To what do we owe our fascination with superheroes? Is it the action? It helps, but there’s plenty of violence and explosions in media to satisfy our appetite for excitement. Is it the quips and witty repartee? There’s no shortage of comedians in print, on television, or on the silver screen either. Is it the tight fitting/barely existent costumes of the buxom females that litter comic pages? Have you BEEN on the internet lately? Maybe its the fact that all these things and more are collected in one entertaining and addictive package.This confluence of enticements certainly plays a part in bringing us to the table, but there’s a reason beyond these that has perpetuated the superhero genre for almost a century and has propelled it to its current domination of the small and big screen alike; a reason that the maturation of the art form has inevitably led to the realm of politics; a reason why, at a time when disenchantment with the electoral process seems to be at all time high, the market for superhero antics is also soaring. This reason, I contend, is that, at its heart, the superhero genre is a celebration of the individual sovereignty that is itself the core of both major political parties.
For all the serious differences of opinion and policy between the Republican and Democrat parties, they both purport to be the true keepers of the faith, the ideological heirs of our country’s promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They both insist that their policies would best protect the individual, hanging their agendas on the natural inclination of people to cater to and operate from their own unique perspectives. Each party seems to miss the irony that, by their very nature, parties marginalize individuality and skew toward uniformity, sidelining the pet causes and interests of the rank and file to focus on the what they have in common. That’s all well and good, until we remember that elections are supposed to highlight our differences. If we were all on the same page singing Kumbaya there would be no point to elections, or elected officials for that matter. Elections are predicated on the unavoidable reality of our distinctions from one another. The tendency to clump our decisions together on the auspices of getting the most of what we want and the least of what we don’t–that supposedly pragmatic approach that takes for granted that laws will be written, government will grow, and our only choice is which direction it will take–undermines the spirit that inspired those ambitious promises in the first place.
The spirit that induced the American colonists to strive for a better option than simply managing their disappointment with government is the very same spirit that courses through Batman every time he fires up the Batmobile, or through Wolverine every time he unsheathes his claws. It’s the recognition in one’s core that a man’s actions are his alone to make; not a belief, but a simple acknowledgment of the truth that laws and regulations, even the most sacrosanct and well-intended, are but guidelines and that the ostensible penalties for violating them are but forecasts of the consequences that flow from those actions.
Vigilante justice, the very bread and butter of the superhero genre, is the recognition that government, as much as it would like to convince us that it’s calling the plays, is just one big glorified Monday morning quarterback. Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Bryan realized this as surely as Bruce Wayne and James Howlett, but their great power lay in words instead of martial arts or retractable claws. They recognized that the true antithesis of vigorous government is not, as is commonly posited, anarchy, but personal responsibility and self regulation. Anarchy is the unfortunate chaos that results from the failure of each end of the spectrum.
Traditionally, we think of government as an institution: monarchy, oligarchy, dictatorship, democracy, republic, etc. In reality, government is a human characteristic, akin to restraint and discipline, that mankind historically has entrusted to these institutions, or else failed to defend when it was wrested from them by force. Whether you believe, as I do, that there is one true Authority that grants each of us authority over ourselves and our actions, or you believe life is an astronomically convenient coincidence, it follows neither belief that any one individual or collection of them has the intrinsic right to determine the course of others’ lives. Call it a right or simply a fact of life, but each of us determines every action that we take, whether through exercise of a God given free will or through the random firing of neurons. No outside force can make us do anything. Coerce us, sure; influence us, obviously; demoralize and convince us our options are limited and our hands tied, certainly; but we each ultimately make the call every instant of every day. When we each fail to govern ourselves, to act responsibly and civilly, anarchy and chaos reign.
Contrary to popular belief, civilization is not synonymous with the institution of government. Civilization Is merely widespread, systemic cooperation. Civilization is culture-art, music, religion, etc-all of which predate even the most rudimentary government institutions by thousands of years. Put simply, we don’t get along because some top down organization tells us to. We get along because life’s better when we do, because it’s in our best interests to do so. We get along for the same reason the Justice League rises to the occasion or the Avengers assemble: because each of us bring something unique to the table. Just as a neolithic shepherd traded the wool of his flock for an urn wrought by his neighbor who’s handy with a kiln, sometimes a situation simply calls for the ability to vibrate through walls, and, for all his many skills, Superman can’t do that without the Flash on his roster.
This apparent interdependence has given rise to the notion that we cannot succeed by ourselves, that in order to flourish we must surrender a portion of our sovereignty to others who may coordinate our efforts more efficiently than each of us may alone, We are told that our failure to regulate ourselves, or the presence among us of any number of miscreants, from your garden variety horse thief to a Lex Luthor or a Brainiac, necessitates an independent, external authority. To account for frailties in the human spirit, we are told by Democrats and Republicans alike, that institutions of government are inevitable, unavoidable, and necessary to the continuation of civilization. The former party premises it’s faith in government on the cooperative argument, while the latter premises it on the preservation of order. One mindset imagines what we could only achieve if we worked together and the other imagines what atrocities await if we don’t.
If any superhero in any comic, under any publishing house or obscure imprint, had that little faith in humanity, they wouldn’t have the will to hike up their impractically ornate boots in the morning. If they really believed government bureaucracy was the best defense of the public and the surest firewall to chaos they would have opted for cadet grey or sergeant blue instead of the more vibrant yellow or purple hues. Anyone who would reach for a mask over a name tag, or a cape over a badge, has no doubts about what he can accomplish on his own and isn’t going to wait on any external authority to validate his actions. More to the point, even absent a Keene Act or a SHRA, the acts that superheroes engage in daily are already against the law: Batman disappears after contaminating a crime scene without sharing the info with Gordon–Interfering with a police investigation; Cop yells “Stop!” and Spidey fails to oblige–Resisting Arrest. In the eyes of the law, any one of the battles that comprise your average Tuesday for some costumed folk should result in assault charges. The world’s greatest detective is a serial B&E artist when you really think about it. Frankly, I’m surprised there isn’t an iconoclastic pseudo punk anti hero called Reckless Endangerment by now. If there isn’t, consider this the poor man’s copyright for that character.
Habitually disregarding the law in the pursuit of justice may not necessarily speak to a given political school of thought, but I think it’s fair to say it speaks to a severe lack of confidence in government–from the politician to the beat cop–to get the job done. While this generic anti-authority argument works for those characters whose politics aren’t front and center, what about someone whose leanings are not open to interpretation? It’s another thing altogether to prove that an out and out, dyed in the wool, leftist like the Green Arrow is a closet libertarian. As to the larger argument that our modern disillusionment with politics as usual constitutes an affinity to minimal government, it’s a safe bet that there are plenty of Bernie supporters reading comics. Surely there is one among them without a subconscious predilection toward a government which governs least. These apparent contradictions to my theory only prove, however, how flawed the current political paradigm is.
Politically speaking, left and right traditionally represent departure from and adherence to, respectively, normal functions and apparatuses of government. Conventional wisdom holds that to the far left exists Communism and to the far right exists Fascism. This takes for granted that all political philosophy tends toward authoritarianism, and reinforces the false notion that advancement of our individual interests and policy preferences–environmental protection, social justice, religious freedom, gun rights, etc– hinges on affirmative government intervention. In this model, our only options are which brand of overbearing government to endorse, and it makes no allowance for the obvious reality that most of us just want to be left alone to do our own thing. I posit that a more accurate paradigm, reflective of this universal yearning for freedom and respecting the Classic Liberal legacy of our nation’s founding, would have all forms of authoritarianism occupying one end of the spectrum with the other end representing the ideal of every person taking ultimate responsibility for his or her actions, with the various permutations of freedom occupying the space between. On this spectrum, the various pet causes that today serve to divide us, when viewed as functions of deference to either individual responsibility or arbitrary authority, should, for the independent minded, all firmly point against intervention by government institutions.
On this spectrum, Green Arrow is firmly toward the libertarian/Classic Liberal end. In the acclaimed Neil Adams/Dennis O’Neal run that cemented the political tenor of the character, for all his advocacy for the environment and the underprivileged, the Emerald Archer didn’t advocate for government authority in these matters. He didn’t argue for more regulations or for more oversight. If anything, he proved that the reason he identified with these causes was precisely because the powers that be paid them little mind. He was for the underdog, and his advocacy didn’t extend beyond his own actions and a vigorous intellectual case to his fellow man.
Doubtless, though, someone reading this will fall into the Bernie supporter/avid comic book fan category and might say that some institutions are bigger than any individual; that these institutions would run amok without a publicly sanctioned institution of greater strength to keep them in check. To these holdouts I would say the same thing that I would say to “conservatives” concerned about the degradation of traditional values propagated by Hollywood, or lives lost to or ruined by drug abuse: that private institutions, however ubiquitous, are merely individuals working in tandem; that nothing is stopping anyone from doing the same to act as that check against abuse; that relying on government authority to solve these problems is not only the ultimate cop out, it is a recipe for further aggravation of the problems we hope to solve; that it’s a way of washing our hands of the responsibility each of us bears as an individual to preserve order and civility; that it is a belief in the fiction that human fallibility can appropriately be offset by a set of one-size-fits-all policies rather than case by case mastery of self. To the hold outs, who believe government can, in any way, shape, form, or fashion, positively lead social change, I ask that if you truly believed that laws, not individual responsibility, staved off chaos, why do you delight in seeing them ignored in the pursuit of justice? Why are you thrilled to see the powerless rescued by their fellow man and woman rather than a well placed cease and desist order or rigorous oversight committee?
The obvious answer is that it’s escapism. It’s fantasy, not an endorsement of real world actions or policy. One then must inevitably ask oneself: why do I fantasize about a universe where the most powerful forces known to exist are not communities or countries, but individuals?