2016 minus 14: real power(s)?

Posted: 18 December 2015 in 2016minus

Many years ago, I remember asking a friend what it was like, being a father? This was just a few weeks before my son Philip was born, and it was only when I held Phil for the first time that I realised what a damned fool question it was. Because, of course, there’s no way you can adequately explain it. That’s not to say that it’s necessarily better or worse than not having kids. I’ve friends who’ve made the decision not to have children; I’d never insult them by saying “oh, you’re missing out” or any such crap. It’s just… different.

And it carries on being different. While visiting one friend who’s in hospital, I caught up with someone I’ve not seen in ages. He’s got a young lad of his own. Said it (the experience) and he (the child) was so much fun… I told him, quite honestly, that he’s got more fun coming his way the next twelve months than he can comprehend; and it’s true. It’s true whether the child is two years’ old or six. Eight years’ old or ten. Of course the day the child turns 13, he’s got more hell coming his way over the next twelve months, he has no idea… But yeah, asking “what’s it like, having a child?”

In a similar way, I’m pretty sure that asking the question “what would it really be like, if super-heroes existed?” would be equally daft… because no matter what we think it would be like, the repercussions and consequences of having real life super-heroes can only be imagined, not explained.

For a start, of course, there isn’t any empirical data. Or, is that just what they want you to think?

No, best not to go down that route, I think. That way lies madness, turquoise tracksuits and a belief in the possession of  weapons of mass destruction by people just because you don’t like them.

There have been plenty of comic stories, even series, that have attempted, seriously or otherwise, to show what it would be like if super-heroes actually existed. Some of them try to show the effect it would have upon life on this planet. (This is, of course, as opposed to stories simply about super-heroes, set in the story’s own ‘continuity’.)

I’m tempted to talk about Wild Cards here, but I’ll leave that for another column. Although there was a comic book based upon the series of speculative prose books, and some well known comic book writers contributed stories, it’s not primarily a comics based series, and I’m sticking to them for this entry.

I guess at this point it becomes inevitable to mention Watchmen. But despite most people thinking of Watchmen as a super-hero book (the movie was certainly promoted that way) it’s not. With the exception of Dr Manhattan, they’re not super-powered heroes. They’re costumed vigilantes. But of course, that makes sense. In a world where super-heroes exist, it doesn’t make sense that the subjects of the book would be the only such super-powered beings, does it? Given that, Watchmen is predicated upon the existence of these vigilantes and attempts to portray the realistic consequences of their existence.

I love the book, although I do question the view that it’s a justifiable interpolation into ‘real life’. Despite my admiration for both the writing and art, I tend to the view (expressed by Peter David, I believe) that it’s realistic… right up until they stick that alien in the middle of Times Square…

But is even the earlier depiction of these vigilantes realistic? Rather than attempting to show realistic vigilantes, and their effect upon the world, I think the book predicates a specific world, and then shows how that has moulded and affected the vigilantes, which is a completely different emphasis.

So let’s reluctantly lay that book to one side, and instead take a look at my first experience of an attempt to bring superheroes into “the world outside your window”.

The use of that phrase is quite deliberate, since it was the tagline for an experiment by Marvel Comics, something called “The New Universe“. It was based upon the idea that up until 4:22 P.M., Eastern Standard Time, on 22nd July 1986, the world shown in the comic books was precisely the same as the world you live in. And then an event (“the White Event”) occurred, changing a number of people, some into heroes, others into villains. For a couple of years, the eight books in the line chronicled a standard ‘comics universe, with hundreds of paranormal’… until 1988 when, like Watchmen, editorial decided they’d had enough with the “let’s keep this the same as the world you see”… and destroyed Pittsburgh.

Which was a pity, since Barry Bonds then never got the opportunity to become the first Pirates’ player (and just the second major leaguer) in history to hit 30 or more homers and steal 50 or more bases in the same season. (See, I do research these pieces, occasionally)

OK, I’m sure there were other consequences, but once they’d destroyed a city, although it undoubtedly gave writers and artists more to play with, I always felt that the line ‘lost’ something special.

Starting a decade or so after Watchmen but continuing in various forms through twnety years’ of books, and still being published, is, Kurt Busiek’s Astro City. The long delay between issues (caused early in the run by Busiek’s illness, and later by other commitments) may have led some fans of super-hero comics to miss this book. They’re nuts. There’s not been a weak issue in the entire run and Busiek constantly surprises with the way that he addresses questions that I hadn’t even considered needed asking.

Questions such as: when your childrens’ lives are at risk because of the preponderance of super-powered battles in the area, shouldn’t you move? If a petty crook found out a hero’s civilian identity, how best could he profit from the knowledge? With some people in our own society believing soap opera characters are real, what would happen if one of those people believed an actor in a television series really had super-powers? And, with no proof, how does a responsible newspaper report events including super-heroes?

A n interesting entry to the “consequences of super-powered beings on society” was Rising Stars by J Michael Straczynski. 113 children become ‘infected’, for want of a better word, in utero. Thirty years later, they’ve all become super-powered. After various events (including one going nuts and taking over Chicago as her own private fiefdom) those left decide, simply, to make the world a better place. Included in their plans are the removal of all nuclear weapons. This doesn’t please the power brokers of the planet in any way whatsoever, and the ways in which they attempt to neuter the “Specials” are chilling, and, in my opinion, absolutely believable.

Because that’s my problem with the whole idea of real life superheroes. Maybe I’m a cynic, but as others (including Sir Humphrey Appleby) have said, “a cynic is merely what an optimist calls a realist”.

Let’s take a look at some news stories and see how whether they’d have played out the same way had super-powers had actually existed.

Tyson Fury’s been in the news. Mainly because of what comes out of his mouth but his fists have accomplices. Various news stories have disclosed information various other people would have preferred they not. And in the US, politics has been a mixtures of stupidity, idiocy, irritation, and more stupidity. And that’s just the front runner in the Republican race.  

In a world of super-powers, where, say, a man can hit another man through a building, or can stop a train by punching it, or can carry a fuel tanker, of what interest to the public is it that a man can hit another man quite hard, repeatedly? Why would athletic achievement at all be celebrated when there would always be doubt in the public’s mind? Forget about special drugs, how about cheating using special powers? In the early days of Alpha Flight, the character of Northstar was an Olympic class skier… who had to give his medals back because it wasn’t believed that he’d not used his powers. In Spider-Girl‘s first story, May Parker gives up playing school basketball when she realises that it’s too easy, that she’d instinctively use her powers to win, whether or not she’d intend to.

Let’s look at news reporting. A story is leaked, fair enough. Happens all the time. But it doesn’t, you see. Not with any sensible comparison to what would happen if, say, you had telepathic reporters, or, as in Image Comics’ Phantom Jack, a reporter who can turn invisible. Even in Rising Stars, you had a character who could speak to the dead and in one memorable sequence stood in Arlington Cemetery… and screamed.
In those circumstances, you have a situation where news channels, far from having to find content to fill their allotted transmission hours, would have to pick and choose which genuinely newsworthy stories to use; talk about “a surfeit of riches”. As much as telepathic spies would change the nature of their business, how different would be the very concept of newsgathering? You wouldn’t need to doorstep, you could just stand near a political candidate, a union leader, a relative of a murder victim, to know the pork-barrel, the real wage demand, and the true views about the victim.

And speaking of deaths, what about assassinations? With super-powers in the ‘real world’, what makes you think that only the non-political would receive them? If super-powers genuinely existed, I suspect it would be a matter of weeks at most before you have the first super-powered assassination or terrorist attack. And such attacks would, inevitably, be met by overwhelming force, in the shape and powers of someone with a different agenda, be that political or social.

And what if there was only one person with super-powers in the world? What would be the temptation to think the worst of him, to assume that he’d want to take over sooner or later? As a species, we humans don’t do ‘trust’ very well. We talk about people having to ‘earn’ our trust. In a world where super powers existed? I’d give it no more than a year before the deaths started.

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