15 July 2015

Essay - From superheroes to science fiction: Archetypes of enhancement in British comics

By Michael Morrison, Oxford, HeLEX

FreeImages.com/J. Lurie-Terrell
‘The comic book heroes I know of, including the ones I created, were created out of a cultural environment of the time, and a perception of audience acceptance […] When this reader-contact was unerring creators succeeded in producing popular mythical heroes.’ Will Eisner

There is a strong case to be made that superheroes are a quintessentially American phenomenon. Comics, in the form of humour and adventure strips were a common feature of many US newspapers from the beginning of the twentieth century. In the 1930s, US publishers began to repackage reprinted newspaper strips as 32 or 64 page collections. The popularity of these reprints soon led to a demand for new material and new (and not yet copyrighted) characters. Adventure strips drew on a wide range of influences, from ‘Western’ stories featuring fictionalised exploits of famous movie cowboys like Roy Rogers, adaptations of existing works like Tarzan and The Three Musketeers, to crime novels and especially popular ‘pulp’ serials of the day, such as The Shadow. The latter, in particular gave rise to the first tales of costumed crime fighters, which were to have a major influence on the nascent comic-book industry. In a highly competitive market, it was not long before someone came up with the idea of a costumed adventurer with powers above and beyond the range of heroic attributes common to the competing milieu of rival adventurers.

Comics journalist Mike Conroy identifies the obscure ‘Dr Mystic’, published in The Comics Magazine in 1935, as ‘the world’s first comicbook superhero’ (2002, p13) having both a costume and super-human abilities. While Dr Mystic had little lasting impact, the character’s creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster had a much more widespread and enduring success with their subsequent creation, Superman, whose first appearance came in the newly launched Action Comics 1# (1938). By 1941 Action Comics was selling over 500,000 copies an issue and a host of other costumed comic-book heroes, almost all with some form of super-human abilities had appeared including The Flash, Wonder Woman, and Captain America ushering in what is often called the ‘golden age’ of American superhero comics.

The Costumed Visions initiative invites us to consider these representations of enhanced human (or indeed post-human) states as a way to reflect on contemporary debates about potential (bio)technological modification of human capabilities. And yet, it is important to consider that the range of superhero archetypes presented for discussion are the products of a series of particular cultural circumstances in the history of the United States. The powers and attributes of that first wave of ‘golden age’ superheroes created in the late 1930s and 1940s were shaped, at least in part, by the desires and concerns of a nation emerging from the Great Depression and confronting fears of a looming war with Nazi Germany. It is not a co-incidence that the boom in comics publishing was accompanied by increasing numbers of refugees from Europe arriving in the US, nor that the first issue of Captain America Comics (in)famously depicted the eponymous hero delivering a right hook to Adolf Hitler, months before the US officially entered World War II.

Many of the superheroes currently achieving box office success as part of the Marvel cinematic universe, including Iron Man, the Hulk, Spiderman and the X-men were created in the 1960s by the team of writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. As such, their characters and powers are informed by a very different set of concerns, arising from an America that was itself socially and politically distinct, from that informing the golden age heroes of the 40s. The idea that the changing nature of superhero comics reflects broader changes in American history throughout the twentieth century is not a new one; it forms much of the background to Michael Chambon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), which follows the fortunes of the fictional golden age superhero ‘The Escapist’ and his creators through the turmoil of World War II and the subsequent rise of McCarthyism and anti-communist sentiment in the US.

Human enhancement, too, is a concept whose parameters have been largely shaped by discussions and practices that originate in the US. Much of the current framing of ‘human enhancement’ originated in bioethical debates about the potential application of genetic technologies in humans that occurred in the US in the late 1970s and 1980s. It is from these debates that ‘enhancement’ emerged as a term to denote the use of (bio)technologies to improve human capabilities above the normal range and even potentially to create entirely new abilities. While genetic enhancement was initially proposed as a course of action that was morally suspect, to be avoided and prohibited, the debate has subsequently expanded to encompass a much broader range of technological options and strong pro-enhancement, as well as anti-enhancement arguments. As the debates on enhancement have expanded, so too the arena of discussion has shifted beyond the US and beyond the confines of academic bioethics and moral philosophy. The Costumed Visions initiative is itself evidence of this wider approach. If we consider that the debate is enriched by the kind of novel perspectives offered by the Costumed Visions approach, might we also consider alternative visions of enhanced bodies beyond those offered by American superheroes?

British (and for that matter European) comics have very few home-grown superheroes and none that have achieved real popular success. What British comics did have, in abundance, was war and sports stories, and from the 1950s, science-fiction. It is the latter genre that is most relevant when looking to British comics for visions of individuals ‘empowered by genetic and/or techno-scientific means’. As a starting point I want to suggest three British comic characters that can offer an insight into technologically modified personhood. All three first appeared in 2000 AD, the UK’s leading (and practically only remaining) non-import comic title, during its heyday of the 1980s when weekly sales regularly topped 100,000 copies per week.

The Rogue Trooper, created by Gerry Finlay-Day and Dave Gibbons in 1981, was the last of the Genetic Infantrymen or ‘G.I.’s. Created to fight in the ongoing conflict on the ravaged planet of Nu-earth, the Genetic Infantrymen were cloned soldiers, genetically modified to survive the harsh conditions of future war. On their first deployment, the GI’s are betrayed and led into a massacre. The lone survivor refuses to come in, opting instead to go rogue and track down the traitor responsible for the slaughter of his comrades, thus giving the character and the series their name. ‘Gened for combat’, ‘Rogue’ and his fellow GIs were largely human in appearance except for their distinctive blue skin (although the early strips were in black and white) and pupil-less eyes. The GIs were stronger and faster than any normal human, but most of their enhanced capabilities concerned their ability to survive in the environmentally devastated Nu-earth; Rogue and the other GIs were engineered to be able to breathe in the atmosphere of Nu-earth polluted with toxic ‘chem clouds’, the result of chemical warfare, which would kill any regular human soldier not wearing a protective mask. Similarly, they could largely ignore the polluted waters, acid lakes and other chemically and biologically toxic components of the future war-zone. A final design component of the GIs was that if a GI’s physical body was fatally damaged, their memories, effectively their personality and consciousness, could be downloaded onto a ‘biochip’ which could be electronically kept alive, and aware, by being implanted into a support slot in the standard issue GI helmet, rifle or backpack. The Rogue Trooper was accompanied for most of his adventures across Nu-earth by the bio-chipped conciousnesses of three fallen comrades. While this was partly a narrative device to avoid having the lead character talk to himself, it also added a second component to Rogue’s quest in terms of keeping his comrades alive in biochip form until they can be ‘re-gened’ – given new bioengineered bodies by the genetic engineers who created the original GIs.

The Rogue Trooper is a useful case to think about enhancement, because while he has many attributes of a conventional ‘superhero’ (enhanced strength, speed, endurance) he is not the recipient of powers as the result of an accident or a random event; he was not bitten by a radioactive spider or sent to earth from dying Krypton. The Rogue Trooper is the result of deliberate, designed augmentation of human characteristics. The enhancements of a Genetic Infantryman exist in relation to a particular role and a particular environment – the Rogue Trooper is a not a better human per se, he is better at being a soldier in the toxic atmosphere of Nu-earth than any human. Unlike, for example, Superman or Wonder Woman who appear to be better in all respects - physically, mentally and indeed morally - than any normal human being, the Rogue Trooper suggests that at least in some cases the advantages conferred by being enhanced may be contextual rather than absolute.

Additionally, Rogue’s bio-chipped companions offer a reflection on issues of extended lifespan – a common feature of many enhancement discourses. Later stories make it clear that existence as a disembodied biochip is a frustrating and unpleasant experience. The three bio-chipped GIs accompanying the Rogue Trooper long for the day when they will be re-gened and it is largely the hope of achieving this end that sustains them during Rogue’s years-long hunt for the traitor. This suggests that there may be intermediate stages of enhancement – that technologies might allow us to achieve particular desired ends, such as extended lifespan and even the hope of new bodies, but at a cost in terms of quality of life. The ‘better life’ that enhancements promise might depend on a particular trade-off between costs and benefits, rather than being an unequivocal improvement on the normal human state.

Another major British sci-fi character who owes his origins to human cloning technology is 2000AD’s iconic lawman Judge Dredd. Introduced in 1977 by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, Dredd does not have any super human attributes as such, but is a clone of the founder of the justice system of the future, Fargo the first ‘Chief Judge’. Dredd is not unique, but is one of a sub-set of judges, cloned from the leading figures of a previous generation and technologically matured at an accelerated rate. This purportedly gives him the advantages of coming from an elite ‘genetic stock’, but also of having no family ties (although he does have a clone ‘brother’) to distract him from his training as a law enforcement agent, and able to be transferred from accelerated growth into the training program for future judges at age 5. Cloning technology, in this set of circumstances, confers both biological and socially desirable traits on the cloned individual.

Does Judge Dredd count as an example of an enhanced human? The answer depends on whether we think technological modifications must necessarily act on the adult individual and effect a permanent change, a set of ‘powers’ to count as enhancements. Many pharmaceuticals, considered by bioethicists to be enhancements when taken by healthy individuals, such as the use of Ritalin (methylphenidate ) by college students to increase concentration when studying for exams, or shift workers using anti-narcolepsy drug Provigil (modafinil) to work longer hours, have only temporary effects. Similarly, the use of human Growth Hormone (hGH) to increase the final height and growth rate of short children is regarded by some as an enhancement, but the effect of the intervention is limited to childhood as hGH has no growth promoting effect in adults. These extant examples suggest that enhancements can have temporally limited effects, both in terms of duration, but also in terms of when in an individual’s lifespan they are considered to be ‘enhanced’.

The final comic series for consideration is another Wagner and Ezquerra creation, Strontium Dog, which began in 1978. The Strontium Dogs of the title are mutants, exiled from normal society, who earn a living as galactic bounty hunters, one of the ‘dirty’ jobs that non-mutated humans consider beneath them. The title of the series comes from the Strontium 90 fallout from atomic wars responsible for causing the high future rate of genetic mutations. The series forms an interesting counterpart to the US X-men (1963-present) also about genetic mutants who live outside ‘normal’ society. Whereas most of the X-men, like most superheroes, can pass for regular humans when not ‘in costume’ the mutants of the Strontium Dog series are almost all characterised by highly visible physical abnormalities. While both series act on occasion as allegories for racial and other forms of prejudice, the mutants of the Strontium Dog universe suffer active social discrimination on account of their physical difference, in an Apartheid-like system of mutant/non-mutant segregation. Mutants’ status as second-class citizens is also a source of some of the series dark humour – for example many British mutants are forced to live in the ‘Milton Keynes mutant ghetto’. While some of the mutants, such as the primary protagonist Johnny Alpha or the vampire-like mutant Durham Red have non-human abilities that are beneficial in their roles as bounty hunters, most do not gain any advantage from being mutants. This is again different from the X-men, almost all of whom gain powers, such as increased strength, psychic ability, teleportation or flight, which they regard as advantageous, as a result of being mutated.

Both series raise questions about the dynamics between enhanced and ‘normal’ human beings, not only in terms of how the relations between the two groups might play out differently, depending on the extent to which enhanced and normal individuals might be visibly distinct, but also in terms of how political and social claims of difference intertwine with biological ones. A key point in many mainstream philosophical discussions of human enhancement is the idea of ‘human nature’ that is overcome, or lost, when an individual is technologically enhanced. Pro-enhancement arguments emphasise the benefits of overcoming the limits of human nature through enhancement, whereas anti-enhancement advocates worry that the loss of our human nature by enhancement technologies will be too high a (moral) price to pay. However, both approaches are problematic in that they both start from the assumption that there is a biological ‘human nature’ that exists outside of political or social judgements. An alternative perspective on enhancement is to consider that what counts as ‘human’ is itself a result of political and social claims about ‘nature’, ‘biology’, ‘identity’ and the science of enhancement. These are not fixed terms on which everyone agrees, but rather as much part of the debate on the (human) rights and wrongs of enhancement, or of enhanced individuals.

These three, relatively brief examples suggest that there is merit, both in the idea behind the Costumed Visions initiative that comic-book visions of super-human individuals provide a useful heuristic for thinking about human technological enhancement, and also that these visions need not be confined exclusively to the domain of American superhero comics. Questions from this preliminary review include whether enhancements are contextual or absolute improvements on the normal human state, whether only permanent changes to adult states of functioning are worth considering or whether some enhancements might act for set periods of time or at particular stages of the life-course, and whether normal and enhanced states are purely determined by nature, or whether political and social claims about difference need to be considered as well as biological ones. It should be noted that several of these questions were framed by comparing characters from UK science-fiction comics with US superheroes, suggesting that comparison, rather than separate analysis of one group or the other, is a fruitful avenue for further investigation. This is only a starting point, there is both more detail in the histories of these selected examples, and a host of other sci-fi comic characters, British and otherwise, to reflect on and think with about the nature of enhancement. 

References

Chambon, Michael (2000) The amazing adventures of Kavalier and Clay. London: Harper Collins, 

Conroy, Mike (2002). 500 great comicbook action heroes. London: Chrysalis Books.


For more about the Costumed Visions project see "Costumed Visions Network Launch"

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