Post-Modern Tevye

Wednesday, January 15, 2020 | 0 Comment(s)

I've been thinking a lot about superheroes and their huge resurgence in popularity in the past decade. Even more so than the heyday of comic books, superheroes, their origin stories, and their crossovers, have themselves crossed over into the mainstream. These days we aren't just seeing reboots of comic book characters moving to tv and movies, but whole new takes on the genre -- shows like The Boys and Raising Dion, which grapple with larger questions of morality and difference in the modern world.

The Boys
My take on the success of the superhero is connected to its role in our society. If you are familiar with Yiddish literature, and I'm not expecting you to be, you would know that in almost every tale the main character, Tevye or Mendel or the like, is a miserable no-luck-having loser. The lives of the men described get worse and worse until the situation eventually becomes so desperate as to be wholly comedic. "What a mieskeit," the reader exclaims, "What a horrible life that would be."

And that was the whole point. Life for the Jewish people of the late 1800's wasn't easy. I'm not a historian, but I have it on my undergraduate college professor's word that life was so difficult, in fact, that these stories purposely featured characters whose lives were demonstrably worse than their own. As the reader laughed at the tragedies that befall Tevye, they are briefly removed from the doldrums of their own lives. Yiddish literature is tragedy as escape fantasy, which only makes sense in the context of that time in history.

"But wait . . . that means that we are just a  . . ."
Escape fantasy. Hmmmm. Yah. That sounds exactly right. Superheroes, their invincibility, their ability to transcend reality, is just what the culture ordered. In a time when reality: global climate change, endless divisiveness, the proliferation of dictatorial regimes, the shaming of the underclass, is at times unbearable to face head on, people need moments of diversion. The relentlessness and visceral experience of the decay of humanity is giving rise to the popularity of stories that feature characters untouched by the mundane details of the general public. They are superhumanity.  Heroes untethered to Earth in a way that provides them, and us, an escape from the ever approaching peril.

Masters of the Universe (don't tell He-man)

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