ties between biblical parables and the caped figures of the funny books. Superman-as-Moses was the microcosm example he put forth to sell the University of Indiana on the course.

I'll confess: Despite having majored in history and planning to teach it, I never had any interest whatsoever in the gods of Antiquity. Zeus/Jupiter, whatever. I never really connected with Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel ("Shazam!") in part because of this antipathy, if I'm being honest. Maybe it goes back to the commandment of not having any other gods - not, of course, that I'm an especially good or pious Christian, but some of those things are still part of me to some degree or another.

Anyway, what has come to fascinate me lately the more I've thought about it is that unlike their predecessors, our contemporary mythological figures service mankind. Superman could conquer the world; instead, he seeks to assimilate into our world as one of us. It's that way with all of these characters (the heroic ones, anyway; obviously, the supervillains are all about conquest and domination). There's something empowering about that idea, that these characters our writers, artists, and editors have endowed with powers vastly superior to anything occurring in nature, should be so subservient to us. Not just to our elite rulers, but even to the weakest and meekest of us.

My single favorite Batman comic book story that I've ever read is "The Nobody" (Batman: Shadow of the Bat #13), by Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle. In it, Batman has an altercation one night. He winds up being unmasked in an alley, unwittingly in the sight of a dying homeless man. The man sees his chance to rise above his circumstances and goes to sell the secret identity of Batman. He's betrayed and mortally wounded, but he survives long enough to realize he needs to make amends and tells Bruce what he's done.
"This city's steeped in evil -- rotten through and through!
"It's built on graft -- corruption -- greed. It'll never change, you must know that.
"So tell me, Batman -- why do you do what you do?
"Why do you do it, Batman?"
"I do it for the weak, and the scared, and the oppressed. I do it for the victims -- the innocent -- the abused.
"I do it to try to end the suffering...
"And I do it for the nobodies."

That's a far cry from the likes of the powerful beings who demanded homage and fealty from mortals centuries ago. It is this element above all else that I believe explains the wide appeal of superheroes today. We have always been fascinated with the idea of being more than we are; being able to fly, to move mountains with our bare hands, to be invincible. These things have driven the imagination since time immemorial. That imagination led the Wright brothers to Kitty Hawk, and sent Neil Armstrong to the moon.

But it is our sense of responsibility and compassion as a society that has made these characters our servants, rather than our paternalistic rulers. As much as we want to know that we can be more than we are today, we also want to know that with that "great power" will "come great responsibility."

Did I just argue that Stan Lee is a greater philosopher than Homer?

Yes. I think I did.

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