Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Reflections on the Revolving Door of Death 4: New Heroes for a New Millennium

Wonder Woman cast outside her regular reality and possibly time stream. Wonder Woman #606 (February 2011; originally listed as variant cover for WW #604 December 2010).

In 2010, DC celebrated its 75th anniversary. DC has long been the premier American comics company that is devoted to the modern perpetuation of classic myths. Where Marvel set itself up in the 1960s as a platform for social commentary, DC dealt with eternal archetypes. For an entire generation, DC has explored the disintegration of heroism: those archetypes have been dismantled by the very company that is supposedly committed to preserving them.  What does this mean for American heroism?

Joker crippling Barbara Gordon, Batgirl. Alan Moore's The Killing Joke (March 1988).

DC's approach is evident in villains' triumphs over its heroes, the heroes' moral failures, and the Revolving Door of Death. The DC Universe also suffers from a kind of multiple personality disorder, wherein familial legacies replicate their heroic identities across several characters; this tends to dilute each superhero's embodiment of a specific heroic archetype.

Barbara Gordon reflects on her failures and heroes' newfound vulnerability.  Birds of Prey #4 (October 2010).

I have argued here that DC split its heroic archetypes for marketing purposes, to appeal to different generations in its readership. Dick Grayson, with his murdered parents, is a lighter doppelgänger of Bruce Wayne. Duplication is one thing. But now a new legacy character appears every 10 to 15 years. No surprise then, that by the 75th anniversary they've created something like seven Robins, counting the girl in DKR, and maybe one or two more from other-dimensional Earths. It's a strange thing to do: deliberately and continually watering down your product, while proclaiming and hoping that each heroic brand and franchise within DC's titles will thereby stay fresh and relevant. At the same time, this convention helps to impose the normal passage of time upon a fictional universe where the adult characters are ultimately ageless and deathless.

Yet for all the dubiousness of some of its decisions, such as the mass killing over 650 of its characters in the past seven years and the expansion and contraction of its multiple universes and timestreams, I don't think that DC has lost its way. The company's stories are a mirror of the Millennium. We've entered an uncertain period of transition. These stories reflect a difficult journey in society, where, because of the Tech and Information Revolutions, globalization and rising tensions in world affairs, old values no longer work, and new ones are coming into being. 

In fact, during the early parts of this era of comic book writing, characters considered inflexibly attached to the moral standards of the past became aberrations, and were killed off by heroes that were able to make the transition into this new chaotic state of affairs.  Kill or be killed: that is literally the message of heroism in Alan Moore's seminal 1986-1987 series Watchmen.  The huge turning point comes with the death of the hero Rorschach, below.

Rorschach sees things in black and white, according to old standards. His teammate, Dr. Manhattan, murders him to ensure the rise of the new order. Watchmen #12 (October 1987).

Paul Levitz, recently tasked with writing the history of DC's heroes, has commented that it is difficult to imagine or represent superheroic archetypes consistently in a rapidly changing society:
The faster the rate of change going on in society, the more likely you’re going to have significant distortions in fiction because you don’t have a base line. If you go back 150 years to village life ... you know that things remained fairly constant over a three- or four-generation period. Take an example from history, the famous Washington’s book of manners. A gentleman should do this and shouldn’t do that. He could reflect an ethos that was likely to be true throughout his entire lifetime: “I learned this as a child, my adopted step-children were taught this way, and they should teach their children this way.” You can’t pick up a 1950s Emily Post book and say that’s how we live now. And you certainly wouldn’t expect it to be how your children would live. Fiction is, of course, going to have a greater degree of distortion during a time of change like that.
In DC's crossovers and crises, there are three big themes around the transformation of heroic standards. The first of these is the fracturing of individual characters.  I will blog about the other two themes in later posts in this blog series.

DC's Heroic Sources.

The Brave and the Bold, vol. 1, #54 (July 1964).

The Brave and the Bold, vol. 1, #60 (July 1965).

In the 1960s, DC ran pages like the ones above - these are from the issues that first introduced the Teen Titans - where DC drew a direct line between the heroes of antiquity, later legendary figures and their own superheroes. Except for the first ill-fated Doom Patrol, for the most part superheroes had personalities that were stable and intact.  But the big turning point was the fracturing of their identities and the creation - with the debut of the Teen Titans - of DC's generational heroic legacies.  This is one reason why the Titans are so critically important in the DC Universe.  As far as DC's legacies are concerned, the Titans stories tell readers exactly how heroic identities are being split (or, with recent Titanic kill-offs, reconverging) and what is happening along those generational fault lines.

But as for the Revolving Door of Death - even in the 1960s, when DC's characters were certain to win every fight they took on and were fairly stable agents of power and virtue, their classical antecedents offered fatal flaws and violence that would break heroism down.  While we think of gory heroic death in comics as relatively new, the death of heroes was well established in DC's original warrior epic model. Maiming and killing of classical characters was a huge part of the ancient narratives.

Achilles drags Hector's body around Troy in revenge for the killing of Patroclus. The Triumph of Achilles. By Franz Matsch (1892). Image Source: Wiki.

For example, part of the drama in the Iliad revolves around the deaths of the principal heroes, Hector and later, of Achilles. In the twenty-second book of the Iliad, Achilles drags Hector's body behind his chariot around the walls of Troy. The frightening humiliation has to be one of the most vivid and terrible violent deaths of a hero in any epic poem. The passage is mentioned here:
Hector fell, death-wounded. Feebly he said, "Spare my body! Let my parents ransom it, and let me receive funeral rites from the sons and daughters of Troy." To which Achilles replied, "Dog, name not ransom nor pity to me, on whom you have brought such dire distress. No! trust me, nought shall save thy carcass from the dogs. Though twenty ransoms and thy weight in gold were offered, I should refuse it all."

So saying, the son of Peleus stripped the body of its armor, and, fastening cords to the feet, tied them behind his chariot, leaving the body to trail along the ground. Then mounting the chariot he lashed the steeds and so dragged the body to and fro before the city. No words can tell the grief of Priam and Hecuba at this sight. His people could scarce restrain the aged king from rushing forth. He threw himself in the dust and besought them each by name to let him pass. Flecuba's distress was not less violent. The citizens stood round them weeping.
Nor in the great Roman epic, The Aeneid (which you can read here, although I like the Fitzgerald translation which you can buy here), does the heroine get off easily.  The great Carthaginian Queen Dido (also called Elissa), leader of the realm fated to be catastrophically defeated by the Romans, dies horrifically by her own hand in Book IV of The Aeneid.  Her suicide seals the future fate between Carthage and Rome, the latter of which Dido's Trojan lover Aeneas is destined to help establish.  When Aeneas encounters Dido again in the Underworld, she flees from him.  He relinquished their love to found Rome, and even past death, he goes unforgiven. 

In both cases, these deaths reflect values that were central to Greek and Roman societies.  Epic deaths like this indicate that the values were considered to be paramount - greater than the characters' lives.  In the Iliad, Hector has shamed and killed Achilles's friend Patroclus; respect of another hero's honour was the measure of his adversary.  Honour was more important than death.  In the Aeneid, the fate of nations is greater than the love of individuals, even when those individuals rule those nations, as Dido and Aeneas discover.  For Virgil, love was a kind of externally-imposed madness, a negative removal of free will, while acceptance of heroic destiny was all-important and a positive removal of free will.  Dido comes to represent love, and Aeneas comes to symbolize destiny.

The Death of Dido (1781). By Joshua Reynolds. Image Source: Wiki.

In other words, violent death, perhaps even the 'Revolving Door of Death,' wherein heroes visit the Underworld and come back as part of their character development, not to mention broken ships, are nothing new

Maybe that is the lesson of old epics that we are now learning.  Fictional heroes are tied to successive trends: their characterization and adventures are bound up with the rise, stability and prosperity of the cultures that spawned them; but heroes also reflect the war and degeneration that inevitably engulf every culture.  Some societies survive bloody conflicts and overcome moral decay for decades, centuries, or even millennia - some don't.  Just as there is a high water mark for every country, there is equally a point of destabilization, wherein the mythical heroes that are associated with that high water mark and were once all-powerful, are challenged and eventually overcome by outside forces.  In some cases, they miraculously rise from the dead, indicating that the values and societies they represent cannot be so easily quashed.  It looks like violent death and resurrection are part of a series of heroic tests that are symbolically bound up with the same trials faced by their society at large.

One of this blog's readers, D. W., pointed out to me (in comments on this post in this series) that the repeated image used on comic book covers of dead heroes is taken directly from the Pietà by Michelangelo.  The Christian tradition is founded on the idea that the hero dies and is reborn.  The religion's story, if you will, is a classical epic struggle reset with continual moral challenges rather than tests of physical strength - although in the crucifixion the mental and physical trials converge; and it features a long line of sainted martyrs testifying to this cause.  In this way, Christianity substituted the traditional punch-em-up test of heroism in ancient and classical narratives for a psychological battle that is clinched in an ultimate physical test which triumphs over death.  As a result, that type of psychological battle, where heroes' bodies fall away and are continually reconstituted as a result of their spiritual resilience, is very familiar to us now.

Pietà (1498-1499). By Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Are there other sources of this spiritual resilience?  In his book, Our Heroes Wear Spandex, Christopher Knowles argues that superheroes are reincarnations of ancient gods and goddesses.  He ties their revival to the social strains engendered by the Industrial Revolution:
All of these ancient gods and heroes took a long and circuitous route back to cultural prominence in the modern world, when the social upheavals of the Industrial Revolution finally summoned them from their long and fitful slumber. (Knowles, p. 29)
To my knowledge, digging up the precise mythical continuities of Western heroism through to popular pulp fiction is not something that anyone has done exhaustively.  Comics have also absorbed a lot of Eastern mythic influences.  We clearly still need ancient values in our popular culture - and they have survived in different guises and across many different societies for thousands of years.  Knowles additionally claims that superheroism is grounded in Masonic imagery.  But those symbols, while strongly associated with the cultural metaphors of modern America, arose in the Early Modern period out of European medieval and classical roots:
Although the Masonic community is generally thought to be in decline today, it's hard to overestimate its influence on American culture.  Masonic ideals are part and parcel of our national creed, as well as our national mythology.  When Superman stands for "truth, justice, and the American way," he is also standing for the Masonic way.  It's almost impossible to separate the two in a definitive way. (Knowles, p. 41)
Of late, DC has been altering this credo. In issue #15 of the current crossover event series Brightest Day, which - wittingly or unwittingly - includes Masonic references in its highlighting of the Marvel family, Superman now stands for "a life well spent in the pursuit of truth, justice and the universal way." (Knowles, p. 124-127)  This reworking of the formula was noted (here) with some surprise by DC's fans.  But the point is that Masonic symbols and other mythical archetypes run way back - to the wellsprings of our whole civilization - and even when heroes fight and die valiantly, that does not mean they have departed significantly from an almost eternal formula.

Thus, on the surface, DC has been using the Revolving Door of Death to kill heroes and villains and repeatedly bring them back.  This shock gimmick seems consistent with superheroes' classical and Early Modern roots. So where's the problem?

 The Breakdown of Heroism.

Heroes dying is not new.  What is new is the total collapse of heroism and especially of heroic mentalities and subjectivities.  In other words, the fight between good and evil, between hero and villain, is now psychological and internalized.  And unlike the Christian story of psychological triumph over betrayal, despair, corruption and other emotional evils, victory is not guaranteed here.  Violence, gore and heroic death have been related to Freudian psychoanalysis and Postmodern deconstruction of Western society's archetypes since the late 1960s.

In my earlier posts on the Revolving Door of Death, I talked about legacies and the Postmodern disintegration of heroism.  And in this blog post, I asked: Why is our view of the future and rejuvenation linked to our symbolic exploration of moral self-destruction?  Maybe we think we'll be tested like that in the future and that expectation will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The dismantling of subjective certainty - in which the hero is pressed to such extent that he can no longer trust himself, his perceptions, his decisions, and he can no longer judge right from wrong or good from evil - is at the core of current DC comics stories.  Like Levitz said, the goal posts keep moving.  Each disintegrating heroic subjectivity is in fact a crumbling archetype: this tearing apart of the hero's mind and morality reflects deep damage done by overwhelming, radical and accelerating changes in our culture.  It is getting so that we can't tell the difference between heroes and villains anymore.  But that reflects our own lack of moral compasses.  We are fighting to find a new base line.

DC has been using deaths and resurrections as a tool to deconstruct the hero's personality and dismantle the nexus between the hero's powers and personality.  By forcibly tearing apart the hero's capabilities and character, DC is getting at what lies beneath.  The publisher is searching for a deeper foundation for heroic values in the human psyche, one that lines up with conditions where reality is changing so quickly that there is almost nothing to hold onto - no stability - no archetype that can endure longer than five minutes, or five seconds.

Before movies like Dark Knight (2008) where the rise of a borderline hero vigilante generated his psychotic nemesis, there were comics movies like Unbreakable (2000) and Hollywoodland (2006).  Unbreakable showed the hero as a fallible human being, with an innate superheroism unknown to himself.  His lack of self-knowledge was a bigger obstacle to awakening and directing his heroic abilities than the actual villain - who, incidentally, was ironically a catalyst in that regard and was way ahead of the hero in terms of reading the writing on the wall.  Hollywoodland showed superheroism projected onto an unwilling actor by an audience desperate for someone, anyone, to play that role.  The actor had to take on the mantle and burden of society's ideas, without the faintest idea of how to live up to them, embody or transmit them.

In the early 2000s, Marvel/Image maverick comics creator Rob Liefeld ran a series that picked up on the then-popular Sopranos psychiatrist-mobster dynamic.  The difference was that his strip, Shrink! featured superheroes on the psychiatrist's couch.  In 2010, the psychiatrist Sharon Packer published a book, Superheroes and Superegos: Analyzing the Minds behind the Masks, which takes that whole idea seriously and psychoanalyzes superheroes, stressing their double identities (there's a brief review here).

The idea that superheroes are just as crazy, if not crazier, than supervillains, completely destroyed the old impermeable herorism that lasted up to the beginning of the Modern Age in comics.

Bulleteer is pretty sure heroes are psycho. Seven Soldiers: Bulleteer #4 (May 2006).

Another sign of these Postmodern heroes who are not so sure of themselves is that they have relinquished their colourful uniforms and fly around in jeans and t-shirts.  They have a hard time enforcing the division between public and private, between hero and civilian.  Oddly, relinquishing secret identities by ditching costumes diminishes heroes' split personalities.  You'd think it would be a sign they were getting healthier mentally.  But somehow it means that they've lost their grip because they are no longer living up to the archetype.  They're finding it harder to be flying billboards for superhuman efforts and virtues.  It's like showing up at a job interview in bedroom slippers.  Flying around in jeans and sweats makes the heroes look less heroic and more crazy.

Seven Soldiers: Bulleteer #2 (February 2006).

One of the writers over at CBR, Sonia Harris, recently speculated on whether the 'hero as psychopath' might actually be a good thing.  She wrote:
Would someone have to be insane to become a costumed hero, or would they have to be something else entirely? While it is entirely reasonable that super villains can be psychopaths, why can’t superheroes too? And if psychopaths are born, not made, then doesn’t it make sense that some of them might seek out the most bizarre forms of employment?

Yesterday I was reading about psychopaths. Apparently, while it is a word used pretty broadly in discussion, in psychological terms it is actually a very narrow definition, used rarely. I was surprised to learn that a psychopath is considered neither sane or insane, but is a third group all alone. The other news to me is that psychopaths aren’t generally made by growing up in a damaging environment, but have been shown to have a different physiological make up. A child born into a family of healthy children can be psychopathic, even though his/her siblings aren’t, there is often no external reason for the difference, it is simply a neurological absence of emotion. They have an inability to feel. According to MRI tests done by Dr. Kent Kiehl, when we process emotion, the emotional nerve cluster of the brain lights up, but psychopaths in the same tests do not. The nerve cluster stays dark and there is no emotional activity in their brains. There is a defect.

Until now I always thought that every superhero and super villain had to have a back story, some long, drawn out story about their abusive childhood or whatever. I thought there had to be reasons and events which would lead to the desire to do something as outrageous and anti-social as putting on a wild costume and leading a double life, fighting (whether for justice or for evil.) I erroneously assumed that the adoption of an entirely false persona would be a constant act of will and effort, and that anyone living that way would have to be a little insane and damaged to live that way. It turns out that for a psychopath, deception is actually enjoyable and easy. ...

Extending this concept to the world of fantasy and comic books, it is reasonable to assume that a psychopath who encounters the superhero lifestyle could be shown to appreciate the jobs fit for the unique talents. Unlike any other job a psychopath could hold, it is entirely reasonable to have a well-developed secret identity. Lying is an essential skill. There is little need to work with a team or accommodate any office politics. Violence and vandalism are likewise an essential component of the job, and an ability to do so dispassionately would be useful for a superhero (squeamishness and empathy would actually be a drawback.) Being encouraged to fight crime and do so within a certain, previously agreed upon set of boundaries (i.e. no killing, only damage criminals) would pay great dividends for a psychopaths. Instead of being vilified and hated, he could be appreciated and famous, while still retaining his secret identity and being able to live as a “normal” person for a proportion of the time. To my mind a hero like Superman (who is anyway alien, and his mind works differently from ours) would be an excellent candidate for this. Rather than having to sit through endless, tedious rewrites of his damn origin story, we could simply accept that his brain operates outside of regular moral constraints. For many superheroes, I would find it a welcome relief not to have to listen to their seemingly endless, emotionally loaded, rambling inner dialogues. I’m not saying they’re all psychopaths, I’m just saying that I’m very open to a few of them turning out this way.
This is the kind of commentary that pops up when the correlation between heroism and our moral signposts has pretty much completely disappeared.  Thinking of heroes as 'freaks,' 'psychos,' 'failures,' 'broken,' 'murderers,' leaves the field wide open.  Everyone is asking: if they are not good, and they're not reliable, what the hell are they?  In 1986, Frank Miller's futuristic Dark Knight Returns reduced the heroes to battling between each other over what heroism should be.  Batman attacked Superman in a desperate attempt to get a grip.

The obligatory final showdown between Superman's conformity and Batman's non-conformity. Dark Knight Returns #4 (June 1986).

This toxic slip has been going on for quite awhile.  Once it started, it escalated.  Although it has appeared to greater and greater degrees, there have been few attempts to explain where it's going.

Roy and his mentor. Green Arrow #85 (August-September 1971).

One of the early examples of the broken comic book hero was the Teen Titan Roy Harper, who was shown using heroin in Green Arrow #85-86 (1971).  Green Arrow's protégé becoming a drug addict was meant to shock, but waywardness is a familiar theme in the Titans.  The classic Titans are first generation legacy characters who looked up to their mentors.  But they became living embodiments of the one blind spot of their Golden Age and Silver Age predecessors; they were literally forgotten aspects of each premiere hero which split off and gained a life of their own.  The world-class heroes were so wrapped up in planet-shattering threats that they often neglected their charges.  By the 1980s, the New Teen Titans exploded on the comics pop culture scene as a huge and unexpected hit.  It was a title about young heroes who were left all on their own.  Alongside Marvel's X-men, the Titans were the first American superheroes who built up heroic identities alone together; they were somehow outside mainstream standards set by their elders in the JLA, with whom they were nominally affiliated.

Roy the drug addict. Green Arrow #85 (August-September 1971).

Oddly, the famous two-issue arc where Roy uses drugs, Snowbirds Dont Fly, picks up on a long tradition of heroes eating or taking substances that alter their perception and dubiously expand their powers, from Dr. Jekyllto Alice in Wonderland, to Dorian GraySherlock Holmes is a famous, modern fictional heroic drug addict.  Obviously drug addiction was and is a social evil, but the implication is that the character has moved beyond the pale.  And once he is beyond the pale, he sees things differently, including things that heroes who have not challenged that boundary cannot perceive.  One typical quality of superheroes is that their powers are red flag signs of the fact that they have somehow moved beyond the pale, think outside the box, cannot and will never fit in with normal society. In exchange for their freakishness, or their madness, they gain different special abilities.  The message is normally that they have to have the fortitude in their personalities, bodies and minds to bear the power and their exceptionality without becoming corrupt, without really going beyond the pale, without leaving the bounds of society.  Instead, they are meant to put that exceptionality to the service of their society.  In time, this was what Speedy did, in a presidentially endorsed anti-drug comic.

Roy the anti-drugs crusader. New Teen Titans Drug Awareness Issue #2 (1983).

But what does it mean when a hero like Roy Harper has to move beyond the pale over and over, and is repeatedly forced by writers to cross the boundary between good and evil in order to find a new standard of heroism?  This is his current connundrum in the present run of Titans

Roy as Titans leader. New Titans #119 (March 1995).

And what does it mean when DC generally puts one set of heroes on a Sisyphusian cycle, letting them rise and fall over and over, with each new trial allowing them a slightly different, expanded skill set?  This is a problem with the Titans, who are trapped behind their immovable, ageless predecessors.  DC has made a lot of noise about the way in which it has currently allowed some of the older Titans up into the ranks of the JLA.  But the whole exercise rings false.  The truth is that the only place for the Titans to go in terms of heroic development is laterally.  Blocked at the top, they have to move beyond the bounds of conventionally-defined heroism to new, sometimes-great, sometimes-scary levels of right and wrong.

Roy the father. Titans #19 (January 2010).

Sometimes great: when Roy played inside the lines, he became a substantial hero.  Perhaps he was too substantial. He was making a pretty reasonable go as a single father in the early 2000s.  In so doing, he was in danger of outshining his mentor, Oliver Queen.  There were plenty of stories that tried to undermine Harper as a father, showing how tough it was to be a hero at the same time.  Perhaps because Lian Harper was a compelling character in her own right, these arcs did not stick.  What stuck was the picture of Roy as a young man who had overcome extraordinary odds and flaws (and a keen taste for womanizing), to become a recognized hero, a Titans leader, and a good father. 

Notice that now that Roy is in desperate need of a father figure again, Green Arrow has been found wanting.  In murdering Prometheus, he has set a bad example, and he has not followed through on keeping track of what has happened to Roy once Harper followed that bad example.  A Titan is left alone, again, and allowed to fall between the cracks by an A-list hero, who should be the arbiter of all that happens in his heroic 'family.'  This creates an annoying situation where Roy's failure is merely a device for testing Green Arrow's heroism.

In fact, like most Titans stories, the adventure goes way beyond the A-lister in question, but it's all well off the radar.  How Roy survives will primarily be a measure of the Titans' legacy not of the Arrow legacy.  In a way, this is the odd role that Deathstroke plays with regard to the male Titans.  When their father figures fail them, Deathstroke steps in as a villainous pater familias, and trouble ensues.

Roy's perspective changes after Lian's death: "Busy playing heroes when we should have been playing for keeps." Titans #27 (November 2010).

In the original Snowbirds Dont Fly story, it was Green Arrow’s failure as a father figure that drove Roy to drugs (this catalyst was recently retconned to be Donna Troy’s refusal to marry Roy).  Later, Roy was in danger of becoming the good father Green Arrow never could be.  This would mean that a Titan actually attained a type of heroism that surpassed that of his predecessor.  Plainly, this was unacceptable.  Roy had to be knocked down a peg or two, and the story brought back to Oliver Queen's feet.

Roy the drug addict. Titans #27 (November 2010).

Caught beneath a glass ceiling, Titans like Roy Harper, Donna Troy, Raven, Dick Grayson and other characters in that franchise rise and fall and rise again in new incarnations that bring them variously closer to and further from their mentors and parents.  There is evidently no question at DC whether Donna could ever be a better Amazon than Wonder Woman, for example.  At all points where she has come close, her origins have been watered down and confused in order to weaken her claims in that regard.  Dick is serving as Batman, but characters around him are repeatedly shown thinking that this is a Batman who is personable and not as ruthless.  Dick's Batman is a 'nice' version of the 'real' Batman.  And when Wally served as Flash to a point where fans preferred him over his two predecessors, DC took steps to correct the situation.  As for the fifth founding Titan, Garth, well he's dead; he was killed off precisely at the point when he became King of Atlantis, supplanting his mentor, Aquaman.

Rarely, if ever, does DC acknowledge that the Titans could embody archetypes that are new and different, which actually transcend those of their mentors.  These younger characters always fall short of the premiere line-up of JLA heroes.  But again, because they ultimately cannot move up - they move out - sideways.  And their stories more accurately reflect a society that is moving beyond its own boundaries.  They're out there, pushing into No Man's Land.  In a way, this is tough for DC to grasp, because of the company's apparently rigid current protocol on characters moving up and down heroic hierarchies.  According to the official line, younger heroes are supposedly lesser lights, and some degrees removed from the purity of the original heroes in each of DC's legacies.  That is, the elder heroes are at the heart of each original legacy and therefore represent its purest incarnation.

DC might toy with that formula, as they have in crossovers from the past ten years, but surely it must be only to reinforce their A-listers after a time of chaos without them.  It will be interesting to see if the Titans' stories will resist the junior-JLA box into which they are being forced, and inadvertently generate new criteria for Millennial heroism over the next decade.  This is what happened in the 1980s, when the New Teen Titans reflected the Zeitgeist exactly - for precisely the reason that the team was not and could never be the JLA.  Maybe DC's creators will hit on new heroic values in spite of themselves and in the place where they least expect to find them, in one of their long-suffering Titans titles.

Roy confronts Dick Grayson: "There are no sides. The only thing that matters is surviving." Titans #30 (February 2011).

What does it mean to move beyond the pale, beyond the normally-accepted conventions for defining right and wrong, good and evil, heroism and villainy?  What happens when heroes are pressed into these desperate circumstances?  They have to 'win' under conditions that are nearly impossible morally.  In Eric Wallace's and Fabrizio Fiorentino's Titans, shown above, the team's arch-enemy Deathstroke has taken over the title and set up his own team of 'Titans,' which includes Roy Harper. 

Deathstroke is searching for the key to the secret between life and death.  If successful, presumably he can hold this over Roy and his lover Jade, Lian Harper's parents, offering to resurrect their dead daughter in exchange for their cooperation and/or sparing his life.  That is, the villain may possess the means to realizing their deepest hope.  Yet Roy has vengefully murdered Lian's killer's accomplice and has returned to using drugs.  He would be too ashamed to let his resurrected daughter see him in this state - wouldn't he?  Is either that hope or shame enough to stop Roy from murdering Deathstroke?  If so, then the villain will potentially block the hero from moving completely and utterly beyond the pale.  Yet at the same time, Deathstroke has encouraged Roy's drug addiction, the hero's greatest weakness. 

This is a pathological breakdown of the hero, combined with psychological warfare with the villain, taken to its greatest extreme yet.  How does the hero defeat a villain who simultaneously holds the keys to his biggest strength, his worst flaw, his deepest shame, and his heart's desire?  Deathstroke is apparently edging Roy into an unbelievably tricky corner, a moral quandary so profound that to emerge as the triumphant hero would be a miraculous feat for the beleagured Titan.  But, if Roy does it, DC will have found a new base line.

Heroes in this situation also stand right at the nexus between the individual and the society.  Should the individual sacrifice himself for the greater good?  Or should he hold the line, when the world around him fails?  Recently, J.T. Krul, writer on the Teen Titans, responded on the Comic Bloc forums about the Justice League: Cry for Justice storyline in which Roy lost an arm and his daughter was killed (here):
Cry For Justice ... for me ... was meant to show the stakes that our heroes are really fighting for and against. Prometheus was brutal and deadly and the heroes were forced to confront the worst possible outcome.
Two sets of questions come out of this idea. First, what happens when the hero plays jury, judge and executioner? What happens when killing a villain becomes a greater social good than saving a villain's life and turning him over to the social institutions meant to handle him?  What happens when allowing the society's criminal justice system to operate makes less sense than letting costumed vigilantes take over?  This was precisely what happened with Green Arrow and Roy in Cry for Justice and Rise and Fall.

Part of DC's push past these heroic limits involves giving supreme tests to its A-list superheroes, so that the Alpha heroes' supremacy in the DC heroic hierarchy remains unchallenged.  In these cases, the bar is raised by making A-listers face the ultimate psychological trials, rather than making their canon-fodder Titanic protégés deal with the most terrible nightmares. (I would still argue that the Titans are having a worse time of it.  Whether by stepping into their mentors' shoes or through total alienation, they are always on the chopping block.  The contrast is akin to that between generals and officers in the field.)  At any rate, an A-lister like Batman is still officially DC's most dangerous and violent vigilante. Considering he jars our sensibilities, imagine how riveting and shocking he must have been for readers when he first appeared in the 1930s.

Bruce Wayne's parents murdered and his decision to become Batman. Detective Comics #33 (November 1939).

As for Green Arrow and Roy Harper murdering villains (notice Roy did not commit murder until his mentor had done it first, despite the fact that his daughter was killed by those villains) DC had already set a precedent with Wonder Woman, who is higher up the heroic ladder than either of them.  In Wonder Woman #219, the Amazonian princess killed the telepathic villain, Max Lord, who was controlling Superman and threatening to force him to murder.  To stop this, DC's top heroine crossed the boundaries.  The panels below would no doubt have shocked and saddened her inventor, William Moulton Marston.  But it is a sign of how far we have come since Princess Diana first appeared in 1941, and how frightening and widespread our cultural entropy is.

Wonder Woman commits murder. Wonder Woman vol. 2 #219 (September 2005).

These panels imply that society is so messed up that the heroes have to step in to deal with managing total chaos. The alternative possibility is that society is still relatively ok, all things considered, and the heroes themselves are out of control. In fact, that implies that the heroes' problems are a harbinger of things to come. The chaos is coming to the society at large anyway, and the psychologically damaged heroes are just the canaries in the coal mine.

The second set of questions to ask in light of Krul's comments is: why is DC exploring this idea at all? Why are heroes being "forced to confront the worst possible outcome"? Why aren't they doing something completely different, like not dying, getting along and actually winning against their adversaries without commiting murder?  To return to Levitz's remarks, this is happening because America is undergoing a massive transformation.  Despite this turmoil, there are signs of new heroic base lines, which I'll deal with in later posts in this series.

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1 comment:

  1. Funny thing abut Diana killing Max - that wasn't the first time she'd killed someone either. She hasn't had a rule against killing since the 1980s. Hell, in this same run she killed Medusa on national t.v. but no one cared because Medusa wasn't human.

    Frankly, I've found the idea of killing always being wrong to be one of the most childish and idiotic ideas. If Diana had killed Max in revenge or anger I could understand but she killed him to save her friend. Yet she's treated as a villain and this is constantly flung in her face. Meanwhile, Superman covering up the League mindwiping and Batman's foray into mass surveillance (which actually got numerous people killed) are ignored.