Friday, September 16, 2011

The Human Pyramid

I've been working my way through Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology (The New Press, 2009), edited by Jeff Yang, Parry Shen, Keith Chow, and Jerry Ma. I read a lot of superhero comics (along with other genres) as a kid in the early 1960s, and I think I understand their appeal to me now. Other readers may have had different reasons for liking them.  For me, as I look back I see two main factors.

One: children are always being pushed around by people bigger than they are. Superheroes don't have to take guff from anybody. They can overrule the usual authority figures. Identifying with a superhero can be satisfying: If I were Superman I wouldn't have to put up with this. A kid can also identify with the people the superhero saves: if only Superman would step in and stop these bullies, my teacher, my parents. He could even take me away with him and make me his sidekick and helper!

Two: a superhero is recognized as special and good. Of course, there's also the kind of superhero like Batman or Spiderman who's viewed ambivalently by society: is he a good guy or a bad guy? But the fan knows he's a good guy, and sympathizes with the misunderstood hero. Or with the misunderstood secret identity of the hero, who looks like an ordinary person but inside is somebody special and powerful: If they only knew who I really am, they'd be sorry they didn't give me more respect.

Not everybody grows out of a fascination with superheroes, obviously, from adults who collect the comics and wear costumes and attend conventions to the adults who produce them. So I'm wondering what's up with the four men who produced Secret Identities. They insinuate themselves into some of the material, as writers and sometimes as characters in their own strips, commenting on and introducing the stories. This seems rather sad to me, but to each his own.

I'm only a little over a third of the way through the collection, and I find it a bit perplexing. There's a political and historical program here, which is laudable enough: several of the stories touch on Hiroshima, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the Chinese labor gangs who worked on the transcontinental railroads. (The final page touts an official website, which offers a downloadable Teacher's Guide for these serious themes, and the classification on the back cover reads not "Comics" but "Cultural Studies/Asian American Studies"; as though the worth of a project like this depends on its being Educational.) There's even a story in which a young Asian-American superhero, recruited by the US government, is brought face to face with President Obama. Obama gets to fire a blaster at "some #$%@*ing Nazis" before he exhorts young Franklin D. Murakawa to help him "destroy the Klan's Time Machine." "Hot damn!" grins Murakawa (page 61). Ah, 2009 seems so long ago now....

It's fine that Asian-American kids should have Asian-American superheroes to identify with; entertainment should reach out to every niche audience. But something seems missing here, and not just because I'm not Asian: I felt the same way about the gay and lesbian superheroes of Gay Comix back in the 80s and 90s, especially since the overlap of musclebound superheroes and musclebound gay male porn icons didn't work for me on any level. Just plugging this or that minority group into the well-worn tropes of superhero comics isn't enough. (Or into other comics genres.) Nor have I been won over by latter-day attempts to inject moral and psychological complexity into the genre; they feel too obligatory, mechanical, self-conscious.

The trouble I'm having with Secret Identities, then, is that there's nothing too special about it. It's a rehash of old stories with different eyes and bone structure in the central characters. And I do mean old. The sexual politics of the stories are as archaic as their plots. The editors are all male, and except for a few token supergirls, so are the protagonists. There's also the usual yammering about the "emasculation" of Asian men in white American representations. This might have been tolerable or excusable in the Asian-American literature of forty years ago (Frank Chin, for example), but it isn't now. Of course the editors, writers, and artists are trying to revisit the comics of their childhood, but what effect will their work have on the childhood of the kids who read their work now?

Personally and in principle, I'm just not interested in superheroes anymore. The popularity of the fantasy would bother me less if it weren't for the way it feeds into America's impoverished political culture. It's okay to dream of being Superman, even Asian-American Superman, because that poses no threat to the political quietism our rulers want to foster. Real change doesn't happen because of individuals with superpowers, be they superstrength and X-ray vision or an "I Have a Dream" speech; it happens because large numbers of people resist together. Who's the "hero" in a human pyramid -- the guy at the top, or the guys at the bottom who are carrying most of the weight?

But I've talked about that before, and it's not really what concerns me today. The Secret Identities website quotes an Entertainment Weekly review: "Superheroes speak to the part of us—and we all have it—that hopes, deep down, that we’re special." But what if we're not? Only an ever-diminishing minority can be at or even near the top of the pyramid; what about everybody else? Is life worth living if we're not Superman? Through most of my life, that has been the question I've looked to art and entertainment to answer. Superhero fantasies can't do it, and I suspect they're counterproductive in the end.

I'm still interested in reading about what you might call real heroes, people who achieved remarkable things without super powers, but I want to know about them in their imperfection and complexity, in their historical and social context. Superhero fantasies can be a distraction that keep us from understanding how people do become remarkable. But I'm just as interested, maybe more so, in reading about people who didn't achieve anything more remarkable than surviving, finding a space in their world without compromising their integrity or humanity: the people in history whose names we don't know, but without whom the famous wouldn't exist either.

Which brings me to the other book I wanted to write about today: The Book of the Maidservant (Random House, 2009), a Young Adult novel by the medievalist Rebecca Barnhouse. It's the story of Johanna, the adolescent maidservant of the medieval English mystic Margery Kempe (ca. 1373- after 1438), who late in life dictated her life story; it's generally considered the first autobiography in English. As Barnhouse says in her Author's Note, we don't know the maidservant's name or much about her, but we know she existed, because her mistress referred to her in her memoir, complaining about her impertinence and disobedience.
According to Margery, before they even left on their pilgrimage, a holy man warned her that her maidservant would give her trouble and would turn against her -- as she believed happened in Rome. During the pilgrimage, when she company arrived in Constance, the rest of the pilgrims wouldn't let the maidservant accompany Margery. Whom did Margery blame? The maidservant, of course. ... When Margery arrived in Rome, she said she found her maidservant at the Hospital of Saint Thomas, "living in great wealth and prosperity, for she was the keeper of their wine." When I got to that line, I cheered for the maidservant and wondered how she had accomplished such a feat [225-6].
So Barnhouse set about imagining a name, a background, and adventures for this supporting player, a good reminder that in real life, the supporting players are people in their own right, the centers of their own stories. Johanna's story also ends at Rome, but there's no reason to believe that she goes on to marry a prince and wear a crown, or that she chooses to devote her life to the love of the undead. She doesn't want to be a hero, a saint, or a martyr; she just wants to have food and shelter and friends, maybe a husband and children someday. Her story, as Barnhouse invents it, interests me more than all the superheroes of Secret Identities.

I'm not endorsing fatalism, or mediocrity, as I suspect some readers will conclude. Striving for excellence doesn't require climbing to the top of the pyramid; as those who remember what I've written about elitism will know, I don't acknowledge the superiority of self-styled elites anyway. Striving for excellence doesn't mean shutting your eyes to the achievements of others; they can be pointers, examples, possibilities. It means being better today than you were yesterday, cliched though that is. I'd be a lot more sanguine about the effects of superhero fantasies if the people who buy them were more interested in the stories of people like Johanna the maidservant as well. From what I can tell, most fanboys find such stories boring: not enough action, gore, or D-cups. That's not a hopeful sign for finding interest in their own lives, let alone valuing the people around them.

Look at the way the editors frame the situation on the website. Our hero has
got a hidden side to himself that he can’t quite bring himself to show, not even to the popular girl he’s got a huge crush on. If only she knew who he really was—what he could really do—she’d be amazed, he thinks. If only she knew. If only everyone knew...
I think the pivotal word there is "popular," don't you? The editors are thinking of Clark Kent, but what if you aren't even Clark Kent? They're buying into the notion that the most sedentary, social-skills-free schlub has a right to the attention of the "popular girl." She should look into his soul and see how special he is, but he needn't look into the soul of the ordinary girl sitting at the next desk. That is the real trouble with this fantasy: it's egocentric to the point of solipsism, built on the assumption that human worth is measured by being better than someone else. Only I and my feelings are real; the rest of you matter only insofar as you interest me, and have value in a competitive market. That may be a common attitude, but it's not a good one, let alone a sign that one is Homo Superior.

This isn't something that can be proven. I can't demonstrate that the mild-mannered reporter is worth as much as the glamorous superhero. It's more a matter of how you want to view the world and the people in it. It appears to me, though, that harboring the belief that despite your manifest mediocrity you're really an Ubermensch is not the most effective way to live your life. It looks to me more like a way of hiding from life while it goes rushing past you. But to each his or her own.