Friday, March 23, 2012

Ex Machina: Superhero Comics and Government

Part of a series of Lists of Cool Things.

The Great Machine/Mitchell Hundred,
Mayor of New York City
And the voice said: 
Neither snow nor rain 
nor gloom of night 
shall stay these couriers 
from the swift completion 
of their appointed rounds.

'Cause when love is gone, 
there's always justice.
And when justice is gone, 

there's always force.
—"O Superman," Laurie Anderson

This week, I want to talk about some reading I've been doing, about government, and about comics.*

I just read finished reading through a favorite series of comic books called Ex Machina, about a man named Mitchell Hundred who, as people in comics often do, has an accident, gains special powers, and becomes a superhero. Hundred's powers are the ability to talk to and command machines to do what he tells them to.

Unfortunately for Hundred, his alter ego, the Great Machine, is not very popular...with anyone. Hundred grew up reading comic books with superheroes and supervillains, but as the Great Machine, he finds out that fighting crime as a costumed vigilante in New York in reality is (1) really hard for a variety of reasons—mostly, no one wants him around and he's not very good at it (e.g., he tries to stop people from joyriding on top of the subway and ends up shutting down the whole train system for six hours; he tells two delinquents to go to school and they beat him up) and (2) illegal—the police are after him for causing disturbance and being a public nuisance. He realizes that what he is doing is at best morally questionable, and he decides to try to help others in a different way. He unmasks himself and uses his notoriety as the Great Machine to run for Mayor of New York. 

But since no one wanted him around in the first place, he doesn't get very far. Not far, that is, until September 11th, when the Great Machine uses his powers to order the second plane to land instead of hitting the World Trade Center. As a result of this, Mitchell Hundred is elected mayor. This comic book series, then, is all about his term in office as Mayor of New York: a superhero mayor trying to save the city with politics.


In rereading the series and in thinking about it, I noticed an important idea at work throughout—it's present already in the introduction above. It's this idea of the danger of relying on a greater force outside of ourselves to solve all of our problems, in particular, the danger of relying on the government to save us. It is my opinion that a government can and should provide help to its citizens and support them as they pursue life, liberty, and happiness. I know that I have benefited enormously from the workings of the great machine of society (Thomas Jefferson's term), and in particular, from the support of the government (public schools, libraries, roads--even food stamps for a while!), yet I have very little idea of how the system that supports me so really works, or how to involve myself in making sure it works fairly and properly for the benefit of all. Sometimes, like the Great Machine, I just want to get out and go somewhere and do something for somebody—or at least show that I'm trying to be a good person—and sometimes I just end up feeling kind of stupid and maybe slightly racist after the fact. And sometimes, as Mayor Hundred experiences in his time in office, we expect more of our government than is reasonable without more extensive participation and action on our part.

For this week's Illinois primary election, I did a bunch of internet research at the last minute, trying to decide who to vote for in my local elections (i.e., figuring out which Chicago and Illinois State politicians are the least corrupt and morally bankrupt, typically a losing proposition). It was frustrating to realize that, even after serving two years in AmeriCorps, dedicating myself to the improvement of my country through national service and the education of others, I knew so little about how to effect meaningful political or social change through voting. I also know little about public protest, though it's all around me at my work downtown (Occupy Chicago, whether you agree with them or not, are at least surely laudable for keeping the spirit of protest and free speech alive in an increasingly tough city for that sort of thing). Unfortunately, I ended up making a stupid decision that made all my research moot (...ask me about it sometime; no, it wasn't forgetting to vote). It made me consider how far our society would have to go for everyone to know enough to vote responsibly and participate effectively in the system that rules them.


Let me come back to my original topic, the comic book Ex Machina. It may surprise you that a heavy theme like "the dangers of the public relying on government to save society" could come out of a comic book. I would have been surprised just a few years ago, when a good friend in college started sharing his comics collection with me. It turned out that comics are more than just superhero stories: in the last several decades, comics have exploded into many genres and worlds of ideas.

The fact is, comics are a medium, a way of telling stories. They can be beautiful or ugly or wondrous or disturbing; the best ones use the blend of visual art and written word to tell a story in a way that no other method of storytelling can. To me, saying that you won't read comics is like saying that you really just don't like, say, books or movies or music: you could say that, and it might be true, but it seems strange to simply discard an entire category of story so candidly. Comics are a method, and they're a unique method that ought not to be dismissed as childish or silly simply because they are often associated in the public mind with children and silliness. I hope you find one sometime soon that will convince you of their power and beauty. Some suggestions are listed below by genre.

T-Minus, a history of the Space Race.
Louis Riel, a biography of a historical figure involved in an important conflict in Canadian history.
Maus, the story of a man's imprisonment and escape from a concentration camp and his relationship with his son.
Safe Area Gorazde and Palestine, two comics about a man's experiences during conflicts in the Balkans and in Palestine.

Realistic Fiction:
Paul Goes Fishing and Paul Moves Out, part of a series of slice-of-life comics about a Quebecois family.
The Big Kahn, the story of a Jewish family that finds out their Rabbi father was not Jewish after his death.
Incognegro, story of a black reporter passing as white in the South in the early 20th century.

Hellboy, the story of a demon monster-hunter.
American Born Chinese, a series of interlinked stories about Chinese heritage/culture and growing up Chinese in the US.
Surrogates, a sci-fi future where everyone has robot bodies that perform all their actions in the real world, operated safely from home.
Concrete, in which a man gets put into a giant alien stone body and uses it to travel the world, accomplish great feats or endurance, advocate for good causes, and generally do things not typical of superheroes.

*Note: I'm not a scholar, at least not in the field of comics, so let me point you to two books with a world more to say and better ways to say it than I have: Understanding Comics, the Invisible Art (or, if you're interested in a more recent and more creation-oriented book, Making Comics) is a wonderful book that describes what comics are, why they're good, and what they can do (and it does it all through comics, i.e., it is a comic book in itself) and Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work is a book which not only discusses what comics are and what they can do, but which also goes on to investigate and analyze numerous comic artists and their work in detail. Both are great, I assure you.
†These books are probably best suited to adults, as they have adult language and themes.

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