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Marvel Comics and Manifest Destiny

Spider-Man is going to India. Just how universal are America's most cherished comic-book ideals?

11:00 PM, Jan 27, 2005 • By DAVID ADESNIK
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ONLY SUPERHEROES have superpowers. But are superpowers the only ones who have superheroes? Let me explain: In the six and a half decades since the birth of the superhero comic-book genre, a disproportionate number of super-powered men and women have--surprise, surprise--turned out to be American citizens.

Most were born in the United States. Others, such as Superman, were aliens (illegal, presumably, given the immigration restrictions in place when he arrived in 1938) who decided to make America their home. And thank God for that. Had that tiny spaceship from the planet Krypton landed in Munich or Moscow during the perilous summer of 1938, comic-book history might have turned out very different.

Yet perhaps it was no accident that the first super-powered alien landed on U.S. soil. From the earliest days of the Republic, American culture has been conducive to fantasies of omnipotence. After all, how else can one explain the conviction of the Founding Fathers that their remote little outpost, surrounded by enemy territory, would some day become the most powerful nation on Earth?

Fortunately, the American obsession with super-strength has been tempered by an almost messianic sense of obligation to the greater good. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was a superhero--the Amazing Spider-Man, to be exact--who expressed this idea most succinctly. In his very first appearance in August 1962, Peter Parker (the man behind the spider mask) learned that "with great power there must also come great responsibility."

Like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck before them, Spider-Man, Superman, and the rest of their cohort became global icons, thus generating considerable revenue for their creators. In recent years, two Spider-Man films each grossed more than $400 million overseas, just slightly more than they did domestically.

Yet buying a ticket is not the same as buying into an ideology. Dare I suggest that the combined allure of Kirsten Dunst and the descent of Manhattan into flaming chaos might even have persuaded numerous members of Al Qaeda to watch the film? (On a pirated DVD, of course.)

Idle speculation aside, a recent partnership between Marvel Comics and India's Gotham Entertainment Group has provided a fascinating opportunity to assess the cross-cultural appeal of the superhero ethic. In mid-November, the first issue of Spider-Man: India hit newsstands on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. For the moment, only four issues are planned.

According to Gotham CEO Sharad Devarajan,

It is one thing to translate existing U.S. comics, but this project is truly what we call a "transcreation," where we actually reinvent the origin of a property like Spider-Man so that he is an Indian boy growing up in Mumbai [formerly Bombay] and dealing with local problems and challenges. I have always believed that the superhero relates to a "universal psyche" already firmly established in India through centuries of mythological stories depicting gods and heroes with supernatural abilities . . .

Though we will remain true to the underlining mythos of Spider-Man, which is epitomized in the phrase "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility," the character will be reinvented so his powers, problems and costume are more integrated with Indian culture. Unlike the U.S. origin, which is deeply rooted in science, the Indian version is more rooted in magic and mythology.

Devarajan's aspirations are noble, yet it's interesting to wonder if American audiences will recognize this Spider-Man after his translation into the local idiom. Or, conversely, if Devarajan, born in New York to parents from India, will preserve too much of Spider-Man's American heritage and wind-up with a character that won't resonate with Indian audiences.

In short, Devarajan's attempt to transform Peter Parker into Pavitr Prabhakar forces him to confront the age-old challenge of separating the universal aspects of human nature from the particular characteristics of a specific culture. The success (or failure) of Devarajan's effort matters, because it may tell us something important about the validity of Americans' faith in the universality of our most cherished ideals.

THE FIRST ISSUE of Spider-Man: India demonstrates that Devarajan was dead serious when he spoke of preserving the Spider-mantra that "with great power comes great responsibility." In 1962, Spider-Man learned this enduring lesson when a security guard asked him to stop an armed robber in the midst of making his getaway. At that time, Peter Parker was an embittered teenager with no sense of obligation to the greater good. He refused to apprehend the robber.

Later that same night, Peter returns home to find out that his beloved Uncle Ben has been murdered. Enraged, Peter hunts down the murderer, only to discover that it is the tough he let go. This tragic coincidence provokes his epiphany.

In Spider-Man: India, young Pavitr Prabhakar learns his lesson in an almost identical manner. While swinging across Mumbai, Pavitr hears the cries of a young woman surrounded by a gang of thugs. He does nothing and swings away. Moments later, Pavitr's beloved Uncle Bhim hears the cries of the same young woman and decides to confront her assailants. They warn Uncle Bhim that they will hurt him if he does not walk away. Bhim stays. He is murdered. Later that night, Pavitr learns of his uncle's death, hunts down the murderers, and experiences an epiphany of his own.

Although its innovations seem trivial, India's reworking of the Spider-myth brilliantly enhances the painful irony of the American original. Whereas Ben's murder is a matter of pure coincidence, Bhim dies because he had the courage to confront precisely the same evil that his nephew wouldn't. In both instances, the punishment for selfishness is the death of a loved one. Yet in India, that loved one is also a martyr whose death becomes the embodiment of the ethos to which Spider-Man must aspire.

THE COUNTERPOINT to India's subtle reworking of the death of Uncle Ben is its ambitious recasting of Spider-Man's powers as the worldly incarnation of a purposeful, mystical force rather than the accidental outgrowth of a scientific experiment. In a recent interview, Devarajan observed that the diametrically opposed forces of science and magic represent the fundamental contrast between Eastern and Western culture.

At a time when IBM is outsourcing thousands of high-tech jobs to Bangalore, it may seem strange to hear an Indian-American insist that magic is the essence of Eastern culture. Nonetheless, Devarajan's decision to build his story on a mythological foundation provides a much better testing ground for the hypothesis that the superhero ethic is part of a "universal psyche" rather than an American one.

As a literary device, the replacement of science with magic functions smoothly. In both accounts of Spider-Man's origins, there is a seamless integration of plot and metaphor. Although Peter Parker is now a married man in his thirties, he was a bespectacled teenage bookworm when Spider-Man debuted in the 1960s. A friendless outcast, Parker devoted all of his time to academic pursuits, such as the public science exhibit at which he was bitten by a radioactive spider. Although nominally an accident, the spider bite is a metaphorical expression of the American faith that knowledge is power and that science is the engine of progress. Initially taunted because of his devotion to science, Parker ultimately becomes all the more powerful because of it.

In Spider-Man: India, Pavitr Prabhakar is an outcast not because of his academic talent, but because of the traditional clothing that he wears to an expensive private school in cosmopolitan Mumbai. As a scholarship student from a small village in the countryside, it is all Pavitr can afford. One day, while being chased by the bullies who taunt him for wearing harem pants reminiscent of the glory days of MC Hammer, Pavitr stumbles upon an ancient mystic who warns him of an impending battle between ancient forces of good and evil. The old man endows Pavitr with the power of the spider and tells him "This is your destiny, young Pavitr Prabhakar. Rise to the challenge . . . fulfill your karma." In the same manner that Parker embodies the ideals of modern America, Prabhakar embodies those of traditional India.

At first, the suggestion that Pavitr has a destiny that he must fulfill may strike some readers as un-American. In the land of opportunity, we reject out of hand the notion that individuals must resign themselves to their fate. Instead, we believe that there are no limits to what can be achieved by a combination of hard work and ingenuity.

Yet is the concept of destiny really so foreign? Was it not under the banner of Manifest Destiny that the young United States claimed for itself the Great Plains and the northern reaches of Mexico? Was it not Ronald Reagan who constantly reminded the citizens of the United States that they had a "rendezvous with destiny"? To what else did George W. Bush refer to in his second inaugural address when he stated that "History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the author of liberty"?

The most important difference Spider-fans will notice between the Indian and American notions of destiny is the Indian belief that tyranny and evil are primal forces no less powerful than freedom and good. Yet there is also a considerable measure of doubt embedded in the American vision of progress. Although one scientific accident gave Spider-Man his powers, other scientific accidents were responsible for the creation of his arch-nemeses, Dr. Octopus and the Green Goblin. In the final analysis, that which makes Pavitr Prabhakar authentically Indian does not make him in any way un-American.

Today the Republic of India is the most populous democracy on the face of the Earth. Someday, it may rival the United States in terms of wealth and power. Conventional thinking suggests that the emergence of a second superpower would threaten the security of the United States of America. Yet if India's first superhero recognizes that with great power there also comes great responsibility, perhaps we should look forward to the emergence of an Indian superpower.

David Adesnik is a fellow at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs and an editor of OxBlog.com.