DENNIS O’NEIL: Who Needs To Be A Superhero?
Or maybe, clothes don’t make the (super) man.
Last month, the New York Times ran a story – front page, no less – about ordinary citizens putting on costumes, giving themselves superheroish names, hitting the streets and combating real-life crime. Apparently, they mostly content themselves with non-violent intervention, or calling the cops, though one guy in Seattle was arrested after pepper-spraying a street fight.
They even have an organization called The Black Monday Society.
It’s been creeping into the zeitgeist for a while, this business of plain Janes and Joes putting on odd clothing and assuming alter egos. There’s been at least one movie that uses the idea as a springboard – it’s called “Super” and it’s popped up on cable channels hereabouts – and it was the core of a weekly television show titled “Who Wants To Be A Superhero?” hosted by my one-time boss, Stan Lee. (Stan: If you’re out there and asking that question, I’m not raising my hand.)
I imagine that for most members of the Black Monday Society, the masked-and-caped patrols are a hobby, a slight mutation of the dressing up at comics and science fiction conventions that can make a good time of just sitting in a hotel lobby and watching the fantasies parade on past. And hey, maybe the Black Mondays are actually of some service to heir fellow citizens. What’s not to like about blowing the whistle on some creep breaking a vacationing neighbor’s basement window, or directing a befuddled partygoer to the nearest bus stop? But here’s the catch: these well-meaning people are not superheroes, and neither are you, or I, or Stan, or Ryan Reynolds, or anybody else who ever trod the planet. We are not faster than a speeding bullet, we can’t outpower a locomotive nor leap over tall buildings, and if we were ever bitten by a radioactive spider we’d need medical attention. As a species, we homo sapiens need medical attention pretty often, and we especially need it when we meddle with strangers who are bigger, stronger, meaner, or have better weapons or ornery friends or, as almost happened when congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot, a good Samaritan packing a gun mistakes the heroes for the villains.
The psychosexual aspects of role playing in dangerous contexts were touched on in Watchman, still the high water mark in comic book superheroics, and the perils of being a self-appointed vigilante were the subject of last week’s episode of Harry’s Law, which dealt with a young woman’s putting on a Wonder Woman suit and bashing abusive spouses.. I’d been watching the show for about 20 minutes before I remembered that its co-writer, and the show’s creator, the prolific and generally excellent David Kelley, was also honcho on a Wonder Woman series that NBC decided not to air. The episode was unusually glum for a Kelley production, with the faux WW ending up in therapy, but it did give the producers an excuse to put a gorgeous Erica Durance in that costume.
Several decades ago, the mythologist and sage, Joseph Campbell, warned of the dangers of conflating myth with fact. A news story and a fable tell different kinds of truth and it might be unhealthy to confuse the two. So maybe we’d all better save our superheroing for the next convention costume parade and find other ways to help our neighbors.
FRIDAY: Martha Thomases