Friday, September 22, 2006

Maybe Gates Had a Point All Along


There are no shortage of bloggers who routinely write about issues of race and sex when it comes to comic books, but less often do I see discussions of class. Maybe class issues are subtler, harder to discuss, less likely to be taken personally. (Maybe I’m just looking in the wrong places.) I don't know. Certainly I'm no kind of expert on the subject. In fact, I'm not really comfortable talking about class at all, which I suppose is quite North American of me. But I'm starting to suspect that superheroes are an elitist, upper-class kind of idea, and I hope I don't embarrass myself too much in explaining why.

First, can we agree that superheroic characters tend disproportionately to come from the upper classes, and disproportionately to not come from the lower classes?

This is more true of DC than of Marvel, but I think the trend is still visible in Marvel. First, there's the 'wealthy playboy' stereotype of a superhero, which started with the genre's roots (Zorro, Scarlet Pimpernel (who was active during the French Revolution, which we’re going to be mentioning again later)) and extended through to many superheroes still prominent today (Batman and Robin, Green Arrow and Speedy, Sandman and Sandy, Iron Man, Starman (Ted Knight), Angel, Phantom Lady, Blue Beetle (Ted Kord)). Second, there's the kind of superhero who's an aristocrat from some alien culture (Superman (Jor-El was clearly a big noise on Krypton), Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Sub-Mariner, Starfire, Mr. Miracle, Shining Knight, Magma). Not too many heroes who are actual nobility here on Earth (Black Panther, Geo-Force), although some villains are (Doctor Doom, Sonar, Black Adam). Hawkman and Hawkgirl were supposed to be reincarnated Egyptian nobles. The original Black Condor was, I think, a senator. Thor's in his own category entirely. And I don't want to limit this to just older characters: DC just created new versions of Phantom Lady and Batwoman, both of whom are in the 'wealthy socialite' category.

Same thing in the 31st century. There's Princess Projectra, of course. Chameleon Boy. Celeste Rockfish/McCauley. And many other Legionnaires have at times had close family ties to the highest seats of authority on their home planet: Saturn Girl, Colossal Boy, Apparition, Dream Girl and the White Witch, Shadow Lass, Brainiac 5. Even Matter-Eater Lad was a senator of Bismoll. And the current version of the Legion has been described more than once as kind of a rich-kids club, full of the children of United Planets higher-ups.

I said 'disproportionately', of course, not 'universally'. There are middle-class heroes aplenty, like Spider-Man, the Flash, the Fantastic Four, various Green Lanterns, Firestorm, the Atom, the new Blue Beetle, Animal-Man. But I'm having a hard time coming up with examples of lower-class superheroes. Was Spider-Man poor enough to count? I dunno... Aunt May had her own house and he went to college. Wildcat? The Thing? Daredevil? Captain America? I can't come up with many that I'm comfortable describing as lower-class. The original Guardian, I guess. Vibe. Plastic Man. Anyone know of any more? There must be some. I know there was some JSA story involving a dinner party where the JSAers sort of segregated themselves by social class…

So that's one thing right there: superhero demographics skew dramatically more to the upper classes than do those of the rest of the world.

The next thing is the movie The Incredibles. Before I get into class issues, I want to say that The Incredibles is one of my favourite movies, and in my opinion it's the best superhero movie ever made.

But certain aspects of it make me uncomfortable.

The movie centres around a conflict between the Parr family (superheroes with innate powers that at least some of them were born with) and Syndrome (supervillain with gadgets he invented himself). The Parrs have withdrawn from superhero life because the world doesn’t want them to be special anymore. Syndrome wants to eliminate all superpowered people so that he and his gadgets can replace them, after which, again, nobody will be special anymore. To do this, Syndrome releases a menace that it turns out he can’t defeat, but the Parrs can. Let’s map out who’s being portrayed how:

Inborn superpowers, born into superpowered family: Good guys. Special.
Worked hard to build your own superpowers: Bad guy. Not special.

It reminds me of the idea that there’s a difference between ‘new money’ and ‘old money’. If you’re in an old family that’s been rich forever, because of how successfully your ancestors oppressed the peasants, then you are a blue blood and your money is old money, and that’s good. But if your dad was a garbageman, and you invented a better mousetrap and built it up into an empire of mousetrap factories, then you are a parvenu and your money is new money and you’ll never be allowed into the same clubs as the old-money people.

The analogy between superheroes and aristocracy is too easily made for me to be entirely comfortable with the movie. Canada and the U.S. are supposed to be democratic societies; we don’t want or need any hereditary nobility here, and therefore I don’t like it when a movie champions such a notion.

Let’s look at the word ‘villain’. It’s used in many genres other than superhero comics to describe the evil antagonist in a story. But check out the dictionary definition. It’s a word that was coined to refer, purely descriptively, to peasants. The negative connotations came later, and were, I presume, the contributions of noblemen like the ones who brought on the French Revolution with their beliefs that peasants were so low and brutish that they were literally a separate species from the aristocracy.

The etymology actually makes things a little weird. When Doctor Doom fights the Thing, we’ve got an educated European nobleman slugging it out with an unrefined, street-accented pile of rocks, and the word we use to classify Doom is one that means ‘brutish peasant’? Anyway. The point I’m trying to make is that the word we use for the bad guys is one that reinforces the association between superheroes and the upper classes, and evildoers and the lower classes.

And now a quick word about the Marvel Universe. I’m always a little leery of discussing Marvel because I’m worried about making a mistake through ignorance. Please correct me if I do. I said before that Marvel seems a bit less upper-class-heavy than DC is in its superhero population, and I still think that’s true. But let’s check out the mutants. Mutantness, in Marvel comics, has long been used as a metaphor for various different things. The obvious ones are race and sexual orientation. Why not class? I think it’s there if you look for it.

First there’s the old Magneto idea that mutants were meant to rule over humanity. The old homo superioris argument. And even when the X-Men oppose him in this, they don’t negate the idea completely. There’s a certain amount of noblesse oblige in their protection of humanity. (Now that I think about it, noblesse oblige is actually not a bad way of restating “with great power comes great responsibility”.)

The trappings of the mutant community also echo those of the English upper classes. Xavier’s school is an updated version of the kinds of English boarding schools that Bertie Wooster went to, just like the Hellfire Club is a twisted version of the kind of gentlemen’s club he belonged to.

The role that superheroes play in the continuity of their worlds is also suggestive. I’ve read a fair bit of alternate-history science fiction. Typically, a work in this genre will take some real-life historic event and change it a bit, and write a story that explores how history would have turned out. What if the South had won the Civil War? What if Hitler had never come to power in Germany? What if the Nazis had won World War II? What if the Spanish Armada had been victorious? That kind of thing.

But when superhero comics explore parallel worlds, the differences between the worlds usually have less to do with major historical events and more to do with who the superheroes are and what their histories are. Can you think of another difference between Earth-1 and Earth-2? Like Alex Luthor said in Infinite Crisis on this very topic: it all comes from Superman.

But why does it? I understand that I’m taking something seriously here that was never meant to be taken seriously, but stories are written based on these buried assumptions, so we should see what it is we’re taking in with them. All we can conclude, on the story level, is that a world’s superbeings are so important that they themselves define that world’s reality. But the people without masks and powers are just details. The identity of the President of the United States is a pretty important issue in alternate history stories involving the U.S…. but how often is the President (whoever the hell he is) even mentioned in superhero comics? I’m not sure this is a class issue exactly, but it certainly does highlight the different statuses superheroes and just plain folks have in comics.

All of what I’ve said so far has more to do with the role superheroes occupy in the comics than what superheroes actually do. It’s often been said that superheroes are inherently conservative and classist in that they fight to preserve the status quo, rather than changing society to help the people who aren’t doing so well under the status quo. And there’s some truth to this. On the other hand, I’m sure your typical Joe Avenger would say without hesitation that he’d love to change society to help the downtrodden and eliminate poverty and what have you, but he can’t figure out how to do it. After all, these are people who, despite their many positive qualities, are mostly good at winning fights and getting cats out of trees. What are they supposed to do about, say, systemic racism? Kick it in the face? Especially when the real-life smart people are kind of at a loss as to how to solve it.

Then again, maybe they shouldn’t even try to change society. If I’m not mistaken, Superman’s reason for not doing so (which he probably could if he really tried) is that humanity has to solve its own problems. He’s happy to help out with the emergencies, but he shouldn’t be making the big decisions for the human race. And I can’t say he’s wrong about that. Would you be comfortable in a world in which the Justice League announced unilaterally that they were reengineering the global economy? I wouldn’t. And so the status quo persists.

No, if there’s classism in superhero comics it’s not based on the behaviour of the superheroes themselves, which is stereotypically laudable (though obviously with many intentional exceptions). It’s because of the ideas twisted into the roots of the genre itself.

I suppose I should be leading up to a conclusion like, “therefore superhero comics are counterrevolutionary and bourgeois, and we should stop reading them and gather outside the DC offices with torches and pitchforks! A bas les aristos!” but I don’t want to. I like superhero comics, and I think they’re a good thing (controversial stand there, eh?). I wouldn’t even say, “DC and Marvel must revise their storytelling techniques to remove these politically unsavory ideas!” I’m not sure it’s possible, for one thing, and for another, ideas can’t hurt you if you know they’re there.

Maybe my real conclusion is, “if this article doesn’t get me a link in Meanwhile…, I don’t know what will”.

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27 Comments:

Blogger Amy Reads said...

Hi Matt,
You say ten million Very Smart Things in this entry, and I can't point to them all, so I will just say a few quick things:
1) To add to your aristocracy argument (i.e. upper-class) in Marvel, you have the Hellfire Club, Professor X, Emma Frost, and heck, most of the kids at the school seem to come from upper-class backgrounds.
The reason I bring this up is a continuing argument I have with a friend re: Marvel vs. DC (the same friend I mentioned in my recent Sue Storm post, actually). He pooh-poohed DC for the billionaire playboy stereotype, and pointed to people like Professor X and Tony Stark at Marvel who use their money for good. "Tony Stark doesn't even have a mansion!" he said once.
"No, he just lives in the penthouse of a multi-billion dollar corporation," I said.
That was one of the few arguments I felt I won :)
2) As for lower-class heroes, we have The Thing, Spider-Man, Daredevil, all ones you mention, and consider Selina Kyle (prostitute) and Holly (another prostitute) from Catwoman. Although Selina made a lot of money for herself, she was an East End girl to start.
Perhaps Slam Bradley, too? Catwoman and The Flash seem to be two books full of lower-class heroes and villains.
Mr. Reads also adds The Hood (early Brian Vaughan Marvel character) and Kasper Cole (the second Black Panther/White Tiger).

And consider this one vote for your Meanwhile mention! :)
Ciao,
Amy

10:47 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Thanks. I'm never sure about Marvel characters, and in addition to that there's a very blurry line between lower-middle-class and lower-class. As far as the Catwomen are concerned, I'd say they're more data points for associating supervillainy with the lower classes. No matter how heroically they're acting now.

The billionaire playboy stereotype... Neither Marvel nor DC are to blame for originating this, of course; it comes from the Scarlet Pimpernel aka Sir Percy Blakeney and Zorro aka Don Diego de la Vega. (And I didn't make this point in the article, but I totally should have: know who wrote The Scarlet Pimpernel, the book that introduced the figure I believe to be the first modern superhero? None other than Emma Magdalena Rosalia Maria Josefa Barbara Orczy, also known as Baroness Orczy, a fled-to-exile Hungarian noblewoman. Q E, as they say, D.)

11:01 PM  
Blogger Reel Fanatic said...

Great post .. I'm definitely with you on The Incredibles ... Though it also had plenty of great humor, Brad Bird's great flick got to the real nature of what it would mean to be a superhero

6:06 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Thanks. One thing people always say about The Incredibles is that it's a ripoff of the Fantastic Four. And I can see why they say that, but in my mind, the resemblance between the two groups is superficial. What nobody points out is that The Incredibles has a lot more in common with the Schwarzenegger movie True Lies.

8:24 AM  
Blogger LT said...

Matt,

What a great post! Class is rarely discussed in comic-book universe comparisons because're supposed to be a classless society - except, we're not. I want to point out one reason why the "rich single playboy" type is so appealing to writers - from a pratical point of view, it means that characater doesn't have to work, freeing him (usually him) up for superheroing at any time of day or night. It also explains all the arcane knowledge that presumably comes from an expensive private school education. Another bonus is that all his money allows him cool weapons and transportation. Batman is obviously the archetype for this in DC.

I think one of the reasons Spider-Man was so popular from the very beginning was that Peter Parker *did* have a job, and *did* worry about his costume, and the rent, and getting good grades. His worries were very much those of the readership at the time. Do rich playboys read comics?

Great post!

Lene

11:59 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I agree that that's part of the reason for the prevalence of the millionaire playboy superhero. But if the practicalities of the situation were the determining factor, I'd expect it to be even more common than it is. I think that there were so many superheroes with that profile because that was the kind of person people thought would or should be a superhero

1:19 PM  
Blogger Steven said...

Great post. I started to respond here but it got too long, so I made it a separate post on my own blog.

The short version is that Superman is too a working class hero.

7:29 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Good post. I'll respond to it on your blog.

8:18 PM  
Blogger kalinara said...

Heheh. It's good to be appreciated. :-)

As for the link...well...

:-)

2:59 AM  
Anonymous Rich said...

Odd that Luke Cage doesn't get a mention. Certainly not a wealthy hero, and one of the few who actually wanted to get paid for his work. Or do his early "blaxploitation" stories invalidate him as an example somehow?

And of course DC had the Blood Syndicate under their Milestone range. Surely street gang members qualify as lower class, yes?

4:16 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

For me, Cage and the Blood Syndicate fall into the "anybody know of any more?" category; I wasn't familiar with Cage's background and I am literally hearing about the Blood Syndicate for the first time now. They're perfectly good examples, and thanks for providing them.

4:49 PM  
Anonymous Rich said...

Cage and the Blood Syndicate may be good examples, but at the same time I find it a little depressing that when I think "lower-class superheroes" only minorities come to mind. Am I overlooking someone, or is there a not-so-subtle editorial bias there?

Where are all the white trash supers, hmmm?

8:01 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I'm sure there is bias--the point has been made better elsewhere, but try to think of a black superhero who doesn't have the ghetto somewhere in his background; there aren't many. But some white lower-class heroes were also named, both in the article and the comments.

8:09 PM  
Blogger Your Obedient Serpent said...

The new Blue Beetle and Firestorm are middle-class/working-class teens. However, like several other Heroes of the Proletariat that have already been mentioned, they're also minorities.

Personally, I'm glad to see DC making an effort to encompass more racial AND social diversity.

One wonders where Icon would fit on this map.

9:20 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I agree. I know next to nothing about the new Firestorm, but I'd definitely put Jamie Reyes in the middle class. As for Icon (another one I'm learning about for the first time), for me it'd depend on what his situation was before the crash. Was he just a passenger on the starliner, or a stowaway, or an emperor? Like J'onn J'onzz. I didn't list J'onn as an alien-aristocrat because I don't remember ever hearing that he had any kind of exalted position among Martians.

11:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ragman (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ragman) was always one of my favorites, for no particular reason - but a clearly working class background.

6:33 AM  
Blogger Katherine said...

It's a complex, emotive, and all-pervasive issue -- precisely because it's so all-pervasive, it becomes harder to see. That said, I think you'd probably find (if you made the survey) that British writers would have a better record of confronting class as an issue than American writers, simply because awareness of class is much greater across the pond.

I do think Marvel would probably come out better on a side-by-side comparison in terms of numbers of working-class protagonists, though obviously I'm biased (and in any case pretty ignorant of DC).

As to working-class protagonists: John Constantine immediately springs to mind, though he's not really a superhero as such, which rather proves your point. Then you have the Guthrie family, including Sam/Cannonball, Paige/Husk, and Jay/Icarus.

Then there are any number of characters whose class status is murky. Wolverine came from a wealthy upper-class family, but his mannerisms and attitude are working-class; regardless of his origin, he doesn't feel upper-class. (Betraying the fact that the origin was a later addition to a character originally conceived of in a different way.)

Hm. Must think further on this.

12:25 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

anonymous: Ragman, nice one.

katherine: I hadn't thought of that with the British writers, but you're probably right. I suppose it'd help if I knew who the British writers were. There's Moore and Morrison, of course, and there are clearly some lower-class heroes in Watchmen...

Somebody should set up a site that tracks all this. I'd do it, except, as I said, I'm not really comfortable talking about class; I may have come to the end of what I can intelligently say about it with this article. Plus I'm already the Legion guy; how can I be the class guy too?

1:34 PM  
Blogger Sandicomm said...

Hey, Matt,

I found this article on Ragnell's blog, and found it very intriguing and well-written, and I agree with most of what you've said.

It is a tired maxim that comic books are the 20th century's answer to mythology, but it's certainly true, or, if one does not accept that, one must acknowledge that many of the techniques in superhero storytelling can be traced back to mythology.

Most myths, especially Graeco-Roman ones, contain heros who were members of the nobility. Hercules was a prince; Aeneas was King Priam's cousin; Arthur, of course, was a king. If we trace myths to their more watered-down versions, fairy tales, we also find that most every fairy tale (as opposed to the folk tales) contain either a prince, princess, or clever tailor's son. These characters are upper class or upper middle class; people of all ages and social classes.

In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim suggests that the reason why so many fairy tale characters were members of the nobility was because it is a symbol to the person who is listening to/ reading the tale that they are Special, that, when they place themselves in the role of the main character in the imagination, they too would be able to go on the quests that the hero/heroine is undertaking. Nobility in fairy stories was not taken literally, but was a symbol for uniqueness and ability.

I think that the same thing can be applied to comic books. Having lower class characters as heros is only relatively recent (18th century or thereabouts) and comes from a completely different tradition--that of the novel.

Also, forgive me for being bourgeois, but why should superheroes change the status quo when they could cause change within the status quo (Wonder Woman being an exception)?

5:42 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

It took me a while to process your argument, but now that I have, I think it's a good one. It feels right, and I think that it's a secret reason why DC's upper-class leanings don't bother me more than they do. (I do have some misgivings about it: the comparison between superhero comics and mythology is an iffy one for me, and I suspect there are more lower-class examples of heroes in myth and fairy tale than (all minus most every).)

And I'm not entirely sure what you're getting at with your last point. Could you elaborate?

10:44 PM  
Blogger Sandicomm said...

I guess what I meant was that, to me at least, to change the status quo means to change everything from the ground up. But if one were to change things within the status quo, it's not so much a reorganizing of society as changing some of its paramaters, i.e., more people could be deemed acceptable to society without having to violently change it.

And I'm sorry that the rest of my comment wasn't that well-written. If you read The Uses of Enchantment, you'll see what I'm talking about. Or just read it anyway because it's a damn good book.

11:22 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Didn't say it wasn't well written.

I think superheroes don't do anything about the status quo because they're no damn good at stuff like that. Do you see how they interact with each other? Even at, like, casual get-togethers and stuff? They fight. There's always some kind of physical scuffle. That's how they relate to each other. You don't want people like that, however well-intentioned, meddling with the social order. They are hammers and our most serious problems are not nails.

5:44 PM  
Anonymous duck458 said...

Well reasoned article, Matt. I don't think we discuss class enough in this society. I believe that most oppressive -isms (sexism, racism, opposition to universal healthcare, homophobia,etc.) are class-ism in disguise.
Never-the-less, I remember reading somewhere Batman creator Bob Kane explaining that since he had grown up poor, Batman was how he had always hoped that rich people would really act. Coming at night to save the poor folks from their predicaments and by inference from themselves (his sentiments not mine). This fits well with your theory I think.
BTW, I think that Icon fits as both the wealthy playboy (that he became a conservative black man) and the alien aristocrat. If you can find the Icon series it dealt directly with class issues in a superhero setting, his sidekick was a young black girl from the hood, eventually she became pregnant and so the poor, young, black single mother issue was introduced into the book.

4:08 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I believe that most oppressive -isms (sexism, racism, opposition to universal healthcare, homophobia,etc.) are class-ism in disguise.

In some cases I can see how that would work; in others I'm not so sure. On the other hand, what do I know.

I remember reading somewhere Batman creator Bob Kane explaining that since he had grown up poor, Batman was how he had always hoped that rich people would really act.

That's interesting. It sort of echoes the recent post-and-discussion about class on The Absorbascon. Did you perhaps find this post from the link in the comments there?

10:55 AM  
Anonymous duck458 said...

I found your site from LegionWorld.net.

3:59 AM  
Blogger Jacob said...

In addition to the Blood Syndicate, who were only ambivalently superheroes, remember Rocket from the Milestone line. And Static was lower-middle-class. Then, as a counterpoint to the idea that minority characters are poor characters, remember Icon and Hardware from the same line.

I have a hard time getting a handle on some class questions from the 40s or the 60s. To wit: a cop. Jim Corrigan and Barry Allen were cops-- not a profession I think of as being upper-class in the slightest, but Corrigan seems like a working-class stiff whereas Barry seems like a middle-class midwesterner.

In different ways, all Green Lanterns and the silver age Hawkman/ Hawkgirl were alien cops, which feels pretty different from alien aristocrat.

A lot of the old JSAers-- including Wildcat, Atom, and Johnny Thunder-- seem like working-class Joes, with no aristocracy to their origins, even as Starman and Green Lantern obviously came from the other side of the tracks.

And some professions have changed their class positions-- a beat reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper in the 1930s was a *much* more working-class position than it is now. (Though even now it's not *as* elite a profession as the nightly-news-anchor position Clark Kent held during the Bronze Age.)

Barbara Gordon-- a cop's daughter[/niece, depending on continuity] and librarian isn't rich, though somehow the class difference never seems to enter into her relationship with Bruce or Dick. She's institutionally rich now, but that's post-Oracle.

Metamorpho's position as Simon Stagg's very subordinate paid employee was pretty central to his character background. Yes, he was a world-explorer-archaeologist-Indiana-Jones type, but only as long as he toed Stagg's line and Stagg kept signing the checks.

---

But there's certainly an issue with the archetype. A super-hero can be self-made (which requires the money to buy lots of technology, or the wealthy leisure to indulge in years of physical training, or both). Or he or she can have powers, which creates all kinds of likely connotations about different, higher, more-artistocratic bloodlines, whether metagenetic or mutant or alien. It's just hard for a super-hero who fits the job description to also be thoroughly subordinated and disadvantaged-- at best he or she might wear the subordination as a disguise for the underlying aristocratic truth of having alien birth or a power ring or whatever.

4:32 PM  
Anonymous Jack said...

Clever article!

Working class heroes? Hmm... you started with Gates. Many of the Legionnaires were outcasts or impoverished: Gates of course, Cosmic Boy, Ferro Lad, Triad, Timber Wolf, Ultra Boy, Lightning Lad and Spark, and probably Wildfire based on his manner.

The bigger the team, the more diverse the potential backgrounds.

I'd suggest that wealth (Bruce Wayne, Princess Diana) offers part of the wish-fulfillment fantasy of the solo superhero, Spider-Man being the most obvious exception. Team books, on the other hand, are about comraderie, so some benefactor (Professor Xavier, Maxwell Lord, Silas Stone, Rene Brande) puts financial worries to rest so we can get on with the story.

6:33 AM  

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