Saturday, January 3, 2009

Puny Warmongers! Bob Will Smash!

It is true the amount of comic books I read as a kid weighed more than I did. It got to the point where I couldn't lift the box in my closet in which I stored them. I wish I had kept them. I wouldn't be able to retire on their sale, but I wouldn't have any more car payments.

Comics, for me, were just way cool. I was fascinated by the multi-colored drawings depicting things impossible in real life, such as guys zooming through the air like The Rocketeer. Whoa! Even the most-advanced CGI in movies today is finally beginning to catch up with the comics of 50 years ago.

Mostly, though, I liked the stories. Without them, comic books would be meaningless colored pictures. Everything, I realize now, has a story. Everything is a story.

I enjoyed watching the heroes whomp the bejeebers out of the villains (as the Thing always said, "It's clobberin' time!"). In retrospect, I think it's how I learned to recognize heroes and villains. The villains were the guys who always wanted to Conquer the World, even if they said they were benefactors, an observation not only in Aesop's fable, but also in the Bible.

I didn't like all comic books equally, though. I preferred Marvel comics to DC. DC, whose best-known character is Superman, was unrealistic in its depiction of heroes. They were always good, noble, handsome, square-jawed, all-American types, never plagued by doubts. They weren't sympathetic.

Who, really, could sympathize with the invulnerable but boring Superman? In what way did Superman remind people of themselves? The creators had to introduce Kryptonite so people could feel sorry for him when it made him go "ack" and fall over.

The DC view of heroes is just fine when you're a tiny kid, when you really only understand simplistic black-or-white depictions of things because the nuances are beyond you, but that all-good or all-bad view of things is not how real life is.

Marvel, on the other hand, had heroes who, as the mythologist Joseph Campbell noted, always had a character flaw, sometimes fatal. They were also sympathetic, because they were usually misunderstood outcasts, sometimes even scapegoats.

One of my favorites was the Hulk, who was, as creator Stan Lee noted, a combination of Frankenstein's monster and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Both the monster and Dr. Jekyll were sympathetic characters, indeed outcasts. That's what the Hulk is--always misunderstood, always outcast. That's why people could empathize with him; he was involuntarily tossed into a world where the most powerful were picking on him. But he could fight back. Boy, could he fight back!

So when the movie Hulk, I was impressed to see it was an accurate representation of the world today. Yesterday, too. And tomorrow. And the day after that.

Guess who the Bad Guys are? Uh huh--the unholy combination of the State, the military, and Big Business. The military-corporate complex, the same complex that causes most of the problems in the world. They just want to use a big drill to get a tiny little bit of the Hulk's DNA, for use in creating bioweapons. The Hulk, who is a 15-foot-tall chunk of violent green rage, isn't amenable to this, so, to escape, he is forced to Lay Waste to Everything.

The name of the corporation attempting to take a nick out of the Hulk is, perversely but accurately, "Atheon." One of the subtexts of the movie is about hubris--the attempt of the created to be the creator, albeit an evil one that has little respect for life.

There is a part in the film where the Hulk destroys four tanks in hand-to-tank combat. In one scene, he grabs one by the cannon and hurls it over a hill. In another he rips a turret off, shakes out the men (he doesn't want to kill anyone; he wants people to stop trying to murder him), then uses it as a shield when another tank fires a shell at him. It blows him off his feet and 50 foot back. Then he gets up. Oh, yeah!

Then he wastes a bunch of attack helicopters. One he downs by catching a missile, ripping the warhead off with his teeth and throwing it at a 'copter's tail. And throughout all of it I was going, "Yes! Yes! Yes! Go Hulk go!"

Bruce Banner, who is the Hulk's human alter-ego, summed everything up he felt when he was the Hulk, when he told his girlfriend, "I liked it . . . it was power and freedom."

Yes, power and freedom.

Each individual doesn't really have that much power, as compared to the State. Fortunately, we still have a fair amount of freedom, much more than people in most of the world. And that liberty comes from being free of the State and the things that attempt to use it to aggrandize themselves and exploit people.

I don't think that lack of power really matters (after all, we are inherently puny humans), as long as the law does its proper job: protecting the citizens from criminals, and from the State. Ultimately, those are the only true functions the law has.

But the law doesn't really do what it's supposed to do, not anymore. So that's why so many of us have our dreams of Hulk: We want power over the ever-encroaching, ever-expanding Blob known as the State, and freedom from its depredations.

And that's how it's supposed to be, because the State is the real monster, although many people look to it as a benign Daddy/Mommy from which all goodness flows. The more the State grows, the more it invariably restricts our freedoms in that growth, and so the more we will have dreams of liberty. Most slaves want freedom, more than anything else.

The best example I am familiar with about dreams of liberty is the movie Brazil . The hero, who is trapped in a hideous State bureaucracy, with no hope of escape, has dreams of flying, and of rescuing a Damsel in Distress. Dreams of power and freedom.

Aristotle thought the purpose of the theater was to purge our "pity and fear" through what he termed "catharsis." He thought the theater (or today, movies, or comic books) were not only there for entertainment, but emotional cleansing.

You can see this pity and fear in the characters in Brazil , and Hulk. We fear them (Hulk) or the lives they lead ( Brazil ). We also pity them. I am reminded of a scene in Blade Runner, when Roy Batty says to Rick Deckard, "That's what it means to live in fear. That's what it means to be a slave." The Hulk does not live in fear, and therefore is not a slave. He has power, and freedom.

There is a wonderful scene in the movie where the Hulk is flying (actually he's jumping--he can just jump really far). As he soars through the air, far above the desert, to the strains of some haunting Danny Elfman music, he has a look on his face of--almost--peace. We can almost see his feelings of power, and freedom.

Isn't that what most everyone wants--power to make the State and other criminals leave you alone, and freedom from all the bad things in the world? Not necessarily power over others (except to defend yourself), but power over yourself? To not be afraid, and therefore, to be free?

I consider cartoons and comic books to be modern-day myths. I think scholars make a bad mistake in ignoring them. They are, like all art--even if it's pop art--antenna of the human race.

When one of the most popular comic books points out that on the villainous side, there is the destructive amalgam of the State, the military, and Big Business, and on the heroic side, there is someone who has the power and lack of fear to defeat that trio, and therefore is free from it . . . that is something to which we should pay attention. It tells us what our deepest dreams are, and what are some of the things that really matter in life.

The Mind of the Political Terrorist

I don't read very much hard-boiled detective fiction, but I have read enough to know that the genre is a type of horror fiction, and like all horror, is based on goodness and order being attacked by evil and chaos.

A fine example of this is John D. MacDonald's 1979 novel, The Green Ripper, a book I read only because Stephen King praised it. A horror writer praising a detective novel about MacDonald's famous anti-hero, Travis McGee? It made me curious.

It turns out King was right in his assessment. Like all very good writers, MacDonald has a great understanding of human nature, which sometimes is not such a great thing. In the case of The Green Ripper the human nature that McDonald writes about is the mind of the political terrorist. If you want to understand that mind, this is the novel to read.

I had not read anything by MacDonald before, although I have heard of McGee. McGee is one in a long line of those loner/heroes who do what little they can to put things right. McGee calls it "doing my little knight-like thing." Such a character is brother to Robin Hood, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, and F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack.

I'm not giving anything away here, since it's on the cover of the book, but the plot concerns the murder of the only love of McGee life. McGee, just like every one of his kind from Edmond Dantes to Gully Foyle, hunts down those responsible for his loss.

The question, as it always is in cases like these, is if McGee seeks vengeance or justice. Men like McGee, and those like him, have a moral code they are actually willing to enforce. They don't make their own laws; indeed, although it's always unstated, they believe in Natural Law, most especially the one about "do not murder." And they are willing to personally deal out a great deal of violence, death and destruction to the guilty parties.

Are people like McGee what happens when they seek justice (or revenge) instead of allowing the government to do it? Or are they created because the government fails in its responsibility to enforce justice? These characters touch a nerve in people, and have for hundreds of years, ever since the modern novel was created. Clearly, there is a need for them. My view is these are the characters who do justice when the government fails in its job.

At first I used to read a great deal of science fiction, which is about, if anything, what is called "the sense of wonder." In a sentence, it can be described as "I want to live like that." It's a combination of admiration and envy. Horror fiction is just the opposite: "I do not want to live like that. Maybe I don't have the perfect life, but at least I don't have vampires after me."

Hard-boiled detective fiction, being horror fiction, is also about "I don't want to live like that." But there is more. Certainly the reader doesn't want to have the life described, but there is a part of them that says, "I sympathize with what he is doing, indeed support him fully in it." Even though it involves all kinds of mayhem and multiple deaths (of the guilty), there is a part of the reader saying, "You go! You go!"

And "go" is exactly what McGee does. And in his search for the killers he discovers exactly what makes political terrorists tick. It has, I have to point out, nothing to do with "they hate us for our goodness" or "they attacked us because we are good and they are evil." Such a view is extraordinarily naive. If anything, those views describe what what terrorists think of those attacking them.

Terrorists all are marginal, ostracized people, or at least think they are, which is essentially the same thing. They see things as either good or bad, black or white, with nothing in-between. Of course, they see themselves as good, which is why they are paranoid about people hating them "for their goodness." They are Utopians and idealists. As such, they believe in destroying society so a new, better one can arise. Who they destroy in the process is irrelevant; they are necessary sacrifices. Ultimately, all terrorists are Utopians. Perhaps all Utopians and idealists are in some degree terrorists.

The novel is relevant today because we are stuck in a war between two blind, fanatical Utopian groups wanting to destroy the other so they can impose their views on other people. Both ultimately are terrorists, even though they call themselves benefactors. They are an extraordinarily small group of people attempting to wreak havoc in the world.

MacDonald opens the book with a quote from Santanya that is always relevant, especially today: "Fanaticism is described as redoubling your effort when you've forgotten your aim." Idealists and Utopians, being fanatics, are always redoubling their efforts because they, too, always forget their aims.