I could use some help here (A Little Piece of Home)

 

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It’s September 14, 1996. The top movie at the box office this weekend is Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Maximum Risk. The top song is “The Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)” by Los Del Rio, about which the less said the better; also charting are Donna Lewis, LL Cool J, and Eric Clapton. In the news, yesterday famed rapper Tupac Shakur either died or moved into the apartment shared by Elvis Presley and Andy Kaufman; the same day, Alija Izetbegovic won the presidency in newly independent Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first election; on the 16th, Scotland Yard will intercept an acid bomb mailed to Icelandic singer Björk, sent by a man named Ricardo Lopez on the same day Tupac died and Izetbegovic won the election. Disappointingly, as far as I can tell no one has linked these events into an elaborate conspiracy theory.

Superman, meanwhile, must deal with “A Little Piece of Home,” as The Animated Series introduces a key piece of Superman lore, kryptonite. Kryptonite is, literally, a piece of Superman’s home, a chunk of Krypton transformed by that planet’s destruction into a compound whose radiation is uniquely harmful to Superman. But the phrase “a piece of home” usually refers to a keepsake, memorabilia that serves as a reminder of where you came from. What hurts Superman, when he encounters kryptonite, is memory.

Superman has no direct, conscious memory of Krypton, only of images fed into his brain by the device his parents found in his pod.  Nonetheless, the destruction of Krypton functions for him as a traumatic experience, and not unreasonably so–it is not uncommon for trauma summoners to have amnesia around the traumatic experience, after all. The physical symptoms we see Superman experience when Lois unwittingly hands him kryptonite are consistent with the physical manifestation of extreme anxiety: weakness, dizzyness, heavy sweating, and (not depicted visibly, but likely intended given the number of people saying “you don’t look so good”) pallor.

True, these are also consistent with radiation poisoning, but there’s a major difference: radiation poisoning doesn’t go away when the radiation stops, and radiation poisoning severe enough to cause dizziness is inevitably fatal. Superman’s symptoms, on the other hand, vanish soon after the kryptonite is removed–in the absence of his trigger, his anxiety fades.

That is, after all, what kryptonite is: a toxic reminder of a traumatic past, a “little piece of home” that causes him to become overwhelmed and vulnerable.  It is a trigger, and handled as such: he encounters it once accidentally, thereby discovering that it is a trigger; once he is inadverdently exposed by Lois and tries to cover it up, with limited success, leading her to become concerned but not understand what the problem is; and twice he is deliberately, maliciously exposed by the villains.

It should go without saying that deliberately triggering someone is a vicious, cruel, and cowardly act. Sadly, it does not go without saying; deliberately exposing people to probable triggers is a common part of Internet harassment campaigns, both those targeted at individuals and broader sweeps (for example, coordinated posting of triggering content in Tumblr tags used by survivors). In this respect, the episode is astoundingly prescient: the minions of an uber-wealthy real estate tycoon expose Superman to his trigger, then laugh and deliberately kick him while he’s down. When Superman survives that, said tycoon–Luthor–then sends in a bot to try to trigger Superman for him. (This being a 90s cartoon, said bot is a larger-than-life-size mechanical Tyrannosaur, but still.)

Superman prevails, because of course he does, but only with help. For the first time in the series, he is portrayed as being significantly vulnerable, in need of Lois’ quick thinking and skill–and explicitly her physical skill, namely her ability to accurately throw small objects into bins, established earlier when she was throwing balled-up paper into the trash can.

Even Superman can be traumatized. Even Superman needs help dealing with his triggers. We could read that as hopelessness for the rest of us–that everyone has vulnerabilities that can be exploited by the callous, cruel, and powerful–but on the other hand, flip it around. A trauma survivor can be Superman. Indeed, Superman is Superman because he is a trauma survivor; without the same destruction of Krypton that created kryptonite, he would not live on Earth and therefore not have superpowers.

This is not, to be clear, the “inspirational disability” canard that, for example, a blind person gains super-hearing. That’s just feel-good nonsense for the able-bodied. This is something subtler and more complicated. After all, one doesn’t need trauma to be a classical hero–there’s no particular indication that Gilgamesh, Hercules, Gawain, or Wonder Woman were turned into heroes by trauma, although many of them had traumatic experiences as heroes. But it seems like one does need it to be a superhero (and yes, it was entirely intentional which of those lists I put Wonder Woman on; we’ll get into it when she shows up three series from now).

Which in turn calls attention to the other major difference between Superman and a classical hero: classical heroes make terrible neighbors. You want them out in the field adventuring, protecting your home, maybe occasionally coming back to bestow a boon upon the people before venturing back out. As neighbors, they inevitably get drunk and go on a killing spree, or are ambushed by blood-feud rivals, or bound by a geas to burn the neighborhood down unless obscure and complex conditions are met, or something equally disastrous for the community.

But Superman is a great neighbor. Clark Kent is the kind of guy you give your spare key to so your cats get fed while you’re on vacation.

These two traits–trauma and neighborliness–may not be unrelated. We’ll keep this line of inquiry open for now.


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4 thoughts on “I could use some help here (A Little Piece of Home)

  1. I’m not sure Wonder Woman is a classical hero either, at least not in the same way as the others alongside whom you listed her. She may not have trauma of her own, but she’s driven to leave Paradise by the suffering of another. Like Siddhartha Gautama, she’s a child of privilege who has never known suffering, who learns that it exists and sets out to alleviate it, albeit her methods are somewhat more direct than the sage of the Shakyas favored. (Now I wish I’d had that insight in time for Phil to use it in A Golden Thread, even though I’m not sure how much good it would’ve done him.)

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  2. IIRC, DCAU Wonder Woman is a bit different, as she leaves Themyscira to combat an alien invasion that threatens the Amazons and “man’s world” alike. She’s very much in her warrior mode in the DCAU.

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  3. Important distinction, which I probably should’ve kept in mind, and a good point, which I’ll endeavor to keep in mind when the time comes and the egg-image ripens.

    (Follow-up: I checked my Nook copy of AGT, and the term of art “Buddha” appears nowhere in it, nor do “Buddhism” or “Buddhist”, so even if the comparison I made be what the Marston household had in mind, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to Phil.)

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