Early comic books have been described as assimilationist fantasies. That’s really not a bad summation of the era that brought us the catch phrase “truth, justice and the American Way.”
Many of the early comic book artists and writers were Jews, struggling to make ends meet and find acceptance in a country and in an era that were not particularly hospitable to outsiders. So it’s not surprising that the idea of being different permeates the early and middle era of superheroes. Superman and Wonder Woman were the ultimate outsiders, coming from totally alien cultures. Later, Marvel’s X-Men would take the idea of outsiders and move it to a slightly more human level. Of course, this tradition before the Second World War and the civil rights movement came along and changed many people’s perspectives on ethnicity and culture.
Now, everything is better, right?
Well, not exactly. You see, one of the things that was emphasized, and became overemphasized, in these assimilationist morality tales was that we are all the same. That’s a great sentiment, and on one level it’s certainly true. What makes us human or not human is not a matter of skin tone, culture or social standing. The problem is, while we’re quite confident about what doesn’t define humanity, we’re a lot sketchier on what does. Most people don’t give the whole issue a lot of thought and a lot of very smart people argue about it but it sometimes seems like today’s culture has chosen sameness as our defining characteristic. We’re all human after all, right?
So there’s a lot of hand wringing over making people “equal” where equal equates to us all having the same experiences. We want everyone to go to the same kinds of schools with the same ethnic mixes, get the same higher education and have all the same opportunities. The problem is, that kind of lifestyle is not very… shall we say, ergonomic?
From the moment kids arrive at school they’re presented with a number of boxes. Square classroom, square desk, square meals. Pile it all up for twelve years and you can move up to square cubicles in square buildings belonging to square corporations. And this might even be a great thing if people were invertebrates that could readily conform themselves to whatever environment they were put in. They could have total security and contentment for their entire lives. The problem is, people are individuals with very significant differences of circumstance and personality. Perhaps most importantly, they want to be different. It’s even possible that they were meant to be different, so that they could grow by understanding each other.
Some people will fit nicely into the square lifestyle our culture offers them. Some will be a tad cramped, but they’ll learn to adapt. However, there’s evidence of an ever-growing body of people who just can’t or don’t want to adapt to what culture offers them. They can’t keep up with it, or aren’t motivated by it and want to find meaning outside the existing structure. Once upon a time, that was fine. Many different kinds of societies flourished in America, from the Quakers and Shakers to various communes and the Moravians, all different kinds of social structures used to exist in America with little comment. Sure, they were ethnically similar and based primarily on European culture, but they lived and thought in very different ways.
In contrast, modern education places an emphasis not on giving people ideas to think about, but rather teaching them how to think. People from outside the cultural status quo, who don’t accept the ways they’re told to think, receive a kind of polite condescension, assuming they’re not view as outright freaks. (As a homeschooler I know of which I speak – people always seem so surprised to find I’m not a total social misfit or some kind of raving lunatic who’s trying to restore feudalism. “Homeschooled? But you seem so normal!” At first it was funny. Then it got annoying. I’m starting to worry that it’s a sign of serious cultural closed-mindedness.)
If you can’t hack it in school, you must need medication or new parents. If you don’t care to work for the corporations or the unions, if you want to work for yourself, then obviously you’re an antisocial isolationist. Herbal medicine instead of pharmaceuticals? How unscientific! And on and on it goes.
There could be, are being and have been many books on the subjects of education, business and culture, how the pendulum has swung so far away from individual thought and so far towards mandating a single culture of uniformity. Heat Wave is not one of those books.
Rather, Heat Wave is a dissimilationist fantasy – it creates a world where people are different in a culture much like our own. When they try to use their differences, they run smack into a world that doesn’t want them there. Some will try to change it slowly. Some will try to ruin it. And some will try to change it unilaterally, regardless of the consequences.
But all of them struggle with the same idea. The world they live in wants them to be the same. It needs them to be different; as much as they themselves need to be different. Of course, being different isn’t always a good thing, sometimes those different people will cause harm to themselves and others.
So there are people who are different. The society we have created doesn’t suit them, and sooner or later their incompatibility with it is going to cause problems. What do we do about it?
Well that, my friend, is a whole different story altogether…