Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Off-Panel Discussion 2: Orphans

In the beginning -- the first sentence of Action Comics #1 -- Jerry Siegel's prose refers to Krypton, Jor-El, and Superman, in that order, using generic descriptors: "a distant planet", "a scientist", "his infant son." By virtue of Siegel's choice of sentence structure, the first character in superhero comics is thus the later-to-be-named Jor-El, who is dead before the second panel begins. We may psychoanalyze Siegel and suppose that the early death of his own father led to his creation having a similar detail in his biography. Whatever the case, Superman's life story eventually came to include a double orphaning, with his birth parents dying on Krypton when Kal-El was a baby and his adopted parents dying on Earth as he came to maturity. While some renditions of Superman let the Kents (or just Martha) live on into his career, the first and longest-running account had Superman as a man who had lost four parents. In the earliest history, Superman was unaware of his Kryptonian origins until adulthood. By Action #500, memories of the Els' deaths bring him to tears. As far back as Superman #53, it is a deathbed speech by his adopted father that directs him to use his powers for the cause of justice.

Long before Superman's life story had been fleshed out, the first snapshot origin of Batman appeared in Detective Comics #33. In the case of Bruce Wayne, the death of his parents was not just a haphazard detail, but foundational in the psychology of the character, who vowed war on crime precisely in response to the murder of his parents taking place in front of his very eyes.

In the wave of superheroes who followed, the typical hero is first shown as an adult man, and there is simply no reference to his ancestors. An exception is Doctor Fate, who was first said to have been created as an adult, having never been a child. In a retcon, a later origin had him obtain his powers after the achingly tragic death of his father. And when Batman acquired his sidekick Robin -- one of the most enduring of those early characters -- their lifelong association began precisely upon the occasion of the deaths of Dick Grayson's parents. To a man, the earliest superheroes had no fathers, either because the stories did not mention them, or because their fathers had died. This tendency generally held true with superheroes created by other companies (Billy Batson and Peter Parker were both orphans), and when Hal Jordan was given a more detailed backstory long after his creation, he too became a man who was shaped by the early death of his father. We may also note that Wonder Woman, for very different reasons, never had a father at all. Whether or not Jerry Siegel started the ball rolling, it is clear that a number of later creators took the inspiration and found it compelling -- almost unavoidable.

By and large, superheroes have been without families -- particularly without parents, and most especially without fathers. And while this is a fact of many real people's lives, it is not nearly so common in the world as it is for superheroes. As a variant on the typical pattern, maybe as a token "normal" superhero, Barry Allen was bestowed, though not at at the time of his creation, with a wife and with living parents, a living father whose name was Barry's middle name. But his parents were initially margin characters, little more than props with a couple of speech balloons when they were introduced in Flash #126. And in time, Barry's world came tumbling down, with the death of Iris, and then his own death which was followed, the next Flash series mentioned in passing, by the deaths of his parents, too. In the current Barry Allen revival, his mother has been retroactively (perhaps, because time manipulation was involved, not permanently) killed by the Reverse Flash, and Henry Allen died in prison as a result.

And so, not a single member of the original seven JLA members has a living father, with Wonder Woman never having had one, and Superman having lost two. We may certainly review the ranks of hundreds of mainstream superhero characters and find a few who have living parents, but the fact is hard to deny -- superhero comics are systematically patricidal and not, so to speak, family-friendly. When Identity Crisis killed off the father of Tim Drake, readers should not have been surprised so much as greeted the seemingly inevitable. Although heroes' personal lives run the gamut from billionaires to high school students, perhaps the single most defining aspect of them, besides their crimefighting prowess, is that they have little to no family in their lives.

Comics are fond of imagining things otherwise, and so dead fathers have lived again. Superman has seen the Kents as part of his adult life in the post-Byrne continuity and on the television series Lois and Clark. But writers have also portrayed living parents as a symptom of dystopia, with the whole world going wrong as seen in glimpses in Alan Moore's For The Man Who Has Everything, Jeph Loeb's Absolute Power, and Grant Morrison's Last Rites. Stories like these make out that it is not just window dressing that the heroes have lost their fathers, but essential, an unpleasant fact that makes the hero, and therefore the world, as they need to be.

I've discussed before the family-less nature of Batman before and proposed that it probably excludes him from appeal on the highest levels of popular serial drama. While Smallville gives young Clark Kent people filling relatively normal roles around his abnormal life (and yet, his two fathers also died), Batman is inherently a man without a wife or parents, and so he appeals to the audiences of animated shows targeting more or less the demographic that comics target. As The Dark Knight showed, all the world may want to look into Batman's life for a couple of hours every three years, but it's not a world that every demographic wants to visit weekly.

Do superheroes really need to be fatherless? Does a father inherently belittle the son, shadowing his brilliance? Sherlock Holmes had no father, nor did Gilgamesh. Were the creators of Batman lazy in copying Siegel's fatherless Superman, and the creators of Hal Jordan following suit? Is this pattern a matter of necessity? Clearly, it has been integrated irretrievably into the Batman story, but Hal Jordan and Barry Allen have lighter characters, with origins bestowed upon them from beyond. Can a mainstream superhero have a father? Why don't writers think so?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Off Panel Wrapup 1: We Could Be Heroes

Gotham City
One night almost a summer night, all of the most powerful men in Gotham City held a council. Tasting duck and pudding, lawmen planned crimes while a criminal spoke of the law. Poorer men carried silver serving trays and linen drapes on their arms. Working much harder than that, a man outside the house sped through a studied routine. He administered tranquilizers to chauffeurs, plugged wires into devices, and puttied explosives into place. His net worth was between two and three hundred times that of everyone inside the mansion.

If a gunman dropped him now, how would the world explain his life and death? A billionaire gone mad with grief, far past the breaking point, dangerous. And, if a gunman dropped him now, the description would go on: Tragic, pitiful, a scandal, a failure. Despite all of that money, those looks. He could have had so much and enjoyed it.

The World
Phoebe Laub grew up in a musical home in Teaneck, New Jersey. As a teenager, she took her guitar across the Hudson River to play in Manhattan. Because the world can sometimes be just, her talent was quickly discovered. She took the name Phoebe Snow and with a voice called a natural wonder, recorded a song that has every virtue of the term "easy listening." Her song, "Poetry Man," reached number four on the Billboard charts, number one in its category, and was nominated for a Grammy. Phoebe Snow, twenty four years old, had a brilliant musical life ahead of her, one that could have matched or topped that of her contemporaries. She could have been Joni Mitchell. She could have been Aretha Franklin.

When "Poetry Man" opened up that world to Phoebe Snow, she was also pregnant, carrying a daughter who would be born in December of 1975. Because the world can sometimes be unjust, the delivery procedure was bungled, choking the baby of air. Phoebe's daughter Valerie Rose was born with severe brain damage. Phoebe did what almost nobody in that situation would do. Told that the almost-blind, almost-deaf, terminally retarded child could only be cared for in an institution, Phoebe brought the baby home to care for her for all of Valerie Rose's life. The challenges that most parents face for a year or two, Phoebe faced for decades, raising a girl would would always be, in some ways, a baby.

Soon finding herself a single mother, Phoebe cut her musical career to half and then to nothing at all. The young woman who had been destined for decades of success on stage made a living from jingles for television commercials. She otherwise performed for her medically-damaged daughter, turning her superstar voice loose inside their home to achieve her greatest musical success -- becoming known and recognized by a person who, doctors had predicted, would know and recognize nobody. The girl who was supposed to die within a year lived to be thirty-one. She was never able to talk, but was able to walk, hug, and go outside with her mother. They knew each other in what Phoebe called exquisite and divine love. And when Phoebe Snow was in her fifties, she was forced by Valerie's death to stop being the mother to a child and to begin again what she had always wanted second-best -- to be a famous singer.

Gotham City
But there was no chance that a gunman would drop him now. Three years earlier on the Kra Isthmus, this man outside the mayoral mansion had used a phony name to enter a contest. He punched, kicked, and threw six men and won a trophy he didn't want in order to measure the certitude that he'd never have to lose a fair fight. He knew the names of the guards on duty outside the mansion. He knew their school records. He knew their marksmanship scores and the patterns of their surveillance. He had profiles of how soldiers on patrol do their jobs and had placed each of these guards in a category. He planned his approach accordingly. There was no chance that a gunman would drop him out here on the lawn before he made his move on the house.

He'd set up a warehouse to resemble the dining room inside the mansion and walked through each role fifty times. He played the tactics out with pencil and paper. He knew where each lamp cast its shadow. He practiced giving the speech he had prepared in front of a mirror, then practiced it again while fighting attack dogs. When this man in black, dressed like a bat, made his move the whole performance would take nine seconds.

The World
It was Detroit's year. The records and numbers make it hard to deny that the 1989 Pistons were one of the best basketball teams that has ever played. They had stars on offense, on defense, in scoring, and in rebounding. They might have had the deepest roster of all time. They certainly had one of the roughest styles of play. And when another team took the court to oppose them during those playoffs, starting on equal terms at 0-0, it was almost impossible to beat them.

So it should have been truly impossible to beat them in a game with only four minutes left, and the Pistons ahead by eight.

The numbers and records and awards were not mere abstractions. When Michael Jordan took the ball to the right side of the court, he had hard reality in his face – three Pistons to beat. He went by one defender then over a second and finessed a shot over the outstretched hand of the Detroit center, off the glass, and into the hoop, cutting the Detroit lead to six.

After another Detroit score and two Jordan free throws, the lead was still six. His next shot would again be contested by three Pistons, but he elevated above them, seeming giant in flight over men who were actually taller than him – on the ground. The ball danced from his fingertips to the net. With 2:35 remaining, the lead was four.

The powerful Detroit team struck back, and then so did Jordan. a minute to go, the lead was still four.

Just days earlier, Jordan had ended a playoff series with Cleveland with a series-deciding feat sometimes called "The Shot." The physics of that moment seem more curious when seen in slow-motion than at regular speed. The defender, Craig Ehlo, took to the air to raise a hand between the ball and the basket. Jordan, airborne, seems to remain still while gravity pulls Ehlo down and out of Jordan's way. With the defender gone, Jordan finally shoots. In reality, Michael Jordan has to obey the same laws of physics that planets and cannonballs and the rest of us follow. His center of gravity is falling as his lower body extends progressively further downward from his hands, but he keeps his hands and the ball stationary until the lesser man has fallen. Then Jordan shoots. When one has finished marvelling at the physics, one may acknowledge the man's nerve – the shot was good.

The shot over Ehlo ended a playoff series that Chicago would have lost had it not gone in. Jordan repeated this feat with 54 seconds left against Detroit. Piston defender John Salley, like Ehlo and the rest of us, obeyed the laws of physics while Jordan stayed in the air and cut the lead to two.

It is perhaps jarring to recall at this point in the narration that the Chicago Bulls had a full team on the court, and not only Michael Jordan. But they did; two points from Bull Horace Grant tied the game at 97 apiece leading into the game's final half minute.

With nine seconds left, a Detroit possession ended with Piston Bill Laimbeer being called for an offensive foul against Jordan. That gave the Bulls their final possession of the game. The ball was inbounded to Jordan who took the ball to the right side, faced another double team, elevated far more than he needed to, and laid the game-winning shot off the backboard.

The final four minutes had ended with Jordan having scored twelve points versus six from Detroit and four from his teammates. Michael Jordan had hit five for five from the field, shooting in aerial motion, usually while trapped inside a cage of four to six Piston arms, finding moments and locations to shoot from that seemed impossible.

Action movies and comic books are built around scenes where a single man physically bests a group of other men, even though each of the opponents is himself highly capable. How can one man repeatedly beat three? The creator asks the viewer to suspend disbelief. But it happened for real one night in Chicago.

Gotham City
Batman squeezed a bulb with his right hand and the lights went out inside the mayor's dining room. He pitched a smoke grenade through the window and set off two series of pyrotechnics that overwhelmed the senses of his prey, then blew a wall apart. Anyone inside the room, he knew for a fact, would be unable to act coherently. Anyone armed would be incapable of aiming and shooting for several seconds. There was hard data on this. Batman knew this. But a startled guard might shoot at random and might just hit him. It was possible that his career of masked crime fighting would end with his death inside the mayor's dining room.

The wall came down.

The World
The years from 1938 to 1968 were hard ones for Czechoslovakia. Two decades after the country's creation, its existence as a free state effectively ended with its dissection at the hands of Nazi Germany. When World War Two ended, Soviet troops occupied Czechoslovakia and stood watch over a coup that placed the country under Communist rule. Tyranny and oppression followed, according to the Soviet system created by Stalin.

But eventually Stalin died. By and by the leaders of some Communist countries sought to act on their consciences and loosen, just a bit, their grasp of total control, loosen the steely grip that made slaves of half of Eurasia. The first was Imre Nagy, who became Prime Minister of Communist Hungary four months after Stalin's death. Nagy fought to reform the system and liberalize it, while Stalin's favorites manuevered against him. Nagy remained out of power until a popular uprising in 1956 backed him over powerful hardliners. Nagy became the leader of a free Hungary for just a few days. Then came Soviet tanks, installing once again an oppressive regime. Nagy was arrested by the Soviets and eventually tried, sentenced, and executed by hanging.

Alexander Dubček knew of Hungary's example, but he also knew about confronting authority. Dubček had been conceived in Chicago, but his parents were placed in an internment camp in Texas because of his father's socialist views. The family returned to their Slovak homeland just in time for Alexander's birth, then they moved to the Soviet Union and kept out of reach of Nazi invaders. Before the war ended, Dubček returned to participate in an uprising against the occupying Germans, and was wounded in the effort that claimed the life of his brother. Only 23, Dubček was already as much a victim and participant in the Twentieth Century's wars of ideology as any other man. But he was destined to become a far more central figure in the battles to come.

Dubček joined the Communist Party and fought for reform as an insider, perhaps helped by his residence in the Slovak part of Czechoslovakia, removed from the centers of power in Prague. Like Nagy, he found himself wrestling against hardliners. Like Nagy, he found internal support for granting greater freedom to his countrymen. In April 1968, Dubček, then the First Secretary of the Party, made freedom of speech and of the press official national policy. Dubček was intensely aware of what had happened in Hungary twelve years earlier, but sought to keep the situation in his country different by making the liberalizations a matter of internal policy only. While Hungary had sought to change its international alignment from a Soviet ally to a neutral state outside the Warsaw Pact, Dubček pledged his country's loyalty to its Eastern Bloc alliances. Meeting with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev in July, Dubček promised that his policies were internal to the Czechoslovak state and were of no threat to the other Communist countries.

The Warsaw Pact did not, however, see the matter as different than that of Hungary's 1956 uprising. The Soviet tanks came on August 20, 1968, soon reaching all parts of Czechoslovakia. Dubček and other leaders responsible for the four months of freedom, now called the Prague Spring, were loaded into a Soviet military transport plane and flown to Moscow where they were forced to sign agreements undoing most of the reforms. Unlike Nagy, Dubček was not hanged. He returned to Prague and held office in the post-invasion government until an improbable event -- a victory of the Czechoslovak national hockey team over the Soviets -- led to riots that made the hardliners pull Dubček from his positions of power. He was made an ambassador for a short time, then expelled from the party. Dubček ended up in virtual exile working for the Forestry Service in Slovakia. While he had avoided the hangman's rope, he was buried, perhaps, in a more oppressive obscurity, rather than being made a martyr for a cause. The best man that Czechoslovakia had ever produced lived far from the capital, spending the best years of his life administrating trees while tyranny held his country for decades more.

The world had turned many times on its axis by the autumn of 1989. In early November, the Berlin Wall was opened. While events in East Germany and elsewhere promised the potential fall of all Communism everywhere, a similar uprising in China had been crushed with bloody force at Tiananmen Square. Communist leaders in Czechoslovakia vowed that the rising tide of freedom would not wash over them. They would be like China, not like East Germany.

A week after the opening of the Berlin Wall, the tide rose in Prague, with ever-larger crowds filling the city's plazas calling for an end to the four decade Communist monopoly on power. There was no doubt that the crowds were substantial. This time, their leader was a playwright named Vaclav Havel, who hoped to achieve as an outsider in 1989 what Dubček could not as a national leader in 1968. The international situation made it seem impossible that Soviet tanks would come from outside the nation's borders to crush the uprising, but there remained the stubborn government inside Czechoslovakia itself. Whatever we know in hindsight to have happened, there remained the contrasting examples at hand: Would Czechoslovakia go the way of China or the way of East Germany? The players were shaping up to provide a replay of either situation -- freedom or a decisive crackdown. Every day, the crowds showed up. Every day, Havel stood on the balcony of the Melantrich Hotel and spoke to the masses gathered in Wenceslas Square. The police were ready to play their part, one day sealing off the square and beating protestors with clubs. It was a battle of wills and it could go either way.

We know how it went but the crowds in Prague in November 1989 did not know. They saw their ever growing numbers. They looked to events happening elsewhere in Eastern Europe and they looked to Havel. Czechoslovakia would be free, in essence, if the people believed that they would win their standoff with the forces the hardliners had waiting in reserve. But the outcome remained in doubt until November 25, when hundreds of thousands of Czechoslovaks gathered in Prague and looked up to the balcony where Havel had been speaking and saw their destiny in human form. Hundreds of yards away, the country's Communist Party leadership heard the noise and knew that they would lose the battle of wills. They resigned that afternoon, leaving Czechoslovakia to the will of its people. But they did not know why the crowd had suddenly grown so loud, so delirious. Czechoslovakia had arrived at the year, day, and minute when the ideals of 1968 would finally win. And the crowd had raised that roar because up on the balcony stood Alexander Dubček.

Gotham City
He stepped through the smoke, this young man who knew so much. He knew the power of body language, and walked before Gotham's powerful in a language that spoke of their end. His arms and lips communicated power -- his power, and the end of theirs. He knew that he was beautiful like an athlete and that he was terrifying like loss. He walked like a young Alexander, this billionaire who could buy their acquiesence but was going to force it. If he'd been challenged, he would have fought and won. But the force of power that came was to come from his voice.

And the Batman said to the corrupt overlords of Gotham's weak, "Ladies. Gentlemen. You have eaten well. You've eaten Gotham's wealth. It's spirit. Your feast is nearly over. From this moment on, none of you are safe."

The World
There are no superheroes. But one day in August 1945, a thirty-year old American, called the best pilot in the Army Air Force was given just one chance to carry a weapon of unimaginable power. And he flew over the Rising Sun and hit the Axis back with the power of the stars. And if history can give a man a moment to be the Green Lantern, what is not possible?

Opportunities for historic heroism are not common, but they do come to some of us.

The philosopher John Locke argued that because we have seen goodness and power, and because we understand magnitude, we can form ideas beyond that we have ever seen. We can imagine unbound goodness and unbound power, and thus we can imagine God.

Real heroes do not exist to help us imagine superheroes. Superheroes are a reflection of good people, a mosaic of all the best qualities in one person. So if ever a person were devoted to another's wellbeing like Phoebe Snow; and in a brawl against three of the world's best, could prevail time and again, like Michael Jordan in his sport; and when that fight ended could appear with righteousness and history on his side Alexander Dubček, that would be all the superheroics our world would ever need. And we've got it. Just look around.