Because of pressures from both work and school, I’d been planning on posting that there would be no updates today.
I guess I never noticed until today that when you sign on to blogger, it tells you how many times you’ve posted to your blog. My number was 99, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to let my 100th post be of the “sorry, no updates” sort.
Ironically, reminded by Johnny Baccardi’s announcement of his blog’s third anniversary, I’d just been thinking about how I’d never kept track of anything like that with the Burn.
In honor of my 100th post, I’m going to put aside some of my other responsibilities to share my thoughts on an archetype that’s somewhat obscure and too often forgotten in discussions of sequential art.
I left comics for a while in my late teens as I became more interested in rock, inebriation, and talking to people who weren’t asking me to roll for a saving throw vs. poison. My early to mid-twenties were turbulent. I hopped from place to place, not so much trying to find myself as running away, and eventually ended up in San Diego trying to build a new life. My new life was aborted with a phone call from my mother who had just found out she had a terminal illness.
I returned to Albany and got a data entry job at a hospital. I don’t think I’ll ever be as skilled a writer as I would need to be to articulate how the combination of my mother’s illness, a job where I was often required to devour reports from every department in the hospital regarding how each and every mortality had become a mortality rather than a discharge, and the events of 9/11 served to make death such an overwhelming and inescapable part of my thoughts. Every cough was cancer. Every lump was a tumor.
A week after the Twin Towers came down, a series of violent sleep disturbances began. In my sleep I would throw myself into walls and floors. Once I grabbed a filing cabinet and tossed it across the room. Another time I woke up to find my hand inches away from the knob of my apartment’s front door.
I still have to be careful about what films and TV shows I watch. A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I got in a bit of a tiff during a conversation about whether or not to see March of The Penguins. She pointed out she’d heard there were scenes of penguins being killed, and I yelled at her when she tried to describe one of them. A particularly gory scene at the end of Shaun of The Dead ruined the entire film for me. Apparently for its cultural significance in regards to the treatment of women in Japanese culture, my World Cities professor had us watch Audition. I won’t “ruin” it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but suffice to say a scene towards the end of the film is particularly painful to watch. I was furious at my professor, and my anger for him was muted only my disdain for the sadistic motherfuckers in the class who were laughing through the entire scene.
Every now and then various scenes from movies and tv flash in my mind, sometimes lingering for a bit. In many cases, I couldn’t even tell you the name of the program or film.
A single mother shot in the head in a dark room. She falls down hard, knocking her screaming toddler as she does. A family awaking tied and gagged by home invaders. The criminals promise the father they’ll rape and kill his wife and daughter before he sees the end. A black soldier at the Alamo instantaneously run through by a half-dozen bayonets. A wandering cheetah finds the home of a female. He sniffs around for a few minutes, finds the entrance, disappears into the hole and re-emerges with the limp body of a cheetah cub in his jaws. The narrator explains it's so the female cheetah will go back into heat. Two young boys in the ghetto fight. One cuts the head off a pigeon and flicks it at the other before running away. A robber holds up a convenient store and slices off an old woman’s finger because it’s too thick for him to get at her ring. A teenage girl held in the air by an invisible killer, bled out in front of her younger brother. A horde of vampires swarming on a young boy, holding him on his side and feeding on him like a long cob of corn.
One image in particular stays with me, and probably will until I go the way of Blue Beetle and Jarella (they’re dead). It was a nature show. A pack of hyenas runs into a pride of lions. They fight over a carcass. The hyenas get the worst of it. In the melee, one of the younger lions manages to capture a baby hyena. It hangs from the lion’s mouth, crying out in fear. Bleeding and limping, the rest of the hyenas turn and leave the baby to its fate. The narrator mentions that the lions' kill rate must have dropped if they’re willing to eat a hyena.
How can anything meet its end that way? How can that be allowed? Death, if it has to come, should come in our sleep. Our minds should be too quiet to notice the jump from one dream to another. How can something be eaten alive, its final memory the hot breath of strange, alien bastards? How can our ends come so swiftly, without the kind of solemn celebration any shitty movie death scene gets? Why does Captain Kirk get a dignified end and I don’t? How can someone slam me into a building, rape me to death, spear me with knives, blow out my brains, and leave everything I was and am and longed to be reduced to a brief, twitchy moment of fear and blood? What fucking forbidden produce did our ancestors eat that the Powers That Be allow everything that is beautiful and hopeful in each of us to end in a stupid, senseless act of predator and prey? Our lives should end with music, poignant last words, final kisses and confessions or at least silence; not with grunts, kicks, screams and gore. There are hellhounds on our trail.
Teaches us our mortality, that’s how nature works, appreciate what you have while you have it, there is no spoon, be the ball, with great power comes great blah blah blah BULLSHIT. There is something wrong with this. There’s no one for Vincent D’Onofrio to sniff out on Law & Order. No one to hang at Nuremberg. But you know it in your bones. There’s something wrong with this. This shouldn’t be allowed.
And superheroes DON’T allow it.
A lot of the critical attention devoted to superheroes focuses on them as being a purely American phenomenon, eventually exported to the rest of the world. The few academics interested in studying the world of the super write about sexual repression, the death of the father figure and the orphan fantasy, political agendas, the juvenile male appeal, the objectification of women, different societal factors that lead to the birth of the 20th century superhero, etc.
All of these things are important and I’ve written about some of them myself (none of it’s been published, obviously), but the critics rarely go beyond the narrow scope of the present to find the roots of the superhero. The superhero is older than America. It’s as old as the Bible, if not older. Samson, Heracles, Achilles, and Beowulf - what would you call these people today? In fact, while I run the risk of offending any Christian readers (and that is certainly not my intent), while some might consider a comparison between Jesus Christ and contemporary superheroes as ridiculous or insulting . . . guy with supernatural abilities who wants to save the world. What do you call someone like that in 2005?
Superheroes, for me, are the agents of a better God, waging a beautiful and absolutely futile war with the inevitable. They’re stupid strongmen breaking the jaws of death. To say they “defy death” isn’t enough. It implies they defy their own deaths, whereas they defy the very concept, rendering them both angelic and Luciferean. Like their mythic ancestors, they are wonderfully impossible.
And the latter has at least something to do with their enduring appeal, doesn’t it? While I know the Comics Code probably had more to do with the supremacy of superhero comics over other genres than anything else, isn’t it reasonable to assume that part of their appeal can be explained by the fact that - unlike just about every other example of male-oriented adventure comic book fiction - superheroes live in a world of absolute impossibility? As romanticized as comics about pirates, swordsmen, cops, robbers, cowboys, spies, space travelers, and private detectives have always been, they are all - at least in part - based on people who did or do exist. On the other hand, there has never been nor will there ever be anyone remotely like a superhero (and no, those English “Father’s rights” guys who dress up like Spider-Man and straddle London Bridge don’t count).
That’s why comics claiming to portray what superheroes would “really” be like don’t carry much weight with me. It’s a stupid, worthless endeavor. Superheroes have never been real and never will be. It’s ridiculous to bind them with real world rules. You might as well have an Identity Crisis for the Snorks or the Care Bears.
And darker, bloodier superhero comics have nothing to do with realism. If you disagree, pick up a few Savage Dragon trades, note the body count, and tell me whether or not you think it’s a pinnacle of realism.
I’m not interested in realism. I’m not interested in yet one more examination of the superhero as a tyrannical figure. I’m not interested in fabricating scientific or sociological justifications for the existence of characters who do not and could not exist. I’m not interested in nostalgic snark that serves only to take bad, tired jokes and disguise them as depth. And I couldn’t give a good goddamn about whether or not Spider-Man can beat up Firelord.
There is more that the superhero can do. None of us are seeing it because the people at the reins are safe bastards. I don’t disagree with the bloggers and critics who want the superhero supremacy of the comics industry to disintegrate. Nor do I disagree that nothing compelling is going on in the superhero comic book world. But admitting that superhero comics are stagnant and that more diversity is needed in America’s comic industry does not mean the superhero should fade away.
My superheroes are life unbound. My superheroes are capable of beauty and depth. My superheroes are on the trail of the hellhounds. My superheroes are futile soldiers in a battle against the end of the day.
If you’d like, forget everything I’ve written here. It can all be summed up by the perfect words that opened the first issue of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City.
In my dreams, I fly.