August 17, 2006KR BlogEthics

Heroes (Super and Otherwise)

Aside from James Bowman, who I’ll get to in a moment, who doesn’t like superheroes? In addition to being a valuable part of childhood for many of us they provide a safe way to engage with issues of morality and identity–with really cool explosions.

James Bowman of The New Criterion is currently arguing (a) that the rise of superheros coincides with the fall or real-life heroes, and (b) that our appetite for superheroes is leading us to appreciate old-fashioned, real-life heroes less. This particular life-long Superman fan thinks Bowman is perhaps taking comic books too seriously, but these claims are, I think, worth examining. I will start with the charges against superheroes before I begin to build a case for them. Bowman says

It is surely no accident (as the Marxists say) that the fashion for debunking real-life heroes has coincided with the rise of fantasy heroes. Superman, still the most popular of the latter, made his first appearance in DC’s Action Comics in 1938 when post-World War I disillusionment with ideas of honor and heroism was at its peak.

I won’t speculate on Bowman’s comic book reading habits, although I’d like to. Although Superman is overtly Methodist, his heritage is Jewish, and has more in common with the Golem myth than anything else. In fact, there’s even a new book out (and an older one) that deals in the specifics of something I’ve suspected for a long time: Superman is actually a modern version of the Golem. As Adam Woog of The Seattle Times puts it,

It’s not set in tablets of stone, but it is a reasonably good rule of thumb: Goldman, Friedman, Superman, Batman … if a name ends in ” – man,” we’re probably talking about either a Jew or a superhero.

The Golem is most strongly linked to Prague, where, according to legend, a 16th century rabbi constructed a man of clay to protect the Jewish neighborhoods from violent anti-Semitism. The Golem–though strong–was not very bright and had a bad tendency to take orders literally. Finally, the rabbi lost control of the Golem, and it began to kill the very people it was meant to protect. The rabbi “killed” the Golem by changing the “emet” (truth) inscribed on its forehead to “met” (death). According to legend, its body is still stored somewhere in Prague, so that it can be summoned again, if needed.

Now consider Superman. Invulernable, but not terribly bright. After all, his most formidable enemy is the genius Lex Luthor, who generally tricks Superman into encountering Kryptonite. And consider also the time period from which Superman dates: a time of rising anti-Semitism, both in the United States and elsewhere. Is it such a surprise that Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster reconfigured the Golem myth for our time? Even Superman’s arrival references Moses (the baby sent out to space alone, dependent on the mercy of whoever finds it).

All of this makes me suspect that Bowman tracing Superman’s history to “the fashion for debunking real-life heroes” is sloppy scholarship. Even if Superman arose in response to other heroes’ clay feet, it seems patently obvious that this was not the major motivation for his creation.

This is, however, the less serious claim leveled against superheroes. The notion that they might taint our appreciation for real-life heroes should give all of us pause. As much as I might like to argue that real-life heroes have the edge on superheroes by virtue of being real, it seems like a disingenuous response, so we’ll skip the ontological argument.

Bowman suggests that superheroes “isolate and quarantine heroism in fantasy-land,” while real heroes avoid being tagged as such. As evidence, he first cites a movie (which qualifies as, I would suggest, fantasy): “‘I’m just a guy doing a job,’ said William Bendix in the war movie Guadalcanal Diary (1943).” Interestingly, when the real-life families of Todd Beamer, Jeremy Glick, Thomas Burnett and Mark Bingham make the same move by suggesting all of the passengers on United 93 were heroes, Bowman rejects it as canonizing victimhood. The thing is, while those four may have lead the passenger revolt, certainly they were not the only participants. Should we deny the other passengers heroism as well? Yes, they all suffered and died, certainly, but they all suffered and died so that others would not. That qualifies the whole flight for heroism as far as I am concerned.

Bowman is also concerned that “Real heroism, for us, is scarcely conceivable apart from victimhood.” I would submit to him that without victims there is no call for heroes if there are no (at least potential) victims: the fire department can’t rescue anybody if nobody is in trouble. And at least one of the classic heroes Bowman cites, Davy Crocket, winds up a victim in the end–at the Alamo. Victimhood and heroism are inextricably linked and must be; the only question is where we wish to place the emphasis.

The really critical error with the piece, as far as I am concerned, is that Bowman is under the impression that the point of superheroes is the same as the point of heroes. And although he quotes one fantasy novelist who agrees with him, I think both men are mistaken. Part of the joy of superheroes is the simple escapism–a world where good always wins in the end no matter what, and where the explosions are cool, but not too many people are injured in them. Escapist entertainment always ramps up in times of war, which might explain the connection Bowman notes between the number of superhero movies and wartime (both past and present).

But another part of the superhero fantasy is the idea of secret identity. If we consider again the role of Jewish culture when it comes to superheroes, we should consider also that many Jewish-American comic book artists and writers, like many Jewish-Americans, changed their names–Stan Lee, for example, as well as Bob Kane and Jack Kirby, as Simcha Weinstein points out in Up, Up and Oy Vey!

All of us have parts of ourselves we don’t expose to the public at large, for whatever reason. The idea of a secret identity has most recently been mined by Brian Singer in the first two X-Men movies as a metaphor for homosexuality, most notably in a scene where Bobby Drake (Iceman) comes out to his parents as a mutant.

And to return to Superman, his identity as Clark Kent is telling. Despite all of his powers, what he wants most in the world is to be just like everybody else. Otherwise, why would his alter-ego be a nerd working at the second-best newspaper in town? And this, ultimately, is the tragedy of Superman: no matter how many human lives he saves, no matter how well he manages to pass among us, he will never be human himself–the thing he wants most in the world is unavailable to him. At the end of the day, he is not like us and never will be.

This, finally, is why real heroes are and will always be more important than superheroes: their flaws. They are silly like us, to borrow a phrase, and we can aspire to their heroism precisely because they are imperfect. Superheroes are escapism–cherished escapism, but nothing more. In no way can they inspire us like their real-life counterparts, who bleed red just like the rest of us, and who have embarrassments lurking in their past, just like the rest of us. Our “debunked” heroes offer hope for us ordinary sinners–despite whatever bad things we have done in the past, in a time of crisis, we too have the potential to be great.