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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 08/30/2004
Vol. 2, #138

The Trouble with Superheroes

The trouble with superheroes is that they are all too incorruptible. That fact limits them. That's why they only show up in comic strips. But real superheroes abound. They exist in real life and often go uncelebrated because they are also corrupt. What am I saying, that evil is a virtue? Not quite.

John Randolph, the Virginia congressman, invented a phrase back in the 1820's and used it to characterize his colleague, Henry Clay. Clay, he complained, was so brilliant and competent and at the same time so corrupt that, "like a rotten mackerel in the moonlight, he both shines and stinks."

Try to understand that morality, by itself, is not a virtue. It's a conventional ethical position that men of imagination often have to circumvent as Alexander did when he cut the Gordian knot. All the others who had tried and failed had done so the conventional way, by trying to untie the knot.

There is an old Chasidic saying, dating back to the 13th century Chasids in Poland: "It's a sin to try to be a saint." In short, don't try to be too good. Those who are profoundly religious of any denomination often point out the difference between ethics and religion, and how religion sometimes demands actions that break through conventional moral boundaries. The best accomplishments of some of our greater presidents, I particularly cite here, since their actions lie within recent memory, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. I would even suggest that no conventional moralist ever got elected to the office of president of the United States, and even those most disgraced accomplished great things, like Andrew Jackson, or, more recently, Richard Nixon, the man who opened the doors to a relationship with China.

One of the greatest self-avowed sinners in religious history was St. Augustine. And if he'd been less that way, he wouldn't have had the great insight into the human soul that he did.

Note too that the reason South Africa suffers such a terrifyingly high level of HIV is precisely because, for reasons of conventional morality, they refused to acknowledge it as a medical illness that could be cured.

The greatest men in any field were always breakers of rules, unconventional and yes, in many ways, quite corrupt. That's because to take any significant action, one has to be familiar with both sides, the dark and the light, the good and the bad.

Most importantly, they were men who knew somehow that evil had been over-rated. The devil was really small potatoes. Because, as the great German philosopher Hegel said: "There is no absolute negative. There is only the negative of a particular positive."

Oh yes, there were terribly vicious and dangerous men in the world. There were Hitler and Stalin, but these were one-sided. Pretending to extremes of goodness by their own lights, they were totally negative in all their actions.

Being creative demands of the creator an ability to break rules. This ability often goes hand in hand with a peculiar kind of ego, often blind to certain niceties of behavior, so that some of the best and most creative among businessmen, politicians, artists, didn't hesitate to take bribes and lie in their personal and official lives. There can be no greatness of character without some significant flaws. Because those very flaws are the gateways through which the best one can imagine gains entry.

In the practice of my own art, I write by striving for a kind of conventional purity of language, but I allow my vision, my story, even when I was writing comics, to deal with the whole hero, the whole personality, which, "like a mackerel in the moonlight" alternately shines and stinks. I created Bizarro, in a sense, because editorial constrictions prevented me from dealing adequately with Superman's dark or weak or absurd side. So I slyly went about it by creating a kind of reversed mirror image. But that's a long story.

Anyway, don't try to be too good. The devil will get you for it.

--Alvin

<< 08/23/2004 | 08/30/2004 | 09/06/2004 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.


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