Salvation from the Outside-In

As much as I claim to love sci-fi in all my geekery, my exposure to it is almost exclusively through comic books or video games. I don’t have much exposure to the “classics” and genre-makers outside of Star Wars/Star Trek.

But a few years ago I read the first Dune book by Frank Herbert. It instantly became one of my favorite sci-fi stories of all time.

For anyone who hasn’t read it, it’s about Paul Atreides, the heir to a governing family who is betrayed and ousted from their throne on the desert planet of Arrakis. Arrakis seems to be a clear allegory for the middle-east. We learn very early on that Arrakis is the only source in the galaxy for the “spice” Melange. The spice is used by the spacing guild for interstellar travel. Does that sound like the oil industry to anyone else?

Anyway, the Atreides family is not native to Arrakis, but had been moved there to rule over it by an imperial edict. During the coup, Paul and his mother escape into the desert and are reluctantly taken in by a tribe of Fremen, who are the desert-dwelling natives of Arrakis. In a relatively short amount of time, Paul joins the Fremen under a new name Muad’Dib (the name of a desert mouse respected by the Fremen) and becomes their messiah, Lisan al-Gaib, who will make their desert planet more hospitable.

A couple of weeks ago I watched the 1927 film Metropolis.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s about Freder, the son of a wealthy industrialist who is the captain of industry in the Metropolis where the truly wealthy, who live high above the ground in the city’s buildings, have attained their wealth on the backs of the truly poor, who live and work on machines deep in the bowels of the city. Freder is shown the conditions of his “brothers” in the working class and is overcome with compassion. He meets a woman, Maria, who has become the spiritual leader of the working class.

Maria preaches a sermon (which Freder overhears) that compares the Metropolis to the biblical Tower of Babel. She says that those who built the tower (the “hands”) couldn’t communicate with those whose grand design the tower was (the “brain”) without an intermediary (who she calls the “heart”). To make a long story short, Maria believes Freder is the “heart,” the mediator, for the Metropolis who will ensure communication between the workers and the industrialists — but this is only discovered after the workers start a violent uprising that results in cataclysmic flooding of their homes, threatening the lives of their children.

I noticed after a little bit of reflection that these two classic works share one very obvious thing in common — both feature a privileged hero that enters into an underprivileged community to “rescue” them from their plight.

Chani, a Fremen girl with whom Paul falls in love, from the David Lynch’s 1984 Dune movie. Note her characteristic blue eyes.

Whilte Dune’s native characters seem to have a variety of skin colors (except in film, where they are white), their entirely-blue eyes are a distinct visual quality that comes from prolonged exposure to the Melange spice. But since their culture is so clearly based on Earth people of color, the Fremen are often assumed to be brown-skinned. In Metropolis, the entire cast is white, and it’s primarily clothing and demeanor that distinguish the classes. Both films, however, have an element of the White Savior trope. (Before I go on, I want to interject here and say that just the fact that a story leans on a trope doesn’t make it a bad story. I think both of these works are excellent. Or at least very important.)

The White Savior trope is found in stories where a privileged outsider (usually literally white) encounters an indigenous group who has been oppressed (usually literally non-white), joins them, and then is the catalyst for the ultimate improvement of their lives. This is typically in the form of leading a rebellion against the White Savior’s previous oppressor-group, or providing the indigenous group with some sort of wisdom (like teaching them their value).

These are nowhere near the only works that make use of this trope. More movies than I can count fit the bill, along with plenty of video games, and plenty of novels. Many stories like this have earned a solid pedigree as “classics” because arts and entertainment have long been the domain of white men.

Stories that use this trope are often quick to point out culpability. “Of course white men were responsible for oppression. But that was in the past, and it’s only a few white men that are still oppressors. See look at how good we can be!” is the premise of many of these films.

The issue with these stories isn’t necessarily that premise. It could be perfectly true and the trope would still be a problem. The issue is that the white savior trope implies that without a white savior, none of these groups could “save” themselves. In Metropolis, it seems like the writers of the story had this problematic thesis explicitly in mind. When the poor workers began their uprising without the guidance of Freder, their savior, they are caught up in a furious mob that nearly brings about the death of all of their children.

Maria tries to save the children of the Metropolis during the flood caused by their parents. Again, without Freder, the children would have died.

Dune’s white savior, Paul-Muad’Dib, was foretold in the mythology of the Fremen people. But we find out in the story that their mythology had been manipulated by a secret matriarchal religious group, called the Bene Gesserit, of which Paul’s mother is a part. The Fremen people were conditioned to believe that their salvation couldn’t come except at the hands of an outsider.

Recognizing the role that geek culture has played in forming this particular trope, what is it that we geeks (but particularly white male geeks) take away from that discovery?

White males are in the unique cultural position of having agency in every situation. Except in very intentional situations, white men always have a voice that people in power are more likely to listen to than if the voice had belonged to a woman or person of color.

Is the lesson we learn from this trope that privileged people shouldn’t use their voice on behalf of the unheard?

I don’t think so… But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything. One of the biggest pitfalls many “charities” encounter in their work in underprivileged communities is making the assumption that they know how to “fix” all of that community’s problems. They begin to act without taking time to ask the community members themselves what they need.

We who have power tend to assume that we know best. We’re not wrong to think that we should help when we can, but we need to recognize that help can only be defined by those who want it, and often listening is much more beneficial than speaking out.

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P.S. I couldn’t think of any geeky stories that explicitly resist the white-savior trope. This might be a problem of my cultural location – I’m a white man who falls easily into patterns of “favorites” and therefore doesn’t actively seek out stories created by persons of color. There are myriad works I can think of that don’t rely on this trope simply by virtue of having an all-white cast, but that hardly seems helpful either. I’d be really interested to hear from any readers that know of a story where an indigenous group advocates for themselves, or where a white-savior isn’t the sole protagonist, or where no attempt is made by a white protagonist to join and lead a closed indigenous group.

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Why Comics Growing Up Means Universes Have to Die…

Spoilers for New Avengers

What makes modern day comics so interesting in the “gray” areas in which they decide to tread.

In the medium’s early years of “flight and tights” stories, it was all about truth, justice, and the American way. Everything was black and white; you knew who the good guys and the villains were, and you knew the outcome every time…

The heroes would do the “heroic” thing, and win.

There wasn’t a discussion of the morality of the action. There didn’t need to be. Captain America just had to punch Hitler or Superman just had to save Lois one more time. This was the norm.  No one questioned it either. It was a lovely naivete that we all accepted, and we enjoyed the stories that came with it.

Yet, as the years went by, comics grew up along with its readers. Nowadays, things are not so clean cut for our heroes. Yes, there is still Cap, Superman, and all the other classics, but they are put into situations that would never have crossed the minds of their original creators. They force the reader to question their own ethics and morality, and to examine these “heroes” in a different light.

This brings us to New Avengers…

 

New Avengers focuses on the Illuminati of the Marvel universe, a secret cabal formed to take care of the universe ending threats that may come upon Earth. Its membership includes Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, Dr. Strange, Black Bolt, Namor, Black Panther, Captain America, and most recently Beast (who took the deceased Charles Xavier’s position.) These men shape the Marvel universe from the background, and safeguard existence without anyone’s knowledge.

Since its relaunch, the group has been dealing with “incursions” into our universe. These incursions are where a parallel universe starts overlapping with our own, and if not stopped, destroys both in the process.

The group spends the first couple of issues trying to find ways to stop this from happening; even to the point of using a reality warping deus ex machina (the infinity gauntlet) to “push” one of the encroaching universes back. Of course, this only works once due to the gauntlet’s destruction, and the Illuminati are left to wonder what they need to do next.  This invariably leads them to a singular conclusion…

Destroy the other universes.

It is a terrifying thought, but a completely rational conclusion. If nothing is done, both universes will be destroyed; so why not destroy one in order to save the other? It is the classic ethical debate, the moral quandary that has been discussed by Ethicists and Philosophers for years.  Do you kill the one to save the many? Do you let some people die, so that not all will?  Yet, instead of reading it in a textbook, we get it played out in our comics…

This type of discussion forces the reader to confront his or her own feelings on the issue. As you read the page, you find yourself naturally drifting to one side of the argument or the other.  As the reader travels deeper into the story, they too find our more about themselves in the reading.

How far would you go to save your planet? What lines would you cross to what you believe is right? We are able to live vicariously through some of our most iconic heroes as they play out their own answers to those very questions…

Sometimes doing things that we didn’t think they would…

This is what differentiates modern comics from most of the Gold and Silver age stories. Those were written to make you feel good, to experience a bit of escapism, and maybe some pro-America propaganda (lookin’ at you, Cap.)

Now, there are many mainstream comics out there that exist not only to tell a good story, but to make you think along the way. This, of course, leads to much more adult and darker story beats; not for the sake of being edgy but for greater narrative depth.

Long gone are the days of yore where your heroes were always the “good” guys. We live in a world where people get their hands dirty when trying to do the “right” thing; where even our heroes are living in shades of gray in the name of protecting all of us. Modern comics have given writers the opportunity to discuss these types of philosophical and ethical issues in a medium whose typical reader wouldn’t be normally interested in such discussions.

Because comics have “grown up,” they have become an open forum to discuss topics like racism, sexism, morality, ethics, sex, philosophy, religion, and so much more. Writers today don’t want your comics to just be about escapism, they want you to use your mind in the process.

The flipside to all of this is the fact that there has been an innocence lost in our comics. Now that we culturally have crossed some line, there is no going back to that old way of doing things.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just means things are different now, and different can be good.

The age of the morally ambiguous hero is upon us, and the stories that will come out of this will be incredibly interesting. Whether it is the questionable actions of the Illuminati, Superior Spiderman’s gang of spider-thugs, or the ENTIRE concept of the Suicide Squad; these stories would have been impossible to tell before; at least in their current form.

Only time will tell if we ever find our way back to the “flight and tights,” days, but until then all we can do is look back, remember who we were and wonder where our heroes are going next.