Saturday, August 4, 2012

Spanner Themes: Superheroes and Revolution

The article: "The Dark Knight Rises: Nightmares of a Ruling Class in Crisis" (Peter Little, The Hooded Utilitarian)

First, a disclosure: I conceived of Chaos Angel Spanner in 1992, when Marvel and DC superheroes ruled the comic-book universe. Once I'd discovered anime and manga that year, I vowed to destroy the superhero universe with what I then conceived of as a comics or OEL manga series. Now on to the movie notes:

Over the past few months I've been learning about the right-wing subtext of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. The Dark Knight, for instance, is in part an allegory of the Terror War, starring the Joker as Osama bin Laden. Now it turns out that The Dark Knight Rises is how the American Overclass sees the Occupy movement. Naturally, they see it as a terrorist conspiracy led by... somebody evil. Like Bane. And the common people caught between the Man and the terrorists? Blank-out!

There are three dangerous (and traditional) assumptions behind this:
  1. The Overclass is by definition the standard of the good.
  2. It can only be opposed through terrorism, the political force of metaphysical evil.
  3. Beneath the level of the financially (and therefore spiritually) blessed, humanity is either soulless (thus passive) or evil (and on the side of the terrorists). The Doctrine of Original Sin is true.
And these, of course, are the fundamental assumptions underlying the Conservative Revolution in Chaos Angel Spanner. But instead of a character like Batman, the reigning superhero over 2014 America is the second (Bronze Age/Cold War) successor the Golden Age superhero, the American Crusader, a cross between Superman and Captain America (and now in the public domain). Like Bruce Wayne, Henry Becket is the superhuman champion of the One Percent. But unlike him, he is a revolutionary hero. He is what Batman would be if he did successfully what Bane failed to do — which is what Batman is in Frank Miller's infamous Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again.

This seventy-something Cold War superhero, American Crusader III, sees himself as the last hope for Western civilization's survival against the onrushing barbarian hordes. He and his fellow billionaire revolutionaries refuse to realize that roots of their System's destruction lie deep within the structure of the System itself. Devout technocrats that they are, they see the Law of Entropy as not a law of nature but as metaphysical Evil. They see the suffering mundanes chafing under their control not as human beings but as "the threat from below", entropy made manifest; this is why they see liberalism, socialism, and Islamist theocracy as one and the same thing, for they see it metaphysically as entropic Evil, not as the rival alternatives to technocratic Corporatism (and to each other) they see themselves to be.

Like so many left-wing writers, Nolan cannot see his way out of the dilemma. The Corporatist System is failing, but the only alternative he sees is terrorism: either the grand terrorism of a Joker or a Bane, or the petty terrorism of a Catwoman. Like those left-wing writers, he sees the masses as passive and doomed to hopelessness — which is, in fact, one of the prerequisites for the coming of a superhero, for only a superhero can save the masses from enslavement to supervillains.

This is the fundamental premise of the entire superhero genre.

The corollary is that the superhero can never be the protagonist. He is the hero, but not the protagonist. He reacts to the actions of supervillains. Like the white-hatted gunslinger hero of the archetypical Western, the hero must never shoot first; that privilege is reserved for the black hats. The supervillain gets to be the protagonist, but at a cost: he can never be the hero, and he can never be allowed to win. The supervillain is the very archetype of terrorism: Lex Luthor demands $2 billion in 48 hours, or he will nuke Metropolis.

So what happens when a superhero defies that fundamental rule and becomes the protagonist? Watchmen is about precisely that. When Ozymandias — another billionaire superhero, like Batman and Crusader III — concludes that the Cold War will end in nuclear annihilation if he does not act, he creates his own weapon of mass destruction and destroys Manhattan. A superhero protagonist is every bit as deadly as any supervillain. And what is any terrorist in their own mind but a superhero protagonist?

The root of superheroism, and more broadly of terrorism, is substitutionism: the belief that the heroic action of a few can substitute for the collective mass action required to bring down a system as oppressive as Corporatism. Che Guevara, for instance, believed that the working masses were useless and that a small guerrilla faction fighting in rural backwaters and fired by Latin machismo was sufficient to destroy Corporatism. In fact, he wrote the book on it (called Guerrilla Warfare). Never mind that despite the Cuban anomaly, both he and his disciples failed over and over and over. Terrorists, and superheroes such as Batman and the Crusader, believe that the masses are so inherently passive that only a heroic elite, or a heroic superman, can liberate them.

The problem being that once the heroes liberate the passive masses, they remain passive and incapable of heroism. Thus the revolutionary superheroes end up becoming the same kind of oppressors the enemies they overthrew were. That's because they're acting on the identical premises.

This is where Henry Becket and his Conservative Revolution begin. The American Crusader of the Cold War era is now the savior of the American Empire. Now what? Being the black-and-white thinker he is, he can only be offended by the accusation (also thrown at his ancestor Oliver Cromwell) that he is now the oppressor. But he, superheroic defender of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, cannot see himself as anything but the epitome of all that is good and righteous! Therefore, his accusers are by definition evil, in the metaphysical sense. And so he throws the Populists, a category to which the Occupy movement properly belongs, into the same category as the terrorists of Al-Qaeda in America and the Socialist Revolutionary Organization, and sends the United States Police Force (a military branch) to crush them accordingly.

Now you know why Spanner must misdirect. The right-wing vanguardist tyranny of revolutionary righteousness, which could as easily have been left-wing (Green Arrow instead of Batman, the Proletarian instead of the American Crusader), has no tolerance of the unheroic masses; nor can it see them as anything but the passive instrument of the enemy left- (or right-)wing vanguardist tyranny of revolutionary righteousness. It's a black-and-white double bind. Into this stalemate, Spanner throws his monkeywrench.

Now here is the key to understanding Spanner — let's think dialectically, the way Marxists were supposed to once upon a time:
  1. Thesis: the oppressive Corporatist System.
  2. Antithesis: the terrorist program of violent heroic resistance.
  3. Synthesis: the collective revolt of the masses, properly against both sides.
The relevant trope is, of course, Take a Third Option. The choice between tyranny and terrorism is lose-lose. The only way out is for the masses to stop being passive and taking control of society for themselves, in effect telling the tyrants and the terrorists to butt out or face the consequences. Only the "threat from below", the "mundanes", despised and feared by tyrants and terrorists alike, can pull a successful and genuine revolution.

Spanner is really the epic clash between two kinds of heroes: those (both right-wing revolutionaries and left-wing counterrevolutionaries) who believe that only heroes deserve to rule and the unheroic may not even deserve to exist, and those who in effect sacrifice their own heroism in order to call the masses to action. The latter are the protagonists and the heroes of Spanner. To Shira, Jennifer, and Karen, Batman and Bane are just the two sides of Two-Face's defaced coin.

Little writes: "Who is Batman in this context? The dream of a technocratic solution to a problem of social contradictions." What I learned from John Ralston Saul is that the one-size-fits-all technocratic solution eventually ends up being worse than the problem. Little also admits that he agrees with both the tyrants and the terrorists when they insist that the working masses are passive, petty, and malicious "sheeple".

Now a Voltaire quote goes: "When the masses begin to reason, all is lost!" Enter a certain charismatic Charmer with an apparently unrealistic confidence that she can wake the sleepers up...

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