Ultra-Man to the Rescue The world of cartoon superheroes has long been a remarkably multicultural, liberal and inclusive one, says Sam Leith even the super-rich get the chance to be heroic
Ultra-Man to the Rescue
The world of cartoon superheroes has long been a remarkably multicultural, liberal and inclusive one, says Sam Leith — even the super-rich get the chance to be heroic
MY EYE WAS caught recently by the news that — fanfare! — DC Comics has unveiled what’s been widely billed as the first Muslim superhero. A new member of the Green Lantern Corps (Green Lanterns are like galactic policemen in tights) has been unveiled in the form of Simon Baz, an Arab-American from Dearborn, Michigan.
‘In typical comic books there’s a big handsome white guy and that’s it. But that’s not the world we live in, and comics are reflecting that,’ one obliging comic-shop guy is quoted saying. Reference is duly made to the recent appearances of a half-black, half-Latino Spider-Man and a gay Green Lantern.
Generally, when a story about superhero comics breaks through into the mainstream media it does so in one of three or four forms. A famous superhero is announced to be a) dead, b) black, c) gay, or d) Muslim. We can all be encouraged by these developments, but what the casual reader is, perhaps, not to know is that all such stories should be taken with a Superman-sized pinch of salt.
The first reason is what’s known as the ‘Bucky Clause’, which states that nobody in comics ever stays dead except for Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben and Captain America’s sidekick Bucky. The clause is now out of date because Bucky came back to life and so did Uncle Ben, albeit in zombie form, which may or may not count. The second is that all these comics rely on an endless supply of alternative realities and parallel universes.
With Green Lantern there’s even more latitude. Not only is there an infinite number of parallel universes in which we might search for our Muslim Green Lantern, each one of those universes contains many thousands of Green Lanterns. There are Green Lanterns with nine toes and tentacles coming out of their heads. An Arab-American of Islamic faith doesn’t seem that much of a stretch.
Is this Green Lantern the first Muslim superhero? Hell, no. Fansites count at least 23 Spandex-wearing members of the Ummah. There are even a few Mormon superheroes, to say nothing of representatives of the Lutheran and Wiccan faiths, a handful of Seventh-Day Adventists, the odd Greek Orthodox worshipper, a ‘Legion of Taoist Superheroes’ and — awaiting promotion to the premier league of crimefighting — what one site describes as the ‘Society of Sikh Supporting Characters’.
ALL VERY JOLLY but what, you may ask, has that got to do with me. Well, here it is. The Marvel and DC universes have always tended to be quite tolerant of minorities. Nobody teases the Hulk for being green. (Nobody teases the Hulk at all, if they’ve any sense.) Yet the minority of which they are more tolerant than almost any other art form is the one that we speak of least. Comic books are one of the few media in which HNWs get a fair crack of the whip.
Think about it. In so-called serious literature HNWs are always the baddies. You get, what? Barabas, Augustus Melmotte, Alec D’Urberville, Patrick Bateman, Smaug the dragon. Even Jay Gatsby — the great HNW in the literature of the 20th century — is only two-thirds of the way to being sympathetic, and that in spite of rather than because of his wealth.
Turn now to comics and see the contrast. Comics love HNWs! Fantastic amounts of money, in these universes, are not corrupting, soul-sapping, socially inequitable and so on and so forth: they are what makes saving the world possible. Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, is a hereditary zillionaire with a butler and a state-of-the-art Batcave. Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, isn’t just a tycoon: he’s an arms-dealing tycoon. Try finding a Hollywood movie (OK, smarty-pants: apart from Iron Man) in which the hero is an arms dealer.
The Fantastic Four’s stretchy leader, Reed Richards, owns a 35-storey tower block in midtown Manhattan and any number of planes, centre-of-the-earth tunnelling machines and space rockets. He owes his fabulous wealth to the exploitation of a series of patents on devices which, being the cleverest man in the world, he thought up. Imagine James Dyson had been fused in a teleportation accident with Mister Tickle.
And what about the X-Men? Their leader, Charles Xavier (the bald chap in the wheelchair), houses them in a colossal mansion in Westchester, upstate New York. They make their way around the world in a private, civilian-use-adapted model of Lockheed’s SR71 Blackbird reconnaissance plane. It goes at mach 3. That makes your refitted 747 or 767 look like a Routemaster bus with a bust exhaust, doesn’t it? Do we think Professor X funded the building of the Danger Room through an appeal on Kickstarter? We do not.
If George Osborne really is serious about wanting to make the UK a congenial place for HNWs to park their wealth and use it for the good of humanity, he should really stop reading Hayek and start reading superhero comics.
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