Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Superheroes and the "Utopian Problem": Justice, Black Summer, Miracleman

My favorite superhero story is Alan Moore's (and later Neil Gaiman's) Miracleman. It's become a bit of a cliché to describe this kind of story as an exploration of "what it would be like if superheroes existed in the real world," but Miracleman rises above some of the pitfalls that such stories can fall into by unabashedly devoting itself to its utopian themes. By the conclusion of Moore's story, the eponymous hero directs his energies not to apprehending petty criminals or foiling dastardly plots, but to actually making his world a better place. In Miracleman 16, the book's heroes remake the world in their image, ending war and famine and granting superpowers to all who desire them. It's become popular to refer to the series as Marvelman, the title under which the first few chapters were published before a certain publishing company took issue with Eclipse's use of the name. But I prefer to call it Miracleman, because by the time Moore wrote his conclusion, and especially during the later Neil Gaiman issues, the word "Miracle" takes on a key role in the story's world. The superhero creates an Age of Miracles (not Marvels) because he is a god, a redeemer, the founder of an earthly paradise.

Miracleman is hardly the only story in which superheroes create a perfect world. Interestingly, though, these stories inevitably blur the line between utopia and dystopia—the Squadron Supreme brainwashes their friends and enemies alike; the archvillain of Watchmen baptizes his new age of world peace in innocent blood; the heroes of Warren Ellis' The Authority are perhaps the definitive flawed messiahs. Generally, the stance of these stories is that the superhumans, in remaking the world, rob ordinary humans of their free will. But despite this criticism, the nagging thought remains: if superheroes truly cared about justice, would they allow famine, poverty, and war to exist?

In their recently-completed Justice League saga Justice, Jim Krueger, Alex Ross, and Doug Braithwaite give voice to the "utopian problem" of superhero stories. In #4 of the 12-issue series, Lex Luthor declares his intention to solve the world's most persistent problems, and challenges his world's heroes on their negligence:
"But we're also wondering why they never tried to do what we've been doing. Why they never attempted to use their powers and abilities to make this world a better place. I believe that their inaction is as criminal as those felonies we went to prison for. Preserving the world and not daring to change it means keeping food from the hungry. Keeping the crippled in wheelchairs. Bowing to the status quo of human suffering. And still, they call us the villains... Sure, the Justice League may save us all from a giant alien starfish in the middle of the ocean from time to time. But they save us only to send us back to our old lives. Back to our bills, back to our useless jobs, back to our suffering. If they were really the heroes they claim to be, they'd save us from those same lives as well. They're the monsters, really, to have allowed things to go on the way they have.

In light of this challenge, the villains set out to create a utopia: Captain Cold creates icebergs that bring water to deserts. The Toyman builds prosthetic limbs for landmine victims. In short, the villains step up and do what the heroes of the DC Universe have refused to do: solve their world's problems for good.

A similar idea forms the starting point for Warren Ellis' forthcoming series Black Summer, which takes a highly politicized approach to a similar idea. In this series, a 20-page preview of which was released earlier this month, a superhero kills the president and demands that the American people rebuild their government. In an essay in the preview issue, Ellis explains the extrapolation from costumed crimefighting to political assassination:
"If we invite or condone masked adventurers to fight crime outside the law, do we get to draw a line where they stop? Condoning their activity is much the same as giving them carte blanche to fight crime wherever they perceive it to be... If a self-identified crimefighter lives in a country where a President can be said to have prosecuted an illegal war and therefore can be said to have killed a great many people in the enactment of his criminal enterprise... What does that masked man do?"

Ellis' essay is remarkably similar in tone to Lex Luthor's critique of the status-quo-upholding superheroes of the DCU in Justice. Crime, justice, and legality can be quite difficult things to define, and so why wouldn't (or shouldn't) beings as powerful as Superman fight the greater ills of their world as well as the lesser?

Of course, later issues of Justice reveal the sinister motives behind the villains' plan. But regardless of the flaws of the messenger, Luthor's question remains valid: Why don't the heroes fight for true, lasting justice? Why do they permit suffering to go on when they could eliminate it? Sadly, Justice doesn't provide a very satisfying answer. In the closing pages, Batman asks us to imagine "a world transformed," but doesn't give an explanation for why he hasn't already made it a reality.

The prosaic reason for the lack of true change in the DCU involves publishing schedules and audience accessibility—the world the superheroes inhabit needs to be readily understandable by new readers; the imaginary world must match the real world up to a point. More importantly, a true superhero utopia would lack drama, and the imperfections of these universes makes room for the conflict that the stories require. (Admittedly, Gaiman's Miracleman issues challenge this last argument). Most of the stories of superheroes taking over their worlds are standalone stories or limited series. But these concerns have been worked into the metaphysics of superhero universes: if Superman exists, there must also exist supervillains powerful enough to keep his world at equilibrium. While reading an issue of Spider-Man a few years ago, I realized a certain absurdity in the ease with which superheroes are able to find petty crimes to fight. In Spider-Man's New York, an hour of web-slinging will reveal muggings on every streetcorner, car chases in Times Square, and a handful of broad-daylight bank robberies. Our world simply isn't like that—there's much, much more crime in a superhero universe than in the real world. They have powerful protectors, to be sure, but they also have far more danger to protect against. Between Spidey, the Fantastic Four, and the Avengers, I'm amazed Marvel's New York has any crime at all—perhaps it's more stupidity than evil that leads to the aforementioned daylight robberies. The good of superheroes is counterbalanced by the evil of supervillains. New York will always have the Fantastic Four, but Latveria will always have Dr. Doom. Superman reigns in Metropolis, but Black Adam is king in Khandaq. Superhero worlds are not utopias because their evil is strong enough to limit their good.

For more on the religious aspects of superheroes (including Miracleman), see chapter 6 of The Gospel According to Science Fiction: From the Twilight Zone to the Final Frontier.

Friday, June 8, 2007


Eddie Campbell on the Morgan Bible. Although he also implies that calling such things "comics" is "lowbrow cultural colonialism," which I will ponder while drinking a Coke and listening to 80s pop hits....

eta: Campbell link via Journalista.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

AGE OF APOCALYPSE: The temporal panel and the infinite page

[Hey, people. This is my first post here. It's kind of art-theory, and I apologize if it isn't right for the community. I thought it might interest you guys, though.]

A few weeks ago I saw NYC's recent Morgan Library exhibit, "Apocalypse Then: Medieval Illuminations from the Morgan." It was a small exhibit, mostly made up of pages from the Las Huelgas Apocalypse, a 12th-century (maybe early 13th??--can't remember) illuminated manuscript of the books of Daniel and Revelation.

I had a really hard time, at first, figuring out how to approach these pages. They seemed flat, static. One of the other patrons felt the same way: I heard him telling a friend that he couldn't really get into these pictures at all. We didn't understand how they worked.

But somewhere around the third glass case, I got it. These were comics.

They weren't even especially innovative comics! Their techniques would be immediately intelligible to anyone who read '70s X-Men, or this week's manga. But seeing the same time-shaping techniques in such an unfamiliar context made me consider whether comics weren't the best possible medium for an apocalyptic text.

First of all, these manuscripts mixed words and pictures much more freely than your average illuminated manuscript. The Morgan exhibit did include examples of other Apocalypses, and they were much more standard: words and then, here and there, illustrations. The Las Huelgas manuscript was much more fluid. Pictures--and the symbols showing relationships between pictures--helped to tell the story, rather than simply illustrating the story told by the words. A Biblical family tree (with many faces oddly shy, hiding at the bottom of their portraits!) conveyed information through its mix of words and pictorial structure. There was at least one obvious "splash page": the woman clothed with the sun, vs. a huge dragon spilling across the page. Panels showed progression of action: The top of the page showed Babylon at its height, and then as the page (drawn to resemble a shaking tower, in which each floor was a panel) descended, the city itself was destroyed. Babylon burning had no top border to its panel, although the side and bottom borders were there, suggesting that it burned past temporal boundaries into heaven.

There were familiar pleasures here: The angels' wings, for example, had a beautiful sharpness and clarity, like knives made out of sky. But the comics elements were striking. An angel breaks into a panel, shattering its black border, signifying that it comes from another world. (This was perhaps the most obvious use of comics conventions.) Snakes form the border of a page and its panels, serving both a structural function (here is the edge of the picture) and a thematic one (whatever you see between these snakes is evidence of depravity).

These pictures don't work the way we think paintings should work. A Caravaggio doesn't work this way, nor a Cassatt. We tend to expect paintings to capture one moment in time, to show us the entirety of that moment unmoored from any narrative, or open to multiple narratives.

But for the Las Huelgas manuscript, the narrative is the point. Opening these scenes to multiple possible narratives would be ridiculous: The whole point is that every moment is embedded in a larger story whose ending is already known. One of the Las Huelgas pages showed a star at the top of the page, which fell--complete with "Dennis the Menace" action-lines--down into the pit at the bottom of the page.

Moreover, apocalyptic time is weird, in itself. It's a kind of time in which events really do happen--but in the Bible, we see those events through the eyes of a prophet. And the prophet sees simultaneously like a creature and like God. He sees simultaneously the series of events, our shock, our fear, our confusion; and the narrative of God, in which the ending has already happened, in which the victory is already won by the Lamb.

How to represent both fear and faith? The comics format seems so perfectly designed for this task that I'm kind of shocked that the other manuscripts in the show didn't do exactly what the main manuscript did. In comics, the panel can take the temporal, creaturely stance, showing events as they unfold. Our eyes follow from panel to panel, creating a time-bound narrative. And yet our eyes also take in the page, as a whole: start to finish. We're able to see both time and infinity, both event and story.

This effect would be possible even if the medieval manuscripts didn't bother with other features of comics--from the most mainstream to the most experimental. But in fact the Las Huelgas manuscript shows how many comics techniques are intuitive! Using panel borders to create atmosphere (panels made of snakes, or bordered with stars, or cut through by the Tigris River) and breaking panel borders to express metaphysics (angels crashing through) are almost commonplaces: My favorite example is a '70s Ann Nocenti X-Men page, in which Rogue's upside-down, falling silhouette forms the outline for the panels showing her story.

A lot of people compare comics and movies, noting that both use each panel/frame to present both action and atmosphere. But I'm not sure a movie could show the same coexistence of time and eternity that comics could show, and that these medieval manuscripts do show.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Action Comics #849

Action Comics #849
by Fabian Nicieza (writer), Allan Goldman (penciller), and Ron Randall (inker)
DC Comics

As many of you may remember (and the rest of you, click here), a couple weeks ago I reviewed Action Comics #848 with more than a little frustration. The story was about religion, but in a largely incomprehensible way, attempting to paint Christian missionaries as supervillains. It didn't work, but as it was the first half of a two-parter, I was willing to grant that it could start to make some more sense in the second half.

Well, it doesn't.

Where to begin? First of all, there's this doozy of a page at the book's beginning, when Superman faces off against the newly-minted religious superhuman Redemption:

Dang, Superman. The dude asks you to help the helpless and you dislocate his shoulder? That is cold. Even worse, on the next page he decides that maybe Redemption is right, so he flies back to Nyasir to help the missionaries himself. We don't see it happen, instead getting a caption between panels: "He was right. I liberated the Sakira. They've been placed under United Nations protection." Well, hallelujah to that. Good thing their protection wasn't delayed by any unnecessary superhero brawls. Now when are you planning to apologize for the dislocated shoulder?

Following this, Superman goes to visit the elderly woman who thought he was an angel in Superman #659. Remember that one? The one I called the best Superman story in over 20 years? The scene tries to bring some of the poignancy of that story across, and to its credit it's the most interesting scene in the book. But it's also tough to see where it fits into this story. There's some pontificating about faith being relative, but I simply fail to see how it ties in with Redemption's attempt to protect unarmed missionaries from an oppressive government.

The moral of the story seems to be that missionary work is wrong by definition. No matter how great the good done, no matter how unjust the obstacles to that work may be, the risk of "imposing one's beliefs" outweighs them all. Here it is in Superman's own words: "All of those good works come with strings attached—and often an intrusion into the culture or laws of other lands." And Redemption, who has been converted to Superman's view by the story's end: "We don't need to be in Nyasir." I'm not saying that missionaries never act unethically, and I'm particularly disturbed by the belief, held by many prominent evangelicals, that it's better to give a starving person a Bible than a sandwich. But this sort of isolationism is unspeakably dangerous. Take Darfur, for instance—the oppression of the Sakira in Action #848 looks an awful lot like a Janjaweed raid. Is Superman really encouraging isolationism in reaction to this sort of oppression? In the end, the story seems to say that it is better to do nothing in the face of injustice than to do something in the name of religion.

As Paul noted a few weeks ago, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman to be a champion of the downtrodden, and "Redemption" is an egregious betrayal of that spirit. It's not just a bad story—it's downright irresponsible.


TheoFantastique has a new post on spirituality in comics.

Relgionlink on superheroes and religion

Religionlink gives a primer on Superheroes and spirituality: the religion of the comics. It gives a good list of sources, including the always-handy Adherents superhero database. But where's Holy Heroes!!?