Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Supermen and the World of Tomorrow

Science Fiction is a new literary form historically speaking. Pure Sci-Fi, in the Wells/Roddenberry vein, is a form of prophecy. Sci-Fi stories tell us “of things to come,” and transpose our issues onto worlds to which “no one has gone before.” So what’s the connection to comics? Well, arguable the big six: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Wolverine, Spider-man, and Captain America (along with their nemeses), are all Sci-Fi characters. Hulk, Green Lantern, the Human Torch--the list of Sci-Fi superheroes goes on.

The superhero, the colorful man-god, is modern idea. The similar archetypical heroes come to mind: Robin Hood, Odysseus, or Hercules, but these heroes are not regular people who transcend humanity with science and technology. Unlike the Campell-ian hero of a thousand faces, the superhero promises a new world.

Technology is a word often used to sum up the 20th Century. Many technological milestones could be the comic book superhero’s origin, like the atomic bomb. One less earthshaking milestone nonetheless captures the superhero’s spirit: the 1939 World’s Fair.

The Fair’s theme, “the world of tomorrow,” was punctuated by the Perisphere and Trylon, a huge sphere next to a towering spike, symbolically shouting, “the world going up.” This message of technology transforming the world was the new creed of the 20th century. But the message was more than optimism in the face of the past decade of world-wide depression. The Fair comes just before an era of superstars and the promise technology will propel common people to god-like versions of themselves.

In this era people, regular people could become epic figures, and their stories could be told to millions. Think about it: Einstein, the super-genius; Hitler, the super-monster; Hughes, billionaire and fastest man alive in his H-1 Racer. Not surprisingly, the ‘30s host the first superhero movies, like Superman. Mass communication brought forth a superstar generation to the world stage.

The man of tomorrow would be an exulted power-house. Though cliché now, back then the future held jet-packs and robots and life under the sea. The man of tomorrow is a dream with wide appeal, even for those not suffering from an adolescent male power fantasy. The World’s Fair seems to be a crystallizing event for this idea. The man of tomorrow would transcend the mundane day-to-day life--Nietzsche’s ubermensch, or superman, done New Deal style.

Superman, sometimes described as a super New Deal figure in the Golden Age, epitomizes the Fair’s themes. Superman’s nickname “the man of tomorrow,” cites the Fair as much as the ubermensch. Metropolis is the city of tomorrow, and its biggest landmark, the globe atop of the Daily Planet, is just a spinning Perisphere. The Fair actually hosted "Superman Day," with a public appearance by Superman, played by actor Ray Middleton. Superman may be the ultimate man of tomorrow, literally transforming from a mild-mannered nobody into the most powerful superhero in every adventure.

The Fair was a celebration of the “art deco” style, which is central to the look of the Fleischer Studios’ Superman cartoon. In fact, that Fleischer look would get a revamp in Batman: the Animated Series, with the so-called “dark deco” style. In Batman: Mask of the Phantasm many items at the Gotham World's Fair were inspired by the real World’s Fair. The rocket and planet centerpiece echo the famous Trylon and Perisphere exhibit. In the movie, many bat-gadgets and the bat-mobile spring from the exhibits Bruce Wayne encounters as a young man. Even the Bat-cave is a fair-like exhibit with dinosaurs, computers, and a gigantic penny.

Batman is a more difficult “man of tomorrow” than Superman. Originally a weird figure of the night or a hard-nose detective, Batman is also a super-willed, gadget wielding power-house. He moves with surprising ease from depression-era vigilante to a superhero standing with Superman fighting aliens. As a James Bond meets Sherlock Holmes meets Howard Hughes, Batman becomes a one man, city-wide guardian. Batman is superhero even without any powers, Sci-Fi or otherwise.

But some heroes are odd fits. Wonder Woman, the magical Amazon is not exactly a Sci-Fi superhero. She’s a person from a lost-city, a mythic-figure from a lost-world. Technology will let us discover these lost mysteries. The technology finds her, originally by downed fighter pilot, and brings her into the world she now protects. Sub-mariner is similar in his lost-world origin. Wonder Woman and Namor are Jules Vern Supermen, science-fantasy characters. They are mythical figures but in this world—the world of tomorrow—fighting Nazis and flying in jets.

The 1939 World’s Fair was just before WWII and Captain America. Turned from weakling into the perfect human specimen, who is oddly Aryan-looking, Cap is a classic WWII superhero. Some of the Fair’s visions had turned to nightmares in the war. In one of Cap’s early adventures the Red Skull drives a huge mechanical worm/drill through a skyscraper, destroying it. Something that could have been an exhibit at the Fair becomes a WMD. Cap was the war-time super-soldier; the superman embodying democracy and the war effort.

After the war a new superman, a new man of tomorrow, would suffer in the moral confusion of the cold war. Spider-man was bitten by the atomic spider (ironically enough at a science fair) and became a superhero. He is misunderstood and slandered in the media. Peter Parker and post-war America learn with great power comes… well, you know. Spider-man is the 1960s, the kid America—powerful beyond knowing, but faced with problems beyond power, the American superman reborn. Actually, both Spidey and the Hulk were also viewed as counter-culture icons: hounded by authority out of fear and hate. In these books superheroes transcended humanity, but it only created more problems.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Wolverine appeared as the super anti-hero, rejecting the man of tomorrow. After Vietnam, everyone knew good didn’t always win, the government is evil, and “heroes” kill without mercy—at least, that seems the idea behind Logan. A tough, murderous, tortured mutant; Logan is experimented on by the government. The mutants were minorities, and Wolverine, when rewritten, eventually became the quintessential “oppressed by the government" character. Weapon X is like John Rambo: both made powerful and also betrayed by the military/industrial complex. The Fair gave us the super-soldier, and the ‘70’s and ‘80s give it back with cynicism and bitterness.

Today the question is what's next, what after the superpowers? When the “Persons of Mass Destruction” arrive will it kick off a new level of conflict? Will wannbes and psychos respond with “escalation?” Will we be ruled by a small group of super-beings from their watchtower far above? Will the government reign in these supermen by legislation and put them to work for Uncle Sam? Regardless, the technological dream lives on in “microscopic make-out sessions,” and a “planet of the capes,” or even an “illuminati” round-table.

The man of tomorrow’s story is the first superpower’s story. The comic superhero is the depiction the power and the pain technology brings; a Sci-Fi prophecy for the America. Superheroes are the 20th century mythology, and they might be summed up by same word as the century: “technology.” The techno-myth, the 20th century Sci-Fi prophecy, was embodied in the World’s Fair. This vision of the future gave birth to superheroes who explore and herald this world of tomorrow. Superheroes promise us that, much like the 1939 World’s Fair, we can become supermen. We can transcend mere mortality to become fantastic: for good or for evil.

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