Friday, May 22, 2009

Superhero Theory: The Mythologizing of World War II

So we all agree comic book time is wacky, right?

In modern superhero comics, it’s acknowledged that time passes in some way (as opposed to, say, most newspaper comic strips or The Simpsons* where characters stay the same age). The dawn of the Silver Age, beginning in 1956 for DC and 1961 for Marvel, is usually said to have happened “ten years ago” or so. As a result, real-world events gradually become irrelevant. Captain America once lived through the era of Vietnam and Watergate, and now they’re just things he read about after he came out of suspended animation. It seems unlikely that Iron Man would have actually fought any communist spies or that Colossus would feel conflicted about his duty to the X-Men versus his duty to the state, unless you fanwank it and say the Soviet Union collapsed later in the Marvel Universe.

(*--Okay, actually The Simpsons is a little more complicated than that, because they do use a sliding timescale, but only in flashbacks. Bart is ten years old in 1990 and in 2009, but Homer and Marge’s courtship shifts from the late 70s to the time when grunge rock bands walked the earth.)

World War II, however, still happened to the Golden Age heroes. They don’t follow a sliding timeline. Steve Rogers was originally unfrozen in 1964, and now it’s got to be more like sometime late in the Clinton administration, but he always becomes Captain America in 1940/41. Wally West and the rest of the Teen Titans were hip 60s kids, and now they couldn’t be, but Jay Garrick always becomes the Flash around 1939/40.

The problem, of course, is that the time between the start of the Golden Age and the present is always getting longer. This wouldn’t be a problem, except that comic book companies still want to use those Golden Age characters as active superheroes, although by all rights they should be going on ninety years old.

Now, Marvel’s got it a bit easier, because they don’t have too many heroes from the Golden Age prominently active today, and the ones they do have pretty decent work-arounds for this problem. Captain America was frozen in 1945, so he can spend as long as you need him to in that block of ice and still emerge a young man. The original Human Torch is an android, and I’m pretty sure he’s incapable of aging (correct me if I am wrong, please). Namor’s an Atlantean mutant with all sorts of crazy powers, so we can say he just ages incredibly slowly. That covers the major leaguers (although only Cap is what you’d call an A-lister today anyway).

There are a lot more of DC’s Golden Agers still in play, however. Some of them, like the original Green Lantern, have kids that are only about as old as contemporary young heroes, somehow. Unlike Marvel, however, the workarounds tend to be complex, and then writers forget about or choose to ignore them and add additional, contradictory explanations. Jay Garrick, the original Flash, would chronologically be at least ninety years old, but he usually doesn’t look much older than Harrison Ford. It’s explained that the Speed Force keeps him vital. And also that the Justice Society once got hit with some kind of chronal energy that inhibited their aging. And, um, he also was in limbo for awhile with the Justice Society, too. And…uhrr…he also lost a few decades when his city was kept “out of phase” with the rest of reality. Man, forget sixty-something -- Jay Garrick should be, like, thirty-six!

The obvious solution for DC would be to ditch World War II, right? If the Silver Age started “ten years ago,” you could just say the Golden Age was “thirty years ago” and be done with it. You’d have superheroes that were aged past their prime, but not so aged that you need a Byzantine explanation as to how they’re sprightly enough to occasionally come out of retirement to help the Justice League on a case. Problem solved.

So why don’t superhero comics let go of World War II?

It was the last “good” American war, people will tell you. Imagine Captain America being created for any other war or conflict since then, and it’s just not the same. Vietnam and Iraq are regarded as controversial at best, and the Korean War and Desert Storm don’t have a lot of cultural capital -- some people won’t even be able to tell you what those conflicts were actually about.

But everybody knows what the deal with WWII is, right? "Hitler’s campaign of conquest and genocide." Of course, there’s a little more to it than that, but that is what, going on seventy years later, World War II means to people. On its most superficial, reduced level, World War II was a conflict in which evil men tried to conquer the world.

Why, that’s a comic book plot on the surface of it, isn’t it?

That’s why superhero comics will never abandon World War II. It’s a recent enough event that it still has a place in our collective consciousness, but long enough ago that the wounds generally aren’t fresh.

But wait. Why should there need to be a war at all?

Even though most Golden Age DC heroes don’t rely on World War II for their origins the way Captain America directly does, many writers seem to view them as a response nonetheless. As Alan Davis puts it in his JLA Elseworlds book The Nail: “So it was in man’s darkest hour when the first meta-humans appeared. Costumed patriots who symbolized our heroic ideal and protected us from the nation’s enemies.” Ultimate Evil arises in the form of the Axis powers, and it seems as though destiny plays a part in arranging the emergence of Ultimate Good in the form of superheroes to combat it.

What I find somewhat uncomfortable about this is that World War II, an actual event involving real people and real repercussions, gets mythologized to the point where Hitler is Tolkien’s Sauron, instead of Sauron being Hitler. In modern entertainment, Nazis are often just iconography; stripped of any real meaning, you can just use them as stock villains. You can kill as many Nazis in an Indiana Jones movie and the audience will still cheer because there’s no gray area, no remorse (notice that superheroes are never shown in the Pacific theater; they’re always in Europe fighting Germans). Is the cavalier way our superhero comics bandy about Nazi supervillains and World War II vets trivializing the war even while trying to honor it?

Dude … what if Captain America had been created in peacetime? A super-peacekeeper – and how perfect that he’s carrying a shield and not an implicitly offensive weapon! Would Captain America mean more or less, though?


cease ill said...

Don't sell yourself short, Justin! That's the kind of probing of taken-for-granted tropes that create the stories that will get the critics buzzing, and writers, creating, rather than essentially playing with figures in imitation of existing stories. This is more like what happens when you get the whole toy box together and create! People aren't as conscious in the West about the Chino-Nipponese conflict that built the aggressive armies of that theater, but the winding way from war to peace with Japan is excellent, if weighty, fodder for a thoughtful premise. I realize this may not be the context for discussing the inner conflict regarding German-Americans, thoughts of present-day Germans, or Jewish response to oppression (Adventures of Kavalier & Klay nailed the latter). I am seriously considering the notion of the legacy of a champion traditionally created as peacekeeper, stood on its head by the necessities of insurgency. Though the nature of our thoughts on the present wars are as openly contradictory as those of pre-Pearl Harbor Americans, it is only my division 'twixt multiple worthy premises and joyous celebrations of gratitude vs. undiagnosed clinical depression that slow my research and writing of a people's champion set in an analogue of Persia/Palestine with a twist I'll hang on to unless/until I have eager collaborators step up. (I'm actually dying to do/ share this! This comment follows Neda & Green Revolution protests.) I am on the side of NOT mythologizing the complexities of wars as well.

cease ill said...

Add to that toy box, "binding things together into additional figures of your own devising," too :-).