You Don't Tug On Superman's Cape

You Don’t Tug On Superman’s Cape

….. They just won’t let us have our heroes, will they?

When I was a little kid, I knew what a hero was — a decent person who saved other people, who knew the right thing to do, and did it. I knew dozens of fictional heroes, and loved their adventures, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that these stories and their values helped make me a better person.

But somewhere along the line, the idea of telling stories about decent people who did the right thing became — unfashionable.  Started to seem “unrealistic.” (As if realism was ever a legitimate concern with the kind of pulp fiction I’m talking about.)

It seems like no one wants to tell their stories any more. Not without bringing them down a little, making them flawed and tarnished. The 2009 Star Trek movie gave us a Captain Kirk who is a swaggering, hot-headed, arrogant dude-bro with no respect for women and no mercy for his enemies. On Doctor Who, David Tennant went out not with a bang but a tantrum, sacrificing himself to save someone, yes, but not before loudly complaining about how unfair it all was.

Man of Steel gave us a Superman who broke his enemy’s neck, and along with it, my goddamn heart. Batman v. Superman continued the trend, giving us Superman as a brooding bully who clearly doesn’t think humanity is grateful enough, and a Batman who’s a murderous psychopath who burns his brand onto criminals, when he’s not shooting them or blowing them up without a second thought. Batman, whose lore contains the rule that he never uses a gun.

And then today, there’s this:

Marvel Comics has started a storyline in which it is revealed that Captain America, a hero created by Jewish artists during WWII, has “actually” been a secret Hydra agent (read: “Nazi”) all this time. The editors assure us it’s not a trick, it’s not an impostor, it’s the real Steve Rogers.

If you’re not quite immediately grasping just exactly how shitty this is, you should go read this article, which argues the case very eloquently:

So let me be very clear: I don’t care if this gets undone next year, next month, next week. I know it’s clickbait disguised as storytelling. I am not angry because omg how dare you ruin Steve Rogers forever.

I am angry because how dare you use eleven million deaths as clickbait.

— On Steve Rogers #1, Antisemitism, and Publicity Stunts

And I’m sure, as sure as the sun’ll come up tomorrow, that this will get undone next year, next month, or next week. I know comics. Nothing is permanent.

So why, you might thinking, are people just overreacting so badly to this latest stunt to drive sales? If they’re just going to change it back in a few months anyway, what difference does it make?

It makes a difference.

Let’s say you’ve got a flag. Now, maybe you’re not a super-patriotic person or anything, but this flag matters to you — maybe it belonged to your Dad, or your Mom. Let’s say it matters to you enough to hang it out on your front porch for the Fourth of July.

Now suppose some asshole comes along, pulls the flag off its pole, throws it in a pile of dog shit, and stomps on it with his boots for good measure. Then looks up at you grinning.

. . . . Would you be upset? Why? Whatever for? You can just put the flag in the washer! You could even have it dry-cleaned — it will be as good as new!

Sure, it will. But maybe — just maybe — you won’t ever be able to look at it again without thinking about that asshole and what he did.

Let me talk a little about why this flag — excuse me, I mean, why Captain America — matters to me. And it all has to do with Superman.

See, when I was a kid, I never cared two cents for Captain America — I read DC Comics, thank you very much, and I can’t overstate how . . . central the myth of Superman was to me. It taught me that the only appropriate use of power you have over others is to use that power to lift them up. That formed a baseline for a code of ethics that I still hold to. Every time in my life I’ve put myself in harm’s way to help someone, it’s been because somewhere deep down in my brain, I felt it’s what Superman would do.

So that’s why, like I said, Man of Steel broke my heart a little.  It’s why I went off on a rant on Twitter when Clarke Wolfe said that someone on Instagram had threatened to kill her — yes, really — because of her opinion of said movie:

I have consoled myself over losing Superman as an untarnished icon by telling myself, “Well, at least I still have Captain America.” Because I had grown to love the character through the Marvel movies. Here, at last, on the screen was the kind of hero who’s strongest power was his sense of decency, the kind DC didn’t seem interested in giving me anymore. A character who brought into battle not a sword, but a shield.

I bought into it. Literally. I own a couple of Captain America T-shirts, a backpack shaped like his shield, and a leather jacket replica of his uniform that simultaneously makes me feel slightly ridiculous and incredibly powerful when I put it on.

Today, I’m wondering if I’m ever going to put it on again.

This trend towards making all our fictional heroes all grimdark and violent frustrates me in general, but here’s why Superman and Captain America are the last goddamn characters you should be doing this to:

In 1998, a series of 60-year anniversary issues of Superman: The Man of Steel had the character inexplicably transported back in time to relive the plot of his first appearance and then battle Nazis in occupied Poland and the Warsaw ghettos Meanwhile, two young boys dream up an angelic protector in their time of need. Upon hearing their descriptions, and seeing a drawing of the character (who bears an uncanny resemblance to the as-yet unencountered Superman), their grandfather tells them that what they have created sounds more like a Golem than an angel. When Superman arrives to protect the ghetto inhabitants and fight back against the Nazis, the connection the authors wanted to make becomes apparent: Superman is a Golem, created by two young Jews as protection against the Nazis.

— Comic Books and American Cultural History: An Anthology, by Matthew Pustz

Superman as a cultural Golem — an idea created like the legendary Golem of Prague, a man created from clay to defend the Prague ghetto from antisemitic attacks and pogroms.  Interesting idea. If anything, the story of Captain America is even more like that of a Golem — with Steve Rogers as the clay that a Jewish scientist molded into a protector against the Nazis.

Look — these are ideas that matter. When you get to write the continuing official adventures of a character who has endured for decades and should endure for decades more — those characters aren’t yours. They belong to everyone. You’re just their caretaker for a little while.

And to try to do “fun, edgy, different” things with these character to drive sales — that’s not creativity, that’s not entertainment. That’s just vandalism. On a massive, culture-wide scale.