He didn't like books in which dull, cranky writers describe humdrum events in the very humdrum lives of humdrum people. Reality gave him enough of that kind of thing, why should he read about it?... Bastian liked books that were exciting or funny, or that made him dream. Books where made-up characters had marvelous adventures, books that made him imagine all sorts of things.–Michael Ende, The Neverending Story
If you want to understand the decline of American fiction and culture, look no further than the show The Boys, currently in its third season on Amazon Prime.
Ostensibly a superhero show, The Boys is in fact a no-holds-barred attack on the entire superhero genre. The “supes” in the show are a group of rapacious monsters, more akin to the Olympian gods in their brutality, impulsivity, and indifference to human life.
It is a world utterly without heroism or even goodness. The leader of the superheroes, Homelander, is the military-industrial complex embodied, a warped and nativistic version of Superman with white supremacist ties. But even the titular “Boys,” a group aiming to take down the superheroes which is led by the vicious Billy Butcher, are not much better.
This all feels very passe, in part because it is already dated. The comic series on which the show The Boys is based was written primarily in the mid to late 2000s, in Bush-era America, when a name like “Homelander” was a pointed and timely mockery of the War on Terror and the Department of Homeland Security. The TV show, which premiered in 2019, is trying to play catch-up, combining familiar (and often contradictory) left-wing gripes about both the Bush and Trump administrations into one disjointed milieu.
Nor is it the first attempt to deconstruct the superhero genre: the 1980s comic series Watchmen, and the 2009 film based on it, had already done this in some depth. But Watchmen is more a melancholy tribute to the genre, born of a plaintive wish that superheroes could solve our problems and a disappointment that they cannot. The Watchmen superheroes are a diverse group with varying motivations, some evil, but others well-intentioned. In The Boys, however, the contempt for superheroes, and the denial of the possibility that heroism could even exist, drips from every page.
The portrayal of Superman as a white supremacist is particularly unfair, given that the original Superman comics were written by two Jewish cartoonists, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and are full of Jewish symbolism (from Clark Kent’s Moses-like origin, to his birth name, Kal-El, which includes the Hebrew suffix denoting a benevolent angel). In fact, Siegel said that he was inspired to create the character by his anger at “the oppression and slaughter of helpless, oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany.”
To be sure, the image of the superhero flying around in a cape with one fist raised has become a trite cliché over the years. But it is a cliché for a reason: Superman was the Ur-superhero, the one from which all others, including more interesting heroes like Batman, derive. The Superman legend, and those that came after it, have inspired generations of American children to adhere to classic values of upright citizenship---“Truth, Justice, and the American Way.”
Even among those who pretend to loathe heroism, the concept is still present in their minds in some form, as was the case in early 2020, when we were deluged with images of superheroes bowing to doctors. It is precisely the most morally vulnerable among us, the most prone to evil, for whom a fully realized conceptualization of that free-floating archetype is most needed.
This is the true, laudable legacy of Superman: not a racist power fantasy, but an immigrant story, one of an outsider blessed with great powers, who made a conscious decision to foster a moral compass and use his powers to fight evil. The creators of The Boys do this legacy a great disservice by rewriting Superman as a megalomaniacal demon out of Noam Chomsky’s nightmares.
What’s more, they do us all a great disservice by attacking the last ghetto of idealism and heroism in storytelling: speculative fiction.
In the past, authors from Victor Hugo to Mark Twain to Walter Scott published stories which included no magical or science fictional plot devices, but which still contained many of the thematic elements that make superhero stories so popular today. They involved admirable people doing important things, going on adventures, living according to principles, facing evil, and triumphing over it. These stories appealed to the best in human nature.
Even a few decades ago, there were adventure stories (including Westerns and spy thrillers like the Bond novels) which depicted heroism, or some semblance of it, in our world. But today, such idealism has been expunged from mainstream storytelling, relegated largely to the ghetto of speculative fiction.
This is why “nerd culture,” including superhero stories as well as fantasy and sci-fi epics like Harry Potter, Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings, has become so popular in recent years. None of this, except perhaps Tolkien’s writing, could possibly be considered great art, and much of it is suffused with irritating woke-ism. But these stories capture the attention and adoration of the masses because they fulfill the need for narratives that uplift, that portray life in bright colors, that show that evil can be vanquished by individuals in possession of the right virtues.
All of this, however, still proffers a significant concession. By placing these stories “elsewhere”---in space, or magical alternate universes---their creators subtly concede that beautiful and important things do not happen in real life. They have surrendered the ground of mainstream literature to a world devoid of heroism or villainy, of stories in which nothing much happens, and characters are not aspirational but “relatable”---that is to say, weak, neurotic, flawed, self-deprecating, smaller than life.
By these lights, Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart is the perfect modern novel. If you haven’t heard of Our Country Friends, you shouldn’t feel out of the loop. It was a book written less for the general public than for the elite literary reviewer caste, the sort of book which could never capture the public imagination. It concerns the humdrum lives of a half dozen of those selfsame elites who shelter from the coronavirus “pandemic” in an upstate New York country estate.
The central character of the novel, an unambiguous author self-insert, says at one point that he wishes “for a literary future without handsome heroes.” This sets the tone for the rest of the book. It is suffused with a sense of narratorial scorn and condescension, even for the more positive characters. There is no hope, no inspiration, no one to look up to. Instead, there is only a great deal of petty drama and depressing sex, interspersed with commentaries on the evils of poor white America.
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But at least Shteyngart’s novel stays in its own lane. The Boys does something far worse: it viciously assaults the final refuge of idealism in fiction, attempting to smoke out the few remaining holdouts, to bring “realism” and “relatability” to superhero fiction. There can be no one left to admire. Superman himself must be made a racist pervert. The only problem is that once heroes are gone, you are left with the dreary world of Our Country Friends.
People need idealism and uplift, particularly during difficult times. This is acknowledged implicitly by those who push for strong female characters in popular culture, a push resting on the premise that role models do matter. The artistic elites who think themselves very refined may sneer at quaint anachronisms such as the Hero’s Journey, but it is precisely when the world is darkest that heroes---in fiction and reality---are needed. And that is why Superman must beat Homelander.