30 April, 2010

Unmasking a Superhero

Let men wear masks as civilization deems. Strip them not; what is inside is not what you may want to see- Anonymous

I was surfing news channels. One face stared at me from most of them. It was a very harassed looking Lalit Modi. Till two days back he had held the post of Commissioner& Chairman of the Indian Premier League (IPL) that he had conceptualized & created. He had been suspended. He is charged with rampant corruption, impropriety in the bidding process of team ownership and a high handed manner of operation amongst other things. A year ago he was a hero, actually a superhero. Then, he had even taken on the Government of India that refused to grant security to IPL. With a bold flourish he had moved it to South Africa. Today this image has taken a severe beating. The superhero is reviled as a scheming criminal; a long walk away from the visionary he was a few weeks back and held a position that was unchallenged for three years. In retaliation he had pointed fingers to a few members of the Board of Cricket Control in India. The Board closed its ranks around the others who had not been so blatant and left him holding the can. The clippings showed Modi then and Modi now. I wondered which one was the real face of Modi and which one the mask?

The Issue

By the time you read this, many more trees would have met their end feeding the demand for news print. The question that arose is not of who was right or wrong and in what degree is the culpability. What is it about superheroes that we have this urge to bring them down after pushing them to that station?

Lessons from our favorite comic books

We all love comic books. In India however great comic books have not been around in plenty. We have had but one publisher who did serious good work in his Amar Chitra Katha. Our superheroes are gods. We shall look at them separately from a different perspective. Right now let’s give closer attention to two publishers who have focused on the concept of a superhero; DC Comics & Marvel comics. They have given us leagues of superheroes like the Incredible Hulk, Spiderman, Batman, Superman, Robin, Wolverine, Iron Man, Fantastic Four, Captain America, The Dare devil amongst others

Who is a superhero and what makes him one? What does he represent?

Distilling the concept they simplistically defined a superhero as one who stood outside or alongside a system and yet operated for it. He did this because the system was someplace not strong enough to handle the all powerful forces of evil. The system cried out for help when it came into contact with this evil force. The forces could be calamities or individuals (super villains). You can take your pick. The system and the beneficiaries of his power make him what he is. He is representing what is good and herein the depiction of the superhero is a lesson.

A superhero is super. He cannot be ordinary rather by necessity he has to be extra-ordinary. This in effect means that sheer ordinariness is a huge crime for a superhero.

Are mortal desires & relationships not in a superheroes lot? And is this why he has to wear a mask in public?

Type of Super Heroes

The superhero is differentiated by his special power. It is this power that appeals to the reader or viewer. Let us take just a small representative sample of them and look at the type of superheroes. In these types we cover almost all of them who have been created with due respect to their creators.

Let us look at the characteristics of a superhero to understand this well.

· They have special powers/skills

· They have an alter ego/ other identities and

· They wear masks.

We shall look at the three most popular amongst them namely Superman, Spiderman & Batman. Each of them is unique as a type.

Superman: (Type I: Totally Super …very little Human)

Kal-El’s son Jor-el is not an earthling. He is a Kryptonite. He is the only superhero who doesn’t wear a mask because of this. He has inherent superpowers. The true mask of superman is when he is Clark Kent. This alter-ego is the masked personality where the objective is to disguise his superpowers. Now no one not even his evil foe Lex Luthor himself a scientist can match up to Superman unless he plays dirty. This is the real bore because he never does. Hence all Superman comics/movies seem so linear. There is white, good Superman/Clark Kent and then there is the black, evil, Lex Luthor. The lines are clearly drawn with nothing in between. No shades of grey because he is not human.

Spiderman: (Type II: Half Super…Half Human)

This is the intermediate stage that has almost all the rest of Marvel superheroes bunched up. When Peter Parker got bit by a spider exposed to radiation, he developed certain amazing powers of the spider. He can weave webs has great reflexes and absolutely doesn’t suffer from vertigo. The rest of the times he is a man with some special powers. Here Peter Parker is the man and Spiderman the alter-ego who wears a mask. This situation creates and allows some depth in this mask. It can be ripped off and it does tear in some books. Spidey movies are hence that much more exciting than superman. He is a spider and he is a man…more man. This leaves open some shades of the black to creep in and hence the dimension of this character is enhanced. But with great powers comes a great responsibility and Peter Parker the boy next door has a character that allows him to display this super heroic resolve.

Batman: (Type III: No Superpower…All Human)

Batman comes out on tops for this very reason. He is the only superhero who is all man. He has no super powers, was not bit by a spider, did not come from any other planet, he was born in Gotham city to Martha and Dr Thomas Wayne. They were billionaires who have a foundation and company and the son Bruce Wayne uses this power extensively yet judiciously. His power is the power of money and science available to do his bidding. He is the upright nemesis of crime in the dark streets of Gotham city when he dons his mask as the Bat. The beauty of Batman is that both his self and alter ego are masks. As the Batman he is a masked vigilante albeit helping the system and then comes his other mask as Bruce Wayne when he is distancing himself from the ego. Here in lies a character depth which is at times flawed, generally upright but has shades of grey. The beauty of this superhero is also in the interesting adversaries assigned to him. May they be the manic Joker or the Deadly Riddler, the seductive Poison Ivy or the mighty Freeze here is a superhero who is also not always welcomed by the police force he supports. They chase him too. So what is he fighting for…A crime free Gotham is the goal.

Stray Conclusions:

Now we come to the real question of the superhero and his mask. Throughout his battles he is never unmasked. But in reading a comic or watching a movie we are the voyeuristic participants in the game who know the secret behind the mask…This is what drives us to at once create a superhero, emulate him, elevate him yet keep our power over him by knowing his secret. We may not ever fully fathom the true nature of the beast behind the mask but once the super utility of this beast is over we want it away. Unmasked and cast aside. Is this what happened here?