Thursday, May 20, 2010

Spanner and the Problem with Superheroes

I'm an aspiring cartoonist, and superheroes are all the rage again in popular culture. I'm putting public domain superheroes, and some heroes of my own invention, into the plot of Spanner, complete with Golden, Silver, and Bronze Age versions. However, I do not allow any of my superheroes to become the protagonist. Why? you ask. Because superheroes are not cut out to be protagonists. The protagonist is the main character, the one whose crucial decision is the event that begins the story, either as a result of the Inciting Incident or as the Inciting Incident itself. If the superhero is the protagonist, he faces the danger that he will become a revolutionary tyrant, a one-man vanguard who is the very embodiment of substitutionism, the belief that a revolutionary vanguard can substitute for mass action and the heroism of ordinary people. In Watchmen, this hero turned villain is Ozymandias, the all-powerful utopian. So in Spanner, it's the slutty teenage prankster on a hoverboard who gets the leading role, and not one of the superpowered characters.

Here's how the traditional superhero story works: A crook — or, better yet, a supervillain — commits a crime or takes the city hostage or some other heinous act of terrorism. The villain kicks off the story and dominates it to the end; he is the protagonist. This is a job for Superman, says Clark Kent; or Commissioner Gordon switches on the Bat-Signal. Already our hero is reacting to the villain's provocation. And he acts reactively until the climax, when he defeats the villain and hands him off to the cops to be taken back to jail or the Arkham Asylum or wherever the forces of justice stash supervillains. Cop and detective stories work the same way, and a large proportion of thrillers take after the cop and detective stories.

In Watchmen, Alan Moore deconstructed the superhero formula. Above all, it's a cautionary tale about what happens when you let the superhero be the protagonist. In fact, Ozymandias kicks off the plot the way a villain would: by assassinating a notoriously violent costumed vigilante called the Comedian, his ex-teammate in the superhero team known as the Watchmen. He turns out to be the worst kind of villain, the right man, who has such absolute faith in his heroism that he is able to commit the vilest acts of villainy without the slightest twinge of conscience. Ozymandias destroys New York City with a monster in order to bring about world peace under his allegedly benevolent dictatorship.

So in Spanner, the role of protagonist cannot go to any of the superpowered characters, or even the politically powerful ones. Both groups are faced immediately with the temptation of absolute power, which Ozymandias (in)famously surrenders himself to. Instead, the protagonist — and hero — of Spanner is an initially apolitical hoverboarding tagger and practical joker who takes "Spanner" (meaning "monkeywrench") as her handle. Her crucial decision is to become political — that is, defy oppressive authority. Though Shira has a handle, she is not a superhero or even a psychic, at least not at first, and her fight does not involve super battles but has as its goal to win the hearts and minds of the people. I'm leaving out a lot of information here (how exactly she becomes political, or how she intends to break the authorities' lock on the people's minds), but it's enough to illustrate my point.

In a nutshell: the problem with superheroes is that though they're the heroes of their stories, they can't be the protagonists — for reasons Moore illustrated in Watchmen. Superheroes form a vanguard of justice which threatens to substitute for citizen vigilance and self-protection (something the police are in fact paid to do). Therefore, my choice of protagonist for Spanner is a "social butterfly" catalyst hero. In terms of narrative archetypes, the catalyst hero is the Hero who acts as Herald in order to call other people to heroism. In Spanner's case, heroism means resistance against a Corporate Empire ruled by villains.

Superhero stories (and the cop and detective stories they descend from) are known for their good-vs.-evil moralism. Properly, the "good" consists of the social virtues, while the "evil" is antisocial; that, in fact, is why I reject the substitutionism of both superheroes and revolutionary vanguards. The hero acts on conscience; the villain has none. Spanner, really, is no different, except I refuse to give in to the temptation of taking a Manichaean black-and-white worldview. Both heroes and villains switch sides, repeatedly.

There's another problem with superhero stories, and other stories on the theme of criminal justice. It's that most of them don't go far enough in their villainy. But I'll leave that for a future entry...

Back to Spanner’s World...

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