( note this is an as of yet unpolished post and right now I just want to get these thoughts out for people to see and digest)
Basically all I’ve been seeing online these past few days, other than roughly two million pictures of Carrie Fisher, is the endless wave of posts bemoaning 2016 and/ or how people can’t wait for it to end. While I can understand this sentiment, I want to remind everyone (almost maliciously but it is for your own good) that Death is not going to take a break at the stroke of midnight on January 1st. The idea that 2017 is instantly going to be a better year just because it is no longer 2016 naively gives a sense of sentience to what is just an arbitrary set of 365 days that refreshes eleven days after the winter solstice.
I understand the desire for this, trust me I do! When we view 2016 by the broad strokes of celebrity deaths, minority abuses by the power structure, a Trump Presidential Win, 2016 looks like a very bad dude. That isn’t even going into some of the more heinous yet strangely more ignored crap that is going on, such as the DAPL pipeline fight, the destruction of Aleppo, and the insidious rise of white supremacist movements all over the Western World (and the even more insidious idea that they’re just normal people who we should respect and try to get along with. I’m sorry, but no.) It is also worth noting that 2016 had more superhero movies than any year so far, eight in fact, and that is just counting the output by Marvel and Warner Bros. Also, even more related media if you count Star Wars (still basically super heroics in space), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, DC’s television properties, and Marvel’s Netflix offerings.
I strongly believe the online discourse surrounding 2016 and the veritable glut of superhero media to be related. Not in the idea that the studio execs are diviners that looked into a crystal ball several years ago and said, “Wow this one is going to be a doozey, better get some 4-color inspiration on the screens for everyone!” The connection these two things have is personal responsibility and mortality.
As social media either reveals or convinces us that the world is heading towards perpetual garbage fire status, escapism becomes seemingly more prevalent. Reliance on media escapism is not a new thing—there was point in time where people in the 1800’s decried the indigent youth and women of the time of reading too many novels. A time where reading the newspaper was destroying family time and community discussion! That sounds familiar doesn’t it? So really, it isn’t the amount or prevalence of media or devices that is worth commenting on. What is, is that we seem to be using these devices to ingest a lot of super hero media, and that I believe is a reflection of our current times.
Don’t color me wrong here, I love super heroes. I am an avid comic book collector, to the point where my mother still feels the need to make little jabs about it here and there. I’m glad these characters are really cementing themselves in our modern consciousness and that comic books in general are selling better. I do however think the rise of the super hero is telling us something about us as a society, as is our constant focus on celebrities kicking the bucket.
That something being- we’re all afraid of dying. Much of our year has been focused on people dying. For some people those dying have been contemporaries, for others of us those people were childhood inspirations, and for others those people were legends. It is as if every day we’re being forced to yet again confront our own mortality through the deaths of seemingly immortal rock stars or the face of heroes who never change when we watch Empire Strikes Back for the 400th time. Facing your mortality is scary stuff, especially when we have entire industries we interact with every day that basically tries their best to force us to deny or ignore that mortality.
Enter superheroes. Superheroes are immortal in the best way possible. In their universes Death really never has the last laugh. Death is a minor reprieve for most of the cape crowd, and the revolving door of the afterlife is ever turning. Wait a few short months and your favorite character is sure to return, usually in a spectacular miniseries. Many are immortal within the context of their universes as well- godhood, youth extending serums, and healing factors all do their part to explain why our heroes can punch Hitler in the face 80 years ago and still be around to entertain us in 2016. Their existence on the page itself also occurs in kind of stasis. Heroes get costume changes, gender changes, new secret identities, new powers all the time in an attempt to keep things interesting, yet always end up returning to their ageless iconic appearance. These are characters that have been around longer than some of our grandparents, and they’ll likely outlive most of us as well. Even super hero universes conveniently avoid the repercussions of their saviors’ actions. New York, Metropolis, Star City—these places get rebuilt off panel, exactly the same at the beginning of every storyline.
No wonder in a year that when our princes, princesses, Goblin Kings and Potion Masters die, we look to our aliens, super soldiers, and mythological heroes to fill the void. Our superheroes give us more than just a way to aspire to immortality, and avoid thinking about mortality. They unfortunately, through that very escapism we’re seeking, provide us with a way to avoid responsibility. Super heroes, through their daring do and gadgets and powers, show us a world where one person can make a huge difference. That one person need never be us. How can it be us? We don’t have the powers. What can we do?
Well for a start, we can stop giving a 365 day period of time around the sun the psychic weight that we have, as an excuse to not confront those things that make us feel uncomfortable and helpless. Blaming 2016 for everything horrible, as if the stars contained within this calendar year have been arranged to put us in the equivalent of a year-long Mercury Retrograde, is not helpful. It is fun, perhaps. However, demonizing the year is really only a way to lump everything together and avoid taking a good, serious look at the individual events and trends that have made this year seem so shitty, and forcing ourselves to do something about them. We’re creating a new boogey man in place of some of the very real ones that already exist, ones that aren’t going away when the Avengers, Justice League, or even our darkest fantasies like the Punisher burst through the skylight in a hail of glory, bullets, and zero repercussion violence. It’s also worth pointing out that in their respective universes, Lex Luthor was elected POTUS at least once, and Norman Osborn was given control of all the resources of the U.S. Government, S.H.I.E.L.D, and a boat-load of super heroes that complied with that ever controversial “Super Hero Registration Act”. In fact, there was even an ongoing story line where Norman Osborn created his own “cabinet” of Avengers, if you’ll allow me the comparison. In Dark Reign he drove the good guys underground and created his own Avengers full of super villains masquerading as Wolverine, Spider-Man, Hawkeye and Captain Marvel. In real life we have Donald Trump appointing oil execs to the Environmental Protection Agency (Marvel’s evil megacorporation Roxxon is a direct reference to Exxon by the way), a general who believes in conspiracy theories to head up his intelligence affairs, and a woman who literally seems to hate public education to the department of the same name. Oh, and in the recently reborn and revamped Valiant Comics universe, Vladimir Putin is an in-canon supervillain. If this isn’t life imitating art and art reflecting our current cultural fears, I really don’t know what is.
So there you have it folks. We basically have real-life super villains with their fingers on the buttons of power, not just in America, but all around the world. Much like Luthor, Osborn, and Maxwell Lord most of ours seem to be evil capitalists, but that discussion is for another post someday. To start bringing things to a close, my question is- where are the superheroes? Where are the shining exemplars to balance out those who are hell-bent on ruining the world to line their pockets? So far the only super-soldiers I’ve seen are the veterans currently freezing with the protest camps in North Dakota.
I say we do this. Rather than focus on the loss of the heroic artists, can we focus on the things they left behind? These are people who created, inspired, and not at least a few fought for rights we supposedly enjoy today. The supervillains in power seem poised to take those rights away. Are we going to tarnish the memory of our beloved real life heroes by rolling over and being trampled, or are we going to actually emulate our beloved fictions, and like Steve Rogers, punch a fascist in the face?
Stop whining about 2016. Its only here for three more days, and it never had any actual power except that which you gave it. Unlike Dr. Doom, Thanos, or Apocalypse, when it dies, it won’t come back. If we want 2017 to be any better we’re going to have to make it so ourselves.
Get out there and be your own super hero. Or somebody else’s, I don’t care. Sure, all of the big problems of the year past and the one coming can’t be solved by your lonesome. You’re not Superman. None of us are, except in the indomitableness of his spirit and will to do good for others. There are however a thousand little problems, a thousand two-penny villains out there every day that you can deal with. If you can wake up January 1st and believe in that idea and act on it, you’re already making the world a better place. May your contributions to our society make you immortal, and make you feel a little better about your own mortality.
Face front true believers!