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Look, Up in the Sky!

ISSUE:  Spring 2008

Dulce Pinzón wanted to revise our idea of superheroes.

As a photographer living in New York in the days after 9/11, she became fascinated by the intense images of extraordinary heroism on that day—heroism that, she is quick to point out, richly deserved recognition—while everyday acts of courage went unacknowledged by the media. A native of Mexico City who came to this country in her twenties, Pinzón was especially attuned to the kinds of silent contributions that immigrants, both legal and illegal, were making just to keep a lumbering metropolis like New York moving. She began to think that these workers wouldn’t be so easily ignored if they looked like we expect our heroes to look. Maria Luisa Romerto worked at the Laundromat in Pinzón’s neighborhood. Noe Reyes delivered her takeout. They didn’t look the part of heroes, so Pinzón decided to dress them as Wonder Woman and Superman—thus beginning a project that took her around the city, photographing people in all walks of life, selecting superheroes to match their jobs.

The resulting images are startling. Each forces us to consider that superheroes are all around us, concealed by the workaday attire of the people we pass on the street and often overlook or disregard. And the juxtaposition between these extraordinary characters and the mundane tasks they perform is especially appropriate, because superheroes began in exactly this way—as reflections of the alienation, the frustration, and the helplessness of an earlier generation of immigrants.

In the 1930s, when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman—the first crime-fighter to boast superpowers—they were hoping to reach the kind of children they had been. The sons of Jewish immigrants who had settled in Cleveland, Siegel and Shuster were writing for other second-generation kids, adrift in America with parents who may not have been able to read English but could piece the story together from pictures. More than that, Dan Schifrin of the Foundation for Jewish Culture has described Superman’s dual identity as a metaphor for the immigrant experience. Like Clark Kent, many Jewish comic book readers had been displaced at a young age by a world coming apart at the seams and brought to a land where they were forced to outwardly appear “timid and bookish when underneath [they were] fierce Hebrew warriors doing God’s work.”

In this issue of VQR, we set out to explore this persistent duality and the unquenchable desire it seems to produce for latter-day saviors. We begin with three superhero short stories. When contributing editor John McNally first presented the idea to me, we hoped to find three writers who might be willing to write fiction on assignment; in the end, John—and Owen King, the other half of this dynamic duo—found enough stories to create a book-length anthology, which will be published this summer by Free Press as Who Can Save Us Now?: Brand-New Superheroes and Their Amazing (Short) Stories. The three selections here share the goal of demythologizing the nature of heroism—whether it is the protagonist struggling with post-traumatic stress in Scott Snyder’s “The 13th Egg,” the narrator who refuses to see superheroes as anything but a new breed of celebrity in Tom Bissell’s biting “My Interview with the Avenger,” or the anti-hero of George Singleton’s “Man Oh Man—It’s Manna Man,” who prefers to work in his underwear and whose only superpower is an unusual control over televangelists.

We follow these stories with Bill Sizemore’s incisive profile of Pat Robertson—a man who claims his own array of superpowers, including the ability to divert hurricanes, heal the sick, and wrestle with Satan himself. Robertson, of course, is not alone in such declarations. Indeed, superheroes and broadcast evangelism arose from a common longing. As the country sank into the Great Depression, tent revivals cropped up across the rural South and Midwest. Itinerant preachers rolled into town, raising big tops like the circus, pledging to make the lame walk and the blind see. The most successful moved to the new medium of the national radio networks to expand their flocks—notably Charles Coughlin, the rabidly anti-Semitic Catholic priest who got his start on CBS, and Aimee Semple McPherson, the West Coast Pentecostal pioneer, who encouraged listeners to place their hands on their radios so she could heal them with her prayers.

At the outbreak of World War II, evangelists and comic book creators rallied to the shared cause. In 1940, for example, Siegel and Shuster published the story “How Superman Ends the War,” in which the Man of Steel breaks through the Siegfried Line, twisting the barrels of Krupp guns and pulling a Nazi plane from the sky. (No less than Das schwarze Korps, the weekly newspaper of the SS, responded with an editorial, ridiculing Siegel as “intellectually and physically circumcised.”) But in postwar America, the world of comics came into natural opposition with conservative Christians of the Eisenhower era, and comic books became one of the first battlegrounds of the culture war that has now lasted more than a half-century.

Ironically, as the members of the Christian right argued strenuously against comic books—with their adrenalized stories of superheroes, zombies, and radioactive monsters—they seemed also to be stamping out the possibility of the unexplained and miraculous. After all, this same impulse toward visual narratives of miracle had inspired medieval illuminated manuscripts, the triptychs of Hieronymus Bosch, and the Mexican ex-voto paintings that in many ways prefigure the comic book. As Rosamond Purcell explores in this issue, the saints of the ex-votos perform the same role as the secular superhero, swooping in from above, just in time to save the innocent from an unjust fate. They reverse the laws of nature and physics with displays of superhuman strength and hasty entrances and exits, often like angels without wings, their robes trailing them like capes.

We, as a culture, seem no longer to believe in this kind of overt, visible miracle—the clear Deus ex machina. Still, according to the most recent Harris Poll on American religion, more than three quarters of Americans believe in unseen divine intervention. Perhaps most surprisingly, miracles are not only believed by nearly the same number of physicians (73 percent, according to a poll conducted in 2004 by HCD Research and the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies), but more than half say they have personally witnessed occurrences of the miraculous.

Who am I to say? I will allow only this much: I see the miraculous represented in this issue in two places. I see it in John Marzouca, the HIV/AIDS worker in Jamaica, who finds the courage within himself to stand at the bedside of a desperately ill friend and vows to remain with him no matter what. And I see it in the poem “Jamie’s Hair” by Michael Bishop, father of Jamie Bishop, the German instructor who was among those mortally wounded at Virginia Tech last year. He permits no platitudes, no easy consolations, but I find a kind of blessing in his clear-eyed words, his allegiance to the truth of what happened. When I recall the awful aftermath of that day, what I remember is not George W. Bush quoting scripture in the basketball arena, but sitting in Squires Student Center with a half-dozen students, clad in their Hokies t-shirts, unspooling black ribbon, snipping it into even lengths, and twisting it into mourning lapel pins. I remember how others, one by one, without saying a word, joined in, slowly filling a plain cardboard box.

Perhaps it is evidence of my doubt. But I see such small miracles not as moments of heavenly grace, but fleeting glimpses of what we earthbound humans, we mere mortals, are capable of.


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