Sunday, July 20, 2008
Talent and the Passionate Tradition
This is a guest post by Peter Paik, assoc. prof. of comp lit. at the University of Wisconsin. John Holbo is friends with Peter, ever since Peter invited John to be on a Zizek panel, once upon a time. And that was fun. And they both like comics, so why not invite him to contribute to our Doug Wolk event, eh? So here he is. - the former editor
Once upon a time there were troubling reports that the sages of the realm were abdicating their solemn duties, which were to study and teach the sacred texts that comprised “the best which has been thought and said in the world.” Instead of dedicating themselves to composing erudite commentaries upon the timeless and exalted works of the literary canon, the priests and priestesses of culture were reputed to be indulging an appetite for rubbish and waste, immersing themselves in the dregs of sensationalistic stories aimed at titillating semi-literate audiences of sex and violence-obsessed teenagers and sociopathic brutes, like gangbangers and wiseguys. The sterner tribunes of the people were appalled to learn, moreover, that the holy scriptures were being denigrated by their erstwhile guardians as stuffy and elitist, and denounced for reinforcing oppressive and discriminatory hierarchies. They sounded the alarm bells that some apocalyptic cataclysm, such as the disintegration of the barriers separating the infinite dimensions of the multiverse or the arrival of a certain purple-helmeted, planet-consuming menace, was surely around the corner as a fitting retribution for the failure of the custodians of culture and tradition to maintain the bright green light of the eternal wisdom shining from the great books.
Although the culture wars form a cross-over series that keeps getting ret-conned into further life by the latest controversy over impolitic sermons or belated expressions of national pride, the particular fear that the humanities in the Northern hemisphere would capsize into to the study of the detritus of mass culture appears to have been highly exaggerated. Indeed, during the 1990s, with its transition from High Theory to Cultural Studies, popular culture remained throughout a much neglected field. The image of the professor at an elite university spending all his or her time analyzing comic-books remained a specter rankling the conservative commentariat than a homely empirical reality. Though film and the new media quickly became objects of widespread study, there seemed to be a definite, if largely unspoken, line drawn at comic books, which, with a handful of safe exceptions like Maus or Persepolis, most academics remained reluctant to cross.
But the new decade has seen a flourishing of scholarly criticism of comics and other forms of sequential art, with the publication of such titles as Bradford Wright’s Comic Book Nation (2001), Geoff Klock’s How to Read Superhero Comics and Why (2003), Scott Bukatman’s Matters of Gravity (2003), Rocco Versaci’s This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics As Literature (2007), and Roz Kaveney’s Superheroes! Capes and Crusaders in Comics and Film (2008) (apologies if I have neglected to mention any other titles). Comics are hot, both in Hollywood and among academic publishers, if not quite yet in the academic humanities itself. Douglas Wolk’s contribution to this leaping and bounding company of comics critics, Reading Comics and What They Mean (2007), shares with many of the aforementioned titles an unapologetic sense of enthusiasm and delight in the art form. The comics criticism that has emerged in recent years shows an unabashed affection for the medium, taking straightforward pleasure in its hyperbolic excesses as well as doing the more serious work of analyzing its formal and conceptual innovations.
The path of approaching one’s object of study as a fan of course runs counter to the prevailing sensibilities of the academic humanities, in which enthusiasm is still taken as the symptom of an insufficiently critical mind. It is thus interesting to compare the acceptance of film as a legitimate object of humanistic study with the effort by comics criticism to gain scholarly respectability. In psychoanalytic theories of film spectatorship, pleasure was generally regarded with deep suspicion as a sign of the viewer’s ideological subjection. Thus, a thousand studies were launched that lay siege to mainstream narrative cinema as an inherently regressive form which seduced the voyeuristic spectator with an illusory form of psychic mastery. Fandom was dismissed as intellectually naïve and politically illegitimate, especially if one were writing as a cinéphile, but was acceptable if one were studying it as a manifestation of false consciousness or mass deception. It was as though the project of studying texts produced for mass entertainment required a staggeringly recondite theoretical apparatus to compensate for the perceived lack of complexity and depth in commercial film. Thus, as Steven Shaviro points out in The Cinematic Body, much film theory dwindled into repetitive, self-reflexive exercises in which the psychoanalytic theorist rehearsed and enacted “his or her fear of giving way to the insidious blandishments of visual fascination.”
Comics, on the other hand, though not substantially less demotic than mainstream commercial cinema, have not as yet provoked the anxious construction of cumbersome theoretical machinery capable of zapping the entire medium into the negative zone of ideological regression. This is because comics are still widely perceived as mostly residing there in the first place. As Tim Burke notes in his own post on Wolk’s Reading Comics, much comics criticism is burdened by “desperate need to redeem a post-panic cultural form to mainstream or academic respectability.” But this yearning for redemption and respectability takes the form of reviving questions about artistic quality and thematic execution that have been banished as naïve and traditionalist under the dominance of literary-critical models which focus on unmasking the linguistic and ideological mystifications of a given text. At the opening plenary of conference a couple years ago which had the informal theme of “high and low,” I argued that the very nature of comic books as a popular medium made it necessary to take up questions of aesthetic merit and thus the matter of what constitutes canonical value. Comic books, I added, could be more intelligent, more insightful, and more historically resonant than most of the literary novels in the present age. I was promptly taken to task by a senior colleague, not for having the temerity to suggest that the aesthetic and historical value of comic books could exceed that of literary novels, but rather for invoking literary and artistic standards, which are of course oppressively elitist, in the first place. A book review doesn’t grant me the space to argue why I think the wholesale repudiation of the very idea of artistic quality and evaluative judgment is a bad idea, that it is, essentially, an inverted form of the pedantic rigidity which denies the value of, say, anything written in English after Shakespeare, while producing the logic that asserts that the only meaningful difference between Billie Holliday and Celine Dion resides in the respective social functions of their music, as opposed to their vocal talent or musical virtuosity. Besides, it was clear that the person who scolded me was a total stranger to the piercing heartbreak of accidentally getting transparent tape stuck on a mint condition copy of the Uncanny X-Men #141 while trying slide it out of its mylar sleeve.
For the critic of comics, especially the ones dealing with superheroes, the question of artistic merit turns out to be quite central. There are so many superhero comics that are little more than forgettable and unoriginal tussles between men and women in tights, that one is obliged to figure out what makes a certain dust-up stand out from all the rest, or seek some other distinguishing feature that separates a storyline from the norm, or initiates new trends in story-telling. Wolk, for his part, comes up with a neat and cogent formula for distinguishing the enduring from the ephemeral in superhero comics—those stories that have a “strong underlying theme” (beyond the possession of superpowers) are capable of producing memorable, canonical narratives, whereas poor Hawkman, in spite of his impressive headgear, remains doomed to trawl the margins of the genre (98). Some themes have to do with archetypal fantasies, such as the tormented avenger (Batman), the alien savior (Superman), or the emissary from a utopian society (Wonder Woman), while others address the leading social and political issues of the day. The X-Men, for example, has long served as a cipher for identity politics, from the African American fight for civil rights to the more recent struggles of gays and lesbians, while Marvel’s recent crossover series Civil War explores the imperilment of civil rights in the post-9/11 United States in the form of legislation decreeing compulsory registration for all superheroes after a super-fight gone awry results in the deaths of dozens of school-children in Connecticut.
On the other hand, the concerns of artistic merit, a distinctive style, and literary complexity are far less pressing issues in art comics. Because they constitute the indie/alternative wing of the medium, it is taken for granted that its creators are out to achieve thematic depth and aesthetic complexity. Wolk’s book spans both of these poles, but the results of his doing so prove mixed. Wolk is an accomplished stylist with strong opinions, so it’s a gratifying experience to wrestle with his judgments and analyses. He does a marvelous job of sparking interest in the creators he clearly admires, such as Carla Speed McNeil, the Hernandez brothers, Chester Brown, and Grant Morrison - in the chapters dedicated to them, Wolk demonstrates his skill at zeroing in on the essential details of a work without giving away too much in the way of plot. But the sections devoted to Chris Ware, Dave Sim, and Charles Burns and Art Spiegelman come across as somewhat cursory and incomplete - Wolk doesn’t do justice to their stylistic idiosyncrasies, nor to the thematic complexities of their work. Also, when he discusses the modern age of sociopolitical fantasy in superhero comics, the principal motifs of which are deeply indebted to the breakthroughs of Alan Moore and Frank Miller, Wolk chooses to dwell on a work he emphatically disdains, the lugubrious Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales, rather than according detailed attention to a speculative fantasy as breathtakingly ambitious as Red Son by Mark Millar (in which the Man of Steel becomes first the champion of the USSR, and then succeeds Stalin, the all-too historical man of steel, as its dictator) or a tale of redemption as gritty, subtle, and poignant as The Tarnished Angel by Kurt Busiek. Though he has some sharp observations about the Bendis/Maleev run on Daredevil, Wolk’s discussion of moral ambiguity in superhero comics proves tantalizingly brief.
Though Wolk takes on both the commercial mainstream and the more respectable artsy alternative, the reader is left with a scanty account of how the two interact with and cross-fertilize each other. Certainly, there are authors who have worked in both, and some whose striking innovations can be described as intriguing hybrids of the two, such as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison. All three can veer towards lyrical fragmentation while dealing with familiar, well-established characters. Alas, there is also curiously little attention accorded to the literary, mythic, and folkloric predecessors of contemporary comics, which is unfortunate considering the phenomenal success during the past decade of films adapted from comics. Lawrence and Jewett, for example, trace superhero fantasy back to the myths of the frontier, in which political and legal institutions are regarded as weak or hopelessly corrupt and only the violence of the heroic vigilante can save the community. Likewise, any discussion of Moore’s work ought to address in a detailed fashion how deeply he draws from the literary tradition. Some of Moore’s best work reads like an uncanny mash-up of William Blake and Niccolo Machiavelli, and the genius of Watchmen to my mind is not diminished in the least for being a sort of rewriting of Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan, though without that novel’s happy ending, in which everyone on earth is compelled to atone for a thoughtless genocide in cleverly pathetic ways. Moore’s most memorable and fully realized Tom Strong story is a retelling of the Camelot legend, in which the brief and glorious rule of justice married to might, a superhero utopia, is brought to a cataclysmic demise by illicit love. Even the sketch of Moore’s never-realized project, Twilight of the Superheroes, contains virtuoso moments of suspense and high-wire intrigue that easily rival the face-off between Michael Corleone and Hyman Roth in The Godfather, Part II.
Finally, Wolk’s book leaves me wondering about what pleasures (and possibly wisdom) comics now offer as an art form which other media do not. At my local comic book shop, there hangs a sign that reads “where Hollywood comes for ideas.” How are comics related to these larger shifts in culture and society? And why is it that comics have become celebrated, in Time magazine among other places, as the most dynamically creative entertainment medium today? What are we to make of its rise to influence? Perhaps comic book fantasy, especially those concerning superheroes, is particularly resonant in times of crisis and war. Or perhaps one finds in comics a kind of creativity liberated from both the stultifying seriousness of political correctness and the repetitious sterility of postmodern alienation. For example, Bill Willingham’s Fables focuses on a clandestine community of virtually immortal characters (from the realm of fairy-tales), who seclude themselves from normal human beings whom they call, at times disparagingly, “mundys” (short for “mundanes”). But it is these characters’ fierce attachment to tradition, its taboos and, to modern eyes, antiquated codes of behavior, which gives the narratives of Fables their dramatic force and convincingly well-developed, coherent structure. As Snow White reassures a deputy, who was overthrown and imprisoned during an uprising by a group of talking animals led by the ambitious and self-righteous Goldilocks, “We haven’t yet been corrupted by the mundys’ modern social philosophy concerning such things [like usurpation and murder]. The responsibility lies entirely with the perpetrators, and not their victims.” In other words, the characters in Fables are capable of amor fati, of assuming and carrying out social mandates, and as such, fully merit their status as the protagonists of narratives in which conversion and transformation can credibly take place. They freely own up to for their actions, including cruel and destructive ones, without pleading special circumstances. As the powerful witch Frau Totenkinder, who sought to kill and eat Hansel and Gretel, confides to the strangers who have shown her mercy: “You two young ladies have been so kind to me, you deserve to hear my tale. Even the evil parts.”
Willingham takes aim at a society which values comfort, whether psychological or material, above all else. When Fables is at its best, it relates the “evil parts,” the cruel events that have been the norm in most of human history but which strike us postmoderns as unimaginably horrible and inexplicably terrifying, in a framework that confronts the reader with these dark and terrible facts without lapsing into a facile cynicism. Comics can preserve historical consciousness even as it ebbs from much of the rest of the culture, reinforcing the wisdom that the moral and political stakes of life are high, and that technological progress and capitalist prosperity cannot remedy shattering crises or absolve us from the need to make tragic and irrevocable decisions. Such a realization, however, comes more easily to gods and immortals, as well as superheroes, than those who are compelled to be the spectators of superhuman feats from the guardrails of a three-dimensional universe. The glory once sought after and enjoyed by the mortals has, with the progressive impoverishment of the imagination in our instrumentalist and permissive social reality, passed over to the gods, so that it is we who consume the intrigues and ordeals of divine beings for our entertainment.
Peter: “Just wanted to drop a line in response to Rich Puchalsky’s statement that superheroes resemble Greek gods more than the Homeric heroes—I do agree with Rich on this point. But you might also say that there’s something kind of odd and disturbing in the movement, especially in a secular, technological age, from more human role models (Achilles, Joan of Arc, Galahad) to figures who can never die, and if they die, get their deaths retroactively undone. It’s as though mere humanity is too finite, corporeal, and demanding to titillate people.”
Responding here, as requested—though I didn’t see much about this in your post; I could well have missed it. At any rate, the connection between superheroes and gods is, by now, almost standard, after the Moore / Gaiman / Morrison wave of British writers, whatever you want to call it. In what later became the first Vertigo book, the Alan Moore Swamp Thing, Moore begins Swamp Thing’s transition from human-who-falls-into-chemicals into elemental god of nature. Then there was the Moore / Gaiman Miracleman, which explicitly revisioned heroes as contemporary gods. Sandman showed actual gods, within the narrative, accepting superheroes as merely other sorts of super-powerful entities that they had to deal with.
This I always saw as a more of less purposeful attempt to de-fascistize the genre. If you say “these are mythic, symbolic entities, such as the spirit of nature” it takes away from their status as human beings who we should listen to as human beings. If you address them as human beings with the power of gods, the fascist element immediately becomes foregrounded in a way that can no longer leave them as wish-fulfillment fantasies. Adolescents may like the aura of fascism, but if you put it bluntly as “do you want another person to have the power of a god over you?”, few people will say yes.
At the same time, it’s sort of a dead end, a final baroque embellishment of a superhero genre that didn’t really have anywhere else to go. The comic book store might have a sign saying “where Hollywood comes for ideas”, but when it does, Hollywood generally needs a time machine to go back to sometime in the 20th century.
I predict that the new figures from this mythos that are going to be popular are the supervillains, because they, whatever their destructive nature, are oddly innocent. They never succeed in permanently hurting people, and their drive for control is never fulfilled, so they can stand as figures of pathos, figures that stand for the drive for control without the complicity of asking people to admire them for trying to obtain it.
Rich, thanks for your post. You’re right that I haven’t been explicit in this section as I ought regarding the superhero/divinity connection, though Willingham’s Fables can serve as an approximation or middle ground between heroes and gods.
I agree with your take on the experiments and innovations of Moore / Gaiman / Morrison, that their work ought to be seen as going against the “fascistic” tendencies of standard superhero fantasy, but they also point the way to much stranger territory, where the god-human relation takes different, more intermediate forms. Remember that in Miracleman, the way in which the superheroes consolidate their rule is partly by offering to raise select citizens to their level by giving them superpowers. The gods turn out to be real, and what’s more, they’re also unselfish, because they want you to be just like them. Millennia of theological wrestling and hair-splitting solved in an instant, once we arrive at the proper technology.
A post by Jennifer de Guzman in response to Adam Roberts’ contribution to Reading Comics makes a point similar to yours, that superhero comics are in a kind of funk, have worked themselves into a dead end. I thus find your proposal intriguing, that it’s now left for the villains to come in as the cavalry and save the genre. Have you read Salvation Run? It plays out like Lord of the Flies with DC supervillains banished to a god-forsaken planet overrun with deadly threats. It’s quite good in the beginning, but then kind of loses momentum. There is already a marvelous film about an “oddly innocent villain” who never “permanently hurts anyone” - The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz by Luis Bunuel. It’s about an uppercrust bachelor bent on becoming an infamous murderer of women, but at every turn, something happens or someone intervenes to take the life of the person he wishes to kill, leaving him hapless and disappointed. He even turns himself in to the police, who tell him that they cannot arrest anyone who merely wants, however intensely, to kill people. But the film is far more disturbing than any film about serial-killing. The fact that he never succeeds adds an extra layer of unreality to the proceedings - the scenes in which he burns a mannequin or teases an insect are more memorable and troubling than anything Hannibal Lecter does.
But to return to the question of fascism in youth culture, Boris Groys quotes a fellow named Keyserling, who said that he was not worried about Stalin and Hitler, because eventually all Europeans would enjoy the rights reserved to these two men alone. Doesn’t the internet, and virtual reality, give people the chance to act like gods, in however circumscribed and artificial a sphere? It’s where they can do the things Stalin and Hitler did, without suffering the consequences. It reminds me of J. G. Ballard’s idea of “elective psychopathology,” in which people engage in violence, fictional or not, as therapy, as a revolt against the blandness of postmodern tolerant society.
"Doesn’t the internet, and virtual reality, give people the chance to act like gods, in however circumscribed and artificial a sphere?”
I would say not, actually. Insofar as what you’re doing on the Internet is unrestrained and godlike, it’s really solipsistic. As soon as you begin interacting with other real people, you can no longer be a god, because the limits that matter (both on the Internet, and to a large extent in the physical world) are really social limits. If everyone is a god, then no one is—not in the sense of Greek gods, anyways, which is what the superheroes-turned-gods books are mostly about.
(My own preference in that connection for British anarcho-socialist SF, in which everyone is a post-scarcity person with no real physical limits and deliberately minimal social ones—not all gods, but all as empowered as people can really hope to be. Iain Banks’ Culture books, for instance.)
As a mentioned in what is evidently now a closed thread, the two ur-sources that I’ve seen for supervillains-as-reader-identifications are Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog—a short video project by Josh Whedon, which just stopped being free yesterday, and which you now have to pay for—and Austin Grossman’s book Soon I Will Be Invincible. Both of them feature essentially the same character, a mad scientist in romantic competition with a superhero for the same woman. Both of them are geek wish-fulfillments, more or less, because their protagonists are what geeks would like to be: brilliant, creative individuals who don’t really get anywhere because of lack of social skills. (Geeks prefer to think that their problem vis-a-vis management types is lack of social skills rather than, say, the position of their kind of labor in the U.S. economy.) Both of them feature people who are trying hard to be “evil”, but are essentially innocent—they don’t seem to succeed in ever really killing anyone, and rarely even try.
There’s probably many more of these floating around that I just haven’t encountered. But at a more primitive level, there have always been the supervillains / anti-heroes designed to appeal to adolescents as pure projections of the Id. Lobo, say.
Interesting remarks, Rich, about the geek as villain - perhaps they will form the next proletariat, the sexual proletariat. Socially maladroit of the world, unite! (and perhaps thereby become a little less socially maladroit). I realize that this takes us out of the Kremlin of superhero fantasy into the fortresses of solitude designed by Adrian Tomine.
The geek as villain figure calls to mind what happens in Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake, in which a brilliant scientist unleashes a plague, in part out of frustration and jealousy. He does it in the form of a pill that is designed to act both as an aphrodisiac and as a contraceptive.
As for people who become disappointed as gods when they encounter rivals to their divinity, couldn’t the random school or mall shooting be regarded the frustrated acting-out of a would-be deity? The fury of the solipsist who comes up against a defiant and resistant objective reality that mocks his dreams and yearnings, as well as his will-to-power? I think it is the logical result of the disintegration of social bonds that more and more people begin to think and act in god-like ways, wanting to impose their personal laws upon a recalcitrant reality. But this desire of people who seem to lack any life outside the internet and mass culture spectacle to indulge in fantasies of becoming god-like do curiously evoke the gods of Homer, who are in many ways the spectators of the actions of men, and likewise subject to the dim forces of fate. I’m working out this idea of technoculture as becoming-divine/demonic, though I can understand if many people don’t find it credible. But I’m running with it to see where it will lead.
Thanks again for your comments and references.
"The geek as villain figure calls to mind what happens in Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake [...]”
I should emphasize, though, that the mad scientist in SF is, psychologically, a very different fantasy-figure. No one (hopefully) would want to be Crake. The different between the SF mad scientist and the comic book mad scientist supervillain is that the SF mad scientist generally succeeds at committing acts of great evil, and the comic book one never does. The genre limitations of superhero stories mean that the mad scientist in comics always gets stopped before he (it’s almost always a he) can actually carry out any of the plans that if accomplished would turn him from a figure of misunderstood genius and pathos to an actual mass murderer.
“I’m working out this idea of technoculture as becoming-divine/demonic [...]”
Hmm. I’ve never really liked the idea of techno-solipsism having any particular connection with random shootings. They seem to me to have a lot more to do with easy availability of handguns, population density, mental illness, and perhaps something about the general prevalence of the winners-and-losers theme through society, which people are indoctrinated with tirelessly—as I was writing to Steven in that other thread, you could see Batman as partial cause of what he disliked, but it seemed a lot more credible to me to see it as partial result. In this analogous case, the acting-out comes first, and the techoculture acting-out is just one sphere in which it occurs.
As I wrote above, I’m also interested in technoculture as becoming-divine, but mostly through SF utopian social fantasy. There are two specific SF works that I think you might want to read, if you haven’t already—one is Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. Not a utopian fantasy, but a standard SF work with the standard SF ideology that knowledge should be shared. It’s one of the best books about people technologically becoming gods that I know of (Hindu gods, in this case), and predates many of the other SF treatments. The other is by Iain Banks: Use of Weapons. It’s probably his best book about the anarcho-socialist Culture. (It’s also a sustained attack on the action hero.) Also, if you’re interested in solipsist fantasies, his second-best book is probably The Bridge.
The issue for me with video games and virtual reality is that they are widely recognized as safety valves for aggression and for people fed up with not being winners in a dog-eat-dog society. But safety valves have a way of being overwhelmed, and the line between the release of stress and frustration and the infliction of injury to other people is a fine one. It creates a kind of ideal situation for producing schizophrenics, who experience the illusion of omnipotence and immediate fulfillment of their desires while in the artificial world, but then find themselves powerless and disappointed upon returning to an intersubjective universe.
Thanks so much for the book recommendations - I’m adding them to the list for my research project.
I hope that those books turn out to be useful for your project.
Sorry to extend this thread—yes, it’s very bad, and no doubt I’m scaring away someone or other —but with regard to virtual reality as safety valve, I thought of the ideal way to express what I meant by the shift from superhero to supervillain as reader-fantasy. In pop Freudian terms, the superhero can become the Superego—necessary, but not really liked. The mad scientist supervillain is the Ego (all of that rational planning about how to build a machine to, I don’t know, obtain weather control) in touch with the Id (the desire for world domination *plus* looking good in front of one’s girlfriend). But the reader, not being crazy, knows at some level that the Id has to be restrained before actual mass murder sets in. The superhero is a conveniently externalized device for doing so.
The identification with the supervillain therefore involves the same kind of feeling of being “powerless and disappointed upon returning to an intersubjective universe” that you refer to—but as a necessary part of the fantasy. The supervillain must always lose. (And then try again, of course). At the end of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog (spoiler!)
the villain ends up winning, by accident. Clearly he wasn’t really planning to win. And he managed to do so “innocently” in that those killed are killed by accident, an accident that he didn’t even trigger. But of course it’s tragic for him that he wins, because (even aside from the circumstances of his winning) it means that he has to now adopt the role of a victorious supervillain, which he never really wanted.
Therefore it’s a fantasy set precisely in the moment that you write about, in between the illusion of omnipotence and the return to reality. The supervillain relaxing in his secret base, opening the window to a fantastic new dimension that he will explore (for evil purposes, of course), the boss of a micro-world of robots, minions, and mysterious machines that only he knows how to build—knowing that soon the superhero will show up and smash the whole thing.
You guys ever read that Bill Mantlo Super-Villain Team-Up/Champions crossover from the ‘70’s? It opens with Dr. Doom having conquered the world in secret—he’s introduced a chemical into the air that makes everyone obey his commands (even though nobody realizes this until he tells them to do something). He’s so bored with this state of affairs and feels cheated that it happened so easily that he lets Magneto and Beast off the leash just so he’s got someone to try and outscheme again. (And eventually, of course, they free everybody else.) Anyway, it sort of pre-figures the suppervillain as subject of reader identification trend Rich suggests. (Of course it’s not the only example from the history of comics—it’s just the one I happened to read last month.)
I’ve thought about Dr. Doom since your comment—wow, there’s an embarrassing admission—and I don’t quite think so. You’re right, there have been a number of stories in which he either gets to be Faust, basically, or shows some kind of nobility, or at least human sympathy of some kind. He’s a Dr.—they’re always Dr.s; for Grossman’s book it was Dr. Impossible, for Whedon it was Dr. Horrible. But I think the sticking point is that Doom is both too upper-class and too rooted to be a convincing reader surrogate. He’s ruler of a country, a real country that doesn’t just disappear when he gets defeated. In Soon I Will Be Invincible, Dr. Impossible’s cheap hotel room is at one point described as the sort of place you might find as evil impoverished grad student.
Yeah, I don’t think Doom fits in general, it just happened in this particular issue that he became much more humanized—it’s really his ennui that sounded like the idea of being “powerless and disappointed.” Not because he’s lost, but because he’s won, and there’s nothing there for him.
Interesting comments about the wild and crazy Latverian—nevertheless I always did find him one of the more interesting villains in the Marvelverse, more so than Dr. Octopus, Annihilus, The Green Goblin, or even Magneto, whose shifts in allegiance got kind of tiresome in a schizophrenic kind of way, causing me to lose interest. I found Vic von D- interesting because of the fact that he was tormented by the fate of his mother, as well as being haunted by his failure to outdo his rival, Reed Richards.
On a slightly different subject, the issues that Mark Waid did on FF, when the team essentially occupied and took over Latveria, were pretty convincingly nightmarish, so much so that the only way to resolve the storyline was to shift to a more typical superhero conflict of trying to save (literally) Ben’s soul.
Are you familiar with Warren Ellis’ “Planetary”? In that series we get the evil version of super-nerd Reed Richards, whose powers turn out to be psychic rather than physical (he lays “eggs” in the minds of people, effectively making them believe what he wants them to believe). Unfortunately, he gets his button pushed before we get to see his powers in action (unless, of course, the world of neo-liberal globalization IS the demonstration of his powers). But the evil genius, in addition to recalling Faust, in the age of capitalism can also be traced back to Alberich in Wagner’s Ring cycle - he who forswears love (or in more contemporary terms, keeps losing with the ladies) yet gains awesome power because of it, only to have it taken away from him by the bullying jocks Wotan and later Siegfried, the former with the aid of the turncoat nerd Loge (Loki).
Returning back superheroes-as-fascist, there are a few references I thought of offhand in a post that got eaten by my Internet connection, that I might as well list here. Maybe other people can add theirs.
My sense was that this was one of the long-standing discussions of comics, and, as mentioned in this survey of scholars, it was a question asked by Timeon October 22, 1945.
It’s a standard treatment within comics, by this time, to imagine superheroes deciding that they need to take over the world for its own good, which, of course, ranges somewhere from authoritarianism to fascism. I’m not really impressed by these comics, as a whole. They generally evade the question by presenting superheroes as going too far—“normal” superheroes, then, differing in that they haven’t gone too far. But there’s a very large number of these, some of the more notable ones being: the Squadron Supreme miniseries (no artistic triumph in any sense, but an early treatment of the idea as more than a one-shot), the Alan Moore Miracleman, parts of The Authority, and for those who like their authoritarianism left-flavored, Superman: Red Son. Books like Watchmen, in which superheroes operate behind the scenes, probably don’t count.
I tend to like the over-the-top, mostly British attacks on the superhero from this quarter better. The two best, or at least most vigorous, examples I can think of are the Pat Mills / Kevin O’Neill Marshal Law and the Judge Dredd story America.
Just to clarify my (infamous) position, it’s not my opinion that the *plots* of super hero movies make them fascist propaganda, per se; it’s the *presentation*... the valorization of physical power on the scale of an *army’s*; the valorization of stylized Uebermensch (laugh) physiques that wouldn’t be out of place in Nazi, or Stalinist, myth or Volk Art (see my previous Leni Riefenstahl reference); the persistent orgies of conflict and destruction that don’t even qualify as “cathartic” within the three-act structure because they’re pretty much normative (constant).
It’s my feeling that as long as this aestheticized super-violence becomes a cultural value in itself, the propaganda has done its work, whichever side (I would suggest that both sides tend to be fascist-tinged) “wins” in the movie.
(Also, I’m not as concerned with print comics as with film, propaganda-wise.)
I hope that making these assertions won’t qualify me as a troll, but I suppose I’ll have to take my chances! (laugh again)
The focus on plot is what I meant by “evading the question” above, Steven. If anyone is asked “Do you think that Superman should become dictator of the world?” the answer of course is going to be that this would be a Bad Thing. And of course, having considered that, further response is “Whew! At least our Superman didn’t go bad, like the one on Earth-X”. It gets away from the aesthetic question too easily.
(In the defense of the more prominent works of this type that I mentioned above, they all serve additional, or perhaps primary, other purposes. Moore was interested in superheroes as gods, and in gods, really, as mental symbols of the type that he later went into in Promethea. The Authority is probably more interested in superheroes as rock stars. Superman: Red Son was supposed to be about questioning neocon ideology, really.)
As usual, I think that the aesthetic elements that you refer to are there, but I don’t think that they have the power to propagandize that you do. I’m also relatively unconcerned with film as such, as long as the films are re-doing comics from a decade or two ago.
Ooh, ooh! Me first, me first!. Steven, you’re going to be going to town for years on that link.
Ha ha! I’ll pass…
I’m not sure that the idea of Superman taking over the earth would meet with universal rejection. What if, instead of Superman, we were asked to accept an authoritarian leader who could solve our environmental problems, uphold human rights, AND bring widespread prosperity? The Athenians gave up their democracy for much less than that after the disaster on Sicily.
Steven (and Rich):
Here is a quote from Boris Groys’ THE TOTAL ART OF STALINISM which reveals some striking parallels between the plots of superhero comics and those of Soviet socialist realism:
“Among the characteristics of Stalinist literary heroes is their ability to perform obviously superhuman feats, and they derive this capability from their refusal to approach life ‘formalistically.’ Thus they can cure tuberculosis by willpower alone, raise tropical plants in the open air of the tundra, paralyze their enemies with the power of their gaze, and so on…
As for the supervillains of Stalinist literature:
“Loyal and well-known Communists suddenly turned out to be monsters capable of demoniacal, spontaneous, and unprovoked malice and violence… The figure of the ‘wrecker’ that is so important to Stalinist mythology is no more ‘realistically’ motivated than the superhuman power of creation in the ‘positive hero.’ The show trials of the 1930s demonstrated that seemingly quite normal persons were capable of strewing ground glass in the food of the workers, giving them smallpox and skin disease, poisoning wells and public places, infecting livestock with anthrax, and so on. Moreover, they did all this on a superhuman, unimaginable scale, accomplishing the most titanically destructive feats in many places at the same time but without any technical or organizational assistance (since that would eliminate their individual guilt), and by willpower alone (since they were the whole time working for the party and under its supervision).”
“The Wrecker” is a pretty good name for a Golden Age Marvel supervillain; in fact, it’s hard to believe it hasn’t been used already.
Interesting bit about Stalinist superheroics. I’d sort of been familiar with the superpowers of wreckers, but hadn’t really been aware that their positive heroes had gone from merely working hard to actual curing of tuberculosis and the like.
Parenthetically, Superman: Red Son probably did the best job of de-fascistizing its Batman—within the alternate universe Soviet context, he became an anarchist. Pretty much the only other people besides fascists who we’d expect to wear his kind of fetish gear outside of a leatherman Pride parade are black bloc anarchist types.
“I’m not sure that the idea of Superman taking over the earth would meet with universal rejection.”
It might not if some fascistic leader presented themselves as Superman (except as an adult, of course) in real life. But the way it is presented within comic books is carefully done so that the reader knows the answer they are supposed to give. The ordinary comic book reader in the U.S., no matter how vague their idea of actual politics is, knows dimly that the proper sentiment is that democracy is good and dictators are bad. If the comic book didn’t start with “Now we present Superman in an alternate universe! In this one, he becomes a dictator! Pretty scary huh?” then sure, they might not know what response is expected.
"Wrecker” was a term used to vilify Trotsky.
Regarding RED SON - I agree that its anarchist version of Batman is a nice touch. Too bad he didn’t stick around long enough to derail Soviet tanks in Prague or bust Lech Walesa out of prison.
But what about the fact that the story itself ends with a de facto dictatorship led by Lex Luthor, who also uses Superman’s ideas to improve society? If Squadron Supreme is a kind of “modernist” comic, which maintains a firm ambiguity about what the actual content of the utopia is, aren’t Miracleman, Red Son, Planetary, and the Authority more “postmodernist,” in spelling out a few details here and there about the post-human utopia, disobeying, as it were, the modernist prohibition against graven images? The latter works to me suggest the slipperiness of democracy, conveying how close democracy can sit beside authoritarianism without losing any of its recognizably defining attributes.