15 Jan 2008

We Could Be Heroes - Or Maybe Not

There's a question which has perplexed humanity since the dawn of time. Well, mainly that part of humanity which dedicates it's collective life to the exquisite art of the comic book. It is : if you could have any superpower, what would it be? It's designed to reflect the personality of the respondent, like asking which animal someone would like to be, or who their favourite serial killer is. It's also a question, which, as we shall see, carries some unforeseen outcomes. This blog will examine the ups and the many downs of being super, and why we're all far better off with our natural gifts. The whole idea of "superheroes" is an old fancy, not just one dated to the age of comics. Legendary characters are dotted throughout history. The idea that some people are special - or super, if you will - is as old as normality itself. These are the people who help to guide history, and leave their traces in myths and stories. This often requires a lot of sacrifice and grief; a cosmic balancing act requires that the most gifted be struck down. Being super has its price. There are three ways of becoming a superbeing - you are born super, you get made super, or make yourself super. Wonder Woman and Superman fall into the first category; they were never human in the first place, and their gifts are natural to them. The Hulk is in the second group; having gained his powers through one of those all-too-common "botched experiments"; also Spiderman, who gets bit by a radioactive spider (don't try that at home). The last group are not truly superbeings, in terms of special powers; but they can make up for it with their natural talents (and lots of cash) - Batman and Iron Man being the best examples. It is the second group that we're really considering here - the ones who have to reconcile their gifts with the mundane world. So, what superpower would it be? The responses that your humble writer usually receives to this question, when he does actually receive one (it's more usually a weird look instead), are fascinating. The most common choices are usually mind reading/telepathy, invisibility, and super strength. What intrigues me the most is how that creaky old adage "be careful what you wish for, you just might get it" applies here. Things that seem like an awesome gift turn out to be a terrible curse. And we get to the rub, and the point of my piece - that upon reflection, superbeings - whether good or evil - don't have much to be thankful for. Comic books have always had to deal with this reality, one way or another. The "four-colour" kind goes for your pure fantasy, heedless of our mundane world. People fought crime in outrageous costumes, and they could do it with a straight face. At the other end of the spectrum are the grittier, more "realistic" styles which address the unpleasant realities of being 'super'. As the last century wore on, the idealistic tone of the Golden Age Of Comics gave way to a more modern, and critical, view of the superbeing. People began to wonder, not "what power would you have", but rather "what would that power do?" The reality of people with awesome powers walking the earth would change everything - the world could only change for the worse. Consider the ability to read other people's thoughts. Within five minutes you would learn why humans cannot do this - if you actually knew what most people were thinking about you, it would be a very depressing experience. Once you realise how much people lie, you'd have to take a very dim view of human nature. The ability to pre-empt things by knowing what somebody's going to do could only cause trouble. "So, you KNEW what those bank robbers were going to do? More like you ARE one of them", and so on. When people learn you can hear their thoughts, they become extremely paranoid - you are, in essence, invading their mind. Not surprisingly, that doesn't make for trusting, well-founded relationships. So all in all, you become the centre of a lot of paranoid suspicion, and your gift is only good for knowing the horrible things people are going to do you before it happens… A power closely linked to telepathy is mind control (in all it's forms). This is always a big hit with the villains - which tells you all need to know about the morality of this ability. Like the mind-reading thing, it can bring out the very worst in a personality. The discovery of pheromones opened up a whole world of possible behavioural control. This is the ultimate power trip, and it would corrupt to an incredible extent. Which probably explains it appeals to a lot of people. Invisibility is always a popular choice. When nobody can see you, nobody can stop you, right? You can take what you want when you want - and this is one of the many problems attendant on the power of invisibility. It's a good way to become a monster pretty quick. In all cases, it isn't long before invisible characters become the scariest stalkers in the world. If that's fine by you, then consider this : invisibility may have been a big deal when Faust asked for it five hundred years ago, but we live in the age of infra-red snooping, heat vision, and motion detectors. The term 'invisibility' is now somewhat obsolete, when you can be seen in ten different ways. Not to mention the animal kingdom, which can still find you easily enough. Also, that which can't be seen can't be avoided. Don't go loitering in traffic while invisible, or you'll create the world's strangest speedbump. How about super-strength then? No more would those stubborn jar lids resist you. You could flip a car as easily as a coin. You would amass a collection of doors, all torn from their hinges. If this strength was constant and unlimited, you would be in a whole heap of muscular mayhem. God help anyone who engages in physical contact. The perils of too much force are clearly obvious; a one-person hurricane would be way too dangerous to have around. Recently, everyone's big green friend the Hulk discovered that the two biggest jerks in the Marvel Universe, Mr Fantastic and Iron Man, had some plans for him. The U.S. government - after years of exploiting Hulk - decided that his occasional brutal rampaging had got a bit much. So they shipped him somewhere safe - like OUTER SPACE. Being able to level cities with a punch doesn't make you any friends. There's only one power I would kind of like is super-sight. This is an old fav, going back to the urban mythology of the "x-ray specs". But super sight goes far beyond the puerile thrills of voyeurism. It would encompass heat vision, ultra vision, the ability to see the other side of anything. Having the full visual spectrum would allow you to see everything, everwhere. But - of course - this is where the kicker comes in. Soon you'd start seeing a lot of things that shouldn't be seen. Being able to perceive time itself would have you constantly viewing the past, present and future simultaneously, like watching a million televisions at once. Basically, the information overload would drive you insane. A trippy little Corman classic from 1963 called "X" took the concept of super sight to its most horrible extreme. After dropping some liquid acid on his eyes, a guy gets the ability to see through things. But soon he starts seeing through the universe itself, and the thing he sees on the other side blows his mind. So he rips his eyes out. What else you got? In the many years of comic book history, a mind-boggling array of superpowers were invented. Flight is a goodie; it's so primal it would be totally worth hurling across the earth just to get sucked into the engine of a 747. Regeneration, you say? Decapitation, I say. Let's see you regrow a head. Elemental control (like pyrokinesis) is a bit better, but always seems to end up with things exploding and people screaming and you probably turning into Swamp Thing. Super-speed? Most comic characters with this ability wound up disintegrating - if you don't become a smudge on a wall first. If one power alone would be bad enough, consider the consequences of having several. This is when you're getting to god-like levels. Like the first class of superbeings I mentioned before, folks like Wondy and Soop, you're beyond humanity at that point. How could you honestly consider concepts of ethics and morality, when they can barely apply to you? Why not just bulldoze everything and make people worship you like a god? So the power that makes you special is going to be problem. At least half the people around, at any given time, will see you as a freak regardless of what you do. They believe the freak is to be feared, and destroyed. Even without the various blowbacks you'll get from your superpower, consider all the other miseries that go with the lifestyle. For a start, there's the costumes. You're probably going to need one if you go public with the whole thing. A secret identity is kinda important in this line of work. How does spandex work for you dahling? Although you may be the most powerful being in the world, you'll invariably look like a clown. Consider Superman - I'm guessing no-one ever told him he had his underwear on the outside because it was too damn funny. They'd be all like "OMFG, that dude wears red y-fronts on top of his tights - LMFAO". These costumes, of course, have to be tight, tight, tight. You better like leather, or nylon, or - yes - the notorious fabric spandex. And if you're female, then it's not so much about what you're wearing as what you're not wearing. That particular style of "bikini chic" doesn't leave a lot of room for creative interpretation - or taste, or functionality. Also, in our image-intensive world, a superbeing - as a celebrity - would have to suffer those celebrity rites of roasting. What with branding, product endorsement, merchandising deals - you need to have the right look. Something that says, "Hey, I have powers beyond your comprehension and a wardrobe to match". Superbeings today would probably be covered with more logos than a racing car. So you may be the most powerful thing in the world, but you STILL look like a clown, and a total tool to boot. The world would probably go all Watchmen on you, and decide that you should really be locked up. Then consider your social life. Most comic book fans don't factor this into the equation, for obvious reasons. Think about what being super would do to your friends and family. We've already considered how some powers would make you a pariah. Comic books show a grim record with regard to the loved ones of heroes - there are bad ends aplenty. Those people who could not get at you would go for those close to you instead. Indeed, anyone getting close would be taking quite a risk - considering they would have to handle a secret identity, mysterious and sudden disappearances, and being kidnapped every five minutes by a parade of freaks. Overall, the mob hates difference; I think people would sooner suspect the motives of "costumed vigilantes" than endorse them (a la Watchmen). And this is assuming those close to you stay loyal anyway, when they could just as well brand you a freak. Now call me an old misanthrope, but I suspect the majority of people, when they considered they had superpowers, would indulge themselves before anything else. Being more powerful than everyone could only bring out the worst in your nature. The primal, Dionysian desire to satisfy yourself would most likely win out over the Apollonian desire for order. That's why arms dealers and slave traders make loads of money while nurses and fire-fighters get paid peanuts. Here's your chance to rule the world, it'll only cost you your soul. The hero/villain dichotomy is a huge part of comic lore - but would it really happen? The history of human nature tells us otherwise. Did you know there was one particularly weird individual who was almost a kind of superbeing, known to history as Springheeled Jack? He was a guy, with seemingly superpowers and a costume, who terrorised early Victorian London for about forty years. Looking like some kind of gothic proto-Batman, he rapidly became a figure of legend and the stories about him grew. In many ways, his story mirrors that of modern comic book characters. They never caught the guy; it most likely was just some sadistic aristo having a laugh, and later inspiring copycats. It may have been just a mass panic, with no actual basis in fact. But the case provides a strange, historical example of comic book fantasy becoming real. So in conclusion, superheroes are usually selfish and immoral mutants in bizarre outfits, with no friends or future. Most likely, they are hunted like animals by various people who hate and fear them. Do you still wish you had those powers now? I bet that nine-to-five jive is starting to look pretty good. You can do more miraculous things in a day now, than you ever could as some fantasy superbeing. That business is best left in the comics. Heroism is an ordinary thing, almost a daily occurrence. You don't need telekinesis and spandex to make the world a better place. Although they do make it fun.

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