Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

All Things Superhero

I'm an explorer without a compass these days, writing about what happens to be on my mind.

Thirty years ago, when my older son, Alex, was five or six, he made a habit of waking up early, an hour before his baby brother, and waking me up, too. When the coffee was ready, I sat beside him on the sofa and read to him from a collection of Spiderman comics strung together and reduced to a mass-market paperback. The print was minuscule. At 6 AM, even with my glasses on and downing coffee at a good clip, the words in the speech balloons were hard to bring into focus. But the effort was worth it. Being there with Alex, his head leaning against my left arm, the smell of his hair, the nap of the corduroy sofa, my old red bathrobe--I love remembering these things.

It must have been important to Alex to spend that time with me, but I'm pretty sure that the book was more important. He was riveted by Peter Parker, the radioactive spider bite, the boy's transformation to Spiderman and his ensuing heroics. Alex's inner life, his backyard play dates with himself, were, right up until puberty, all about superheroes. I've come to believe that the Spiderman book, the boxes and boxes of comics that until recently were stored in our basement, the never-ending series of superhero TV shows and movies, that all things superhero helped Alex, who was three years old when his parents divorced, reknit his psyche.

Am I wrong or is the volume of superhero stuff in our culture still growing? Is there ever a time these days, for example, when a Marvel or DC comics hero isn't sailing across a screen at the multiplex?

I've never read Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but I think I know the basics. Heroes go on journeys to lands where supernatural forces are at work. They face obstacles, internal and external, in order to bring back some essential wisdom to their communities.

One man (usually a man) steps up to attempt the heroic task because he's decided, for one reason or another, that he's the man to do it. If you've been bitten by a radioactive spider and can suddenly swing from skyscraper to skyscraper, stepping up might be the obvious choice, but if you're a hobbit, half the size of everyone around you, and you've never been away from home, it's a little harder to find the courage to say, "I will take the ring though I do not know the way." Luckily, Frodo doesn't have to go by himself.

I've always been suspicious of the idea that we need heroes. Wouldn't it be better if we ordinary, imperfect people banded together, encouraged and instructed each other, shared our intuitions and ideas? Wouldn't that improve our chances of surviving the superheating of the earth more effectively than the sudden appearance of super-smart, super-powered heroes? What if we stopped waiting for a savior and stepped up ourselves?

Okay, maybe at this late date, this eleventh hour, we need both ordinary and extraordinary people.

I just read Ben Percy's new novel, The Dead Lands, a dystopian fantasy in which a few people set out from what they believe to be the only surviving human settlement in North America toward a land of plenty that may or may not exist. Most go not for heroic reasons but because the settlement is a horrific place governed by a vile man. Risking their lives outside its walls feels better than staying put. One character, however, is chosen for the trip, summoned. His name is Lewis Meriwether.

All the party have impressive skills, but Meriwether and one other are armed with special gifts. Unfortunately, these gifts don't apply in every situation, and they are dwarfed by the sequence of dangers the group encounters. Imagine the Donner Party fighting monsters created by radioactive fallout--giant bats, bison, bears, and spiders. There are lots of reasons to like The Dead Lands--interesting ideas, consistently great writing, fully imagined female characters, and some really scary shit--but the main reason I liked it is that the hero's journey is ultimately successful because of mutual help and developing trust.

This is not the first time Percy has interrogated the idea of heroism. See, for example, his short story "Refresh, Refresh." But he hasn't given up on the solo crusader either. He's writing the comic Green Arrow now. Number 41, just released, begins a story set in a foggy, failing Seattle. Black men are getting murdered at a terrifying pace. Timely.