Thursday, June 17, 2004

the Secret Origin of Il Duce

Sean T. Collins recently threw out this little bon mot on the Comics Journal. Basically, in a nutshell, I get the idea that Collins doesn't quite agree with the notion that superheroes are an essentially fascistic idea.

In my life, I have spent some time thinking about just this concept. As I see it, it's pretty cut-and-dried. Superhero stories, at their heart, were created to appeal to children. As such, they make great childrens stories, and can even have some appeal to non-children when done well enough. But the same attributes that make them marvelous vehicles for entertaining children make them absolutely poisonous - ideologically speaking - for grown adults to take too seriously.

In a lot of ways, this hearkens back to the "literature of ethics" conversation of a few months back. As we discussed then, the "literature of ethics" concept was good except for one teeny-tiny fact: there is no examination of ethical dilemma in 99.9% of all superhero books. Black and white, good and evil, are pretty much accepted as is, and any shades of grey are presented as mere obstacles to be overcome. So, when you pick up The Avengers or Superman, the unspoken assumption is that the powerful superbeings whose adventures take place therein are morally infallible creatures whose strange abilities give them the obligation to combat "evil" outside of the traditional constraints of our legal system.

If you're eight or twelve, its an attractive and enjoyable fantasy. But if you grow older and never at some point examine the deeper ethical questions of obligation, responsibility, and corruption that would inevitably follow if superheroes really existed, you are ignoring the facts of reality and history.

Namely, the fact that power corrupts, and even if absolute power could theoretically be wielded by an incorruptible superman (like, say, Superman), it would still be intrinsically dangerous simply because the potential exists for abuse.

"With great power comes great responsibility" could easily have been said by Mussolini. Fascism was, above all else, a system dedicated to the destruction of the Individual by powerful forces in the State. As with Stalinism, fascism created and maintained the notion of the state as a living organism with needs and responsibilities above the petty concerns of the Individual. Unlike Communism, however, whose ultimate (stated) goal was a classless society of equals, Fascism was very much dedicated to the notion of social Darwinism. Weakness - whether in individuals, peoples or nations - was something to be eradicated and purged, so that only the strong survived. The strong were best represented by supernational entities who rose up from the faceless masses to protect the State from the hazards of mob rule (democracy and anarchy) and who were believed to embody the chosen ideals of the nation. This is the way the world works in a fascist state: the State is an organism whose cells and organs are composed of separate individuals, and whose head is ruled by the actions of preturnaturally gifted supermen such as Hitler or Mussolini. (Of course, in practice, this is also how Communism ended up working, as the high ideals of socialist revolution were uniformly replaced by the totalitarian pseudo-fascism practiced by Lenin and Stalin and later Mao and Castro. It's important to remember that despite the many similarities in the Communist and Fascist systems, the Communists and Fascists hated each other more than either of them hated the western republics, which explains why the USSR fought with the Allies. But you probably know all that, and I have digressed mightily.)

So, if you are a grown person who takes the moral underpinnings of superhero comics seriously, I don't know what to say: you would make a great fascist.

Uncritical acceptance of powerful authority figures is great when you're a kid... hell, it comes with the job description. But as you get older you need to question authority. You need to realize that power exerts a corrupting force. All the things that makes superheroes great and wonderful in the context of a kid's comic book make them deeply, powerfully impracticable in the real world. The idea of sanctioning groups of powerful supermen to watch over us - either tacitly, as with groups like the X-Men, or overtly, as with the Avengers and JLA - is damn near suicidal, and definitely fascistic.

Which is why I just don't think an intelligent, grown adult can seriously accept most superhero books on face value, because to do so is to court the worst kind of moral laziness. There have been a relative few books that have actually attacked the ethics of superbeings in one way or another, and whenever these books have tackled the notion of even semi-realistic superheroes, they have almost always touched on the fascistic elements implicit in characters who can change the course of mighty rivers with their bare hands.

I'll talk about some of these books tomorrow.

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