Aug 7, 2013

Pop Medicine: How Would It Really Be?

Pop Medicine is a column by Travis Hedge Coke for the Comics Cube! Click here for the archive!

How Would It Really Be?
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

One of the most common discussions of superpowers, often using Superman as the base, is “what would they really be like?” or “what would someone with those powers really do?”

Superman, were he real, would do exactly as he does, because Superman is who we see on those pages, who we see in those movies and cartoons. He’s not “really” just the set of powers and a haircut, he’s that personality, he is that set of morals, that guy with those friends who lives in that city and wears what he wears. You cannot fall back on “his personality isn’t realistic!” because his powers aren’t realistic. If you are more willing to buy into the one that absolutely cannot occur, which is an alien from Krypton who can catch planes without impact having any damaging effects, who can fly, cause amnesia with kisses, have super-hearing but rarely be hurt or confused by it, and so on… but you cannot accept that he doesn’t use those powers to kill, rape, conquer, or make us give him the world’s chocolate and stout supplies, that’s kind of on you, no Superman. Both elements, his power-set and her person are equally fictional, but most of you don’t kill, rape, conquer, or make horrible demands and I presume it’s not because you lack the power to enforce these things.

“Ah,” you may say, “but absolute power corrupts absolutely!” Which is Acton, who also said “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought,” and besides, Superman doesn’t have absolute power. He’s very strong, yes, he could beat you up if he were real and he felt like it. But, he’s not governing the day to day of anyone in his world. He can’t make Lois love him by flexing his muscles. And, I know some folks out there will be all “he can rape her!” but Superman’s adult enough to know that rape isn’t love.

Superman isn’t going to “just get tired of it” some day and start taking what he can. And he already does “what he wants” in the comics you can see every month, and what he wants is to help people.

I was looking at reviews for Raising Helen last night. I like to read reviews after I’ve seen a movie, and I like Raising Helen. It’s cute. It’s emotive. It’s escapist. The lead and her romantic interests are flawed in ways that, like Superman and kryptonite, are more endearing and comforting than actually drawbacks. And, in many of these reviews, the movie is criticized for being “unrealistic” and “a fantasy,” with the title character being decried as too competent, and too good at her job. Now, you can dig around and find reviews from these same critics proclaiming their joy at John Rambo’s ability to kill upwards of three hundred guys in ninety minutes, or who have no problem with Bruce Willis’ John McClane surviving countless falls, ducking bullets all over the place, and sometimes being blown the hell up with barely some surface cuts to worry about.

I witnessed more than one person ask why, in the beginning of Die Hard, John McClane has that oversized teddy bear. These are people, who already know he’s going to see his family at Christmas, a family he’s currently estranged from. But why on Earth would a man going to see his wife and two young children be carrying a stuffed bear? He’s a tough guy. He shouldn’t have anything on him but a gun, a pack of smokes, and sweat stains at his pits. I know people who complain he didn’t shoot that one terrorist who tells him to shoot to kill, the first time he had a chance.

There’s a great bit in Denny O’Neil’s Knightfall novelization, where Bane is relaxing after he’s eaten a bunch of rich food, had sex with several prostitutes, and then murdered them and cut little bat-shapes into their bodies, and he thinks to himself, this must be what being Batman is like. From bane’s damaged perspective, that’s what having the power and influence of Batman would “really be.”

We all have our personal fantasies. Each and every one of us has a very personal moral structure we apply to the universe as if it’s a truth the world abides by. A nun I used to know said once, “Fear of reprisal has never stopped anyone from committing an act. It only makes them slow down and think of a way to not get caught.” There is a difference between how we understand the world to be, which is in truth simply how we would like it to be, and how the world must “really be.” When we demand that a celebrity or famous figure must be different than their public persona or the historical or journalistic record, because we know so strongly how those kinds of people really are, that’s pretty much projecting and stereotyping. When we take a completely fictional person, like Superman, and say we know better than to believe the fictional accounts of his existence are how he would really be, that we can perceive a truth beyond the fictions that are the sum total of his existence, what is that?

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