Read David Haynes’ short story, “The Lives of Ordinary Superheroes” from the anthology, Who Can Save Us Now?
KERA radio story:
DARK KNIGHT TRAILER – music crescendo. Heath Ledger as the Joker: “Where do we begin?”
WEEKS: We begin, of course, with The Dark Knight. You may have heard that the latest Batman movie has broken box office records. Worldwide, it has earned nearly half a billion dollars in just two weeks. But the buzz is about more than money. It’s also about how good the film is, marked by the late Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker, and it’s about how dark the film is.
Owen King is co-editor of a new anthology called Who Can Save Us Now? It features 22 short stories by authors who came up with new takes on the superhero, giving him post-traumatic stress syndrome, love interests or the little victories of daily life in a black neighborhood. King attributes the success of The Dark Knight partly to its disturbing nature.
KING: “Batman is dark, the times seem dark to people. It’s gotta be there. I don’t think it’s purely the adrenaline rush.”
WEEKS: The first X-Men film hit cinemas eight years ago. Since then, a half-dozen comic book movies, including Spider-Man and The Incredibles, have been acclaimed as more than just adrenaline rushes. Comic books have become sophisticated and ambitious; comic book movies have finally caught up.
But the question is, why now? Why are we so engaged by Batman, a character from the Depression? As high-tech as Iron Man seems, he was created 45 years ago. In disposable pop-culture terms, that’s the Stone Age.
IRON MAN TRAILER. Computer: “Sir, the upgrade is complete.” Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark: “Tell you what. Throw a little hot-rod red in there.”
WEEKS: Superheroes have always enticed us with the near-future. Shaun Treat, who teaches a class on superheroes at the University of North Texas, calls this effect “anticipatory wish-fulfillment.” The superheroes’ technology is so advanced, so cool, it doesn’t exist yet. So it’s not surprising that we, in effect, catch up with them. Hollywood certainly has in one way — through computer-generated imagery, which has finally permitted films to put superpowers onscreen in believable fashion.
And then there’s fiction, another way to catch up. Novels like Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible — or the anthology Who Can Save Us Now? — have explored (or struggled with) various levels of irony or earnestness when considering men and women in tights and capes.
Dallas writer David Haynes directs Southern Methodist University’s creative writing program. He contributed to Who Can Save Us Now? Haynes says, superheroes have changed as we have – from the pop-art whimsy of the old Batman TV show to the brooding anti-heroes that comic pioneers Stan Lee and Jack Kirby invented. We rediscover or re-work aspects of the superheroes’ characters as the cultural climate changes.
HAYNES: “Each generation steps up. We have to go back and revisit those same heroes to see what we can do with them. I was thinking about The Dark Knight the other day and I was thinking how entirely different the ‘60s television series is to this film.”
WEEKS: We revisit such characters as Batman or the X-Men not because of their soon-dated special effects or their fast-fading costumes. What brings speople back to such figures are longstanding aspects of the superhero — like the secret identity, the appealing idea that each of us is not simply a public face. We have something hidden and isolated from others. In particular, that’s one thing that makes Spider-Man or Batman compelling. They’re not just empowered by the whole becoming-someone-else routine. They’re justly troubled by it, even frightened of what they become.
After all, putting on masks and beating up people isn’t that normal, says King.
KING: “When you think about it, that doesn’t suggest an especially well-balanced mind, right?”
WEEKS: Indeed, what marks this summer’s crop of superheroes has been their engagement with big, troubling topics — issues like environmentalism in Hellboy II, arms manufacturing and the Afghan war in Iron Man or terrorism and surveillance in Dark Knight.
Violence outside the law is another one of those longstanding traditions of the superhero, says Shaun Treat. The comic book and the superhero are both uniquely American creations, so it’s not surprising that the superhero embodies some of America’s political tensions over the uses of violence.
TREAT “Everyday in the news we’re confronting things about Guantanamo Bay, the loss of due process, torture, and people being scared. And I think the superheroes are here to remind us that it isn’t about just having superpowers and a cool outfit. It’s about having a system of values that you adhere to – that’s what makes a good guy a good guy.”
WEEKS: For the anthology Who Can Save Us Now?, Dallas novelist Will Clarke (left) contributed a comic story about illegitimate superbabies flying around Shreveport. Some of today’s heroes are cynical or conflicted; they’re even unpleasant drunks like Will Smith’s Hancock. It’s perhaps the inevitable result of the revolution that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby started with Marvel in the ’60s when they made the Fantastic Four a quarreling family.
But, Clarke says, all superheroes share another tradition, if they truly are to be considered superheroes. It’s their mission of self-sacrifice.
CLARKE: “I think there’s a certain amount of hope that comes with a superhero. There’s this person that can find this inner strength and ascend. And at times when you need hope, it’s inspiring.”
TRAILER MUSIC: Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.”