As of this writing, it seems the massive fire in Fort McMurray is dying down. 80,000 people in the area were evacuated while the town was decimated. It’s fortunate – and a little amazing – that no lives were lost in the fire.I can’t imagine the work to come, but I hope for nothing but the best for everyone involved.
In the meantime, the Toronto Star published this political cartoon by Theo Moudakis:
On the surface, it’s a nice sentiment, but it’s problematic. Let me explain.
I’ve closely studied the comic book medium, including a course at York University, Comics & Cartoons, where I learned criticizing techniques. There’s a lot you can learn from even a single panel. An early political cartoonist, Richard Outcault, packed his Yellow Kid cartoons with so many visual metaphors that you could spend hours analyzing them. Like this piece, The War Scare in Hogan’s Alley, a commentary on American/Venezuelan relations and the “war” between two newspapers fighting over the rights for The Yellow Kid. My favourite bit from this cartoon is the two dogs on a leash with “dogs of war” on their collar, hinting at a line from Shakespeare’s MacBeth, “Let slip the dogs of war.”
But back to superheroes.
Anyone who takes a quick look at my blog will realize I’m a huge fan of superheroes. I love their mythology, I love what they represent, and I love what they can teach us. Their stories are hit and miss, but there are many I fondly remember.
That said – and this may shock some of you – but superheroes are fictional characters. They’re vigilantes operating outside the law. Their characterizations are at the whim of writers.
True heroes, in my mind, are teachers, doctors, paramedics, parents, and indeed, firefighters. A firefighter’s job constantly puts their life on the line in order to save others. In cases like the Fort McMurray fire, they work ungodly long, overtime hours in order to get the job done. It’s undoubtedly a physically and mentally exhausting career.
In this political cartoon, a snide quotation – from Superman of all people – saying “Welcome to the club,” is incredibly dismissive of the men and women who have saved lives longer than even Superman has been around. They’ve always been “part of the club.” Hell, they invented the “club.”
Even the stature and poses by the superheroes depicted in Moudakis’ piece doesn’t reflect a respectful sentiment. They’re frowning. Batman has his arms crossed. It’s like they’re begrudgingly allowing this little firefighter – who we’ll call “Little Mac” – into their club. Replace the quotation with a disdainful “What are you doing here?” and it would have the same meaning.
The superheroes dwarf Little Mac. They tower over him and, in fact, look down on him. These bigger-than-life heroes are like gods upon a person who does the real work. They take up the majority of the cartoon, as well; in other words, they take up all the space. Coupled with the caption, the whole political cartoon is incredibly dismissive of the hard work that the firefighters in Fort McMurray have done over the past week.
Compare this with a piece by Alex Ross in tribute to the heroes of September 11:
Here, the real heroes are the giants, dwarfing Superman. They’re the ones depicted as bigger than life. In addition, Superman’s simple, “Wow,” is a modest, humbling word. His phrase is one of respect, not contempt. These men and women weren’t resentfully allowed into the “club” here. Superman is awestruck by them, like he doesn’t deserve to be in their club. Ironically, the nurse on the left has her arms crossed, just like Batman in the other piece. But their expressions aren’t dismissive. They’re proud. They stand tall, but they’re not dismissive.
As I said at the beginning, Theo Moudakis’ political cartoon is a nice sentiment on the surface. But upon closer examination, it’s dismissive. It raises the importance of the fictional superheroes and unknowingly scorns the Fort McMurray firefighters.