By Frenchy Lunning
The lone hero caught in a dilemma... whether this image of loneliness says something about masculinity as a whole... It is a powerful image of male alienation... there is a basic clash between bourgeois civilization and men. Roger Horrocks, Male Myths and Icons
It was always like this: Batman was standing high and still above Gotham, his cape unfurled and lifted by the power of the city, the updraft of heat, lights and conflict. His profile imposing a masterful image in the night sky, his masculinity magnificently displayed: dark and mysterious, yet filled with a sense of potential: of power and sexuality. I was too young to be aware of the rumors of his homosexuality: his relationship to Robin I revered as one of father/protector. All I knew was the sense of 'lift' I felt when I gazed on my hero high above the city: a mixture of admiration, inspiration, a budding sexuality and something else. That something else had to do with something higher, larger in scale, more abstract. I understood that it had harkened to a finer sense of leadership, and of manhood. It is that 'something else' that has become the focus of my research and thinking about many things, including superhero comics. It became a sort of quest to discover the power of the superhero, especially in that stance above the city.
It was very apparent that the city itself had a lot to do with it. Views of the city are common in comic books from the Golden Age to the present. It was there that the superhero was born as an expression of desire for an urban hero. The essential seat of his existence and power is in the city. Because the superhero narrative has as its primary narrative goal the saving of a populace and the restoration of peace and justice, cities are the ultimate location for successive plot potentials: people and property provide incentives for action. But it is the scale of the city that provides the most dramatic landscape and becomes illustrative of the scale of the superhero's teleological task and provides the most poignant moment of identification for the reader: the human figure against the ground of the most significant modern image of human culture, the city.
It was also clear that the views of the city that were charged with the most significance, were of the lone superhero, caught in a dilemma, perched above the city in order to gain the larger perspective. The city is the great symbol of the aggregate of peoples and practices. As Scott Bukatman states:
Identity in the city is a costume drama. The presentation of self in everyday life in the inner city is a form of theatre where identity is role and entropy is high... in the city we can change our identities at will... its discontinuity favors both instant heroes and instant villains... The condition of the city and the condition of the subject become 'identical.' (Bukatman, 1993)
It is an intersection of all the discourses of history packed in a single great knot. It is as close to a literal articulation of its meanings as any other symbol one might consider. The city is paradoxical: it is at once both monumental and scale-less as we lose our sense of reference and position within its immensity (Bukatman, 1993). In its symbolic form, the city represents the fragmented, constantly deferring polyglot of discourses and identities. There is no stable foothold, no smooth clean surface upon which to site/cite; instead, it is a surface whose graffiti has been worked and re-worked by a thousand different voices and hands. It is the place where all can be known and yet few are recognized, where in an enormous public the experience is of the private, and where potential and utter failure swivel in an instant.
In comic books of the Golden and Silver Ages, the city was usually depicted as a spotless modern city with smooth surfaces and clean lines. It radiated prosperity, newness and progress. I remember Superman comics with Superman doing his super-thing in the foreground, and behind him a shining city of lights and gridded monoliths with a pale-blue cloudless sky beyond, an image of progress and order as the foundation of our utopian understanding of the human community. With the onset of the Modern Age of comic books, with its predominance of the somewhat sinister, brooding, dark superhero, came the transformation of the city from its gleaming modernism to a dark, gothic postmodernism. The city became the outer sign of a changing paradigm in culture. Frequently presented as a decaying labyrinth of ruined buildings, litter and debris from layers of desperate habitation, and perpetually wet, mean streets; this gothic city revealed our frantic anxiety towards contemporary attitudes on the potential of a dense human community traveling through change at warp speed (Bukatman, 1993). Something was rotten, and it was manifested in the dire signification of decay and chaos.
It becomes apparent that the view from above is now a space of contemplation and mediation. As a bubble of introspection in the narrative, the superhero confronts problems, prepares for action or considers alternatives, but always as a moment frozen from the trajectory of the story. Daredevil frequently represents the most common representation of the superhero above the city. He zooms through the air, exulting in his super abilities to soar above the city. The ground of the city is in a sepia tone and his red figure, flexed in the midst of a somersault. The cord is drawn in a dynamic and expressive mode to indicate the agility and rapidity of Daredevil's movements against the momentary staid and static reality of the city below. In a later scene, Daredevil is pondering an ethical decision he must make which would require him to kill someone - a baby. It illuminates the superhero's isolation and alienation as the only one who 'knows:' the only one who can make things right, and the one who might pay a price in terms of his humanity.
Poor old Spawn, also tends to linger moodily above the city at night, He perches on the cross atop a steeple of a church. As ambivalent hell spawn, the irony of his chosen site is clear: the juxtaposition of his reality as a thing from hell and his location on top of a church articulate the nature of his dilemma. He is a man in profound psychic trouble, seeking his past identity at the same time as he realizes it is no longer who him. In another postmodern representation of the fragmentation of his identity, we see aspects of Spawn's memory and his nascent identity as snapshots of images over his red cape and mask drifting above the city. At the bottom of the image is an hourglass, whose lower globe is burst, expelling the sands of time: Spawn's past, although present only in memory, has flown into the ether.
In The Dark Knight Returns, Batman propels himself into the city with a leap of a vicious wrestler. Lit from the city below, Batman appears to have come out of a vague darkness into the light of definition. He is a powerful, animal-like presence who pounces into the city to attack the bad guys. He is massive in scale in relation to the city, and his pose is intimidating and sinister. Batman, in this "dark knight" persona is pessimistic and cynical, especially as regards his fellow citizenry. He regards criminals as vermin, and scoffs at the idea that criminals might be redeemable. His response to crime is immediate, extremely violent, and to the death: much as a predator with prey. Rather than a place of potential, Batman regards the city to be invested with vermin and a sink-hole of corruption.
The Utopian Position
The superhero is lone, isolated and alienated by the condition of his duality - potent as the superhero, yet haunted by his humanity. He seeks a position from which to gain a broader view of the polis, and it is within this gaze that much of this phenomenon is understood. As Bukatman notes, "much of the pleasure results from continual transformations of scale and perspective... a sense of atmospheric haze: the effect is a stunning redefinition of scale... the transgression of a scalar perspective" (Bukatman, 1993). But there are two levels of gazing in operation. We acknowledge the superhero's gaze cast out across the city. But in the moment of his gaze, we apprehend the full potency of his act. There is an archetypal triad in this romantic depiction; the lone man against the night sky, the yawning vastness of twinkling dots of light on massive dark geometric mountains and our profound desire to see this image.
Jameson states that science fiction "is defined by the display of the totalizing gaze which reveals the entire city in a single action of vision and description" and regards "utopias as privileged discursive objects because they permit the emergence of cultural anxieties" (Bukatman, 1993). Do the cities of the superhero comic book qualify as utopias? Certainly the city of Transmetropolitan would, despite its grotty density and its overpopulation. It is a city where regardless of humanity's predilection for prejudice and violence, something can be done once and a while. Even though it might be considered a long ethical and moral fall from previous modernist utopian literature, there is a distinct whiff of optimism in Transmetropolitan. Spider Jerusalem is relentlessly defiant in a culture that demands compliance. He runs against the grain on matters of moral conflict regardless of the cost to his person. Is this a utopia? Bukatman, in discussing similar aspects of science fiction film, draws the distinction that makes the point, at least in Spider's case: "film... has staged a passage from ontological certainty to uncertainty, centering on the relation between utopia and human definition... there is a utopia to be found in film... [and] that lies in being human" (Bukatman, 1993). The position of the superhero perched above the city evokes its own location in utopia - not as an ideal plan, or even in being simply human, since he necessarily he is so much more, but in the stance so reminiscent of Ernst Bloch's aufrechter Gang, the 'upright gait' in its simple acknowledgment of the potential human potentiality: "the utopian is not finally any one place of time, but the capacity to see afresh... which appears to open up possibilities rather than close down alternatives" (Armitt, 1996).
Kingdom Come utilizes the city as a significant aspect of its discourse. In the initial exposition of information, the Spectre draws back a celestial curtain to reveal Keystone City from above, glowing in the night with a thin red strip lacing around the city - the trail of the Flash. Spectre comments to McCay:
"In the time of Superman's absence, Keystone City has become a utopia - a protectorate relentlessly patrolled by a gale force once human... He is the Flash" (Waid, 1997).
The 'Flash,' a Golden Age hero much beloved then as now, was the reason for the reawakening of superhero narratives in the Silver Age. In this sense, he is the 'guardian angel' of superhero comic books. The city in this narrative is a stage set for the plot structure of humans regaining control of their world from renegade superhumans. The Spectre refers to the city as a 'utopia,' a site of ideal relationships between individual rights and responsibilities in an ideal balance with those of the community. In an interesting counter of images, two views of Superman returning to save the far-from-utopian city occur. Above, Superman makes his comeback debut magnificently with a load of bad guys in his hands. The view of Superman is from below, looking up at his now classic stance, red cape flowing behind a solid male body and a stern face. He seems very close in view, but he also seems to hang in space. There is no city visible to ground this event. He drifts in the blue sky. This top image is a baroque composition of the celestial bodies of superheroes in the throes of battle. In the bottom panel we see the same superheroes on patrol in the city from a distinctly child's eye view. From the child's perspective, the city frames the superheroes, defining their scale and position as those who are above the community. This sequence of images frames for the reader the essential problem of the story, and suggests its resolution.
Finally, Spider Jerusalem of Transmetropolitan, presents the most current shift in the position of the superhero in regards to the city and the people inside it. Spider stands above the city - except it is a view from within his apartment window looking out and down. He stands in a dense clutter of cultural crud and detritus. Outside his window he gestures to more 'stuff:' advertising, people, cars, dogs, and trash. Instead of a contemplation of his inner angst, he looks out to the reader with a sly grin in acknowledgment of our united experience. He identifies with us as we identify with him. On the next and final page, Spider is down with the people of the city who, we have learned, are in the process of transcending humanity with an interracial mixing of species: alien and human. The adaptation of alien eyes are the dead giveaway to an alien parentage. Spider's superhero eyeglasses pay homage to the transformation of the culture, as well as his acceptance and ready identification with this change in the city.
As Bukatman suggests: "These hypothetical civilizations represent the fruition of the human drive for immortality, but immortality is accompanied by (is predicated on) the complete supersession of sexuality and decay - the supersession of our very organism" (Bukatman, 1993). The "hypothetical civilizations" are the terrain of the superhero narrative. The boundaries of this terrain gesture towards shared community experiences and the larger issues of ethics and belief. It stands to reason, that a focus on the superhero himself must be examined to fully appreciate and comprehend the structure of the discursive web of the superhero position above the city. His story is formulaic, with an origin story and a specific set of transformations that move the narrative through time and space, and produce the desired effects at the proper points. As Armitt notes: "all literary structures are entirely dependent upon the centrality of metamorphic transformations, being secondary explanations of an original phantasy which has no fixed or final form" (Armitt, 1996). The superhero comic book narrative follows the trajectory of the "drive for immortality" or the desire for transcendence. That trajectory begins with the superhero himself as man and as symbol.
As we dig into the Superhero's story, we discover clues to his bifurcation into light and dark expressions of an idealized masculinity. Todorov points to a variation in the literature of fantasy that has become a key variation in the Modern Age, in that there are: "two principal tendencies of literature: the comic, which reconciles the hero with society; and the tragic, which isolates him from it" (Todorov, 1973). This description profiles the 'dark' and the 'light' superheroes as well as their respective narratives. These descriptions seem to have been, in the Golden and Silver Ages, mutually exclusive. The current depiction of the superhero is becoming progressively more complex and 'realistic'. Their complexity indicates the complexity of the masculine narrative in culture. As Horrocks points out: "It has been observed that the strenuousness of the masculine identities is a pointer, not to their solidity, but their fragility; to be a mucho hombre is not a birthright but an accomplishment won and maintained with pain and difficulty" (Horrocks, 1995). The superhero narrative is the story of the struggle to define the masculine in a web of radically altered identities and conditions. It is also a narrative that seeks transcendence through confrontation with the power of sex and death in its various manifestations, at the same time as it restores and re-stabilizes the status quo. The transcendent aspect of the superhero's narrative, with its codes of civic and spiritual events attempts to extend the discourse of the superhero and lay it upon a larger-scaled map.
The routes to transcendence in culture have been historically related to the only moments of transcendence considered possible to human beings: sexual orgasm and death, through the rituals of eroticism and sacrifice. Bataille suggests that "Sexuality and death both deny or even destroy the sense of self that must be preserved, but both reconnect the subject to the larger continuities that are always present, albeit forcefully repressed. Sex and death produce a dissolution of the subject on one level, but produce a synthesis on another. This is the paradox... the crisis of existence" (Bukatman, 1993). This is also transcendence. But it is a transcendence that is scripted by the culture, heavily laden with taboos, conditions, and codes. The "larger continuities" lie in the continuation of existence of certain phenomena; things in the universe that seemingly do not die and therefore have accumulated particular discourse around them. The inexplicability of their existence allows cultural discourse to develop a coating of mystery and mysticism around them and links them to transcendent narratives. Our position as dissolute and fragmented identities suggests that we seek unity through transcendence by identification with that which is outside ourselves that we recognize as fulfilling in terms of our lack. In comic books, it is through the superhero's experience of sexuality and violent sacrifice that we apprehend his relation to our society.
The violence of the superhero is almost always sacrificial in nature. It is a sacrifice of his inner sense of justice and righteousness, to eliminate the 'bad guys' and reset the balance of goodness in society. Killing is wrong, but the superhero kills or damages at his own mortal and moral peril. We experience simultaneously both the horror of the sacrifice and the eroticism of the visual display of the continuity of life. We thrill not only in his torment but in his strength to do "what must be done." The notion of responsibility is viewed as the ultimate task of the superhero's journey, and is consequently the major plot aspect of most superhero narratives.
Transcendence, then, in a utopian sense, must refer to those elements in comic book text and image that point away from the personal narrative towards the universal. The preponderance of narrative aspects such as the city, religion, responsibility, and the apocalypse refers to the contextual cultural condition of the narrative. It represents part of the constellation of discourses that the superhero is positioned to confront and overcome, with the proviso that he performs the task of acting as our agent in favor of society: which is to be protected, upheld, stated, and reinstated. Comic books generally take a conservative world-view in this regard. A conservative world view, does not define a political position as such, but is opposed to a 'transformative world view.' By this notion of conservatism, we can recognize the common comic book narrative convention of a restoration of a society to its previous state as a major factor in the plot structure. It honors a societal condition that has been historical and has particular elements that signify a 'good society' and is recognized as valuable to the superhero, whose job is to either restore that society, if it has been lost, or to prevent it from being destroyed in the first place.
Both Transmetroplitan and V for Vendetta storylines promote transformative world-views. Transmetropolitan discusses the civil rights of a mixed race of alien/human beings, and works towards transforming the existing culture that will be enriched and enhanced by the inclusion of these people in the mainstream culture. V for Vendetta literally explodes the existing fascist culture because of the systematic policy of ethnic and sexual cleansing. The force of the storyline is the destruction of the existing culture, with only an implied hope of a more democratic system to be put in its place. Either way, it is the superhero who is the focus for transformative power and change in his society. The image of the hero high above the city is the signal for that event in the narrative, and always has been. It is his key moment, and we recognize it through the extremes of scale, the city as a symbol of society, and, as a recovering patriarchal culture, through the pivoting potentials of masculine sexuality and death in the profile of the superhero.
The 'Something Else'
So what about that 'something else' I detected as a child? I think that it belongs to a moment rarely identified, in the notion of the 'social contract.' It is a theory that projects an illusory moment when free individuals voluntarily subsume their freedom in favor of a contract establishing the basic political, civil and moral principles of a society. This contract "aims to legitimize these principles by invoking the notion of consent. Through consent the contract lays claim to a form of authority which is derived from the agreement of those who undertake to be bound by it" (Edgar, Sedgwick, 2002). The issue of the rights of the autonomous individual versus the rights of the many is the bedrock of concern for the nature of our social order as a human community. How that issue is presented: how it is designed, drawn and written is the image we have of who we are and what we stand for in our society. The hero high above the city represents that moment of decision: in the tense dichotomy between the hero as the individual and the hero as a symbol of our collective desire for stability, safety and happiness, the superhero is lifted aloft as our representative. Even as he descends back into his formulaic narrative, he retains that aura as the sign(er) of the social contract. He is 'super' because he is more than a hero: he is the enactment of our most essential agreement. He has sacrificed his position as an individual to become a symbol of our most profound collective desires for an ideal society. His masked identity as a superhero becomes his dominant identity, and his everyday human self the mask of his true meaning.
In his utopian work the Republic, Plato discusses the philosopher-kings, who, because they are rational beings hold a true knowledge of what is good, and will lead society towards a perfect social order: "On Plato's account, the highest form of cultural life is envisioned as being realizable through the elucidation of a model of human nature which reflects the order of objective reality and reason" (Edgar, Sedgwick, 2002). Though we no longer hold the exclusive goals of "objective reality and reason," the superhero's projection as a "model of human nature" stands as the highest expression of cultural life. The comic book superhero as a model of cultural form is currently being recognized for its unique power. The predominance of superhero stories and screenplays in popular culture is telling. In a time when the fundamental morals and goals in our society are in great dispute, and our social order is convulsed in change, the need for a model of human nature appropriate to the time is extreme.
And what of the superhero? What is the nature of his sacrifice? Robert Blauner, a social psychologist, begins to explain more fully the position of the hero high above the city as one of alienation. He described alienation as the condition of the subjective experience of modern life, particularly in cities. He describes four forms of this alienation as: powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation and self-estrangement (Edgar, Sedgwick, 2002), and likened them to the condition of the exile. We can see this clearly in the anguish of our superheroes, exiled to the tops of buildings: Spiderman's isolation and longing, Spawn's lack of a sense of identity and loneliness, Superman's acknowledgement of his alien status, and of course Batman's fundamental psychosis which estranges the self from its true identity. The sacrifice of the superhero is his alienation not only from society, even as he symbolizes its ideal profile, but also from his self. In the recognition of this sacrifice, that even a child comprehends, is a by-product that is the gift of society in recognition of sacrifice, and that is honor.
It is honor that was that 'something else' I saw in Batman. It is a concept that has lost much of its power in a society that promotes heroism to an everyday media event. Yet it is a rare and unique quality that is absolutely essential to notions of a fully recognized masculinity. The superhero has, since the mid-twentieth century, articulated a boiler-plate definition of honor from the context of the times. From his marginalized position, the comic book superhero has continued to express an idealized masculinity as a position of a deep sense of right and wrong, with an integrity and adherence to those ethics in the face of death. Though sometimes trivialized in terms of narrative by a marketing strategy towards juvenilia, the superhero retains - in all his narratives - his imperative to present a profile of honor. Notions of the city, social contracts, aspects of masculinity and utopia are condensed in a discursive web that is codified in that most meaningful image in comic books: the hero high above the city.
- Armitt, Lucie. (1996). Theorising the Fantastic. New York: Arnold.
- Bataille, Georges. (1986). Eroticism: Death and Sensuality. (Mary Dalwood, Trans.). San Francisco: City Lights Books. (Originally published in 1957).
- Bukatman, Scott. (1993). Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham: Duke University Press.
- Horrocks, Roger. (1995). Male Myths and Icons: Masculinity in Popular Culture. New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc.
- McFarlane, Todd. (1992/1998). Spawn: Book I. Fullerton, California: Image Comics.
- Miller, Frank, Klaus Janson & Lynn Varley. (1996). The Dark Knight Returns. New York: DC Comics. (Originally published as Vols. 1-4, in 1986).
- Smith, Kevin, Joe Quesada, & Jimmy Palmiotti. (1998, 1999). Daredevil. New York: Marvel Comics. (Originally published as Vol. 2, 1-3).
- Todorov, Tzvetan. (1975). The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. (Richard Howard, Trans.). Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
- Waid, Mark and Alex Ross. (1997). Kingdom Come. New York: DC Comics
Lunning is a Professor of Liberal Arts at the Minneapolis College of Art and
Design, a Fulbright scholar; and researcher and Editor-in-Chief of
Mechademia, an academic journal on Japanese anime, manga and popular culture; and is co-director of SGMS: Schoolgirls and Mobilesuits: Culture and
Creation in Manga and Anime, an annual workshop at the Minneapolis College of
Art and Design.