After a fun-filled week long hiatus to wrestle with my balky highspeed modem, I’m back and ready to tempt your tummy with the taste of nuts and honey. No you filthy you pervs, I’m talking about Honey Nut Cheerios. I can’t stand the damn things. Who wants ’em? I’ll send ya my box. I think it was first opened in 2002.
One of my fine letter writers, the jaunty, jammin’, jaundice-free (hopefully) Jag, raised an interesting question in response to my Minority Report ramblings. To paraphrase: what characters have achieved “icon” status in the last 20-30 years? His only candidate: Wolverine. And that got me thinking (I know, blame Jag, he started it). What is an icon-level character? Who has already achieved that rarified status of comic character immortality? And who might yet?
It’s a very select club, the Pantheon of Comic Book Greats. It’s more select than any sports hall of fame, or even the un-official clubs like the 500-homer club in baseball. I’d say it more on par with the 700-homer club which boasts a scant two members: hammerin’ Hank Aaron and the bombastic Babe Ruth. The bogus Barry Bonds doesn’t count. Someday there will be a baseball commissioner with a pair of cajones who will throw that cheating, lying, piece of shit out of the game, records and all. So in my eyes there are only two baseball gods. In comics, counting Marvel and DC combined, I’d say there are only four.
Superman. I can’t stand him, but I can’t deny him either. There’s likely no character more globally recognized. I could probably go to Africa, discover a “lost” tribe largely unaffected by modern society for centuries, show them some comics, and without even opening the issue if there’s a big ‘S’ on the cover one of the tribesmen will make a “Whooosh!” sound and a “take off” motion with his hand. Superman. They don’t know what an iPod is, they’ve never Yahooed (wow, my spell-check thinks that’s actually a word, but somehow questions “iPod”), they’ve never listened to Pearl Jam or read Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings and haven’t seen “It’s A Wonderful Life” on a screen big or small. But they know who Superman is. Well, perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration, but the point is if I showed pictures of comic iconography to a thousand random people anywhere in the world – just the big “S”, the Bat on the yellow oval, the nested “Double-W” logo, or the Spider symbol — more people will get the Superman symbol right than any of the others.
He’s the American Dream, personified as the ultimate immigrant. The inscription on the Statue of Liberty says, “Give me your tired, your poor… Well, who could be more poor, more tired, more a stranger in a strange land than an alien from a doomed planet? He’s free of the death sentence that is life on Krypton. His parents want nothing more for him than the opportunity to survive and succeed and thus they send him to Earth. I could debate the merits of Origins in comics (in fact I will, one of these days) but the point is Kal El represents some fundamental desires in all of us (Earthlings, not Americans) in some way. We as a race want to be unbound, free of whatever is holding us back. Discrimination, sexism, oppressive governments, even gravity itself. Whatever the problem, Superman can overcome it. He’s friends with people of every race, sex and creed (even though DC doesn’t HAVE a lot of variety there), he’s opposed tyrannical regimes, and he give us that wonderful, brief disconnect from reality. Whether you’re reading of his exploits, watching the same on the movie screen or the television, or just pondering how nice it would be to step out of your vehicle in this nightmarish traffic jam, lift up your car and fly to your destination under your own power, Superman gives us hope. More than anything, greater than his ability to stop bullets, or to fly, or to race the Flash or to ignore all fashion sense, Superman gives us all the hope that someday, somehow, someone extraordinary will come from seemingly out of nowhere to save us from whatever we dread: anything from tedious boredom to bombs in Baghdad.
Batman. He’s probably the closest second to Superman among the greats. I despised psychology classes in college. But I’m sure those of you who enjoy that sort of thing look at Superman and Batman as Id and Ego. Superman is the Grand Ideal, the brightest light, the underwear clad personification of everything we could ever dream of. Batman is the flipside, the embodiment of all that we think we actually could achieve. We could get rich, by work or by luck. We could learn to be in tremendous physical condition and to excel in athletic endeavors such as throwing objects with pinpoint accuracy, climbing a long length of rope or practicing martial combat. We can learn to think analytically, solving crimes with a couple of seemingly meaningless details that turn out to be case-shattering clues. Real life police, detectives, forensics specialists, post-mortem doctors – they all achieve results that would make Sherlock Homes exclaim, “Good show old bean! Jolly well done.”
But what we can’t do is put on a dark costume and beat people up. In the real world, there are laws against that. Admittedly there are laws against it in his world too, but vigilantism in the real world is dealt with harshly. Look up Bernie Goetz. On Wikipedia sometime. Some of you might not remember the Subway Vigilante. In the mid-80s, New York had a major crime problem and the subways were particularly dicey. Goetz decided he had had enough, and armed with a .38 caliber handgun he resisted a robbery attempt by five young men on the subway. He became the flashpoint for getting things straightened out in NYC, even though what he himself did was as illegal as the robbery attempt. There were no concealed carry permits in those days, and even today the ramifications of such a violent personal defense, when none of the youths actually indicated the presence of any weapons in their possession, are still sensitive. Imagine being in his shoes. Imagine having the means to stop a crime in progress, against yourself or others. And then imagine having the power to go out and seek these situations. Everything from simple heists and drug sales to elaborate plots against your city or town by tainting the water supply with a chemical potion that will kill people and leave a rigor-mortis smile on their faces – this is where Batman departs from reality. The police can run sting operations against crack dealers and the feds can track down counterfeiters and bank robbers. But they can’t very often gain knowledge of these events before hand. They’ve got “sources” but how often do them come through with any major tip? Batman doesn’t wait for his sources to come through, he makes them give up their information, violently. He won’t waste time with due process or court orders and search warrants. The wheels of justice, it has been said, turn slowly. In Gotham, Batman works with police as much as it suits him to do so. But if the police are an obstacle to what he’s trying to achieve, he goes around and/or through them just the same. He’s Bernie Goetz, super-sized.
Wonder Woman. The only lady in the Pantheon. I confess, she’s probably the one character out of all the iconic characters that I know very little about and have very little affinity for. I don’t know if it’s because I’m not a female, because I’ve read more Justice League stories that didn’t include her on the roster than ones that did, or because her character has had some pretty uneven handling through the years. It could also be that I just don’t care for the “Amazon Mentality” I see (sometimes) when I read stories that feature her. But it’s hard to argue against her inclusion in the “Holy Trinity” of the DCU. I said before that if you showed just the simple graphic icon of the characters, like Superman’s “S,” people would recognize it immediately. Wonder Woman’s “Double-W” might draw the occasional “WWE” answer. But show the full character, the tiara, the “swimsuit” and the lasso and a lot more people would say, “Oh yeah, Wonder Woman. My Dad still loves Lynda Carter. How great would Morena Baccarin be as Diana in Joss Whedon’s movie?” And Joss, if you’re reading this, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD CALL MORENA AND OFFER HER THE PART! Ask a feminist, and you’d probably get a much different answer.
As one of if not in fact the first female superhero, Wonder Woman is the feminist ideal turned up to 11. Originating out of Greco-Roman mythology, she grew up on a women-only island invisible from the eyes of man. Diana of Themyscira, is the Amazonian ambassador to the world of Man. Let’s stop there for a moment and consider the depth of the character based on this small bit of information alone. She’s named after Greece’s mythological goddess of the hunt and wisdom, so she’s no slouch on the battlefield. And as Paradise Island’s diplomat she’s given the job of spreading the peace and cultural treasures of her people to the rest of the world. Then consider that she was invented by Mr. and Mrs. William Moulton Marston in 1941. Talk about being ahead of her time! William Marston invented the systolic blood-pressure test which in turn lead to the creation of the lie detector test, according Wikipedia. At that time, with World War II in full swing, women were expected to stay home and take care of the family or work in factories to contribute to the war effort. They weren’t often placed in positions of political power, such as an ambassadorship. Marston’s creation was very far-thinking, and a testament to the strength of character and ability women as a race possess. Even today we see few women in positions of higher authority. We see female doctors, lawyers, judges, politicians and retail managers, but few female oil barons or giant corporation CEOs and certainly none have achieved the White House unless they were beside and behind the man called Mr. President (except for Clinton, when a number of women were in front of him…under the desk). Marston himself called her, and I’m paraphrasing, “…a character with Superman’s strength plus the allure and beauty of womanhood.” No wonder she’s the feminist ideal – heck, she’s my ideal.
Spider-Man. Nobody is more Marvel than Spidey, Marvel’s first entry into the roll call of the Pantheon. The bookworm who was bullied by some and ignored by most others, he gained spectacular powers and amazingly (puns totally intended) enough he got the girl. Think about that a minute. Does that sound familiar? Know of any other high-schoolers who were perceived as nerdy or geeky? Were they picked on and bullied and had few close friends? Did they tend to keep to themselves? Have a messed up home life or come from a single-parent situation? And did they try to do something spectacular to impress a girl or to get people to take notice? Sound familiar yet? Because if Peter Parker were a real high school student in today’s world, he’d be virtually no different than Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold. That’s right: The Columbine Massacre. I don’t say that for shock value, I say it because I believe it’s true. According to the profile the various world news programs aired at the time, I too could have been a candidate for a high school shooter. I had read bits of Hitler’s Mein Kampf (which was available in my school library surprisingly enough), I like black shirts, I listen to hard rock and heavy metal, and play violent video games like Grand Theft Auto, Quake, and whatnot. Peter Parker’s biography for his early years is a tragedy. So what makes him more universally beloved than the Fantastic Four, or better known than Iron Man or Hawkeye?
I think it’s the childhood connection. Like DC’s Robin, Spider-Man is a superhero you can relate to. Superman is the IDEAL we wish to achieve, but Spider-Man is the everyman. He was raised lovingly by an extended family, but his own parents were mysteriously absent. He was smart and teased because of it. He was scrawny as if puberty passed him by completely. At some point, I think everyone feels like that. And then, “OUCH!” Something bites us and everything changes. We get bit by a variety of bugs. For some, it’s girls. You suddenly become aware that there are girls out there, and though they used to give you cooties now they give you something else, lower on the body with some swelling involved. For some it’s a career. You get bit by the work bug and suddenly after not being real sure for a long time what you wanted to do with your life, it’s suddenly clear: you HAVE to be a doctor, or a teacher or a comic book artist. Discovering your life’s passion, whenever it happens, changes you fundamentally. But you never forget those early years. Being the nerd in class who screwed it up for everyone else when the teacher graded on the curve. Being too awkward to shoot a basketball without tripping yourself up, to say nothing about how awkward you felt around the redhead who sat a couple desks over from you. What the heck was it about her anyway? Nobody else made your tongue swell up and tumble over your teeth and cause the breath to catch in your chest. That was Peter Parker, you as a high school teen, unsure of the world, less sure of yourself, afraid of failure, and longing for your Mary Jane. Spider-Man is cool, he swings from building to building on webs, can lift a few tons and stick to walls. But it’s Peter Parker than touches s somewhere deeper. It’s Peter Parker we remember most when somebody shows you a part of the costume and asks, “Do you know who this character is?” And you fight back the urge to say, “Yeah, that’s Me.” That’s why Spider-Man is so universally recognized. We see ourselves in him, perhaps even more so than Superman and Batman. They represent aspects of ourselves only Jung or Freud could make sense of. Pete is the one we relate to and cheer for. He’s proof that anyone can get the girl.
But where’s so and so? What about that favorite character of yours? How can I say Wolverine, Thor, Punisher, Captain America, Taskmaster, Captain Marvel (any of them) or Flash aren’t worthy of inclusion in this select group? Well, if I told you now, I wouldn’t have anything for next week’s column, would I? How’s that for a teaser!
But don’t think I’m getting off easy, I have to spend the next week trying to figure out what characters could make it to full Pantheon membership.
Welcome to my nightmare.