Last week, I wrote a piece about both Mark Millar’s thoroughly entertaining alternate-universe graphic novel, Superman: Red Son and and Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski’s equally compelling Rising Stars series. Both stories concern heroes and villains who change the world not merely through violent super-powered bash-em-ups (although thankfully, there’s plenty of that), but by manipulating the world’s politics and economy.
Both are better than average superhero yarns that play to the strengths of their creators: Millar’s graphic novel is an effective, if somewhat crude, guilty pleasure, while Straczynski’s twenty-four issue series is a smartly told, character-driven genre soap that nearly achieves the epic quality to which it clearly aspires. Problem is, as I noted in the piece, both are hilariously naive when it comes to politics.
Rising Stars, for example, tells of a world in which a comet created just over 100 superheroes who, after squabbling for a while, decide to “change the world.” So one of the heroes “solves” the middle east peace problem by making all of the area’s land fertile. Another decides to dispose of nearly all the world’s nukes, leaving only one for each nuclear power (on the theory that they’ll then work together toward dearmament). Others fight joblessness by “renovating abandoned factories in the Midwestern communities like Flint, Michigan, offering state of the art facilities to overseas investors.”
It’s pretty silly stuff, but it’s nothing compared to the absurdity on display in Red Son. In that story, Superman’s long-time arch nemesis, Lex Luthor — who in Millar’s telling is not merely a scheming villain but the smartest human alive — gets himself elected president and then takes a failed economy and reenergizes it by… well, I’ll just quote the book’s narration:
President Luthor ceased trading with the rest of the world in January 2001 and created a strict internal market where he had absolute control of every dollar bill. By February he had doubled the standard of living for every American, and he doubled it again in March. April saw a return to full employment. By May he had eradicated unemployment in the thirty-four states still under White House control.
OK, so it’s ridiculous. More than that, it’s obviously ridiculous, even giving the Luthor-as-smartest-man-ever ploy — a ploy borrowed directly from the far smarter Watchmen — far more credit that it really deserves. But should it distract from my enjoyment of the story, especially given that major plot points in both stories hinge on false assumptions about the world? As readers, how much political and economic realism should we require from stories, and how much should we let authors and creators get away with flagrant disregard for political and economic realities?
On one hand, these are pulpy superhero stories, and they hardly merit worrying about a few inaccuracies. Superman, to take the most obvious example, doesn’t exist, and neither do any of the lesser-knowns in Rising Stars. If we’re going to accept the existence of a flying, tights-wearing, super-strong alien humanoid in one of the medium’s foundational texts, why not add a few bad political assumptions as well? On the other hand, we do expect stories, even fantastic stories, to adhere to some recognizable reality. If, for example, a character solved a major problem by driving from NY to DC in under an hour, even in a Lamborghini, I think it would be reasonable to be annoyed. But how is that really any more fantastic than turning the U.S. economy around through evil-genius authoritarianism?
What level of political sophistication, then, is it reasonable to expect from a comic book? Perhaps it’s a cop out, but to a large extent, I suspect the answer will just have to vary according to the reader. Personally, I enjoyed both Red Son and Rising Stars quite a bit, but I was still frustrated by the simplistic portrayals of world affairs, not so much because I demand accuracy for its own sake, but because they took me out of the story each time they appeared. So I suppose my advice would be that anyone who can tolerate or ignore these sorts of problems should do so; there’s no sense in refusing to enjoy the real, if uncomplicated and often repetitive, pleasures stories like these provide. But I can’t help but wish I could count on obviously capable genre storytellers like Millar and Straczynski to work a little harder, to expect a little more, to assume that, given a choice, its audience wouldn’t rather read something smarter, more complicated — and maybe even a little more real.