Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Super Hero Theorem


I love all stories about super heroes.  I always have.  I realized that this fascination came from Saturday morning cartoons.  Let's just say when you are a little black girl growing up poor in Texas you have very little to believe in. Religion was taken from me by a Sunday school teacher that found it offensive that I wanted to be like Jesus. Needless to say I recall so clearly watching the X-Men, and thinking no one cares that Storm is black. She's just a mutant, and thus one of them. It was a really revolutionary thought for me. If you find the group that is the most like what you are at your core level, it won't matter what race, age, or religion you are.  In the eyes of the world you are all the same, and deserve the same treatment. What a concept.

I'm older now, and I still love super hero rhetoric.  I find the readings sometimes refreshing and more tolerant than anything I can find in any other form of media. The lines are sometimes very simple.  There is good, and there is evil. Upon occasion some of the contemporary classics have featured graying between the two.  Some such as DC's award winning Identity Crisis and Marvel's House of M sequence that leads to Civil War blurred the lines with a ruthless aggression that made the stories all the more human.  However these stories are about defining the lines between good and evil. Very rarely do the good ones even mention such uninteresting incidentals as race, class, religion, and gender. These are instead visual descriptors that have nothing to do with whether or not the character is good or evil.  Their actions and the reasons behind their actions determine this.  If only the world in general followed suit. With that said, DC's The New Frontier was a stunning entry that did account for race, class, and gender within the time period while being very honest about the world we do live in.

I find myself wondering how comics have been able to mature the way that they have, and I can only come up with one answer.  Stan Lee. Then I have to acknowledge that Stan Lee is a social genius.  He found a way to deal with very sensitive issues at a very sensitive time of our nation's development.  The first issue of The Uncanny X-men was released in September of 1963.  Please keep in mind that initial desegregation had only occurred in 1954, and supplementary legal actions occurred well into the late 1960's as states were resistant. This version of the X-men by all accounts was socially acceptable accept for the fact that they possessed mutant powers.  A gene anomaly that made them capable of doing things normal people could not do. They were outsiders, and an almost perfect simulation of ethnic and racial profiling and inequality.  Mutants were treated badly, looked down upon, and shunned.  Mutants were subject to being lynched and physically harmed. Some had mutations so radical that it changed the way they appeared making them not resemble a normal man or woman at all. This addendum is a precursor to people who are not able to disengage from their ethnic designations.

Let me flesh out this concept.  During this time period there were several ethnic groups that were being discriminated against.  The irony is that most are now considered 'white', and can choose to be viewed as their ethnic group or as census classified 'white' which is most people of European descent.  Other ethnic groups cannot 'blend' in, and pretend to not be a mutant. .  I mean a minority : )

This within itself was rather groundbreaking; however in the 70s this comic series took another brave step and began to introduce nontraditional characters of many ethnicities and nationalities. Now the X-men were international with differing political, religious, and social beliefs.  Yet despite this they were bound to each other by the overwhelming blanket of what they are.  To the world they were not even human, but a mutant first and always.  Any other differences from each other they may have has paled in comparison. It's so funny because I am one of those people who believes that despite humanity's best efforts, in the end Adrian Veidt from the Watchmen comic is absolutely right.  In many situations we do need a greater cause to make us forget our differences, and be reminded of our similarities.

As I find myself delving deeper into readings concerning race, class, gender, and religion I find myself being reminded of simple truths that I feel like I have always known that media is slowly trying to drown out.  My personal project for this summer is to prototype a game that will aid in teaching these concepts related to issues in sociology.  The ones that Stan Lee managed to endear so gracefully so many years ago.  I wonder if he planned it from the beginning.  If he intentionally made the first set of X-men the way they were to broaden the impact of the ones that came later or if it was just a blessed accident?

What my research has shown is that people are adaptable to certain forms of stimulation.  They will take in the information given and apply it to everyday life as a means to be a more socially acceptable creature.  However there has to be an entry point of familiarity.  To some degree they have to be able to relate to one concept in order to discover another. We are a pattern making species, and even if the pattern is perceived incorrectly, the die is usually cast. 

The brilliance of the way Stan Lee did this is that the original X-men looked exactly like the bourgeoisie at the time.  This was an epic point of relatability as they were concerned for the safety of those they loved and conducted rather normal lives.  They weren't fugitives; they were students trying to do what was best for an ignorant and intolerant world. With this identity of the X-Men firmly established you introduce new elements that will become relatable because the label has not changed.  The tenets and the belief system are not different, just the packaging.

So as I look at the fringes of society and the 'geek' and 'nerd' groups that enjoy eccentric entertainments I wonder if they have somehow been changed by their exposure to things like the Uncanny X-men as I have?  It is a fact that most people who read graphic novels and comics have a rather pronounced sense of detachment from mainstream society. Especially if they are an adult reader as 'mainstream' socialization tells people that a certain age is 'too old' to enjoy this type of entertainment. Yet it thrives as movies and television shows have tried to emulate these teachings about equality and the far reaching hand of justice. Even those who do not participate anymore in the reading feel a kinship towards the stories and are eager to engage childish sensibilities once again.  But the most telling is the fact that these sub-cultures of society exist and thrive outside of the machine so to speak.  It is an indication that it is possible.

For all change there has to be an entry way.  There must be those who dare, and those who succeed.  I’m just hoping that I have just enough Stan Lee in me to make a difference.