Deborah Eisenberg, the U.S. Alice Munro, was on the CBC last week talking about her latest collection, Twilight of the Superheroes. The title story is about a cartoonist who lives through 9/11 and it has some interesting things to say about the idea of superheroes as a metaphor for Empire. Eisenberg states her case plainly in a Bookninja interview from last summer, where she discusses the Superman movie:
"It's both heart-rending and nauseating that the national impulse would be to seek solace and reinforcement at this moment, in, for instance, Superman as a representation of moral action. I can't claim to be an expert on the cast of Marvel Comics, or, in fact, to know much of anything about any of them, but nonetheless, they're present even in my inhospitable consciousness. So it seems that they must perfectly express something about our culture.
And I suppose that what it is they so perfectly express is our desire to understand our disproportionate power as power that's unambiguously and inevitably used for the benefit of humanity. Even in regard to the Unites States of the Second World War, this view might have merited a raised eyebrow or two, but now it's shockingly self-deceiving at the least, and pretty brutal. It seems to me that not only is there an enormous longing for what we imagine to have been a time of innocence in our recent history, but that there's also a sort of willful childishness, or, to put it another way, a self-congratulatory coyness in the way imagination is collecting around these figures now. Even the nostalgia doesn't seem quite authentic. It's as if there were something endearing, something loveable, about trying to maintain this view of ourselves as childishly innocent and good even though we know very well that it's not accurate – something gallant and charming. This is a form of bullying, in my opinion; a demonstration that we can afford (temporarily, anyhow) to hold on to these consoling charades of power-with-integrity, however degraded, even laughable,we understand them to be.
Born in 1945, Eisenberg probably missed out on the first wave of superhero comics and was not quite 10 when "Superduperman" appeared in MAD. She was graduating from college when Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were repopulating New York with superheroes and was well into her adult life when Batmania and Wonder Warthog were stirring up the kids, so she can be forgiven for mixing up her publishers. In any case, everyone knows that outside of a few arrested adolescents like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, serious writers don't read superhero comic books. Nevertheless, Eisenberg still makes a few interesting points. Even if mainstream kids comics can't be expected to engage with adult themes and political issues, what about Hollywood? I've seen enough of the current crop of superhero movies to know that they are trafficking mainly in the same thing the comics have got by on for generations --escapism, power fantasies, and nostalgia. I'm less familiar with the current superhero comics world since the heavyhanded Watchmen metaphors of the 1980s --the world of The Authority and Identity Crisis. Outside of Dan Clowes' "The Death Ray" (or for that matter, David Boring), are there any contemporary superhero iterations that deal with their own limitations as a genre in ways that are not just pat or satirical? Is it even really possible or necessary? Are superheroes bad for us? Adorno said "After Auschwitz it is barbaric to write poetry." Should we say, after 9/11 it is barbaric to draw superheroes?
I leave the final word to that other great philosopher, Sergio Aragones:
"It's the super-hero syndrome, exactly. [...] It's out of our power to solve. It's defeatism --you can do nothing about it. It's like "I surrender." The only way I can solve my problem is with a super-hero, or an astronaut, or somebody from outer space, or God helping me. And this is like throwing your gloves on the floor. When you have to fight, then you think you have a solution, but when you don't want to fight any more, that's when you go to total despair and then you go looking for some super-heroes to solve your problems. Which is very bad. I don't think those movies give any good messages. That the only love you find is with mermaids or with things from outer space. No! No! No! Reality is what can save you."