One of my favorite scenes in movies is at the very beginning of Chinatown, when Jack Nicholson says to a cuckolded husband, “When you’re right, you’re right.” I’ve seen the movie at least 10 times and every time I want to yell at the screen, “and when you’re wrong, you’re wrong.”
And now I say it to myself: “When you’re wrong, you’re wrong.”
I was wrong to say that comic books are inherently juvenile in Thursday’s OpEdge post about the social significance of Marvel’s The Avengers. What convinced me was the rain of cogent criticisms on Twitter from a lot of people—way more than when I advocated gay marriage or suggested we raise taxes on the wealthy. Thanks for comments from Frédéric Ascensio, Ty Pergande, Glenn J. Smith, Roy Ward and others for helping me see the light. I should also point out that more tweeters complimented my post than disagreed with it, but those who disagreed were convincing.
It was an elitist attitude, based on ignorance. When I say ignorance, I mean to say that I don’t know if the art form of the comic book can produce a work of art for adults because I have never bothered to look at comic books since I was about 13.
Rather than try to explain away for foolish notion, I would rather just write exactly what I say at my office all the time: I would rather get it right than be right. And it’s not right—accurate—to say that inherent constraints relegate any art form to juvenilia.
Besides admitting that comic books can be an adult art form, I will also admit that comic book super heroes can have complex emotions and find themselves in emotionally, ethically and intellectually complicated situations. Again, Robert Downey Jr. could fill the character of Dick in a first grade primer with luminous complexities.
Having done a double mea culpa, I want to take on the idea of superheroes. Some would, and maybe have, compared Superman, Ironman and the other comic book übermenschen and übermädchen to Greek or Norse gods and goddesses. There is some truth in the comparison, but let’s keep in mind that the ancient “superheroes” were originally believed to be supernatural beings who often represented forces of nature and formed the basis of legitimate religions. It was only after the religions were discredited that the stories devolved from religious history to myth.
In ancient Greek and Roman literature, the gods often serve as plot motivators or rationales for action or the results of actions. Gods make it rain and goddesses protect the harvest. They also interfere in wars, voyages and domestic relations.
None of the comic book super heroes are gods, and with the exception of the alien Supers, all of them are humans who have special super powers. They are not acted upon, they do the acting and the story always revolves around them.
Young children, especially boys, often role play at saving the world or defeating a foe as soldiers, athletes and superheroes, but rarely do they play as those they believe are actual gods such as Christ or Allah. Children role play fantasies of power based on stories in which humans exercise human and/or superhuman powers to defeat foes.
The comic book superheroes represent a kind of wish fulfillment, a will to power as it were, a desire to be more powerful than one is. We don’t see this expression of man’s will to power in literature about the ancient gods, who mostly ignore or toy with humans. These ancient gods represent man’s confrontation with the forces of nature.
Regardless of the level of sophistication of the narrative or characters in a work of art, humans evoke ancient gods to explain how and why things happen. They evoke comic book superheroes to engage in fantasies of power. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether either of these motives is more associated with either childhood or adulthood.
Today we view ancient myths primarily through the lenses of great artists, be it Homer, Sophocles or Wagner. By contrast, we view comic book superheroes through the collective lenses of all comic books, TV shows and movies, because history has not had a chance to winnow out the masterpieces from the commercial chaff. It will only be a few hundred years from now when we’ll know which comic book hero works of art will survive, but those that do will surely appeal to adults as well as children.
For the most part, history has not been kind to commercial works of art, which is art written on commission for propaganda or to sell an idea or product. For one thing, commercial art tends to be less innovative and less risky both creatively and in its message; history tends to prefer the innovator and the innovative. While there are examples of commercial art such as Virgil’s Aeneid or the Psalms advancing in the pantheon of great works, typically commercial art proves to be as evanescent as forsythia in early spring. That doesn’t speak well for the future of The Avengers or any superhero movie, since the primary motivation of the controllers of the creative process for all these movies seems to be to create merchandising opportunities for branded tee-shirts, coffee mugs, pillows, board games, posters, tote bags, key chains, lunch boxes, costumes, computer games, screen savers, ring tones, pens, stationery, action figures, packaged food products, books and musicals based on the movie