Saturday, May 28, 2011

"Don't Let It Go"


“In the name of the best within you, do not sacrifice this world to those who are its worst. In the name of the values that keep you alive, do not let your vision of man be distorted by the ugly, the cowardly, the mindless in those who have never achieved his title. Do not lose your knowledge that man's proper estate is an upright posture, an intransigent mind and a step that travels unlimited roads. Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it's yours.”

Don't let it go.


Saturday, May 14, 2011

Understanding Superman Through Victor Hugo

(Originally published at Superhero Babylon)

"You will believe that a man can fly."

The last episode of Smallville has aired. It was an epic sendoff to a show that's brought me much more than entertainment, so I'd like to offer my tribute and thank you to all those heroes, real and otherwise, with my thoughts on the future, if they are to survive.

Although my childhood favorite was Spiderman, perhaps no character in the 20th century has garnered so much recognition than Superman. It's fitting that so much recognition has been paid to him, and Smallville in particular, here at Superhero Babylon, both positive and negative. But the negative was always in the constructive spirit of what could be; as one of the greatest heroes in the popular imagination, we all want our vision to be the vision. No matter what version of him, Superman inspires in so many the same thing: the idea that we, in our own way, can fly. Even his enemies know this; as Lex Luthor quotes in the finale, villains are defined by their heroes, a reversal of the cliche that heroes are defined by their villains. Despite my philosophical differences with the explicit religious overtones, this one line made it all worth it.

The very existence of Superhero Babylon was a reaction to the hate towards heroism and values in general, as characterized by the "grim and gritty" school of comics. With the return of heroes in the popular media, however, the tone shifted toward the fight between conflicting claims over the ideas that make a hero, and Smallville has led the way. I had my disagreements with the show's philosophical premises. I take my disagreements seriously, but at its most antagonistic, I found it a worthy adversary. At its best, however, I found it an ally in its spirit. If this seems strange, especially in regards to cartoon characters, consider how Ayn Rand felt about the work of the Romantic writers, especially Victor Hugo:

The distinguishing characteristic of this top rank (apart from their purely literary genius) is their full commitment to the premise of volition in both of its fundamental areas: in regard to consciousness and to existence, in regard to man’s character and to his actions in the physical world. Maintaining a perfect integration of these two aspects, unmatched in the brilliant ingenuity of their plot structures, these writers are enormously concerned with man’s soul (i.e., his consciousness). They are moralists in the most profound sense of the word; their concern is not merely with values, but specifically with moral values and with the power of moral values in shaping human character. Their characters are “larger than life,” i.e., they are abstract projections in terms of essentials (not always successful projections, as we shall discuss later). In their stories, one will never find action for action’s sake, unrelated to moral values. The events of their plots are shaped, determined and motivated by the characters’ values (or treason to values), by their struggle in pursuit of spiritual goals and by profound value-conflicts. Their themes are fundamental, universal, timeless issues of man’s existence—and they are the only consistent creators of the rarest attribute of literature: the perfect integration of theme and plot, which they achieve with superlative virtuosity.

If philosophical significance is the criterion of what is to be taken seriously, then these are the most serious writers in world literature.

She also writes that
The Romanticists were far from Aristotelian in their avowed beliefs; but their sense of life was the beneficiary of his liberating power. The nineteenth century saw both the start and the culmination of an illustrious line of great Romantic novelists.

And the greatest of these was Victor Hugo.
Of his characters, Rand writes:
Do not say that the actions of these giants are "impossible" because they are heroic, noble, intelligent, beautiful–remember that the cowardly, the depraved, the mindless, the ugly are not all that is possible to man.
Of the charge of escapism:
Do not say that this glowing new universe is an "escape"–you will witness harder, more demanding, more tragic battle than you have seen on poolroom street corners; the difference is only this: these battles are not fought for penny ante.

Do not say that "life is not like that"–ask yourself: whose life?
That is how I feel about Superman, and superheroes, and, well, heroes in general.
Superman does not make people believe that they will fall, but fly. And when I criticize, it's because I know their importance; if they were simply kid's stuff, as many would have you believe, I wouldn't be outraged when they are forced to espouse ideas antithetical to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." You see, it's not the literal stories and characters, that matter, but the ideas they represent, not the powers and the primary colors, but the vision of what life might or ought to be. That antagonism is, again, paralleled by Rand's analysis of Hugo's contradictions:
"Grandeur" is the one word that names the leitmotif of Ninety-Three and of all of Hugo's novels–and of his sense of life. And perhaps his most tragic conflict is not in his novels, but in their author. With so magnificent a view of man and of existence, Hugo never discovered how to implement it in reality.
He never translated his sense of life into conceptual terms, he did not ask himself what ideas, premises, or psychological conditions were necessary to enable men to achieve the spiritual stature of his heroes....It is as if the wide emotional abstractions he handled as an artist made him too impatient for the task of rigorous defining and of identifying that which he sensed rather than knew–and so he reached for any available theories that seemed to connote, rather than denote, his values.
When I think of the Superman as the "Man of Tomorrow", I can't help but think that his ideals were full of contradictions of good and bad from the past. Rand noted a similar contradiction in Hugo that sums up the current "Superhero Babylon":
Hugo the thinker was archetypal of the virtues and the fatal errors of the nineteenth century. He believed in an unlimited, automatic human progress....Feeling an enormous, incoherent benevolence, he was impatiently eager to abolish any form of human suffering and he proclaimed ends, without thinking of means: he wanted to abolish poverty, with no idea of the source of wealth; he wanted the people to be free, with no idea of what is necessary to secure political freedom; he wanted to establish universal brotherhood, with no idea of what is necessary to secure political freedom, he wanted to establish universal brotherhood, with no idea that force and terror will not establish it. He took reason for granted and did not see the disastrous contradiction of attempting to combine it with faith–though his particular form of mysticism was...closer to the proud legends of the Greeks, and his God was a symbol of human perfection, whom he worshipped with a certain arrogant confidence, almost like an equal of a personal friend.
Gee, that sounds a lot like how generations viewed Superman, doesn't it? And that is why I write this tribute today; Superman, despite being an alien, inspires the same hope in this world that Hugo inspired in Rand:
A professed mystic in his conscious convictions, he was passionately in love with this earth; a professed altruist, he worshiped man's greatness, not his suffering, weaknesses or evils; a professed advocate of socialism, he was a fiercely intransigent individualist...he achieved the grandeur of his characters by making them all superbly conscious, fully aware of their motives and desires, fully focused on reality and acting accordingly....And this is the secret of their peculiar cleanliness, this is what gives a beggar the stature of a giant...this is the hallmark of all of Hugo's characters; it is also the hallmark of human self-esteem.
And that, above all else, is the value, and the danger, of the Superman mythos, and of heroism in general. A hero, by definition, is one who "defends" and "protects." A hero can be a blessing, but a curse, if allowed to become a crutch. The best heroes don't just save the day, they inspire and enable us to become our own heroes, so as not to require others to need to sacrifice themselves. Then and now, the idea of Superman has, time and time again, promised to unite America Babylon. That may be a job too big even for Superman, but should it ever come to be, his message that the greatness comes from within us, should we choose it, will have played no small part.

Perhaps the most important theme throughout Smallville has been the lesson for Clark to become a hero without sacrificing his own needs, to embrace his community, his humanity, without sacrificing his self. To say "I love you," someone must first say "I." The best thank-you one could offer a hero, a Superman, would be this, engraved over the Fortress of Solitude:

"I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."

For those heroes among you, thank you, and shine on.



Action Comics 900: A Closer Look

(Originally Published at Superhero Babylon)

In my previous post I discussed a story in Action Comics 900 (entitled "The Incident,"), which has Superman renouncing his citizenship in an out-of-continuity scenario, was vague enough to be read, in true Babylonian fashion, in different ways by different people. My own take, after an initial reading, was that it was pseudo-Libertarian:
If read out of focus, combined with the vagueness, different people can read and project different things into it, which only highlights how undivided we really stand. My personal take is that it could be seen as quasi-Libertarian, as Superman stands with the Iranian protesters against a theocratic government. But, again, that’s read out-of-focus. By its own internal logic, it seems to make sense, given that Superman, who has visited many worlds (and in this continuity, can see micro-universes, apparently), would see a "bigger picture" than us mere mortals. But as for the writers, they're bound by the same earth-bound, human philosophies, so it's presumptuous for them to inject their own politics into a god-like figure. In short, they limit Superman's metaphysical view to "Democracy." In one way, this is important, because it suggests a universal principle that guides Superman (and it is admirable that he stood on the side of the Iranian protesters when the U.S. Government did not); on the other hand, the "multiculturalism" extends beyond countries to planets and dimensions, and his "American Way is not enough" limits his understanding of America the idea to America as mob rules. (Never mind that America was not meant to be a democracy, but "a republic, if you can keep it...")
But what can we objectively gleam from it, based on the actual content? In concrete essentials, Superman stands with the Iranian protesters, in an act of passive civil disobedience. (It's important to note that he could have taken out the Iranian soldiers single-handedly, but didn't.) The U.S. government takes offense, and arranges a meeting with Superman (complete with snipers armed with Kryptonite bullets). The government is concerned that Superman has gone "rogue." Superman explains that he had been following the news, and the threats of violence against the protesters by the Iranian government, and yet, the protesters were ready to risk their lives for their freedom. Superman talks of all the tyrants he's fought, human and alien, and remarks that he's never been any good at fighting ideological battles, like "dying of thirst, hunger, and people being denied their basic human rights," but that he wants to be. His act of nonviolent resistance against an oppressive authority was an act of solidarity with the protesters. This, in turn, inspires others to join in. He details the varied reactions of the people, ranging from adoration to animosity.

Notably, the Iranian soldiers never fire a shot. As the rally peacefully ended, Superman wonders if his presence helped, noting that the regime did not institute democratic reform. The U.S. agent laments that his actions created an "international incident," and that the Iranian government considered it an "act of war." Superman concedes, and then withdraws his sanction…from the U.S. government, leading to the renunciation of his citizenship, and the now-infamous claim that truth, justice, and the American Way is "not enough anymore." He claims that the world is "too small, too connected," and that his alien origin and abilities help him see the "bigger picture." As a result, he believes that his actions, while not effective on a large scale, did make some small difference. He relates that, as he flew away, he witnessed a protester offer a flower to one of the soldiers, a gesture meant to mirror the famous incident of the Vietnam protests in the sixties. The soldier accepts the flower, suggesting that there is, indeed, hope.

"Moral" of the story?

• "Democracy" is offered as the answer. It is not defined, but it is associated here with the notion of freedom and representative government (incorrectly, I state, but this is a common misnomer promoted by our own statesmen.)

• Superman is presented as a "citizen of the world." It is unclear if his "American way" comment is meant literally or ironically, meaning that it's unclear whether or not he is acknowledging that the ideals are not enough, or that the ideals have been betrayed.

• The U.S. government is presented as being more concerned with politics and appearances, while Superman is presented as being concerned with truth and justice, and the American way, not just for American, but for the entire world.

Your ideological mileage may vary, but, despite the political lack of sophistication and the resulting contradictions, on a sense-of-life level, I have to sympathize with Superman here. If anyone is guilty of abandoning the American way, it's the government that chastises him for his actions.

I can offer two avenues to explore for further understanding of both the vagueness, and the specifics. I think that the seeming mix of political readings can be attributed to the way the story links the Iranian protests to the Summer of Love. In order to understand this, consider that the protests of the sixties, despite being commonly conceived as led by radical leftists, had a libertarian strain, as detailed in Jeff Riggenbach's In Praise of Decadence, which was informed by the Libertarian and Objectivist movements, and claims that the true American spirit is not to be found in the patriotic flag-waving of Father Knows Best-era jingoism, but in the radical spirit to "question authority." On this, many Objectivists and libertarians have found common cause with those on the left on social freedoms that many Conservatives and the Religious Right would claim are "anti-American." (While I don't accept all of Riggenbach's arguments, this aspect of his thesis goes a long way to understanding the current contradictions and schisms.)

The second, related avenue is the topic of civil disobedience and passive, non-violent resistance, which Superman practices before both the Iranian and American government. (I've already discussed this in relation to Captain America's own troubles with "the American Way.") Gandhi and Martin Luthor King, Jr. come immediately to mind, but it's an idea that has a history in early American politics, most notably in the writings of Henry David Thoreau. This passive resistance is at odds with the violence of the founding of the nation itself, and that is essential to understanding Superman's use of it, while rejecting "the American Way." It is said that America was the first nation founded not by conquest, but on an ideal of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," yet those principles were betrayed by the government, not only in the continuation of slavery or the exile and genocide of native Americans, but in the actions towards Americans via taxation and imprisonment that resulted in battles like the Shays and Whiskey Rebellions. This goes back to the Federalist/Anti Federalist debates, and the centralization of power that replaced the Bill of Rights with the Constitution. Bringing this back around to Superman, his actions in this story have roots in the ideas of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience and Lysander Spooner's No Treason. This debate tears apart, to this day, those would-be-allies of Libertarians, Objectivists, and Conservatives, who all would claim the path to the true "American Way."

I must stress that my take is certainly not meant to be definitive; not only do I not know the author's personal intent, but I also cannot ignore the recent trend in DC Comics to cater to Muslims, as anti-Jihadist comic book artist Bosch Fawstin has already discussed. (And, I have to wonder if the same writers would have Superman make a similar stand with the Tea Party protesters in our own country, in contrast to what happened with Captain America 603.) I only hope to explain the "Babylonian" aspect by explaining the history that makes such different interpretations of this standalone story possible. Like Superman, I don't know if my post will have an effect on the macro-scale. But hopefully, I've offered a flowering of knowledge to at least make things a little less vague.

Of course, it's always best to see for yourself:
(click images for larger view)












Friday, May 13, 2011

"The United States of Babylon," or, Truth and Justice, Hold the American Way

(Originally posted at Superhero Babylon.)

As Superhero Babylon begins to wind down, it’s only fitting that the focus of the last posts should be on Superman; his ripped flag on our masthead represented, originally, the turning away towards heroes, but now, with the sea change back to celebrating them, the battle is over the "correct interpretation. "The original plan was to coincide the last post with the Smallville series finale, but now, with the publication of the now-infamous Action Comics 900, the point is brought home all-too-clear… Superman is considered one of the most iconic America characters ever created, known all over the world. So, then, when the Man of Tomorrow renounces his citizenship, the phrase "United, We Stand" threatens to become anachronistic, highlighting what I call “America Babylon,” the scattering of American ideals through the speaking of different ideological tongues…

As mentioned, the incident appeared in the 900th anniversary issue of Action Comics. For those living under a rock (or, who still think that the death of bin Laden has healed all wounds), here’s the synopsis:
When Superman drops in on an Iranian protest to stand with demonstrators in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience, the U.S. government takes him to task for acting as an instrument of national policy. Superman responds by renouncing his American citizenship and proclaiming himself a citizen of the universe.
It’s a short story, in itself, so there’s a lot either left out, or inferred. That vagueness, in true “Babylonian” fashion, allows for a few different readings, not just of the story, but of Superman himself, since he’s been written by many writers with disparate viewpoints throughout the years. (And although the Seduction of the Innocent scare created the Comics Code Authority and "sanitized" superheroes into "wholesome" all-Americans, the Superman comics of the seventies were already exploring controversial issues like this, too.) But more than that, it illustrates the “Babylonian” nature of America itself, the conflict of values that no longer allow for a monolithic definition of just what it means to be “American.” The story’s description has some worthy causes listed, and those worthy causes are what allow liberals to get away with a lot...and the Superman as “alien immigrant" angle can be a double-edged sword; an affirmation of the "melting pot," that America was an idea for all, or a warning against importing contradictory ideals into the mix in the name of "multiculturalism.” The outcry over the change in the Justice League cartoon (“Truth and Justice, not just for America, but for the whole world), or in Superman Returns of the phrase “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” to “Truth, Justice, and all that stuff” reveals the belief that Superman has always said that, and has always been a Reagan-esque puppet (well, if Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is any indication). But a closer look reveals the opposite, and that the seed for today's news was there from the beginning...

To begin with, the phrase, as associated with Superman, did not originate in the comics, but on the television show. As detailed in a New York Times article after the Superman Returns movie:

In the first screen incarnation of Superman, the Max Fleischer cartoons that ran from 1941 to 1943, each episode's preamble informs us not only of the origin and powers of this relatively new creation (Krypton, speeding bullet, etc.), but also the kinds of things he fights for. It's a shorter list than you think. Before World War II, Superman fought "a never-ending battle for truth and justice." Back then, that was enough.

By the time the first live-action Superman hit the screen - Kirk Alyn, in a 1948 serial - the lessons of World War II, particularly in the gas chambers of Europe, were obvious. That's why Pa Kent tells young Clark he must always use his powers "in the interests of truth, tolerance and justice."

It wasn't until Superman came to television in the 1950s that the phrase became codified in the form most of us remember it: "a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way."
The original phrase “truth and justice,” without the American Way, leaves the field wide-open, without context. To get the full context, consider the motives of the original writers, Siegel and Shuster:
(From Wikipedia): An influence on early Superman stories is the context of the Great Depression. The left-leaning perspective of creators Shuster and Siegel is reflected in early storylines. Superman took on the role of social activist..., fighting crooked businessmen and politicians and demolishing run-down tenements. This is seen by comics scholar Roger Sabin as a reflection of "the liberal idealism of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal", with Shuster and Siegel initially portraying Superman as champion to a variety of social causes. In later Superman radio programs the character continued to take on such issues, tackling a version of the KKK in a 1946 broadcast. Siegel and Shuster's status as children of Jewish immigrants is also thought to have influenced their work. Timothy Aaron Pevey has argued that they crafted "an immigrant figure whose desire was to fit into American culture as an American", something which Pevey feels taps into an important aspect of American identity.

It is important to note the “Progressive” strain of politics here, and how they were at odds at what we know as “the American Way.” Franklin’s New Deal is associated, then and now, with the infiltration of communism into American life. Despite some worthy issues like fighting the KKK and women beaters, the “social causes” of the time were also associated with unions, trust-busting, you know…all that “stuff.” Tied up in “all that stuff” is the idea that America was a “democracy,” which does not mean “equality,” but mob rule, or the submission of one’s rights, if enough people vote on it.

Ok, then, but Superman eventually came to stand for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” so we should leave it at that, right? Well, not so fast there, speeding bullet…Let’s turn the x-ray vision to the intent behind that phrase:
(From Wikipedia): The American Way of life is individualistic, dynamic, pragmatic. It affirms the supreme value and dignity of the individual; it stresses incessant activity on his part, for he is never to rest but is always to be striving to "get ahead"; it defines an ethic of self-reliance, merit, and character, and judges by achievement: "deeds, not creeds" are what count. The "American Way of Life" is humanitarian, "forward-looking", optimistic. Americans are easily the most generous and philanthropic people in the world, in terms of their ready and unstinting response to suffering anywhere on the globe. The American believes in progress, in self-improvement, and quite fanatically in education. But above all, the American is idealistic. Americans cannot go on making money or achieving worldly success simply on its own merits; such "materialistic" things must, in the American mind, be justified in "higher" terms, in terms of "service" or "stewardship" or "general welfare"... And because they are so idealistic, Americans tend to be moralistic; they are inclined to see all issues as plain and simple, black and white, issues of morality.
You don’t need x-ray vision to see the contradiction there: “Individualism” versus the “General Welfare”; Spiritualism versus capitalism. Business versus religion. Profit versus service. “Idealism” versus “materialism”. (Hell, that one goes back to Plato versus Aristotle.) In other words, this world versus the afterlife…This goes to the root of American Babylon: the contradiction between the idea of “certain inalienable rights” being given by God, which resulted in the idea of Utilitarianism (capitalism is moral because it creates the greatest good for the greatest number) versus the notion, as identified by Ayn Rand, that rights come from the nature of man’s mind (and therefore, the good is what’s best for the individual), without the supernatural aspect (which, right there, defines the struggle between Superman as a Christ-figure and Lex Luthor as the Promethean scientist stealing fire from the gods.) These conflicting notions, then, have defined and divided the nation from the beginning, and, so, are found throughout the history of Superman, up and to the current incarnation on Smallville, which frequently highlights Clark’s quest for personal happiness versus his “duty” to mankind. With contradictions like that, even a man of steel can bend... (For Landon’s take, see his recent post, “E Tu, Lois?”.)

Back to the present, and to the Action Comics 900: If read out of focus, combined with the vagueness, different people can read and project different things into it, which only highlights how undivided we really stand. My personal take is that it could be seen as quasi-Libertarian, as Superman stands with the Iranian protesters against a theocratic government. But, again, that’s read out-of-focus. By its own internal logic, it seems to make sense, given that Superman, who has visited many worlds (and in this continuity, can see micro-universes, apparently), would see a "bigger picture" than us mere mortals. But as for the writers, they're bound by the same earth-bound, human philosophies, so it's presumptuous for them to inject their own politics into a god-like figure. In short, they limit Superman's metaphysical view to "Democracy." In one way, this is important, because it suggests a universal principle that guides Superman (and it is admirable that he stood on the side of the Iranian protesters when the U.S. Government did not); on the other hand, the "multiculturalism" extends beyond countries to planets and dimensions, and his "American Way is not enough" limits his understanding of America the idea to America as mob rules. (Never mind that America was not meant to be a democracy, but "a republic, if you can keep it...")

A libertarian-minded person, at that, could find common cause with the idea of not being associated with the U.S. government as it currently is, which is currently demanding its citizens give up more of their rights, with its "Patriot Acts," "mandatory" insurance requirements, and TSA screenings of children and babies, and now, unlawful police entry into one's home, while some opponents of that defense are stressing the distinction of the American ideals of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" versus the American statist government, and that Superman is renouncing the baby with the bathwater. Here, I'd submit that this issue is not a recent trend, but another built-in contradiction of our founding father's doing; witness the original debates by the Federalists and Anti-Federalists regarding the Bill of Rights versus the Constitution (it usually begins with Alexander Hamilton). In addition to all that, a libertarian-minded person, tempted to read their politics into the Iranian stand, would have to confront the fact that many of these protesters, despite the cries for "freedom," would potentially just as soon vote for another Islamic theocracy in some countries.

But among the warring factions over the meaning of America, there is still a large percent who stand for the “American Way” as conventionally understood, enough for DC Comics to “
backtrack” on the premise:"This short story is just that, it will not be followed up upon. Superman will remain as American as Apple pie."

DC is known for their “Elseworlds” stories, alternate versions of characters that have no bearing on current continuity. I initially thought it was a stand-alone story, anyway, given that it was buried in the middle of the book among other stories, with no indication of continuity. This was not labeled as such, however, so it’s only fair to speculate that they were “testing the waters,” so to speak. And, for now, the appearance of Superman as the embodiment of all things American is maintained…at least, to those who haven’t read this blog posting…