ocvictor: (Coffee)
Saw Hunger Games last night, and enjoyed it immensely, but before I ramble about that, go read read my wife's brilliant essay: The Fifth Wall: Strategies of the Self in Ginsberg, Plath, Neruda & Rilke, over on Radius. I'll wait.

Done? Good, because when you're talking about Hunger Games, you're talking about perspective. In Suzanne Collins' novel, the story is told exclusively from Katniss Everdeen's perspective, and in a lot of ways, that obscures the ramifications of events and actions throughout the book. the misery of District 12 is inferred from the way Katniss lives -- poaching to survive, living in fear of authority, dealing with having to take care of a young sister and a traumatized, mostly absent mother. Her view of the world outside District 12 is shaped exclusively by television ... and even then, mostly through previous Hunger Games, televised gladiatorial events were teenagers are forced to fight to the death as punishment for a rebellion 74 years prior. In a lot of ways, her world is small, and because we only have her as a guide, that's all we know of it. We only know misery. Oh, we get flashes of the outside world -- the security transport that flies overhead while she and Gale are hunting shows us that not everything in her world is as rural and poverty stricken as her surroundings, but it's not until Katniss is taken off to compete in the Hunger Games that she and the reader get a sense of the disparity between her district and the capital.

The movie does little to change this, and indeed, may tell us less about Katniss' dystopic country of Panem, as it doesn't offer much of the train ride from District 12 to the capitol, where she sees much of the country for the first time. It's a small thing, but it shows the limitations of telling a story such as this exclusively from the perspective of one character, either in fiction or in film. Thankfully, the film breaks away from that perspective from time to time, giving us glimpses of the machinations of political power players such as Seneca Crane and Coriolanus Snow, allowing us to see Haymitch wheeling and dealing on Katniss' and Peeta's behalf. Because these things are happening outside of Katniss' vantage, she only finds out about them afterward, or through inference (for instance, when Haymitch is able to convince a sponsor to send her something.)

Events in both the book and the film are often bewildering because Katniss has little understanding of how or why things happen. Indeed, she often doesn't even know the names of the teenager's she's competing against, either not finding it out until they make an impression on her by being either an ally, such as Rue, or a menace, such as Cato. Some names she only learns after they die. Some she never learns at all.

That anonymity is a strange thing, how these young people are expected to fight and kill each other but, really, have no idea who each other are. Less so the people watching them on television, and in many cases, less so those of us watching the movie or reading the book. It's an odd, understated reality, one that parallels chillingly when you, say, watch war reports on the nightly news as though it were a reality TV program. Living people become characters in a story, and a wall gets built between them and the audience.

But are the characters' lives and deaths without consequence, whether we or Katniss learn their names? Katniss herself is oblivious to the idea that her actions have any consequence in the outside world, preoccupied as she is with survival. There are glimpses, of course. In the book, a gift delivered unexpectedly as a token of gratitude foreshadows Katniss' actions rippling throughout the real world. In the movie, we simply see the repercussions itself, and I'm not sure which is stronger storytelling, but it does set up the events of the second two chapters nicely.

Without spoiling anything, it becomes clear throughout both the book and the movie that, for all the violence, it's Katniss' actions of bravery and sacrifice, kindness and love that ripple furthest out into the world, with the most transformative effects ... effects she herself is largely unaware of.

For what it's worth, I enjoyed the movie immensely, even if it is "CliffsNotes to the Hunger Games" (much as the Harry Potter film franchise was really "CliffsNotes to Harry Potter.") I suspect it's a movie best enjoyed when you've read the books and can fill in the gaps yourself. Aside from the occasional shift in perspective, the film doesn't really deviate much from Collins' novel at all. Which is fine. Jennifer Lawrence is extremely compelling as Katniss, even if the viewer is left to discern what's going on inside the stoic character's head without the benefit of the novel's internal monologue. You can see, in her performance, why Katniss is a hero that's struck such a chord with readers over the past few years. There's an immense sense of too much responsibility being placed on the shoulders of the very young, and of that weight escalating to terrible proportions and, ultimately, still being accepted. Katniss is handy with a bow and arrow, sure, but that's not what makes her a compelling hero. She herself would probably not see herself that way, but then, heroism is often a matter of perspective.
ocvictor: (Default)
You wake up some mornings, and not much has changed. You slept poorly, and the coffeemaker picks this inopportune moment to malfunction. You have two french presses, but you forget when you pour that one of them doesn't work that well, and you end up having to strain the grounds, and the resultant cup is bitter.

And Osama bin-Laden is dead.

You've been a pacifist for 23 years, don't condone war or the death penalty. You hold this view the way an alcoholic doesn't drink: because you've seen violence up close, because you've lost people to it. Because your heart is irrevocably stained by it, and all of your life has been a struggle to find a way forward. You know in your heart that you are a violent man, who chooses not to be violent. You struggle with this daily. You talk to God every morning, and ask Him for strength. This has become your routine. But so has the morning cup of coffee, and this morning, that's out-of-kilter.

You kiss your wife before you go to work, caress her cheek. There's construction on your street, so you have to drive a different way. You stop at a corporate coffee chain for a better cup of coffee. Not your usual choice, but this morning, you're glad for its presence. You buy a couple donuts, too, even though you mostly gave up sweets after serious dental work. It just sounds comforting this morning.

And Osama bin-Laden is dead, and the rational part of your brain tells you that it means little. No matter how monstrous, he's just a man. You know that al-Qaeda is basically a corporate franchise operation, that its individual parts should, theoretically, function fine independently. You know that there are miles to go still in the war, the real war, where the conflicting ideologies in the Muslim World -- the jihadists and the totalitarian dictators, the democratic movement and the people who only want to live and work in peace -- are locked in a struggle to decide the entire region's future. Your rational brain understands that Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya, that the U.S. Wars and the Arab Spring, are all really one war, even moreso than the U.S. struggles against Germany, Japan and Italy were one war.

But you think of your friends who lost loved ones on that horrible day, how you yourself had to face the real possibility that one of your oldest friends was gone, although you got lucky that day. Lucky. The word is bitter coffee.

You find a dark joy that he's gone, fully cognizant that that joy is a violence brewing in your heart, the sort of thing you've worked hard for years to exorcise. You acknowledge it, because to do otherwise would cause it to fester.

And Osama bin-Laden is dead. And you know full-well it changes little. Or maybe it changes everything, but either way, you're glad of it, and at the same time resentful of that feeling, knowing full well what grows from that seed of hate when planted.

You drink your corporate coffee. You get back to work.
ocvictor: (Have a Fantastic Life)
When I first started writing this series about heroes in 21st century literature last year, Sarah Jane Smith, portrayed by the late Elisabeth Sladen, was one of the first names to come to mind, but somehow, I never got around to her. On one level, she seemed to belong clearly to the 20th century, much like Batman, Superman and the Doctor himself, and I had done enough on the bits of the 20th century that had survived into the 21st. I was -- for the purposes of this series -- more interested in the new, and even in the Doctor Who mythos, I had more interest in writing about the likes of Jack Harkness and Martha Jones than I did Ms. Smith.

But -- even as I haven't quite got around to solidifying my thoughts about either -- Sladen's death had a way of putting everything into focus. Because in a very real way, Sarah Jane Smith is one of the very, very few characters who had a way of signifying greater cultural shifts not just once, but twice. And that's something worth looking at.

Writes Charlie Jane Anders (whom I always seem to be quoting), "When her character, Sarah Jane Smith, was added to the show in 1973, she was a direct reaction against the ditzy, spacey Jo Grant, her predecessor. And at first, Sarah Jane Smith was conceived of as a sort of plucky girl reporter, like Lois Lane, who would spout lines about 'Women's Lib' every now and then. In her very first scene, Sarah Jane has a stereotypical 1970s feminist moment with the Doctor, who asks her to make herself useful by making coffee. Later, Sarah Jane gives the struggling Queen Thalira a crash course in standing up for herself. Watching those early episodes, you sense that the show is cluelessly trying too hard to make Sarah Jane a strong female character."

It's true, and when she wasn't being written as a cartoon, she was given -- to cite an old interview with Sladen which I can't quite find right now -- lines that were pretty much reduced to, "yes, Doctor." To say she was thinly written was an understatement, but it was the '70s, and much of television writing was like that. The two salient points to take away from that time is that A.) Sladen was a good enough actress to make a cardboard-cutout character real and memorable for a large number of viewers, and B.) At the very least, the show was trying.

Diversity is the sort of thing that gets handled terribly clumsily most of the time, even (perhaps even especially) by the well-intentioned. There was a sense that something was going on, but because they were immersed in their times, the very British writers and producers had little sense of how to handle it. It was done badly, but at least it was done. If one waits until one knows they can make a change like that perfectly, nothing will ever happen. So, yes, perhaps even the clumsy and cynical attempts at these sort of things deserve some credit. And it all worked out well enough. Sarah Jane Smith's return to the new Who series in 2006 was overwhelmingly successful, even garnering her her own spin-off, the Sarah Jane Adventures.

Writes Anders, "Sarah Jane Smith went from being a former companion to being a Doctor-ish figure in her own right, serving as mentor and protector to an ever-changing cast of kids and young adults, including her own adopted son Luke. At its absolute best, her spin-off show has been capable of tremendous cleverness, but the characters were always front and center. You may have wished the Doctor would sweep you away in his magical time machine, but Sarah Jane was the guide and friend that we'd all want to go visit. Even though she had a magical supercomputer and a futuristic robot dog, she was still all about nurturing the potential of the young people around her."

As Anders and others have noted, Sarah Jane went from being a pantomime of a feminist character, to being an actual one. Smart, determined, capable, and not needing to be completely alienated in her own personal life to be so (although there is little room for romance on the SJA, and what little there is, ends badly.  Still, she lives her own life, leads her own career, and raises her small, ad hoc family. Her life isn't perfect, but whose is?) Sarah Jane is a hero who continually rises to protect the Earth, sacrificing much in the process, certainly, but also doing so -- like the Doctor -- largely without resorting to violence.


The Doctor's influence looms large on the show, and calling her the Doctor's Apprentice isn't far from the mark. But that influence went both ways, and in a lot of ways, it was Sarah Jane Smith that began to thaw the distance between the Doctor and his companions. She was the one that paved the way for the contemporary, more realized (if, by necessity, flawed) relationships he has now. While other companions had been enjoyed by audiences before, Sarah Jane Smith was the one that made them vital, and has gone a long way toward driving the audience's investment in the show. It's not insignificant that, at the end of "Journey's End," Sarah Jane is the one who reminds him that he has a family of people who love him, a family comprised of the people whom he's shown the stars.

But I think, to get a firm handle on Sarah Jane's role in the Who canon today, one needs to look at the new companions. Particularly the aforementioned Martha Jones, with whom she shares much in common. In the new Who, the Doctors' relationships with his companions are the central narrative. The Doctor's relationship with Rose Tyler was, from any meaningful perspective, a love story, and he's more than once referred to Donna Noble as his "best mate." But what of Martha?


In a lot of ways, Martha is the Doctor's other disciple, even if he doesn't always agree with the choices she makes. The obvious parallel is that he's THE Doctor, and she's studying to be a doctor. That's significant. And in "The Last of the Time Lords," it's Martha that spreads his Gospel, which eventually leads to his being able to save mankind (or, more precisely, his being the instrument of mankind saving itself):

I traveled across the world. From the ruins of New York, to the fusion mills of China, right across the radiation pits of Europe. And everywhere I went I saw people just like you, living as slaves! But if Martha Jones became a legend then that's wrong, because my name isn't important. There's someone else. The man who sent me out there, the man who told me to walk the Earth. And his name is The Doctor. He has saved your lives so many times and you never even knew he was there. He never stops. He never stays. He never asks to be thanked. But I've seen him, I know him... I love him... And I know what he can do.
 
... and later ...

I was telling a story, that's all. No weapons, just words. I did just what The Doctor said. I went across the continents, all on my own, and everywhere I went I found the people and I told them my story... I told them about the Doctor... And I told them to pass it on. To spread the word so that every one would know about the Doctor.

When the dust settles, The Doctor is the one who hastens her graduation, and who arranges for her job -- not in a hospital, but for UNIT, a place he himself once worked, and which more or less does the same work he does. Out of all of the companions he's had, Martha is the one that he chooses to do his work in his absence. Of course, he doesn't entirely agree with the course that work always takes, but he does see its necessity -- despite all his criticism of UNIT and its dependence on guns, it's his organization. It's a major piece of his history, and he entrusts his disciple to it.

And ultimately, that pays off, as Martha is the one who, in "Journey's End," stares down Davros with the threat of destroying the Earth to save many more planets. Not a far cry from the Doctor's own actions during the Time War, at that.

So no, Martha's not his lover or his friend. She's his student, and in many ways, she's the one that -- by intention or accident -- is the one that he's most shaped into his own image. And that's got to be a little painful for him to look at, sometimes.

But Martha really only encompasses about half of what the Doctor is. She, as she herself foreshadows, becomes a soldier. Sarah Jane is the flipside to that. Like Martha, she's continued on the Doctor's work, but the other side of it: exploration, investigation, a sense of wonder, pacifism. Between the two of them, you have a pretty good yin and yang of the Doctor's personality.

But they also have more in common than that. If Sarah Jane was the first attempt at having a feminist female protagonist on the show, Martha was its first attempt at a non-white companion, assuming you don't count Mickey. (Who would eventually go on to be Martha's husband.) Both attempts had their share of awkwardness, but were on the whole good things. And if it's Sarah Jane that's there to remind the Doctor of what he has, it's Martha's job to remind him of his responsibilities. After all, she's the only one who he gives a means of contacting him, for when things get bad -- which she uses in "The Sontaran Stratagem."

These two women become his touchstones to Earth in very real ways, both emotionally and physically. But whereas Martha's young, and at the beginning of her life -- new job, new husband -- Sarah Jane is older, and in a lot of ways, the one of the pair able to look at the Doctor as an equal. Perhaps its not surprising then that, after her return in "School Reunion," Sarah Jane becomes the only companion whose life the Doctor seems to regularly re-enter (a byproduct of her having her own spin-off, and unlike Jack Harkness, one kids can watch.) It shapes the narrative, yes, but over time, the Doctor's aversion to revisiting past companions seems to stop applying to her, and indeed, so far she's the only one of the past companions, excepting classic companion Jo Grant, to encounter Matt Smith's 11th Doctor, and indeed, it's Grant that points out how unusual it is that the Doctor has done anything that resembles "keeping in touch."

With most companions, the journey with the Doctor needs to be a temporary thing, or else it in some way destroys them (poor Donna) or else the Doctor subsumes their lives. At some point, the Doctor's companions need to move on, just as children need to leave the home. He's shown them the stars, and now they have to do something with it. With Sarah Jane, when we meet her again, she's older, and in a place where she can re-encounter the Doctor in such a way as to not have him take over her life. They can have an adult familial  relationship in ways that's difficult with the younger companions.

What's interesting is that, if the Doctor's companions --as they've ever been -- are the audience's window into the show, then Sarah Jane is the window for the older audience, the fans of the original show. But she's also the window for the younger audience, through The Sarah Jane Adventures, and that's an odd dichotomy. On a meta level, Sarah Jane is a connection between the youngest and oldest fans of the show, even as on a story level she's a connection between classic characters such as Grant and the Brig, and the newest characters, including her young cohorts, Luke, Clyde and Rani. "Someday, that'll be us," Rani says after meeting Grant. And indeed, it probably will. Things change, and there will always be new faces, new heroes, to enact the roles in stories that the culture needs them to play, and that, perhaps more than anything else, was what was important about Sarah Jane Smith: When we met her, she was a well-intentioned cardboard cutout, and when we meet her again, she's older and wiser, a smart, competent hero. Sarah Jane Smith linked the past with the future and told us all that we don't have to be what we used to be. We can change, become better than we were, and when we do, then we can look our past directly in the eye --as she does the Doctor -- and speak to it truthfully, without malice or judgment, with love for what good its given us, without having to go back and be what we were. She told us it's OK to age, to be what we are now.
ocvictor: (Default)
A few outlets are reporting that DC and Milestone comics writer Dwayne McDuffie has died. I'm unsure how old he was, but I was under the impression he was younger than I am.

It's devastating news: in addition to being one of the few high-profile African-American writers in mainstream comics, he was also at the vanguard of bringing diversity to comics, a noble effort that often had him against the intractible desires of both fans and corporations alike.

Obviously, he's come up a number of times in my heroes blogging. Make no mistake, I consider McDuffie to be one of the greats, and I think we'll look back at him and see he was a pioneer. When we look back, I'm pretty sure that we'll see that Dwayne McDuffie was the writer who told us anybody could be a hero. And that's an important thing.

RIP, Dwayne, and thanks for the stories. You'll be missed.


ocvictor: (Default)
So, everyone and their sister is reporting that Adrianne Palicki, of Friday Night Lights fame, is the new Wonder Woman in David E. Kelley's remake:



Frankly, I know nothing about her, although I think she can certainly look the part with little effort, and is evidently quite athletic, which bodes well, and people who know seem to regard her acting highly. So that's OK.  I still, however, have issues with Kelley's vision of the show, where she's evidently "a vigilante crime fighter in L.A. but also a successful corporate executive and a modern woman trying to balance all of the elements of her extraordinary life."

Which ... OK. Sure, the "female lead who needs to find balance while doing it all" is a fine TV trope. But is it Wonder Woman? Back when I started blogging about heroes, I said, "I think there's one major element of storytelling -- and the nature of contemporary stories -- that needs to be considered: controlling canon."

The Wonder Woman that appears in Kelley's new TV show doesn't have to be the Wonder Woman we see in the comics. But there does need to be a through line. Wonder Woman's story, at its core, is that a representative of a hidden island of Amazon warriors is sent to man's world to battle a great evil. That evil, in the comics canon of the '40s, was the Nazis. With the passing of the Nazi threat, Wonder Woman has grown increasingly problematic, eventually leading her to become a sort of ambassador warrior pacifist priestess. Which? Yeah, OK. Self-contradictory all over the place, but for the most part, it works. For the most part, the comics have never really bothered replacing the Nazis with some other threat. (I used to have the great George Perez reboot in the '80s, but can't recall off hand why she's sent to "Man's World," although I do remember Steve Trevor washing up on Paradise Island's shores. But the "leaving Paradise to face a great evil" has always struck me as the most compelling aspect of Wonder Woman as a character, perhaps even more than the feminist iconography she represents. (And indeed, it's the main reason she is a feminist icon.)

In all the talk about the reboot, I've not heard word one about Amazons or Paradise Island. Indeed, everything I've heard makes me think the show is going to be a less neurotic Ally McBeal as an action hero. Which? Not so interested. Now, those elements may be in play somewhere along the way - hell, the current comic continuity has her not remembering her origins or something. I can't keep it straight -- but still, the growing concern is valid: There's something about the scenario as presented that makes one suspect that she's not an Amazon warrior sent to combat great evil or bring peace to the world. (And if she is, then why is she a corporate executive? It seems an odd sideline.)

As I've said before, stories grow and change over time, but  stray too far from the controlling canon, and the story becomes something else. Take away the main elements, and it's no longer a story about Wonder Woman. And that's OK, to a degree. As I've said before, Wonder Woman can be problematic, and like a lot of the great heroes of the 20th century, there comes a time where you have to ponder that it might be better creating new heroes, rather than simply using the name of an old one and discarding what made her interesting in the first place. Certainly, that was the idea that kicked off this whole exploration of heroes in the 21st century, and the Wonder Woman reboot seems an even more egregious sin than the looming Buffy the Vampire Slayer fiasco.

Because Wonder Woman means something, especially to a lot of people for whom she was the only female superhero, and certainly the only one who wasn't a female version of a pre-existing male character. There are a lot of reasons why people get their hackles raised over her, still, including the likes of Gloria Steinem. And maybe there are still ways to make her relevant to a contemporary audience. It's not inconceivable. But in the end, she still has to be Wonder Woman. Otherwise, you're just using her name, and she deserves better than that.

ocvictor: (Mrs. Peel)
Between the weather and things commanding my attention at home, I find I'm not writing much this week, let alone blogging. Still, after the feverish pace of the preceding few weeks, I think I can forgive myself letting more immediate concerns eat up my attention.

The other day, I made mention of four characters -- Hiro Nakamura (from the late TV show Heroes); Veronica Mars (from the TV show Veronica Mars); Malcolm Reynolds (from the TV show Firefly and the movie Serenity, along with a slew of comic books); and Virgil Ovid Hawkins, aka Static (from Milestone Comics, then later the cartoon Static Shock, and then more-recently DC Comics.

These four characters struck me as good examples of heroes -- and before anyone starts with me, I completely consider Veronica Mars and Mal Reynolds as heroes, despite their frequent ethical greyness -- who have the distinction of being original contemporary characters who, one way or the other, manage to hang on in some corners of the popular consciousness despite cancellations, ratings, etc. These are characters that persist when the corporate metrics that decide the fates of TV shows and comic books  tell us their time is done. Never the cultural heavy hitters, like Buffy Summers or Harry Potter, they nonetheless dwell on that odd tier of fictional characters that hold some sway, even when their stories don't replicate the way others' do. The culture's not quite done with them, yet.

This makes puts them in the odd company of characters who flared but never quite disappeared: Will Eisner's The Spirit has a loyal following, to this day, but attempts to replicate and fan that passion in comics and film have never quite worked. Resurrections of the Doom Patrol have been interesting, even enjoyable, but have never quite achieved the vivid brilliance of the original. Diana Rigg walked away from The Avengers TV show for personal reasons, leaving fans of her character, Emma Peel, still wanting more, but replacement character Tara King wasn't as popular, nor was Uma Thurman's portrayal in the more-recent film well-received. But they all have their devotees, even still, and there's always someone who loves them enough to give them another go.

Reynolds and the crew of Serenity, from Firefly, are probably the most enduring of this bunch. The rag-tag pirates-turned-reluctant-heroes had generated enough devotion  in a small-but-loyal audience to get a film made, which didn't set the box office on fire. But their adventures still continue, in the form of comic books, mostly overseen by creator Joss Whedon and others of the original writers. And for my part, while I enjoyed a lot about the movie, I felt it tied up loose ends from the beginning of the story, which is not the same thing as finishing the story. Not at all. Mal, particularly, is still at the beginning of his arc: from rebel soldier to petty mercenary to becoming a man worthy of becoming a hero: a man who risks everything to reveal a government's atrocities. "If you can't do something smart," says his crew member, Jayne Cobb, "do something right." Reynolds takes the stand, and wins, at enormous cost, but there's always been a sense that there's more in store for him. Having seen what he becomes, we never really see what that man does. I'm of the opinion that ultimately, he needs to finish the job that he started as a soldier, but there are other opinions. But wherever one sees that story going, there's always a sense that there should be more. The story has a middle, but as of yet, no ending. Not a satisfying one. In that, he's similar to Mars.

Veronica Mars, despite excellent writing and acting, suffered mightily in the ratings, and was canceled in its third season, despite an abortive effort by the show's creators to "fast-forward" the character a few years from college to being a full-fledged FBI agent. Still, the show was something more than merely a critical darling. There was something compelling about the character, between Kristen Bell's performance and Rob Thomas' dialog, and the fact that she was such an unconventional female character -- an obvious descendant of Nancy Drew, yes, but without the obligatory sweetness or innocence. Veronica Mars, the character, was smart, capable and willing to use any means at her disposal -- no matter how ethically dubious -- to achieve her goals, Veronica Mars was a show that had a certain power about it, and like the crew of Serenity, her story seems still somehow unfinished, and that's an itch that scratches a bit, especially when both Thomas and Bell instigate hope for an eventual movie on Twitter, or even when there's talk of a possible comic book. There's still some life left in that story, but Lord only knows when and if there will ever be enough will to push it forward again.

It's possible, though. Stories don't die that easily. For instance, when the DC Comics imprint  Milestone Comics -- a collaboration by several African-American artists, most notably Dwayne McDuffy -- went under, McDuffy and DC were able to migrate those characters, including Static, into the DC Universe. Static, who is perhaps most famous for his cartoon, Static Shock, seems irrepressible. Recently, he's been a member of the Teen Titans, and DC seems to be rumbling that he's bound for his own solo title again, soon. In a market which has -- to put it as understatedly as possible -- not been kind to African-American characters, let alone positive, nonstereotypical portrayals, Static's persistence is a positive sign. (But don't get too comfortable, as DC Comics is already delaying new issues of  Batwoman, which may spell trouble for other new comics, especially ones with minority protagonists. Cough. Ryan Choi. Cough.)

Perhaps the most tragic out of this quintet of shoulda-been, coulda-been, may-still-yet-be greats is Hiro Nakamura, the perpetually upbeat and sometimes woefully naive teleporter from Heroes. the character, portrayed by Masi Oka, was the immediate standout on a show that burst onto the scene and grabbed the public's consciousness. Only the grim-and-gritty Noah Bennett, portrayed by Jack Colemanrivaled Hiro for affection, but the difference was always clear: Bennett, for all of his awesomeness, was never a hero, and Hiro very much wanted to be one, and indeed, for all of us comic book world-view, he had about clearest view of right and wrong of anyone on the show. Alas, as the writing on the show began to falter, the character was largely relegated to comic relief, and ceased to be relevant. Which was a shame, because he had so much potential, and for a brief moment, he was something we hadn't really seen on TV before: A non-American character on mainstream TV who was both geeky and lovable, but also brave and determined, who embraced heroism without irony or self-consciousness. It was a breath of air, before it all went wrong. Still, Heroes creator Tim Kring keeps talking about bringing the story back in some form, so who knows? Maybe there's still time to get Nakamura right, before he disappears forever into purgatory.
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Great time at Ralph's last night seeing Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz, Shappy Seasholtz and James Keyes, although it ran late and we couldn't stay until the end. Who won the Iron Poet competition? Because that MATTERS!

Off to go dig the car out and get myself down to the Citadel of Journalism, because snow days don't exist in the news business.

Will be getting back to the heroes stuff shortly, but let me throw out some subjects for discussion:

*Hiro Nakamura
*Veronica Mars
*Malcolm Reynolds
*Virgil Ovid Hawkins (Static)

These are all characters who persist in the culture in ways that seem to outpace their screen time, ratings, apparent audience, et al. Why is that? What other characters seem to have a life that far exceeds their moments in the sun?
 
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Of the many sins the new TV show The Cape needs to be called on, the line "I want to show my son that one man can make a difference," is simply the first of them. Because, one? Cheesy. Second, and perhaps more salient to our discussion, it's a crock. Without the backup and skills of the Carnival of Crime (who, OK, are pretty awesome) and the computer skills of Summer Glau's Orwell (also a saving grace for the show), betrayed cop Vince Faraday is clearly pretty much in over his head.

There's a mythology of the lone hero, and it's probably got a billion sources, from knights errant to ronin to gunslingers. Perhaps, in America, it's a symptom of rugged individualism. I don't know. But really, I don't think anyone really buys it anymore. Certainly, one needs not look too deeply into the culture to see that teams of more-or-less equals with complimentary skills and character traits largely trump the lone-gun "superhero." Sidekicks have given way to partners, and it may be Harry Potter or Buffy Summers on the marquis, but the fact of the matter is, without Hermione Granger & Ron Weasley or  Willow Rosenberg & Xander Harris ... well, both Harry and Buffy would be the first to admit they'd be lost.

These relationships, originally presented as being between heroes and their friends, both grow into actual units. The relationships provide emotional stability, yes, but also mutual support, skill and power. This is particularly illustrated In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode Primeval, when the Slayer, her friends and their mentor, Rupert Giles, magically meld to create an entity to defeat an unstoppable Frankenstein's monster called Adam. The spell highlight what each brings to the mix: spirit, heart, mind and hand. Buffy, the hand (or more precisely, fist)  in the equation, is gifted with their attributes, such as Giles' mind (particularly his ability to speak Sumerian) and Willow's spirit (again, more precisely, her magical power.) One would think Xander's superfluous to this mix, but when Adam questions what Buffy's become, she replies, "You'll never understand the source of our power." Because the source is that unrelenting trust and love, which Xander exemplifies. It's what allows them to become close enough to use the spell effectively.

Many years ago, I wrote:

It's this reliance on others that differentiates her from the succession of Slayers preceding her all the way back to the dawn of mankind. This eventually brings her into conflict and confrontation with the spirit of the first Slayer, perturbed by her lack of self-reliance. Buffy responds to the first Slayer's accusations in typical Buffy fashion:

"I walk. I talk. I shop, I sneeze," replies Buffy. "I'm gonna be a fireman when the floods roll back. There's trees in the desert since you moved out, and I don't sleep on a bed of bones...You just have to get over the whole primal power thing. You're not the source of me."


Buffy may as well have been speaking to the canon of heroes that came before her, lone wolves with sidekicks, living alone and isolated. Buffy rejects that, and rejects that just because her friends are physically weaker than her, that she's their superior. (Although to be fair, she struggles with that a bit, as illustrated in the episode Conversations With Dead People, but life is a process, not a series of epiphanies. People work out their issues in tides, not straight lines.)

And the formula did change in Buffy's wake. In addition to Harry Potter and his friends, it became de rigueur for heroes to emerge in sets, rather than individuals. Sarah Jane Smith, of Doctor Who fame, becomes the mentor figure to a trio of teenage alien investigators: her adopted son, Luke Smith, who has computerlike intelligence, and his friends Maria Jackson and Clyde Langer (later, Maria is replaced by budding investigative reporter Rani Chandra.) In Percy Jackson & the Olympians, young demigod Percy is accompanied by Satyr Grover Underwood and friend Annabeth Chase.One imagines there's even something of the pattern in the Twilight books, with Bela, Edward and Jacob, but I'm largely ignorant on that particular subject. Even Bruce Wayne has abandoned the pretext that his extended "family" are somehow separate from him, creating a new operating structure where they can operate interdependently on a global scale, and including heroes in different countries, including the much buzzed about Muslim French-Algerian Batman, and the original Robin, Dick Grayson, still gets to be Batman. We're a long way from "An Army of One," as the old Army recruiting slogan went. Trust and reliance on others -- things which our culture has often sent mixed message about -- are enjoying a weird sort of cultural vogue, a shift that seems almost odd when we still have politicians talking about self-reliance, and sneering derisively at empathy.

But then, politicians, culturally speaking, are usually the sideshow. Their thinking -- even good ones -- is often years behind the times. It's just human nature. They're generally older, and conservative with a small "c." Their conception of what is "liberal" and "conservative"  is fairly different from their youngest constituents. Politicians drive politics, but youth drives media and culture in a very real way. And, also in a very way, youths' perception is driven by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Pushing the politics aside for a moment,and arguments for or against it,  young people look out at the wars and see armed forces working in a different way than generations past have. They understand that the military isn't simply men with guns in long lines firing at one another, but rather they see a men and women, of different backgrounds, with different skill sets working together toward a common goal. They see people with guns, yes, but also specialists in computers, cryptography, explosives and more. They see the concert between military forces and intelligence forces, and understand that each have their role to play in achieving a goal. And certainly, they see a place for individual acts of courage -- such as when Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta, the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor, saved the lives of members of his squad -- but on the whole, they have a sense of teamwork and separate skill sets meshing into a greater whole. That's a powerful shift, but it's one the culture has been echoing with increasing regularity.
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Last night at the Poets Asylum, before The Duende Project went on, I was chatting with Bill Macmillan about the shooting in Tuscon. That was the first time I had heard that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' life had been saved by a quick-thinking 20-year old student intern who had been on the job for a mere five days. At that juncture, I didn't even know his name.

This morning, as I read through my news feeds, I learn that he's also an openly gay Latino. It's unclear what sort of first-aid training he's had, but he obviously knew enough to check multiple gunshot victims' pulses, apply pressure to open wounds, and keep the congresswoman upright so she wouldn't choke on her own blood. He was brave and selfless enough to run into the line of fire to save others.

This is a hero. Unequivocally.

I've gone on and on about the importance of portraying persons people of a variety of background as heroes in media. I don't do this simply out of a vapid political correctness. I do this because people -- all people -- believing that they can be anything that they want to be, that they can, indeed, be heroes, makes all of us better.

There are deep currents of racism, homophobia and misogyny in our culture, mostly politically driven, yes, but rooted in the misguided belief that if one group has opportunities, another loses something. This idea is nonsense. Our world is better for having Daniel Henrandez Jr. in it, a man who's smart, selfless, community involved, brave and, yes, gay and Latino. To echo the Joe My God blog, "This means he could be stopped anytime in Arizona and asked to produce proof of citizenship. And, until a few weeks ago, he would have been barred from military service." In most states in the union, including Arizona, he can't marry.

Our fears are the flipside of our violence, and always have been. We only need to look at people like Hernandez to see what we have to gain by letting go of them.
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I intended to return to the subject of portrayals of violence in media even before the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, but somehow it seems more urgent, now. Because, as I've inferred before, we have a complex relationship with violence in America, one which we don't always fully understand. I am not, nor will I ever be, one of those people who blame societal woes on gratuitous violence on TV. But I do think it sound to have a deeper relationship with our stories, to understand the relative difference between, say, the massacre at the end of Hamlet and the nonstop flying bullets of a Vin Diesel movie. This is a function of understanding literature, and alas, it's one that Americans often only seem to grasp shallowly.

The American mythology is an odd process of explosions of violence and the subsequent sanitizing of violence. Have you ever notice how a good many depictions of The Revolutionary War appear bloodless, even though more than 77,000 American, British and German soldiers died in the course of the war, either through battlefield injuries or disease, or some combination of the two? It seems distant, somehow. But it was a real war, and like a good many countries, America was born in blood. That's probably something worth remembering, on occasion.

When looking at literature, having a protagonist that's "born in blood" is significant. When you're talking about Superman, the destruction of Krypton and his parents' death is important, but he has no actual memory of it, and in most versions, he only learns it all as an adult. With Spider-Man, the death of his Uncle Ben at the hands of a robber he could have stopped earlier is what spurs him to become a hero, but again, that's a choice he makes as an adolescent. The reader understands the motivations behind Clark Kent or Peter Parker's decisions, but honestly, they could have gone different directions. They're noble, but arguably not predestined. 

But with Batman, who famously witnessed his parents' violent murder, that he's immediately marked to make some pretty big life choices. One does not encounter violence in that way and remain unaffected. Bruce Wayne might not be predestined to become a hero at that moment, but he's obviously going to do something. He might become a psychopath. Certainly, Dexter Morgan's witnessing of his mother's brutal murder is at the heart of his sociopathy, the event that leads him on the path to becoming a serial killer. Although some poorer interpretations of the Batman story have insinuated otherwise, Wayne remains sane, whereas Morgan does not. Wayne is driven, yes, but uses his tragedy as fuel to help others (aided nicely by a personal fortune, which must help.) Helping others is never a priority for Morgan. Wayne never intentionally kills, Morgan has no goal to anything but. (I'm actually a little surprised this comparison doesn't get made more. It seems a natural.) Both character are in a constant state of dealing with the effects of violence and putting it in a place where it won't consume them. The violence never really leaves there system. It never does.

As I said before, I'm not a proponent of blaming media portrayals of violence for anything the discussion of its many manifestations, from cartoon violence to its use as a metaphor to more realistic portrayals, is worth a constant cultural conversation. As most Americans become more and more sheltered from its real-world consequences, we end up with a disjointed understanding of its realities. We only have a small subset of Americans who are faced with violence in any concentrated manifestation, mostly soldiers and their families and the urban poor. I think that disjointed perspective goes a long way toward explaining the culture's schizophrenic view on the subject, and why, perhaps, when real-world political violence uses violent imagery and rhetoric, it has potentially lethal results. That violence, inserted into a culture, does not go away. It's fundamentally different than, say, gunning down virtual virtual aliens in a video game such as Halo. It's real people who are ostensibly among the nation's leaders seemingly condoning violence, or at least the iconography of violence.

Writes George Packer, for the New Yorker, "for the past two years, many conservative leaders, activists, and media figures have made a habit of trying to delegitimize their political opponents. Not just arguing against their opponents, but doing everything possible to turn them into enemies of the country and cast them out beyond the pale. Instead of “soft on defense,” one routinely hears the words 'treason' and 'traitor.' The President isn't a big-government liberal—he's a socialist who wants to impose tyranny. He's also, according to a minority of Republicans, including elected officials, an impostor. Even the reading of the Constitution on the first day of the 112th Congress was conceived as an assault on the legitimacy of the Democratic Administration and Congress."

Again, I think no sane person looks at Sarah Palin's map of the U.S. -- with gun targets aimed at 20 politicians, including Giffords -- and thinks that Palin means that someone should assassinate these people. But when you escalate political rhetoric to the levels they've been, lately, and when a 24-hour news cycle ratchets tension to unbelievable heights on even the most prosaic subjects, then ... yes. Eventually someone will take them up on it. Just as someone crashed their plane into an IRS building. Just as a constant demonization of those who don't fit a particular cohort group eventually leads to persecution and violence. The same impulse that led a rash of gay teenagers to suicide is what leads a lunatic to open fire on a congresswoman in a Tuscon supermarket: Empathy, political disagreement, tolerance ... they've become marginalized in our discussion.

Writes Michael Tomasky, in The Guardian, "Republicans and even Tea Partiers will have the sense – again, for a while – to steer clear of directly gun-related rhetoric. We won't be hearing much in the near term about 'second amendment remedies' and insurrection and so forth. But this will be temporary. Guns are simply too central to the mythology of the American right, as is the idea of liberty being wrested from tyrants only at gunpoint. For the American right to stop talking about armed insurrection would be like American liberals dropping the subjects of race and gender. It's too encoded in conservative DNA."

If I were to counter anything in Tomasky's argument, I'd argue that guns are instrumental to the totality of the American self-image, not just to conservatives. You can make many of the same arguments of gang culture or the great American Western. Guns remain not only a political hot button, not just a symbol of personal freedom and safety, but a direct connection to the American mythology.

The gunslinger, and it's Japanese counterpart, the Samurai, is a fascinating bit of iconography: the image of a lone individual in a violent, lawless landscape imposing order by force. The reality of the Old West was murkier, of course. People headed that way for any number of reasons -- criminals on the run, soldiers and marshals, deserters of one side of the Civil War or the other, freed and escaped slaves, employees of corporations looking to build towns and railroads, fortune hunters and of course, actual cowboys herding cattle. Never mind Native Americans who were either already there or pushed further West from their traditional lands. The list goes on, and from the penny dreadfuls that first brought us  exaggerated tales of Buffalo Bill, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and the rest, to 1903's The Great Train Robbery, to   John Ford's films to more recent films by Clint Eastwood, all the way up to last year's reinterpretation of the John Wayne film, True Grit, that romance of the West has been an undercurrent of our culture, and indeed, it may be the most central mythology to the contemporary American identity, a place where law is a luxury and authority often untrustworthy, where force is often needed to to enforce order, and where questions of personal and familial honor trump questions of right and wrong. Indeed, the setting of the narrative is inconsequential: there's very little separating a traditional vengeance-driven Western plot from Hood films such as 1991's Boyz n the Hood, where Ice Cube's Doughboy takes revenge on gang members for his brother's death, eventually dying in retaliation, whereas other characters are able to leave the "frontier" and join civilization by going to college. Vengeance, for Doughboy, is a matter of moral necessity, and he is not naive to what the consequences will be. He bows before the cycle of violence even as he encourages others, such as his friend Tre, to leave.

Westerns, again, share a common lineage with Japanese cinema and literature -- and indeed, many of the great Westerns are actually remakes of Samurai films, so it's probably not surprising that a lot of the more recent Japanese anime is riffing off Western themes (although often with a Japanese twist), such as Cowboy Bebop or Trigun. Perhaps one of the most interesting has been Afro Samurai, which fuses elements of the traditional  Japanese samurai and Western themes, but also iconography from contemporary American hip-hop culture.  The central character is the titular Afro-Samurai, voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, a black ronin in a dystopic future Japan who is seeking to kill the warrior who murdered his father in front of him. (It's a bit more complicated than that, but that'll do for the moment.) This singular goal is a consuming desire, and eventually, and it displaces everything else in his life.

It's interesting that, with both Bruce Wayne and Dexter Morgan, neither character is particularly motivated by vengeance. Wayne seeks justice, yes, and at least in some continuities is able to get it through the eventual arrest of their killer, Joe Chill, but his primary motivation, as writer Grant Morrison puts it, is "to heal his city." Morgan, likewise, kills the man who murdered his mother, Santos Jimenez, but really, it's just another kill to him, and it changes nothing in his behavior.

Despite their similar starting point, Afro Samurai is different. The unique circumstances of his path toward vengeance in fact lead him through a wave of violence, mostly in defense from people seeking to kill him to attain status, but also against two people who, for the most part, are innocent, and who are directly engaged in attempting to stem the tide of violence that infects the country. In both cases, he places vengeance and honor above any sense of right and wrong, and makes a conscious, willing decision to kill. Moreover, the latter victim, Shichigoro is killed in front of his surrogate son, who seems positioned, at the end of Afro Samurai: Resurrection, to grow and perpetuate the cycle of violence.

The anime itself seems to recognize the tragedy of this, that no matter how stylish or cool its character or presentation is, the overall story arc is tragic. Afro Samurai is not a psychopath like Dexter Morgan. He can walk away, and is given numerous opportunities to do so. But that sense of honor prevents him from doing so, and eventually, consumes him.
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My friend Karl grumbles that there's really no good reason for the year to begin January, but really, it seems to me utterly self-evident why we begin and end our years in darkness, just as it strikes me as equally obvious why we choose that time to celebrate the birth of the Savior. This is, really, rudimentary symbolism, the kind that's hardwired into our brains: The time of year when the shadows are long, and snow covers the ground; the time of year when nothing grows, and the air's so frigid it burns your skin. The time of year when you light candles and wait for the land and sun to be born again, and all the fervent hope that we, too, have a resurrection ahead of us. That there is a spring beyond the winter of the body.

I'm teasing poor Karl a bit, of course, but he makes my point so well. We get so literal-minded sometimes that we fail to grasp the symbols and metaphors we first carved to make sense of the world. The ones we're still soaking in, centuries later. The ones that make up the very syntax of how we relate to nature, to each other, and to the hypothetical God. And of course there's someone reading this right now, some sensible aetheist, who's muttering to himself that we don't need these symbols anymore. They're just relics of the past. We understand how the world works now. And maybe he has a point, but then, I'm no atheist, and I have trouble believing that we understand how the world works when I live in a New England city that's consistently surprised each winter when it snows. Make no mistake, the mind is an amazing thing, and the light of reason has banished many demons. But we're not entirely reasonable creatures, are we? No, there's always some small part of us huddling against the dark in some desolate cave. Perhaps, the, it's easy to see why why our culture is awash in depictions of sex and violence, why we're captivated by them, and the two inevitabilities they promise us: birth and death.

We're born in the dark and, eventually, we head back into it. This is the simple, salient fact of our existence, and not a one of us can do anything but guess as to what, if anything, happens on either side of that short equation. I'm not inviting a theological debate, mind, I'm just pointing to the simplest truth of why we are the way we are: We are, always, surrounded by darkness, and the entirety of human civilization is nothing but a sort of Christmas -- a brief flicker of light amid the dark and cold, and no matter how much we instill ourselves with faith and reason, we know with every thump of our caveman heart that, eventually, we'll each of us, at the end, face that darkness alone.

So we create symbols to deal with all of that, to communicate on that level, to speak to that place that only understands emotional aggregates. And sometimes we call those symbols heroes and monsters, and we let them war inside our skulls to remind us of the darkness, and how we overcome it, over and over, perpetually striving for the distant promise of spring. And sometimes we let our heroes also be monsters, because that, too, is an old and necessary thing. Sometimes what we need from our heroes changes, and so we rewrite our stories accordingly. But it's worth remembering what they sometimes were, because those old stories are always rumbling beneath the new ones. Greek myths are filled with "heroes" who commit atrocities, who lie and murder. Sometimes, they're barely better than the monsters they stand against. Of course, sometimes a little better is better enough, especially when the young of your city are bing fed to the Minotaur. Who cares about Theseus' ill treatment of Ariadne, or his being so self-involved that he forgot to change the color of his sails?

No, they're not exactly the qualities we look for in heroes in today's literature. Except we do. Because nobility and justice are only one set of priorities. There are others -- the ones that give us westerns and samurai films, and the nascent heroic images rising out of the American urban ganglands, from John Wayne films to the brilliant anime series Afro Samurai, the place where personal and familial honor hold sway above all else, and were vengeance has actual currency.


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Busy, busy, busy. Lisa's en route, and we're stopping by Sarah's New Year's Day party a bit later. Lots of puttering and cleaning going on.

Did want to take a moment, though, to repost this strip by R.K. Milholland, who regularly does the wonderful webcomic, Something*Positive, because it sums up everything I've been saying about the Muslim Batman nonsense out there (and indeed, mirrors my feelings about the uproar over black English actor Idris Elba playing the Norse god Heimdall in the forthcoming Thor movie.):




Here's to a great 2011, preferably one with fewer instances of racist stupidity permeating the culture. A boy can dream.
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Before I continue on with this odd foray into blogging about the hero in contemporary media (and I still find it odd to use the term "media" instead of "literature." We have no qualms quoting Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wilde and even stories that were handed down before written, such as Beowulf, as literature, why should we have qualms counting comics, television or film as such?) it strikes me as necessary to revisit the authority on the subject, Joseph Campbell, and his seminal work, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Mind, I have no intention of going on at length on the subject, as its available in any bookstore, but the book's last passage, "The Hero Today," strikes me as being as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1949.

Take it away, Joseph!

All of which is far indeed from the contemporary view; for the democratic ideal of the self-determining individual, the invention of the power-driven machine, and the development of the scientific method of research, have so transformed human life that the long-inherited, timeless universe of symbols has collapsed. In the fateful, epoch-announcing words of Nietzsche's Zarathustra:"Dead are all the gods." One knows the tale; it has been told a thousand ways. It is the hero-cycle of the modern age, the wonder­story of mankind's coming to maturity. The spell of the past, the bondage of tradition, was shattered with sure and mighty strokes. The dream-web of myth fell away; the mind opened to full waking consciousness; and modern man emerged from ancient igno­rance, like a butterfly from its cocoon, or like the sun at dawn from the womb of mother night.

It is not only that there is no hiding place for the gods from the searching telescope and microscope; there is no such society any more as the gods once supported. The social unit is not a carrier of religious content, but an economic-political organization. Its ideals are not those of the hieratic pantomime, making visible on earth the forms of heaven, but of the secular state, in hard and un­remitting competition for material supremacy and resources. Isolated societies, dream-bounded within a mythologically charged horizon, no longer exist except as areas to be exploited. And within the progressive societies themselves, every last vestige of the ancient human heritage of ritual, morality, and art is in full decay.

The problem of mankind today, therefore, is precisely the opposite to that of men in the comparatively stable periods of those great coordinating mythologies which now are known as lies. Then all meaning was in the group, in the great anonymous forms, none in the self-expressive individual; today no meaning is in the group-none in the world: all is in the individual. But there the meaning is absolutely unconscious. One does not know toward what one moves.One does not know by what one is propelled. The lines of communication between the conscious and the unconscious zones of the human psyche have all been cut, and we have been split in two.

The hero-deed to be wrought is not today what it was in the century of Galileo. Where then there was darkness, now there is light; but also, where light was, there now is darkness. The modern hero-deed must be that of questing to bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the co-ordinated soul.

Obviously, this work cannot be wrought by turning back, or away, from what has been accomplished by the modern revolution; for the problem is nothing if not that of rendering the modern world spiritually significant-or rather (phrasing the same principle the other way round) nothing if not that of making it possible for men and women to come to full human maturity through the conditions of contemporary life. Indeed, these conditions themselves are what have rendered the ancient formulae ineffective, misleading, and even pernicious. The community today is the planet, not the bounded nation; hence the patterns of projected aggression which formerly served to coordinate the in­group now can only break it into factions. The national idea, with the flag as totem, is today an aggrandizer of the nursery ego, not the annihilator of an infantile situation. ...

... But there is one thing we may know, namely, that as the new symbols become visible, they will not be identical in the various parts of the globe; the circumstances of local life, race, and tradition must all be compounded in the effective forms. Therefore, it is necessary for men to understand, and be able to see, that through various symbols the same redemption is revealed. "Truth is one," we read in the Vedas; "the sages call it by many names." A single song is being inflected through all the colorations of the human choir. General propaganda for one or another of the local solutions, therefore, is superfluous-or much rather, a menace. The way to become human is to learn to recognize the lineaments of God in all of the wonderful modulations of the face of man.

With this we come to the final hint of what the specific orientation of the modern hero-task must be, and discover the real cause for the disintegration of all of our inherited religious formulae. The center of gravity, that is to say, of the realm of mystery and danger has definitely shifted. ... Both the plant and the animal worlds, however, were in the end brought under social control. Whereupon the great field of instructive wonder shifted-to the skies-and mankind enacted the great pantomime of the sacred moon-king, the sacred sun-king, the hieratic, planetary state, and the symbolic festivals of the world-regulating spheres.

Today all of these mysteries have lost their force; their symbols no longer interest our psyche. The notion of a cosmic law, which all existence serves and to which man himself must bend, has long since passed through the preliminary mystical stages represented in the old astrology, and is now simply accepted in mechanical terms as a matter of course. The descent of the Occidental sciences from the heavens to the earth (from seventeenth-century astron­omy to nineteenth-century biology), and their concentration today, at last, on man himself (in twentieth-century anthropology and psychology), mark the path of a prodigious transfer of the focal point of human wonder. Not the animal world, not the plant world, not the miracle of the spheres, but man himself is now the crucial mystery. Man is that alien presence with whom the forces of egoism must come to terms, through whom the ego is to be crucified and resurrected, and in whose image society is to be reformed. Man, understood however not as "I" but as "Thou": for the ideals and temporal institutions of no tribe, race, con­tinent, social class, or century, can be the measure of the inexhaustible and multifariously wonderful divine existence that is the life in all of us.

The modern hero, the modern individual who dares to heed the call and seek the mansion of that presence with whom it is our whole destiny to be atoned, cannot, indeed must not, wait for his community to cast off its slough of pride, fear, rationalized avarice, and sanctified misunderstanding. "Live," Nietzsche says, "Live as though the day were here." It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal-carries the cross of the redeemer -not in the bright moments of his tribe's great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair.

And that's where we'll be picking up from, when we return to the subject, as we examine both what constitutes a hero, and what that means in the context of the 21st Century.

And we'll probably be talking a bit about Afro Samurai. For real.
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I think I confuse people sometimes, especially with these past few weeks' worth of blog posts, bopping around from superheroes to poetry, DADT to television, comic books to race. I think, sometimes, other people compartmentalize these things in a way that I don't, that they see these things as unconnected, whereas I see nothing but connections. I see our literature as comprising not just the novels and poetry that our academia tell us are important, but also the populist, the low-end, even the trash. Our literature is house of many mansions, and it has room for Harry Potter and the Paris Review, for comic books and television shows and slam poetry. It's all our literature, and you can't ignore all but a fraction of it and say you have an understanding of how it works. Because it's all connected. It's all representations of how our culture works itself out through language and metaphor. It's the place where we can hold our issues up to the light and examine them in relative safety.

These blog posts have all been an examination of a single metaphor, manifesting itself in myriad forms: the hero. "The Hero With a Thousand Faces," as Joseph Campbell said (and kudos to whomever won the betting pool as to how long it would take for me to bring him into this mess.) But not just any hero. No, I've been trying to come to grips with how the hero manifests now, whether he or she is named Buffy Summers, Harry Potter, Olivia Dunham, Hiro Nakamura, Veronica Mars, Jack Bauer, Deborah Morgan, Jaimie Reyes, Kim Possible, Jack Harkness, Kate Kane, Virgil Hawkins, Renee Montoya, Aang, Stephanie Brown, Malcolm Reynolds, Martha Jones or Ryan Choi. And I think, amid all of this, something's become clear to me: We're still struggling to enter the 21st Century.

You'd think something like that would be as easy as turning a calendar, wouldn't you? But it isn't. The past and the future are siege engines firing back and forth at the present, to steal a line from someone or other (Warren Ellis, maybe?), and we stand somewhere in the fallout. Everything around us changes, and we find ourselves facing questions that seem almost ridiculous, questioning assumptions about race, misogyny, homophobia, war, violence, economics, health care, even the distribution of information. Even the fairness of the platform we move that information around on. It's almost mind-boggling, and I think I can have a modicum of sympathy for people overwhelmed by it all, this idea that some of our basic assumptions of the world need to not only be re-evaluated, but built entirely from the bottom up. I listen to some of the Tea Party fever rage, and I keep hearing the same phrase, over and over again. "I want my country back."

Here's the sharpest, kindest answer: You can't have it. No one ever gets the past back, no matter how badly you think you want it. And really, you probably don't want it anywhere near as much as you think you do. History, for all its hardships, generally does move in the right direction. As a whole, we do become collectively more free, healthier, less violent and more comfortable as we move forward, but it sucks a lot along the way. It, really, really does. Every 80 years or so, American history pretty much takes a nose dive, and spends 10 to 20 years or so rebuilding. We're probably in the middle of that right now, and to tell you the truth, I have no idea what the other side is going to look like. History says it'll probably be a bit better, all around. History lies a lot, to steal another line, and there are still places in this country (never mind the rest of the world) where it still won't look that great. History's a zigzagging line, but the progression, over all, is usually upward.

But the past doesn't go away, either. Sometimes that's a good thing. The Bill of Rights becomes the syntax of our political vocabulary, sometimes holding it up like scripture, sometimes stewing when it gets in the way of what we think we want or need. Sometimes, we struggle over interpretations of what it means, or what it means today. Because we do live in a different world than it was in 1776. That's OK. Women can vote, we don't own slaves and non-property owners can vote. Never mind inoculations against a good many infectious diseases. The world's a better place than it was, and for all our struggles with it sometimes, over free speech and the right to bear arms, and just about any other issue we can conjure, it's still one of the things that makes us better than what we might have otherwise been. And we keep Superman around, too, as dusty and oddly quaint as he often seems. Because it's still, in the end, a good ideal. One worth remembering.

Still, some relics from the past can change. From the end of slavery to women's suffrage, from the Civil Rights Movement to the repeal of DADT, we do get better. We tinker and rebuild things for the future all the time. Stephen Moffat offers a Sherlock Holmes in the 21st Century, detached from others, choosing mostly to communicate via technology, and it works. Grant Morrison gives us a Batman who, rather than fighting a solitary war against crime in one city, turns costumed crime fighting into a franchise (like 7-11, or Al-Qaeda), with decentralized Batman operatives around the world, including a French one who is an Algerian Muslim immigrant, with requisite racist backlash from people who've not actually read the story, but who instead simply balk at any positive portrayal of a Muslim. As if such a large group of people -- about a sixth of the planet -- were all one thing. As if none of them are capable of being heroes. As if Muslim police and firefighters in New York weren't heroes on 9-11, some sacrificing their lives to save others. (But then, we don't always treat those real-life heroes all that well, do we?) Some of it is worth holding onto. It's not perfect, but it can be refitted.

But a lot of it? A lot of it can go. I raised the question earlier of no African-American poets being included in Anis Shivani's roundup of major poets discussing the influences of major poets. To his credit, Shivani responded, and said it wasn't for lack of trying. But that seems beside the point, because as much better as things have gotten, the shadow of history still falls on our literature as much as it does any other aspect of our culture. Writes critic Jordan Davis, "Literary history, at least as far as race in America is concerned, is stuck, and the doctrine of separate but equal has to be overturned again and again, with every book published. If the doctrine were dead, then it would be common knowledge that Robert Hayden is at least as remarkable a poet as Robert Lowell, or that the Hugheses—Ted and Langston—run about even; or that it would be ignorant of a young poet to study Elizabeth Bishop to the exclusion of Rita Dove, or vice versa. It would also finally be possible to assess the claim that Amiri Baraka's work—his early work as LeRoi Jones, anyway—outdoes them all. ...  It can be difficult to be a young black poet now. You're courted by publishers and anthologists, by the halls of academe; yet post-colonial and subaltern and diaspora scholars, who fight turf battles over what to call themselves, tell you what to write and how to write it, questioning your language and your motives (or, worse, applauding them) before you've written a line. Easier, I suspect, to be a young poet everyone is ignoring. Easier for what? To do what? Write a memorable poem that makes everyone around take notice? Then where are all the show-stopping thousands of young ignored poets? Is their game good enough to stand up to some of the best trash talk of our times, talk so dismissive it doesn't even bother with the second person?" (Thanks to Daniel Nester for the reference.)

It's overwhelming, and the smart money's on fighting the exhausting series of small battles, one after the other, because they're the ones that actually add up, over time, to effective change. You can't simply elect a Barack Obama and walk away. He's a change, but not the totality of it. The changes that need to be made burble up from the culture, eventually flowing into some sort of tide. Literature -- fiction, poetry, cinema, theater, comic books -- are where that plays out, and what wins in that arena is what smacks of truth, not which suits an ideology. You can pass a billion bills in Congress, and I'm forced to wonder how much of it adds up to a single comic book page of a teenage girl -- the newest Batgirl, Stephanie Brown -- slapping Batman.

Writes the author of that comic, Bryan Q. Miller, "Stephanie’s journey over the course of the volume leading up to this issue was all about self-awareness.  And about validation.  She had finally started to get some traction regarding being okay with who SHE is/was.  And then this legend, this symbol, shows back up.  This man she probably thought she’d never have to deal with again.  A man who’s approval she’d never truly been able to procure.  But then, as soon as she saw his face, as soon as she realized Bruce was up to his old tricks again, that they were dancing to a very familiar tune, Batgirl realized something - not only did she not want Bruce’s approval… she didn’t NEED it.  And that he would dare to presume to tell her what she did and did not need AND-THEN-SHE-TEA-KETTLED-AND-SLAPPED-HIM!"

It's magic. Sometimes the past -- even the past worth keeping around, in some form -- needs to get slapped, to be reminded that for all the good it's done, no matter how much we may love it, it doesn't own this moment. Because when the culture is dictated by nostalgia and habit, it's the present that gets neglected.  
ocvictor: ("If you can't do something smart....")
A lot of the subjects that we've touched on here in this blog are being discussed elsewhere, and indeed, are continuing well past where I've either gone (or, in many cases, where I'm comfortable going.) Still, one thing's been clear to me, as I work my way around the edges of what "heroes" mean in 21st Century popular culture: there is a stark divide between the artistic and commercial lives of these fictions. And sometimes, havoc can erupt from either side. Here's a few relevant odds and ends:

*I've made much hay, throughout this mess, of the TV show Fringe, and particularly, the character Olivia Dunham. I love Olivia -- she's smart, professional, and while she has odd, unflashy powers (she can travel between alternate universes, and see things that are from other universes) she's not really a superhero. She has what is sometimes described as a photographic memory, and a full life and story which involves family and romance. But ultimately she's all about her work. My kind of character. Alas, the people at Fox have seen to move the adequately rated Fringe to Friday nights, which has been a tomb for many fine shows, notably Firefly and Dollhouse, further proving one TV insider's assertion to me that Fox has the best development team in television, and marketers who have no idea what to do with them. I09 offers some things you can do to keep the show on the air.

*Way back in the article that got me rolling on this, Charlie Anders pondered examples of heroism -- not just in female characters, but in recent pop culture in general, and came up pretty empty. It's hard to argue when DC Women Kick Ass re-examines the death of Supergirl in Crisis on Infinite Earths, back in the '80s, which will always be among the gold standards of "heroic deaths" in comic books. They also offer some good thoughts on the rumored forthcoming death of Latino superhero Blue Beetle, none of them too kind toward old DC Comics, and rightly so. In related news, Bleeding Cool has some reactions from comic book creators on the repeal of DADT. The one from Larry Hama is touching. The one from Chuck Dixon is, to use DCWKA's terminology, "homophobic bullshit." AS DCWKA points out, it's significant, because he's been accused of homophobia in his writing before. (Go read their blog post. It's worth it.) What's clear here is that editorial at comic companies really do have the ability to put their feet down and keep themselves from being tarred as racists or homophobes, but somehow they seem to either be oblivious to what's happening in their own pages, or to how it's going to be perceived. Neither of which strikes me as a sensible attitude in an editor. (And as that's the job description on my nonexistent business cards, I know something of what I speak.) Surely, there's some sort of middle ground between creative freedom and change?

*Adam Christopher from Escape Pod talks up superheroes as the next big thing in fiction, using many of the same examples I did earlier, save one: Jeff DeRego's Union Dues stories ... which appear on Escape Pod! C'mon, dude. There's a time and a place for modesty!
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In my excitement about DADT (and, admittedly, disappointment about the DREAM act), I've been echoing some of what the DC Women Kicking Ass blogs have been posting, regarding Kate Kane, AKA Batwoman. But they've run a lot of good stuff about female comic book characters there, and it's very worth reading. I found their overviews on Stephanie Brown (Batgirl) and Lois Lane to be particularly relevant in connecting those characters to the culture. Writings like these and Andrew Wheeler's wonderful "No More Mutants" colum for Bleeding Cool do a great job of keeping diversity issues forward in the minds of the creators and fans of pop culture fictions, the groups most likely to be able to influence the continued diversity of the characters.

It almost feels odd explaining why this might be important. They are, after all, simply stories, and in the case of comic books, not particularly widely-read ones, at that. It seems odd to have to explain why a Kate Kane or (to switch to TV) a Capt. Jack Harkness might be extremely relevant to a gay teenager, how being able to see themselves as an action hero is the sort of thing that might actually change the course of someone's life. Moreover, it's almost unbelievable that one needs to point out that seeing diversity reflected in mediums such as film, television and comics goes a long way toward helping the culture sort out and normalize its own issues with a swiftly changing population mix, never mind the strictly commecial concerns that changing landcape presents for media companies looking 10 or 20 years down the road.

No, it would seem self-evident, but it terribly much isn't. The culture gets stuck in tokenism, reverting to type with a shift in the breeze. Take the odd case of the superhero, the Atom. In the midst of a number of relaunches and redesigns, comics writer Grant Morrison (who is,, for my money, the absolute best in the business at reconceiving old superhero concepts, even if reactionary, usually corporate, forces usually undo his best ideas) came up with a new Atom, Ryan Choi, a young Chinese scientist and longtime fan of the preceeding Atom, Ray Palmer. In the hands of writer Gail Simone, his comic was a delicious read. When it changed hands, it disintegrated, and eventually was canceled. Soon after, DC Comics, wanting to return Palmer to the role, killed off the character in a different book. It was brutal and unneccesary, especially when you've got three different white guys running around as the flash. It was hardly DC's only instance of reluctance to part with its Caucasian characters, but it was certainly the most egregious, especially considering just how good the Simone run was.  The fact remains, DC poked at diversifying its characters, but then bolted the moment it was hard. Could they have bolstered him by, say putting him in the Justice League, as they did with the Latino Super hero, Jamie Reyes (The Blue Beetle), whom they put in Teen Titans. Whatever their reasons for doing so, the move was distasteful and reeked of, if not overt racism, then at least a sort of enormous insensitivity.

This is the sort of bias that echoes throughout a culture, its significance snowballing as it moves further from the original slight. Nor is it restricted to "low" culture mediums. Take, for example, Huffington Post poetry critic Anis Shivani, who recently asked 22 poets to name who they believe is the most important contemporary poet and what influence that poet has had on his or her work. In what seems to be the sort of oversight that only the least race-conscious are capable of making -- that is to say, those who believe they are "blind to race," rather than keeping a conscious check on themselves and their own culturally inherited biases -- the list of poets queried seems to be devoid entirely of African-American writers. It's diverse, certainly -- there are Latino writers, and at least one Arab writer -- but unless I'm mis-identifying a writer's background, none of them are black. Moreover, although I do not recognize every poet that was named as influential in the article and so couldn't say for certain, but it appears that the only black poet named as being "influential" to contemporary poetry was Aimé Césaire. Forgive me if I'm wrong about that. I didn't recognize every name listed. But I recognized most, and it became clear fairly quickly that most of the poets interviewed selected those whose work and background was, quite understandably, most like their own.

But because of the initial act of bias (intentional or otherwise), an entire generation of highly influential black American poets was excluded from the list. Nikki Giovanni? Lucille Clifton? Sekou Sundiata? Quincy Troupe? These are poets that almost everyone who works the "live" (slam, coffeehouse, whatever) side of poetry has a direct debt to, not just African-American poets, but by positioning the focus of the lens where he did, Shivani manages to exclude the work of black American poets entirely. And that's a problem, especially when you have a forum and a readership. It's not just irresponsible, it creates an incomplete and misleading picture, one that echoes out and has ramifications beyond the initial mistake.

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The DC Women Kicking Ass blog is hitting it out of the park talking about the Batwoman character's roots in DADT. Here's a panel from Greg Rucka's seminal run on Detective Comics, and the blog post has a statement from Rucka as to what was going on in his mind as he wrote it:



I've been talking about heroes and fiction a lot lately, and there are a lot of ways that can be relevant to a culture, but perhaps the single greatest role a fictional hero can play is to illustrate the emotional truths behind ideas that can be too easily intellectualized, allowing injustices to be rationalized away. It's not the only role they can play, certainly, but it's one Rucka hit out of the park with this story: crafting a believable gay character who could be both related to and idolized, one who overcomes tragedy and still finds it in herself to help others.

Now, the argument will always be that it can be just as easily written the other way, and on a technical level, your correct. All sorts of hateful garbage gets published. Bit there's a spark when the writing hits something true. It's a matter of craft. Injustices against any groups are born out of caricature, and lack of empathy, and portrayals that re-enforce those views usually betray the lack of empathy with a hollowness of characterization. You can have conservative writers and characters -- science fiction, particularly, is rife with them -- but even those conservatives, the ones who write well, are slow to abandon empathy. Empathy is a tool in any artists' hands, and transcends political beliefs. With it, you can use a political issue as a starting point to create art. Without it, you're simply creating propaganda.
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In the end, I have to boil it down to myself and him, and where we stand in regard to one another. He's a fiction, of course, but I've lived comfortably with all sorts of fictions for years. No, he's the kind of fiction that gets under my skin. He held the moon in the sky when it was falling. He wrestled an angel to a standstill in San Francisco. He boxed Muhammad Ali on an alien space station. I've done none of these things. I have a bum knee that gets sore when the weather turns cold and wrestle with writer's block in Worcester, Massachusetts. (And indeed, I found it gratifying that he had at least one story, Under A Yellow Sun, that pretty much centered on him struggling with writer's block, too. Some things you can't bend-steel-in-your-bare-hands your way out of.) No, I like some of the stories, but still, I'm not ever going to be Superman, and I don't even think I particularly want a Superman in the world.

I wish I had Dave Macpherson's poem about Superman handy, riffing on his Jewish roots. I wish I could see the world the way those two boys living in Cleveland did, the world Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster saw, if only long enough to grasp it on more than an intellectual level. We talk about the Depression and the Holocaust, the absolute totality of poverty and existential threat, as if we understand them, but most of us really don't. There are parts of the world where they do understand these things with total clarity, but not in America. We're a culture that equates minor shifts in tax policies with totalitarianism, that sends soldiers off to wars in far off places that seem so distant from most of our day-to-day realities that they may as well be video game captures on the television screen. We have our suffering -- God, yes -- but perhaps  collectively lack a sense of proportion.

It takes a different kind of era to give birth to a Superman, the kind where everything is even more hard-scrabble than it is now, and yet still somehow more black and white, at least on the surface. The sort of time when you really were looking for excuses to look up in the sky. No one wants to hear that phrase, right now. It heralds something darker. Hell, even the dream of X-Ray vision's been taken from us, replaced with full-body scanners at the airports. Pop culture, particularly comic books, are filled with Superman knockoffs, but really, that's all they are -- echoes of the 20th century, still reverberating off the walls.

And maybe it's a good thing that Superman's still whispering: the best of the last century, that promise of nobility in the face of lengthening shadows. And maybe it's important that he was alien, because maybe that sort of encompassing goodness, that unfathomable perfection, is something we really need to look to an other to understand, because finding it in ourselves? That seems like a tough sell. But there he is, and here we are, and somehow, it's certain he's not going anywhere. And maybe that's OK. History's difficult to silence, and if something from yesterday needs to ghost us into the future, it might as well be him.
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It's not that I hate Superman. I don't. I actually rather like him when, for example, he appears in Justice League of America. I like the way he bounces off the other characters. Maybe it's that I prefer Superman with a good contrast. Certainly, I like quite a bit of the Batman/Superman team-ups that have appeared over the years. I don't know. All I know is that I inevitably drift out of Superman solo titles after a while, no matter how well-written. The only one I've kept up on at all in recent years is Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman, and I'm fairly sure that's squarely down to how much I like the writing.

It's not even that I don't appreciate Superman as a piece of iconography. Hell, if anything, I'm obsessed with Superman as a metaphor. Just off the top of my head, I know that several of the poems that appear in my book -- Andy Kaufman and Superman's Phone Booth, When Superman Was Resurrected  and There is No Word for 'Fear of Culture' -- reference symbols and metaphors from the comic quite liberally. And then there's the odd kinship I've always felt with Superman's creator, Jerry Siegel, who also lost his father in a violent incident in his youth, a parallel I've been aware of for some time, but wasn't moved to address in poetry until after reading Brad Meltzer's excellent thriller, The Book of Lies. Eventually, inspired in part by Meltzer's novel, I worked my feelings about the dark symmetry into my long poem, Boys' Own Stories, which is, as of yet, unpublished.

No, Superman's bouncing around my psyche, but oddly, I find I have little time for him in the day-to-day of my pop culture consumption. I find I want to love Superman more than I actually do. And I don't think I'm alone in that. Obviously, his comics sell well enough, I suppose, considering he's usually starring in several at any moment. And then there's Smallville, but somehow that always seems to succeed sort of despite being about Superman. Indeed, it seems to find its success in being just shy of being Superman. I hear good things about the cartoon, too, but then there was that tepid movie starring Brandon Routh, which didn't really seem to know where to go with the whole mythos. No, Superman's out there in the culture, and in force, but still ... I spend a lot of time talking to the sorts of people who are kind of fanatic about this stuff (some of them even blog about it!) and I never really get a sense of deep love for the character, and even when I do, I never get a sense of association. I get a sort of historical appreciation, or an affection for particular stories, but I never really find anyone who seems to see themselves in Superman.

Maybe it's the immense power. Certainly, it's always a challenge for the writers, keeping challenges coming. And from the point of view of trying to associate with the character, it's true, they make it a little tough, even as wish fulfillment. Certainly, everyone wishes they could leap tall buildings in a single bound, or change the course of mighty rivers with their hands, but I sometimes have to wonder if there's something odd about fantasizing about having that sort of power these days. Power -- that sort of power -- doesn't seem enough to ward off the dark anymore. America has enough nuclear missiles to destroy the world several times over, remember, but the airplanes at the center of the 9-11 tragedy were taken over by men with box cutters. Perhaps, in our conception of a hero these days, we look for a sort of power and execution of power that's a bit more nuanced. Maybe, deep down, we know power alone isn't enough.

And then there's the character himself, or at least, the popular conception of the hero: the boy scout, fighting for truth, justice and the American way. It seems, in these times which sort of teeter between firmly entrenched cynicism and an earnestness which seems desirable and yet a tad still out of reach, Superman's more of an aspiration that an association. You can see why he's loved, even if you really don't.

That's a lot of ambivalence, but icons sometimes do that. Especially when you get the appeal, but it's something you kind of wish you could feel more than intellectualize. Morrison, at the least, has always managed to sell it to me. His run on JLA, particularly, was one of my favorites, his final story pitting the JLA against a planet-destroying war machine from beyond the stars, with Superman trapped inside. Wracked by despair, he tells Batman and the Martian Manhunter something along the lines of,  "All we ever wanted was to  save Krypton and Mars. To save our parents. But we never did."

It's one of those things Morrison does well, letting the impossibly epic narrative fade into the background as he displays something hugely revealing about the characters in a matter of beats. And it's true, it's one of very few panels where I've really felt I've gotten the character, where I felt there was something there I could relate to, that sense of loss, that sense of trying to fill the hole inside with something positive.

The Routh movie used Superman as a Christ figure, and while that's a perfectly valid device, it fell a bit flat. Even as a self-avowed, non-churchgoing Christian, I don't particularly need my fictions to beat readers or viewers over the head with messages to which I may be somewhat sympathetic. Handled poorly, it cheapens everyone involved in the process. And the Routh film did handle it poorly, as have many other portrayals. But show me a guy with all the power in the world, who can still only even begin to fill the hole in his heart by doing good works and helping others? Yeah. That's a Superman I can get behind.
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I think one of the things that was annoying me most about Docx's rant against genre literature in The Guardian is that it seems to largely miss the point of one of "low" art's great strengths: That, as little is often expected of it, it often has the freedom to germinate the ideas that eventually get refined into both high art and commercial art. It's no accident that comic books -- a medium where just about anything can happen -- are proving to be the backbone of the movie industry, with a great number of ideas and stories being generated that couldn't find homes in more "respectable" mediums. (I'm in danger of overusing quotes here, I know.) Never mind that Neil Gaiman's Sandman and the invasion of British writers into the American mainstream comic book publishing world just about legitimized the whole field. ("I say, old chap. Is that a comic book you're reading?" "No, no. It's a graphic novel!" "Oh. very well, then. carry on.") No, putting Gaiman, Alan Moore and the rest aside for a moment, the serious treatment of comic books, their history and their tropes has been a serious conversation in fiction, from Michael Chabon's brilliant The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay to Austin Grossman's excellent Soon I Will Be Invincible to my old friend Jeff DeRego's Union Dues short stories, the comic book and it's role in the culture has been fair game for years. It's part of the literary dialog. And that's just a sliver of the influence the derided genres have had on the rarefied "literary" end of the spectrum. It is not that one group of work is one thing, while the other is another, it's that there is a current running between the literary works, and in that current, even the humblest airplane thriller might have something important to say, even if it's a kernel of a literary conceit, or a novelty of perspective.

High-end literary fiction often lives up to its title. It does. But it doesn't hold a monopoly on ideas, and a lot of the best ones, be they a lyrical device or the presentation of a metaphor, or just an effective execution of an age-old trope ... a lot of those get generated down in the pulp.

And it's with that in mind, it's hard not to consider that most iconic of the early comic book heroes: Superman.

Just about every American knows Superman. Born on the doomed planet Krypton, rocketed to Earth by his scientist father. Raised in Kansas by a loving couple who taught him truth, justice and the American way. Uses his mighty alien powers for good. Flies, except on Smallville, because they didn't want to run up the effects budget or something. Yeah. we know the story. It's one of those stories, out of all the millions generated in the 20th Century, that we can almost guarantee will survive for ages to come, like Sherlock Holmes (which were basically pulp stories) or the works of Shakespeare (which were performed, more often than not, for commoners.) It's a hard truth to break to the literary elites: the stuff for commoners usually outlives everything else. It's sturdy, and it's built to touch some real need or instinct.

But I have a secret. I don't much care for Superman ....
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