Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Heroism Gone Wrong

People are suckers for rules fashioned to fit neatly into the mental grooves created by instinct.  Those rules feel, as it were, instantly corroborated.  It doesn't take much effort, for instance, to create war poems that convince people to slaughter their foes, if instinct already whispers that all war is total war

(And they may never discern or analyze the underlying reasons for their instinct-fueled intuitions, leading them to believe they have simply directly-intuited virtue or aesthetic greatness, as UNC Chapel Hill philosopher Susan Wolf seems to think we do without any deeper utilitarian implications, judging by her speech at last week's APA convention, in a slot traditionally devoid, alas, of a question and answer period -- unless they just claimed that after spotting a utilitarian in the second row.) 

It's not surprising, then, that a fair number of the misguided Todd-mocking online commenters after my C-SPAN2 appearance in October seemed to act out of a hasty and poorly thought-out sense of chivalry (undermined and rendered inadvertently ironic by their uncivilized nastiness).  Long story short: sperm is cheap and plentiful, eggs rare, men strong, women small, so: protect the precious female and attack the expendable male no matter who's right, says opportunistic instinct, chivalric tradition, and nowadays, with barely-discernible tweaks, feminism -- and I'll discuss the last of those three on Friday, after tomorrow's intermediary look at the bizarre he said/she said approach of Washington's City Paper to the whole affair. 

Heroism, like courage in general, is a very valuable impulse all too easily yoked to bad causes.  Or just dumb ones.  And that leads us inevitably to superhero comics, which is the important thing.


Ali Kokmen alerts me to the fact that J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5 and writer of the acclaimed (and, bizarrely enough, true) film The Changeling, has earned the site ComicsAlliance's award for worst comic book of 2010, with his Superman story arc in which Superman, after a year or so of fighting a spectacular war in space that involved most of his major friends and foes, takes a long walk (refusing to fly) across the U.S. and meets some ordinary people with ordinary problems along the way. 

That sounded boring enough to begin with (not that I read comics anymore, you understand), but this came at the same time that JMS was writing a Wonder Woman story arc in which some sort of time-shenanigans completely rewrote WW's history, with the major discernible side effect being that she now wears pants instead of the little star-spangled panties. 

(I can't help wondering whether this was all a convenient excuse to cover up some of WW's flesh in time to have her appear in a crossover miniseries with the Islamic
superhero team the 99.  Cover enough of WW's skin, and Saudi Arabia, which would not even let American troops receive Wonder Woman comics during the first Gulf War, may yet become a market for DC Comics.  Just a theory.)

To sum up JMS's overarching ideas for 2010: Superman went for a long walk, and Wonder Woman now wears pants.  Within months, JMS abandoned writing both books.


Worse, though, this ComicsAlliance article about the Superman arc -- and the painful dialogue from the comics panels reprinted therein -- makes a convincing case that JMS wants to do some kind of...zen...hero...something with Superman but doesn't quite know how.  It's a reminder that B5 got cringe-inducingly awkward in the rare moments when it veered toward philosophizing -- perhaps a side effect of JMS having reportedly been a cult member and then cult-rejecter at some point in his youth, whence he reportedly got the very direct Vorlon and Shadow greetings/inquiries "Who are you?" and "What do you want?" (respectively).

(Speaking of 90s TV, I heard loud music from Twin Peaks echoing out of a window of my apartment building yesterday.  A life lived in close quarters with other New Yorkers is a strange and difficult one.)

I suspected the JMS Superman arc would be bad as soon as I saw an ad for it that featured a little boy with a black eye and some ad copy about an abusive dad, and Superman learning that the darkness of the human heart can be colder than space, or something like that.  Drawing upon his early TV roots, perhaps JMS, had he completed the story arc, would have gone on to depict Superman stumbling across a small rural town where the sheriff has been intimidated by a visiting motorcycle gang.  Or Superman getting a part-time job at a roadside diner where he teaches a waitress's daughter to stand up to her mean clique-mates.  The possibilities are limitless.  Also, ALF might appear. 

If they really want to piss readers off, I suggest they follow up the abortive JMS arc with a year-long story in which the Flash, the fastest man alive, also decides to walk slowly across America.  That would at least have a certain old-timey Silver Age irony value, a la "How can Flash stop World War III -- when he's been frozen by a vat of super-paste?!"


One reason that Superman rescuing an abused child makes a certain amount of sense, though, is that Superman surely gets part of his appeal from fitting into the "awe of parents" instinctual groove, especially in an era when so many people grow up without Dad around.  Are people without parents more prone to seek out gods or governments as a (piss-poor) substitute?  It's tempting to fear that outcome, and I've certainly seen some anecdotal cases where the psychology seemed to work out that way -- but then again, pat sociological theories should themselves be skeptically questioned if they fit too neatly and quickly into intuitive grooves. 

I could also marshal anecdotal evidence from several of the young Gen X libertarians I knew when I first arrived in New York City (around the time Bablyon 5 was created) suggesting that some people are made more independent, responsible, and libertarian -- even conservative -- precisely by having to do for themselves instead of relying on parents. 

(And one moment of undoubted greatness on B5 that did involve a bit of philosophical speechifying was the thematically-climactic moment when Capt. Sheridan, played by Bruce Boxleitner, simply told the Vorlons and the Shadows to get lost and let humanity grow up and run its own affairs -- indeed, if you're ever tempted to watch seasons 2, 3, and the first half of 4, stopping at that point, I promise you'll get 95% of the goodness out of the series in half the time it'd take to watch the whole thing.  That Sheridan speech was so cool it was right up there with my favorite moment in the whole series, which was when Sheridan dropped nuclear weapons on his shrieking, demonic-temptress ex-wife, who looked deceptively innocent, due to being played by Boxleitner's real-life wife, Melissa Gilbert of the old-timey series Little House on the Prairie.  There are important lessons in both these scenes.  Personal growth.  Nuclear weapons.)

It appears some of these themes will be combined in the Green Hornet movie (which I'm supposed to see tomorrow, for good or ill) about a slacker/slob played by Seth Rogen growing into a heroic role after years of being a disappointment to his businessman father.  I have no problem with this premise -- indeed, it's not so unlike that of my favorite superhero comic of the 90s, Starman -- but I worry sometimes that such tales are appealing not just to those of us in the audience who want to see the protagonist reform but those in the audience who see such stories as vindication of their own ongoing dysfunctional slovenliness.  If scrappy drunken morally-irresponsible losers can save the day in this film, many must feel, then by gum, so can scrappy drunken morally-irresponsible me in real life! 

Hollywood gets called elitist at times, but at the end of the day, they know they're also trying to appeal to 300 million idiotic louts, rarely attempting to uplift them in the process.  And, yes, I'm keeping my eye on those troglodytes over at Delta House, too.

1 comment:

Gerard said...

FWIW, I don't believe she's a regular contributor to City Paper any longer.