Our Modern “Gods And Goddesses”

You may have heard one of America’s great creative entertainment minds died the other day at age 95: Stan Lee. If you are a Marvel Comics fan, you are enjoying Lee’s creations. In a summation of his art, an Associated Press writer noted what made Lee’s superheroes most special:

Unlike DC Comics’ iconic heroes, many of whom had been destined for greatness as the last sons of doomed planets, Amazon royalty or rightful kings of the sea, the likes of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the Ghost Rider and the Incredible Hulk composed a catalog of human frailties — schmoes who inadvertently, or negligently, wandered into the traffic of destiny.

He quoted Lee on why:

“One of the things we try to demonstrate in our yarns is that nobody is all good, or all bad,” Lee wrote in a column for Marvel’s March 1969 issues. “Even a shoddy super-villain can have a redeeming trait, just as any howlin’ hero might have his nutty hang-ups.”

To which the AP writer adds:

It’s hard to overestimate how groundbreaking this philosophy was in a nation that, with a tone set by production-code Hollywood since the early 1930s, had spent three decades positioning largely unambiguous heroes at the center of its rising mass culture. Add government efforts in the 1950s to demonize comics as the mind-decayers of America’s youth, and to push publishers back toward pablum, and you’ll have some idea what Lee accomplished at the beginning of the 1960s.

That is reasonable. Yet I always find such broad-brush summations troubling. “Hard to overestimate how groundbreaking?…”

[Looking towards Capitol Hill. Washington, DC. Photo by me, 2018.]

I am not an expert on Lee, but based on what I do know I think it is better to avoid hyperbole and just observe that Lee pushed back boundaries for teens by introducing “the flawed superhero.” After all, in storytelling the supernatural “hero” and “heroine” is nothing new. Tales of gods and goddesses and their universes are as old as history and pre-history, and even “good” gods/goddesses had “flaws” and could be “ambiguous.”

Let’s not forget that for all of human history until about 1900, there had been no such thing as “youth” or “teen” culture: one was a child, and then by age sixteen (essentially once you could reproduce) you were more or less an adult. As that social evolution unfolded and “teenager-hood” as a time between childhood and adulthood took hold, among childhood and especially teen entertainment the superhero appeared: basically a 20th century invention merely refashioning – unintentionally or not – the myths of ancient gods and goddesses intervening in human affairs and even having relationships with us mortals. What Lee did (often brilliantly) was he made his superheroes and superheroines obviously “ambiguous” and “flawed” and filled them with angst in ways with which his teenage readers – particularly initially teenage boys – especially could identify. So, for instance, rather than gain his “spider powers” due to being the offspring resulting from the half-human Princess Arachnid of Asia Minor being seduced by Zeus, in Lee’s “plausible” super-universe the boy from next door is bitten on a school trip by some nuclear-contaminated (or something like that) spider.

We American (at least) adults have always also certainly sought some level of “superior” qualities in those whom we admire in real-life. Particularly we hope to see some in our leaders. The best example is our “hero-ization” over the centuries of George Washington:

[Looking up within the US Capitol Rotunda: George Washington, in the heavens. Photo by me, 2018.]

Although it is tough to see him unless you expand the photo above, Washington appears there amidst goddesses and maidens in the famous Apotheosis of Washington, a fresco on the ceiling of the Rotunda of the US Capitol; it was painted in 1865 by Greek-Italian artist Constantino Brumidi. Putting political leaders on “pedestals” is absurd? How about them hovering in the heavens? Likely if Washington could have lived to have seen that artist’s conception of him, the practical and hard-headed real man would have probably viewed it as hilarious and – given he was an observant Anglican/Episcopalian – even blasphemous.

In fiction, we know too our English language literature has always also been full of ambiguous and flawed “heroes” and “heroines.” Shakespeare’s plays are stuffed with them. So are Jane Austen’s novels. And “teenagers” – in a world before “teen culture” – read such as the “young adults” (in the truest sense of the phrase) they were… because that’s what adults then often did for entertainment.

That AP writer’s pointing out that Lee’s superheroes had “wandered into the traffic of destiny” also led me to recall how my wife and I had on Monday night watched the film Casablanca. It is probably my favorite film: every time I watch it again I notice something I’d missed previously. If you’ve seen that film, in one scene its main character, “Rick Blaine” (Humphrey Bogart), dismisses an opinion of his future: “You seem to know all about my destiny.”

[A Casablanca film promo poster that was a gift to me. Photo by me, 2013.]

We had been unable to agree on the evening’s viewing. Still I was initially suspicious when she suggested, “Let’s watch Casablanca.” But I could not resist a chance to watch it again from beginning to end.

Let’s also be honest. Talk about an “ambiguous and flawed hero at the center of [America’s] rising mass culture” – and in the midst of World War II. Cynical and aloof, “Rick” is not a man you imagine to be one ever to “stick his neck out” for anyone.

“Rick,” we are also informed early on, had once been a mercenary fighting against the fascists in Ethiopia and in Spain in the middle-1930s, but we are left only to imagine what went on with him in those countries. We see early in the film also that he treats women as disposable. He tosses “Yvonne” away as if she doesn’t matter:

[Photo of a scene in Casablanca on DVD. Photo by me, 2016.]

The only woman he evidently did once really love, “Ilsa,” turned out to have been married (which he did not know) and when her husband reappears on the scene (after she had believed him dead), unsurprisingly she left “Rick” for her husband (but “Rick” did not know that was why she ran off, leaving him only a brief goodbye note). Now, their paths cross again accidentally in Casablanca, (French) Morocco after last seeing each other in Paris 18 months earlier. After “Rick” discovers – she tells him – that she has been married to that man for years, when she comes to his apartment alone late one night desperate for his help – he is the only one who can – in saving her husband from being sent to a concentration camp or just outright murdered, “Rick,” shall we say, takes advantage of her… and he does so almost certainly even after he had damn well already decided he would help. Honorable behavior on his part, that was definitely not. [The film production code of the era did not permit “sex scenes,” and especially not adultery, so the sex itself is only inferred. Some viewers probably never quite caught what went on. Others might have. (“Hey, honey, that fade out? They must have just, uh, you know…”) Naturally that uncertainty was all probably the director’s hope. (“As they kiss, we slow it down, fade, have the searchlight again, and then cut to Bogie standing in the light looking out the window and smoking, and Ingrid sitting on one end of the sofa. Adults will know what they have just done that we couldn’t show.”)]

After that, “Rick” does actually do what honor demands. (“Louis, I wouldn’t like to shoot you but I will, if you take one more step.”) Previously we had been allowed here and there to witness flashes of his positive side. (“I don’t buy or sell human beings.”) But “Rick” is at his most sustained admirable only in the final minutes of the film.

Talk about mainstream too: Casablanca became one of the runaway hits of 1943, and a winner of numerous Academy Awards. It spoke especially to American young men – many in their teens – who, sitting in dark cinemas watching their new on-screen idol Bogart (a rather ordinary man much like themselves) at last intervene, were steeling themselves knowing they too were being asked to draw a gun and help however they could, in faraway places like where “Rick” was. What they did not yet know was their “destiny” was to be some would find themselves bursting eventually into real concentration camps. Indeed and some would never return alive. If they thought about it, they may have well-identified with this observation by “Rick,” which remains unchanged in the nearly eight decades since, and probably always will: “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

[A Paris view. Very old photo, by me, 1994. Look familiar? It’s on the back cover of the paperback version of Passports.]

“We won’t always have Paris,” my Mrs. laughed over to me at the film’s end. She altered the film’s perhaps signature line: “We’ll always have Paris.” That’s when I realized she had been saving that jibe for the end.

We’ve never been to Paris together.

I replied matter of factly: “You want a weekend in Paris? We’ll go.”

When we write, we have to employ everything at our disposal. Whether one writes a comic book, or a novel, a writer must be fearless. As a consequence, we may well be uncomfortable at times with what we create…

[Excerpt from Distances. On Kindle for iPhone/iPad.]

…I admit I am, because we cannot write of a world without flaws and ambiguity, for those are part of what we are as people, and always have been, and always will be.

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. On Kindle for iPhone/iPad.]

English “Carolina” is not based on any “one” woman. Interestingly, however, I do see in places where “Carolina” has personality traits and a speech pattern… that I realize I must have borrowed subconsciously from my wife.

“We’ll always have Paris.”

We’ll always have stories.

Have a good Wednesday, wherever you are. 🙂