Superman as Defined by Lex Luthor

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“You can learn a lot from someone you hate.”-Lex Luthor, Smallville

A sage artist (Bruce Willis) once said that “Any story where you have good guys versus bad guys can only be as smart as the intelligence of your baddest guy”. In essence, he’s saying that the villain makes the plot.

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In regards to Die Hard (1988), the movie Bruce was referring  too, the antagonist Hans Gruber is a cultured terrorist who turns out to just be a thief. His personality is in stark contrast to the crude McClane, who manages to outsmart the more educated Gruber with wily “street” tactics. Gruber helps define what’s heroic about McClane: his earthiness as opposed Gruber’s refinement, his brusqueness as opposed to Gruber’s smoothness. If not for Gruber, McClane would just be an asshole.

What makes a hero a hero, and actually creates the necessary conflict for a strong plot,is a villain who is his/her antithesis. Value can only come from distinction, after all. Like John McClane, most superheroes have several villains to choose from, each of which can emphasize a different conflict. Spider-Man’s antagonists Doctor Octopus, Lizard, or Green Goblin are often used as a representative of “science gone wrong” as opposed to “science gone right” (Spidey himself). On the other hand, the villain Venom is often used as an example of how Spidey’s power can be misused in the wrong hands. Superman has many villains as well, but the only one who shares the same gravitas as he is Lex Luthor, who challenges him like no other.

        Superman #4 (April 1940)

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Despite the prominence of Lex Luthor, his introduction was not the most illustrious. He wasn’t the first bald scientist Superman fought (that would be the Ultra-Humanite) and he wasn’t even bald for that matter; he was a ginger! Originally, he was a childhood resident of Smallville who was balded by a laboratory accident which he blamed on Superman.

 Action Comics #292 (November 1962)

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His anger at Superboy causes him to devote the rest of his life to super science crimes, to make him mad for some reason.In a different world, he could have put on a mullet wig and became Joe Dirt.

Joe Dirt ( 2001 )

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While a dumbass origin story, it at least established the irrationality of Luthor’s personality when it comes to Superman. In a major arc of the Justice League animated series, Luthor funds a billion dollar campaign to run for president. When asked by another superhero why, he laughably claims to not even care, he just wanted to piss Superman off. Dick.

Mos4John Byrne’s Superman reboot Man of Steel revamped the character to fit the times, specifically 1980’s America. In a Reagan era country where the wealthy were viewed as acting without regard to others (as illustrated in films such as Wall Street and Changing Places),there could be no greater villain than a corrupt corporate executive. Rather than making shrinking machines for shits and gigs, he patented his brilliant innovations  in order to make billions (along with engaging in some illegal activities). If Superman represents what’s considered great about America (unfettered altruism), Luthor represents its seedier side; (unfettered capitalism). The reboot removed any connection between Superman and Lex Luthor at all; Lex’s animosity stems from sheer hubris. When Lex first views Superman’s grand introduction to Metropolis in Man of Steel, his secretary sarcastically asks “How does it feels to be the second most powerful man in Metropolis?”. This sums up Lex’s reason for antagonizing Supes: his very existence is affront to his success. This version of Lex Luthor isn’t just vastly wealthy, he’s also a self-made man. He was born in poverty to an abusive father in a red light district innocuously known as Suicide Slum. He made his fortune through self taught engineering and the murder of his own father for start-up capital.One could imagine how such a man,who had to “ pull himself up by his bootstraps ” for his entire life, would react to someone who has godhood as a birthright. In real life, human beings are not the best at reacting to clear disparities in ability or resources, especially when said disparities are not “earned”.

In social psychology, this phenomenon is called “Tall Poppy Syndrome” in which “ people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticized because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers ” (as quoted from Wikipedia).

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The term originates from Herodotus’ Histories, in which he claims that Greek ruler Thrasybylus implied that effective governing was akin to gardening his poppy garden, which he culled by cutting the tallest ears of wheat and discarding them. In the same vein, many versions of Lex Luthor consider themselves to be working in the public’s favor by attempting to cut down Superman and other heroes. In the series 52, Lex creates the“ Everyman Project ”, which was an effort to empower normal humans with meta-abilities, thus destroying the distinction of meta-humans. He of course wants to use the process on himself, but is told he is incompatible, leading him to kill some of his own created meta-humans.

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Despite his obvious personal hang-ups, Luthor’s reaction to Superman isn’t too far off from how real people would probably react in the given situation. Think of human achievement as a whole (sciences, philosophy, etc), then think of what the existence of an advanced alien race would mean for our pride in those endeavors. Superman isn’t just stronger, he’s often portrayed as being more intelligent and possessing superior technology than even Lex.

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In the film Men In Black (1997), Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) is asked by James (Will Smith) why they don’t just tell people aliens exist. He responds by casually looking at the people around him and musing “ Look at them, enjoying their lives. People like to feel as if they have a bead on things ”. His observation deepens:

A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow”.

All empirical disciplines are anthropic by necessity; we don’t have the benefit of being able to ask a squid or a cactus what they think life means (yet..). This is why the terracentric model of the universe was so popular, and also why no one could imagine the Earth didn’t have the shape that we view it as having. The narrative of humans significance in the universe is predicated on ignorance,as Kay points out. Therefore, the existence of a group of beings than are not only similar to us, but also superior would be horrifically jarring (some would say Lovecraftian) since it subverts our intellectual confidence. Lex Luthor is the “ panicky, dangerous animal ” Kay refers to. Supes is a man he can’t conquer, therefore he must reign him in. This explains Lex’s affectation of “ humanism ” in recent incarnations. Democratic philosophies like humanism often have the nefarious underwriting of aforementioned tall poppy syndrome: if everyone is equal, nobody can be superior (as pointed out by Dash in The Incredibles (2004) ; If everyone is special, nobody is “). People naturally want to be superior to someone; without superiority we would have very little to strive for. It’s just that there will always be someone of such inherent superiority that it cannot be matched by any amount of effort. Remember, Lex still wants power for himself (hence his betrayal of Project Everyman), despite his affectations of humanism. He justifies his own lust for power through “human ” determination, as opposed to Superman’s “alien” gifts.

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While Lex thinks Superman spells the end for human pride, I would say he does the exact opposite. Look to his origin: a simple farm boy who happens to lift tractors finds out he’s not human. He’s actually the last living survivor of a hyper advanced alien race. Does he become a professional athlete and make millions? No. Does he topple the government and declare the world “Kentopia”? No. He doesn’t even become a professional arm wrestler (which would have made him the protagonist in the Stallone arm wrestling film film Over The Top).

Yes,this really is a film about arm wrestling

Yes, this really is a film about arm wrestling

He puts on a cape and becomes a superhero, no reward necessary. Clark didn’t need to suffer a horrific tragedy (ala Batman and Spider-Man) or be given a dictum of higher calling (ala Wonder Woman and Green Lantern) in order to become a superhero, all he needed was good old fashioned hometown morals. Raised on a farm, Supes was subject to the bucolic American upbringing that most of the country would like to believe they came from. The juxtaposition between his mundane and fantastic lineage parallels Jesus Christ, who distinguished himself from the Jewish authorities (according to the New Testament) through his humility, which was a result of being born to a rural family. This upbringing prepared him to use his abilities and knowledge in order to guide humanity; as the good book says “the meek shall inherit the Earth” (Matthew 5:5). Similarly, Superman’s parents taught him a few basic tenets: take care of your family and neighbors, do no harm, be responsible. These are all things we’ve probably heard at some point in our lives and applied.

New Adventures of Superboy #16 ( April 1981 )

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Clark took these ideas to heart and ran with them ; in his original continuity he even protected his childhood home of Smallville as Superboy, which loosely influenced the series SmallvilleAs an adult, he felt that the same neighborhood values held true on a macro-level, so he took the universe under his protection as well. His heroism is a scaled up version of most people’s. This is probably why most of the current iterations of the character emphasize how “ regular ” Superman really is. The first trailer for Man of Steel (2013) shows a series of shots around what one could assume to be Smallville. Near the end,we see an old homemade video of a young man putting on a haphazard red cape, which communicates to the audience that this is the boy who will become Superman.

While he may affect grandeur of a superhero, he’s just an optimistic kid at heart. Most works that attempt to deconstruct Superman (Irredeemable, Squadron Supreme) seem to suggest that his heroism comes from an authoritarian provincialism, especially The Dark Knight Returns where he’s portrayed as a smug stooge of the government.

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The fact is, Clark never thought of himself in such lofty ways. He’s just an honest guy trying his best to use his abilities for the betterment of humanity. For all intents and purposes, he is human, and that’s what makes him Super-MAN. If such small-town morals can inspire him to be the world’s greatest hero, then that validates the humans that hold them.

Man of Steel

matrix11 Abraham Lincoln once said “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but it you want to test a man’s character, give him power”. Despite Lex Luthor’s struggles, he’s never done anything to alleviate the challenges of his fellow man with his power. In All-Star Superman, Lex Luthor states that he could have “saved the world if it wasn’t for [ Superman ]” to which Superman responds “You could saved the world a million times if it pleased you”. Superman sees through the humanist façade of Luthor: if he wanted to better humanity, it could have been accomplished easily given his means. The fact is, he’s been engaged in a epic dick-measuring contest with Superman for almost a century. In All-Star Superman, once Luthor is confident he has started the machination for Superman’s death, he decides to bow out of life a winner, which he ironically tells to Clark Kent. Clark becomes uncharacteristically angered by this. tumblr_lkd3an99qz1qjx5slo1_500 Despite thinking he’s going to die soon, what angers Superman the most isn’t what his nemesis did to him, but the fact that he wasted his potential in a pointless grudge match. Lex doesn’t follow through with his “humanist” goals once he has defeated Superman, revealing his crusade to be a selfish pursuit. In contrast, Superman doesn’t view humanity as something to be conquered, he actually recognizes the strength of will and ability to accomplish what Lex has and is frustrated that Lex doesn’t see the kinship they share. What makes Superman the world’s greatest hero, at least according to him, is that he sees the best in humanity.

Lex Luthor All-Star Superman

It is a remarkable dichotomy. In many ways, Clark is the most human of us all. Then… he shoots fire from the skies and it is difficult not to think of him as a god. And how fortunate we all are that it does not occur to him Batman

For more posts on Superman and DC Comics:

The Lois Lane Effect

Three Forms Of Comedy As Seen Through Justice League

Flash: The Quintessential Superhero

Bats In His Belfry: Batman As A Heroic Psychopath

Superstitious And Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption In Gotham City

Ben Affleck As Batman: Why So Serious?

From Comic To TV: Arrow As An Adaptation of Green Arrow

And finally, Lex Luthor’s greatest sin…

Flash: The Quintessential Superhero

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When most non-comic fans reflect upon the quintessential superhero, i’m quite sure most don’t think of the Flash. Don’t get me wrong, he’s pretty well-known, but as a secondary template of hero. To illustrate, most parodies or satirical works on superheroes cast either a Superman analogue (Captain Hero in Drawn TogetherMetro-Man in Megamind) or a Batman analogue (The Cape) or even a Spider-Man analogue ( Danny Phantom )The only time we see characters modeled on the Flash,it’s as a background character. Do you remember the super-fast “E-Male” from The PowerPuff Girls? Exactly. As far as most people are concerned, the Flash is the Hufflepuff of DC Comics, just there to even out the group portrait. I would say, however,that the reason he’s often regarded as “just another superhero” is because he codifies the genre more than any other character.

Flash: Rebirth #5 January 2010

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The comic character known as “The Flash” has been a fixture of DC Comics for several decades, with the title passing between several characters. The first was Jay Garrick, a man who accidentally inhaled “hard water fumes”, which is literally just water with high mineral content. It was the 40’s, they didn’t know better.

Flash Comics #1 March 1940

They never did establish why the bullet doesn't go through his hand...

They never did establish why the bullet doesn’t go through his hand…

Flash Vol 1 #123 September 1961

Flash_of_Two_Worlds Following him was the most recognizable Flash for comic fans, Barry Allen. Barry’s origin was somewhat less silly: while working at his job as a forensic scientist, a lightning bolt hits a bunch of chemicals in his lab, which douse him and bestow super speed.

I kind of wonder how would he know if his metabolism changed immediately,but then again i've never been hit with lightning

I kind of wonder how would he know if his metabolism changed immediately,but then again i’ve never been hit with lightning

Later on this is retroactively changed into a quasi-mystical energy called the “Speed Force” which chose him as a champion.Personally, I prefer the lightning bolt; the idea of speed being a “force” is kind of stupid. After Barry, a kid named Wally West later had the exact same accident befall him, which allowed him to become Barry’s inventively named sidekick Kid Flash.

These guys sure do love catching bullets

These guys sure do love catching bullets

When Barry “died” ( long story ) Wally replaced him. Wally is the same Flash in the animated series Justice League; he was used due to his more lighthearted nature in comparison to the other, more dour, Leaguers. As stated, Flash has always been the good ole standby for the Justice League,being a member of the very first incarnation and even being part of the predecessor to the league: the Justice Society of America.

Batman:Brave and The Bold's Justice Society

Batman:Brave and The Bolds Justice Society

One thing that’s important to remember about the superhero genre is that it’s a) relatively new b) highly derivative. The first appearance of Superman, the first character to be considered a superhero, was in the 1932, which was after pulp heroes such as The Shadow and Zorro. Both characters have been retroactively deemed superheroes in pop culture due to having features such as secret identities, outlandish costumes,and superior abilities. That kind of challenges the whole “first superhero” title Superman holds. The genre as a whole draws mostly from classical narratives like Gilgamesh, which told tales of men with extraordinary abilities. Superman was based on the mythical strongmen Samson and Hercules.

One of his original designs

One of his original designs

His suit was made to look like a “space-man’s” according to his creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, something akin to the outfits from the Flash Gordon pulp series. They even threw in some circus performer aspects, specifically the outside undies and the cape. It’s often claimed that when it comes to writing, there are no original ideas, which is definitely true of Superman. Not to say he’s not a unique character, it’s just easy to trace his inspirations, like most major superheroes. Batman had clear inspiration from the shadowy, morally ambiguous pulp heroes who preceded the genre, not to mention some Gothic horror influence in his early stories ( particularly the early design for his costume ). The modern Green Lantern mythos wouldn’t be out of place in Star Wars or any other space fantasy story. Pretty much any character could be thrown into a different genre with only a few changes, especially since many characters are only superheroes due to association with others (John Constantine, for instance).

The genre links several disparate themes into a hodgepodge whole due to loose narrative conventions (motivation, costumes, etc). While most have many of these themes in common, superheroes are still defined primarily by presupposition. What’s so unique about the Flash and his world is that it hits every convention nail on its head with as little variation as possible. His initial origin is as comic booky as they come: a freak lab accident bestows powers. It has the sci-fi aspects present in most superhero stories, which always make sure to incorporate as little science as possible. Its the most expedient of superhero origins, with little in the way of allegory.There isn’t even a motivation given for his heroism; his job as a forensic scientist makes it a given. Barry Allen’s quickness  to heroism ( pun unintended ) is lauded by Batman who once said “he is the man i hope i would have been if my parents didn’t die”. His simple transition into heroism only makes sense in a genre where becoming a hero is the only real option.

In addition, the Flashes just look superheroic, with their bright primary colored suits with identity concealing masks. Even super speed itself is such a uniquely supeheroic power: while there are super fast characters in myth, their speed is often but one facet of their power. The Flashes are all about being fast, to the point where speed is their whole motif. Flash is one of the first superheroes to be fully formed from the genre itself. Unlike most other superheroes, the Flashes are characters that only makes sense as superheroes. Could you imagine a hard-boiled noir with a bucket-headed speedster? What about a space opera with a super fast forensic scientist? Of course not; that’s just silly. The Flash could only be a superhero.

Final Crisis: Rogues Revenge ( 2008 )
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Flash’s rogues gallery follows suit by being mostly comprised of guys who literally could have done ANYTHING more productive than being villains, yet became villains anyway ( they’re even called “The Rogues” ). For example, one of his most persistent ( if not quite effectual ) villains is Leonard Snart aka Captain Cold, the eskimo of pain! This guy stole a cyclotron gun that slows molecules in objects, making them freeze.

Showcase #8 June 1957

cco2 Imagine all of the practical uses of such a thing; it would probably revolutionize the refrigerator industry. So of course he decides to dress up like a fucking eskimo, try to rob banks and occasionally try to shoot the fastest thing in the world with a gun. That won’t even kill him, mind you. Not that he would even dream it, he only wants to fight the Flash, not kill him.

Cold treats being a super-villain like a role in a play; the goal is to keep the conflict going, not end it. At one point, he’s questioned by a Central City police officer who lampshades the impracticality of his line of work, to which he succinctly responds “You smoke cigarettes. We all do things that are impractical“. He’s joined by fellow Rogues Trickster, Captain Boomerang, Heat Wave and others, all of whom wield advanced technology with the sole purpose of dicking around Central City. Captain Cold acts as the team’s director, teaching all of them how to play their parts appropriately. When a villain called Inertia tricks the Rogues into killing the Flash ( long story ),the Rogues are immediately remorseful and when Flash comes back to life, as per his contractual immortality, he not only apprehends Inertia, he delivers him to the Flash in order to make amends. It would be hard to imagine, say, the Green Goblin performing such an act for Spider-Man. There’s even an issue where the Flash goes to a party the Rogues throw just for the hell of it.

Flash #19 January 1988

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 The relationship the Flashes have with their Rogues can be summed up in this clip from  the Justice League Unlimited episode Flash and Substance ( February 11 2006)

Whereas most comic franchises have been trying to distinguish their specific brands from usual superhero fare, the Flash franchise chooses to actually emphasize its entrenchment in the genre. This is especially important in the Geoff Johns guided DC world of the 2000’s. Geoff engineered an overall return to the Silver Age of comics, with all of the old heroes returning (Green Lantern Hal Jordan, Ray Palmer aka The Atom, etc) which began with the resurrection of Barry Allen.

For those who don’t know, the Silver Age of Comics refers to a time period between 1956-1970, during which the genre was at its most whimsical.

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One could compare it to the Age of Romanticism in Western art, which focused on grandiose narratives and larger than life characters. The Flash mythos has been used to great effect to reconstruct the conventions of the Silver Age. For example, Captain Cold was revealed to have been physically abused as a child, inspiring his chilly demeanor (pun intended). Rather than turn this into a deconstruction of the usual super-villain motivation, it instead adds depth to the character and casts his decision to be a super-villain as a method of escapism. Captain Cold is still the goofy looking guy from the 60’s, he just happens to have a less happy childhood than imagined. Just as being Captain Cold allows Leonard Snart to enjoy a fantasy unattainable in regular life, reading superhero comics allows a reader to enjoy a world outside of their own.

While deconstructive series such as The Watchmen (1986) qualify the structural issues of the genre, reconstructive series like The Flash remake them even better than before. The Flash mythos coheres modern superhero conventions with the old, while still remaining escapist. Flash fights crime because he’s a superhero, and his villains commit crimes because they are villains. Nothing too confusing. As Shakespeare once said “All of the world is a stage and we’re all players

For more posts on comic book superheroes:

The Lois Lane Effect

Ben Affleck as Batman: Why So Serious?

Bat In The Belfry: Batman as a Heroic Psychopath

Superstitious and Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption in Gotham City

Superman as Defined by Lex Luthor

From Comic To TV: Green Arrow as Adapted into CW’s “Arrow”

Journey of Peter Parker from Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

The Best Spider-Man Issue Ever/Why Spider-Man Is A Classic Anti-Hero

Iron Man: Real American Hero

Iron Man 3 Review

Thor: The Dark World Review

For more info on Flash:

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheFlash http://dc.wikia.com/wiki/Flash

Recommended Reading

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The Flash live action series (for a look at the cons of adapting this character in other mediums)

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The Walking Dead: The Governor-Well Intentioned Extremist

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Season three of Walking Dead has given us the series’ first real Big Bad,The Governor,who is the de facto leader of Woodbury. His actions so far this season includes slaughtering a military company, keeping his zombie daughter captive, and kind-of-almost raping Maggie. There’s no dispute that he’s quite harsh, but are his means justified considering his ends? He’s running the closest thing to civilization in an apocalyptic scenario, and a damned good one at that considering the contentment of his people. He has the same goals that most of the protagonists share, he’s just a lot more successful at achieving them (well,up until recently). The indictment of Gov Phil by the show and its audience exemplifies the thematic car crash of the whole series,both diegetically and meta-diegetically. Is Walking Dead a dichotomous morality play set in a zombie world or is it an ambiguous look at human decision-making during desperate times? I’m not sure if even the writing team is sure. The Team Rick vs Woodbury dynamic gives us one of the most legible examples of this conflict.

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The Governor’s first appearance in the season establishes his fervor for border control. Upon finding a lone soldier, he quickly ascertains the position of his squad and then proceeds to kill them,along with the aforementioned soldier. The Governor’s reaction is extreme, yet the logical conclusion of the xenophobia shared by the series’ characters. Hershel didn’t even want Team Rick on his property in the second season, and their presence did lead to a death of a family member of his, making his concern justified. And in the current season, Rick was willing to send prisoners out into a hostile world just in case they bore him ill will (which they did).  In a modern, non-apocalyptic scenario, it’s easy to believe that people should assume the best of outsiders. America is the nation that opens its arms to “weak, huddled masses”, after all. In reality, the only reason why you and I can afford such a pleasantry is because we have the backing of an organized government. Despite what border patrols nuts will tell you,the threat of a few nefarious immigrants is minimal compared to any moderately organized police force. In addition,dealing with dissidents is just a matter of how long do you want them to be locked up. Michael Scofields do not abound in the real world. When these systems collapse, neighborliness collapses with it. During Hurricane Katrina, it was tragically common for opportunists to ransack and rob their own neighbors during the confusion. Even outside of natural disasters, third world countries like the Philippines often have smaller insular communities with their own militias in case some shit goes down.  Mind you, these examples are on a small scale, the world of Walking Dead has NO governing bodies whatsoever. A town like Woodbury has to be completely self-sufficient, so the room for error is nil. While yes, the soldier seemed innocuous enough, who could say the same for his squad? It wouldn’t be hard for a bunch of heavily armed and trained soldiers to run a train on a collective like Woodbury. Hell, if Team Rick’s dispute with the prisoners ended differently, the others would have had to make due with a one-legged old man, a child,that idiot T-Dog and those women (fuck feminism; you know they can’t do shit).  With such potential threats, it just doesn’t make sense to take in many outsiders unless you can completely determine the situation, an attitude the Governor seems to subscribe to. This is explains why the Governor reacts the way he does to Michonne: while she is shown to be heroic, her enigmatic nature and quickness to violence makes her a dangerous variable to the tight-knit community. Variables are a no go in such a tenuous civilization.

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The Governor’s extreme decisions are a logical consequence of what the series’ characters have been veering towards throughout the show. Multiple characters have proposed tenets that simultaneously subvert and promote the value of provincial values in the end game scenario that is a zombie apocalypse. Rick wants his preteen son to behave as a man, yet his wife believes that having a burdensome baby is perfectly rational. Dale believes that they shouldn’t take a human life if not necessary, and Rick later stabs his best friend. These problems only exist due to a lack of human resources. If Team Rick had more men,they wouldn’t have to have a child serve as a soldier. If they had a psychiatric facility, Rick could’ve put his buddy in a cell instead of giving him a hillibilly shanking. Without the human resources, there can be no convenient distribution of labor. This means that the same people who want to hold on to their ideas of civilization have to perform extremely uncivilized tasks. It’s a scenario destined for failure. What’s great about having the resources of a town, even a small one like Woodbury, is that only the Governor and his hit squad have to take on the emotional brunt of making hard choices. They create the necessary buffer between the zombie world and the innocent citizenry. Despite most human beings’ reluctance to take another life, all of our world governments have some kind of organized military, implying that there are always those needed to deal with less savory tasks. As stated earlier,the draconian nature of Woodbury’s militia is due to the fact that they still don’t have that many resources. Hard choices need to be made, and the Governor is levying them as best as he can.

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Unfortunately, The Governor has the same sentiments as the other characters from the series as well. Most egregiously, he decided to keep his zombified daughter locked up in a room,seemingly in the hopes that she can be somehow rehabilitated. His delusion is nearly the same as Hershel’s; they both are unable to accept the realities of the virus and assume there will be some kind of rebirth for their loved ones. While many viewers view such a stance as silly, it’s important to remember that most funeral traditions endeavor to obfuscate the finality of death. Christian services often quote biblical verses referencing the rising of the dead to heaven (For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens;2 Corinthians 5:1). In addition,many animistic religions regarded certain animals with reverence because they believed they were reincarnated humans. Ironically, a zombie apocalypse is probably the closest thing to eternal life, as Hershel himself wryly points out. The inability to accept death is not just a religious convention; it’s not uncommon for even  the secular to spout aphorisms like “Aunt Sally exists as long as we remember her”. Hell, many of the irreligious decide to join the God-team for the sake of a funeral anyway. The Governor’s struggle to give up hope on his daughter is a common one. How many people have kept brain-dead family members alive for years just to have them be present? Not to mention the parents of children who are so dangerously mentally ill that they pose a danger to themselves and others. At the very least,the Governor has enough reason to chain up the girl and remove her teeth. He ain’t that dumb. The Governor has his sentiment, but at least manages to keep it hidden away as to cause no harm.

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For a series with as many narrative troubles as Walking Dead, the Governor gives us a useful way to judge the moral conflicts of the series. He shares many of the same sentiments as Team Rick, but is sociopathic enough to distance them for what practically needs to be done. Is it a perfect balance? Fuck no,based on what the outcome has been in the last few episodes. It’s the type of concession that would have to occur in such dire circumstances.

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Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road (2006) explores the same conflict,as a father and son try to survive in a completely blighted landscape. (SPOILERS AHOY) Upon entering a dark silo, the father gives his son two choices of implement: a torch and a gun. The torch,obviously, is a tool to illuminate the dark, whereas the gun has a more bleak use. If the father is ever to die, he has instructed his son to kill himself immediately, so he won’t suffer. The torch and gun motif is carried on throughout the novel: the torch is the last glimmer of life in the dead world they inhabit; it allows them warmth and sight. The gun however, becomes a symbol of inevitability; a reminder that their journey is ultimately futile. When the father does begin to die, he asks the boy to disregard his previous order, which (as most readings suggest) leads to his death anyway due to his choice to stay near his dying father. The ending, where he is found by a family, is often thought to be the last pang of optimism that allows him a brief respite before the end. That’s some sad shit. (SPOILERS END) In life and death scenarios, optimistic conventions such as innocence has to come second to pragmatism in order to survive. At the same time,such pragmatism, as seen in The Road, can sometimes be equally as destructive to our more romantic beliefs. The question is,what constitutes survival for humanity: the continuation of biological processes or beliefs? The protagonists of Walking Dead have yet to arrive at that answer. Even the Governor hasn’t arrived at an answer.

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For more posts on television:

From Comic to TV: Green Arrow as Adapted into “Arrow”

From Comic to TV: Arrow as an Adaptation of Green Arrow

                      Green_Arrow_0012 (1)                 Green Arrow Arrow

For those of you not in the know, CW’s Arrow is a prime time action series based on the DC Comic character Green Arrow, who was created in 1941 created by Morton Weisinger and drawn by George Papp.

More Fun Comics #73 November 1941

I love how his sidekick clearly tried to headshot that guy

I love how his sidekick clearly tried to head-shot that guy

You can be forgiven for not knowing who the hell that is, since he’s not exactly the most prominent superhero in American media. Green Arrow started out as an obvious ripoff of Batman: he was a billionaire playboy orphan who used his athleticism,technology,and guile to fight crime. Except instead of having a bat gimmick,he used the much more subtle Robin Hood motif. Good choice.He even had an Arrowmobile (which would make Freud drop his cigar), and a sidekick called Speedy (who later became a heroin addict. Seriously).

Kid's racist too? No wonder Arrow let him go.

Kid’s racist too? No wonder Arrow let him go.

While at first his choice of costume was merely due to his use of the bow, his character became revamped in the early 1970’s to have left-wing politics reflective of his Robin Hood motif. In the series Green Lantern Green Arrow, he became a liberal counterpoint to the conservative Green Lantern. The success of the series popularized this version of the character.

Green Lantern Vol 2. #76 April 1970

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Due to his origin,it would be easy to assume that Arrow would be a differently-hued The Dark Knight ( 2012 ), yet it manages to avoid just that. Don’t get me wrong,there’s plenty of thematic overlap ( a corrupt city government, morally ambiguous heroism, etc ), but much of it is inherent to the subgenre, which the series has an intriguing take on.

Ollie keeps sane by re-enacting episodes of "Grizzly Adams"

Ollie keeps sane by re-enacting episodes of “Grizzly Adams”

Quick recap: billionaire Oliver Queen ends up stranded on an island during a cruise with his father, which he later manages to escape from due to a passing boat after several years. He comes back with a certain set of skills that makes him dangerous to criminals. Unlike most superhero tales, he doesn’t take an interest in bank robbers or gangsters and instead begins a crusade against the corrupt one-percenters of Starling City. His father, a corrupt businessman himself, decides to make his son promise to avenge his sins and those of his peers. He gives him a list of men who have perverted the lives of Starling’s residents, which Oliver uses as a hit list.

arrow-tv-showThe list provides an interesting alternative to the conventional superhero crusade: most heroes have a more emotional relationship between their impetus for heroism and their methodology rather than a more pragmatic one. For example, Spider-man fights crime because he feels responsible for the death of his uncle,which is a fairly childish sentiment since he didn’t actually kill him in any of the interpretations of his origin. At worst, he was as culpable as a bystander to any crime. Batman’s vigilantism is driven by anger and fear at a faceless and nameless criminal element. Batman thinks of his antagonists as “superstitious and cowardly lot” who prey on women and children in the corners of the city for kicks. Neither one of these guys have any real sociological observations about what causes crime or how to rehabilitate criminals, they’re just excercising a thankfully beneficial pathos. While Oliver is initially motivated by his father’s death, he has the benefit of also being given a clear dictum of how to make to make lemonade out of really shitty lemons. As such, he has legible antagonists, Starling’s evil fat cats. In one episode, it’s brought to his attention that a string of violent bank robberies have taken place in the city. His response is succinct: “It’s not my problem. These robberies are the symptoms,I only care about curing the disease”, which also unintentionally sounds like the tagline of Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra.

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His crusade resonates well in a post “March on Wall Street America”. Class conflict is as prevalent as ever, just look at the firebrand that was Mitt Romney’s 47% speech.  Rich dudes make easy targets in today’s political climate, making him truly a modern day Robin Hood. While the character has had left-wing connotations for awhile, Arrow is the first time he turns out into basically a strong arm socialist. Despite a few liberal lectures, comic book Ollie was perfectly content fighting the same rabble all other heroes do. Hell, in his first Justice League appearance,he stops a convenience store robbery ( which also happens in Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra; it’s as if they’re the same guy ). This is important for the sake of a series, since Ollie can’t just be a generic crusader if he’s to carry his own series. Given him a unique motive separates the show from the legion of other superhero series.

He sure did miss that apple

He sure did miss that apple

In addition to warring against the bourgeoisie, Arrow’s protagonist also surprisingly has no compunction about violating the “no kill” policy. In the first episode he snaps a goon’s neck without a thought in order to protect his identity, establishing his lack of interest in preserving the lives of his enemies. His threats to those on his list are cut and dry: reform or die. Arguably, this is part of the pragmatism of Ollie as compared to other superheroes. Anyone,who’s familiar with comics knows the idea of a superhero killing people is nothing new, it’s actually quite old considering that pulp heroes like the Phantom killed guys all the time in pre-Depression era comics. The only reason why later superhero comics avoided this was because it was illogical to kill off a compelling antagonist, which would be the narrative equivalent of General Motors selling a flying car for only a week. Despite this, I would hesitate to call the character a throwback to a less censored time and instead state that it’s a logical narrative choice for a realistic series. What’s the point of having a bow and arrow if you’re not dropping bodies? There is none. I guess Ollie could knock guns out of the bad guys hands ala Blazing Saddles but that would probably stop working the minute he fights guys with more than one gun. While Ollie is is inspired by a superhero,the world he lives in doesn’t include the likes of a Superman or a Captain America, so there’s no compelling moral reason for him to not use lethal force. If you’re going to use violence to solve problems, there’s no reason to stop at broken bones (An ideology he shares with,you guessed it, Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra). This cannot be a coincidence).  Arrow’s Ollie reflects the development of his comic counterpart, who recently killed a super-villain called Prometheus in Justice League: Cry for Justice (2009-2010). Both counterparts of Ollie honed their abilities for survival, which rationally included killing. Whereas Batman had the luxury to have years to hone his abilities in a safe environment, Green Arrow had to learn them in a dog-eat-dog world. Therefore, he applies the same methods to vigilantism.

Justice League: Cry for Justice #7 April 2010

"At my core, I wasn't a hero. I was a hunter"-Green Arrow

“At my core, I wasn’t a hero. I was a hunter”-Green Arrow

In addition to being a great adaptation of the comic character, the series also works Green Arrow’s origin story into a ( so far ) competent myth arc. For those not familiar with script-speak a “myth arc” is simply a plot that spans an entire series ( think the mystery of the island in LOST ). As with most hour dramas, Arrow‘s myth arc begins in ambiguity.

Green Arrow Deathstroke4

The comic origin of Green Arrow is almost completely the same as the series,a boy is stranded on an island and uses archery and other skills to survive. In the series, most of what happened on the island is left intentionally mysterious. This is kind of necessary when you consider just HOW many skills Ollie has been said to have learned while castaway, which includes archery ( duh ), stealth ,parkour, and martial arts. The expansion pack nature of the island is pretty convenient, since the writers have another thing to compel the audience to continue to watch consistently. And lets be fair,it also allows them excuse for awhile how ludicrous of a scenario the series is: a twenty year old billionaire just happened to survive for seven years on a hostile island while maintaining his sanity and enough muscle mass to do cool ass shit like this:

Chances are,if this plot really happened he would have probably returned looking more like this:

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The beauty of myth arcs though, is that it gives writers a lot of time to stall when it comes to tying things together, which can either be really good or really bad. Ask fans of Twin Peaks (1990-1991whether or not they felt satisfied by the “conclusion” of the series. Or LOSTIt’s a gamble to put so many eggs in one narrative basket. Without spoiling anything, the series suggest a conspiracy so massive, you’d think Herbert Hoover arose from the grave to concoct it with the Illuminati and Light Yagami. Since the series is still quite new, one just has to wait.

Overall, Arrow is a great series and a great adaptation of a fairly obscure comic character. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some of the CW crap that’s common to all of their shows ( the trite love triangles, for instance ) but I grew to overlook them. Hopefully the series can be used as a model for future comic adaptations.

Green Arrow Vol. 3

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For more posts on comic book superheroes:

Ben Affleck as Batman: Why So Serious?

Batman as a Heroic Psychopath

Superstitious and Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption in Gotham City

Superman as Defined by Lex Luthor

Flash: The Quintessential Superhero

Journey of Peter Parker from Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

The Best Spider-Man Issue Ever/Why Spider-Man Is A Classic Anti-Hero

Iron Man: Real American Hero

Iron Man 3 Review

For more posts on television:

The Walking Dead: The Governor as a Well Intentioned Extremist

For more info on Green Arrow and Arrow:

http://dc.wikia.com/wiki/Green_Arrow_(Oliver_Queen)

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/GreenArrow

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Series/Arrow

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2193021/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

Recommended Viewing

Justice League Unlimited Episode 1:Initiation

And finally:the best scene from Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra

Django Unchained: Reflections on Calvin Candie

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As I’m pretty sure many have heard, filmmaker Spike Lee (among many other black celebrities) have denounced the film Django Unchained (2013) as making a mockery of the still sensitive subject of slavery. While I can see how many could jump to that conclusion, it’s important to remember that the director hasn’t even SEEN the film. More importantly, astute viewers would realize that the film actually makes a very nuanced commentary on what was the backbone of American slavery: the common slaveholder’s mindset, as exemplified through Calvin Candie.

Before I go further, let me give you some background on how an institution like slavery persisted for so long in the first place. Venkatesh Rao, an accomplished writer, proposed a theory of organization that applies not only to businesses, but also cultural institutions. If you can, read his entire series here, it’s brilliant. His proposed structure is made up of three layers: losers, clueless, and sociopaths.

macleod-hierarchy

The sociopaths are the top of any organization, they recognize how to manipulate those below them and they also are unburdened with the common sentiments that keep underlings at their stations (camaraderie, pride, etc). The layer beneath them are clueless: who are the polar opposite of their superiors. These people think that instutions are concrete, transcendent structures. Far from being stoic, these people are mostly driven by sentiment, their combined delusions turn worthless concepts like “ethics” and “political correctness” into a reality. Remember the lost boys from Hook (1991) who imagined food into existence? These guys are those kids in the workplace. Losers are just the guys at the bottom, who through unfortunate circumstances or sloth have ended up as the butt monkeys of capitalism. They are not necessarily losers in the social sense: they might get laid on the weekend and be in a decent garage band. It’s just they are not “winners” in the capitalist sense (i.e. they eat ramen every day). How does this relate Calvin Candie? Don’t worry, I’m getting there

Using Rao’s concept of organizational structure, we can get an idea of slavery worked. It’s important to realize that America was not the first country to enslave a group of people. For example, England had an extensive trade in flesh, particularly of the Scottish. Americans also had “indentured servants” of United Kingdom descent and even managed to enslave a few Native Americans as well. The fact is, for a certain group of sociopaths, slavery was nothing more than a logical economic choice: the minimal investment of seizing a group of people (who were often WILLINGLY given up by other Africans who had already enslaved them) who had little defense, for the massive gain of a lifetime of mostly unpaid labor. The fact is, slavery just had a chilling logic too it. Too chilling, in fact. Sure, everyone would love to have a personal servant who did everything for them, (just think of how many 90’s sitcoms had precocious youngsters blackmailing their peers to do their chores in a French maid outfit) but most people aren’t THAT malicious. Therefore, the only way this institution could exist was if the common slaveholder,clueless to the ramifications of his actions, didn’t think of himself as a monstrous tyrant, but instead merely part of a cosmic order. And yes, I’m getting there

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Calvin Candie’s introduction communicates much of his schema to the audience immediately. The first thing we hear about him is that he’s obsessed with French culture, with the *minor* caveat of him not understanding the language. What kind of man claims to be a connoisseur of French culture without speaking the language?  A pretentious white man, that’s who. Calvin Candie’s francophilia is nothing more than a fetish, something which he feels gives him an aire of sophistication but doesn’t compel him to actually learn about the culture, which is highlighted when he’s shown to not know a prominent French author is (gasp) black.

We find out later on in the scene that his fetishism extends to blacks as well, as he revels in the spectacle of  his “mandingo” fighting match. Whereas everyone else in his leisure room is disgusted by the sight, Candie is not only enjoying it, but is literally sitting right next to the men as they battle. The ostentatiousness of everything in the room, including Candie himself, jars with how primal the fight is. The men are shirtless and writhing while battling; a purposefully ugly display of violence in a film that otherwise makes light of such matters. Candie is wealthy. Stupidly fucking wealthy. There’s not one part of him that identifies with these poor creatures. His world is wholly different, which is why “mandingo” fighting holds such appeal. ‘Mandingo’ is a common epithet for black men, referencing their sexual prowess. The term denotes a powerful, exotic savage, unhindered by the restrictions of society that dilettantes like Candie are shackled by (the poor creature!).

Andrew Jackson had a similar sentiment towards the Native Americans, who he often dubbed “noble savages” for their wily tactics despite, you know, kicking them out of the homelands and stuff.  This is why Candie’s so enamored with Django,he has the refined brutality of a rapier, as opposed to the cudgel-like nature of someone like D’artagnan. Candie is impressed by the brute power he associates with blacks, which gives him a short reprieve from his more refined existence. Of course, we later see that Calvin is still capable of violence himself.

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While Candie clearly loves his mandingo fighting, he also seems to have some softer sentiments towards his negro underlings. His relationship with Stephen is clearly familial; he treats him with the bemusement one would have towards a doddering, drunk uncle. And as stated, he practically becomes erect over Django. We must once again remember that a large section of slave owners didn’t so much hate slaves, as much as they just merely think them inferior. This is akin to how a parent feels about a child, or how a master feels about a dog. A child is a person, but, as Louis CK put it “they’re the only human being you’re allowed to hit”. Ditto for dogs, who you can legally castrate “for their own good”. Simply put, one can have an affectionate relationship with someone and still treat them in a diminishing manner, which includes slave owners as well.

Thomas Jefferson, famed opponent of slavery, owned a lavish estate called the “Monticello” which treated its slaves to the finest clothes and work incentives. Despite this, in his 1785 book Notes on the State of Virginia, he said “blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distant by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind”. While Jefferson clearly wished his slaves no harm, he also thought of their positions as being a matter of fact, something which should never be challenged, which is why he fervently opposed the helping of runaway slaves.

Candie is not nearly as benevolent as Jefferson, but he clearly has a place in his heart for the slave/slave holder relationship, hence why D’artagnan’s attempted escape was such an insult. So imagine how pissed he was when Django did the same damn thing? When he realizes he’s been portrayed, he retrieves the skull of a loyal slave of his, a morbid yet oddly heartwarming gesture. Of course, he immediately subverts this by sawing open the poor guy’s skull just to explain that the bumps inside his skull signifies the negro’s inability to create. While this sounds ludicrous, what Candie is talking about is based on something once thought of as an actual science: Phrenology.

Head-Measurer_of_Tremearne_(side_view)

Yes, believe it or not,some people really thought that if you measure the head, you can determine how a person thinks. Now while this did inspire lots of modern neuroscience, it was originally used to “scientifically” justify the superiority of the white race. One literary example is the “head-measurer” in Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness (1899) who measures the protagonist’s head in order to determine if interacting with the residents of the Congo could affect a white man’s skull. History has always been fraught with examples of pseudoscience such as this which attempt to make personal desires a reality (alchemy, demonology, etc). Yet, such idiotic concepts are necessary to support an institution as tenuous as slavery; even Candie himself points out that slaves have the sheer numbers to overthrow their masters. A clueless such as Candie has to believe in such fanciful ideas; if he’s wrong about a negro’s place in the world, he can’t enjoy his mandingo fights, his Uncle Tom sidekick, or his Django man-crush. Candie is defined by his indulgences, (his sister, his francophilia) so not only will he support them with bullshit science, he’ll underwrite said science with violence. If Django and Schultz are unable to concede to his head theories, he’ll crack open Brunhilde’s head to show how wrong they are.

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There’s a beautiful seamlessness to this threat: Candie’s cracking-open of a negro’s head is scientific research; a necessary way to show that he is the superior. Just as the parent sometimes needs to beat a child or the master needs to hit a dog in order to “teach”. While Candie does legitimately believe he is merely acting out a sociological imperative, he has the necessary defense mechanisms to support such an idea. In this case, the mechanism is “might makes right”.

In closing, while some (i.e. Spike Lee) may think that Django Unchained diminishes the horrors or slavery, i believe that he’s only partly right (and still for the wrong reasons). Rather than making a flatly evil antagonist, Dicaprio and Tarantino, create a beautifully pathetic person, a man who’s only goal is to live a life of intellectual hedonism. And by doing so, he becomes a commentary on an often over-simplified period in history.The institution of slavery had more nuance that many would be willing to admit, and the ideologies that supported it continue to be common today.

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For more posts on Afro Americans in media:

Slave Ownership As Seen Through Roots

Black Masculinity In Media Part 1: Cornball Brothers

Black Masculinity In Media Part 2: Black Supermen

Black Masculinity In Media Part 3: Noble Savages

Recommended Reading

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phrenology

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (For reflections on the master/slave relationship)

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Roots by Alex Haley (For a great look at how slave owners and overseers viewed the institution of slavery)

Roots_25th_Anniversary_Edition

Heart of Darkness (Which is a commentary on [perceived] white superiority)

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