Gaudy night: Superhero stories and our own

Fantasy provides external analogs of internal conflicts, and the subtype of fantasy about superheroes is a way of externalizing questions of duty, community, and self. How should the powerful behave? (Most Americans are, in global-historical terms, “the powerful” in one aspect or another.) These questions are salient whether you wear tights or not. They apply to you. Because most of us, certainly most of us in the developed world, have more power, wealth, or wherewithal than somebody.

Certainly almost everybody reading this essay could, in principle, quit his or her present job and work pro bono for an African AIDS clinic while subsisting on donated food, or maintain a couple of homeless people instead of taking vacation, or — join the volunteer fire department. Depending on your politics, you may believe that people like yourself or people like Bill Gates really do owe some non-trivial portion of time, wealth, influence, or attention to something or someone. The poor, the ill, the frightened, alienated, the “doomed, damned, and despised” as Jesse Jackson once put it.

And having had the thought, you’ve got more problems. Which will it be, first of all — the poor, the ill, or the frightened? Just how should you help them? Do you decide, or do they? And when, if ever, do you get off-duty? There is a global political dimension to this. Because the question of what responsibilities impinge on the powerful has everything to do with the position of “hyperpower America” in the present world situation.

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