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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Comic Book Philosophy Part One

was right

I saw these words spray painted on the sidewalk in front of my house. Obvious stencil job... the paint was magenta.

I found myself liking this graffiti tag... and thinking about it more than I normally would. Who was this tagger... Why did he or she agree with Magneto so passionately? In trying to figure out why it was on my mind, I realized what a pithy little statement this is. There's a lot of philosophy packed into those three words.

Magneto, for those who don't know, is the primary villain of the X-Men comic book franchise. A former Holocaust survivor, he learned first hand humanity's capacity to brutally persecute anyone "different." Magneto is pitted against Professor Charles Xavier, the hero. They are two opposing leaders within the same community, each with their own nuanced ideologies.

In the fictional X-Men world, there are thousands of people who experience profound genetic mutations (like sudden leaps forward in the evolutionary process.) Their mutations often give them super powers. They might also look freakish, and they may accidentally hurt people as their mutations manifest (usually in puberty.) They represent a community of people in serious danger. The rest of humanity is very suspicious and wary of these powerful young "mutants". The comic books often depict youngsters chased by angry mobs, as well as Washington politicians advocating internment camps.

While Professor Xavier starts a school, helps young mutants accept themselves and preaches peace... Magneto takes the other side. He sees another Holocaust in the making. He is the Malcolm X to Xavier's Martin Luther King. Both leaders recruit from the same pool of confused and hurt adolescents. At Xavier's school, students are lovingly taught to harness their mutant powers, and are supported through a process of developing self-esteem and groundedness. Xavier's approach is all about acceptance and patience. Magneto believes this only encourages a sheep-like acquiescence to increasing racism and hostility towards "his people". He encourages strength, rebellion and violent self-protection. His flock is not a school, but an army. He might be compared to those Jews who, after WWII, sought an Israeli homeland and were willing to become militant defenders of that homeland. The books also call to mind various civil rights era issues... occasionally comparing Magneto to those American blacks who would "go back to Africa," to those who sought to infiltrate the power system, and to those who would overthrow the power system in violent ways.

Magneto clearly represents a philosophy that power is currently held by people that do not understand those among us who are different. This lack of understanding will inevitably lead to attempts at oppression... in both spontaneous and in systemic forms. This power, and these encroachments upon the freedom and liberty of the "different" class, must be violently resisted.

In the comics, "difference" is represented by mutantkind, but the parallels to Jews, African Americans or other persecuted minorities is apparent. Given the popularity of the series, I believe that Marvel's white adolescent male readership has expanded the definition to allow self-defined freaks and geeks into the fold. Otherwise they would not identify with the product.

So I imagine this skateboard tagger kid... committing his act of civil disobedience late at night with a can of magenta spray paint... feeling so strongly bonded with the persecuted. This kid, still young... still creative... is already so hurt, or so cynical, that he's giving the finger to all the wannabe Professor X types in the world. He's saying, "No Mr. Social Worker... No Mr. Community Organizer... No Mr. English Teacher... I won't be co-opted. I won't be healed. To be accepted by you people would cost me too much. I'll maintain my minority status. I'll maintain my identity... and my people will run the underground. I'll have a home there... and if you mess with us, you'll regret it." And when I realize the power of that conviction I feel saddened at how hurtful this world can be to people.

But he's not just giving all of us peace advocates the finger; He's also pointing out how lazy and corrupt we've become... how accepting of "lesser-evilism" we've become... how much we've lost our spine. To say that "magneto was right" is to say that I'm proud of who I am and what I stand for... and I won't suffer indignities to those truths. He is our radical communist friend that chides us for supporting an insider like Obama. He is our inner vegan that knows that even organic milk promotes suffering and environmental damage. He's the neighbor that bicycles to work everyday and smiles smugly about it. He pushes us to stand up... he pushes us to accept our extreme beliefs rather than hiding them... which is an essential part of how one becomes more "heroic".

And that is why I smile everyday when I walk home past the little red letters on my sidewalk.



At 9/24/2008 02:25:00 PM, Blogger Yojimbo_5 said...

He might be your littlest rebel.

But he's probably like the comic-book guy on "Simpsons."

Plus, define "different."

At 9/24/2008 06:29:00 PM, Blogger John said...

Thanks for the comment Jim... I've made an edit to reflect your request to better define "different."

At 9/24/2008 08:59:00 PM, Blogger Walaka said...

I, too, admire the grit of the your little civilly disobedient provocateur, as I feel that power cannot be given, only taken. At the same time, I think that resistance alone can never build anything enduring, and that separation is, in the long run, failure.

Remember, even Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz by then) repudiated many of his earlier positions after his Hajj, including his separatism.

At 9/26/2008 10:31:00 AM, Blogger Yojimbo_5 said...

"Magneto was Polarizing"

My comment about "different" wasn't (actually) to make you define it. It was to make a point. I don't think it can be. "Different" is a lie. Well, not a lie. Just so fundamental as to be meaningless. Everybody's different. So, "different" doesn't matter, unless you impose false or arbitrary criteria to lump, categorize and pigeonhole people together, which is far too common in society, business and everything. It's done by the prejudiced who want to do people harm, and it's done by folks who seemingly have your best interest in mind but just want to build a "base." And it's done by people who want to "belong" (but once they do, they immediately create an "other," who are "different").
"Different" is a concept. It is not a reality when everybody is "different."

Which brings to mind one of my favorite Monty Python moments in "The Life of Brian," when Brian exhorts the crowd: "Look, you're all individuals!"

And the crowd yells back in unison, "YES! WE ARE ALL INDIVIDUALS!"


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