Tuesday, March 04, 2008

 

Secret Skin

Michael Chabon has written a fascinating essay about superhero costumes, escapism, and transformation for The New Yorker.


The one time I felt my soul to be in danger was the Sunday Mr. Spector raised the ethical problem of escapism, particularly as it was experienced in the form of comic books. That day, we started off with a fine story about a boy who loved Superman so much that he tied a red towel around his neck, climbed up to the roof of his house, and, with a cry of “Up, up, and away,” leaped to his death. There was known to have been such a boy, Mr. Spector informed us—at least one verifiable boy, so enraptured and so betrayed by the false dream of Superman that it killed him.

The explicit lesson of the story was that what was found between the covers of a comic book was fantasy, and “fantasy” meant pretty lies, the consumption of which failed to prepare you for what lay outside those covers. Fantasy rendered you unfit to face “reality” and its hard pavement. Fantasy betrayed you, and thus, by implication, your wishes, your dreams and longings, everything you carried around inside your head that only you and Superman and Elliot S! Maggin (exclamation point and all, the principal Superman writer circa 1971) could understand—all these would betray you, too. There were ancillary arguments to be made as well, about the culpability of those who produced such fare, sold it to minors, or permitted their children to bring it into the house.

These arguments were mostly lost on me, a boy who consumed a dozen comic books a week, all of them cheerfully provided to him by his (apparently iniquitous) father. Sure, I might not be prepared for reality—point granted—but, on the other hand, if I ever found myself in the Bottle City of Kandor, under the bell jar in the Fortress of Solitude, I would know not to confuse Superman’s Kryptonian double (Van-Zee) with Clark Kent’s (Vol-Don). Rather, what struck me, with the force of a blow, was recognition, a profound moral recognition of the implicit, indeed the secret, premise of the behavior of the boy on the roof. For that fool of a boy had not been doomed by the deceitful power of comic books, which after all were only bundles of paper, staples, and ink, and couldn’t hurt anybody. That boy had been killed by the irresistible syllogism of Superman’s cape.
And later, on the impossibility of superhero costumes...
In fact, the most reliable proof of the preposterousness of superhero attire whenever it is translated, as if by a Kugelmass device, from the pages of comics to the so-called real world can be found in film and television adaptations of superhero characters. George Reeves’s stodgy pajamas-like affair in the old “Superman” TV series and Adam West’s mod doll clothes in “Batman” have lately given way to purportedly more “realistic” versions, in rubber, leather, and plastic, pseudo-utilitarian coveralls that draw inspiration in equal measure from spacesuits, catsuits, and scuba suits, and from (one presumes) regard for the dignity of actors who have seen the old George Reeves and Adam West shows, and would not be caught dead in those glorified Underoos. In its attempts to slip the confines of the panelled page, the superhero costume betrays its nonexistence, like one of those deep-sea creatures which evolved to thrive in the crushing darkness of the seabed, so that when you haul them up to the dazzling surface they burst.
Speaking as a member of the Geek Nation, I'm once again deeply glad that Chabon is One Of Us.

Comments:
Chabon is a treasure and I really need to get around to reading his novels!
 
The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is highly recommended!
 
I just finished The Yiddish Policeman's Union and it's also recommended.

James
 
Yeah, I like The Yiddish Policemen's Union quite a bit (how many Jewish alternate history novels are there? Only a couple). And now the Coen Bros. are supposed to be adapting it.

"This corpse really tied the room together."
 
Yiddish Policemen's Union is high on my To Read list.
 
My sweetie said that it was confusing for her (too much unexplained slang terms in Yiddish, perhaps) but I did really like it.
 
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