Little thing, little thing, you’ve such a long way to go…
Of Gods, Men & OverMen, part4- The Cult of the Superhuman
I didn’t believe in superheroes when I was a kid.
Oh sure, I enjoyed their colorful suits and their flashy superpowers and I always dragged my ass out of my comfy bed every weekend so I could watch the Batman cartoon.
|Pictured: childhood prescription cocaine.|
But I always listened to my friends argue about superheroes about who would beat who in a fight and we’d pretend to play in the schoolyard and I could never really invest myself into it, you know? I always considered superheroes to be things of fantasy, man-shaped black holes that sucked in time and enthusiasm and left you feeling empty.
The shitty 10-year old cynic in me was making sure I was rooted to this mundane, simple Earth we live in.
|Little did that cynical tyrant know that his reign was coming to an end.|
The day of revolution came on the eve of my 12th birthday, when I stumbled upon the SINGLE MOST AWESOME AND IMPOSSIBLE THING EVER:
Like finding your lost car keys by that winning lottery ticket on the coffee table right next to every hot girl you ever met and wanted to bone, as they’re all about to tell you how much they want to have sex and that they don’t mind sharing, really.
The tyrant did not feel the immediate repercussions of this revelation. In fact, he held on with admirable tenacity upon his throne and resisted the surges and the quaking of the sleeping nerd that was stirring in the depths of my brain.
The final blow came after I read War of the Worlds, which pretty much served to set a wonderful transmogrification in motion: the gentle and gradual transformation of an ordinary boy into an aspiring pop culture enthusiast.
|Because there’s only so many ways you can call yourself a nerd before you start taking offense.|
I was not a zealot (and never will be) but I studied the Scriptures of the OverMen thoroughly, I looked into the literature that spawned them, followed the cultural currents that foretold of their coming as best as I could and now I stand here, calling myself an adherent to the Cult of the OverMan.
But to know the cult of the OverMan, you must first examine its origins and its function. The idea of the thing that is above human, of the anthropomorphized force of nature has existed throughout our mythologies and our stories, even our religions. It has been retold, recast, remade into a million iterations.
In the dawn of the 19th century, it was the pagan gods of old. By the middle of it, the Vril-ya. Then came the Secret Masters, who dwelt in Tibet and possessed the sum of human knowledge. Then along came old Nietzche who remade the OverMan into a creature that does not only possess considerable fortitude, but is also unchained by morality and human limitation.
Then came the psychics, beings that were human but could manipulate matter with their minds. Afterwards, they communicated with unworldly beings. Then they were unworldly beings themselves, some of them either direct descendants of deities or deities themselves.
By the middle of the 20th century, the OverMan was a human who had reached the stars and was well on his way to claiming absolute mastery on the universe. But then space was deprived of faith and it became just a cold, everlasting void as the OverMan became a creature that sat upon a golden throne in the Earth and chose instead to look into the fundamental trappings of the universe, to analyze and probe the workings of Everything Everywhere and learn how to manipulate them without ever once having to leave the house.
With each iteration, OverMan became less and less wondrous. With every single retelling of the archetype, the OverMan became more ordinary, more flawed, more…regular. He turned from the creature of marvels, the absolute pinnacle of our species into Joe Quantum and Jane M-Brane.
By the beginning of the 21st century, the OverMan was a pastime, a spectacle, a thing that we trapped in 2-dimensional, silver screen cages and made him dance and hurt and scream and fight for our amusement.
After centuries of collective effort, we had finally subdued him. We were now ready and able to begin worshipping the OverMan on our own terms.
|So: no more fire and brimstone, we’re not gonna have any of that, thank you. And could you do something about this whole End of Days business? It’s awfully depressing.|
But this is not a religious article, nor is it a biographical one. I don’t write all this so I can project my beliefs and ideas into an audience that doesn’t want to hear them. What this is, instead, is a bare-bones approach to the modern iteration of the OverMan…
|If you guessed anything other than Superhuman, then thank you for playing and I’ll see you next week.|
Superhumans have been around since the beginning of the 20th century, though the term became widely popular after the well-known abuse it received at the hands of some black-haired asshole who wanted to kill everyone because they weren’t blonde and blue-eyed.
Who could I possibly be talking about? Also, watch Downfall, you bastards!
The first Superhumans, examples of men who possessed uncanny abilities beyond those of mortal men first appeared in the 1920s, in pulp magazines. They were crimefighters, adventurers, explorers and all-around badasses that possessed an innate cynicism and brutality you’d be hard pressed to find even in today’s gore-happiest Superhumans.
|From top to bottom: super-powered junkie genius, machine-gun totting psychic serial killer|
They were heroes of a harsh age and they catered to their tiny and shunned audience, an audience consisting of proto-geeks who lived their lives in a world that seemed to be tumbling into madness. In many ways, Doc Savage, the Shadow and Captain Occult were like the great prehistoric gods of pop culture. They were sluggish, rough things that were made for the purpose of appeasing their worshippers and providing them with monthly escapades that allowed them glimpses of an impossible world full of wonder and danger.
|Also, gratuitous spaceship battles, laser pistols and tits.|
Then the world went through a case of ‘turning into shit for a while’ (as it’s often wont to do) in the 40’s and the new generation of audiences (and the faithful among them) found that the stone-faced gods in the pulps could not appease them. We did not need bloodthirsty barbarian lords to worship and lead us among the rubble from where our new pop culture would spring, no sir! What we needed were gods with ideals. We needed OverMen that would lead us on into pastures new and show us new worlds so we could build more hopeful wonders around them.
The necessity for the invention of such tools arose in the age of M.A.D., of constant threat of another global war, of all-around International Confusion. The real world had suddenly become madder than the one detailed in our fiction. We needed solace. We needed guidance.
More than ever, we needed heroes.
|Heroes that could stand against the growing tide of shapeshifting rat-lobsters that aimed to destroy our heavy machinery.|
The advent of the Superhumans in fiction was inevitable. They were the product of the time that spawned them. They burrowed themselves in our collective conscience and have lingered to this day because first and foremost, they are symbols.
Oh sure, they’re oversimplified and downright ridiculous upon closer examination and they perform insane, endlessly looping rituals that seem to serve no clearly defined purpose whatsoever at first glance, but that’s the fault of the audience, not theirs.
To not take a life, to protect the innocent, to transcend the barriers of the known universe and to save the world every month is the sole duty of the Superhuman. Nothing less, nothing more. Their only function is to offer hope and a chance to escape our routine and pessimistic fixations. Such wondrous creatures could not exist beyond the pages that they inhabit, after all.
But what are the roles of these fictional OverMen? What do they represent and what do they stand for? Here’s a quick rundown:
Superman-Everything’s going to be okay.
Of all the representations of the OverMan idea, Superman is by far the most straightforward and simplistic of them all. He’s strong, he’s fast, he shoots lasers, he’s very nearly omniscient and his sole purpose is to protect us from the horrors that seek to destroy us from beyond our world, but remains neutral toward humanity’s internal struggles. In many ways, Superman is like God.
In many respects, Superman should not have lingered after all these decades. He should have slipped into obscurity along with his pulp predecessors, being the safe and non-challenging character that he is. And yet, here he is. Why?
Because Superman is Hope. He is the force that makes everything okay. He is a being that saves our ass every month only so we can keep being who we are, even as we pull ourselves inexorably toward Armageddon.
Batman-Adapt and Overcome
A mortal man that has reached the absolute peak of human achievement. A frail creature that is the companion and antithesis of the God figure of Superman. In many ways, Batman should have taken Superman’s place in pop culture and even replaced him, yet he hasn’t.
Frank Miller put it best, in Dark Knight Returns. That iteration of Batman presented his old, tired and quite frankly pathetic Bruce Wayne as an empty vessel that was there to channel tenacity, anger and an insane adherence to survival. He is a creature that has been stamped on, beaten and broken in every possible way, yet he keeps on his crusade.
Batman is a symbol of perseverance. Of holding on to your morality and struggling not to lose yourself, even in the face of ultimate evil.
Wonder Woman-The might of the gods in the service of man
Wonder Woman is in many ways, Superman’s counterpart. There’s the widespread belief that she’s also a symbol for justice. In my opinion, this is not so.
Wonder Woman exists as a construct that has gone through a dramatic change: from oversexualized soft porn symbol, she has become a creature of wrath. Despite the writers’ best efforts, she has not managed to establish herself as a symbol for justice or as a champion of order.
Her best stories always present her as a powerful ally and a terrifying foe, but also as an instrument of fury that puts both her friends and her enemies in mortal peril. Out of all the Superhumans, Wonder Woman is the one creature that is more like her pagan ancestors than her contemporaries.
Spiderman-What Would Peter Parker Do?
I have openly stated that I dislike Spiderman and will stick to my opinion. But he serves a very useful purpose, either way. When he was conceived, the slogan Stan Lee used was “the hero that could be YOU!”
It took me nearly a decade before I finally realized the hidden meaning behind that quote.
Spiderman’s charm doesn’t lie just in the fact that he’s a creature that the audience can sympathize with. He’s a creature that is constantly questioning the reader, trudging on through his everyday dramas, bearing the entire world on his spindly shoulders, as if he’s asking the reader:
“What the hell else would you have done, if you were me?”
Captain America-Justice For All
An old fashioned slogan for a man who’s found that the world has passed him by. For a Greek, Captain America is a very hard sell. Pop culture has presented him as an ultimate American symbol and to be fair, that was his original purpose.
But the Captain isn’t just about America. He’s a romantic creature, a thing that has sprung up from a mad time, preaching mad ideas, trying to cope in a world which, to be perfectly honest, can’t quite find a place for him.
The Captain is a creature that represents an endless struggle for the greater good, in a world that refuses to understand or acknowledge morality.
Hulk-The Pariah Eternal
Hulk is one of those symbols that at first seem to serve no other purpose except to look cool and fill a spot in the pantheon. His true purpose eludes everyone but the most frustrated nerds who have chosen to believe in him.
Because the Hulk is the Perpetual Geek, stuck with the Cool Kids in the same school yard, pushed and picked around for his dorky glasses. He was made by Jack Kirby, a man who went through similar phases in his life and he is essentially the very personification of nerd rage.
He is a creature that seeks to tear at the Universe, wanting to vent the frustration of his audience. No wonder he didn’t work in his movies: the Hulk is a fantastic creature, like the perfect lover we conjure up in our dreams. He is impossible to exist and he speaks out only to a very select few. He’s not movie material. He’s actualized fantasy.
But what will the OverMan truly be? He can’t possibly be a thing as symbolic and simplified as our fictional Superhumans. After all, they only exist within the confines of their fictional universe and even then, they are relieved of repercussions and responsibility, existing in a world of their own.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that the collective masses of humanity exist in a duality of both conquest and responsibility. As our knowledge and capability of manipulating our environment grows, so does our understanding and responsibility toward it.
The OverMan, no matter how fantastic he may be, no matter how ideal his existence, will be burdened with duties of titanic proportions and perform follies and experience ills of unimaginable magnitude.
The OverMan will be just like us. He may be able to fly unaided, but we’ll be no less human for it.
It’s funny how this train of thought reminds me of the ideas of 17th century philosophers, who speculated on the chance of stumbling into a Heaven upon Earth. They too considered that when we inhabit Heaven, we will be free of our ills, of our terrors and our responsibilities. They called this earthly paradise Arcadia and they claimed it would be the future abode of men, who would become as gods.
Giovanni Barbieri gave them the best possible answer:
|Even in the green pastures of Arcadia, you will find death, o man.|
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