Monday, July 23, 2012

Look Up

I don’t think it’s a big secret that tastes change with age.  Experience tempers us into a different person given enough time; sure, the basics stay the same, but the details will shift and shape according to the things that have come along to stunt or enhance us. 

There was a time I was very much a “strike back” kind of guy.  If someone did wrong, they needed justice, they needed revenge visited upon them; they needed to pay for what they had done.  Then I spent some time seeing the results of that first hand with My Firm and I realized that cycle was pretty useless.  All it did was self-perpetuate and solve pretty much nothing.

As I’ve gotten older, I have come to appreciate an older point of view and the idea that people can be better.  The people can do the right thing when properly inspired.  At times, I do have moments of nihilistic pessimism, but I know what we are capable of when we look up instead of crawling through the shadows. 

I read a lot of comic books, and often my tastes are driven by what’s going on around me.  Something I will tell you though, as much as I do enjoy characters like Spider-man and Hulk, I’m a DC guy.  I’ve written elsewhere about why I prefer one to the other, and how I think DC characters are fictions to whom people could aspire rather than commiserate with.  For years, my go to for comics has been The Batman.  As a child it was likely Adam West that drug me that way, as he showed up re-run on Arizona TV the most.  Then, as happened to any geeky adolescent in the 80s, my perceptions of Batman and comics in general were forever changed.  DC published and collected Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” and “Batman: Year One.”  I won’t get into Miller’s later Batman work and how it should or could be interpreted, but DKR and YO had a profound effect on comics and geeks, and that’s been discussed at length elsewhere, so I won’t rehash that either.  Suffice it to say, Batman has been my favorite superhero for a long time. 

The internet has done something interesting though.  In the form of newsgroups, or email lists, or later blogs, or tweets, or Facebook posts, my thoughts and ramblings are recorded for all time. (So much for running for public office.)  Going back over my writings and musings, I started noticing something.  I’ve been talking about someone else a bit more.

Since 2008, my blog entries on this very site have run neck and neck regarding Batman, and DC’s—and the world’s—first superhero, the aptly named Superman.  Some of those posts cross-over; but, from a defense of “Superman Returns,” to some worship of“All-Star Superman” to the fact I was unable to bring myself to drink beer whilewearing a Superman costume in a bar—IN A BAR—I find myself seeking out old silver age Superman stories, and watching the cartoons repeatedly.  And I realized, I was commiserating more with Superman than I was with Batman.

I mean, it’s not like I didn’t always like Superman.  I saw both Christopher Reeve films in the theater.  I had (have) the Mego figure.  Whenever I do something particularly… less than safe… with my Firm, I wear a Superman T-shirt under my gear.  When I fly, I wear Superman underwear.   One time, about 18 or so years ago, Jen and I stopped on the side of I-10 to help two old ladies and a couple of kids fix a flat.  We had parked a ways up and I left Jen in the car, and ran back to see what the problem was.  When I got there a state trooper was pulling over and was going to help.  Just as I was about to run back to my car to leave, the little girl in the back of the car asked where I came from.  Now, again, 18 years ago, so a lot more hair and a lot less gut was wearing a certain emblem, and I couldn’t resist saying, “I’m Superman,” before running off to disappear into the night.  I just kind of realized recently I was reading more about the Man of Steel, and less about The Dark Knight. 

Speaking of my Firm, I spent the last three years teaching my students the difference between our Nation’s abilities and the abilities of our sneakier enemies by explaining how Batman would beat Superman in a fight.  Sure, Batman distinguishes himself by not being a killer, but in the end he’s a scared little boy lashing out.  His anger drives him, but it’s sad because what would that brilliant mind be if it were working for the betterment of mankind rather than just the miniaturization of cable filament so his bat-grappler works better.   When turned on the farmboy who never crosses his own lines, Batman’s inherent darkness will win.  Superman is a little sappy.

“Oh,” I hear you say, “That means someone sappy like Superman isn’t relevant anymore.”  Yeah, that comes out every few years, and what happens?  Someone kills him, or makes him renouncecitizenship, or gives him a mullet, and people are up in arms: if this character is irrelevant, why do we care?  Because in the end all superheroes exist because of Superman.  In the end, everything a Superhero should be is Superman.

(In the interest of full disclosure, this is a breaking point in my initial writing; during the time this was on pause, The “Man of Steel” teaser hit, and a man with a lot of guns shot up a theater showing “The Dark Knight Rises.”  Neither of these events change my intent here, but I can’t say they won’t influence how I say it.)

It’s not just comics though, is it?  Look at this symbol:

I’ve been all over the world, and no matter where I go, this symbol means something: as much as any corporate logo, and in some cases as much as any religious emblem. Those kids 18 years ago knew that symbol. (And I will never forget the look in their eyes as they wondered if it were true…) When people see that symbol, they know it means more than ‘S.’  Sure, some people interpret it differently, but there’s one thing that symbol has meant to whomever I have talked to about it.

Look up.

With no irony, with no condescension, when you look up, Superman might be there, might just be a blue/red blur who will help us when we need it most.  More than that, Superman stands for all we have the potential to be: Superman saved a kitten from a tree.  I don’t need to be an invulnerable alien from Krypton to save a kitten.  Maybe I should save kittens, or help feed the poor, or help defend the helpless, or a million other things we CAN do without flying or being bullet-proof.

Look up.  A sensibility like that can lead to us not only looking up to see Superman, but to see ourselves up there, making this world a better place.  I know Superman is a fictional character, but he has come to symbolize an idea of something better, a light we so desperately need in our darkness.  I have many times said (and I know now incorrectly) that we want Superman; we need Batman.  No, we need a light shining in the darkness, we need an example of good with no sense of irony for our kids, for us, for our world.  The ‘S’ means that cross-culturally, an icon that instantly conveys rightness and hope for a better tomorrow.

Look up.  If you are writing Superman for page or screen, look up when you idealize him in media.  He’s important, and with the power of your written word comes great responsibility.  The essential nature of Superman is eternal and unchanging.  He is not a dark character and can never be.  His circumstances may be, but he is that light, that example.  I think the new teaser (though I am wary how good an interpretation the film will be) for the 2013 film Man of Steel does manage to capture this in Jor-El’s voice over:

"You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time you will help them accomplish wonders". 
Look up.

I have great appreciation for the Batman, and will always.  What a great character, subject of great story and film.  Unlike any other fictional character I know of though, Superman means something; something that as I get older I realize I would rather find in my fiction than just the good guy beating up the bad guy.  Something better something calling us to action.  I want to answer that call, I want to make the world around me a better place with whatever powers and abilities I as mortal man have.  And so my tastes have changed.  With this blog, I declare my favorite hero to be Superman…

…though Batman would still take him in a fight.  And indeed, perhaps the fact Batman would take the Kryptonian in a fight is validation for my thoughts.  Superman would not compromise what he stands for to do what it takes to end Batman, and therefore lose to the Man who must do anything to win.  Superman’s ends do not justify his means, and finally in my life, neither do mine.  I’ve decided to try something.

I’m looking up.

All images property of Warner Bros, no infringement intended, no profit made

Saturday, July 14, 2012


No planning here; in fact I’ve been working on another essay altogether, and this one just struck me. (To be totally forthcoming, I am as I actually post this to the blog doing a quick read-over for editing, but not changing content itself.)  It will likely ramble a bit as it is being born as I write it, and the birth process of an idea is as messy as the actual event upon which the allegory is based. 

I am reading a rather fascinating essay in it’s own right.  This author is a rather insightful 17-year-old film fan who spent two years writing a 130 page treatise on the cultural significance and deeper meaning of the seminal film Blade Runner.  He loves the film as much—more—than I do, and though he could use a good professional editor (couldn’t we all?) he’s got some wonderful ideas about the various cuts, and the greater context of cinema in the year 1982, upon which he can look with a less biased eye as he didn’t yet exist to have experienced it first hand.  I saw many of those movies in the theater, so of COURSE I think it’s the best year movies have ever had.  The fact smart kids think so too is rather refreshing.

While discussing the type of future in which Blade Runner is set he quotes another simply wonderful film—albeit from a couple of years later—Back to the Future.  We all remember that last scene: Doc Brown in with his now garbage/fusion fueled time machine comes to take Marty McFly into the magic world of 2015 (screw you, Mayans) where famously Brown notes, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

I’ve been watching that film repeatedly for NEARLY as long a time as Brown and the McFlys traveled into the future.  Yet only now discussing potential futures does the profundity of that statement strike me.  “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”  Sure, Brown means it literally as evidenced by the flying Delorean, but think of the broader interpretation.  We’re heading for the future, and the way things are now are not the way things will be forever.  Right now we live in a nation webbed with asphalt connecting every single point with every single other point.  We live in an automobile culture (I have written elsewhere about our adoration of our cars), but one day we will beyond that.  Someday, we won’t need roads. 

Let’s get beyond the auto/road idea though.  The way in which we now live will not be the way our descendants will live.  Hell, the way we are living now won’t be the way we live 30 years from now, any more than we are living the same way as 30 years ago.  Sure, no moonbases or even widespread flying cars, but the amount of connectivity between people and information—even in the poorest of nations—changes the destiny of those nations (ask Egypt).  The way we shop, the way we get places, the way we eat, the content of our music and fiction; given only 30 years, all these things will be lost… like tears in rain (couldn’t miss that one).

With change so inevitable, we have no choice but to change ourselves, and honestly the more we fight it, the worse it will be.  Instead, we have an opportunity to shape that future.  We can cling to the past, or we can change those things we should change.  We don’t need roads; we don’t need to follow a path just because we always have.  We can ask ourselves what new way we can create to ride those ways of change. As one of my favorite futurists, Warren Ellis, states in his remarkable work Transmetropolitan, "The future is an inherently good thing."

Let’s take one more look: “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”  Imagine a world where we make decisions not to follow those darker paths, not to oppress or attack, but to act with care for our fellow humans, and with the honest intent to improve the world around us.  You feel over legislated?  When we, as a species, stop causing trouble and start working together, we don’t need to be policed or governed, we can just live.  A place where we don’t need roads.  That sounds pretty cool. 

So thanks Doc Brown for getting my attention.  Reminding me the future can be bright if only we—all of us—want it to be.  We can’t take this on singularly, we can’t just “take care of ourselves;” we have to be responsible for our fellow humans.  Because as much as things change, it is always us in the middle of it, and in 10,000 years our nature hasn’t changed nearly as much as it should.  You can’t separate yourself from the world, from the responsibilities we have as a species.  Any of us are only as good—or as bad—as all of us.  If you don’t think so, go back and read whichever book you think serves as instructions for life; not one of them I am aware of says you’re on your own.  Not Darwin, not Jesus, not Buddha, not YHVH, they all tell us about an essential collectiveness to our species.  Act on it…

…so we don’t need roads.