1% Superheroes (or, is Superman part of the 99%?)

This should have been a response to a nice post over at Tastes Like Comic, but my legendary IT skills meant that I couldn’t get comments to work on my iPhone. I’m sure there’s an app for that, but I figured I could turn my comment box ramblings into blog ramblings…

In case you’ve missed it (because I think the reach of some memes is still overstated), the recent Occupy movement(s) have drawn attention to the phrase “We are the 99%” (as opposed to the 1% who control the majority of the world’s finances, some of whom caused the current economic poopstorm).

It wasn’t long before fan art started appearing showing Bruce Wayne acknowledging he’s a billionaire member of the 1% and that he’d happily pay more taxes for the betterment of society. Fair enough – if he’s willing to do that and beat up criminal scum then who am I to argue?

It raises interesting questions about where some of our fictional icons fit into this whole debate. In one sense it’s fairly straightforward – they’re superheroes, and therefore they automatically side with us (Joe Public) against them (monsters, serial killers, Death Robots From Space). Beyond that, it gets complicated.

Take Batman, for instance. Bruce Wayne is old money, American aristocracy. He lives in a stately home; he has a butler, for goodness sake. He’s 1% up to his eyeballs, but crucially to this debate that doesn’t make him a bad person or the enemy – he’s probably the sole reason Gotham City hasn’t gone straight to hell. It’s probably also a little snarky, but maybe important, to note that his parents were murdered by one of the 99%. Bruce fits into a tradition of American philanthropy – he’s Gotham’s Andrew Carnegie, but would he be camping out on Wall Street? Probably not – he may support the 99%, but he’s not part of them. That’s part of the tension of Batman’s character – everyone says he’s more relatable than a character like Superman, but is he? Is Bruce the screwed up billionaire really more relatable than Clark the boyscout?

Superman’s another interesting character to look at, because he’s definitely one of the 99% – he grew up on a farm in Kansas and now he’s a journalist, so while he may make a comfortable living, he’s not exactly rich. Certainly I’d imagine that one bad harvest during his childhood means that he’s more familiar with economic difficulties than Bruce will ever be. It’s interesting that in the recent DC Comics reboot Grant Morrison has returned Superman to his 1930s roots as a social crusader, sorting out corrupt landlords and domestic abusers with vigilante glee. He’s far more likely to Occupy Wall Street, if only because he’s more willing to see himself as part of a wider community. The tension here is that he’s an outsider, protecting a life-altering secret, an alien trying to fit in even though he has his own Fortress. It’s interesting that his arch-nemesis Lex Luthor is completely and utterly 1%, and the dark side of the 1% at that, revelling in his power. However, I doubt Clark thinks in terms of percentages – he’d rather talk about the 100%.

(And I think this is fair, by the way, because while “We are the 99%” is a snappy slogan, the numbers are too big to be anywhere near meaningful. I’m a 99%er, technically, but I doubt I could say that to someone living on 1 dollar a day and then look at myself in the mirror later…)

Of the big three superheroes, it’s the third who probably best fits into the 99%. After all, Spider-Man was devised to be 99% at heart, rather than someone masquerading as such. Peter Parker is a hard-luck hero – his life isn’t great at the best of times, and even his alter-ego is traditionally castigated in the media. He was created as someone readers could relate to, rather than a patriarchal role model. He’s also more tied to the real world – he’s a New Yorker, and the Big Apple is the epicentre for the Occupy movement. He probably takes it personally.

All of this is just a thought exercise – there isn’t much that superheroes can add to decades old debates about inequality and corruption. And yet it ‘s interesting that Batman was co-opted into things fairly quickly; we know how we want things to be and we express that in a bunch of ways – through protest, through art, through superheroes. And while comics tend to shy away from specific politics, it’ll be interesting to see what impact, if any, the global wave of protests will have on an aristocratic Batman, a crusading Superman and a downtrodden Spider-Man. Maybe Occupy Metropolis isn’t that far away…


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