In the mid-1960s, when I was quite a little boy, I spent time in hospital with pneumonia.
My mum trailed up daily from the depths of Somerset to the City of Bath to visit me. Knowing my low boredom threshold, she brought me a comic every day. The home-grown articles – Beano, Dandy, Valiant, Hotspur, Eagle (great names from the past) – weren’t numerous enough to keep me sated with light reading. In desperation she started buying unfamiliar, somewhat alien American alternatives.
In Marvel Comics, I first encountered Captain America, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four and others. I guess the series was some 20 years old by then, and probably in its heyday.
I can’t say I hanker after those heroes nowadays, though I still think The Thing was quite a dude: but, in print as in Hollywood’s recent “realistic” movies about them, they were a bitter and twisted bunch. Even the Batman I read about was a dark and troubled soul, not the straightforward, heroic crime-fighter that we knew from television (remember the tune? na-na na-na na-na na-na, Batman!)
Now, I realise my nostalgic comic-reading childhood reminiscences aren’t all that interesting. But, while Hollywood does its business of creating spectacular movie fantasies, superheroes are apparently becoming part of real life. A few weeks ago London hosted the first ever Superhero Summit. Phoenix Jones flew over from Seattle where (with his wife, who adopts the super-heroine name Purple Reign) he’s part of a wave of new-style vigilantism spreading rapidly across the States. When neighbourhood policing fails and street crime spreads, these self-styled heroes step in (though, Mr Jones assures us, not necessarily in costume).
So there he was, resplendent in rubberised body armour, and at least one newspaper pictured Purple Reign with her utility belt reminiscent of Batman, corset-style Wonderwoman top, curious arm-guards, purple hair – and what looked to me like the knobbly elbow- and knee-protectors kids wear when they take their skateboard to the park. Not so much kick-ass as cover-your-ass.
Will it catch on over here? I doubt it. We Brits are just too cynical. Besides, surely none of us can forget Del-Boy and Rodney Trotter (Only Fools and Horses) emerging from the London fog dressed as Batman and Robin, on their way to post-funeral drinks (they think it’s a fancy-dress party). So, if we do find ourselves faced with a superhero vigilante, we’re more likely to shout “Lovely jubbly!” than ask in wonder, “Who was that masked stranger?”
Nonetheless, we shouldn’t dismiss Phoenix Jones and his ilk too lightly. He claimed in The Times, “I don’t consider it to be a gimmick. I’m not worried about the level of crime but the level of apathy. I’m not going to accept it.”
Apathy is a curse. Experts on bullying – whether in schools or the workplace – identify the problem of “bystanders”, those who witness but effectively condone it by refusing to step in or get involved. Victims of street crime describe being mugged or even stabbed while others simply cross the road. When people took photographs of a husband appearing to throttle his celebrity cook wife, Radio 4 commentators subsequently debated whether or not they would or should have intervened.
We’re all quick to complain, but slow to act to stop a manifest wrong. And at least Phoenix and Purple (love the names!) get off their backsides and do something.
Moreover, our region may have greater need of them than others. If government agrees with the Noble Lord Howell that the North East, with its “large and uninhabited and desolate areas” has “plenty of room for fracking… without any kind of threat to the rural environment,” our treasured landscape could soon be torn apart. Policy-makers are sufficiently, maddeningly, ignorant and south-centric to go for it.
If that happens, forget Swampy and the environmental warriors: let’s call in a few lycra-and-rubber-clad superheroes.
If nothing else, they might give us a laugh.