Friday, January 30, 2009

Superman: Meet your Match

  Wow, Lana Lang has changed from the "Sweetheart back home" from the comics I remember. At least on tv's SMALLVILLE...

 
 Last night's episode shows just how much of a badass she's become; "girl power," indeed. We see her training to be "invulnerable" in order to harness the power of "Project Prometheus," which was the creation of (absent) Lex Luthor. (Asutute viewers may have caught a glimpse on a computer screen on a previous episode of the familiar green and purple power suite worn by Lex in Crisis on Infinite Earths.) Anyway, under the impression that Lana's been kidnapped, the "red-blue" blur bursts in to save Lana, but finds Lana...saving herself...Now Clark, who was concerned that Lana was holding him back from his destiny, finds himself confronted with a lover who is NOT a damsel in distress, but an "equal." 

  You've come a long way, baby...

 This is not the first time Superman's met his match. Perhaps the most notable incident is Superman's first meeting with "The New Gods" of New Genesis. On their first encounter, Superman rushes to save someone who appears to be falling, only to find....they all can fly! What's even more interesting is their reaction to Superman: gentle amusement. They are more powerful than HIM! 

 So what does a hero do in a world of Supermen? 

 Of course, we are going to see the potential of a Luthor with powers, which plays up the real point of heroism: not superpowers, but super courage, super inner strength to "do the right thing"...Super MORALITY. It's what separates and defines the superhuman from the super HERO. 

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Batman Unmasked: What Makes Batman A Hero?

  With the release of THE DARK KNIGHT on DVD, and the posthumous Oscar awarded to Heath Ledger for his lethal depiction of the Joker, I've found myself thinking back fondly for the "good ol' days" of THE SUPERFRIENDS and the Neil Adams version of Batman that I grew up with. So I viewed Batman Unmasked, which recently aired on the History Channel, with some trepidation. The documentary is a psychological look at what makes Batman and his rogues' gallery tick. One particular  line, towards the end, caught my attention:

 
Some people talk about Batman as a damaged individual, as a person who is still playing out his childhood wounds. I don't find that a very compelling interpretation, because that doesn't make him a hero. If he's damaged, he's less than us. Batman's a hero; he's more than us. I find it compelling the interpretation that says "here's a man who faced tragedy and he made some choices to rise above it. He used that tragedy to improve himself and to improve the world. That is a hero; that makes him compelling.
-Assoc. Professor of Social Psychology at UCLA Benjamin R. Karney Ph.D

 Aside from the line about Batman being "better" than "us" (who's "us?"), this is a refreshing interpretation of Batman, when you consider that the choice of late has been either the "Fascist" Frank Miller version or the "neurotic" or "insane" version favored by the likes of Alan Moore. Of all the characters to feature in a psychological profile, Batman is the go-to guy. But the recent "what if these characters were real? They'd be insane" interpretations miss the point of the genre. They are NOT meant to be real, in the sense of people dressing up in costumes. But they ARE meant to be real in their ideals and heroism. The "super" part is fantasy; the heroism is not; else, Batman would be no better than his enemies (and the Joker would be right.) Sadly, there are people who would agree with the Joker. Even if I question the basis of the morality of heroism in our culture, it's nice to hear a reaffirmation of the heroic side of superheroes, without throwing out the baby with the bathwater, in this day and age of heroism as neurosis.

Friday, January 23, 2009

New Blog: Heroes of Capitalism

 Hat tip to the blog Not PC: A "new-ish" blog is out there, Heroes of Capitalism. I haven't looked at this blog in-depth yet, but it seems timely, coinciding with my last two posts. Hopefully they'll have the skinny on some real capitalist heroes, not simply the ideal! And I notice that there is a "special thanks" to Andrew Bernstein, whose article on heroism has been discussed here, so I have a good feeling about this blog.


Thanks

A special thanks to Andrew Bernstein, who inspired this blog and continues to honor the Heroes of Capitalism.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Capitalist Heroes: Ayn Rand for Treasury-Secretary!

  With the economy in the state that it's in, Ayn Rand is getting a bit of attention for her radical capitalism, especially from The Wall Street Journal, with a very popular article by Stephen Moore piece on Rand:



 She may be gone, but her ideas are more alive than ever (moreso than the people running things now!). And her ideas are as relevant as ever. As quoted in the article, regarding the proposed Atlas Shrugged movie: "We don't need to make a movie out of the book...we are living it right now." 
 

Capitalist Heroes: The Unknown Ideal

  Now that Barack Obama is the 44th president of the United States, capitalism is in for a rough four years. Now, as much as I consider myself an Objectivist, and celebrate the "Randian" hero, I believe, like Rand, that capitalism has been an "unknown ideal." We've had a mixture of capitalism and socialism, and when things go bad, it's capitalism that gets the blame. But if I am NOT a leftist, I am by no means a Republican, either. As Rand points out several times, the Right has betrayed its principles time and time again, via religion and "me-too'ism." If John McCain had been elected, I'd be no happier. 


 With that said, it's hard to point to a "pure" capitalist hero. Rand had to invent her own. Even when her fictional characters were based on real people, it only went down so far, whether because of the religiousness, or capacity to sell-out capitalism from said real-people. (As noted by "Ellsworth Toohey," “It is always safe to denounce the rich.  Everyone will help you, the rich first.”) I'd like to start a series of posts on such real capitalist heroes when I can find them, but I think that it will be a while before we see one that I can admire without reservations. But I'm willing to hear your nominations...

Monday, January 19, 2009

Hero of the Day: Chesley Sullenberger


 Make that Capt.Chesley Sullenberger III. Well done.

Friday, January 16, 2009

JLA/Avengers: "More Than Heroes, Less Than Gods.."

  With the start of a new year, Landon thought it a good idea to assess where we are and where we’re going with our site. I just finished JLA/Avengers, a company crossover between DC and Marvel comics. While it contains the usual setup as other crossovers (heroes manipulated into battle with one another via some cosmic entities for the sake of the multiverse), this particular story stands out in its stark presentation of the different approaches of the respective company’s to their idea of heroism. Even more, it hammers home the point of why Landon and I started SUPERHERO BABYLON to begin with.

 JLA/Avengers is a somewhat lengthy story, but most of it is taken up with action panels, of course. But out of these pages, a few panels, together in isolation, really tell their story (and ours) in microcosm.

  In the panels below, the Superman and friends are angered by what he sees as the “failure” of the Marvel heroes:


  Traveling to the Marvel Universe, the DC heroes see how the populace views that world’s champions:

 

Superman doesn’t accept any excuses:

  

The Marvels, in contrast, are amazed at how well the DC heroes are regarded in their homeword:


  But Captain America is not so impressed and compares the DC heroes to demagogues:

  What we have here is really an amazing dynamic, a tension of opposites that makes for great drama, going beyond the standard hero/villain approach. What this is, ultimately, is a picture of the maxim “the good is the enemy of the better.” It’s a cliché to think of the “power mad villain” twisting his mustache, indulging in evil for the sake of evil. Most "villains" see themselves as heroes in their own right. But what happens when one world’s heroes become another’s villains? Superman and his allies are powerful, and revered, but at what expense? In this story, they take it upon themselves to set the world right, as messiah-like beings. Superman, in particular, comes off as the Nietzschean “ubermensch” his creators never meant for him to be. Aquaman, aka “Arthur, King of Atlantis,” paints himself as a benevolent ruler in contrast to what he sees in Doctor Doom. The Avengers, however, see themselves as defenders of freedom, even if that means allowing others to make mistakes, and even more so, even if it means not being revered and respected.

   But the Avengers could be said to be “jealous” of the power and respect of the DC heroes. They "marvel" at how much easier the DC heroes have it, as they "marvel" at the “futuristic” architecture of Metropolis versus that of their New York. (Tellingly, they don’t show Gotham…). In some way, what the "Marvels" are saying is that it’s great to achieve and be the best one can be, but at what cost? This is by Stan Lee’s design, of course, who purposely created the Marvel universe as a flawed answer to DC’s perfection. So the battle comes down to: is perfection and achievement possible for man, or are even the best among us flawed and ugly?  (This is played out in Batman’s snobbish reaction to “the rough-edged charm” of The Thing.) The DC heroes are called “fascist” by Captain America. This brings up an interesting irony: Cap was the hero of WWII, fighting the REAL Nazis. The irony is that many today use the term “Fascist” to describe America (erroneously, in my opinion, but there we are). The very idea of achievement and progress has become associated with Fascism by enemies of achievement and progress, especially when that progress is of the scientific and technological kind. What is considered “Fascist” is the idea of hierarchy and being "better" (often because of the false means used to achieve these things, and because of those people who pass themselves off as "better" without having truly earned that distinction), and what is “desirable” is tolerance and equality, even if it means bringing the best down to the level of the worst.

  Another important part of this: what is not asked of both sides, whether perfect or flawed, is whether or not the sacrifice of the heroes to society is required. Neither side questions whether or not they SHOULD do what they do, both accept that they must. In this, the story becomes almost a battle of biblical proportions, the battle between the Old and New Testaments. Oddly enough, while it’s usually Superman who is portrayed as the failed Christ symbol, in this story, the Marvel heroes are the ones on the Cross, while the DC characters enjoy the luxury of passing judgement.

 And this brings us back to the existence of Superhero Babylon, where we believe that a third option is available; not to rule, or to be ruled, but to walk side by side freely of one’s own choice. To help when one can, to uphold truth, justice, and, yes, the AMERICAN way, but not via a duty of sacrifice. What DC and Marvel lack is a John Galt. They have their slogans, such as “With great power comes great responsibility.” What they don’t have is a hero’s bill of rights. But of course, Ayn Rand has already written that:

 "I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."

Monday, January 12, 2009

Quote of the Day: Full of Heroism

 "Exercise caution in your business affairs, 
for the world is full of trickery. 
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; 
many persons strive for high ideals, 
and everywhere life is full of heroism."


-Max Ehrmann, "Desiderata"

Friday, January 9, 2009

Caught in a Web...

Steve Ditko must be rolling his eyes somewhere...From the Chicago Tribune: Spidey Swings into Obama's World:

 "He's not a superhero just yet, but President-elect Barack Obama does get to fist-bump one in a new Spider-Mancomic book. In "The Amazing Spider-Man" #583, to be released Jan. 14 by Marvel Comics, Barack Obama meets Spidey when the superhero thwarts an Inauguration Day scheme perpetrated by the villainous Chameleon....For Marvel Comic's Editor in Chief Joe Quesada, Obama and Spider-Man together make perfect sense."
 
  Damnit. And Spiderman was my childhood favorite. But it does make sense. Both believe that with "Great power comes great responsibility...". And both believe in sacrifice. Only I've never seen Spider-Man sacrifice others 'for the greater good...", only himself. 

Got got that, Mr. President? Do you hear me? You want to be a hero? Here's another heroic oath: 

 "I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."

 To be fair, though, Obama did say one thing in this article that I "sorta" like:

 Obama, a comic book collector, told Entertainment Weekly last year: "I was always into the Spider-Man/Batman model. The guys who have too many powers--like Superman--that always made me think they weren't really earning their superhero status. It's a little too easy. Whereas Spider-Man and Batman, they have some inner turmoil. They get knocked around a little bit."
I agree with Mr. President here, it's nothing to be a hero when you're invulnerable, but when the stakes are raised, that's when you separate the men from the fanboys. And seriously: would you rather see Superman fighting the Toyman at full Kryptonian strength, or fighting a fully-powered General Zod?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Quote of the Day: "Heroes for Ghosts..."

 "I think having made it -- having become very successful -- was the starting point. But having made it, if we could all have accepted that's what we were in it for, we could then have all split up gracefully at that point. But we can't, and the reason we can't is, well there are several reasons. I haven't really thought about this very carefully, but I would say one reason is: - if you have a need to make it, to become, a super-hero in your own terms and a lot of other peoples as well, when you make it the need isn't dissipated -- you still have the need, therefore you try to maintain your position as a superhero. I think that's true of all of us."


 -Roger Waters, on the trials of following up the success of Dark Side of the Moon with Wish You Were Here.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Quote of the Day: Hero? What Hero?

 "The fundament of a superhero is the guy in tights saving innocent people from bad things. It's amazing how infrequently that seems to happen in superhero comics these days."

-Frank Miller

( I thought this was interesting in light of his involvement with THE SPIRIT movement, which has the tagline, "He's something the world needs...".)

Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year's Resolutions versus The Infinite Varieties of Music

 (In the spirit of cross-promotion, I'm going to share a post from my new blog, Orpheus Remembered. Like Landon's new site, Dissecting the Machine, it's about the inner workings of art, in this case, music, and off-topic for this site. However, I feel my new year's post has some bearing on the topics here. And a good companion piece to Landon's  "athlete as hero" post; I don't need much prodding to make the case for musicians as heroes! Thanks, Joe.)



  "A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers." 
-Leonard Bernstein
  
  I've been researching the topic of Romanticism in music and how Ayn Rand's use of the term does or does not apply to her theories on music. A lot of interesting reading, and what I'm finding so far is more argument than consensus. One of the books I'm reading isThe Infinite Variety of Music by Leonard Bernstein, which contains a transcript from his television broadcast "Romanticism in Music." But it is the following essay, detailing his "sabbatical" from music, that found an immediate resonance with me on this New Year's Day, as I mull my own resolutions, my motives and goals for Orpheus Remembered.
 
  In his "Sabbatical Report," Bernstein reveals no greater insight than he had at the beginning of his hiatus, save this:

  
The one conclusion that I have reached after a year's mulling is simply the ancient cliche that the certainty of one's knowledge decreases in proportion to thought and experience. The moment you have time to intellectualize your perceptions, established certainties will begin to crumble, and the "other side" of any controversy will beckon appealingly. The inevitable result is that one's liberalism becomes stretched to the point of absurdity.
 

  I've found myself thinking the same thing with this new forum. Most of my postings so far have been articles I've written in past years in other forums that I'm incorporating into the setting here. While I'm proud of that work, I am finding that no "certain" answers, only more questions, and where I offered strident answers before, I am questioning my own conclusions. And even if I tried to stick my head in the sand, I'm confronted with comments that raise even more questions, revealing my ignorance in some cases, even (though I find myself digging my heels in at other times, ha!). It's funny, because I started this blog largely as a place to work on my own answers after objecting to stifling frustration elsewhere...so why do I open my blog to people who threaten to contradict and create even MORE doubt when I think I've found the answers? 

 Maybe it's why I responded strongly to Bernstein's own confession of self-doubt:

  
If I may be pardoned for a quasi-existential paradox, I suggest that the answer is in the questioning. By experimenting with the problem, by feeling it out, by living with it, we are answered. All our lives are spent in the attempt to resolve conflicts; and we know that resolutions are impossible except by hindsight. We can make temporary decisions...but it is only after death that it can be finally perceived whether we ever succeeded in resolving our conflicts. This is patent, since as long as we live we continue the attempt to resolve them. That attempt is the very action of living.

  I find this interesting from an Objectivist viewpoint, especially on a day dedicated to keep our resolutions. Part of Ayn Rand's appeal is the promise of absolutes and certainty as possibilities. But people have also been turned off to the claims of her dogmatic personality, especially in music (the reality of which is up for debate.) But Rand also knew that we are not omniscient, and so, Bernstein's words have a ring of truth about them. (I do find it interesting, btw, that Bernstein uses the word "temporary," as music is a "temporal" form; this suggests a tension between "timeless" music and music "made for the times." Like every "New World Man," "he knows constant change is here to stay....".)

  Anyway, this all got me to thinking about my own experiences so far as a commentator of music. On the one hand, I chafe at any "restrictions" placed on me by "authority," yet, when challenged, my visceral reaction is to "armor" up.  I advocate free thought, which is a redundancy, yet I have a hard time with dissent. But the danger of hubris requires us, and especially those who would-be heroes, to prepare to be "judged" in their own judgments, lest they follow the Jungian pattern of the hero-turned-tyrant. I think it comes down to that human need for certainty, and the dangers of being "absurdly" liberal in one's approach (which is how I view postmodern atonal music, ha!). I don't like music that claims to break down one's mind. At the other end is a the very human need for exploration, which requires a bit of mystery, and an ability to leave the comfort of one's "hobbit hole." Not coincidentally, this tension of opposites, this dual of certainty versus adventure, devotion and deviance, is the thrust of Romantic music for Leonard Bernstein, who claims that the Romantic composers endure because 

  
[They] give you what you yearn for secretly, what our bright todays and tomorrows lack. The romantics gave us back our moon, for instance, which science has taken away from us and made into just another airport. Secretly we all want the moon to be what it was before-a mysterious, hypnotic light in the sky. We want love to be mysterious too, as it used to be, and not a set of psychotherapeutic rules for interpersonal relationships. We crave mystery even while we forge ahead toward the solution of one cosmic mystery after the other.

  Which brings us back to the date: isn't this WHY we celebrate New Year's Day? The promise of a better tomorrow, of what might be, for better or for worse? The latter might sound strange; who wants a "worse" year? But that's not to suggest that we are hoping for the worst, but that the possibility of new adventures requires, since we are NOT omniscient, that sense of danger? If it didn't, we would simply be hoping for more of the same in the form of security and comfort. And yet, there is still the appeal of the different, the dangerous, the subversive, even...for Bernstein, the thrill of the "devil in music" remains:

  

As a conductor I am fascinated by, and wide open to, every new sound-image that comes along; but as composer I am committed to tonality. Here is a conflict, indeed, and my attempt to resolve it is, quite literally, my most profound musical experience. And if this sounds far too existential for an old romantic like me, well and good.

  And with that, I find myself at the same "pass" as Bernstein at the end of his sabbatical. Like Bernstein, I have "two answers to everything and one answer to nothing." Once upon a time, I resolved to find the answer the questions to Rand's musical challenges. While I don't think it's impossible, I don't think that's my primary goal anymore, and it certainly isn't my goal to convince others that I do have the answers for THEM, because ultimately, what matters in any, "Romantic" endeavor, indeed, any HEROIC endeavor, is the individual choice. Heroism requires a sense of certainty in order to create and defend "what is right," and yet, since even heroes are not omniscient, they, too, and perhaps moreso than others, must leave their "hobbit holes" and set out for the unknown. And as long as there is a world of choice, there will remain, if not "infinite," an ever-growing world of music. So I'll give Lennie the last word:

  

There are two solutions...the choice between them lies in the question "Which one is true?," to which there is no single answer.