Tuesday, April 3, 2012

American Dreams, part three: The Mask of a Nation

Like the mask that the superhero puts on, myth serves as the mask of nations. The boldness of the myth of America might in part be a direct reactive response to the violence of these origins. Imbued with morality, as this myth is, like the superhero this thin film of justification can be stripped away to reveal a dual reason for such myths, or the effects of such myths: an arbitrariness, that they develop simply because they develop, like the bored gods, or as an instrument of power, a way of asserting power and dominion over people.

Here also we see the notion of a mask coming into play. There is something highly manipulative about this mask. It is myth's mask. Not the mask of myth, but rather the mask of morality to hide the mundaneness of myth's purpose as indifferent on one side, simply something we do, beyond our control, and then as an instrument to maintain power and dominion. The role of the superhero as god can thus be reversed, and it becomes the ordinary man (myth's function) who has these extraordinary abilities (arbitrary, yet possible tools of power). This is the case with most modern superheroes, specifically with spiderman, whose ordinariness is stressed often. Still, they cannot get away from their roles in this myth play. This is a cause of much tension within these books.

That it resembles the myth of America may be arbitrary in itself. However, we have not discussed one other aspect of the superhero, and that is the issue of concealment. Some wear masks. Others, like superman, take off their glasses only. It is as if he is not really too concerned with keeping his identity a secret. Anyone would recognise him if they looked closely enough.

There seems to be something else going on here. We know that the removal of the glasses is enough for characters in the comics to be fooled. Perhaps they are all engaging in active myth making. Perhaps they are in a sense willing superman or the myth of superman into existence by actively denying mundane and ordinary attributes, such as boredom or a lust for power. They want to see him as extraordinary. Like the myth of America, which they want it to be exceptional, brave and somewhat beyond life's traumas. But it is also forceful and arbitrary, with many moments of violence and many moments of luck. This seems to be hidden, much like the plight of the Native American, but only thinly hidden. A connection is severed between the myth and this awkward reality.

No one ever denies that many Native Americans were killed. They simply do not equate it with a creation myth that happened at the same time, in a similar way that Clarke Kent is Superman sans glasses. Is it this similar temporal and spatial setting of the forging of America and the Native American genocide that is being denied? Is this what the myth acts to do - isolate a moment, expand that moment, and build upon it? In this case, the Native American version can only be called an alternate history. It's expulsion behind a thin veil is a thin act of concealment to hide a violence at the beginning.

The superhero and its link to American ideology can be seen not simply in the character of the superhero, but also in its deconstruction. It could be said that many modern superhero comics seek to deconstruct the myth of the superhero. But I feel that it is from outside the superhero lexicon that we find one of the finest such deconstructions, one which inadvertently (or otherwise) addresses many of the issues that the superhero raises, and links it all specifically back to American history: a TV show called Mad Men.

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