I’ve mentioned before, once or twice, that I am something of a comic book fanboy from way back. So I was predisposed to click over (when I saw via Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress) that Julian Sanchez recently put up an extremely interesting post titled CEOs in Comics: Villains Earn, Heroes Inherit.
Basically, Sanchez points out that in American comic book mythology most of the billionaire/monarch superheroes – e.g., Bruce Wayne (Batman), Oliver Queen (Green Arrow), King T’Challa (Black Panther), Princess Diana (Wonder Woman) – were born to their wealth and position. This is in stark contrast to the billionaire/monarch villains – Lex Luthor, Wilson Fisk (Kingpin), Norman Osborn (Green Goblin), Victor Von Doom (Doctor Doom) – who had to work and strive to achieve their success.
Sanchez argues this reflects “that the hero must wield enormous power in order to effectively perform the superheroic function, but cannot seem to seek it too eagerly, even for admirable ends.” This is why other fabulously rich superheroes such as the Fantastic Four’s Mr. Fantastic (Reed Richards), Stark Industries’ Iron Man (Tony Stark), and Kord Industries’ Blue Beetle (Ted Kord) -- who actually did achieve riches without necessarily being born to them -- are always shown to have achieved that wealth merely as a byproduct of their sheer inventive genius. They weren’t looking to get rich, it’s just that they were so gosh-darned smart they couldn’t help doing so.
What interests Sanchez is that this dichotomy in America’s superhero mythos seems to run directly counter to what Americans outwardly tell ourselves we really value: the self-made man, the striver, the achiever. Sanchez points out that
[w]hile the pattern in comics inverts the meritocratic ideal that seems to rule in most modern American fiction, it fits quite naturally with a pre-capitalist aristocratic ethos, which persisted at least through the early 20th century in the form of Old Money’s contempt for the nouveau riche. Jane Jacobs, in her book Systems of Survival, contrasted this aristocratic view, which she dubs the “Guardian” moral complex, with “bourgeois” or “mercantile” ethics. In this worldview, while wealth and the leisure time it affords may be necessary conditions of cultivating certain noble qualities . . . the grubby business of acquiring money is inherently corrupting. The ideal noble needs to have wealth, while being too refined to be much concerned with becoming wealthy. (emphasis in the original)
I think there is probably something to this insight – with respect to both how it applies to the American comic book mythos and how it reflects upon American society in general.
It sounds goofy, but when I was still working full-time as a trial lawyer I had a few lines that I had lifted from comic books that I sometimes worked into my oral arguments or closing statements because they were so very emotionally effective. But, if you think about it, that shouldn’t be too surprising.
Comic book stories really only present the same myths and fables that humans have been telling each other in one form or another for years and years, ever since we first sat around a campfire and made up stories about the gods. Those myths and fables stayed with us because they speak to something fundamental to the human psyche, and in the compressed format of a comic book those stories get told in short, declarative sentences.
So even if you first read them in a comic book, once you’ve stripped away the capes and goofy powers those same words that sound corny and cartoonish coming out of a four-color character’s mouth can suddenly sound portentous and persuasive coming out of your own. People react to those words because they are the same words they’ve already heard, in one form or another, all their lives. People are always willing to trust in the familiar, and being able to couch an argument in the familiar often persuades people that your argument is correct. Familiarity may not always be rational, but it is always effective. I've heard that before, people think, it must be true.
Which is why Sanchez’s observation that the American comic book world seems to ascribe to an aristocratic value system - rather than the meritocratic one in which America always claims to believe - startled me enough to pay attention. I’ve long thought that the comic book world provides a pretty good thumbnail sketch of what American culture values as a whole, but this disjuncture had never occurred to me before. And, upon reflection, I think that no matter how much we profess to revere “the self-made man,” in our heart of hearts I am not sure that Americans really do.
I remember talking with my father about, oh, five or six years ago. We were lamenting the Bush administration and I was marveling that Bill Clinton was still regarded with such personal contempt by a wide swath of people. I mean, even if you didn’t like the man’s views or his policies, he was a self-made guy, a Rhodes Scholar, clearly one of the most intelligent public figures America has produced in decades, someone ambitious and dedicated enough to lift himself up from almost nothing to the highest office in the land, and his presidency had been marked by the kind of relative peace and prosperity of which most presidents can only dream. What more, I wondered, could people demand of someone?
And my father told me that he believed it had to do with Clinton’s background. He told me that he had had very much the same discussion a few years earlier with a couple of DC journalists whom he knew, and had wondered as I did why Clinton engendered such antipathy; those journalists told my father that Clinton just seemed too much “the unwashed.” Clinton’s very act of striving, of lifting himself up from nothing, made him seem lesser in the eyes of the Establishment gatekeepers.
And that seems about right. Who can forget David Broder’s famous exclamation over Clinton’s infamous personal failing with Monica Lewinsky: “He came in here and he trashed the place, and it’s not his place.” (emphasis added) Or DC doyenne Sally Quinn’s eight-year personal feud with the Clintons after First Lady Hillary committed the unpardonable snub of failing to attend one of Quinn’s luncheons when the Clintons first came to town in 1993? Sure, one can imagine the establishment hacks thinking, they may be the President and First Lady, but let’s remember – they’re from Arkansas, and have no real money. They’re not really one of us.
Of course, the Clintons have since moved into the rarefied strata of the landed gentry. They’ve been around long enough – and have gotten rich enough – that were Chelsea or her inevitable brood to decide to get politically involved she (or they) would be welcomed with open arms. Just as were George W. Bush, Lisa Murkowski, and Luke Russert. I have a picture in my head of the Villagers gathered around Sally Quinn's table like the cast in Tod Browning’s Freaks, and all of them chanting “One of us. One of us. One of us.”
Yeah . . . . the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that Americans don’t really like rich and successful people if those people had to work too hard to become that way – no matter what we claim publicly. But we do seem to love those people’s children. Perhaps that is why we are so gung-ho these days to get rid of the estate tax. Millions of Americans who tuned in to watch Paris Hilton’s reality TeeVee show also desperately want to ensure that she never has to pay even a sliver of her unearned hundreds of millions of dollars back into the American system that made it possible for her family to amass such a fortune in the first place.
Maybe America never had a real aristocracy, but it seems that many of us badly want to grovel in front of one.