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Essays


FASCISTS ASSEMBLE!

“It was as if life was one great big impersonal piece of machinery.”

― Alan Moore, Jerusalem

In an alley dark, a man in black body armor swings into a group of thugs, snapping arms like twigs as screams of terror ring out. A door is kicked down, gunshots flare out with solemn BANG BANG BANG, a man in a skull face shirt smiles. A nationalistic armored hulk of a man tears down his nation’s enemies, caring not for what the desires behind them are. These are the heroes of comics, these are what are so worshiped by society’s pop culture. Violent, authoritarian, black and white moraled, out-grouping “heroes.” These caped crusaders share too many commonalities to a pervasive segment of society that we prefer to hide, that of the fascist

At the center of pop culture in America the superhero has reigned for almost a century. Words derived from the names have entered the lexicon (shazam, brainiac, and superhero.) The Batman title has sold over 460 million issues since 1939, with profits in the billions. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has had made nearly 7 billion dollars since 2008 (boxofficemojo), and comics have been the titles for both government initiatives and bills. The concept is clearly profitable, incredibly lucrative, but why are they so influential?

If I could, I would like to point toward America’s preoccupation with strength and violence. Looking at the top domestic box office profits, of the top 15 all but 2 are actions films, 3 are superhero works. Meanwhile, according to a 2017 Gallup poll 73% of Americans have faith in the military institution, over 30 points higher than any other group, a trend that has lasted since the 80s.  According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, the average American will witness over 200,000 incidents of violence in media before 18, About 46% of television violence occurs in cartoons aimed at children, and  91% of all films contain scenes of violence The nation has long held an elevated view of violent supremacy, with the nation’s very emblem of the great eagle caressing the arrows of war in its left talons. The list could go on and on, and under the supposition of American culture being one of violent consumption, then how does the superhero fit into this?

Political theorist and professor of modern history Roger Griffin in his seminal 1991 essay The Nature of Fascism proposed a definition of the political movement thusly; “Fascism is best defined as a revolutionary form of nationalism, one that sets out to be a political, social and ethical revolution, welding the ‘people’ into a dynamic national community under new elites infused with heroic values. The core myth that inspires this project is that only a populist, trans-class movement of purifying, cathartic national rebirth can stem the tide of decadence.” Allow us to break this down in the context of the hero.

Understood properly, the idea of “revolutionary nationalism” is essentially a concept of holding the state, the country above the people, a unification over the populace. The genre of the cape has been of a nationalist bent from the very beginning.

Captain Marvel says violence is cool kids! (Civil War II #1, Brian Michael Bendis)

The ur-hero, the archetypal hero is Superman, first premiering in 1938 was an embodiment of the American dream. An immigrant from beyond the stars who upheld the traditional morality of the country as issued in his iconical catchphrase “Truth, justice, and the American way!” His creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster imagined him as a “wish-fulfillment which we expressed through our interest in science fiction and our comic strip.” His fellow comic heroes Wonder Woman and Captain America have much the same ideology. Clad in a skimpy hypersexual outfit emblazoned with the American flag, the Amazonian princess was proclaimed to be by her creator William Marston to be “fighting the wrongs, defending America from the enemies of democracy and fighting for downtrodden women and children.” She too was an embodiment of the American dream, although one more associated with sexuality than sheer power like Superman.

Captain America is the real interesting case though. Originally appearing in 1941 in an issue written and drawn by Jack “The King” Kirby, the figure was meant as a nationalistic figurehead from the very beginning. Melding violence with patriotism, the figure views America not as a country of laws, but as one of principles. Just as Mussolino pledged a return to traditional nostalgia based morality in Italy and Franco’s pledged revival of the Church, Captain America follows in the tradition. Hitler, who the hero was created in response to, also united many under a vision of the resurgence of the German Empire. In a more recent and controversial parallel, Trump’s and Reagan’s famous slogan “Make America Great Again” states a promise of returning the country to the ways of old, a way of regaining the powers of The Greatest Generation. In several issues, over the decades the Captain has retorted to several people “I’m loyal to nothing.. except the Dream.” To this gestalt of the American spirit, he is just another fanatic to ideology above reality. As a representation of blatant militarism, Captain America is a clear nationalist, a man devoid of any self other than his homeland.

His authority goes beyond governments. (Amazing Spider-Man #537,J. Michael Straczynski)

Moving onto the next section of Griffin’s definition, the idea of morphing the country into a new shape under the power of elites. Now, here is the core of the hero. It isn’t hard to find a hero who is of obvious superiority to the average Joe, in fact it is harder to discover one who isn not. They are, of course, super. Tony Stark is a wealthy genius, the X-Men belong to the race of “Homo Superior,”  Thor and Orion are literal gods, and so on.

Friedrich Nietzsche proposed the “theology” of the Ubermensch in his his novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra, would go on to greatly influence the German fascist movement.. The Ubermensch, literally “super man,” is a figure that stands over all men, that can be aspired to. “I teach you the superman. Man is something that shall be overcome.” The ubermensch is the elite in fascism, that which guides society along the proper course.

Allow us to view perhaps the most popular pop culture icon of the twentieth century in the light of this: Bruce Wayne, the Batman. Wealthy beyond belief, unstoppable in battle, an intellect beyond compare, possesses the best breeding, and possesses incredible determination. He subjugates his chosen reality upon Gotham, a world vision of black and white morality. In his first appearance in Detective Comics #27, the figure of Bruce Wayne philosophizes “So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible, a bat! I shall become a bat!” citation Reducing himself, or perhaps enhancing himself, to the state of a symbol, the Batman becomes a force of pure, unadulterated ideology, primal force. A man among men who becomes a symbol for the forward movement of society in way too many comics to name.

Batman recruits child soldiers in his crusade. (All-Star Batman & Robin #1, Frank Miler)

Of course, he wasn’t the only one, there is another more interesting example. Created in 1974 by Gerry Conway in 1974 The Punisher was meant to be a foil to the heroic Spider-Man. A vigilante who made no differentiation between hero and villain, only caring about those that had committed “crime,” killing those individuals viciously. Overtime, this character has gone from one-off sociopath to a full on staple of Marvel’s catalogue. In the last twenty years the character has had 3 Hollywood films, 2 videogames, 2 seasons of a Netflix show, several comic titles, and massive profits. The methods have only become more and more vicious overtime. In the original 1974 comic he fired a few reckless bullets, while in Garth Ennis’ Punisher Max he escalated to extremely gory slaughters of his enemies. This is Another example of this use of the ubermensch who changes society to his own standards. What is more disturbing is the impact of the character on real life institutions.

To analyze the ramifications of the American military and police system is a bit outside of the purview of this paper, but should still be noted. Many  have commented on the supremacy of the American military ad idolization of cops in pop culture consumerism. They are elevated, becoming more than human, another figurehead ubermensch. Goebel’s saw the use for this through his propaganda work, with Triumph Of The Will being a near perfect piece of propaganda. So what does it mean when these groups start taking on the symbolism of Marvel’s character?

In 2007, a gang of off duty cops was investigated for incidents of going after and committing acts of vigilantism, both naming themselves after the character and wearing his iconic white skull mark. Several groups in Kentucky and New York were investigated for use of excessive violence, all of whom had decorated their police car with a Punisher logo sticker. Chris Kyle’s squad, as made famous in the hit film American Sniper, painted it on buildings and equipment. In his 2012 autobiography he stated that they took the symbol on because ““We wanted people to know, ‘We’re here and we want to fuck with you.” According to a 2016 Task & Purpose article, the practice has become common throughout the military.

Let us be clear, the Punisher is a murderer, a violent self-described beast of destruction. Yet, he has become popular with the members of those with the power to commit incredible acts of violence. When asked about how he felt of his creation in an interview Gerry Conway stated that he was rather hesitant of the character. “He’s someone that rises up from our subconscious and acts on our behalf and is a symbol really of cultural breakdown.” Instead, the man formerly known as Frank Castle is revered for his willingness to take society on his own terms.

As defined by Grant Morrison in his book Supergods “Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an Idea. Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea.”need citation That is to say, that the concept of the hero represents more than a punchy, spandex clad, campy vigilante. No, the thing to note is that the concept holds power, the strength of what we look up to is a reflection of society. If we are to consider that the largest icons of the modern age are indeed fascists, then it must also be considered what that means about society.

Condemning the society of this nation to one of violence would be reductive, to state that is worshipful of violence is just as harmful. Yet it is all too easy to look at the world in such a light. Our modern cultrual icons are maniacs and deviants, the guardians of a cultural whose values ostensibly despise the bastions.

Alan Moore, one of the most revered comic writers in the world, once said of superheroes that consumers are “embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence. It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in.” It is with great regret I am forced to agree.

When we are young we are taught methods to help us learn morality and life lessons. Superheroes were once part of this process. Designed for children, the audience simply never never grew up. Of course we are in an age of looking up to these figures as paragons rather than fables has lead to a subconscious desire of fascism. It is simply what we have bargained for.

With a world so divided, threats looming on the horizon, and times carrying the air of uncertainty it is little wonder that the age of the superhero carries over all. The figure of the hero reduces everything into black and white, makes our base instincts of violence allowed, and encourages us toward revolution. Our heroes are fascists, what are you gonna do about it?



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