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So, OK, Superheroes and fascism
a nice, uncontroversial topic for you
ok, let’s just stipulate that it’s been a while—too long—since I put one of these out. Many irons in the fire, and also a 75-pound furry hooligan running around trying to pull irons out of the fire with his mouth. Just know that I perpetually feel bad for not doing these more often!
The comics internet, or at least the less thoughtful parts of it, are once again mad at Alan Moore for talking about his unease with fascist overtones in superhero materials. If you’re not in the comics world, this probably doesn’t mean much to you; who the hell is Alan Moore, and why do I care what he thinks about comic books?
But the thing is that Alan Moore is a giant in the comics world, one of the handful of writers where there’s more or less a consensus that he’s a genius. He wrote several of the acknowledged classics of the superhero genre, and his classics stand out because they’re intricate and thoughtful and engage with powerful themes in a way that most superhero (or, frankly, other) comics don’t.
And as far as why *you* should care: you might or might not read comic books, but if you live in the United States right now, you live in a society that is both absolutely dominated by superheroes (mostly in the form of movies and TV, all of which were adapted from comics, some of which were in fact written by Alan Moore) and is flirting alarmingly with fascism. So if one of the premiere thinkers of the form says he’s nervous about a confluence, it’s worth putting some thought into it. To modify a phrase, even if you’re not interested to a world of superheroic fascism, the world of superheroic fascism is interested in you.
To be clear: I don’t think, and I don’t believe that Moore is saying, that everyone who’s ever watched and liked a Batman movie is a budding fascist. That’s absurd. But I do think that, on the principle that it’s always good to examine what you’re putting into your head, most Batman movies do engage in some themes that, if you follow them to their logical conclusions, aren’t super humane or healthy for society, and the same goes for pretty much all other superheroes who weren’t consciously created to push back against this tendency. Again, liking Batman does not make you a fascist. But uncritically liking Batman and wishing we had a cool billionaire, unfettered by stodgy government, who could step in and solve our problems leads to… well… nothing good.
It’s worth taking a step back and looking at what superheroes are, fundamentally. At bottom, they’re based on wish fulfillment, an extended fantasy about having the power to effect change. There’s nothing inherently wrong or unhealthy about that! It’s very human to be frustrated by intractable problems and wish that you had the power to do something about them. I don’t think it’s an accident that Superman was created by a couple of Jewish kids in the depths of the great depression. The world in front of Siegel and Shuster was deeply fucked up; of course there was relief in imagining a person who could fix it.
If this is a reasonable way for the human imagination to go, though, I think we have to acknowledge that it’s one that can turn sour very easily. There’s a fine line between being strong or special enough to fix the world and being so strong that you’re just imposing your will onto the world; and the whole notion of what “fixing” the world can mean is a very loaded one. Especially when the economics of storytelling often lead to very simplified, clear-cut visions of good and evil that don’t map well to the real world. It’s ok for Batman to beat the shit out of criminals because all of the criminals he fights deserve it, by definition.
I talked a long time ago about my mental framework of the three phases of cultural movements: breakthrough, high, and baroque. To rehash that quickly, the breakthrough phase is when an idea or genre is new and the basic parameters are getting worked out; the high phase is when those parameters have been worked out and mature works are done within them; and the baroque phase is when, with most of the straightforward variations of the parameters being tried out, the work starts to be about doing weird things within those parameters, with the weirdness being the point.
We’ve been deep in a baroque phase with superheroes for decades now (and I’d argue that we’re deep into a baroque subphase with superhero movies, too). What this means is that a lot of superhero work now is kind of pointedly about doing clever, creative things that play with or subvert the bounds of the genre. So, like, Grant Morrison’s version of Superman fits into this: a Superman who’s defined by his excellence in qualities that are the best of ours; he’s super curious and super creative and super empathetic, and is in love with an indefatigable investigative reporter. Good writers can use Superman (or Spider-Man, or the Fantastic Four, or anybody else) to energize the tropes of the genre to do humane work.
But there’s the other way Superman can go: the guy who wins because he punches things really hard and is a super-badass. I don’t think you need to look too hard at the history of comics to see that characters who’re popular because they kick a lot of ass are… pretty common. And again, strength worship is, well, if it’s not always a direct pipeline to fascism, it’s unquestionably one of the foundational pieces of fascism.
Put another way: it’s tough to look at the Adam West Batman and see a lot of fascism; but if you look at the Christian Bale Batman using everyone’s cell phone to turn Gotham into a surveillance state but it’s OK because he’s pure of heart and Just Doing What He’s Gotta Do To Clean Up This Town, well….
Consider the Punisher! A character introduced as an antagonist for Spider-Man, his thing was being a vigilante who shoots criminals because the namby-pamby law enforcement system won’t deal with them. But this Death Wish vibe went over so big that he swung around to being treated as a hero (clever writers will use the Punisher as a figure of satire or critique, but the base appeal of the character is that he’s the hard man who’ll use guns to clean up society). Now his logo--a stylized skull—is indelibly associated with “thin blue line” cops in the real world, one of the forces that seem intent on dragging this country into something either outright fascist or so close to it to render debate meaningless.
Quick aside: I don’t watch The Boys, but I gather that the show has intentionally interrogated a lot of this, and done a pretty good job of it, and even clowned some right-wing fans in the process. So: good for them!
Where does this leave us? In about the usual place, I guess. I don’t want to say that this entire genre is bad (even if I’m a little tired of it). But I do think it’s a good idea to be conscious of your interaction with it, and what its implications are, as you consume it. If that’s a thing I say a lot, I guess it’s because I think it’s a thing I think a lot, living in a society saturated by pop culture.
Right on. Stay safe.
OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.
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