Superheroes

I saw X-Men 2 on Friday, not so much because I’m a big fan of the X-Men (I don’t really read comic books) but because I love seeing “event movies” like this on opening night–there’s such a charge from all the hard-core fans and the interaction with the movie. People applaud the entry of their favorite characters and the performance of heroic acts, they laugh harder (and often at scenes that aren’t meant to be funny), and, especially in movies based on stories with devoted experts like the X-Men community, there’s a running commentary on the characters, actions, and even the film’s direction (apparently the end of X-Men 2 references the end of Star Trek 2: Wrath of Khan, though I didn’t really catch the parallel–unless it was just in setting the movie up for a sequel, but we knew that months, if not years ago).

Like I said, I’m not a particularly big fan of X-Men–in fact, I only saw the first one a few months ago, after seeing the preview for the new one. I enjoyed both movies–they’re pure summer blockbuster entertainment, which is sometimes good enough, but there’s something else. They’re smart, in an understated way. I mean, on the face of it you have these petty romantic entanglements, hammy performances (not “bad performances”–these are good actors playing tights-wearing superheroes, they’re supposed to ham it up a bit), somewhat predictable plot devices (which never fail to keep us on the edge of our seats, of course), all the earmarks of superhero movies. But X-Men has this other thing going on under the surface, this very intelligent parallel to the oppression of “genetically inferior” Jews, Slavs, Rom, disabled persons, and homosexuals under the Nazis. In addition to saving the world from the Bad Guys, the X-Men (who are about 50% female, go figure–I guess you take the smart with the dumb with these movies) are embroiled in the moral quandary around their relationship with their fellow, non-mutant humans, who hunt and persecute them mercilessly. In one scene in X-Men 2, one of the younger characters has to “out” himself as a mutant to his parents, a situation that is portrayed with all the tension and awkwardness that young gay people face–or often avoid–with their parents (although I doubt if any gay person has ever been asked to demonstrate his or her “difference” to the rest of the family…).

As well, the movie obliquely references present day anti-terrorist hysteria, with family members phoning in tips and the actions of a political fringe being used to criminalize an entire minority population. The bad guy seems to come straight out of George Bush’s cabinet. The civilian population in X-Men is terrified and easily led to complicity in the inhumanity of an explicitly Holocuast-modeled state.

In pitting these super-human outsiders against the ills of the time–as well as in using explicit Holocaust references, e.g. in the opening scene of the first movie, and in the bios of both Xavier and his arch-nemesis Magneto–X-Men pays homage to the comic books’ “Golden Age” in the years before and immediately after WWII. I’ve said I don’t really read comic books, not so much out of distaste or a feeling that comic books are for children–some of them are most emphatically not for children–but because at some point I just sort of stopped. As a teenager, I followed several series intently, although I was never really drawn to the superhero comics. I read Lone Wolf and Cub and Area 88, both of which were plotted around intractible ethical dilemmas that inflected the action with a sort of sadness and despair that was only starting to seep into the superhero comics at the time. But I’ve been very interested in the deep history of superhero comics in the years leading up to WWII, when young, mostly-Jewish men with a passion for illustration in the service of the fantastic invented characters like Superman and Batman and their derivatives. This period forms the backdrop in the novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, about two young Jewish cousins who invent a superhero called “The Escapist” who vicariously carries out Czech exile Kavalier’s revenge fantasies against Hitler and the Nazis. The first half is an excellent introduction to what exactly was going on with comic books in those years, the various ways they intersected with and engaged the major issues of the day, although the book degenerates in the second half, becoming somewhat formulaic, although still managing a pretty good exposition of the McCarthy-era crackdown on comic books as a threat to the morals of the youth, especially in the way it deals with the links between anti-communist furor on one side and anti-Semitism and homophobia on the other. In its conscious use of the Holocaust as a moral backdrop, X-Men explicitly references these years at the dawn of the superhero era.

Superhero comic books were a very American way of dealing with the issues around the rise of Nazism and fascism, both abroad and closer to home, although they lost some of that moral complexity in the years after the war when, their ranks thinned by anti-communist purges, comic books were enlisted in the Cold War. Although comic books still reflected the underlying anxieties of the nuclear age (think of Hulk and Spiderman, both victims of nuclear accidents), the structure of anti-communism did not leave them much room to maneuver. When comic book artists were attacking Nazism, they did so as minorities, immigrants, and sons of immigrants, with all the fierce loyalty and pride in the new homeland that engenders, as well as with an awareness of their own exclusion and marginalization in a society that was, for instance, actively excluding Jewish refugees from Nazi countries, using many of the same excuses of cultural and genetic purity that the Nazis had mobilized. Anti-Nazi comic books, particularly before America’s entry into WWII, were aimed not at the Germans but at fellow Americans, at an America that had refused to fight fascism in Spain and was balking at fighting it in Germany. In the service of anti-communism, however, there was no home audience to convince, to persuade, to expose the evils of communism to. There was no room for moral ambiguity in the face of an audience that demanded simplistic confirmations of their moral superiority. As well, the anti-comics crusade had eviscerated comic books, demanding they be “child-safe” and thus virtually defining them as children’s literature. This one-two punch led to the rapid decline of comic books in the Cold War era, a blow that they didn’t really begin to recover from until the last decade.

One of the consequences of this history, both of the origin and of the decline of comic books, is that superheros became and remained American superheros. Metropolis and Gotham were American cities, the Justice League an American institution. Like Superman, superheroes in general were drafted into service of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”–many of them even served in the American armed forces. X-Men 2 follows this path, with the first movie opening (after the “prologue” set in a Nazi death camp) in the US Congress and the second in the White House. Superman, of course, is the most American of superheroes, and nothing sums up this association better than the scene at the close of Superman 2 where Superman replaces the dome of the White House, the American flag billowing behind him as he flashes the President his All-American grin. As the first and most prominent of superheroes, Superman was perhaps the most obvious victim of anti-communist co-optation, and his middle years became stagnant and dreary. As I came out of X-Men 2, I started wondering about this essential tie to America, and wondered especially how American superheroes might fit in, say, Paris, or Berlin. I even imagined a story arc–a black soldier who is captured by Germans and, in contravention of the regulations on prisoners of war, is used for Mengele-ish medical experimentation which bestow him with super powers (but also, maybe, a touch of madness). Like many black American soldiers, he returns home after the war to a society that rejects him as surely as the Jews were rejected by the Nazis he helped to defeat–a society where blacks are also used in medical experimentation (though that wouldn’t have been revealed at that time). Again, like many black American veterans, he flees America for the relative security of France, where he begins to become aware of the extent of the changes rought in him by the Nazis, and thus begins life as a superhero. What kind of villains would he fight in France (or Europe in general)? How would French society react to him? Would he live a Batman-esque life of seclusion on the margins of society, or would he be embraced by the French as they tended to embrace American expatriates in general?

Anyway, that though experiment was running through my mind when I came, quite by accident, on a link to this interview with Mark Millar, who has worked on the X-Men and Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight series. Millar describes his new series, a three-parter entitled Superman: Red Son, which stems from the premise that young Kal-El’s ship crashed in Soviet Ukraine instead of middle-American Smallville. In Red Son, Superman is raised as a champion of Truth, Justice, and The Communist Way, and grows into a functionary for the Soviet government in their work to unite the workers of the world. Along the way he encounters the Sovietised Batman, an anti-Stalinist revolutionary terrorist, who brings home the moral ambiguities of Superman’s communist nationalism. This definitely looks like a realization of the promise of comic books, and certainly like a realization of some of the questions I tried to work through with my hackneyed outsider’s “faux” comic book story. The first installment just came out, and if I can find it and scrape the money together, I’m going to buy it–my first comic book in I don’t know how long. Of course, it’s been so long, that I’m really not sure even where to buy it–my neighborhood book store, while carrying comics, doesn’t seem to carry it. And I don’t know anything about the various formats that seem to have emerged since my teenage years, when graphic novels were still a rarity, especially as a format for original work. But these obstacles, I’m sure, can be overcome. Where’s Superman when you need him?!

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