Super Shame

NPR recently re-aired an episode This American Life from February 2001 about Superpowers. The entire episode is well worth a listen, but I’ll be focusing on Act One for this article. Act One of this episode features John Hodgeman’s “unscientific survey” about superpowers: “Would you rather have the power of Flight… or Invisibility?”

Which would you choose? It’s not an easy choice. There are clear advantages to either power, but then there are disadvantages too.

Most of the people quoted in the segment make their choice for based on some kind of practical convenience. From this point, Hodgeman begins a social commentary about why people choose their power – and what they would do with it.

“People who turn invisible will sneak into the movies or onto airplanes … people who fly stop taking the bus. Here’s one thing that pretty much no one ever says, ‘I would use my power to fight crime.’ No one seems to care about crime.”

Super-heroics don’t necessarily go hand-in hand with super powers. There are, of course, practical reasons for this as well. Superman is able to fight evil because he can do a great deal more than fly — he’s also super-strong and practically invulnerable. Invisible Woman can also create force-fields and is part of the Fantastic Four, only one part of a team that fights evil. Even the anti-heroic Shadow (who uses psychic tricks to make himself invisible) relies heavily on guns to do the fighting for him.

Flight or invisibility aren’t enough to make us safe from someone stronger or better armed than us. So we ask ourselves, “Why take the chance?”

Back to Hodgeman’s interviews:

“More than the ability to, say, burst into flame or shoot arrows with uncanny accuracy, flight and invisibility touch a nerve — actually they touch two different nerves. [They] speak to different primal desires and unconscious fears.”

One interviewee noted the following:

“One superpower is about something that’s obvious, the other is about something that’s hidden. I think it indicates your level of shame. A person who chooses to fly has nothing to hide, a person who chooses to turn invisible wants to hide themselves.”

Another interviewee made this observation:

“It all has to do with guile. If you want to be invisible, it means you’re a more guileful person. If you want to fly it means you’re guileless. And I think the reason that I’m so conflicted about flight vrs. invisibility is that I have guile, but I wish that I didn’t.”

Whether or not you’re willing to admit that you have guile (sly cunning and dishonesty), another interviewee made the accusation that people who would chose flight are lying. All of us want to be invisible so that we can do any number of sneaky or voyeuristic things, she insists. She believes that if you really want to fly, you’ve made yourself believe something false about your own heroic identity.

Hodgeman ends up his act by saying this, “At the heart of this decision, the question I really don’t want to face, is this: who do you want to be? The person you hope to be, or the person you fear you actually are?”

Superheroes already have a complex relationship with expectation and shame. It’s one of the sources for the problem of needing a secret identity. How can Peter Parker deal with the expectations of being Spider-Man all the time? He can’t, which is why it’s important that Peter Parker and Spider-Man be (at least nominally) different people. Most superheroes will also have a secret identity to protect their loved ones from harm at the hands of a supervillain who would use them as leverage against the hero.

But there’s an aspect of shame tied to every masked super-hero. What they’re doing must be done, at least partially, in secret. At the end of the day, every superhero with a mask is a vulnerable human being (whether or not they’re actually human) that fears for their own safety and social stability enough to adopt a new personality and hide it from their old one.

Like any classic hero, we’re all often stuck between two worlds. We’re public and private. We’re graceful and awkward. We’re brave and fearful. There are times where we’re proud – where we accomplish things that put us above our peers, soaring through the air. And there are times where we hide – when we’re embarrassed or afraid and we want to disappear into the shadows. The choice between two powers is more than arbitrary, and it’s difficult for an important reason: according to Hodgeman it’s not a once-and-for-all question of whether we fly or whether we fade. We all do both every day. 

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Everyone Looks Classier in a Mech-Suit

Mech

Zord

Gundam

Evangelion

Jaeger

Titan

 

Geek culture has always been infatuated with big robots. Whether in manga, anime, video games, or television, there have always been stories of pilots and their larger than life suits that save the day. As always, the question is, “why?” What is it about this “mecha genre” of story that draws so many of us to it, and keeps us coming back for more?

 

 

The answer is they are always relatable stories.

 

Not in the sense that we all would want to pilot multi-story mechanical monstrosities (though that would be a selling point for many of us,) but rather it is the motivation of the pilot that makes these stories reach out to us. It is the “why” of the pilot that keeps us all tuned in.

 

Why They Fight

 

…because there are things in this universe worth fighting and dying for.

 

The Power Rangers fought to protect Angel Grove (in Power Rangers.) The Voltron pilots protected the galaxy itself (in Voltron), and more recently, the Jaeger pilots (from Pacific Rim) fought to prevent the invasion of Earth from Lovecraftian creatures from another dimension.

 

 

In all these expressions of the genre, the pilots and other characters are fighting to protect something. That “something” may be existence itself, while for others it’s simply protecting a way of life. In some of my personal favorites, they are fighting because it is the only option; and it is the right thing to do. Regardless, in each instance the pilots are fighting for the greater good…for something worth fighting for.

 

Simply put, a man will go to great lengths to protect something that he loves. It is a simple and relatable truth that sits at the heart of the much of the mecha genre. We all would care to believe that, if given the chance, if given the ability, we would rise to the occasion and fight.

 

Why they Use Mechs

 

…because what they are fighting is both literally and figuratively bigger than themselves.

 

These are stories of men and women taking on gods and monsters; of fighting ideals and political machines; and these are things that a person cannot do on his own. They simply do not have the power. In many cases, they are completely powerless before their mech comes into the picture. Take for instance the more recent film, Pacific Rim. In it, the world is on the brink of being destroyed, and conventional wisdom and warfare has done nothing to stop the creatures from carving paths of destruction. It takes the creation of Jaegers (the mechs of this universe) and their pilots to finally turn the tide.

 

 

They use and choose to pilot their mechs because it gives them a chance; a chance to survive, to hold the line a little longer, to fight back the end for just one more day. The giant suits in all these examples are the equalizer; they are the one thing that puts the pilot on the same level as whatever they may be fighting.

 

In the real world there are bullies, anxieties, stress, social structures, and physical conflicts that can make anyone think that the situation is, “too big for me.” Life can have a way of making us feel utterly powerless in the shadows of these type of problems. The mecha genre tackles that internal fear on a very literal level; showing our heroes and heroines taking on creatures and powers that outclass them in many ways. Yet, they have the one thing that many of us hope for; a way to fight back, a way to win.

 

Why There’s Always A Team

 

…because, in the end, you can’t always do it on your own.

 

For Voltron and The Megazord to be formed, all the pilots are needed to come together to construct them. Jaeger pilots go into The Drift and let their minds fall in sync with each other to pilot their suits. Even in the Gundam series, the individual pilots have to overcome their differences and act as a team to fight back against the opposing forces.

 

 

With certain exceptions, most entries into the mecha genre revolve around a group of individuals who are fighting together. Ideals, god creatures, militaries, and monsters are too large for just one man or woman to tackle alone… even in a large multi-story death machine. One of the best examples is in the PSOne RPG Xenogears, where by the end of the game the pilots are tasked will killing their universe’s equivalent of god. Nonetheless, in most cases of the genre it requires that the team to come together, sometimes literally, to defeat what lay ahead of them.

 

This again hearkens to the simple fact that we need each other. John Donne said, “no man is an island.” For all the flash, the mecha genre tries to communicate the fact that if humanity is to succeed – humanity has to do it together.

 

 

There’s a lot of reasons why we all watch our shows with big robots, and some may be more shallow than others. Yet, these shows speak to us on very base levels; they tell a relatable tale in a completely unrelatable situation. We will never fight literal monsters, nor will we ever be fighting inside of a giant robotic cat. Nonetheless, we all have our own “monsters” we fight on a daily basis, we all have our ideals and way of life that we will fight to protect.

 

The big robots that we love to watch give us hope. They represent our ability as a species to overcome what is put before us; no matter how big or small. The very tangible mechs represent the intangible spark that we all share that gives us all the strength to stand up to adversity.

 

Maybe these seemingly ridiculous shows are trying to say that despite the odds being stacked against us…

 

…we still have a chance.

The Isolated Geek

Like a fuzzy mammalian beast emerging from it’s winter cave, the Promethean Playground writers have had our fill of holiday meals and down time, and having hibernated successfully, we’re eager to hit the ground running with a whole new set of profound thoughts  for 2014. Happy New Year!

As we go into a new year and I look forward to all the new geeky things that are coming down the pipeline, I’m sort of amused to think about how mainstream my cultural niches are becoming. Comic book movies now run with the big dogs in the summer blockbuster lineup and video games are now so popular that nearly everybody I run into considers themselves a gamer.

This really is the era of the geek. Despite the best efforts of insulting shows like Big Bang Theory, King of the Nerds, and Heroes of Cosplay to ridicule us wholesale, it remains pretty socially acceptable to be a devoted fan of sci-fi, fantasy, comic books, and video games.

Maybe I just know the right places to look now, but when I was younger, it was incredibly rare to find someone with whom I really shared interests, and I always felt the need to keep many of my favorite things relatively secret. As a result I had few true friendships, but those I did have were deep and long lasting.

In between the times I could be with my good friends, I often felt a little isolated. (Before I move on, I should say that this doesn’t mean I had a “bad” childhood or anything. I was never bullied, really, and occasional loneliness is a reality of many lives.) I can’t be the only one that felt this way, and I think it probably resulted in a lot of really good geek art.

What jumps immediately to mind is the work of Jeff Lemire. His writing (and art, for that matter) in The Underwater WelderLost DogsSweet Tooth, and, more recently, Animal Man shows a profound understanding of isolation that I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered anywhere else.

It’s clearest in Underwater Welder, where the protagonist relives his past while walking through a deserted parody of his home town.

It’s hard to avoid the imagery in this book. The protagonist does his job (a welder for an offshore oil rig) while trapped in waterproof armor, surrounded by silent water, connected to the rest of the world only by a thin strand.

For a person whose greatest fear really is long-term isolation, Underwater Welder is an emotional, difficult book to read. But it’s beautiful all the same. In a feeling that definitely isn’t schadenfreude, reading a book like this gives a person the relief of knowing that someone out there knows what it’s like.

So in this way, I feel like Lemire and I might be the last of a fortunately dying breed: the isolated geek. (Apologies to Mr. Lemire for making so many assumptions about his life.) I haven’t experienced that kind of isolation in years. In fact, in the room I’m sitting in now I’m surrounded on one side by group of people younger than me happily trash talking as they play a Marvel vs. Capcom fighting game, on another side by a guy perfecting a deck of trading cards, and on another by a couple with a pair of 3DS’s dueling each other in Pokemon X/Y. None of them have the trepidation I would have had when I was a teenager about doing the things they love in public. It’s wonderful.

But before we hang up our hats, turn off the lights, and enjoy our new social station, it might be worth remembering that all of geekdom isn’t as welcoming as the coffee shop I happen to be in right now.

Without getting into the exhausting details, I just hope that when we play Limbo, when we read The Underwater Welder, when we experience geek art that emphasizes the painful reality of isolation, we make every effort to make sure no other geek has to feel that isolated.

Let’s make it so every every one of our niches is as welcoming to others as this place is to us.

Friday Feature: Arkham Asylum

So this week’s primary post talked about how mental illness is presented in horror fiction and how Batman comics in particular have handled it. In the article I said that using mental illness to create horror and suspense was a trope of the horror genre. I still believe that’s true, but I wanted to add a little bit to that statement.

Just because a story utilizes a genre trope doesn’t mean it is a bad story or that it was badly written. 

On the contrary, most tropes only become tropes because they began as very effective storytelling tools.

With that in mind, I am going to strongly recommend Batman Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean. It’s a phenomenal and evocative story that touches on some very primal and some very cerebral fears.

The cover of the 15th Anniversary Edition of Arkham Asylum.

The story that Morrison and McKean tell is unlike a true Batman story in almost every way. By Morrison’s own admission we know that the story is meant to be a dream sequence taken out of Bruce Wayne’s nightmares.

We witness very little of the Batman we know and love in this story. Instead, we a see fear-plagued pawn in the Asylum’s game. Morrison and McKean manage to present a Batman who is both ineffectual and strikingly cruel – both self-doubting and self-righteous. 

An example of this Batman’s cruelty: He kicks the wheelchair-bound Dr. Destiny down what appears to be a flight of stairs.

I don’t want to spoil any more of the comic than I already have, but it is full of symbolism: religious, literary, historical, and psychological. All of it provokes strong reactions (at least from me). In the midst of McKean’s striking surrealist art style, and Morrison’s disturbed writing, a chilling psychological thrill emerges, and it’s well worth the read.

An expositional encounter with the Mad Hatter.

Finally, I want to note that this comic is definitely not for everyone. It’s a psychological horror story in a super-hero’s cape. It contains suicide, self-mutilation, implied sexual assault, and is sometimes graphic in its depiction of violence.

If you’re a horror fan and you’ve always found yourself wondering what would cause Gotham’s Dark Knight to wake in a cold sweat, then Arkham Asylum should sail to the top of your must-read list.

Asylum and Cage

What does “asylum” mean?

For comic book enthusiasts the word may primarily be tied to a big mansion on the outskirts of Gotham city: Arkham Asylum For the Criminally Insane.

The history of Arkham Asylum has been explored in comics and, if you count them, video games. In the strongest telling of it, by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, the late Amadeus Arkham, who watched his mother slowly lose her grip on her mind, founded the Asylum in the old mansion belonging to his family to provide help for those for whom, according to his own words, “their only crime is mental illness.”  Batman notes in this story that the Asylum’s imposing, dark architecture and rumors of haunting by Arkham’s ghost make it hard to imagine that any healing happens there.

If you’re a loyal Batman reader, then this past month you were treated to Batman Annual #2 – a chapter entitled “Cages.”  It was a story of Arkham Asylum’s oldest and newest residents.

Batman Annual #2 (2013).

The oldest, a character called “Anchoress,” committed herself to the care of the Asylum before the days of Batman and the super-criminals. She’d killed her parents in what was either an accident or a fit of rage, and chose the safety of the Asylum over the harsh terrain of judgement found in Gotham.

The newest is Batman himself, who is there to try and escape, testing the new security measures in the facility.

Anchoress brings to light several issues that are not often considered in reading stories about Gotham’s darkest criminals.

She makes it clear what her definition of asylum is: a space of safety and, for her, healing.

But she blames Batman for what the Asylum has become: a cage for dangerous people. You see, when Batman came along and started locking up the likes of Joker, Two-Face, and the other Gotham super-criminals, none of the well-meaning doctors of Arkham had time to help people any more. All of their time was devoted to trying to keep the super-dangerous from the general public.

This point is punctuated by Batman’s presence in Arkham for this issue. His purpose in the Asylum on that night is to ensure that the facility can keep the criminals in, not to see that the Asylum tries to heal patients.

On the other side of Arkham, however, a plucky new Arkham employee tells his more seasoned supervisor, “I don’t think anyone’s beyond help, or saving.”

In Morrison and McKean’s tale of Arkham Asylum, we see the Joker and Batman competing with any narrative of healing that the founder or the well-meaning doctors may have wanted.  Joker, true to form, taunts the doctors, Batman, and the other patients with sexual innuendo, and blackmail , while Batman actively works against some of the doctors who are trying to help Two-Face.

His doctor had been recognized his neurosis as being tied to his signature coin. The polarization of all of his decisions down to “yes” or “no” was hurting his perception of the world – too much duality. She worked him up to a die, with six choices instead of two, and then to a tarot card deck, with 72. Batman, seeing no progress, but rather a man who was paralyzed with too many choices, returned Two-Face his coin saying, “it’s only the madness that makes us who we are.”

Mental illness is often a trope of writers who want to create horror and suspense. Morrison and McKean’s Arkham Asylum is certainly frightening, it uses symbolism tied to Batman’s rogues gallery and the troubled journals of Amadeus Arkham to create the Dark Knight’s nightmare.

But behind every eerie sensation and disturbing image is the ghost of the mental illnesses that plague these characters.

Joker’s tauntings from Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (1989).

Mental illness is incomprehensible for those of us who don’t have it and, I would imagine, mortifying for those who do. Even one of my favorite horror authors, H.P. Lovecraft, concluded most of his stories with a character slipping into insanity. (Trivia: Arkham is the name of a fictional New England town in Lovecraft’s universe.) Many horror and fantasy writers reference Lovecraft as a significant influence.

But where do we draw the line between horror fiction and exploitation? Does the consistent use of mental illness as a tool of fear create real-world fear of people with mental illness? It’s easy to see why people with mental illness would seek an asylum – a place away from the dangers of judgement and fear.

This concept of asylum is important. As the Anchoress would say, people facing mental illness – if they’re to have any hope – need to have a safe place to heal.

But Batman’s methods take away the safety that the asylees need by turning it into a glorified prison for super-criminals, some of whom probably don’t belong (Would the Penguin really count as “criminally insane” or just criminally greedy? The Riddler may be criminally prideful, but insane?).

In the case of Arkham, Batman offers asylum to the Gothamites. They’re made safe from those people they can’t control. But the actual denizens of the asylum are made to live in cages. They’re denied any chance at healing because the doctors can’t be both healers and wardens.

Love and Other Pac-Drugs

We all love Pac-Man. It’s fun, it still holds up after all these years, and the game over music is iconic (not to mention the wakka-wakka.) But look at it objectively; it’s about a man/creature that is constantly consuming pills because he is haunted/seeing ghosts.  You don’t know if he sees them because he takes the pills, or if he takes the pills because he sees them; either way the man is having some sort of psychotic break with reality.

Not to mention the fact that he never wins; no matter how many pills he takes, no matter how far he runs, they always find him.  Even in the best case scenario; he reaches the kill-screen, and then still dies.  It can’t be helped, that’s his destiny, that is his story.

It’s pretty dark…

Pac-Man’s addictive gameplay is based around the concept of “score-chasing.”  The idea is that you are simply trying to consistently get a higher score on each run through of the game; competing asynchronously against the other players who have gone and played on the machine.  It is the “chase” that drives the player; that pushes them to continue on for “one more run.”

What makes it all the more interesting is that in these old arcade style games, even at your best you only have a set amount of time.  Just about every classic arcade game has a kill-screen of some sort; which creates a finite amount of time for the player to accrue points.  In essence, the player himself is haunted by the “ghosts” of players who have come before, spurring him onward; driving him towards his inevitable fate.

That’s pretty unsettling too…

I love Pac-Man and those other classic arcade titles; but I don’t like what they bring out in me.  I start losing myself in the game.  I start to obsess on my faults in technique, and start planning out what I need to do to perfect my run.  They were a type of game programmed to tap into some of our most basic instincts.

The drive to win; to be better; to go just one more time.  Yet, despite the all the drive, all the ego that we throw into it; we all know what the endgame is.  We all know that in the end, we still die.  In a weird way, it is that knowledge of Pac-Man’s mortality that demands the perfection we seek in each individual run.

In some grand fashion; Pac-Man becomes a reflection of our lives.  We know that we all end; we know that we all will fade away into nothing.  That’s why we must take advantage of every single moment; every single chance that life gives us.  Maybe that is why we are all looking for our own “perfect run.”  Whatever that may mean.

Maybe we are all haunted by our pasts; and we are simply running away from the things that seek to bring us down.  We each have demons that follow us, and we do whatever it takes to leave them behind us, or defeat them.

In the grander “Pac-Canon,” we know that Pac-Man turns out okay.  He meets a Mrs. Pac-Man, has a Pac-Baby, and buys a house (because that’s important to him.)  He is able to leave his troubles behind, overcome those dangers, and find his perfect run.

In the end, maybe that’s the lesson we all need to take away from this; to not be so busy chasing the score, that we miss out on what makes this brief life matter.  Maybe that’s how you find your own perfect run; or maybe I am just a guy who put way too much thought into a yellow puck.

Here’s a video of a near-perfect run in Pac-Man Championship DX

 – because I can.