Over the course of The Near-Apocalypse of ’09, three central concepts–pillars, if you will–have emerged. The first is heroic trauma, the idea that superheroes originate from intense personal traumas which fragment their identities, with subsequent adventures repeatedly reflecting back on their origin traumas. The second is the protector fantasy, that when we imagine superheroes, we are not imagining a more powerful version of ourselves, but rather that someone in power might care for and defend us. Finally, the third is near-apocalypse itself, that part of the role of the superhero is to defend the status quo.
Few characters exemplify these pillars as well as Dru, the main character of Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti’s SuperZero. A 19-year-old high school student (intelligent but poorly served by conventional schooling, she’s been left back multiple times) in a world devoid of superheroes, she is determined to become one, and hatches a series of increasingly elaborate plots to do so, based on the origin stories of Batman, Spider-Man, and the Fantastic Four.
Each of the pillars we’ve discussed is addressed in the early issues of SuperZero. Dru alludes to something all superheroes have in common, “that their home life isn’t great,” in converstation with her friend; using Batman as an example, she insists that his quest to avenge his parents is a superpower, “he has revenge in his blood.” Her friend, suffering from parental abuse, quietly counters that “I should be able to fly and shoot power rays already.” The link between traumatic experience and superheroes’ powers is essentially stated in the text.
Dru’s own fantasies of becoming a superhero may initially seem like power fantasies, but this is not entirely the case. Certainly they are fantasies in which she is powerful, but the comic takes pains to depict her life in ways that show what she’s really fantasizing about: she is listless and bored, underachieving and bullied, but she does nothing to change that. Instead, all of her energies go into her superhero project, which she bases on an elaborate mythology involving multiple past cycles of life on Earth, always ending with humanity self-destructing before emerging anew millions of years later. According to her, the Earth itself is sending signals into the human subconscious, trying to describe how to create a savior, and every religion contains parts of that signal, but “the most obvious thing ever created, the superheroes, well, the people that create these books have the most information.”
Just another conspiracy, except that here and there in the comic are hints that there is such a thing as the ability to subconsciously pick up subtle signals from somewhere, as when Dru’s father is somehow able to not only tell that Wax–the homeless veteran Dru hires to mug her parents in an effort to recreate Batman’s origin–is a vet, but what war he fought in, on sight, or Dru’s recurring dreams of herself as a hero dealing with an alien invasion, foreshadowing the final two issues. More importantly, this is Dru’s protector fantasy: that the world itself is watching out for her, that it will act to save her from her life. It is a power fantasy, but it is a protector fantasy as well, because she isn’t fantasizing about doing anything, but rather that something will happen to her.
She also fantasizes about becoming the protector for others, being the savior the Earth is trying to create. To this end, she intervenes with her friend’s abusive father without consulting her friend; in real life, this is both incredibly invasive and an extremely dangerous thing to do, as there is a very high probability that the abuser will take it out on the victim. In the story, however, it works with sitcom-esque ease, ending with the father remorseful, the friend happy, and the family reconciled.
But then, that’s what superheroes do: they maintain the status quo. Getting the state’s child welfare services involved, or finding her friend a shelter, would be dramatic change, a permanent alteration of the power structures of her little world–which is to say, by talking to the father, she’s averted that local revolution, that mini-apocalypse. All this, along with her dreams, foreshadows the final issue, which is her true origin story.
Dru’s actual acquisition of superpowers brings together the three pillars. She is subjected to intense trauma–alone, helpless, betrayed by the people she thought would help her, in agony and expecting to die–which combines with and reiterates a prior trauma: the alien mentions her unusual reaction to their experiments is a result of “piperidine alkaloids” in her body. The compound being referred to is doubtlessly solenopsin, a piperidine alkaloid used as a toxin by fire ants. The table on which she’s strapped, the device scanning her, all echo the second issue, when she was bitten by fire ants while being x-rayed after being beaten by her classmates.
Faced with this experience, Dru decides to be a protector against impending apocalypse: she will destroy the alien spies and their ship, so that their species cannot use the intelligence they gathered to attack the Earth. She uses her newfound power–which even she doesn’t seem to realize she has until the last two pages, though she clearly demonstrates both superhuman strength and endurance–to protect the world, believing she is sacrificing herself in the process.
Dru is both a power fantasy and a protector fantasy; sadly there does not appear to have been any continuation of the series published in the (as of this writing) nearly a year since the collected first volume came out, and so we are unlikely to see any exploration of how Dru would deal with the conflict between the two.
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