“In brightest day,in blackest night,
No evil shall escape my sight.
Let those who worship evil’s might
Beware my power, Green Lantern’s light.”
As a kid, my favorite superheroes were the Flash and Green Lantern. The Flash, because his real power wasn’t super-speed; his speed was a tool he used, but his real power was that he was smart – he outsmarted his opponents. He knew more about scientific principles than they did and he applied his knowledge in clever and creative ways to solve problems that he couldn’t outrun. As a puny little kid who read too much and knew too much random stuff, that resonated with me.
My other favorite, Green Lantern, worked on two levels (three if you count the fantastic art by Gil Kane). First, he had a ring that was functionally magic; if he could think of it, the ring could do it. Second, and more importantly, the ring ran on willpower. He had to bring resolve to the fight, to dig in and hold on and never give up, because if he didn’t, the ring would fail. He kept that willpower up through something completely unique to comics: his daily oath. When he charged up his ring by pressing it to its power battery, he would recite the pledge I quoted at the top. Some writers suggested that he said it as a way of timing the process; the length of time it took to recite the oath was how long it took to charge the ring for another 24 hours. But he could just as easily have sung “I’m a Little Teapot” if it was just about timing. It’s so much more than that.
As I said, the Green Lantern Oath is unique in comics. Superman had a mission statement (“fighting a never-ending battle for Truth, Justice and the American Way”); Spider-Man had an aphorism (“with great power must also come great responsibility”); Batman had a promise (“I swear by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals”); and Captain America had several thick volumes of inspiring speeches on the nature of freedom and the responsibility to defend it. But only Green Lantern had an ongoing, present-tense pledge that he recited daily.
When my son was a Boy Scout, I found that the Scout Oath and Law were the best thing anyone ever gave a parent. Suddenly I had a checklist of ideals and standards that he promised to uphold, principles he publicly raised his hand and swore to every Monday night, and I held him to them. “A Scout is clean,” I’d say while pointing at a mess he’d made. “A Scout is helpful,” “a Scout is courteous,” and so on, and I believe the reminders about who he was and what he’d promised to become helped to make him the good, kind and decent man he is today.
Homeland Security and other agencies have a slogan they like to use, “if you see something, say something.” Green Lantern, in reciting his daily oath, taught me that there’s more to it than that. If you see something, DO something… and make it your business to SEE things. Look hard. Squint to see the evil in the blinding glare of the sun, search in the shadows of midnight, actively look for the things that need to be fought against. Don’t wait for them to show themselves. Find them.
Green Lantern is just one of the many fictional heroes who helped to shape me into the person I am today, along with the Flash, Linus Van Pelt, Spock, Howard the Duck, the Great Gonzo, and many more. Most of us are to some degree shaped by our entertainment choices and our heroes.
Which is why it continues to baffle me that there are those in fandom who are utterly unaffected by the lessons, morals and values of the characters and series they declare undying love for. They spend a lot of money and time on their particular pop culture franchises, while at the same time loudly denouncing the central tenets of said franchises and doing their best to promote the views of those franchises’ villains. How does a person grow up enjoying the adventures of Superman, Captain Kirk, Luke Skywalker, and Spider-Man, and then turn around and hurl “Social Justice Warrior” as an insult? Isn’t social justice a good thing? Don’t we admire those who fight for justice in society? Aren’t Clark Kent and Peter Parker social justice warriors? Isn’t that what Yoda was training Luke to become?
Where does this disconnect come from?
We’ll start with some of the more mild examples. There are the Marvel fans who railed against the Kirby estates’ “greed” for thinking that they should get a portion of the enormous profits generated by the dozens of characters and concepts Jack Kirby created, as if finally paying his family the money he should have been getting all along would somehow cause Marvel to stop publishing comics and making movies. How do you admire Kirby’s work while taking the exact opposite moral stance of his characters? Here’s a guy who always took the side of the underdog, always stood against the oppressively powerful, and yet his fans are on the wrong side of a real-life version of just the sort of situation his heroes would be involved in.
When my friend Ken Penders learned that Sony was incorporating characters and concepts he’d created for the Sonic the Hedgehog comics into the games, he thought he should get paid for his work. Since he had never signed a contract with Archie, his work was not legally considered “work for hire,” and after being unable to come to terms, he sued. Fans, convinced that this lawsuit would somehow impact the production of the games, took to the internet to berate him for his “greed.” The guy actually got death threats for wanting what he was legally entitled to.
Two relatively small examples of fan entitlement and belligerence. No big deal, right?
If only it were just two.
When Star Wars: The Force Awakens released its first trailer, there was quite a lot of outrage from fandom, provoked by the sight of John Boyega in stormtrooper armor. Before any story details were even known, just the thought of a black stormtrooper was so offensive that hundreds of “fans” had to rail about it in comments on YouTube. There was similar outrage over the fact that the lead character was a woman, and even more over the attention given to both women and people of color in the cast of Star Wars: Rogue One. But that was nothing compared to the online frothing over the cast of the new Star Trek series.
When Gene Roddenberry conceived of Star Trek, he very quickly realized that his initial concept of a space western (“Wagon Train to the stars”) could be a vehicle for gently delivering much-needed social commentary and straight-up moralizing to the public, dressed up as space opera with laser guns and bug-eyed monsters. He started with the crew, populating the ship with a virtual UN of accents and cultures, of which three in particular stand out: Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov. Star Trek premiered in 1966. For context, that was 25 years after Pearl Harbor Day, three years after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a year after the Watts Riots, and five years after the Bay of Pigs, and the height of the Cold War. So what did Gene Roddenberry do? He plopped Japanese, African-American, and Russian characters in command positions on his spaceship. Today the portrayals of race and gender issues on the original Star Trek wobble between quaint and cringeworthy, but at the time they were downright radical.
Uhura in particular is noteworthy, not only because she is a person of color, but because she was a woman in a key position, and when she spoke on the bridge, all the men shut the hell up and listened. She was fully an equal, respected and fully confident in that role, and it changed the lives of thousands of little girls and boys who saw her. Which was Roddenberry’s intent. Over the course of three seasons and a handful of movies, it was pretty well established that the Klingons were a proxy for the Soviet Union, a plot device through which to examine the Cold War. So when it came time to do Star Trek: The Next Generation, what did Roddenberry do? While Gorbachev and Reagan were arguing about nuclear missiles in the Reykjavik, he stuck a Klingon (Soviet allegory, remember?) in a key position on the bridge, hammering home the point he’d made 20 years prior: the future depends on us getting along and working together.
Where am I going with this? To put it bluntly: If you were one of those racist/misogynists reacting with rage and insults over the casting of Michelle Yeoh and Sonequa Martin-Green on Star Trek: Discovery, you have entirely missed the point of nearly five decades of Star Trek.
How do you do that? How do you watch a show whose central theme is diversity, then turn around and scream that you hate diversity?
What is the disconnect that allows cosplayers who dress as heroes to turn around and march for White Pride in Charlottesville? Alisa Norris makes appearances at conventions dressed as Supergirl, an immigrant to Earth who strives to protect and defend the helpless, and this woman, who evidently admires Kara Zor-El so much that she replicated her costume and impersonates her in public, simultaneously has complete contempt for all of Kara’s values and beliefs, enough to march hand-in-hand with her openly and unashamedly racist husband and chant Nazi slogans. How is that even possible?
I’ll tell you how it’s possible. It’s possible because none of these people are actually fans. If they were fans, they would exhibit the same respect and common decency that the heroes embody and hold dear the principles expressed by them.
These people are just consumers of product. Superhero comics and movies are to them just mindless entertainment to consume, a parade of cool eye candy and ‘splosions to gape at, with no meaning or message to any of the heroics. When Captain America makes a stirring speech to SHIELD agents in Winter Soldier, these people wish he’d shut up and get back to punching things.
For some of us, this is intolerable. These characters have meaning and a purpose beyond mere mayhem. Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster wrote an allegory about the immigrant experience in America, specifically the Jewish experience. Part of their intention is that young readers look up to and admire Superman, and from that, embrace the values he embodies, particularly the strength that immigrants, even poor and abandoned orphans, can bring to the country lucky enough to take them in. If you can’t see that, you’re not a Superman fan.
Captain America was created as a wish-fulfillment fantasy; Joe Simon wanted to encourage America to enter the war and fight against the Nazis. Jack Kirby wanted to punch Hitler in the nose. Captain America #1 was on the stands long before the US entered the war, with Cap punching Hitler in the nose, and its publication may in fact have helped us to make that decision. If you’re okay with pasty-faced guys yelling “Jews will not replace us” in public, you’re not a Captain America fan.
If you think the lead character in a Star Wars or Star Trek project has to be a straight white male, you should ask yourself if you’ve learned anything that those franchises have tried to teach you. (Hint: the Klingons, stormtroopers, Emperor, and Darth Vader are not the heroes.)
I’d really like to see some Starfleet uniforms, Jedi robes, Green Lantern and Captain America t-shirts in the crowds shouting down the Nazis next time. “No evil shall escape my sight.”