I’ve read comic books for as long as I can remember. I like the ready ability to escape into a world where the good guys usually win, or at least where costumed characters are smashing stuff.
But my interest is rooted in more than just escapism: Volumes of honest-to-god scholarship have been written about comics (or “graphic novels” if you want to sound all hoity-toity). Comic book storylines reflect changes in culture over time, and you can learn a lot about the character traits a society prizes by who its preferred superheroes are. It’s like the original Nite Owl says in “Watchmen” No. 1: “The world of Doc Savage and the Shadow was one of absolute values, where what was good was never in the slightest doubt, and where what was evil suffered some kind of fitting punishment.” The decidedly different world of The Watchmen, The Punisher, and an alcoholic, street-brawling Batman reflected the grittier, more complicated reality of Reagan-era America.
One of my longtime favorite villains from the Marvel universe is Cain Marko, better known as the Juggernaut. Marko starts out as a kid who is abused by his scientist dad. He accidentally kills his parents in a laboratory fire. Then he’s drafted and sent to North Korea, where he steals an ancient ruby that turns him into an unstoppable powerhouse. None of this backstory matters much. All you need to know is that he’s big, he wears armor that makes him look like a Cadbury egg, and he smashes things. Mostly by running through them.
At first, it’s difficult to see the cultural significance of a character like The Juggernaut. He’s not particularly complicated, as supervillains go. He is killed and resurrected every now and again. He gets blasted into the farthest reaches of outer space. He’s used as an avatar by an otherworldly demon who reaches him via a portal created by a swamp monster. But he’s mostly unfazed by all of it. He doesn’t brood, he’s not introspective — there’s no monologuing, pontificating, or whining about his childhood. The character is only multidimensional in the sense that he occasionally gets banished to other dimensions. He just keeps right on running through things, no matter what.
I’ve lost more than a few people to COVID-19 in the last year, including at least one close friend. Maybe more. I’m not sure. I’m processing these losses by not thinking about them too much. It’s like I’m watching all humankind’s existential fears become trivialities, manifested as balloonfish, peacefully floating in a world-sized tank. I am aware that people I love are suffering. Lost relatives, lost jobs, lost relationships, a lost year at the very least. Seems pretty bad. Oh well.
I’m not sure how I got to this point, but I’m sure it has taken more than this one year for it to happen. I was a sensitive kid. I felt things deeply. I cried a lot. Even as a young adult, I wrote bad songs and bad poetry and drew bad pictures to deal with all the bad feelings. In the rare event that I got a glimpse of death, either of a pet or some distant relative, I’d dwell on it for weeks.
But I’ve gotten older, the senses have dulled, and a protective callus has been rubbed around the emotional mechanism in the brain. Death means less now, somehow. Not just death, but birth too, and everything in between. When I received my first vaccination, I didn’t experience euphoria or even noticeable relief. It was OK, I guess.
I can’t prove it, but I don’t think I’m the only one to wax apathetic. During the Civil War (the real one, not the Avengers’ internal spat), people routinely lost entire communities in the space of hours but still spent prolonged periods of public mourning. Now, again surrounded by death, it seems like much of America is experiencing something akin to what psychologists call “dysfunctional grief” — that is, no mourning at all. Some of us can openly laugh at half a million deaths and still cram ourselves into restaurants every weekend. Even the most empathetic of us can only furrow our brows, squinch our faces into a tight frown, scratch the back of our heads and say “yeah, that really sucks. Welp, whaddya gonna do?” Life has to keep up a certain pace for those of us still living, and that means forever sprinting to the next thing, gaze fixed forward to an infinite horizon, without acknowledging a time when the running must stop.
All the loss of the last year has helped me realize the archetypal value of the Juggernaut, who smashes through things in a helmet big enough to obstruct his peripheral vision almost entirely. He’s not putting on armor like Colossus; that’s too deliberate. He’s not hatching elaborate plans or building precision lasers like the Red Skull or the Leader; you have to confront the nature of your adversary to do that. He’s just running through shit.
That’s the way to be. Need a building knocked down? Run through it. Gotta get past the Fantastic Four or the New Mutants? Run through ’em. Your mom and dad on ventilators? Masks all over the goddamn street? Dozens of funeral passcodes to keep track of in your inbox? Surgeries, career changes, elections, house fires, birthdays, graduations, weddings, mass shootings, suicides? Don’t think too much about any of that, just slap that goofy helmet on. Keep running. Keep smashing.
In 2020, the Juggernaut was rebranded and given his own book for the first time in the nearly 60-year history of the character. When I found out, I experienced something very close to mild happiness. What costumed character represents this American epoch better than the Juggernaut? When faced with problems like a global pandemic, what else can we do but careen headlong into them, hoping to burst through to the other side?
The Juggernaut may not be the hero we need, but he’s the one we’ve got. One wonders what we might become when we emerge, fully vaccinated, with nothing left to smash. Law-and-order caped crusader types? Gritty, murderous anti-heroes? Cackling, calculating villains? No use thinking about it; there is too much right in front of us; we can’t see that far ahead. Nor is there extra time or energy to look back at the collateral damage we’ve left behind. For now, all we can do is keep running.
Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. “Midwesticism”is his short-documentary series about Midwesterners who are making the world a better place. Watch it at: patreon.com/dancanon.