Main Banner
About Shep Database Shep Music Timeline Store ACS Excelsior Excelsior
Columns / Short Stories
Shep was always writing. . .
Header
July 1966

Photo

An Opinion: Jean Shepherd on the Hero Myth
It's A Bird! It's a Plane! It's Supercamp!



Above the ornate carved doors of the imposing building is engraved in chaste, classical lettering: THE OLIVER DRAGON MEMORIAL MUSEUM OF FOLK MYTHOLOGY. This is the first Hall of Fame of the Heroes, a macabre, eerie wax museum that far surpasses in sheer grotesque, anything that Madame Tussaud ever put before the public. If somewhat scary, a tour among these ghostly shades is worth taking. First we see under the shadowy rotunda the gnarled figure of Hopalong Cassidy. He is in the Early Stone Age section of the museum. Few People visit him these days. Only a handful remember his brief but superheated moment of glory. An occasional scholar, an historian perhaps, from time to time a procession of pimply faced kids, but for the most part the great hall is empty, save for the ghostly waxed figures, each on his pedestal, caught in a characteristic pose wearing his famous costume dreaming away the long days and nights, dreaming perhaps of his day --- brief, supercharged, but forever gone. Standing tall and erect, not far from Hoppy, wearing his oddly rumpled uniform, is the heroic figure of another great pioneer of the past --- Captain Video, his face strangely perplexed in wax even as it was in life. He, too is neglected these days. Over there next to the potted palms, his long rifle casually cradled in the crock of a waxen arm, moth-eaten, dusty, coonskin cap at jaunting angle is another hero of the mighty past. Davy Crockett who, like others to follow, spawned giant industries that provide the insatiable public with by-products of his white-hot, rocketlike flight and descent. Ashtrays, bowie knives, T-shirts, and God knows how many raccoons died to supply the bastions of ratty-tailed hats now mouldering under layers of over-shoes and ice-skates in the furthermost corners of countless closets. Lurking in the shadows, masked and benevolent is the rapier like figure of Zorro, cheek by jowl with his beady-eyed spin-off Palladin. Between the two of them, they accounted for more cash register activity, more accumulated highly expensive, useless junk than Detroit will provide in the next five years. Ah! I see that stone-faced, squat figure sporting a wide-brimmed felt hat. He, too, represents a major milestone on out rocky, tortured road to TV maturity, Now almost illegible is the unforgettable epithet that carried him for a brief season into the brilliant sun of total love: ALL I WANT ARE THE FACTS MA'AM. We peer more closely at the crumbling monument and barely make out his name -- Sergeant Joe Friday of the Los Angeles Police Force. You can see the bulge on his badly cut plainclothes-cop suit that marks badge 714. The museum catalog if filled with a large collection of lesser demigods: The Mouseketeers, Howdy Doody, Marshall Dillon, Uncle Miltie, and many others. The two newest exhibits are by far the most grotesque and yet, considering the times, the most logical. There they stand, fresh and gleaming, brand new waxen effigies in the very prime of life, the biggest of them all so far, but certainly not the last of their line: maybe the first, who knows? Masked, hooded, heavily muscled, super-jawed, they represent the hopes and dreams, the fantasies, the kicks of countless millions: Batman and Robin -- twin eunuchs of Justice battling the forces of malevolence eternally and yet laughably. They are indeed a logical creation of the Anti-Hero Age. To a generation ripening under the influence of Holden Caulfield and Yosarian, naturally any fighter against Evil and/or for Good must be a pincushion of ridicule. There they stand -- Batman, a grown-up little boy, and Robin, a little boy -- unkissed and nonsexed as the heroine in a Gene Autry movie, with whom, incidentally, they both have many attributes in common. Not with Autry, with the heroine. Yes, they are an inevitable pair for our day, when countless people feel they can petition, protest, or sing away any of the genuine ills of the world. No wonder the creatures of malevolence that Batman and Robin take on are even more unreal and fantastic than they themselves. The Penguin., The joker, The Cat Woman, Elemental Man are not quite the Viet Cong or, for that matter, a Southern sheriff leading three 200-pound German shepherds. It has been said that Batman and Robin represent figures of Nostalgia. Nothing could be farther from the truth. They are as contemporary as James Bond or Our Man Flint, and come out of as many of the same subconscious drives for instant problem solving, instant sex, and implied homosexuality. James Bond does not like women. Sex, yes. Women, no. He has hand-grenaded, shot, stabbed, disemboweled more women in his brief career than Jack the Ripper ever dealt with in his years of sweaty struggle, and to more applause too. Yes, Batman and Robin do fill a very real void. As long as they remain masked and wear spectacular capes we can accept their odd masculine relationship as Good Clean Fun. In a time when it is no longer easy to tell the Good Guys from the Bad Guys it is obvious that we had to create some form of substitute. We had to create figures of fantasy Good as well as fantasy Evil, but at the same time laugh at both forces, Good and Evil, thereby showing that we don't believe in either. Ours is a nihilistic age. Almost all the really popular fictional characters of the past ten years or so have been one variation or another of Nietz-che's superman myth. More presidents or statesmen, generals or playwrights are too mortal for us. Holden Caulfield and Yossarian are, of course, supermen in another guise, supermen of sensitivity, honesty, insight. James Bond is a superman of sex and whatever the hell he does outside of that. Batman and Robin are just plain supermen who rise above the mere mortal weaknesses of the flesh. They live in the rarified atmosphere of the glandless. So did Hitler. He kept his sexual involvments a closely guarded secret for many years, to augment his Godlike status among his lesser, sexually tormented followers. He knew what he was doing. As long as Batman and Robin remain just TV idols, we're home free. But the day that we actively begin searching for a masked, caped evil-fighter to protect us from the Cat Woman of the world, the Elemental Men across the seas, we are due for a fascinating ride through history. There will be bands, there will be spectacular uniforms, and even, perhaps, a mystical totem or two. Magic plays an important part in the rise of supermen. The day that a candidate appears on the platform shrouded in mystery and intones "SHAZAM" to the sound of a thousand ghostly guitars playing an anthem of TV themes will be the day we are all secretly waiting for. They look great up there on their pedestals. They certainly are a far cry from scruffy old Hoppy, who not only had a bad limp, but even had trouble spitting over his chin. He was one of the very last of the human beings to make it in the hero business. He didn't stand a chance when Davy Crockett -- all 6'7" of him -- showed up with his steely eye and deadly aim. Yet even Davy was greasy-kid stuff compared to Palladin, who also rode the West, but clothed in sinister black, Zorro was really Batman on the prairie, mask and all. By the time he drew his sword and snapped on his false face, Hoppy was as out of date as a pterodactyl. A few brief false starts and we at long last hit our stride with Batman and his cute, cuddly little friend. Nostalgia? Forget it. They are far more figures of the future than of the past. Already the museum has put in place several fresh, sparkling new pedestals. They are empty. The spotlights are in place. All we need now are the figures. They should be interesting, to say the least. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Writer, humorist, week-night broadcaster on WOR radio, Mr. Shepherd is the author of In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash to be published in the fall by Doubleday.


Copyright: 1966 Mademoiselle Magazine