As I entered adolescence I realized a couple of things about my fascination with Peter Parker (Aka Spider Man). One was that I loved the stories, the whole drama of his existence. I started writing around that time. I created my own little universe in the form of stories starring a black Spider Man who lived in Brooklyn and swung from project to project jacking up purse snatchers and wife beaters. He had a girlfriend who, in my mind, looked a lot like this girl Stephanie- who lived in the projects- that I was crazy in love with. I couldn’t draw worth a damn, but it wasn’t like Stan Lee was an artist either, so I just used to make the stories. The other thing about Spider Man that grabbed me and held me, even til this very day, is that he was a hero. A real hero. He sacrificed his personal life and risked his actual life for the good of others. “With great power comes great responsibility” was his motto.
Yes, I learned some of my key moral values from Marvel Comics. (-:
It wasn’t just Spidey’s heroics that got at me. It was all heroics. My altar to spider man was actually an altar at which I could worship all heroism. All the heroes of my youth: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Harriet Tubman, Sidney Portier, SuperFly, Bruce Lee, etc…
However, in my real life, I only had one hero: My oldest brother, Changa. A dubious choice, at best. I mean, sure, he was the only thing standing between me and a daily ass-whooping from my other older brother. And, sure, I walked the streets of my dodgy neighborhood in relative safety because his reputation was such that harming me was akin to suicide. But, my only real hero in my youth was, in fact, a gangster. Which is not entirely unusual, is it? Hell, many people see gangsters as heroes. Al Capone, a thug, a murderer, a criminal of the highest order, was worshipped as much as or maybe more than Elliot Ness, I’d wager.
During this time my fascination with Asia hadn’t dwindled at all. But, these were the Cold War years. And the world stood on the brink of nuclear annihilation…let the media tell it… not that it would have made much difference where I grew up. Crack was doing more damage than them damn Russians could ever do. Nevertheless, you couldn’t turn on a television without hearing about how hellbent the Russians, Chinese, North Koreans and Cubans were on destroying all that we Americans hold dear. And slowly, through no fault of your own, that propaganda starts to seep into your conscience, til one day you find yourself spewing it out of your own mouth. When you can watch the discipline of the North Korean people performing in something as beautiful and awesome as the Mass Games (see below) and say to your friend: “Damn, those commie bastards done created a whole country of robots! If their army is half as organized as that they’d kick our asses…two times! Thank God we got superior fire power!”
And as for China, well, the conversation would go a little something like this:
Friend: We’d kick China’s ass in a land battle.
Me: You really think so?
Friend: Why the hell not?
Me: Cuz we failed twice before, didn’t we? They backed North Korea and we cease-fired. They backed North Vietnam and handed our asses to us.
Friend: That’s bullshit! It was the Russians that helped North Vietnam.
Me: So! Think the Russians want us in China? Hell no! They’d help China before they let that happen…they’re all commies, anyway.
Friend: They wouldn’t help China…no fucking way. They want China more than anybody. Shit, they’d help us!
Me: In your dreams…
Yep, the propaganda was such that everyone, except the more learned of Americans or those not so susceptible to propaganda, was all confused and paranoid. Most of my teenage years were spent in such a state and, I must admit, I still retain some of that paranoia even to this day. It intensified a bit after I joined the army and the prospect of going up against a Kim Jong Il Mass gamer or a Bruce Lee with a bayonet in his hand and nunchucks in his cargo pocket became a realistic possibility.
But that was just politics…the antidote to the propaganda poison being fed to me I found was to watch an Asian martial arts film. My thoughts about Asia at this time in my life I’d written about previously and have pasted it below:
What captured my imagination about Asia was the culture. Albeit, it was a culture I learned about mostly through books written by non-Asians, news reported by non-Asian news agencies (and thus tainted,) and from movies. And if the news and films from Asia were anything like the news and film in the US, then clearly what I saw was a misrepresentation or at best an exaggeration of the reality. Ironically, of the three sources, the movies were probably the most useful because they were indeed created by Asians themselves, and though some may have been created for foreign consumption, many were tailored to the taste of Asian film-goers, and we in the west were an afterthought. So, the only way I was going to get an accurate look at the real was to go there, not as a tourist, but as a visitor, and preferably for an extended period.
Ever since I was a child, the movies from the East have held the strongest appeal; The Kung-fu action movies especially. The principles were so simple: heroes and villains fought it out and the heroes always win. But, the characters were very colorful. A drunk versus a monkey, eventually discovering they are on the same side, both heroes, with a common villain, a snake. So in the end, it’s a drunken monkey versus a snake. A snake versus a Shaolin monk. A Shaolin monk versus a Ninja. A Ninja versus a samurai. A samurai versus the entire Shogunate. You killed my father, killed my master, raped and killed my wife and daughter, invaded my country, burned down my temple, betrayed the Shogun, mercilessly killed many of my people, and now I’m back for revenge. Revenge! Revenge! You do something bad and, you can bet your ass, retribution is forthcoming. Retribution at, literally, the hands, or sword, of a martial artist who’d been training daily since childhood in order to forge his mind, body and soul into a tool for survival, an instrument of defense, and a weapon capable of inconceivable feats of strength, endurance, and yet somehow it’s all very plausible. I love it!
Later I realized what I found most interesting was not the fighting, though. It was the glimpse at the ideology behind the fights, at the civilization that made the battle possible and inevitable. These were snapshots of Asia, even though they were probably filmed in a movie studio and censored by a communist regime. Who cares? The lies we tell, tell as much about us as the truth. Our heroes are our best selves.
An American hero is a clever clown who uses his wit and charm to overcome witless villains. A Chinese hero is a skinny guy who sacrifices his life for the good of his family, community, nation and race. An American hero overcomes the challenges of his life, his junior high school level education, his black skin, his cancerous brain, his missing limbs or diminished mental faculties, prejudices and various other character shortcomings and learns that money isn’t the key to happiness, and one is rich if one has friends, and finds the love a great woman. An Asian hero obeys his father regardless of his own independent idea, even unto his death, for his father’s face is more important than anything else. An American hero comes from another world to discover that democracy is the greatest political system in the galaxy, or that human feelings are their greatest asset, and devotes his virtually invincible life to defending and spreading it. A Chinese hero carries wine jars up a mountain with boulders tied to his legs and beats the bark of f of trees until, eventually, and by eventually I mean after many years of self-torture and sacrifice, gains the ability to scale high walls in a single bound, block swords with his arms, break blades with his hands, and kick so hard the force embeds his opponent in a concrete wall, all the while guzzling wine from a jug the size of a keg. An American hero dedicates his or her life to helping the poor, hungry, diseased and crippled. The Asian hero dies at the behest of his liege lord for political reasons. The American hero rushes into a burning building with a hose and fire retardant clothing and saves lives. A Chinese hero prays to Buddha while the temple burns around him until he is engulfed in flames, still holding his beads.
The values portrayed were similar to the values I was raised on, just a little more, well, ruthless? Guiltless?
Christianity has this good versus evil thing too but since you’re not supposed to judge people, who’s to say who’s good and who’s evil aside from God? You can say the bad guy was possessed by evil spirits, or by the devil, or just had a rough childhood. He grew up poor and hungry and decided that he would never be that way again, no matter what he had to do. So he steals, or kills. Or, you can say the good guy is good because he sacrifices himself in the spirit of the good of the many outweighing the good of the few, or the one, or he saves lives regardless of the risk, or he does anything extraordinary in the name of altruism. And, you may be right. But, I guess I got sick of Hollywood teaching me western morality and decided I wanted to learn how universal these values were for myself.
I once saw a very interesting interview about heroism, called “The Power of Myth.” check it out….
Joseph Campbell, what a great mind.
to be continued…