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Shoot your superheroes

superman-butlerI am no comic book historian, but I am willing to go out on a limb and propose that the possibilities for superhero mythology were exhausted by the bottom of the third page of Superman, Issue 1, Volume 1 (1938), and that the subsequent 70-odd years of furious homoerotic/hetero-normative masturbatory artwork, extreme vigilante violence, and juvenile scenery-chewing dialogue have done little but orbit around and elaborate on that one brilliant moment of insight into 20th century post-industrial human frailty. In case you’ve already auctioned off your copy of that issue, allow me to narrate the action. Superman is in a hurry, doin’ good, but a nervous butler doesn’t trust his motives. The butler pulls a revolver (the best butlers are strapped, apparently). “Reach for the ceiling, quick!” But Superman is stalwart. “Put that toy away!” The butler insists: “I warn you! Take another step and I shoot!” Superman steps; the butler shoots.

Obviously you and I know what happens next, but since this wordless last panel appears at the bottom of page 3, one could presume that the anxious pre-teen 1938 eyes watching Superman leap into action for the first time ever will experience a moment of uncertainty before glancing to the top of page 4: Is Superman dead? Because the butler shot him right in the chest! Surely no one could survive such a wound. And yet! Hark! “The bullet ricochet’s off Superman’s tough skin!” Amazing!

This was amazing because by 1938, it was clear in the public imagination what a bullet could do to the human body. Aside from the recent horrors of World War I and the looming horrors of a rearmed Germany, newspapers had been full of Roaring 20s violence, Prohibition-era conflicts between cops and robbers armed with drum-magazined Thompson sub machine guns that could cut a man in half with slugs the size of cherry stones.

In the space of a generation, guns had gone from bulky, slow, unreliable, and inaccurate contraptions used mostly by experienced professionals, to small mass-produced lethal machines, loaded and discharged in minutes, that an amateur could use to kill a person (or a lot of persons) from across a room by pressing a button. There was no way to stop a bullet. You could deflect a knife, survive a punch, duck a lead pipe; but bullets were invisible, moved faster than sound and crushed right through walls, metal, clothing, skin, muscle, bone, brain. A bullet was as close to death-by-magic that you could possibly get in a secular world, an invincible and irrefutable form of individual-on-individual violence whose result could not be reversed on appeal. At the very least, a bullet had the god-like power to change your life, instantly, through inflicting permanent injury. You would have to be an exceptional individual to survive a shooting unscathed, a super-human. Or if you like, a superman.

That imagined moment in 1938 when Superman bared his chest to a butler with a revolver and the bullet bounced off like a paper pellet did not represent the beginning of superpowers. It represented an imagined end to the ultimate superpower, the power to kill someone instantly from a distance by pointing and squeezing a piece of widely available consumer technology. (It’s no wonder Superman’s archenemy is an inventor.) Superhero lore ever since has done its best to tip-toe around this initial and final insight into what “super” really means. There is some tacit acknowledgement. Captain America needs his bullet-proof (OK, everything-proof) shield. Later iterations of Batman give him bullet-proof armor. Ironman has his alloys. Probably Spider-man’s fans excuse him by mumbling something about spidy-sense.

Mostly, though, conceptions of comic book vigilantes and bad guys fail to acknowledge the essential truth, addressed in Superman #1, that bullets are the ultimate superpower. Doctor Octopus is quite brilliant and has fancy super-strong metal appendages, but he also has a meat-sack of a body that a .38 Special could put down in a pink haze. Take your pick of the X-Men – Jean Gray, Cyclops, Rogue, Iceman, Beast. They’re all flesh and blood. Maybe they could stop or dodge a few bullets, but not a hail of 9mm moving at 1,300 feet per second. Daredevil moves pretty quickly, but so do clay pigeons, and people shoot those all the time, for fun. In fact, it’s ironic that superheroes so often take on names of animals – panthers, rhinos, lions, eagles, wolves – brought to the brink of extinction precisely because humans are so effective at killing things with guns.

Maybe the greatest fantasy of comic book mythology isn’t the creation of superheroes, but the conception of armed civilians as harmless – that is, the imagination of a world where bullets don’t kill. The irony is that in real life, 70 years after Superman #1, a warm gun is still the greatest superpower. And in real life, you can buy those superpowers at Wal-Mart. Millions do, imagining they will be heroes.

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