It's been snowing all day, and nobody in the family is working. We've rearranged the living room furniture and, most importantly, taken out the old bulky speaker system and replaced it with a compact Bose version. New settings means we must sit in them; new speakers means we must listen to them. And so we shall. All we need is the right film.
Nick and I turn the volume as high as it goes during the scene in Superman Returns when Clark Kent, who has just returned to the Daily Planet offices, rushes to the street ripping off his shirt to go save the damaged airplane/space shuttle combo--which said airplane/shuttle contains, conveniently enough, Lois Lane.
The score is marvellous. I've never been a big Superman fan, but John Williams' Superman theme is astounding, especially when coupled with the sight of the Man of Steel gently placing a de-winged, flaming wreck of a plane on the pitcher's mound at Metropolis stadium. Nick had goosebumps; I had tears in my eyes. Welcome back, Kal-el.
Of course, now that we've watched Superman Returns, we're obliged to continue the streak. Next will be Spiderman 2, because it's the best of the three. Then probably X-Men 2. I would be up for some Batman, obviously, though I'm not sure which one to pick; they're all just so good. Through every one of these films I'll be cheering and shouting and cringing, because I love them.
During a job interview last week I was asked why I joined the Peace Corps. Because of Batman, I said. Because, as naive and idealistic and just plain silly it sounds, the Peace Corps was my way of being a superhero. I'm already embarrassed that I wrote that, but I'll man up and let you ridicule me. It's what Samurai Jack would do.
And maybe my military friend(s) will scoff, but I bet you that, at least subconsciously, Superman was part of the reason they decided to serve the country in that particular idiom.
Sure, on both sides of the spectrum, there are distinguished histories and inspirational stories--true ones--that more directly influence a person's choice on how they serve their country. That's why the Peace Corps has such cool looking propaganda posters; that's why we have the Military Channel. But reality can only take us so far.
Modern Americans don't have anything they would consider mythology (outside of their religion). The story of the fishes and loaves is as real to certain people as the story of Prometheus was to the Greeks. And I like both stories, I really do, but that doesn't necessitate I be a Christian any more than I be a pagan in the Ancient Greek tradition.
I am no longer a Catholic (I'm not even a Christian anymore) but I really appreciate being brought up as one. I like the values of the system, the morals, the call for sacrifice as a means of both personal and public redemption. The problem with religion, though, is morons. So I've distanced myself.
However, I wonder now, as I think into the future, a future I hope to be replete with a large and boisterous brood of offspring, how will I raise my kids with those kinds of values but still keep them out of the clutches of people who think Leviticus 18:22 is the most important rule in the Old Testament? The answer, as I see it, is comic books.
Comic books are modern America's mythology. And it's a beautifully serpentine system of mythology, because everyone living at the time of this mythology knows it to be false; but that doesn't stop people from believing in it.
That last sentence is not a paradox. I don't really feel eloquent enough to explain it, so I'm going to rely on reader identification. I mean, I know Batman isn't real, Superman isn't real, Spiderman isn't real, but because they stand for everything worth standing for in this real life, they are just as important to me as policemen, firemen, Marines, and development workers.
This is especially apropos for little kids. A child might not grasp the gravity of the situation in Sudan, or of people blowing up planes, or of Robert Mugabe being a fucking maniac. They know that evil exists in the world, but that evil is not palpable until it is distilled into the Green Goblin or Lex Luthor. And all the people who sweat and struggle and die to combat the evil in the world are in no way slighted by being represented to a child in distilled form as a comic book superhero.
I am not a comics scholar, but I know that one of Superman's biggest roles in his early years was as a seeker-outer and ultimate-punisher of Nazis. Same with Captain America (why do you think he was even created?). Same with any number of superheroes who have been remembered or forgotten. Thanks to them (and to Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and any cartoon character in a propaganda film) war bonds were bought, national rations were strictly followed--and people signed up to fight. As wars ended and comics evolved, evil villains went from Nazis to moronic hoodlums to the Joker. The superhero genre became more symbolic. More mythic. More capable of tackling the big theme of good v. evil. In this way, more lasting. Nazis die. The Joker can live forever.
One of the things that pained me while I was in Togo was the lack of a disseminated mythology. Being in Kabye country, I was interested in their creation myths, in whatever stories they might have that would help explain who and why they are. Whenever I asked after these stories, though, all I got were Bible chapters.
These stories do exist, but none of the youth know them, and few of the old. This frustrated me so much because cultural identity (usually linked to cultural pride) is essential for a people's development. Many folks I spoke with, young and old, held such a sense of shame of being Togolese that they gave up believing they were capable of being any different. Imagine the cultural divide. I come from the land of Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, Daredevil, and the Batman. Thanks to them, I believe I can do anything.
The fact is, we need mythology. We need it to tell us, unequivocally, what we are capable of. Real life has so many shades of grey that it is absolutely necessary to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, in strictly monochromatic terms. Religion can't satisfy those needs; if Muslims are going to hell according to Christians, and Christians are going to hell according to Muslims, we have a very confusing situation. But the Joker will always be evil. Lex Luthor will always have an ulterior motive. And Superman and Batman will always do what they've done best--stand for truth, justice, and liberty, and inspire people to do the same.