***Note: The following could possibly be categorized as a disorganized rant, and it takes several paragraphs for me to arrive at an actual discussion of comics. After the events of the last two weeks, it’s what I’ve got right now.***
We shouldn’t be surprised that superhero comics and movies have lately tended toward darkness and toward heroes fighting each other instead of fighting the bad guys. Believe it or not, these crazy stories about people who can fly and blast energy beams out of their hands are meant to reflect the reality in which we live. And the reality is that we’re in a bad place right now––a bad fucking place.
To me, the most reasonable conclusion to reach after watching the last week of politics is that we all hate each other. Right and left, Republican and Democrat––we hate each other, we hate each other’s views, and we’re ready to think the absolute worst of each other. We’re all courageous heroes barely holding back the enemies at the gates, and if we fail, tomorrow we’re going to live in a dystopian hellscape––either Gilead or Oceania, depending on your political persuasion.
Maybe I’ve been on Twitter too much this week. For my sanity and well-being, I try to limit my time on Twitter (which often actually is a hellscape), but I haven’t been able to help it during the whole Ford-Kavanaugh affair. It’s like watching an Amtrack derail and crash in slow motion. I can’t turn my eyes away as metal twists and screeches, sparks fly, and bodies get crushed under the weight of overturned passenger cars. This train has been traveling a long way at high speed under the control of a reckless driver, and now it’s finally crashing.
If that metaphor seems overwrought and overdramatic, you might just chalk that up to my age––I’m still fairly young (late thirties). But this is the worst thing that I’ve ever seen in American politics. And I don’t even mean what’s happening between Ford and Kavanaugh. I mean what’s happening with us.
None of us can imagine what it’s like to believe what people on the other side of the political divide believe. We create straw men and unfair generalizations. “Kavanaugh must have done it because we all know what men are like!” “Women are always expected to coddle men and make men more comfortable!” “Ford’s a college professor, and we know how politically biased they are!”
And what we think about facts and truth comes down not to our use of reason or our ability to deliberate carefully, but instead to our tribal affiliation. The reactions to Ford’s and Kavanaugh’s testimonies this week illustrate what I mean. You can predict how people respond to the testimonies based on political leaning or party loyalty. Left-wingers think that Ford’s emotional testimony was raw and honest and gripping, while Kavanaugh was belligerent and angry. Right-wingers see Ford’s performance as maudlin and overwrought, while Kavanaugh’s was moving.
If we could set aside our red- or blue-colored glasses for a half a damn minute, we’d see that Ford acted exactly like a victim seeking justice after three decades, and Kavanaugh acted exactly like a man who believes that he has been falsely accused of heinous crimes.
Of course, most of us can’t take off the partisan glasses––at least the loudest of us can’t. (Maybe William Butler Yeats was right: the best of us really do lack all conviction, and the worst of us are full of passionate Tweets.)
But here’s the thing: there are good arguments to be made for and against an FBI investigation, for and against confirming Kavanaugh. Only one side can be right, of course. Either the party happened the way Ford says that it happened, or it didn’t. Kavanaugh either did or didn’t do what he’s accused of. The problem is that we can’t see past our own political blinders. We’re not seeking the truth; we’re only looking for confirmation that we were Right About Those People All Along.
In that kind of environment, nobody is likely to discover the truth. As I tell my students over and over again: you can’t make your own argument unless you’re willing to entertain the possibility that the other side might be right. You can’t be certain about the rightness of your own position unless you consider what it’s like to believe what the other side believes. And you can’t do those things if you believe that anyone who disagrees with you is a Minion of Evil Bent on Destroying America. You can’t do it if you’re convinced that people on the other side are one day away from turning your society into Gilead.
By coincidence, Heroes in Crisis and the latest issue of Doomsday Clock came out this past Wednesday. And predictably, social media erupted into more complaints about “dark and gritty” comics. With Heroes in Crisis, fans said, Tom King has pronounced the death of the “hope and optimism” that DC promised us with Rebirth. But while I understand why people are tired of comics going to dark places, nobody should be surprised. Superheroes are the deities of American mythology, and one of the most important functions of myth is to reflect the reality of the culture that produces it. We have dark comics because we’re in a dark place culturally.
Some people want pure escapism in their comics. I get it. I don’t begrudge anybody a little escapist fantasy. And you know what? There are plenty of comics out there for people who want to forget about the world for a little while. But we should also be willing to let our mythology do what it does best: tell us the truth about ourselves. And to my mind, the most truth-telling comics right now are the dark ones. Heroes in Crisis begins in bewilderment and uncertainty, and that’s exactly right. The world is bewildering and full of uncertainty.
And despite how fans complain about them, we’ve had so many hero-vs-hero comics in the last few decades because that’s exactly where we are as a culture right now. We ought to revisit Civil War, Kingdom Come, Avengers vs. X-Men, and the other books in which heroes find themselves fighting each other instead of the villains. We ought to do this because that’s what we’re doing in the real world. We’re fighting each other. We’re demonizing each other. We’re painting each other as villains and smearing each other because we don’t think that it’s possible for good people to believe something other than what we ourselves believe.
Hell. This has to be what hell is like. God help us.