On superheroes: who will save us now?

Comicbook superheroes live in a world where individuals can change with ease into objects, think out loud, or kill with a stare. Yet they fight only to maintain the status quo. How would it be different if superheroes were the people who are oppressed?

Zia X
23 October 2013

Superheroes demonstrate against unemployment at Occupy Wall Street. Credit: Demotix.

Trigger warning: this article features a description of an assault.

Superheroes, particularly comicbook heroes, have always inspired me. But more and more recently I’ve had to recognise an inherent failure in them.

The genre of the Superhero lends itself to conservatism, ideologically. In a world where individuals can change with ease into objects, speak to atoms, think out loud (literally), kill with a stare, or alter their species, it is overwhelmingly the case that these superpeople struggle to be anything other than White, American, affluent, cisheterosexual, neoliberal procreators with intense abs and no waists, fighting for their nation.

Each among the slew of superhero films out in the last decade stars white heterosexual men. The few that do feature women/people of colour have them in a purely supportive capacity. Most (particularly The Dark Knight series of films) have pretty dubious moral and political conclusions. Heroes, who can defy the laws of gravity, so frequently choose not to defy the laws of Man. Instead they channel their wealth of power and agency into supporting the status quo.

I’m being somewhat reductive here, and this, in the last decade or so, has been showing more give, but still the main icons retain their power: Batman, for example, the caped crusader, red-blooded AynRandian hero that he is, economic powerhouse, and so charitable he takes flexible orphans under his wing, to help them realise their true potential and dress fabulously (even if it kills them). He takes time out to get tough on the crime of Gotham, his hometown, beating up bulky but malnourished small-time thugs by the docks with an armoured glove, mainly for the larks (and an impossibly nebulous vendetta).

Batman is tough on crime, but fails to recognise that his specific economic position might, structurally, be a prime cause of the crime he fights.

Similarly, Superman fights, with little internal moral crisis, for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Oy vey. Where to begin with that particular mess? OK: on occasion, to interrogate who Superman is, what it means to be Superman, I like to pose the counterfactual question: What if Superman were a Nigger?

I don’t mean to say, What if Superman Were a Person of Colour? I use the term critically. I enjoy imagining, idling away the odd half hour, thinking What if Superman, otherwise no different, were born a person of colour, in the kind of economic and social environment where casual racists could shout “nigger” at him in the streets, a world where on entering any shop, security guards would dog him, a world where cops might even try to gun him down for the audacity of being a person of colour, running to catch a train on the way to work, as, say happened in the case of Jean Charles de Menezes in London, 2005. He took at least 7 bullets to the head. The murdering officers received no legal recrimination.

Or what if Superman grew up the kind of teenaged kid, to take a more recent example, like Trayvon Martin? Murdered in the street of a Florida suburb by gun-wielding Neighbourhood Watch member George Zimmerman for no other crime than walking home, Zimmerman again receiving no criminal conviction.

What then, of Truth, Justice, and the American Way? If that Superman could dodge those bullets, or see into the hearts of the judges and jury that could make those verdicts, what kind of hero would that produce? My suspicion is that he would be tad less invested in the Truth, Justice and the American Way his mainstream counterpart is peddling.

If I’m honest, beyond late-night fantasies and the occasional theoretical deconstruction, Superman and Batman weren’t good examples of heroes that have moved me. To put my cards on the Table, I’ve always been more of an X-Men gal. As a queer, working-class, mixed-race, and effeminate kid, their outsider status of being feared and hated for being born marginal, fighting for their right to be different, resonated strongly within me from day dot.

But even within the Universe of the X-Men there is a dichotomy between the good kinds of mutants, and the bad kind of difference.

Take X-Men’s founder and leader, assimilationist Xavier. He is the good guy, who, despite humanity’s repeated attempts to alienate, marginalise, and exterminate mutantkind, remains closeted (up until recently) about his mutant identity, and refuses to recognise that violent political change is a viable option. Magneto, however, founder of opposition team The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (clue’s in the...) is positioned as the evil baddie, who due to his experience as a Romani/Jewish holocaust survivor, believes that mutants need to fight back against humanity’s exterminating attempts in order to survive.

We are to take from the history of the X-Men that Xavier’s do-good, don’t rock no boats, assimilationist path is good, whereas Magneto’s engaged and confrontational approach to oppression equals EEEEEEVIL!

And in terms of representation, though this team is better than others, it is still dominated by the adventures and directives of a very particular slice of humanity. As in, nobody at all like me.

So this poses the question, where are the heroes for those of us who aren’t so enamoured with the stability of Global Capitalism and its attendant evils of racism, sexism, heteronormativity and class oppression? The heroes that want to smash state-oppression before state-oppression smashes us (more than it already has)? Where are our heroes?

These heroes, though few in number, have existed. V for Vendetta was just such a comicbook, digesting the politics of its era, spitting out a beautiful and bizarre response to 1982; Cold War nuclear terror, Totalitarianism, political and social conservativism. Its hero, V, ran around London, blowing up the various arms of a Dystopian state.

24 years later this story was bastardised by Time Warner. It became a more streamlined, sexy, slick action film, just about retaining the vestiges of a radical politics. Though on re-watching V for Vendetta as an, er, adult I recognise it’s no nuanced and intricate tract, for an adamantly disaffected 16 year old, as I was at the time, who had marked their tread in protest against various issues, most dishearteningly, in protest against the (to my mind, at the time) unclear War in Iraq- with many millions marching globally, with nothing happening, the film moved me.

The stark icon of Big Ben stood silent; to see that, the British houses of Parliament, architecture of democracy, blown to smithereens, full screen, in surround sound, ancient masonry flying in thousand directions in a burst of heat and light, was one of most erotic experiences of my young teens. It was, in a word, spectacular, and it seeded me with a simple idea. Things could change. No structure, however old, was absolutely immutable.

That’s the power of superheroes. The power to believe in change. That’s when I decided to become... (dum dum dummmm) A SUPERHERO!! (actually, that decision came when I was homophobically assaulted on a bus when I was 15, but I’ll get back to that later.)

I wasn’t the only one to take note. What attended was a slew of individuals and smaller political groups, adopting the Mask of V, and organising protests and actions en masse, or online. The most noted of these groups to use the symbols of V for Vendetta (and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but never mind that for now) are Anonymous, the loosely affiliated group of activists and hacktivists, individuals of which have been campaigning against the Church of Scientology and the Westboro Baptist Church for years. They've been hot on organising against those generating paedophilic pornographic content online, helping publicise and organise with Occupy, messing with various large corporations, including Sony and the US Military.

That's not to say that without V the superhero, no Occupy or Anonymous, but rather that the interconnectedness of our politics with the symbols we are given, or take for ourselves, is undeniable. We rally behind signs, and heroes can serve to show us alternatives, to allow us the space to imagine better worlds, where we ourselves are agents, not simply passive spectators. As long as the heroes we produce and consume have the faces of our oppressors, of dominant ideology, what we can learn from them is limited.

Now, writer and feminist activist Gail Simone, whose Women in Refrigerators was pivotal in creating dialogue about women's representation in comics, is writing The Movement, a new comic about heroes who are reacting against the state-system that disenfranchises them. She poses the question I started off with, in some form or another; What if Those With Superpowers Were the Oppressed?

The book opens with cops sexually intimidating a teenaged girl, it moves into the local neighbourhood masking up and videoing the cops behaviour, stopping them in their tracks before their actions moved beyond intimidation, with support from one of the leaders of the The Movement, setting the tone for the rest of the book. It’s one of the few times I’ve picked up a book and seen a diversity of characters and lives that resemble mine, just superpowered. That frisson of excitement where you see the people who you’ve always suspected are the bad guys get challenged by those who frequently have no voice- nrrrg!

Infinite YES! Superheroes, at their best, show us that it is possible to wrestle back agency and power from a world that thinks it can crush you.

The first time I was seriously homophobically attacked I was 15. I was making my way home, to Brixton, on the bus and, as then so now, I was wearing nail-vanish, lipstick, probably glitter. I was a femme boy. I get on the bus, which is almost packed, and find me a seat, upstairs on a double-decker bus. A crowd of about 5-7 other boys sat together near the back see me get on, and start jeering, chatting lyrics from a song by artist Buju Banton about slaughtering gay people, at me. They shout in my direction, trying to get my attention.

I ignore them, trying to think of possible ways to escape. The rest of the packed bus also ignores them. For a yuppie couple sat just ahead of me, the chanting gets too much, and they get up and go to sit downstairs. At some point one of the boys gets brave, comes up from behind me, and, still standing, tries to set my Afro alight - I bat his hand away, and then he lays a few blows to my head, while I swivel in my chair, kick him, and run downstairs. None of them pursue, so I sit by the driver downstairs. The yuppie couple are there, and now look at me with camaraderie, and say something to the effect of “fucking kids, ha?” as if this is something we went through together.

I then hated them, for their passivity, and for their belated and useless show of empathy, as much as I hated my abusers. I hated the packed bus that sat by and did nothing, but tut, move or turn up their headphones as my life was threatened. As the bus started pulling into my stop, the boys upstairs started coming down the stairs. It was their stop too. I ran, and they pelted after me, not far behind. After making it home I was too scared to leave the house for days.

It was then that I swore, idealiser of corny, primary-coloured crime-fighters that I was, that if I could be anything like the superheroes I’d always adored, that if they meant anything, I would never sit idly by and watch as someone got publically abused like that. I would not continue to be a passive spectator.

In an interview with website Comicvine, Simone says of her new comic, "It's a book about power - who owns it, who uses it, who suffers from its abuse. I think every superhero fan has read a news story at some point and felt, 'I wish Superman was real, he’d fix this.' It’s not just a wish for heroism and adventure, it’s a feeling we all have that the world isn’t entirely fair, and we all yearn for champions, for people who can make a difference."

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