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no working-class hero

I’ve been chewing on Vaughan’s Madness in Gotham for, well, almost a month. One thing I find particularly interesting is the lack of real, definable mental illness (inasmuch as such a thing exists anyway). This could be a good thing, since it seems no one in a creative field can distinguish schizophrenia from multiple personality disorder. However, I wondered what fan reactions are, whether Joker really is innocent by reason of insanity. Do fans want to see him thrown back into Arkham Asylum because that’s what he deserves, or just because they know it’s the most permeable prison around? Or maybe he’s a bad example, since I think the belief is that he’s evil enough to twist the system, not insane at all. But does the lack of sanity of any characters, good or not, absolve or explain anything? Is it just a metaphor?

Steven got going on Super Origins (through the BatLens), or what David Fiore rightly calls “conversion experiences.” For Batman and most of his villains, this seems to come from a moment of pain and loss on which a life is built, suggesting that the only diagnosis they could safely get might be post-traumatic stress disorder. I realize that heroes and villains need origin stories and that this is a common type, but I always wonder about the reader’s emotional investment. That’s why I hate stories in which a hurt woman needs to be avenged by her man, but that’s a different rant. OK, maybe it’s not. People suffer. There’s plenty of pain. I realize it was awfully traumatic for Bruce to watch his parents’ murders, but it’s really amazing that he was able to lead a life in which that was His Hurt. How did he manage to move unscathed from being the Boy Orphan to being the Batman?

It seems to me there’s a class difference at work in these origin stories, though it’s not always explicit. Maybe it’s part of the Marvel/DC gap, too. Still, if you’re heir to a major fortune (Bruce Wayne), you may lose your parents but retain all your privilege and use it to fight evil covertly through philanthropy and as a superhero. If you’re a middle-class scientist like Reed Richard or Bruce Banner, someday your crazy ideas might go too far and damage you irreparably. If you’re explicitly marked as working class, like Ben Grimm or Matt Murdock, you get trouble on top of trouble. You’re blinded by radioactive waste and you only have one parent, who gets killed. You go along with your friend’s crazy idea and end up orange and craggy, untouchable and alone. It can’t work out this easily and I’m oversimplifying, but I’m not even getting into Women in Refrigerators or Black Superheroes.

What I’m really getting at is not that creators used stereotypes as much as shorthand and distortion. These are not stories meant to be read literally, which I guess should be fairly obvious from the pseudoscience and mysticism involved in most superhero origin myths. I’m not saying Bruce Wayne is a privileged white guy who brings his pain on himself. That’s not the point, nor is it news. Plenty of stories have gone that way before. I think what’s interesting is the insistence on the purity of this trauma reaction. Because they have these origins in which they keep their pain, each fight, each instance of property damage, each injury they inflict doesn’t have to hurt them. It’s just calluses on top of scar tissue. Because these are ongoing stories, heroes can garner more pivotal traumas along the way. At least temporarily, the lost of the late late Betty Banner was more of an impetus for Bruce/Hulk’s actions than the initial transformation. Because these are ongoing stories, heroes can’t feel the overwhelming agony and stress and worry and pain their exploits would bring them if they were thinking, sensing humans instead of heroes. But what are readers supposed to think and feel about all of this, about idealizing mad, repressed freaks?

Sometimes I get frustrated with superhero stories when it seems that this distortion is too extreme, when their lives get so far out of balance that I find no connection to my own. Maybe that’s because I’m just not looking hard enough. I got my Animal Man trades today, and I think it will address some of these issues. It certainly is fun so far, what I needed to reinvigorate me. Thanks, David, and others who recommended it. And this weekend I’ll get another pass at The Dark Knight Returns, so maybe I’ll have more to say on that.

And speaking of origins and animal men, has Rudyard Kipling moved into the public domain yet? And have there been any versions of his Just-So Stories rhinoceros story starring Marvel’s Rhino? Because there need to be.

(And speaking of lives out of kilter, will I ever learn to go to bed early before having to be at work early? Not tonight, it seems.)


  1. David Fiore says:

    Looking forward to your comments on Animal Man, Rose!

    Your point about the “callouses” is an important one, I think–this goes beyond Alan Moore’s superheroing-as-ego-boost into superheroing-as-masturbation territory…


    — 18 February 2004 at 6:06 am (Permalink)

  2. Rose says:

    I guess that’s one way to look at it. I tend to think of it as a combination of ego-massage and self-flagellation. Superheroes put themselves in roles where they can never fully succeed and then chastize themselves forever for all of their failings. There’s just an incredible amount of masochism involved in even wanting to get involved with an endeavor like that, or I guess you could say it straddles the line between masochism and martyrdom. It’s certainly interesting to read about, but maybe not an ideal personal goal. Or maybe it is for some people. I’m happy being ordinary and doing ordinary things.

    — 18 February 2004 at 5:20 pm (Permalink)

  3. David Fiore says:

    “I’m happy being ordinary and doing ordinary things.”

    Me too Rose! Although I think I’m pretty sure that my work as a writer does “straddle the line between masochism and martyrdom”–at any rate, it evinces a real unwillingness to “move on” and quit staring at the ecplised sun of selfhood… In itself–that’s pretty masturbatory, I guess…unless other people find it interesting, which is always the hope!

    Ever since I first encountered superheroes, I’ve always always thought of their adventures as perfect metaphors for the creative process…


    — 18 February 2004 at 6:34 pm (Permalink)

  4. Rose says:

    They’re perfect metaphors for a lot of things, which I find so fascinating. I think it’s that lack of specificity, lack of groundedness that lets people make whatever identifications they want. It really has to do with any kind of devotion or single-mindedness or dedication, I think. Or leaders or people working in groups or corporate drones, even…

    But it’s never surprising when writers write about writing. It’s interesting that so few comic book heroes write or draw for a living. At least their creators looked a bit farther afield than that.


    — 18 February 2004 at 8:54 pm (Permalink)

  5. David Fiore says:

    I should introduce you to my friend Jamie–he was the world’s biggest Paul Auster fan, until he decided enough with the writers/scholars/filmmakers already!

    Personally, I’ve never minded artists obsessing explicitly upon the creative life, as long as they don’t bore us with issues peculiar to their specific industry (you know, all of those “hollywood cut-throat” satires, etc…) A lot of my favourite books–Blithedale preeminently–don’t bother with the pretense, which is not to say that they just give us a writer alone in a room, or anything like that! I understand what you’re saying though–it can be fun to reimagine the things you care about…

    Oh yeah–on the issue of the “super-hero artist”, all I can think of right now is that period, under J.M. DeMatteis (not one of my favourites), when Steve Rogers worked as a graphic artist, and even drew a comic book based upon his old adventures…


    — 19 February 2004 at 5:35 am (Permalink)