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.

12 comments:

  1. "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?"

    I was really enjoying the article until this. It's monstruous to suggest that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were in any kind of way a heroic act. Please tell me I'm misinterpreting what you've written here...

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  2. Automatic, one of the things that was difficult about this piece was in finding unqualified acts/people that spanned the spectrum of heroism. In unwritten drafts, I had a long, long qualifier about the atomic bombings, on these points:

    a) They have been the most villainous acts in history; that is easy to argue.
    b) That there is, however, a strong possibility that the bombings ultimately saved lives, and here's where the disclaimer could get almost book-length and contentious, an ambiguity that was seen with many hero examples that one person or another suggested.
    c) That each human feat has a caveat of some kind -- that it was single and not repeated, or that it was entertainment and not life-saving, and that for warriors, who make probably the largest class of hero among the world's statues, the caveat is the dubious morality that superheroes so effortlessly avoid.

    And that's yet another way that real heroes are always blemished and just as good as we get. Hal Jordan got an alien weapon of unimaginable power that could pick out the bad guys and kick them in the butt with glowing green boots. Paul Tibbets did not get that. He and his crew got an alien weapon of unimaginable power that could kill a city, and orders to drop it on one of a few. And yet as close as that comes to being Green Lantern, I still find remarkable.

    And yet longer with the disclaimer, I think that it probably did save lives. A remarkable fact of the Pacific War is how the Japanese Army fought almost to the last death in every battle for distant islands. How that would have played out on their own islands is almost unimaginable. On Iwo Jima, a force of 18,000 gave up only when 216 were left alive. If a force of three million on their home islands had fought to the same ratio, with unknown numbers of added militias, the number of deaths, civilian and military, could have made the atomic bombings seem like a small rounding error in the total deaths.

    None of this, of course, mattered in Tibbets role. He was a pilot who followed orders. He could have been a hero by dumping his bomb in the sea. Still, as close as he came to being Green Lantern, I find remarkable.

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  3. Way to put on the #45 and return, Rikdad. Well done.

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  4. Great post, and that Dubcek one really got me.

    How often do you think you'll be doing these? I'd love to redeem myself from my half-hearted answer to this one.

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  5. You forgot there part of the Year One story where he pisses himself.

    In reference to the last post (and in a way this one):

    I think your'e correct if you're asserting that the basis of all comic book characters--they represent extremities of the human condition. In a way, Batman represents determination (and survival).

    However, the essential thing about super heroes is that they can rise above the trivial things of life (you mentioned this in your original Don/Tony/Bruce post). Even Spider-Man still transcends them when he stops worry about Aunt May or Mary Jane when he stops the Lizard from turning New York into lizard people or what have you. When he has to deal with his dying aunt, he makes a deal with the devil. Honestly, the only people who make the type of decisions close to what these super heroes make are those in the position -"great men" of history like Napoleon, Winston Churchill, Hitler, Robespierre, etc. Also, rich people, there are plenty of dirty rich people in the world whho don't have to worry about how the trivial matters in life go (though almost all of them do). If we are concerned with making our bread, we can't be concerned with helping everyone else make their bread. Similiarly, we can't logically steal bread unless we have some means of avoiding conventional bread stealing societal reponse mechanism/punishment.

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

    Napoleon said, "What the vulgar call luck, I call genius." And to an extent, he's right. History giving someone a moment doesn't make them a hero. There are millions of peopel through history whose parents have died and weren't rich enough or determined enough. If Bruce wasn't smart enough or was crippled, he couldn't have become Batman. Letting someone drop a bomb dones't make them a hero or villain. It didn't matter if there was a whale and dolphin piloting the plan then if there was an American. It's the people who made the decison to drop the bomb. Indeed, Bruce may never have been Batman had his parents not died, but he certainly would have een succesful at whatever he did (given his smarts and physical talent).

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  6. Damian, thanks. I worked the original "#45" into the piece; that wasn't difficult.

    For what it's worth, the year 1989 figured big into the lives of all of these people: Jordan's scene here was from 1989, Dubček's scene ended in 1989, Phoebe Snow had a comeback album that year, and the final image of Batman I used was from LOTDK #1, which came out just weeks before Communism ended in Czechoslovakia.

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  7. Adam, glad that you enjoyed the Dubček scene. I didn't appreciate the moment during the fast-moving events of that year, but at some point later reading about it, I thought of how immense it was for the people there to see him come back from 21 years of obscurity. He rejoined the government for the last three years of his life.

    It was also a heroic moment for Vaclav Havel, and I may recommend the song "Remember My Name" by a band called Toy Matinee, which is dedicated to Havel's role in that event. It's also pretty moving to see the "statue" of the upraised hands of the protesters who were beaten in Wenceslas Square that week. They are individually nameless, but tremendously heroic -- their willingness to take the blows of police batons (and for all they knew coming into the event, bullets) was key in the battle of wills.

    I will do at least one more of these in December, then like last year, some sort of year-end flourish of posts in a "best of" countdown.

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  8. Another outstanding piece.

    I believe that the anola gay example is fine for the purposes you intended – an example of a real human in possession of super powers, regardless of the use of these powers.

    Tibbets as a superhero has already been tackled in the Watchmen where Ozymandias makes a utilitarian calculation and destroys NYC. This reflects the utilitarian justification for Tibbets actions (unleashing a destructive force with the potential to destroy the world and causing a holocaust of civilians) as heroic. Later Manhattan kills Rorschach because he is intent on revealing the truth behind the attack. This comic is a perfect example of the mediums potential to unwind the truth of reality through an archetypal approach. I am confident that those who identify Tibbets as a hero and who have read The Watchmen have ultimately and correctly identified Ozymandias as the villain.

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  9. Rikdad, do you write for a living? Because if you don't, you should. This piece was genuinely moving and I loved reading it. I can't even really single out a specific part, it's really just a fantastic piece of writing.

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  10. mclean, that is indeed the key point, and you made it better than I did in my earlier comment. Regardless of what Tibbets did or should have done, the fact that a person could recieve such power, utterly out of the context of the rest of human history, is remarkably like the event of Hal Jordan receiving a power ring.

    In fact, it remains strange to me that so many technologies came out in the years after superheroes arose, when they would have made such great inspiration for superheroes if they'd come a bit earlier. But I guess we have to credit the prop plane and not the jet for stories about flying men.

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  11. Spangle, thanks for the comments! No, I've never made a solid month's pay out of writing. I've written for the experience of doing so, and shared it with a few people, and made a pittance for a couple of pieces, but never as steady work.

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  12. Whatever Happened to Rikdad? I want more insightful blog posts.

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