Why you should care
Because this is Superman, except he’s just like you and me.
America may have been the birthplace of the superhero, but its caped crusaders often get a bad rap for being super … ficial. Hungary’s newest hero, a Clark Kent clone with brawny arms and a heroically cleft chin, verges on the vacuous at first glance. That is, until you realize that Titanember, which translates as “Titanium Man,” is all too human. Among his brilliant gaffes: taking public transit (because he can’t fly yet), working at a coffee shop (between stints of saving kittens) and wearing a pair of contact lenses (to disguise his secret identity, of course).
“I find perfection boring,” Titanember author Gabor Juhasz-Nagy, who publishes under the moniker Caaroy Carville, tells OZY. “You have only one way to be perfect, but you have millions of ways to be flawed.” That conceit has especially resonated against the imperfect backdrop of Hungary, a country distrustful of its government and disappointed by the failed promise of democracy. In Titanember’s first four issues — published only in Hungarian so far — Carville explores the gritty themes of a nation caught between the Western world and its Soviet past. American CIA agents spy on our protagonist, a former KGB agent plots a treacherous attack and an ambitious Hungarian prime minister becomes a pawn in a global conflict.
… a rallying call toward a Hungarian identity.
Titanember deals with intrinsically Hungarian anxieties, including a modern wave of anti-immigrant fervor (Hungary has announced plans to erect a 13-foot barrier along its southern border with Serbia in response to the ongoing migrant crisis). Brown University’s Michael Kennedy, who is writing a book called Superhero Sociology, describes the comic as a rallying call toward a Hungarian identity that is “not based on birth, but based on heroism, virtue and contribution to the Hungary you want to see.” Carville says the plot twist was developed before the migrant issue came about, but that he believes Hungary has historically been “pro-migrant,” though the national character has sadly shifted to “a more toxic and xenophobic one.” Fans of the comic will be surprised to learn that Titanember (SPOILER ALERT!) isn’t actually Hungarian-born, a fact revealed in the sixth issue. This despite him speaking the language, living in the country and caring deeply for its people.
It’s been critically acclaimed, but Titanember’s “sales are just mediocre at best,” says Carville, because many Hungarians don’t pay for content. Piracy is a significant issue for the country, which ranked 16th in the world in illegal music downloads in 2012. And while Titanember has been a popular download, the superhero motif is certainly an odd duck in a country that hasn’t had the best relationship with American imports. Before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Hungary was one of the most prosperous communist countries due to its liberal economic policies, says Jane Curry, an Eastern Europe expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara. But despite promises of salvation through democracy, Hungary was actually “worse off” after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and much of its economic instability lingers today.
Financial success isn’t the point though, says Carville, and if Titanember’s message is controversial, so be it. Perhaps the Hungarian comic book author and impromptu social activist puts it best with this classic line: “Haters gonna hate.”