WASHINGTON -- I'd like to think that Susan Sontag would have sympathy for my preoccupation with comic books.
Sontag's death on Dec. 28 occasioned a flurry of obituaries and appreciations, most of which included provocative quotes from her many published works. My favorite comes from her essay "Notes on 'Camp"': "The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak."
How I wish I could have summoned similar eloquence when Miss Enright, my eighth-grade English teacher, launched into an ear-splitting denunciation of my love of comics. "That trash will just rot your brain," she bellowed. She believed the mind was uniquely suited for the absorption of "real" literature. Miss Enright was not chastising me for failing to keep up with the reading list, mind you. She was objecting to my reading comic books even on my own time. I had no notion of Sontag then, or any interest in investigating the relationship between so-called high culture and low. Mark Twain and Jack London were cool with me, but so was the Legion of Superheroes.
Sontag, who managed to defend the excesses of modern culture while not owning a television, was celebrated -- and occasionally vilified -- for her efforts to synthesize seemingly disparate art forms. "When I go to a Patti Smith concert," she once famously asserted, "I enjoy, participate, appreciate and am tuned in better because I've read Nietzsche."
I can't lay claim to such potent qualifications, although by now I'm savvy enough to make the appropriate noises. "Comic books provide valuable insight into the human condition," I've been known to proclaim. It was in search of such insight that I curled up last week with the hotly anticipated conclusion of a DC Comics series called "Identity Crisis."
DC Comics published the final issue in mid-December, wrapping up a complicated mystery in which the loved ones of superheroes appear to be targeted for death. It was written by Brad Meltzer, best known as an author of legal thrillers. Meltzer uses multiple narrators to tell his story, a decidedly unromantic, behind-the-masks look at the Justice League -- a crime-fighting team whose best-known members include Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. But he focuses on that trio's supporting cast, less-popular figures such as Green Arrow, Flash and the Atom. As the team struggles to identify and capture a slippery opponent, they are seen grieving, feuding and lying to each other just like ordinary mortals.
In the course of their efforts, a debate emerges between those in favor of striking first against their enemies with overwhelming force -- a shock-and-awe kind of thing -- and those more comfortable with a cautious, coalition-building approach. Green Arrow, who favors the first option, portrays the conflict as a war on terror: "They'd love nothing more than to know where our wives are ... where our children sleep. If they knew where your mother lived, they'd slice her throat, then go out for a beer." Flash, on the other hand, argues for kinder, gentler crime-fighting techniques.
A gifted synthesist like Sontag would know how to draw a profound connection between the mysteries confronted in a comic-book series and the massive, unpredictable mysteries of the real world. As for myself, I can only put down my reading and wonder: One day, 100,000 people are going about their daily tasks. The next day they are gone.
Between the covers of a comic book, such mysteries are easily solved, or even prevented. Earthquake? Sounds like a job for Superman, the most powerful man on the planet. In the comic-book universe, that's what superpowers are for.
In the world of flesh and blood, where disasters are horrifyingly real, the superheroes are relief workers. Ordinary human beings with extraordinary courage and compassion, they are showing up in South Asia to do the dirty work of digging through the rubble and coaxing life from tumultuous ruin.
And what are real-life superpowers for? In our world, there's only the United States, which so far has pledged $350 million to earthquake relief efforts. In real life, the most powerful man on the planet continued to vacation amid initial reports of death and destruction because, an official said, "He didn't want to make a symbolic statement about `We feel your pain."'
Now why does that sound to me like exactly what he should have done? Too many comic books, you think?