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Superheroes And The F-Word: Grappling With The Ugly Truth Under The Capes

Superheroes preserve the status quo, employ symbolic visual imagery, have flawless bodies and use their powers to place themselves above the law. Are they just fascists in tights?

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Superheroes are democratic ideals.

They exist to express what’s noblest about us: selflessness, sacrifice, a commitment to protect those who need protection, and to empower the powerless.

Superheroes are fascist ideals.

They exist to symbolize the notion that might equals right, that a select few should dictate the fate of the world, and that the status quo is to be protected at all costs.

Both of these things are true, and inextricably bound up with one another — but they weren’t always.

When he debuted in 1938, Superman was, briefly, a progressive icon. He sprang, after all, from the minds of two Jewish kids in Cleveland warily watching the rise of Hitler in Europe. In his first year of life, they sent their “Champion of the Oppressed” (his very first nickname, years before “Man of Steel”) after corrupt Senators, war-mongering foreign leaders, weapons merchants, and crooked stockbrokers. He purposefully razed a slum to force the city government to provide better low-income housing. (He also launched one-man crusades against slot machines, reckless drivers, and cheating college football teams, which ... yeah. Guy kept busy.)

Both Captain America and Wonder Woman were created expressly to fight the Nazi threat. Literally, to fight it — to punch it right in its dumb Ratzi face.

Batman, on the other hand, spent much of his first year protecting only his city’s wealthy elite from murder plots, jewel thieves and extortion. (Also werewolves and madmen with Napoleon complexes piloting death-blimps. Comics, guys!) It took him a while to turn his attention to the kind of petty crime that afflicted the common citizen — the arrival of Robin the Boy Wonder helped him focus.

But with the advent of World War II, Superman, Batman and other costumed heroes found themselves conscripted alongside Captain America. Not to fight the Axis themselves, mind you, but to root out stateside saboteurs and urge readers to plant Victory gardens and buy war bonds.

In the process, the visual iconography of superheroes — which, comics being comics, is 50% of the formula, remember — melded with that of patriotic imagery. This continued for decades after the war, as once-progressive heroes like Superman came to symbolize bedrock Eisenhower-era American values — the American Way — in addition to notions of Truth and Justice.

The Wertham Era

Yet there was always something about superheroes, and Superman in particular. He’d helped inspire the country to defeat fascism, but he looked like he did — the kind of idealized male musculature the Nazis fetishized — and he possessed “powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.” What’s more, he used said powers and abilities against those comparatively weak and frail mortal men, if they stepped out of line. He also came from an advanced planet peopled by a — and here’s a pesky phrase that kept cropping up in Superman comics — “super-race.”

It wasn’t intended, but it was there. People noticed.

One person in particular: Dr. Fredric Wertham, who in his 1954 anti-comics screed Seduction of the Innocent, noted that Superman’s whole schtick was hurting criminals without getting hurt himself, and dubbed him an “un-American fascist” symbol. It hit a nerve.

Wertham’s crusade changed the industry completely, effectively ending crime and horror comics and shuttering many comics publishers, but the changes to superhero comics — and their fascist overtones — proved more subtle. Suddenly Superman’s powers didn’t derive from his “super-race” genetics, but from science: the rays of Earth’s yellow sun, to be specific. But Batman, who’d been deputized by Gotham’s Police Department as early as 1941, grew even chummier with the cops; most stories now began with an urgent plea for help from a worrisomely hapless Commissioner Gordon.

The Marvel Era

Wertham’s concerns about the fascistic elements in superhero comics were about themes and implications, not actual text. Because at the time, kids were the primary audience for comics, which presented stark, simple morality plays — light versus darkness, good versus evil. More abstract qualities like characterization, psychology and any overtly political context simply never showed up in a given comic.

That changed when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced the Fantastic Four in 1961 and, especially, when Lee and Ditko created Spider-Man in 1962. The men recognized that a demographic shift was underway — older teenagers and adults were now buying comics. So Lee, Ditko and Kirby created a roster of heroes whose troubled lives reflected those of their readership: conflicted, quarrelsome and deeply insecure.

And with the words “With great power comes great responsibility” (Amazing Fantasy #15, August 1962), Lee introduced a concept that greatly mitigated, for Spider-Man at any rate, the fascism baked-in to the superhero genre: sacrifice.

Previously, superheroes had paid lip-service to the notion of selflessness. The altruism they exhibited was reflexive and unquestioned, a part of the narrative infrastructure as essential to the genre as colored underpants. This was because that altruism hadn’t needed to be questioned, as superhero stories were still simple stories to reassure children that good always triumphed over evil.

The fact that their tremendous powers and abilities shielded superheroes — often literally — from experiencing any lasting harm also served to undermine their status as truly heroic.

Lee and his co-creators cut against that tendency by showing Peter Parker really suffering -- before, during and after his decision to be Spider-Man. Soon, Marvel comics teemed with mopey, hot-headed, angst-ridden heroes whose powers and abilities only served to complicate their lives, and deepen their baseline misery.

It took DC heroes like Superman and Batman a while to catch on to this trend, but when they did, they doubled down on it. Superman entered an era in which he lost and gained his powers with metronomic regularity, and Batman became a tortured obsessive.

Super-Fascism As Plot Point

In the 1980s and afterward, as superhero comics shed their child readership and turned in on themselves to cater exclusively to teens and adults, the dawning of the “grim-and-gritty” era meant that the fascism latent in the superhero genre became one of its chief storylines. In books like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Kingdom Come, Empire, Civil War and many others, creators explicitly grappled with how heroes exert their will when their penchant for benign intervention becomes ... less-than-benign. In monthly comics and one-shot tales set in alternative universes, scores of superheroes became dictators (often for “the greater good”) and crushed any insurrection that would upset their status quo.

Both this year’s Batman v. Superman and Captain America: Civil War revolve around a non-powered billionaire attempting to rein in a rogue superhuman, and both engage in the by-now inevitable chin-stroking about freedom and government control.

Today, fascism has more potential tools in its arsenal than ever, and the cinematic superhero glut we now find ourselves in reflects that: again and again, these movies offer symbolic, dark-mirror reflections of the surveillance state.

A Changing Superhero Landscape

Although conceived in a progressive spirit, the superhero genre’s central narrative has always been one of defending the status quo through overpowering might; in the vast majority of those cases, the one doing all that defending and overpowering is a straight white male. (This is just one of the reasons that the superhero genre, which has a knack for distilling American culture to its essence, can get a little on-the-nose, sometimes.)

More often than not, the straight white male in question has a square jaw and killer abs and holds vast amount of power but chooses not to use it to subjugate others, simply because he’s a Good Person.

Which is to say: historically, the genre’s organizing principle is that the only thing keeping fascism from happening is that straight white dudes are chill.

But slowly, incrementally, as comics (and movies, and tv shows, and games, t-shirts and coffee mugs) start to fill up with more characters like Ms. Marvel (a Pakistani-American teenage girl from Jersey City), the visual iconography of superheroes, and what those superheroes mean to the culture, will force the genre to do something it has historically resisted.

It will change.

And once superheroes look different, and once the world on the comics page more closely resembles the world off of it, you will still be able to discern the low but steady drumbeat of fascism that the genre has never been able to escape.

But it will grow lower, and less steady.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.


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