Actus Primus: Introductions / Introducing Sam Sattin
There’s been very little as cinematically breathtaking as Joss Whedon’s 2012 romp with the Avengers. Not only of late, but in the entire filmic superhero genre. Jon Favreau’s original 2008 Iron Man stands out, as does Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight of that same year. But movies like Daredevil or Elektra or Ghost Rider just seem to pale in comparison against the pure unbidden joy of The Avengers. There’s an internal logic to the superhero genre, and after The Avengers that logic is available to more than just ten year old boys.
Samuel Sattin‘s 2013 novel, League of Somebodies, comes at a high point in the general acceptance of the superhero genre, acceptance that has always been hard in coming for the genre. The novel posits the story of a family that has for years attempted to genetically engineer a superhero through successive generations. Sattin offers a highly creative deconstruction of superheroes and the superhero genre in and intellectually bold move of writing it as a novel. Not only that, he infuses the story with his own lived experience, offering meditations on the superhero genre, by way of Jewish tradition.
In an hour long phone conversation, Sattin gets into more than just the novel, and more than just the superhero genre or even Jewish tradition. What he paints is a portrait of a world still struggling with a schismatic divide between high art and popculture, and the consequent focus needed to make an argument for the cultural legitimacy of the popular as a mode of expression. In doing so, Sattin positions the superhero as a cultural phenomenon in a way not even the blockbustiest of Hollywood blockbusters can. He taps grander narrative arcs, ones present in Michael Lewis’s recent work, both 2010’s The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine and Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, but also Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World became Modern.
Not to discredit superhero blockbusters at all. Sattin is particularly sensitive to the long and often dark road to cultural legitimacy that the superhero genre has had to walk. Near the middle of the interview, Sattin begins, “I think one thing that I wanted to write about, was that a lot of pop art was trying to lampoon the comicbook genre, the superhero genre. A lot of pop artists specialize in superhero comics and superhero culture in general and try and make them into art which I think is one of the most insulting and ridiculous notions. A lot of that can end up being really trivial in the end. It adds up to…” there’s a hesitation, and then a recalibration. Sattin picks up the strand of conversation almost immediately, and almost immediately redirects his focus. There’s a mind at work here, a kind of intellectual gravitas and one imbued with a great, grand drama. It’s a mind that has yet worked out all the answer, but one that plugs away furiously, tirelessly, ceaselessly to that end. “Look let me be honest,” Sattin picks up, “I think superheroes are below, superheroes are above…”
It wasn’t the first time we hit an ostensible contradiction in terms in our conversation, nor would it be the last. But what is significant in this particular moment is how easily Sattin’s inner world and mind’s inner workings is laid bare. For most of us, just dealing with complexity is hard enough. Sattin doesn’t just embrace complexity, he embraces outright paradox. Beyond even that, he finds utility in paradox, in that it allows him a deeper insight into the saccadic nature of our attempts at framing the larger issues. And the larger issue for Sattin conspires around a concern he shares with Stephen Colbert—not so much the popularly accepted origin story of popculture being the fertile hotbed for high culture, but of the more evolved origin story of popculture’s passage into high culture. For Sattin it’s a kind of ages old mystery story, how is it, time and again, that what is currently popular, invariably grows to be stewarded by successive generations of the elite, and eventually becomes high culture?
To begin to grapple with this highly complex problem, Sattin embraces paradox, even in his ordinary, everyday speech pattern. “Look let me be honest,” Sattin suggests when he picks up conversation once again, “I think superheroes are below, superheroes are above…”. It’s a blatant paradox. But then he continues, demonstrating how he uses paradox to his advantage. “I think superheroes are below, superheroes are above comics in a certain way. They’re not only psychological and brilliant and exemplars of culture at large, but they are indicative of a kind of mythic longing and a desire of a certain degree.”
“Sattin’s speaking about ideas that have haunted our intellects since as far back as the Renaissance, but also earlier this year as epitomized in General Colin Powell’s TED talk.” . In the 1700’s Giambattista Vico, in many senses the father of modern sociology, introduced the notion of “Poetic Wisdom”—the idea that while ancient humans may have been technologically less sophisticated than the average European of the Renaissance, but was in truth no less culturally complex. Because ancient humans employed myth to explain natural phenomena, while modern Europeans employed reason. Both ancients and moderns however, vested themselves in the activity of explanation.
In his TED talk, General Powell, sees much the same problem confronting modern America. How would you deal with it, if you didn’t have the internal mastery of structure, that allows you to operate a cultural technology as sophisticated as America? General Powell offers a moving anecdote near the end of his talk, lionizing a push-cart hot dog vendor who gifts Powell a hot dog, despite the general’s insistence to the contrary. “America has paid me, General,” the vendor says, which allows Powell to accept and appreciate.
The idea of struggling within (rather than against) complex cultural systems, and benefitting materially of it, is a question that lies at the heart of Sattin’s League of Somebodies. It’s not the usual moral question that we encounter, “Should we?”, rather the deeper question of “Where’s the line between benefit and deindividuation?”
For General Powell it is the story of how his family supported him all the way to community college in New York, for Sattin’s protagonist Lenard, it’s his family feeding him plutonium in the hopes of breeding in a superhero. The story in League of Somebodies is as much personal as it is ideological, or sociocultural. Exactly like all the best parts of The Wire—moving, personal stories, set against a vast cultural backdrop, already in collapse.
The story of a vast and complex structure supported by unwitting, and a sometimes unwilling, agents is one told in two recent books by financial writer Michael Lewis, of Moneyball fame. The first of these, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine tells the tale of a handful of select few who were able to guess at the financial bubble of mortgage-backed securities inevitably bursting, and how they profited by that intuition. Lewis’s follow-up, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World chronicles the mayhem that ensued when uninitiated players entered the market and operated under the assumption that invested wealth would simply “boomerang,” perpetually returning as increased rewards.
While we don’t speak explicitly about the connections between League of Somebodies and Lewis’s portrait of a post-financial meltdown world, it is hard to fail to see those connections. And hard not to see those connections in the story of the comics medium and the superhero genre themselves. For a protracted time, roughly since the mid-80s, pundits seemed to posit a war between comics and superheroes. Of course comics could and in fact should find cultural legitimacy, the standard logic seemed to argue, because comics are really more than just superheroes. For a moment, an entire cultural moment, it seemed that comics could win, if it simply disavowed superheroes.
But the mid-80s also offered a savage riposte to this kind of limited thinking. A riposte that came in the form of a single comicbook maxi-series, eventually collected in a single, handsome edition. That book was Watchmen, and when Sattin begins addressing that elephant in the room, that’s when our conversation really begins…
To Be Continued
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