Since the unexpected intersection of my life and the lives of superheroes has been willed into being by Adam, I’ve been thinking about superheros and their place in the American wetdream. One of the ways I go about understanding something (which is a way I have of feeling superior to it) is to find the root of it, the precursors, the historico-etymological unconsciousness from which it was called forth. So I thought that maybe this was found in such proto-fascists as Carlyle.
My advice is, if you think that Carlyle’s essay on Heroes in history is the royal road to the birth of Superman, forget it. Don’t blow the dust from that volume! I am a big fan of the 19th century essayists, but Carlyle is simply too bogus. With respect! Coleridge, De Quincey, the whole Romantic crewe were, like Carlyle, into German literature, but unlike him, they didn’t transform it into dyspepsia and fascism. I remember reading Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution and liking it, but the Hero book, which started out as a series of lectures and was listened to, at so much per seat, by a group that dwindled as it became apparent that Carlyle’s Scot’s accent was here to stay, is not the background to Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, or any of the great mutants that have now put the lock on our popular culture.
My search for the origins of the superhero cult made a necessary stop at Jill Lepore’s book on Wonder Woman – which Lepore traced back to the peculiar crossroads between utopian feminism and criminology, all staged with Harvard in the background. Wonder Woman was, from the beginning, a super hero like no other – not only because she was a woman (and got the usual comic book sexism thrown at her. Jules Feiffer, in his book on the history of super heroes, claims she is too flat chested. Wha???), but because her back story was expressly mythological. She was not a laboratory accident, or a military experiment, or a creature from another world. Lepore’s was an exemplary intellectual history. B-b-but I was looking for a key to the entire mythology, rather like dotty, repressed Causaban in Middlemarch, and it seems to me that there has to be more – some horizon of possibility that gave superheroes such enormous importance in American culture. My suspicion – or theory, since my suspicions have a way of becoming theories overnight – is that the super mutant ethos and fascination is tied into newspaper culture. A culture that, in spite of the efforts of such as Barthes, is too little interpreted from the lit crit aspect.
My theory, untested by historical research, is that the superhero and his or her obsessions arise in close proximity to the racket of the newspaper format. Newspapers jumble together, in columns that stand next to each other but maintain a monad’s distance, war, crime, weddings, weather, politics and everything else. It is as if news were always a traffic jam. In particular, crime stands out. News media loves crime. So do readers. But with the love of crime stories goes the fear of crime fact. It strikes me that the obsession of superheroes with crime is one of the keys to the mythology. Carlyle’s heroes don’t even bother with crime. They are concerned with founding society and changing consciousness. They are saints, writers, and statesmen. They are certainly not policemen. In Greek and Norse mythology, the heroes are involved with sacred transgressions. They care about sacrifice, not about bank robbery.
Lepore’s exploration of the origins of Wonder Woman takes up this theme. William Moulton Marston, her creator (or one of them. Lepore is very clear about the collective input into this invention), was also one of the inventors of the polygraph machine.
The standard history of superheroes usually begins in the 1930s, with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. The 30s, too, saw a crime wave the like of which was not seen in the US until the 70s, the Great Depression (which undermined rules about property crime by showing the criminal behavior of the most propertied), and the rise of Fascism. All of which might have something to do with the way that Superheroes were both obsessed with crime and incredibly submissive to the powers that be. One might expect that a man of steel from another planet would have some sympathy with the man of steel from the Soviet Republic of Georgia, Stalin, but there’s no trace of revolutionary in his actions or thoughts. The only revolutionaries are the arch villains, who are still ultimately tied by the hip to the forces of order – they are weirdly willing to destroy the social order to make money, the ideal representative of the social order. There is some blip, some slippage in the thinking of the villains, which may be why they don the clothes of carnival mutants and engage in lumpen-revolutionary acts, out of some tabloid nightmare.