Monday, April 18, 2011

Robocop Forever!

The United States is a troubled nation, friends. The economy is a mess, the political culture is unbearably shrill, ponytailed types are rioting in Wisconsin, etc. Fortunately there is some good news: Detroit is getting a statue of Robocop.

This is how it happened. Last week, via Tweet, somebody proposed a Robocop monument to the city’s mayor, Dave Bing. Bing replied sniffily: "There are not any plans to erect a statue to Robocop. Thank you for the suggestion"

Almost immediately an Internet campaign began which raised the $50, 000 required to build it, after which a local non-profit organization donated a site. Bing’s diktat was overruled by the will of the people - kind of like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, only completely different.

I understand why Bing baulked at Robocop. Detroit is one of the most depressed big cities in the United States. It has shed half of its population over the past 50 years as residents have fled crime, poverty and despair. Recently the mayor started offering homes to firemen and cops for $1,000 apiece, such is the state of the real estate market. Robocop, originally released in 1987, projected all of Detroit’s miseries into the future, envisioning a city controlled by mobsters and corrupt corporations, and policed by a cyborg. Still, Bing’s best move now would be to roll with the statue, or he’ll end up looking like a humorless bore.

At first I thought erecting a monument to a fictional character instead of the historical figures we usually commemorate in stone and metal was a rather strange, frivolous idea. But actually, it makes perfect sense. After all, truly successful fictional characters that fire the imaginations of millions are in a sense more “real” than many actual living, breathing people. They may not have bodies but they exist in our minds, and shape our thoughts and language.

Consider Superman for example. Only comics fans care that he was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, neither of whom were very talented anyway. But they revolutionized U.S. culture with the first ‘super hero’ and created a potent symbol recognized all over the world. Superman, in a sense, is more real than they were, which is why he has a monument (in Metropolis, Illinois) and they do not.

Indeed, if you look at it that way, it’s strange that there aren’t more monuments to imaginary people. They have a Rocky in Philadelphia and sitcom legend “The Fonz” in Milwaukee. That famous Londoner Sherlock Holmes has a monument in Edinburgh (Holmes’s creator, Arthur Conan Doyle came from the city). The strangest ‘fictional’ monument I have ever seen however was located outside Chess City in the southern Russian republic of Kalmykia.

For the uninitiated, “Chess City” is a ghost town dedicated to chess, erected in a desert to house competitors taking part in the 1998 Chess Olympiad. Kalmykia’s president (also head of the World Chess Federation), Kirsan Ilumzhinov, persuaded the decrepit Boris Yeltsin to give him many millions of dollars to build it, even though Kalmykia is extremely isolated and has very little infrastructure. It’s appropriate then that by the entrance stands a monument to Ostap Bender- the scam artist hero of the Soviet novel The Twelve Chairs (in the novel Bender transforms an obscure town into the chess capital of the universe and hosts the first-ever Interplanetary Chess Congress there.)

No doubt there are other such monuments I haven’t heard about. But there should be many more. Why not erect a colossal Godzilla statue in downtown Tokyo for example? They could make it roar and breathe fire. I’d also like to see a very big Asterix the Gaul in front of the Eiffel Tower, perhaps with his menhir carrying friend Obelix. Let’s erect giant effigies of the characters from the 90s sitcom Friends on Times Square. And how about a 50 foot tall James Bond standing outside MI5 HQ in London? The possibilities are endless.

Of course there’s always the danger that these characters will not stand the test of time. For instance, few people today remember Billy Bunter, although the tales of this bun-eating schoolboy were once enjoyed by millions of readers. A monument to a ‘dead’ fictional character could be very confusing to future generations.

Then again, what’s new? The cities of Europe are filled with monuments to Great Men that nobody remembers. You walk past and don’t even register that they are standing there, looming over you. Our descendants could melt the obscure statues down and mould new monuments dedicated to the imaginary people of their era out of our old ones. Better yet, it might be fun for future kids to play a guessing game - which mysterious statue commemorates a flesh and blood figure, and which a person who only ever existed in the mind? Who was “real,” Winston Churchill or James Bond?