In an interview for Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts, Ellis recounts how some comics fans, in the wake of 9/11, expressed the wish that Superman were real, so he could have prevented such a devastating tragedy. This is not only backward, says Ellis, but “anti-evolutionary.”
Humans committed 9/11. They did so for reasons that, while complex, may be understood by other humans. Examining this, and the failures of the intelligence community to anticipate the attack, would seem like a useful step for anyone desiring to prevent another. A debate might ensue, about the optimal strategies the United States and the West could take to pursue this desired goal. This debate would necessarily be complex, involving international alliances and law and public relations. But it is through such debates, focusing on the facts of this world, that strategies are formed and perfected, as well as adjusted when they no longer fit the circumstances.
Perhaps it’s impossible, as a super-hero fan, not to idly wish a Superman, or his like, had been present on that day. To dwell on such a daydream, however, is not only unproductive but actually counter-productive. Such fantasies take up time that could be spent seriously addressing the facts. But these fantasies also train the mind to think in terms of saviors, rather than the collective need to save one’s self. If we think the solution to 9/11 is Superman, we’re likely to think a president, or other charismatic political figure, could equally be a savior – and to consequently shut off our minds, figuring this savior has things handled, or that supporting him or her is a substitute for the hard mental work necessary. So too might we put our faith in God – but whatever deities we might believe in, they certainly didn’t stop 9/11 and we should have no expectation that they would the next time. God helps those who help themselves, or as Ellis puts it at the end of Planetary #3 (June 1999), it’s “just us.” What we have is the here and now, and anything that distracts us from that is at best a distraction – and at worst something that trains us to continue thinking in unproductive, even dangerous terms.
This is really an Enlightenment idea. It’s right there at the end of Voltaire’s novel Candide (1759), which tells us “we must cultivate our garden.” You can believe in Eden all you want, and the Enlightenment encouraged religious toleration. But this earth is right here, real and manifest, and it’s in need of tilling. The homeless and the hungry and those society discriminates against are right here too, and to focus on the otherworldly, when this one is in such desperate need of being made better, isn’t simply a silly business. It’s offensive to anything we might recognize as ethical or humanistic.
Escapism has its place. But to overlay one’s fondness for super-heroes onto 9/11 is a sign of a dangerously escapist worldview.
This view of Ellis’s contrasts sharply with those of fellow comics writer Grant Morrison, who’s often talked about how Superman is a brilliant invention precisely because he’s better than the reality around us. He’s immortal. He’s defined by his goodness. His stories are wonderfully imaginative. This, for Morrison, isn’t negative, let alone counter-evolutionary. Rather, it’s empowering.
Consider, for example, Grant Morrison’s famous conclusion to his Animal Man run in which, having inserted himself into the narrative and established that protagonist Buddy Baker’s world was fictive, Morrison brought Baker’s family back to life. It’s a wonderful twist because, having established the comic as metafictional, a writer can write whatever he wants, whether it has a logical explanation or not.
Of course, reality doesn’t work that way – as both Morrison and Ellis know perfectly well. But to Morrison, this makes the metafictional reality of the series superior and preferable to our own. Within the terms of Morrison’s fictive universe, that can’t be argued: a higher-dimensional space, in which a writer possesses godlike powers, is by definition superior to the constrained universe he writes. But while we may postulate that such a higher-dimensional space exists and imagine its mechanics, this is all speculation. It is “real” only in the sense that all imaginings are “real.” Meanwhile, there’s an actual world around us, filled with actual people with actual problems, and such otherworldly speculation does nothing for them. Indeed, such fantasies may actually hurt them, by causing us not to take action, and they may also hurt the one doing the fantasizing, who may retreat into fantasies of being a super-hero yet forget to take out the garbage, get a job, or take his kids to school.
To be fair to Morrison, he’s often fascinated by the role fiction plays in defining reality, and he’s certainly got a point: envisioning something is frequently a first step to making that vision real. Morrison has reinvented himself several times over the course of his own, personal life, and he’s keenly aware of how posing plays a part in this: if you don’t know how to do something, the first step is often to try. How many people have become journalists, inspired by Spider Jerusalem? That he’s not real, or even a very realistic example of a journalist, may be beside the point. Asking “what would Spider Jerusalem do?” – like what would Jesus or any other mental fixture do – is often a useful starting point.
So it’s not that Morrison isn’t focused on reality; it’s that he believes in transforming it from the idea or the ideal downward, whereas Ellis believes in looking at reality and building it towards the ideal. These aren’t as utterly different as they may sound, but it’s fair to say that the two men have radically different worldviews – and radically different notions of the super-hero that stem from these worldviews.
Ellis is a realist. Morrison’s a fabulist.
Both writers blend the mundane and the fantastic, but Morrison’s focus is on the fantastic and Ellis’s is on the mundane. Morrison uses the human to reveal the superhuman; Ellis uses the incredible to reveal the human.