Monday, July 16, 2007

Superpowerful

[Being a continuation of a tangent begun on WAAGNFNP]

In The Deerslayer, one of the Leatherstocking Tales, by James Fenimore Cooper, Natty Bumppo, as part of a marksmanship competition, puts a musketball into the bullseye hole left by a previous contestant. Moreover, he knows he's done it, and tells the judges to dig both balls out of the wooden target, which they do.

The feat itself is possible, just as a hole-in-one in golf is possible, but it can't really be a product of marksmanship, as muskets simply aren't that accurate. Moreover, the calling of the shot is similar to calling a hole-in-one for a green that is not within sight. I mean, unrifled firearms are really inaccurate, and simply hitting a target at a distance is a challenge.

The story got used later in a (probably fake) "autobiography" of Davy Crockett, and was in one of the episodes in the Disney Davy Crockett series that sparked the Crockett craze in the mid-1950s (I had a coonskin cap, as did almost all my friends). Of course the tale itself has echoes of the "splitting an arrow with an arrow" stories of Robin Hood and practically every other legendary archer.

Anecdotes easily morph into tall tales, and heroes evolve into Heroes, as the barely plausible slips over the line from improbable into the impossible. Eventually Achilles becomes invulnerable (save for his heel), St. George slays a dragon, and Pecos Bill rides a tornado.

Odysseus, nevertheless, remains identifiably human through the Odyssey (albeit with the occasional godly assistance in stringing a bow), but Hercules is a demi-god, able to shoulder Atlas' burden for a while, kill the hydra, and "change the course of mighty rivers" to clean out the Aegean Stables.

And so we come to the comic book superhero.

Yes, it’s SUPERMAN, strange visitor from another planet, with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men! Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel with his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for Truth, Justice and the American Way!


Superman began as "merely" superhuman, able to lift motorcars, bend steel, survive bullets, and leap over buildings. But his powers ramped up continually, and additional powers kept getting added to the mix, x-ray vision, super speed, heat vision, supersensitive hearing, breath that could blow out fires or freeze a lake solid in seconds. Plus, he could really fly, not just over buildings, but into space, and fast enough to travel in time. By the 1950s, Mort Weisinger's Superman was lighting dead stars with his heat vision.

So they gave him vulnerabilities, like kryptonite and magic. He had to keep his Superman identity secret, otherwise his "friends" would be in danger, somehow, from his "enemies," who were sometimes just criminals who kept trying to rob banks in the face of a guy who could destroy the world if he so chose.

Not that he would ever do so, of course, because of that "truth, justice, and the American Way," thing. It's just not the American Way to destroy the world.

So the middle period Superman stories tended to be about Lois Lane trying yet again to prove that Clark Kent was Superman (The Comics Code forbade the tactic of just hopping into bed with Clark, which brings up the interesting question of whether old Supes would pretend to be a poor lover to throw her off the track, or if, in fact, he would be a poor lover. These are the questions that fan boys ponder). Or the stories involved Lex Luthor finding some new thing that he hadn't put kryptonite in before. Or Superman had to trick Mr. Mxyzptlk into saying his name backwards again. Or Superman's powers would become somehow unmanageable, usually due to red kryptonite.

Occasionally, some Kryptonian criminal would escape from the phantom zone. Those, plus the citizens of the bottled city of Kandor were the only survivors of Krypton. The Kandorians had Brainiac to thank for their survival, so apart from Supergirl and Krypto the Superdog, the only other Kryptonian survivors were either criminals or the victims of a criminal. The death of Krypton was nothing if not ironic.

They ramped old Supe's powers down a bit after that, so he could at least have adversaries that he could fight without planetary destruction being the logical result. But even now, there are only occasional stories about some of the aspects of the limitations of power.

One is that while Superman may be more powerful than anyone, he isn't ubiquitous. Even at super speed there are limitations on how quickly he can get a distress call (one of the original reasons for his newspaper reporter identity), and how to triage the crises that present themselves. There was an episode of Lois and Clark, the television series with Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain where Lois got Superman's powers and almost broke down under the sheer responsibility of it all. What was never made clear in that episode is that Clark/Superman had long ago had to come to terms with a simple fact: any downtime he took probably cost lives. In the time he spent having a cup of coffee, there were probably dozens, maybe even hundreds, of people dying that he might have saved.

In one of Kurt Busiak's Astro City comics, this is made clear by showing a day in the life of The Samaritan, the Astro City version of Superman. It's a day sliced into microseconds, with barely enough time for a semblance of life between the duties of saving the days of others. It's reminiscent of my favorite Superman story from the 1950s, entitled "All the Troubles of the World" that ends with a party at Clark Kent's apartment building. He's surreptitiously helped practically every person there at one point or another, and everyone is happy except for him. He's thinking something like, "Mrs. Jenkins is 4B is having troubles paying the rent this month, but she's too proud to ask anyone for help. I've got to find some way to get the money to her without her knowing where it's from." And another person is thinking, "Everyone here seems to be having a good time except for that poor Mr. Kent. Sometimes it seems like he's carrying all the troubles of the world on his shoulders."

In one of Eliot S! Maggin's Superman novels, he has the Man of Steel grappling with the idea of "moral hazard." An LPG terminal in Metropolis explodes and while he's dealing with it, Superman is thinking that this is one of the problems of having Superman in the world: that people do dangerous and reckless things because they know that Superman is around to protect them from the consequences of their actions. That marvelous irony, that we know that in a world without Superman people still do such dangerous and reckless things, is one of the best criticisms of the idea of moral hazard that I've ever seen.

But the greatest downside to extreme power has rarely been explored in comics. Yes, occasionally there is a nod to "power corrupts" but seldom is it noted that power corrupts not just its possessor, but also those around him. And power also is a magnet for corruption. I can think of almost no stories that deal with the idea of Superman being tricked into using his powers for immoral purposes.

There was a story some while back where someone sets up a situation that should have resulted in Clark Kent doing a reportorial expose, a noble plan that was wrecked because Superman decided to get personally involved (the original manipulator was unaware that Clark is Superman). So a small part of a much larger corruption was taken down by Superman, but the big fish were lost, because Superman himself has no legal standing, and only the law—and exposure—can really deal with large criminal organizations.

The larger issue of just how much trust should be placed in iconic "heroes" wielding superpowers is beginning to float to the surface in comics generally, however. The "grim and gritty" explorations of the id was a feature of comics in the mid-1980s, but the newer versions are more numerous and more varied, even in Superman, who seems to be currently dealing with a magical time-traveling fellow who believes that, unless the world can be made to distrust Superman, Armageddon will surely follow. Another theme that has occasionally surfaced is that the super-heroes do not, and cannot afford to, entirely trust each other. Each one of them has been either out of control or under malevolent control at some point, so many of them have contingency plans against such rogue events. Batman in particular had a file on how to defeat every one of the other members of The Justice League, just in case, including a kryptonite ring for use against Superman. Lex Luthor had a kryptonite ring for a while as well, but it gave him cancer as I recall.

Over in the Marvel Universe, or at least a variation of it, The Ultimates, the message is even more overtly political, with the other countries in the world ganging up to counter the U.S. monopoly on super-powered beings. War becomes the inevitable result. And I'm told that Spiderman once told Mary Jane that every superhero had a plan of attack against every other superhero, just in case.

Popular culture is never "mere entertainment." At the end of the day, "a movie is just a movie" and "a comic book is just a comic book," still mean that both show the fantasies that people want to believe in, or are afraid might be true.

The United States currently spends more on its military than the rest of the world's countries put together, although that figure is a little tricky, since the U.S. does not have anywhere near that kind of superiority in men-at-arms. Still, everyone knows that we have the military might to bring down any other government (though not necessarily replace it). We could destroy civilization and perhaps humanity with an unbridled nuclear tantrum.

One thing that the Clinton Presidency made clear was that there now exists a political faction in the U.S. that holds any President who is not part of the Conservative Movement to be illegitimate, and subject to extra-legal attempts to bring him down. One thing that the Bush Presidency has shown is the danger of having a President who is a committed Movement Conservative, willing to use that old pulp trope: "bend the rules in order to get the job done."

The rest of the world now knows pretty well that "truth, justice, and the American Way," have become empty phrases. The Superpower is under malevolent mind control, or worse. Perhaps sanity will return. But if it doesn't, the real question is, is Batman still holding onto that kryptonite ring, or would it be, in the end, Lex Luthor who does the deed?

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