Sunday, July 17, 2022

That's Some Catch, That Catch-52

 Writer Jared Yates Sexton, whom I like, had a Substack post, and accompanying Twitter thread, a while ago about how today's political struggles aren't just about the present but also about our ideas of the past and the future. They are here and here; go read it and then come back here and we'll finish up. And stick around, because I think I've found something profound to say about superheroes in this one!

The thing that struck me about it that made me want to comment on it here, of course, is that it deals with the future. And around here, anything that has to do with the future might have to do with the Legion of Super-Heroes.

Specifically. DC Comics is presenting us with a vision of the future in its (increasingly infrequent) Legion comics. What goes into that, and what comes out of it?

Despite that DC is owned by a Giant Corporation, I don't really think that the portrayal of the future in its comics was developed to serve any kind of corporate agenda. That would require a whole lot more competence and attention to detail than I've seen out of them in recent years. No, I think we can safely place the credit and/or blame on the various LSH writers over the years who've thought up what the future of a superhero world would be like.

And that's what it is: the future of a superhero world. Not the future of our world, because we don't live in a superhero world, and that's something we ought to be thankful for. So when we're thinking of the Legion's 31st century, we should keep that in mind. We don't want our world to be like this. We, regular humans, should have our own ideas for what we want to have happen and be working towards those.

One example. DC has, by now, given us a loose timeline for what kinds of things we ought to expect. There's a Great Disaster coming up, for one thing, and the Legion's generally more pleasant future, with its dozens of teenaged champions, only some time after that.

No matter what we do!

Well, then, there's no point in doing anything! Right? It'll be fine.

So that's one problem.

Another problem, which I don't want to not mention, but has been discussed plenty in other places, is how early Legion stories would give us a future with no Black people in it, and, when they first tried to fix that, made things even worse.

And, last, let's look at what happens in the Legion's future. (The superhero present must resemble the real-life present in at least some ways; the superhero future can look like anything.) Look at the various catastrophes that have befallen the 30th and 31st centuries: we've seen planetsworth of carnage and destruction caused by Mordru, the Time Trapper, Glorith, Computo, Darkseid, Ra's al Ghul... By superpowered individuals, is the point I'm trying to make. The cosmology of the Five Years Later era says it out loud: the fate of reality is a struggle between the Time Trapper (later Glorith) and Mordru, and the Legionnaires can only hope to keep them in stalemate.

I think I'm correct in saying that this kind of situation, in which reality is the battleground of supermen and everyone else are just faceless pawns and nameless victims, is a world of fascism. I'll go further: the basic idea of superheroes itself is fascist. (I'm not the first person to say so.) Superheroes have come a long way since they were first created, but the premise remains the same.

Let's sum up the premise of superheroes this way. Society has problems that it is powerless to solve. These problems are personified in some people who are up to no good and must be stopped. But the people of the society, including their official representatives, are powerless to do anything about it. The only person who is free to act is the superhero: an unusual person who a) has the will to take action against evil despite social convention, and b) has some kind of special abilities lifting their capabilities above the common person. Typically there's one more subtle ability that this unusual superhero person has: they can accurately identify the evil enemy.

That's all very fascist. Go ahead and compare that to the kinds of things that far-right groups claim to think about themselves; it's a good match. (At one time, the stereotypical superhero was a rich white guy; that's not nearly as true anymore. That part has gotten better.)

But here's the thing: if you know me at all, you know that I am not about to condemn the superhero genre. I love it, have for a long time, expect to continue for another long time. So there is a catch. (If we're feeling playful about it, we can call it Catch-52.) I propose

The First Hypothesis of Suprmetrics: A genre is a premise plus a fantasy.

I'll give you a second to take that in.

So, we laid out the premise of the superhero genre a few paragraphs ago. But the superhero fantasy is this: superheroes can be trusted with their power and will never abuse it. And the reason why I love the superhero genre is that the superhero premise is redeemed by the superhero fantasy.

Look, for the superhero genre to be fascist, it would have to not matter whether superheroes were benevolent or malevolent, whether the average person could count on them or not. But it does matter. It's the key to the whole thing. And I don't think this is well enough understood. I saw Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness a while ago. And there were a lot of things about it that bugged me. (Click through to this article I wrote about Saturn Girl if you want to know why in detail.) Basically it comes down to, I prefer the Scarlet Witch as a superhero.

Or take The Boys. I've never watched (or read) The Boys; it doesn't sound like a good time to me. But it sounds to me like--any setup where superheroes all have to work for the government sounds like--the writers don't accept the fantasy of superheroes and are trying to write about just the premise.

I am not arguing that any of this is extendable to the real world. I am certainly not arguing that anyone who seems to be arguing in favour of some part of the fascist premise of superheroes is redeemed by the fantasy of superheroes. It's just the opposite, most likely. I do think that that's how it should work on the screen and on the page... but we should have different standards once we close the cover.


I invite comments! I wrote this fast and I may have overlooked something that should not go without saying, or been wrong in some other way.

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