Friday, September 22, 2006

Maybe Gates Had a Point All Along

There are no shortage of bloggers who routinely write about issues of race and sex when it comes to comic books, but less often do I see discussions of class. Maybe class issues are subtler, harder to discuss, less likely to be taken personally. (Maybe I’m just looking in the wrong places.) I don't know. Certainly I'm no kind of expert on the subject. In fact, I'm not really comfortable talking about class at all, which I suppose is quite North American of me. But I'm starting to suspect that superheroes are an elitist, upper-class kind of idea, and I hope I don't embarrass myself too much in explaining why.

First, can we agree that superheroic characters tend disproportionately to come from the upper classes, and disproportionately to not come from the lower classes?

This is more true of DC than of Marvel, but I think the trend is still visible in Marvel. First, there's the 'wealthy playboy' stereotype of a superhero, which started with the genre's roots (Zorro, Scarlet Pimpernel (who was active during the French Revolution, which we’re going to be mentioning again later)) and extended through to many superheroes still prominent today (Batman and Robin, Green Arrow and Speedy, Sandman and Sandy, Iron Man, Starman (Ted Knight), Angel, Phantom Lady, Blue Beetle (Ted Kord)). Second, there's the kind of superhero who's an aristocrat from some alien culture (Superman (Jor-El was clearly a big noise on Krypton), Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Sub-Mariner, Starfire, Mr. Miracle, Shining Knight, Magma). Not too many heroes who are actual nobility here on Earth (Black Panther, Geo-Force), although some villains are (Doctor Doom, Sonar, Black Adam). Hawkman and Hawkgirl were supposed to be reincarnated Egyptian nobles. The original Black Condor was, I think, a senator. Thor's in his own category entirely. And I don't want to limit this to just older characters: DC just created new versions of Phantom Lady and Batwoman, both of whom are in the 'wealthy socialite' category.

Same thing in the 31st century. There's Princess Projectra, of course. Chameleon Boy. Celeste Rockfish/McCauley. And many other Legionnaires have at times had close family ties to the highest seats of authority on their home planet: Saturn Girl, Colossal Boy, Apparition, Dream Girl and the White Witch, Shadow Lass, Brainiac 5. Even Matter-Eater Lad was a senator of Bismoll. And the current version of the Legion has been described more than once as kind of a rich-kids club, full of the children of United Planets higher-ups.

I said 'disproportionately', of course, not 'universally'. There are middle-class heroes aplenty, like Spider-Man, the Flash, the Fantastic Four, various Green Lanterns, Firestorm, the Atom, the new Blue Beetle, Animal-Man. But I'm having a hard time coming up with examples of lower-class superheroes. Was Spider-Man poor enough to count? I dunno... Aunt May had her own house and he went to college. Wildcat? The Thing? Daredevil? Captain America? I can't come up with many that I'm comfortable describing as lower-class. The original Guardian, I guess. Vibe. Plastic Man. Anyone know of any more? There must be some. I know there was some JSA story involving a dinner party where the JSAers sort of segregated themselves by social class…

So that's one thing right there: superhero demographics skew dramatically more to the upper classes than do those of the rest of the world.

The next thing is the movie The Incredibles. Before I get into class issues, I want to say that The Incredibles is one of my favourite movies, and in my opinion it's the best superhero movie ever made.

But certain aspects of it make me uncomfortable.

The movie centres around a conflict between the Parr family (superheroes with innate powers that at least some of them were born with) and Syndrome (supervillain with gadgets he invented himself). The Parrs have withdrawn from superhero life because the world doesn’t want them to be special anymore. Syndrome wants to eliminate all superpowered people so that he and his gadgets can replace them, after which, again, nobody will be special anymore. To do this, Syndrome releases a menace that it turns out he can’t defeat, but the Parrs can. Let’s map out who’s being portrayed how:

Inborn superpowers, born into superpowered family: Good guys. Special.
Worked hard to build your own superpowers: Bad guy. Not special.

It reminds me of the idea that there’s a difference between ‘new money’ and ‘old money’. If you’re in an old family that’s been rich forever, because of how successfully your ancestors oppressed the peasants, then you are a blue blood and your money is old money, and that’s good. But if your dad was a garbageman, and you invented a better mousetrap and built it up into an empire of mousetrap factories, then you are a parvenu and your money is new money and you’ll never be allowed into the same clubs as the old-money people.

The analogy between superheroes and aristocracy is too easily made for me to be entirely comfortable with the movie. Canada and the U.S. are supposed to be democratic societies; we don’t want or need any hereditary nobility here, and therefore I don’t like it when a movie champions such a notion.

Let’s look at the word ‘villain’. It’s used in many genres other than superhero comics to describe the evil antagonist in a story. But check out the dictionary definition. It’s a word that was coined to refer, purely descriptively, to peasants. The negative connotations came later, and were, I presume, the contributions of noblemen like the ones who brought on the French Revolution with their beliefs that peasants were so low and brutish that they were literally a separate species from the aristocracy.

The etymology actually makes things a little weird. When Doctor Doom fights the Thing, we’ve got an educated European nobleman slugging it out with an unrefined, street-accented pile of rocks, and the word we use to classify Doom is one that means ‘brutish peasant’? Anyway. The point I’m trying to make is that the word we use for the bad guys is one that reinforces the association between superheroes and the upper classes, and evildoers and the lower classes.

And now a quick word about the Marvel Universe. I’m always a little leery of discussing Marvel because I’m worried about making a mistake through ignorance. Please correct me if I do. I said before that Marvel seems a bit less upper-class-heavy than DC is in its superhero population, and I still think that’s true. But let’s check out the mutants. Mutantness, in Marvel comics, has long been used as a metaphor for various different things. The obvious ones are race and sexual orientation. Why not class? I think it’s there if you look for it.

First there’s the old Magneto idea that mutants were meant to rule over humanity. The old homo superioris argument. And even when the X-Men oppose him in this, they don’t negate the idea completely. There’s a certain amount of noblesse oblige in their protection of humanity. (Now that I think about it, noblesse oblige is actually not a bad way of restating “with great power comes great responsibility”.)

The trappings of the mutant community also echo those of the English upper classes. Xavier’s school is an updated version of the kinds of English boarding schools that Bertie Wooster went to, just like the Hellfire Club is a twisted version of the kind of gentlemen’s club he belonged to.

The role that superheroes play in the continuity of their worlds is also suggestive. I’ve read a fair bit of alternate-history science fiction. Typically, a work in this genre will take some real-life historic event and change it a bit, and write a story that explores how history would have turned out. What if the South had won the Civil War? What if Hitler had never come to power in Germany? What if the Nazis had won World War II? What if the Spanish Armada had been victorious? That kind of thing.

But when superhero comics explore parallel worlds, the differences between the worlds usually have less to do with major historical events and more to do with who the superheroes are and what their histories are. Can you think of another difference between Earth-1 and Earth-2? Like Alex Luthor said in Infinite Crisis on this very topic: it all comes from Superman.

But why does it? I understand that I’m taking something seriously here that was never meant to be taken seriously, but stories are written based on these buried assumptions, so we should see what it is we’re taking in with them. All we can conclude, on the story level, is that a world’s superbeings are so important that they themselves define that world’s reality. But the people without masks and powers are just details. The identity of the President of the United States is a pretty important issue in alternate history stories involving the U.S…. but how often is the President (whoever the hell he is) even mentioned in superhero comics? I’m not sure this is a class issue exactly, but it certainly does highlight the different statuses superheroes and just plain folks have in comics.

All of what I’ve said so far has more to do with the role superheroes occupy in the comics than what superheroes actually do. It’s often been said that superheroes are inherently conservative and classist in that they fight to preserve the status quo, rather than changing society to help the people who aren’t doing so well under the status quo. And there’s some truth to this. On the other hand, I’m sure your typical Joe Avenger would say without hesitation that he’d love to change society to help the downtrodden and eliminate poverty and what have you, but he can’t figure out how to do it. After all, these are people who, despite their many positive qualities, are mostly good at winning fights and getting cats out of trees. What are they supposed to do about, say, systemic racism? Kick it in the face? Especially when the real-life smart people are kind of at a loss as to how to solve it.

Then again, maybe they shouldn’t even try to change society. If I’m not mistaken, Superman’s reason for not doing so (which he probably could if he really tried) is that humanity has to solve its own problems. He’s happy to help out with the emergencies, but he shouldn’t be making the big decisions for the human race. And I can’t say he’s wrong about that. Would you be comfortable in a world in which the Justice League announced unilaterally that they were reengineering the global economy? I wouldn’t. And so the status quo persists.

No, if there’s classism in superhero comics it’s not based on the behaviour of the superheroes themselves, which is stereotypically laudable (though obviously with many intentional exceptions). It’s because of the ideas twisted into the roots of the genre itself.

I suppose I should be leading up to a conclusion like, “therefore superhero comics are counterrevolutionary and bourgeois, and we should stop reading them and gather outside the DC offices with torches and pitchforks! A bas les aristos!” but I don’t want to. I like superhero comics, and I think they’re a good thing (controversial stand there, eh?). I wouldn’t even say, “DC and Marvel must revise their storytelling techniques to remove these politically unsavory ideas!” I’m not sure it’s possible, for one thing, and for another, ideas can’t hurt you if you know they’re there.

Maybe my real conclusion is, “if this article doesn’t get me a link in Meanwhile…, I don’t know what will”.

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