Sunday, August 31, 2008

An Introduction to Superhero Babylon

Comics as a medium and the superhero genre specifically have always been very important to me. Growing up when I first decided that I wanted to be a fiction writer, all of my ideas were for superhero stories. I always saw a lot of potential in this genre, and it always inspired me and brought out the best in me on many levels. The problem with this was that I could never really define why this was.

Initially the only way I could define what my fascination was, involved figuring out what it was not. The two biggest instances of this happening that I remember came from opposite ends of the spectrum, yet both happened at my favorite local comic shop on separate occasions. The first one happened when I brought up my first attempt at a defense of superheroes as a genre to one of the clerks who worked there. He was a rather intelligent young man and had very “indie” sensibilities from what I could gather from the interactions I had with him (and to be fair he did introduce me to the bulk of my favorite indie titles that started publication after 1995). I failed to make my case, and the point he seemed to be in support of was that the idea of superheroes was silly on its face and deserving of no respect. This was based primarily on the idea that the
surface level elements of the genre disqualified it from serious contemplation.

In the second interaction I was the anti-superhero hipster. I was talking with another customer, I was in my early 20s and he was probably in his mid-30s. This man was very enthusiastic about superheroes, but our discussion was along the line of the discussions you have when your 12, something like “could Superman beat Thor in a fight.” He got a lot out of the genre, but just because we both liked it doesn’t mean we were getting the same things from it. It seemed on a core level he didn’t want to go past the surface; the entertainingly superficial was enough for him.

I wasn’t much closer to understanding what did draw me in, but I knew what didn’t. The window dressing didn’t matter. When Galileo wanted to promote his own expansion of Copernican astronomy but feared the forces of the inquisition, he wrote it into a book of fiction, a conversation between a learned man who stated the sun-centric solar system theory and a foolish foil who said that the earth was the center of the universe. Black slaves sang religious songs of salvation beyond the grave, which contained code words that denoted effective escape routes and timings for escape.

When I was 22 I read Ayn Rand for the first time and specifically the article from it “Bootleg Romanticism.” Where she discussed the nature of what actually drew me to this type of fiction, and its real problems. Adam West and Joel Schumacher turned Batman into a joke instead of a passionate man who could do anything he put his mind to, training his body and mind to perfection. James Bond went from a highly efficacious spy to a foppish hedonist. This was no coincidence.

More and more you saw sensitive portrayals of men such as Jeffery Dahmer. They say he was a man who dealt with a lot of pain and suffering and couldn’t help himself. He was an object of beautiful pity. Meanwhile the idea of heroism itself was derided. So much so that the only way it is to be presented is as a joke, as something less than real, as something to be mocked.

Romanticism in art is something that we need to have, people who have goals they can strive for which they are capable of achieving or not through their own actions. As Rand put it, for it to be accepted it must be snuck in through a dirty back door, while monsters come walking proudly through the front. The essay inspired me, to the point of not wanting to see the good smuggled in while evil is traded openly.

THIS was what I was drawn to. THIS was my answer.

As evidenced by recent culture the idea of the hero is in transition, he is now no longer a thing to be mocked, he is also not a thing to be admired. While this may seem disturbing to many I see it as a good thing, it is the first step in a major sweeping change. And to this end, I gladly accept any growing pains.

The House that Jack Built is falling down. The multiverse is coming apart at the seams. Why? Because the heroes, (nay, the very idea of heroism!) have been sent into exile, not for their vices, but for their virtues. The goal of Superhero Babylon is to expose the cultural shift that has brought about this exile in order to bring about a transition for a new kind of hero...neither servant nor messiah...not a protector of the weak, but of the ideas that make us strong; a symbol of the achievement possible to man.

Though the name of this blog is Superhero Babylon superheroes are not the only focus. And while comics have a close place to our hearts they will also not be the only focus. We plan to be a cultural barometer, tracking the idea of heroism across all genres and mediums. But to this end, the superhero is the most iconic representation of this idea and in one way or the other subsumes all other varieties of hero. A great degree of discussion will be spent on the superhero, but this will not be at the expense of the war hero, the cowboy, the detective, the man in a world of science beyond our wildest dreams, the knight, the wizard and anything in between.

The purpose of this is to not only document the decline of the concept of old heroism, but to help direct what new heroism will actually be.

To paraphrase a famous maxim “Heroism is dead! Long Live Heroism!”

---Landon Erp with Joe Maurone