21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Superhumanity: Refiguring the Superhero

Sarah Chihaya

 

Like the urban thoroughfare it’s named after, Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue (2012) contains diverse and highly specific multitudes. It is a novel lovingly well versed in topics including, but not certainly limited to, funky 1970s jazz, vintage vinyl, the filmic ancestry of Kill Bill, the art of frying chicken, and most prominently, the particularities of the borderland between the municipal frienemies of Berkeley and Oakland, California. The novel wears these obsessions on its sleeve (quite literally: the book’s jacket decks it out as a flashy vinyl pressing), and the exuberance of Chabon’s writing brings them to detailed and sometimes overwhelming life. Ultimately, though, this scintillating explosion of passions forms a distractingly baroque setting for another rather surprising obsession: at its heart, this realist novel is really a book about superheroes.

 

Telegraph Avenue, Oakland: the setting for Michael Cahbon's realist novel about superheroes [Image by kukkurovaca under a CC-BY-NC-SA license]

 

To be fair, this should come as no real surprise to the reader versed in Chabon’s work. Versions of the superhero proliferate in his novels, from the genesis of the Escapist in 2001’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, to the swashbuckling “Jews with swords”[1] of Gentlemen of the Road (2007), and beyond. Outside his novels, Chabon has also worked on screenplays for the superhero films Spiderman 2 (2004) and John Carter (2012). Altogether, Chabon’s oeuvre rejects the premise that popular culture is suffering from what critics from Screen Daily to The Atlantic have termed “superhero fatigue.” This sense of exhaustion seems even to have infected recent examples of the genre; this year has seen Joss Whedon’s The Avengers and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, both of which simultaneously play into the superhero genre, yet express frustration with the idea of the superhero itself. The term evokes the exhaustion of viewers over-saturated in increasingly alienating images of the superhuman, as well as the sense of the exhausted superhero; in Whedon’s Avengers, it’s Mark Ruffalo’s Incredible Hulk (a man who resists his superhuman nature) who’s the most compelling character. As Batman, Christian Bale also portrays a drained superhero, who must slough off both bodily and mental fatigue to save Gotham one last time before mercifully subsiding into obscurity.

However, as Telegraph Avenue suggests, perhaps it’s not the figure of the superhero that’s wearying, but rather, the kind of superheroes readers and viewers routinely encounter. Rather than seeking a distant, superhuman savior, Telegraph Avenue insistently reminds readers that it is not the superpower that makes a superhero, but rather the flawed human qualities of the character—its very ordinariness. Though they hail from different times and genres, the diverse superheroes of Chabon’s novels all share one thing in common: through them, he spins out the knotty thread of very human vulnerability that makes the classic comic book superhero a point of intimate identification, rather than distanced hero-worship. From this delicate filament of human weakness is woven the hidden costume of the recurrent figure of Chabon’s superhero, what he has elsewhere called the “secret skin” of the average reader. His heroes are not superhuman, but rather, super-human.

 

Contemporary comics and films are depicting increasingly alienating images of superhumans and exhausted superheroes [Image by dmscs under a Morguefile license]

 

Telegraph Avenue’s particular engagement to the figure of the superhero is oblique, proliferating in often-surprising geekological outcroppings of allusion: a Captain EO sweatshirt here, a casual Fanonian interpretation of black Marvel hero Power Man there. However, upon closer reading, the novel is actually overpopulated by characters that subtly radiate bizarre but uniquely human superheroic potential, from a pregnant midwife who’s a black belt in kung fu, to the aging but seductive former star of a Blaxploitation film series who comes complete with an oft-repeated catchphrase (“Do what you got to do… and stay fly”), and many more. As Chabon builds up and breaks down their relationships, we see potential traces of the extra-humanized, quotidian superhero in the down-to-earth world of his novel in all of his characters, even the least conventionally heroic among them.

The novel also self-consciously deflates conventional views of the rarified and remote superhero. Instead of depicting displays of supersonic speed, the novel opens with an enchanting, but markedly earthbound image: “A white boy rode flatfoot on a skateboard, towed along, hand to shoulder, by a black boy pedaling a brakeless fixed-gear bike” (3). The two teenagers skimming through the jasmine-scented Berkeley night are epically named Titus and Julius, a would-be Batman and Robin whose homoerotic tension manifests in the novel as a confused romance. The two boys are emblematic of the novel’s central concern, the nature of black-white relations in the racially fraught space of what Chabon terms “Brokeland” (Berkeley-Oakland); as in the other intimate partnerships between black and white characters presented here, Chabon invests Titus and Julie’s connection with a tremendous symbolic potential. However, in the end, the boys’ clandestine relationship crumbles under the social pressures of high school. The only way the former friends spend time together is through their significantly named superhero alter egos in a Marvel online gaming community, where Julie poses as a female character called “Dezire,” and Titus as “the Black Answer” (464). “I’ll probably be on tonight,” Titus tells Julie as they part, “Meet me in Wakanda” (463).

 

Super-human rather than superhero: Chabon reminds us that the classic comic book superhero reveals his human vulnerability [Image by VensPaperie under a CC-BY-NC-ND license]

 

Wakanda,” the mythical African country that is home to Marvel’s Black Panther,[2] is also an oblique reference to the shared dream of Titus and Julie’s fathers. In addition to running, then closing down a vintage vinyl mecca, Brokeland Records, Nat and Archy are also jazz musicians who lead a group called “The Wakanda Philharmonic.” The name is a poignant imagining of the musical and social utopia that theystrive to maintain.[3] Through the store and the band, Nat and Archy try to stand outside the racial, political, and economic tensions of their North Oakland community, but it turns out to be an unsustainable dream. Similarly, Titus tells his father that he and Julie most often “meet” online in the Blue Area of the Moon, an even more remote fantasy space of “the secret domed refuge postulated, in the pages of Marvel Comics, to lie forever hidden on the moon’s far side” (464). This exile to a fantastical refuge suggests that the novel’s optimistic investment in the superheroic potential of ordinary people might be ultimately be futile. However, this seeming disappointment is not conclusive; though the distant Blue Area of the Moon remains a virtual space in the end, it is a region of hopeful possibility nonetheless. Archy ends the novel by musing that someday he might stop by the old store and “See how they put the world together, next time around” (464-465). This patient, cautiously optimistic look forward to “next time around” suggests that readers, like Chabon’s characters, must take the long view to work through failures, rather than be overwhelmed by them. The novel’s bittersweet attitude also takes on greater urgency when applied to another candidate for human “superhero” who makes a brief appearance: President Barack Obama.

The novel, which takes place in 2004—it is important to note that this is a self-consciously historical novel—encounters Obama when he is still a young state senator, aglow with the success of his speech at that year’s Democratic National Convention. He appears at a Kerry campaign fundraiser as a down-to-earth man who would rather listen to the grooving Wakanda Philharmonic than deliver yet another speech, but who does what he’s got to do (and stays fly). He is equipped only with his human capabilities: instead of x-ray political vision or voting-booth telekinesis, he has only “measured words and a calm demeanor” to reassure his audience (159). In its invocation of Obama, Chabon sheds a critical light on the very specific kind of political superhero fatigue that has dogged the President in the press over the last four years, reaching its apex in this election season.[4] In his brief figuration of Obama, Chabon writes in defense of the President’s right to be a human being, rather than a superhuman one.[5]

 

Political superhero fatigue?: Chabon's Obama defends the President's right to be a human, rather than superhuman, figure [Public domain image]

 

However, Senator Obama is not the only heroic human present at this fundraiser. He meets the novel’s most superheroic character, Gwen Shanks, the pregnant kung fu midwife mentioned above. Gwen is both deeply “super” and deeply flawed; on one hand, she is an awe-inspiringly strong, smart, and determined black woman who seems capable of anything, but on the other, her explosive temper is her Krypton. However, she, like the other characters we encounter, is on a bumpy road to acceptance and self-realization, the key powers in the Chabon human superhero arsenal. This meeting between Gwen and Obama is like a small-scale convening of a new kind of Avenger, a reminder of the possibility of a forward-moving future (Chabon 159). The pregnant woman and the incipient president are both fatigued but about to give birth to something hopeful, something that doesn’t slouch menacingly towards Bethlehem, but rather sets out in the direction of the Blue Area of the Moon.[6] This brief moment exemplifies what Kathryn Schulz, riffing on the president’s words, has called Chabon’s “chutzpah of hope,” the tension between his “non-naïve faith in goodness” and his acceptance of the fact that “the things we build will be broken” (Schulz n. pag.). Chabon’s ordinary, potentially heroic characters, recall his claim in “Secret Skin” that the superhero costume “takes its deepest meaning and serves its primary function in the naked human form, unfettered, perfect, and free”; they come to terms with their failures and look forward with to a day when the things that were broken might be rebuilt.

Chabon, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 for Kavalier and Clay, is one of many contemporary authors whose cultural education as a comic book reader has drawn the figure of the superhero into the increasingly diaphanous boundaries of “literary” fiction.[7] Chabon’s novels don’t simply make allusions to the Marvel universe; rather, his vivid prose imbues even the most realist of his novels (like Telegraph Avenue or Wonder Boys) with the eye-popping verbal equivalent of the brilliant cyans and magentas of an old school four-color comic book. He is not alone in bringing a highly literary version of fanboy culture to a broader reading public; other pertinent examples include Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude (2003) and another Pulitzer winner, Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). Like Chabon’s, both of these works make creative use of the metaphorical frame of the superhero narrative, in Lethem’s tale of coming of age in 1970s Brooklyn, and Diaz’s expansive exploration of the historical curse of the Trujillo-era Dominican Republic. Telegraph Avenue’s own engagement with the idea of what constitutes heroism, whether “super” or not—particularly in view of the social and political climate of the United States in this election season—demands that readers reconsider the nuances of the superhero’s depiction in contemporary popular culture and its diverse generic, characterological, and political functions.

 

CITATION: Sarah Chihaya, "Superhumanity: Refiguring the Superhero," Alluvium, Vol. 1, No. 6 (2012): n. pag. Web. 1 November 2012, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v1.6.02.

 

Sarah Chihaya is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is currently completing her dissertation, "Clouds of Unknowing: Remystifying Narratives After Postmodernism." She specializes in the novel and film in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in English, French, and German, and convenes UC Berkeley's postcolonial Anglophone working group, Anglophonia.

 
Notes:

 

[1] Chabon’s original, tongue-in-cheek title for Gentlemen of the Road.

[2] The first black superhero, the Black Panther debuted in 1966. The novel also notably references the character in a 1970s flashback to Oakland’s past as the capital of the Black Panther Party: Chan Flowers, the ambiguous villain, attempts to make his name in the Party through a botched assassination. In his attempted crime, Flowers disguises himself as the Black Panther, again emphasizing the novel’s suggestion that its real-world heroes are the unmasked ones.

[3] Notably, in the Marvel universe, Wakanda is the sole producer of Vibranium, a mysterious element used to make a super-weapon that uses sound as power.

[4] Since his appearance on the political scene, Barack Obama has been depicted by enthusiastic supporters and pundits alike as a superhero, burdened with the pressure of being framed as a political savior capable of instant and dramatic change: a Google search for “superhero Obama” yields millions of results.

[5] This echoes Michelle Obama’s recent comment that “Barack can’t do it alone. He’s not Spiderman. He’s not a superhero. He’s a human, so we need your help” (Makarechi).

[6] Notably, Gwen and Archy’s son, when he’s born, is named Clark (as in Kent).

[7] Joe Fassler has also written on the mingling of genres in contemporary literary fiction in The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/10/how-zombies-and-superheroes-conquered-highbrow-fiction/246847/

 

Works Cited:

Chabon, Michael. “Secret Skin: An Essay in Unitard Theory.” The New Yorker, 10 March 2008. Web. [accessed 23 October 2012]: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/03/10/080310fa_fact_chabon.

—————–. Telegraph Avenue (New York: HarperCollins, 2012).

Marakechi, Kia. “Gwen Stefani’s Michelle Obama Fundraiser: FLOTUS says Barack ‘Not Spider-man, Not A Superhero.’” The Huffington Post, 13 August 2012. Web. [accessed 23 October 2012]: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/13/gwen-stefani-michelle-obama-fundraiser-not-spiderman_n_1772046.html.

Schulz, Kathryn. “Michael Chabon May Just Be the Perfect Writer for the Obama Age.” New York Magazine, 24 September 2012. Web. [accessed 23 October 2012]: http://www.vulture.com/2012/09/michael-chabon-telegraph-avenue.html.

 

 

Please feel free to comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>