There’s a great scene in Max Landis’ recent Superman comic book, “American Alien,” where a pint-sized Clark Kent has just learned how to fly. This version of Clark isn’t the Messianic Fountain of Pouting that recent portrayals of Superman have become. He’s just a kid who wants nothing more than to catch a movie at Smallville’s drive-in with his best friend, Pete Ross, and (hopefully) Lana Lang, his crush. So when Clark figures out that he can fly, he doesn’t decide to use his powers to save the world — at least, not yet.
He just gushes to his parents about all the vacations they could take as they eat dinner. Clark hops onto his chair, wide-eyed and ecstatic, and he offers to carry the family car all the way to France, maybe even Hawaii. It’s the future Superman looking like a kid you’ve just told will spend Christmas at Disneyland. This scene is touching and brimming with pathos, like a Pixar movie dialed to 11. Still, none of this ever happened. This moment is restrained by its own sense of ontology — it’s one page in a comic book, pure fiction.
Regardless of how fictional any Superman comic is, I am still affected in ways that are anything but fictional. I find myself captivated by a specific arrangement of panels, words and images — absorbed by the adventures of an alien from Krypton. For about 30 pages, I am given the chance to escape into a universe where heroism reigns.
We live in a moment where our culture finds itself similarly absorbed; a time where geek culture is the mainstream. Superhero movies dominate the box office, and I dare you to look for a product that doesn’t have a “Star Wars”-branded counterpart (May the fruits be with you).The reason for this shift might be baffling for some, but I think it is quite obvious. Pop culture has embraced capes and tights for the same reason I did: We all seek escapism.
Seeking escapism in entertainment is nothing new. After all, the film industry took off during the Great Depression. But I believe that the innovation of geek culture is to provide a hyperbolic sense of escapism. This allows our heroes to epitomize an ideal, which is how a character like Superman becomes a pure symbol of hope, something which could only exist in fiction. Geek culture makes itself still further conducive to escapism with the vast sense of mythology inherent in it.
In my opinion, the success of “Star Wars” doesn’t lie in its story (George Lucas based “Star Wars” off Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With A Thousand Faces,” after all), but rather in the world it creates. Its lived-in textures, multitude of planets and mythology of the Force create a world that is pure escapist joy to wander in. Even in something like “Star Trek,” science fiction that works more like a societal mirror rather than an escape hatch, you can indulge in the possibility of a utopian 23rd century.
The challenge of escapism and geek culture today though, has changed. We live in a strange time where the line between fiction and reality has blurred. Our political climate has taken a turn for the Shakespearean. Hell, our president-elect is basically Lex Luthor, a rich guy who hates aliens. What was once escapism has now turned into something real, and frighteningly so. With this in mind, the job of geek culture has now become nuanced. Rather than provide mere solace from the real world, it now needs to be sustaining, inspiring and empowering as well.
Allow me to deviate. The last track in the “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice” score is a song called “Men Are Still Good.” It comes as Bruce Wayne realizes that he must see the potential in people before giving in to the paranoid urge to build super-rad mech suits and assure enemies that they will bleed. The song suggests that men are indeed still good, as it begins with Hans Zimmer’s Superman theme: an ascendant movement of two chords that points skyward, a sonic distillation of hope. But the song closes with the Batman theme, a dour fugue of pessimism that suggests the song’s title is interrogatory rather than declarative: Men are still good?
I don’t know the answer to the question the song poses. I don’t even know if it asks anything at all, but it should. We all need to start taking our escapism, whatever that may be, politically when possible. All art is created with purpose, and it is up to us to interpret that purpose.
In any case, I think that it is geek culture’s job to reassure us that people are still good at heart. I want to escape the division, belligerence and fear-mongering that we’ve seen thus far, something which I fear might be just the tip of a Titanic-poking, unfathomably pointy, Costco-sized iceberg. I think we’re seeing hints of this inspiring brand of escapism sprout in geek culture. The current Marvel universe of comics features a diverse superhero team called the Champions that vows to, in the words of Kamala Khan — who plays Ms. Marvel — “enforce justice without unjust force.”
The recently released “Arrival” is a plea for us to talk to, not yell, at each other. If a comic book, movie, television show, novel or song can convince me that there’s hope for humanity yet, then I know there’s someone out there who created that art. For that to happen, that artist has to believe in what they’re saying, and if nothing else, that’s one person who isn’t an awful, subterranean, bile-spewing protozoan. And that seems like a rare thing these days.
As “American Alien” progresses, we don’t see Clark carry the family car all the way to France, or even Hawaii. Instead we see him become a young man who starts accepting his alien identity, getting comfortable in his own skin so he can finally put on a cape and start saving the world. Later in the series, Clark is having lunch with his future wife, Lois Lane. The two sit across each other in a diner booth, and they start discussing Metropolis’ new hero.
Of course, Lois doesn’t yet know who Clark really is, and Clark isn’t quite sure of it either. The two reporters give their own take on what Superman should be. Clark says that he isn’t sure if Superman is up to the task of keeping Metropolis safe. Lois on the other hand, says “I want to believe there’s someone out there who doesn’t suck, Clark.” Me too, Lois. Me too.
Contact Harrison Tunggal at [email protected].