Saturday, November 27, 2004

Comics and Superhero Thoughts

For those of you not familiar with Kurt Busiek's Superman: Secret Identity Elseworlds, I must urge you to immediatly purchase the TPB that compiled the four book series. The basic premise is that the Kents of Petersville, Kansas (IIRC the town name) have a son, and decide that it would be cool to name him Clark. Clark Kent gets all manner of shit heaped on him for being named after the single most popular fictional superhero of the 20th century. He starts off viewing his name as a curse, but when he finds himself floating thirty feet off the ground one night while camping in the woods, his view of things change. Gifted with the powers of Superman, Clark is forced to question his own origins, his purpose on Earth, and his place in the world. It isolates that quality of "uniqueness" that all teens feel set them apart, and magnifies it. And that's only in the first book.

With a narrative presented in the form of type written journal entries, Secret Identity provides a fantastic view of a man struggling to cope with life, love, a terrible name, and the superpowers associated with his namesake. Later on he deals with parent hood, and at the very end the emergence of other superhumans.

It is a fantastic book, filled with Busiek's unique, believable style of writing that made Astro City such a treat. There are no super fights here. It's about one man trying to find his place in the world.

It has become my essential resource for pointing to what the pinnacle of comic writing can be. I look at different takes on popular characters as reintepreted through different universes. Ellis' "The High" from StormWatch, Busiek's "Samaritan" from Astro City, Omni-Man from Kirman's Invincible, Strazincki's "Flagg" in Rising Stars, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Everyone does a different take on Superman, and yet in every case comes out using the model of Clark Kent to show a different world.

Superman is iconic. That's a given fact. But perhaps its not the cape or the tights, the journalism gig or the stupid glasses. The powers are the classic mythic attributes given to the gods: the strength of one hundred men, the ability to walk away from even the greatest battle without injury, the powers of flight and uncanny perceptions. And its the duty that goes along with them. Like the gods, Superman and those like him are motivated because being greater than human, to them, isn't just a state of being; its a way of life. While we may hold policemen, politicians, and doctors to a higher moral standard because of their jobs, superheroes hold themselves to a higher moral standard, I think, because if you are beyond humanity you either look at things in one of two ways: you are beyond human morals to the point where none apply, or you must exemplify and go beyond human morals so that all apply.

I suppose I'm rambling now...its 3am, so sue me. But there seems to be an implicit duty in gaining superpowers in the comics. Perhaps its simply a plot conceit, but look at things differently when you can fly, or lift tanks, or move faster than the eye can see. Whether its something you like or not, it affects you deeper than just the physical. For already moral individuals, the power brings a heightened sense of their own morality. Temptation of the human variety becomes temptation of the superhuman variety, and perhaps it is in resisting the temptation to do so much evil that results in the reason for superheroes to do so much good.

And on the flip side, those without morals before they gained powers have no moral compass to guide them afterwards. If they couldn't resist the temptation to steal, or rape, or murder before, then they are less likley to be able to resist the temptation to do those things on a greater scale when they become greater beings. Or perhaps some become acutely aware of their immorality when faced with the temptation of super powers, and find the moral compass and guidance they lacked.

...and dear god, I think I just came up with the foundations for a religion there.


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