RIP: Old School Heroes

culpI was upset this week to learn of the death of Robert Culp, one of my favorite TV actors.  I probably first encountered him on “Columbo,” being one of a handful of actors whose strong performances kept him coming back again and again to match wits with Peter Falk as a series of brilliant — but ultimately overconfident — killers.

It wasn’t until “The Greatest American Hero,” however, that I became a fan, thanks to Culp’s terrific turn as FBI agent Bill Maxwell, the crusty, Conservative, Commie-hating  crimebuster who took schoolteacher Ralph Hinkley under his wing and tried to turn him into his own secret weapon against the underworld.  With his cocky swagger and biting sarcasm, Maxwell seemed to reflect Culp’s own persona to a degree, and he quickly evolved into one of those supporting characters who ends up stealing the show.  Later I made it a point to seek out “I Spy,” the show he’ll probably be best remembered for thanks to its cultural significance in the context of race relations (okay, and for being a good show).

Anyway, Culp’s death comes just a week or so after that of Peter Graves, who I grew up watching on “Mission: Impossible” as the unflappable “born leader” prototype Jim Phelps.  With his prematurely white hair, solid jaw and squinty eyes (not to mention that amazing, authoritative voice), Graves exemplified for me the old-school hero type who seem to have vanished from the cultural scene in recent years; what for lack of a better term I’ll call “The Grown-Up.”

graves2Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that movie and TV heroes used to have a certain gravitas to them born of maturity.  They were psychologically stable, morally centered and utterly capable.  As characters, there was usually some mystery to their past, but you could intuit (and were sometimes told) that they had a past in the military (usually the Korean War), that they had worked their way up the ladder as beat cops or foot soldiers, that there were adventures and romances and tragedies in their earlier years that made them into the men they were.  Through force of personality as much as any conferred rank, they were leaders of men, commanding the respect of those under them.  They were grown-ups.

We used to like our heroes to be grown up.  I remember reading about how Jeffrey Hunter landed the role of Christ in the big-budget epic “King of Kings,” only to have certain critics, noting Hunter’s baby face, rename the flic “I Was A Teenage Jesus.”  It was a liability then to look too young, but now of course the reverse is true.  The perfect age in Hollywood now is around 20, it seems, and the longer you can sustain that look, the longer you’re going to work.

Mission: Impossible is a good example.  For the DePalma film in the 90s, Jim Phelps is marginalized (and ultimately, disgracefully, villainized) in favor of his youthful protege Ethan Hunt, played by that perpetual teenager Tom Cruise.  In the early scenes of the film, Hunt’s teammates are wiped out, but not before we see they’re all kids like Cruise (Emilio Estevez was in there and I forget who else), making the Impossible Mission Force look more like the Breakfast Club.

Star Trek is another example.  In the original show, James T. Kirk was already the youngest man to captain a starship at 34 years of age, but in modern terms that would make him a comparative Methuselah, so he’s re-imagined as a boy wonder who earns the center seat in his mid-20s, essentially as a graduation present for making it through the Academy.  In the 60’s, there was that effort to balance the desire for a youthful, handsome leading man with the need to give him some gravitas; Kirk had served in Starfleet for at least eleven years already working up the ranks, and along the way earned an impressive collection of citations and medals.  For today’s crowd, however, all that matters is youth and talent; start citing your past accomplishments and people will eye you suspiciously as they calculate how many years you must have behind you.

Maybe this is just another grumpy old man rant, but I do wonder what kids today find admirable in their fictional heroes.  For me — and I don’t think I was alone — a big part of it was that air of maturity.  Guys like Kirk and Phelps and yes, even Bill Maxwell in his way…guys like Steve McGarrett and Steve Austin were men, not boys.  They bore the weight of responsibility, they were confident in their beliefs, they saw their duty and did it.   I always figured that’s what happened when you grew up; you turned into a guy like that.

Now of course I look back on those same performances and think, “He’s younger there than I am now!” …and yet I still think they’re grown up and I’m not.  So it’s not just a question of age.  Personality, then?  Just individual charisma?  Or is that no one is really that grown up, ever, but some guys are better at faking it?

At any rate, it’s disturbing to reach an age where your childhood heroes start dropping like flies, not due to excess and folly like Errol Flynn, or tragic violence like George Reeves, but to the one foe no one can beat; time itself.  It’s kind of depressing to realize all your old heroes are of an age where they’ll be checking out sooner than later.  Just from a narcissistic point of view, it forces you to realize you’re getting on yourself.

9 thoughts on “RIP: Old School Heroes”

  1. You probably already know my feelings on this: I’m bored to tears by chin-endowed male father figure heroes that are perpetually mature, always right and extremely savvy. As their views are generally presented to the audience as the correct ones, there’s never any real thoughtfulness about difficult moral choices, and because they’re so competent they’re never really in danger.

    The idea of making Jim Phelps the villain of Mission Impossible was one of the best ideas the film had, because the only way to do a lot of series and make them even slightly relevant is to totally deconstruct them. Frankly, I wished they did this with “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” and make them evil gremlins that plague Dave and urge him to do evil in their squeaky voices.

    A little while ago, I was re-reading S.M. Stirling’s “Island in the Sea of Time,” a science fiction novel where the island of Nantucket was sucked back into the Bronze Age. What struck me as interesting about it is that the villain of the story, Coast Guard lieutenant William Waller, if the book had been written in the 1950s, he would have been the hero instead of the villain: a clear-eyed, resolute military man that never explained himself or questioned his actions, a strong-chinned Father figure type. The very things that made him sociopathic, thickheaded and malevolent to us, to a previous generation, would have actually made him heroic.

    The villain even does the “jungle adventure” novel thing where he pretends modern weaponry and technology are terrible magic to exploit those big rubes, primitive tribes. Although amazingly, this time it’s actually showed as morally wrong (instead of clever and resourceful) to lie to and exploit primitive cultures.

    (Also interestingly, as this is the Bronze Age, the bamboozled primitive tribes are, for the first time in the history of literature, actually white people.)

    I’m sorry the non-Bill Cosby other guy from “I, Spy” died, but to be honest, I assumed he died some time ago and I was amazed to hear he was still alive.

  2. I think the difference is that once we *wanted* to believe in the “chin-endowed male father figure heroes,” however false we might have known the ideal to be. Certainly there couldn’t have been a lot of guys coming out of WWII and Korea who still had naive, rose-tinted delusions about the way the world really worked, and yet they embraced the likes of Matt Dillon, Ben Cartwright and Cheyenne anyway. Come to think of it, maybe one secret to the super-success of Westerns in this period was because they found a way to deliver the square-jawed hero in a manner that dodged the sticky issues of current events; such men may be hard to find here in the 1950s, but by golly they were plentiful in the Old West.

    At some point, though, we seem to have crossed a line where it’s not a virtue to create and worship an artificial ideal. It’s much more important to have heroes with feet of clay, to tie fiction to the leash of “realism”; the world is painted in shades of gray, ethics are a relative thing, “morality” the exclusive purview of dangerous zealots.

    I can see your point-of-view, or what I think is your point-of-view. Believing in heroes who are always right opens the door to believing in leaders who are always right, which is a recipe for disaster. But on the other hand, I have my personal experience of growing up with capable, self-assured heroes whose examples helped me through difficult periods in my life. I think kids, especially, need clear notions of right and wrong to form their character. There’s plenty of time later for self-doubt and disillusionment.

    You’re right that stories about old-school heroes rarely had them wrestling with moral or ethical issues (as in “am I in the right?”). Instead they usually dealt with specific, physical problems to be overcome. The focus was “How do you do what’s right when it could get you killed, and/or your community is against you”, whereas now the focus is, “How do you do what’s right when nobody knows what ‘right’ is, and whoever *thinks* he does is the one guy you can be certain does NOT?”

    Anyway, as you say we’ve been through this before. This issue gets to the core of why I am a fan of DC, where heroism means knowing what’s right and doing it, and Marvel, where heroism means getting up in the morning to face another day of agony in a world not worth living in. It also gets to why I’m a Star Trek:TOS fan and you’re a TNG guy. In TOS, Captain Kirk is the ultimate hero, and in TNG he is the nexus of all evil (or what passes for “evil” in a PC world afraid to say the word).

  3. I don’t know if it’s fair to throw Jim Kirk in with these other guys.

    What Kirk an interesting character was that he was wrong a lot: a hero, but someone made of flesh and blood who made mistakes and who learned from them. I think it does Jim Kirk a disservice to throw him in the same category as other TV heroes of the time like the stentorian voiced Jim Phelps and that guy from Wild Wild West, who didn’t have a very lively inner life.

    My favorite TOS episodes involving Kirk, are in order: “Errand of Mercy,” “The Ultimate Computer,” and “Court Martial.”

    “Errand of Mercy” was about Kirk saying, “I’m a soldier,I don’t question orders” and at the end the Organians teach him something, and that he was wrong. Court Martial had a moment of vulnerability where Kirk seriously wondered if in fact he HAD lost his touch and been responsible for Finney’s death – something he never considered before because of his greatest character flaw, his pride. And finally, Ultimate Computer was a great episode because it was about Kirk wondering if he was obsolete – again, something that jarred him because of his pride. I can’t imagine them telling stories like these about, say, Tarzan.

    At some point, though, we seem to have crossed a line where it’s not a virtue to create and worship an artificial ideal. It’s much more important to have heroes with feet of clay, to tie fiction to the leash of “realism”; the world is painted in shades of gray, ethics are a relative thing, “morality” the exclusive purview of dangerous zealots.

    One view that is programmed into the narratives of popular culture is that new ideas are generally superior to tradition, and that those that crow the loudest about their own virtue and morality are generally the evilest people of all.

    I don’t think you’re representing my perspective fairly here, though. I am not saying that heroism is relative or morality is relative. What I am saying is that a cookie-cutter heroism is very boring.

    I think one of the problems with a lot of fans of old-school Westerns or comics is a limitation in thinking: they view morality in a type of one-dimensional continuum, where at one end you have questionable guys like Han Solo and the Man With No Name at one end, ordinary, fallible guys like most of Bruce Willis’s characters and Peter Parker in the “middle,” and incorruptible secular saints at the other like Superman and Tarzan. In other words, heroism, and the value of characters, is arranged according to this continuum as opposed to viewing heroes as a collection of characteristics and traits.

    Also…it’s been a while since I’ve seen Greatest American Hero, but correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I remember, Culp’s character was memorable because he wasn’t a heroic morally perfect leading man: he was a bit of a curmudgeonly, sarcastic, cynical prick that contrasted against this idealistic schoolteacher. Great to watch, and a fun character – but more like a conservative version of Green Arrow: someone interesting not because of their perpetual adulthood and maturity, but because he was a competent and skilled guy with a very nuanced personality.

    Anyway, here’s my question: why would it necessarily be wrong to have say, kids see as their role model someone like the idealistic but occasionally bumbling Ralph Hinkley? Why isn’t Ralph Hinkley the heroic protagonist, same as Jim Phelps and Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt?

    This question gets to what I see as the REAL root of this discussion. This is, I suspect…not about role models for kids at all. This is about projection. To project oneself into these competent, gutsy he-men role models like James Bond or Jim Phelps is to forget our real human vulnerabilities. That, I suspect, is why DC fans freak out when, say, Peter Parker is in love with his best friend’s girlfriend, or is shown as tied up and beaten by the Green Goblin on a cover. This makes them uncomfortable because it means admitting we too can get our asses kicked, or that we can have desires that we’d rather not admit.

    Despite the fact that Ralph Hinkley is in many ways more of a sensitive, idealistic, upright guy than Culp…he can’t be projected into because he’s clumsy and goofy and that means acknowledgement of these traits in ourselves.

    You might think I’m condemning this view…and I am, in a sense…but at least I understand it. Let me give you an example: I always thought that guys that believed (say) Hal Jordan could NEVER EVER EVER EVER be an alcoholic were world-class chumps that had a deeply childish intolerance of acknowledging a real person having a problem. They reminded me of the teenage girls that insist that their latest crush would NEVER smoke or drink or womanize.

    But I finally understood why there was this epic freakout over things like Hal Jordan drinking when recently (and perhaps I’m getting a little too personal here) I got a telephone call a few months ago that my Dad was going to have heart surgery. He was alright, of course, and just fine. But I couldn’t stand the idea. To acknowledge Dad’s mortality filled me with absolute horror. No way! Dad doesn’t get problems like that! He can’t die! Never ever ever! (stomps foot)

    I suddenly understood why people had freakouts over these kinds of things with infallible heroes like Hal Jordan.

    Anyway, as you say we’ve been through this before. This issue gets to the core of why I am a fan of DC, where heroism means knowing what’s right and doing it, and Marvel, where heroism means getting up in the morning to face another day of agony in a world not worth living in.

    Now this I just don’t get, and I swear I’m not being deliberately obtuse here. But personally, I’d rather live in the Marvel Universe than here. It’s an exciting hero world with adventure and interesting personalities. They’ve got it tough sometimes and they don’t receive unconditional love from the fickle public, but only in the minds of Flash fans is it really a profound tragedy that in the MU heroes don’t receive something as insane as a Giant Museum in the middle of Central City.

    The only people that have it as tough as you say in the MU are the wretched, nameless, soul-crushed peons in Latveria or the poor mutants nuked in Genosha.

  4. Well, you’re right about Jim Kirk; he’s more multi-dimensional than most TV heroes of his era. This is largely due to his job; ego and self-confidence are essential to the job of Starship Captain but so too is clear-headed rationality and an ability to see all alternatives. In the course of the series we encounter plenty of captains who share Kirk’s bigger-than-life personality and confidence, but lose sight of the rest and go down in flames, taking many lives with them. Perhaps, then, he treads the fine line between your type of hero and mine; he’s decisive and sure of himself by nature, but also cautious and self-questioning out of self-preservation, and duty to his crew. His leadership abilities make him something special, but his real achievement, as you imply, is to never let himself totally believe his own hype, despite his nature.

    What I was referring to, though, was the tendency of TNG fans and to some extent writers to point the finger at Kirk — sometimes by proxy — as a practitioner of “gunboat diplomacy,” a cock-sure cowboy who shoots first and asks questions later. The implication is that despite the supposedly “liberal” bent of TOS, in the end it usually ended up defending the Western value system, a disappointment to the progressives in the crowd, but due less to ideology than the more practical need to wrap things up neatly in under 50 minutes. All the hand-wringing (if any) typically ended with Kirk going, “Well, I’ve thought it all through and decided the best way is the American Way after all.”

    I can’t remember specific episode titles from TNG, but there was one with a captain cut from Kirk’s cloth who goes swaggering into some situation or other and makes all sorts of trouble, and when it all hits the fan and Picard delivers a self-righteous speech, I could just hear the fanboys crowing, “Take that, Kirk!” And though I didn’t really follow it, I understand DS9 had a story arc where we learn the inhabitants of the Mirror Universe took Kirk’s advice to topple the Empire…and thanks to him, something even more horrible and miserable replaced it.

    I didn’t share that seeming disdain for Kirk and his methods, but I accepted it as the new “official” take on Trek, a different way of looking at things. Then of course they did “Generations” with Picard fawning over Kirk, so who knows what was the point of it all.

    Tarzan is one guy who doesn’t have to worry about being replaced by a computer.

    You’re right about Bill Maxwell in GAH: when we meet him, he’s an embittered, disagreeable old cuss who wants nothing more than to turn back the clock to an earlier time, when things fit more closely his notions of order and sanity. He’s nearing the end of his FBI career and his boss is eager to cut him loose, separating him from everything he loves; namely the right to pack heat and beat up perps. It’s a bad day for him as he’s just seen his partner killed, but even so he hits a low point when he pulls a gun on a high school punk for looking at him wrong. Over the course of the series, he lightens up considerably, largely because Ralph gives him everything he wanted — he’s the hero of the bureau thanks to his “secret weapon” — but also we learn a decent heart beats under that crusty exterior, and he genuinely loves “the kid.”

    I probably took the whole “RIP Culp” post too far off track by veering into hero worship, since Maxwell is in many ways a lampoon of old-school heroes, with his police jargon and probably-was-never-hip “slang” expressions, wearing three-piece suits on duty but with no casual clothes save fatigues, a fishing hat and a “Happiness Is A Warm Pistol” t-shirt. Indeed, Culp’s politics were probably on the extreme opposite end of Maxwell’s, so maybe he was sending up the type. I don’t know that any kid chose Bill as their hero, including me — I loved the character, but didn’t want to be him. Neither he nor Ralph, I think, would work without the other, and yes your read on Ralph is correct; he’s a bleeding heart idealist, and a bumbler, but both traits make him more endearing in my book. And actually I think the writers made him clumsy and awkward so we WOULD identify with him. That was the whole point of the show.

    This question gets to what I see as the REAL root of this discussion. This is, I suspect…not about role models for kids at all. This is about projection.To project oneself into these competent, gutsy he-men role models like James Bond or Jim Phelps is to forget our real human vulnerabilities.

    On that we agree. We just disagree whether it’s a good thing. I agree it shouldn’t be the only type of story out there, but pure escapism and wish-fulfilment has its place.

    That, I suspect, is why DC fans freak out when, say, Peter Parker is in love with his best friend’s girlfriend, or is shown as tied up and beaten by the Green Goblin on a cover.

    Do they freak out about that? My gripe is more that he’s such a misery magnet. And hey, maybe it’s not his fault, but that doesn’t make it any more appealing. At some point, the guy who has nothing but bad luck is as ridiculous as the guy who has everything break his way. I get it already, Spidey’s the Job of comics. Next.

    I don’t know that it’s impossible for Hal Jordan to become an alcoholic, but I did resent his whole backstory being rewritten to shoehorn it into his past. It’s like when Spock says, “Oh yeah, did I forget to mention? I have a brother. Yeah.” Or when Norman Osborne says, “Gwen Stacy? Yep, did her.” No thanks to that crap.

    To my mind, the best, most balanced evaluation of the difference between DC and Marvel was pinned by “Scipio” on the old “Absorbascon” site.

  5. Do they freak out about that?

    There was one occasion where you posted everything that was wrong with Post-Crisis Superman and the image you chose was a fairly traditional, nonthreatening, unremarkable cover that had Superman bent and defeated by Metallo standing over him.

    First, there were TONS of covers like that, even in the Silver Age, where Superman was never really in danger and all his stories had nothing at stake and were pretty much games he played with villains and his supporting cast. For instance, the one with the first appearance of Titano had Superman in a creepily sexual position blasted by a monkey’s laser beams. This is actually something that bugged me the most about that old forum: the decision to choose to reinterpret the past so that it is in opposition to something you dislike that’s going on now. For instance…where in Superman comics pre-1985 did it say that Superman was the real identity and Clark Kent was the disguise? There was a real diversity of opinion on a question that complex.

    Second, it fits the internal logic of the situation: Mentallo has a Kryptonite heart. This isn’t like Spidey beating the Silver Surfer here…Superman defeated by a guy with Kryptonite is an entirely plausible outcome.

    As for the Absorbascon article: auuuuuuuuugh.

    The fact that article is written on a page called “The Absorbascon” tells me everything I need to know about that guy. But I clicked it anyway.

    Here’s the real difference between Marvel and DC: the Flash Museum.

    Boy, it sure is easy to be a hero when you’ve got unconditional love from the public and mankind, isn’t it? Your wife is Iris West, who when drawn by Don Heck, is the most attractive woman in comics. You’re immortal, your villains are ridiculous and not truly threatening. And to top it off, you’ve got a giant FLASH MUSEUM in the middle of town that honors your accomplishments. Theodore Roosevelt didn’t even get one in the middle of New York, and he was both mayor and police commissioner and later became one of our greatest presidents. The only people that typically get tourist-heavy museums in major cities devoted to them are founders of major world religions.

    When Kurt Busiek wrote the only team-up to actually take place “in continuity,” JLA/AVENGERS, a big plot point was the Avengers visit to the Flash Museum. Captain America and Quicksilver are horrified. Quicksilver out of wounded pride that in this reality a speedster gets a museum (!), and Captain America because he thought the DC heroes were phonies, nothing more than tin gods, prancing around and insisting on being worshiped.

    (You can see why something like that would bother Cap: as someone that is a real human being of flesh and blood that is often idolized, he is extremely uncomfortable with being a “Living Legend of World War II.” Something like a Flash Museum would really hit him where he lives.)

    The biggest difference between the Marvel and DC Universes is that it’s EASY to be a hero in the DC Universe. The rewards and perks are great and everybody loves you. I don’t think this is really heroic at all. That’s the essence of the DC heroes: they were born on on third base, and the Absorbascon guy thinks they’re there because they hit a triple.

    By the way, the single most amusing thing in that Absorbascon article is the infuriatingly sanctimonious presumption that having a vaguely defined or nonexistent motivation is equivalent to moral superiority. As a college educated liberal, I salute the author of this article: when it comes to insufferable, stuffy high-handedness, he’s got us beat forever.

    It was a fascinating act of near Orwellian verbal jiu-jitsu: a real and profound weakness (poor characterization and no internal motive) becomes a strength instead of a liability. I’m not being sarcastic here, I actually sincerely admire that strategy: the writer acknowledged that the greatest weakness of the old school DC heroes is that they have the exact same personality, and actually found a way to spin that liability into a plus, something they have over the Marvel guys.

    Also, I love the treatment of DC and Marvel as monolithic entities. DC would NEVER publish a hero that kills, right?

    By the way, another telling difference: the comparison to the mythic gods of the past. Mythic gods typically do the same thing over and over with zero unpredictability, like ensure lightning storms and earthquakes. This is a great metaphor for the old school DC heroes, though not in the way the author intended. It’s telling that Marvel people go out of their way to deny this comparison – Mark Gruenwald wrote an article in his Mark’s Remarks back in 1988 that specifically REJECTED the idea that superheroes are the same as mythic deities…because superheroes are three dimensional people that grow and change with time. (Well, some are, Mark.)

    Also, he got a subtle little dig in by comparing the Marvel heroes to a pantheon mainly known to Western civilization via opera. Opera, an art form known for turning picayune disputes and emotional states into hysterical melodrama. Oh, snap, guys! Oh, snap! He’s sure got our number! Yeah, buddy…I’m sure people are going to forget the tawdry, unimportant story without consequence where Spider-Man wonders if he should keep on being Spider-Man…as opposed to the significant, physical conflict frought Batman vs. the Joker Part Four Million.

    My all time favorite FAIL line from the article is this one:

    Batman’s “fate” isn’t thrust upon him by a cruel world that fails to understand him.

    Yeah…it’s his own fault his parents were gunned down in a filthy alley. Guess you should have brushed your teeth more, huh, Brucie? Sounds like a trick that George Bluth from “Arrested Development” would play on his children to remind them to leave notes or not yell.

    “Well, this is fruitless! Alfred, pack my bags, buy a Caribbean island (if I don’t already own one), and tell Silver St. Cloud I’ll meet her there for brunch!” But he doesn’t, because his character is otherwise.

    Good point! I can’t tell you how many times Iron Man, Luke Cage, the X-Men, and Spider-Man have run away from their problems and refused to face them. Spider-Man throws his costume in the trash a lot, but he picks it up again by the end of the comic and does what he has to do.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been a firm believer in the idea that people have to take responsibility for their destinies. Yeah, sure…life’s not fair. The question is, what are YOU gonna do about it? But still, pretending that overcoming obstacles isn’t as heroic as being privileged enough to never experience them at all is actually a little evil.

  6. Awesome comment, Julian, and well argued. You should post it on the Absorbascon to balance out the “hear, hear’s”. Not that I’m totally in your camp, mind you, but it makes for a good riposte.

    On that Superman cover, though: I singled it out because it was Issue #1 of the Byrne reboot. I admit “hero on the ropes” is a staple of the genre (and the source of some of the medium’s best covers, BTW), but it’s a pretty unorthodox choice to begin a series with. The usual strategy is to present the hero in all his magnificence on the first cover, spend a few issues establishing how cool he is and only then pull out the “Can it be…?! Our hero DEFEATED?” stuff. Even beleaguered Spider-Man didn’t make his debut under the heel of Green Goblin. (“Hey folks! I’m the star of the book! No, me…down here in the dirt with the bad guy’s foot on my back! Trust me, I’m the character find of 1963!”)

    My point was that in retrospect we were being given a clear signal about Byrne’s intentions for the book, as surely as Joe Shuster telegraphed his intentions with the original Superman #1, featuring the hero soaring above the skyline in triumph.

    The funny thing is Marty Pasko’s “DC Vault” book mentions Byrne’s Superman (very briefly) as something like “upbeat” and “traditional” in its presentation of a good-to-his-core hero, which I suppose may be comparatively true when you compare it to Miller’s “Dark Knight” and Moore’s “Watchmen,” on the stands around the same time, but it was a really puzzling passage to come across.

  7. Man, Nightwing, you’re no fun. Can’t you see I was trying to be as confrontational as possible?

    As for the morality of the Byrne run and the Byrne reboot…I really don’t see anything the character did or choices that he made that were necessarily morally questionable – with the obvious exception of the execution of the Phantom Zone criminals. A pretty huge exception, I’ll admit, but the point is that for the most part Pasko’s description was accurate: his run was about a heroic figure and not about noir themes like self-destruction.

    There were a few moments of shocking and blatant assholery, that I really can’t bring myself to see as outright violations of a moral code: my favorite is the issue where Superman tells the Metal Men they aren’t “real” people. They’re just robots. It was shocking for Superman, an alien and Silver Surfer-style “cosmic monotheist,” to downgrade the intelligence and life-status of beings different from himself.

    This is one thing that especially bugs me about Byrne. Science Fiction fans ever since Asimov are used to the idea of thinking of robots as “real” people. In Asimov’s stories with robot heroes, we sympathize with their desire to be more human, fall in love and receive acceptance, and those that ignore or demean the humanity of robot heroes are usually portrayed as bigots. So, along comes Byrne to tell us that the Metal Men and the Vision are “just toasters,” as he once classlessly said in Avengers West Coast..!

    The other moment that can be interpreted as morally remiss was Superman spying on Lori Lemaris because he thinks she might be a spy or cheating on him, but this is understandable for a young guy in love with a girl that acts suspiciously. For Superman to act any other way would be a robot – and not the Asimov kind.

    But yeah, when I first read Flash comics – during the Mark Waid run – I remember reading about the Flash Museum and I thought it was extremely creepy, like a shrine made by a stalker ex-girlfriend on a colossal scale. Amazingly (at least in retrospect) I expected that was the author’s intention, to weird us out…but nope. It was all played without any awareness of the staggering implications.

    That’s the worst thing that can happen when writing: a heroic character comes off as creepy, or a straw man villain actually raises a pretty good point. The effect on the audience is different than the one intended.

    An amusing example of that was Peter Graves’s science hero character in “Beginning of the End,” when parodied on MST3K, all the bots did was announce how Peter Graves was only the hero indicationally: his experiments were pretty much to blame for the plague of giant insects.

    GRAVES: “I can’t help but feel partially responsible.”
    TOM SERVO: “Partially responsible?”

  8. Hey, I don’t argue about everything, you know. Besides, I figure just getting you to spend this much time on a blog with an anti-Obama cartoon and an image of Adam West Batman is victory enough. 🙂

    Forgot to address the Flash Museum last time, but I always put it down to harmless capitalism on the part of Central City Council. Every town exploits its fame or history to draw in the tourists, and if you have a superhero for a resident, why not milk it for all it’s worth?

    I suppose Pasko’s right about Byrne’s Superman in that he’s not “grim and gritty” in the way of all the Punisher wannabes crowding the racks in that era. But neither does he seem fully formed as a hero. It always bugged me that he went home so often to seek advice from the Kents on how to be a hero, or a man. It was annoying enough when the movie Superman did it with Jor-El’s ghost, but at least Jor-El has a sort of god-like intellect. I like my heroes to be a little more self-sufficient, as you may have noticed. So I guess it’s not so much that I see him as morally iffy, just morally unformed.

    The executions of the Zone criminals was the perfect example of this. Over and above any stand that “Superman doesn’t kill,” the executions were played as a mistake Superman comes to quickly regret, a source of deep-seated guilt that eventually makes him go nuts and leave Earth (though admittedly, all that happened after Byrne quit). Byrne’s object seems to have been to explain Superman’s code against killing: he adopts it because he tries killing just the once and realizes it’s not for him. That’s not “heroic” in my book, and it also contributes to the post-Crisis view of Superman as none too bright. (Worse, it’s stolen from Mike Barr’s “Batman: Year Two,” where Batman rejects guns only after using them and losing his taste for them).

    Byrne’s dislike of robots is well-documented, but it’s not all that inconsistent for Superman. I don’t know if you lurk on the Superman Fan blog at all, but I’ve noted repeatedly in my reviews that artificial life forms are treated with anything from casual disregard to outright prejudice by Superman — including his own robots, who die for him anyway — and it never fails to make him look like a jerk. Some of this can be attributed to the era of the stories, I guess (50s and 60s), but I think it also shows a real disconnect with the books’ young readers, who naturally confer human qualities even to objects that aren’t shaped like men, and probably felt affection and/or compassion for the robots Superman treats like household appliances.

  9. I’ve always found it darkly hilarious when older forms of fiction have these casually callous attitudes.

    My all time favorite was the anti-democratic authoritarianism of the Lensmen (and the characters based on their basic model, the Green Lantern Corps). When an Arisian or a Guardian says JUMP, you ask, “off which building?”

    Though the chickens did eventually come home to roost with the Superman Robots, though – Cary Bates wrote this one great story about a Superboy Robot that achieved sentience, became the defender of Smallville, and fought for his right to continue existing. It was an example of a good science fiction idea, and a thoughtful examination of one of the more underused and truthfully, dickish part of the mythos.

    There are some places where this can get disturbing, of course. One example are the fantasy and science fiction novels that feature the Evil Race That Must Be Killed. We cheer on as Aragorn, Conan and Lazarus Long pretty much genocide them. There’s something about that kind of story that scars the soul; it’s the uncomfortable flip side of the hero worship of mature father figures.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.