How can superheroes defeat an age of cynicism? That was the question posed for a special panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego last weekend. Moderator Chris Carle, the editorial director of IGN, quickly introduced panelists Deepak Chopra, Grant Morrison, and Deepak's son Gotham Chopra, to great applause. He quickly moved on to questions surrounding Morrison's new book "Supergods" and Deepak's book "The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes."
His first question asked about the general experience the panelists had with the two prior panels like this one (that took place in 2006 and 2008). Gotham was the first to respond, that he thought "what happened during the last panel was just getting to know Grant," Gotham had been "a fanboy for a long time," and said that getting to collaborate with Morrison is "incredible." He also related that in that first panel, someone got up and asked if "you guys believed in the religion of the Jedi" and that was when his dad, Deepak, "realized he was amongst his own." Those panels were the beginnings of "where these sort of ideas were born."
"2006 and 2008 seems so long ago, that's how long it took to write these books," Morrison said. He felt it was important for both he and Deepak, in their own different ways, to write these books, but both came down to the same idea: "Let's superhumanize the planet."
The next question was, "At what point did you realize superheroes were more than tights and capes?"
"I was brought up in India with a mythology that looked at the universe as an expression of gods and goddesses," Deepak answered first. He pointed out that the word "Mythology" comes from the same roots as "mother, mater, music, measurement and time," and asserted that "myth is the womb of creation; because there is no way for us to imagine the infinite, in our collective imagination we create these symbolic expressions." These include gods and goddesses, angels, and even fallen angels. "For every positive particle there is an anti-particle.
"Gods and goddesses are not external beings, they are an expression of yourself," Deepak continued. He also promised to lead attendees through a two-minute exercise at the end of the panel so they could experience what he was saying.
When Gotham was a kid, Deepak related, "he wouldn't do well in school because he was reading comics all the time." His mother was very worried that he couldn't do math, but Deepak told her it was OK, "He'll start his own comic company and hire a mathematician to do his accounting," and that is just what Gotham has done with his brand, Liquid Comics.
"Impossible is just a word for what hasn't happened yet," Deepak said, calling superheroes "our highest yearning." "Superheroes are great people in history, in mythology, in religion and now comics, who are transforming the world. One of the first things a child does is create images in its mind. It's a natural thing." But a child not only makes images, they "tell stories with those images." The more magnificent your story is, the bigger your reach is, according to Deepak, and these stories are important because "at a time where people are mixing up celebrity and heroism, superheroes represent a capacity for the extraordinary."
To Morrison, superheroes "were never just capes and tights." For him, "the superhero was an idea that could defeat the atom bomb." When he was young, the atom bomb was the ultimate boogeyman, "an awful guest in the corner." But then, he "discovered Superman, who could take an atom bomb in the face and laugh it off. Superman helped me discover that we can transform anything using imagination." Through that, he discovered "we create ideas of transcendence" we then subscribe to in our lives.
He then brought up that the Pentagon was doing research on this very idea, "Counter-narrative strategies." The idea is that "humans [are] driven by stories they tell themselves," so the defense department believes that they can tell "anti-terrorist stories" to undermine religions and such.
But Morrison himself believes that "stories can ennoble our lives and [teach us] how we can transform them."
Gotham told a story that his father used to tell him: In Hinduism, there are two goddesses -- Lakshmi, who is the goddess of wealth, and Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge. "If you want to be successful in life, woo the goddess of knowledge, Saraswati. Then the goddess of wealth will get jealous and pursue you." These are the types of parables Gotham was raised with.
In August 2001, when Gotham was a journalist, he traveled to the northwest frontier of Pakistan and visited a religious school. "One of the kids I met was wearing a Superman t-shirt," which Gotham said surprised him, but was even more surprised the kid knew who Superman was. But when Gotham asked if there were any superheroes in the child's country, he said yes, the child looked around and said, "In my country we don't have very much to believe in."
This is where Gotham sees a problem. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, where there is "an absence of real heroes, glorified gang leaders like Osama Bin Laden rise up. Narratives are metaphors for our own stories."
Carle's next question was if Superman had never been created, would superheroes in their current form still have risen?
Morrison said Superman was the first to use his mighty strength in not killing people. He also "wore S on his chest... a symbol of individuality." This created a "humane champion of the oppressed." But even if he hadn't been created at that moment, "I think he would have emerged, somebody would have come up with a similar character. Superheroes have always been around in one form or another." He also compared dressing up at convention to manifesting these deity-like superheroes, to the crowd's delight.
Gotham went even further back with his answer: "Superman was created before Superman was created." He compared the iconic hero to Zeus, Shiva, and "all characters that have existed in mythologies in wisdom traditions for thousands of years." "'Supergods' builds that bridge between ancient mythologies and modern mythologies" Gotham said.
He also talked about discussing "X-Men: First Class" with Deepak, and while he has "technical issues with Magneto's powers," he gets it and agrees.
Carle asked Deepak to provide his critique of the movie, which Deepak gladly did, in his own metaphysical way. He described that there is a physical world, which consists of "what we experience through our senses," then there is also a "world of energy," but that physics has discovered that "energy and physical matter are the same thing."
There is also an Information World, which consists of any energy field and that is given "a certain frequency." There is yet another world, the World of Possibility, which is where "potentiality, spirit, great mythical superbeings come from." He posits that we are "learning about this world in science today," and that "at this level there is nonlocal correlation: everything is connected to everything [else] instantly." This world "does not use energy and information," it comes from "outside of space-time, a nonlocal field; a field of possibilities [where] everything inseparably connected to everything else." This, he says, is where "dormant superpowers reside" in pure potential, and that "we all have one of these powers."
"I like all the X-Men very much, except Magneto," he goes on, because a helmet "doesn't protect you against energy. The information transfer resides outside of space-time, so that is a technical problem." He concluded that "we all have these powers in nonlocal communication, everyone has potential."
Morrison went on to explain how the DC supervillain Black Adam (who one audience member was dressed as) represented everything Deepak was talking about. The lightning bolt that gives him his powers is everywhere in ancient and modern mythology: in the Kabbalah, "you find that bolt striking through the Tree of Life." It even appears in most comics: "The Flash," "Fantastic Four" #1. "Everywhere you see this lightning flash, and it usually represents change... the bolt comes from the world of potential to the material world."
What is it about the form of comic books that is particularly great for heroes and villains?
Deepak says it's "the image. We think in terms of images. Most people don't think in words. A child is always thinking in images." He continued that "on a subtle level, we think as sound, smell, taste, and texture... comics of old would bring this alive in form of images." He says that as technology improves, sound and music will become part of that experience. These heroes are "mandalas, like avatars." When advances in 3D technology become commonly available to us, "we'll add the other ingredients in our technology," looking for "Qualia," or "quality of consciousness."
Morrison answered by saying that "you can embody fear and terrors as characters which would be helpful as a therapeutic function." Comics can take "any problem in your head," and "you can embody that problem." The Joker represents chaos. Doomsday represents unstoppable rage and destruction, and when you take these intangible, very real fears and throw heroes against them, they can be defeated. "These are ideas we created to defeat all evil." When you take the opposite of good and put them against their opposite, he says that superheroes "can work together to undermine any dark influence."
Gotham brought up that a movie is a "one way street," while in comics, "you guide the storytelling and ingest that entire page." It's a "unique form of storytelling." He also believes that what's unique is "only going to a better place with iPads and Androids."
"The great thing about comics is that they engage both sides of the brain," Morrison said. It's a "holistic reading experience," where people are "processing images and words." Modern comics also helps us to see the "duality of heroes, how they see the darkness in themselves," which is "more useful today when the narrative offers only apocalypse." Lots of great art is dystopian, and the "media narrative we all have to swallow is all about doom. There are ways out of all this, is what this [comics] reminds us of."
As new superheroes emerge, what can their stories tell us about the world climate?
Deepak answered that heroes are "cross-cultural hybrids of the imagination of different cultures." They help us "navigate not just on planet earth, but across the seas of space, and give us "new, raw materials for our collective imagination."
But new superheroes need a new identity. "Usually we associate superheroes with a particular culture," but Gotham's son, only 3 years old, speaks "English, Chinese, Spanish and Hindi... that's the future." They can help us "go beyond [our] limited cultural/national identity. "People are getting empowered to get beyond their national identity."
Morrison mused that "superheroes have come off paper, into movies and real life fighting crime." We are "already talking about technology that will help us live longer, be faster, think faster." He even compared the smart phones we're all carrying around to Jack Kirby's creation for the New Gods, Motherboxes. With these devices, we have the "entire planetary database... everything you need to move through the world: that's already a god device." The future is "happening so gradually we don't notice," he noted, "even from the last time we did this."
Right now in history is "the very dawn of something, that's why these stories have become important again." He then went on to explain that when the kids are going to eventually have "radiotelepathic implants," and once the kids are linked up, these "stories will be important to people who have real superpowers."
The final moderator question was about when or what the new modern superhero that speaks to our time will emerge, or has it already?
Morrison answered that it was Mark Millar's "Kick-Ass," which has spurred on "normal people reaching out to touch the superhero idea." Through these people and idea, the "energy of [the] superhero grounding itself," it comes "so far down from on high, it touches kids like the kid in 'Kick-Ass,'" imbuing them with "nothing but his desire to do good." Personally, he's looking for a new kind of cosmic superhero, to take us out into space again.
Gotham is at the forefront of this idea, though. "One of the things we've been doing [with Liquid Comics] is working with a private organization that took us into Syria and introduced us to a bunch of students, to create superheroes that speak to their culture." And that resulted in the creation of a few heroes, like "The Silver Scorpion, a kid who is the victim of suicide bombing," and loses his legs, but can change, "transformers-like" to turn into a superhero. This, Gotham believes, is "how we need to build superheroes."
As Carle opened the floor to audience questions, the first was about the idea of superhero as addiction, and he used the example of Batman with Commissioner Gordon acting as his dealer. What would be a good way for him to deal with it?
Morrison explained that yes, "Batman's a damaged individual, but he found his way of dealing with that, a way of creating balance, became what he was frightened of, and he used it to help other people. He does what he has to do to help people."
The next audience member was a skeptic about Deepak's work, and asked whether if was ethical for Deepak to be profiting off faulty interpretations of physics.
Deepak defended himself, by saying his interpretation of quantum physics "is accurate," and went on to cite that several Universities, including the Chapman University of Computational Sciences, have signed up several scientists under his Random House label, and that all "agree that consciousness needs to be included in the understanding of quantum physics."
The next question had to do with what questions we should be asking through our myths and superheroes." Deepak believes that the "key issues are climate change, ecological destruction, economic disparities, social injustice, war and terrorism. We should be asking our superheroes, how can we create a peaceful, just and sustainable world?"
Morrison went on to say, "If it can be done on paper and in imagination... could be done into the real world."
The next question came from Andrew Slack, of The Harry Potter Alliance. So much of our hero mythology is about the power of individual, but what about the power of the community that can look to the higher individual?
Morrison said the "story of the individual is the story of us all." Most heroes have a "transcendent experience" that they are "The One," but "we are all 'The One.'" He offered an alternative interpretation by warning not to "attach your ego to the ideal of the individual, the individual is the singular consciousness."
"Consciousness is a singular that has no plural," Deepak added.
Next up was a question about the future of esoteric, nonwestern traditions in comics.
Morrison explained that spinning out of DC's "52," he created a bunch of Chinese and Japanese heroes, and for that, he was "accused of being a middle class white man from America even though I'm a working class man from Scotland," even though he feels like he lives in a world "where these cultures surround me all the time," he was given a hard time. "What we look for now is for you guys to come in and tell those stories. I don't want to be accused of getting it wrong anymore."
Morrison believes we need "more people from different cultures" writing comics, as well as "kids writing comics," to "see how they view those characters."
Gotham concurred that "the industry is changing exponentially." Fifteen years ago it was Marvel, DC and somewhat Image who were publishing comics, but now an independent creator "can find their audience."
In this age of technology and information and so much power, "it's easy to hurt people; healing people is difficult" how do we instill a moral compass in people?
"By continually telling the right stories and helping those overwhelm the other narratives," Morrison answered. We all have our own way of making the story better, so we need to "make a better story that gets us forward and out of the morass of cynicism and depression."
"The scientific method is an incomplete way of looking at reality... it never asks who is the observer who is doing the science," Deepak said. Nor does it ask questions like "how can I be a more loving being? How can I have compassion? Why do I exist? Do I have a purpose in my life?"
According to Deepak, if an equal importance is placed on spiritual development, "we risk extinction," and that "a science divorced from spiritual development is very diabolical."
"What is the weight of the meaning of Hamlet? What is the weight of understanding? The only way to understand is to experience it and talk with another consciousness, "Morrison added.
The last question of the night was why there wasn't a more open acknowledgement of god in comics.
"God is a very loaded word," Deepak said. It has "so many definitions, images, and the word god caused a lot of problems in the world." God is infinite potential, and "superheroes express some of those potentialities."
Morrison agreed, and said that god is "a loaded concept," while writers "try to make superheroes more universal."
To close out the panel, Deepak led the audience in a short meditation to "invoke our inner superhero:" (This may be easier if someone reads it to you while you follow the directions.)
Close your eyes and simply watch your breath for a second. When you are ready, move into your heart and imagine that your heart is a golden ball of pure potentiality. Dive into the ball and emerge from it as your archetypal hero.
Ask this hero to incarnate trough your consciousness. As you go through your day, see the world through the eyes of the superhero. Walk and talk like the hero, relate to people as your superhero.
This is your higher self. The next time you're in front of a mirror, look into your eyes, and look for this superhero. See, feel, perceive, and become this superhero.