Saturday, October 22, 2005

The 346th Great Awakening

The basic premise of the current run of Legion of Super-Heroes has reminded a lot of people of the 1960s. There’s a generation gap, a war that young people don’t want to fight in, a movement of young free-thinkers rebelling against a bland, repressive 1950s-like culture… it’s a good comparison. But how much does the United Planets of 3005 resemble the United States of 1969? And how similar should they be?

Before I talk about that I have to set up a couple of things:

There are a couple of writers named William Strauss and Neil Howe, who’ve written a few books on generations and history. They’ve got a theory on how generations and historical eras happen in cycles. I think it makes a lot of sense. You can read more about it here if you want. These are some high points:

- Everybody belongs to a generation that’s about twenty years wide
- There are four basic age brackets, each approximately twenty years long – youth (age 0-20), adulthood (20-40), midlife (40-60), elderhood (60-80)
- There are four types of generations, call them P, N, H and A, that always occur in the same order. That is, you get about twenty years of Ps being born, then twenty years of Ns, and so on. - Each generational type has a different personality
- Therefore there are four types of historical eras, each about twenty years long, characterized by which type of generation is in which age bracket. So an era with Ps in elderhood, Ns in midlife, Hs in adulthood and As in childhood will be followed by an era that has Ns in elderhood, Hs in midlife, As in adulthood and a new batch of Ps in childhood. And so on

The four types of generations are:
- Prophets, like today’s Boom generation (born 1943-1960)
- Nomads, like today’s Generation X (born 1961-1981)
- Heroes, like today’s Greatest generation (born 1901-1924) or today’s Millennial generation (born 1982-about 1999, probably)
- Artists, like today’s Silent generation (born 1925-1942) or, probably, the babies who have been born in the last few years

The four types of historical eras are:
- Highs (Elder Nomads, midlife Heroes, adult Artists, Prophet children) – stable, spiritually blank secular societies enjoying great material prosperity. Institutions strong.
- Awakenings (Elder Heroes, midlife Artists, adult Prophets, Nomad children) – established order threatened by spiritual youth revolution. Institutions under attack.
- Unravelings (Elder Artists, midlife Prophets, adult Nomads, Hero children) – anything-goes society with crumbling institutions.
- Crisis (Elder Prophets, midlife Nomads, adult Heroes, Artist children) – great rejuvenation of society in which great problems are addressed in sweeping ways and a new secular society is eventually established. Institutions swept away and rebuilt.

I don’t want to debate the merits of the theory. (Actually, I do. It’s one of the things I most like to do. But that’s not what this column is about.) I just want to apply its ideas to the first ten-plus issues of Legion and see what kinds of insight we get.

(Of course, there’s no reason to think that Mark Waid and Barry Kitson care even a little about Strauss and Howe’s theories. Why should they? But one of my favourite things about the generational-cycle theory is that it provides a fun context for thinking about stuff like comic books.)

At first glance it looks like the early 31st century is an Awakening era. Older generations, who have built an impressive and vast technological civilization, are expecting young people to fit into the world they’ve created and carry on along the same lines. But the young people (the Legion, in this case) have other ideas. They want the freedom to be able to give society what they think it needs – more rights for young people, but also more colour, more daring and more hope.

I wasn’t alive during the 1960s, but I bet there are quite a few scenes from the Legion issues we’ve seen so far that would ring true for those who were. I’m thinking specifically of Saturn Girl’s argument with her mother in issue 9. On the one hand, Saturn Mom clearly has some regard for her daughter and her desire to do important things in the world, but on the other, she’s put off by her communication style, which is more passionate than rational.

One of the causes of the famous generation gap of the sixties was the older generations’ position that they had created a good and safe world for their children to grow up in. When the children did grow up, though, they found the world wasn’t always all that good or all that safe, and they felt they’d been lied to. The Legion seems to be going through something similar.

The Legion’s main gripe is the Public Service, the universal network which allows parents to trade the freedom and privacy of their children for safety. There’s no direct comparison to the Public Service in the sixties, but certainly the Boom did often complain about the dehumanizing effects of modern society, and refused to be ‘treated like a number’.

But let’s not kid ourselves. This is a good comparison, not a perfect one. There are several aspects of LSH that don’t seem like elements of an Awakening at all. For one thing, the Legion doesn’t really want to reject or abolish all aspects of 31st-century society. They just want to make it better. None of the Legionnaires are the turn-on-tune-in-and-drop-out types. They’re too clean-cut, too constructive.

In fact, check out the speeches Cosmic Boy has given to rally the troops in issues 9 and 10. One point he keeps returning to is that there’s strength in numbers. This attitude is much more characteristic of a Hero generation than a Prophet generation.

Which we might have expected. The menace the Legion is currently facing, Lemnos’s interstellar war, is the apocalyptic kind of thing we might expect to happen in a story about a Crisis era, not an Awakening. The combined genres of science fiction and fantasy, which can contain Legion comics between them, have always been fond of Crisis eras, with their ultimate enemies and final battles and their happily-ever-afters. And when you’re telling such stories, it’s almost impossible not to cast a young Hero as the protagonist.

Not only that, but it’s hard not to write about what you see around you, and what Waid and Kitson see around them in 2005 is a society in the early stages of a Crisis era, containing teenagers who belong to a Hero generation.

If I had to pick out one thing, though, that keeps Legion from portraying an authentic-looking Awakening era, it would be the lack of spirituality. Certainly spirituality was a major element of the Consciousness Revolution of the sixties, and one that continues (in an often-different form) to be a priority to the Boom generation today.

But spirituality’s a tough sell in superhero comics. Comics aren’t about superheroes going to church; they’re about superheroes overcoming physical threats. In real life, people need the spiritual to give them comfort and perspective on the world around them and their place in it. In comics, spirituality mostly shows up as the supernatural: a potential source of super-powers and monsters to hit.

Accordingly, the Legion doesn’t seem all that spiritual. Brainiac 5 is as rational as they come, and his opposite number, Dream Girl, isn’t much of a one for prayer herself. We might expect Element Lad or Karate Kid or someone to have a mystical side, but it hasn’t happened.

I admit that there’s no way of knowing what spirituality would ‘really’ be like in the 31st century. In fact, Waid and Kitson may well have decided that there simply isn’t any such thing anymore, and that would be a defensible position to take. Or, possibly, they may simply not want to explore that aspect of the future. Certainly past versions of the Legion didn’t give us a whole lot of detail on religion in their society (except that someone or something called ‘Grife’ was involved).

But if they want to give their portrayal of 31st century society some added resonance, some extra verisimilitude, they might want to consider showing how the Legionnaires are not only more colourful and more adventurous than their parents, but also more spiritually inclined.

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Blogger Greg Gildersleeve said...

Very interesting article, Matthew. I'm intrigued by the generational theory.

If I understand it correctly, that makes me a Nomad in midlife, which makes this a Crisis historical era. (It doesn't feel like a crisis, though; more like an Unravelling.)

Anyway, it was interesting to see you apply this theory to the Legion, even though I haven't read much of the current version. I wonder how the theory would fit past versions of the Legion. (I'll look around the site some to see if you've already addressed this.)

Anyway, thanks for a thought-provoking read.

Greg (HWW)

11:30 PM  

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