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Thor is President Bush! Except more Nordic

Dirk Deppey links to this proposal for a Thor miniseries by former Crazy Twit At Marvel Bill Jemas.

Ooh, that would have been really bad! Like, as bad as that Superman (or whatever) comic where President Luthor was going to send the U.S. military to invade “Qurac.” Of course, both that story and Mr. Jemas’s proposed Thor story are political allegories—rather “thinly veiled” ones, as Mr. Jemas notes perceptively.

Last semester, I took a class on (post)modern fantastic literature and film. At one point, the professor proposed a (fairly half-baked) theory that a fantasy narrative is an allegory distorted/altered/transformed by the gravity of its fantastic world. What he meant was that every fantasy story begins its existence entirely on an “idea” level of reality before the author creates a concrete fantasy world which is a metaphorical mediation between the reader and the idea level of the story, and that the fantasy world is not a perfect cipher from which the reader must decode the idea-level meaning of the story, but a great complex beast which transforms the idea level from the author’s original “intent.” What most of the students thought he meant was that fantasy stories are allegorical ciphers and their job as readers was to decode the meaning. So these students (mostly English majors, who in my experience often seem to have no greater desire than to figure out what they think their English professors want to hear and then say it, much to the dismay of the professors) began dutifully decoding, coming up with, for example, the idea that in Wings of Desire, West Berlin symbolizes Heaven and East Berlin symbolizes Hell (because it has angels, so it must be a religious movie!). They latched onto the fact that China Miéville is a Marxist theorist and became convinced that Perdido Street Station is a Communist allegory and refused to accept repeated assurances that China Miéville in fact is not and never was a Communist. They briefly pondered whether the various fantastic species populating Miéville’s stories might have one-to-one correspondences to real-world races or ethnic groups, at which point the professor finally got fed up and told them to quit with the allegory.

Jemas’s Thor proposal reminds me of those students. When it comes to High Art vs. Low Art, there seems to be one community of readers who believe that the distinction between High and Low is that High Art is allegorical and Low Art has no meaning at all. Like, OK, Thor is just this dumb kids’ comic book, so we can make it meanginful and relevant by saying it’s about the inevitable failure of American foreign policy. Which is an attitude which puzzles me. I mean, isn’t that a bit cheap? If you want to write a story about American foreign policy, why not write a damn story about American foreign policy? What do you gain by turning into cartoony fantasy? A 10-year-old (well, a 10-year-old who keeps up with politics, anyway) can say, “Thor is America and this magical kingdom is Iraq and this big evil dragon is the bad things that happen to America when they mess with Iraq too much. Look, I wrote a story!” Introducing allegory doesn’t make your story relevant art. It makes it something a 10-year-old could write.

The problem is that the particular kind of allegory we’re talking about here, where the story elements are all symbols that have a transparent correlation to part of some abstract idea that the story is trying to communicate, is cheap and facile. It offers no insight into either the abstract idea or the symbols used to represent it. Thor’s mission to export his morality through foreign policy fails, so the United States’ attempt to export its morality through foreign policy is failing! Oh yeah, thanks, but I can figure that out from CNN. The failure of American foreign policy is not the root of the problem, it’s the result of deeper problems (this is assuming you think there’s a problem with American foreign policy in the first place, obviously). You want to use Thor to criticize American foreign policy, for christ’s sake don’t write just write about American foreign policy in disguise—think about it, decide what those deeper problems are, write about those. If you can’t be bothered to dig below the surface of your story, quit pretending you’re a brilliant auteur because you figured out a parallel between Thor’s superpowers and America’s military strength.


  1. David Fiore says:

    You said it Steven!!!

    A work of art is either a unique thing that resists paraphrase, or it’s nothing at all! Bill Jemas should go write crossword puzzles…


    — 20 January 2004 at 12:51 am (Permalink)

  2. T Campbell says:

    I have to disagree.

    Writing crossword puzzles is MUCH harder than it looks. Especially if you mean locking those words into the grid, not just writing little clues.

    Maybe he should concentrate on grocery lists.

    — 20 January 2004 at 1:43 pm (Permalink)

  3. Rose says:

    Why do people think Bill Jemas should be writing anything? I thought the Thor concept was evidence enough that he shouldn’t be behind a pen (or keyboard, or whatever it is he uses to get his barely literate thoughts on paper), but maybe I’m still a bit annoyed that he called me a slut.

    Since Jemas seems to write like a self-absorbed fanboy, I’m curious what percentage of the Epic submissions were superior to anything he could create…

    — 20 January 2004 at 5:16 pm (Permalink)

  4. Goodman says:

    Hmm…. to me the Thor proposal struck me as the kind of thing that happens when a writer watches a movie or documentary or book that impresses them, so they decide to write a comic about the same topic. (John Byrne reports that this happened like clockwork with Chris Claremont.) I have the feeling Jemas read a book on US foreign policy failures, and was “inspired” to then propose a comic on the same subject. The problem with his approach is that Marvel readers tend to get attached to CHARACTERS, and here the characters are simply contrivances
    to make grossly simplified statements about US foreign policy. There’s also the rather elementary fact that most superhero readers are unlikely to get excited about a character who is a complete failure. Superheroes are adolescent
    male power fantasies (whatever the age of the reader) and few fantasize about looking like a boob. The fact that Thor is smug, self-assured, strong, handsome and nearly perfect certainly won’t make him any more sympathetic as a loser.

    — 20 January 2004 at 6:42 pm (Permalink)

  5. Shaenon says:

    I thought the allegorical message of the Thor proposal was, “I really, really wish I could screw up Superman, but only Marvel is dumb enough to let me dick around with its characters.”

    The basic problem with the proposal is that Jemas has more experience as a marketing guy than as a writer. What he’s pitching is a high-concept idea: something that can be explained in one sentence to meatheads in blue suits. In execution, there’s almost no way to turn this particular concept into something that anyone would want to read for month after month (forget the hamfisted attempt at “Ooo, deep” allegory; on a pure entertainment level, who wants to read about a superhero who’s a stupid, wrongheaded failure?), but the equation “Thor = America’s problems” is simple enough to pitch at a sales meeting.

    Maybe I’m still stinging from that old “Sequential Sluts” comment, too, but does it strike anyone else as, I dunno, kinda wrong that Jemas’ very first plot idea would have involved Muslim women attacking Thor “with brooms and mops” while demanding the right to be treated as chattel? I mean, can you picture this scene actually drawn out in a comic book? With Thor? Not that there aren’t women the world over who defend the status quo, but to play the real problems of real women in the real Mideast as rolling-pin comedy (hey, forget the public stonings - arranged marriage means they’re guaranteed husbands, so those chicks have a pretty sweet deal!) is about as creepy as it is insulting. If that storyline didn’t end with RAWA kicking the crap out of Bill Jemas, I’m pissed.

    — 20 January 2004 at 8:31 pm (Permalink)

  6. Steven says:

    Well, I wouldn’t say superheroes are necessarily adolescent power fantasy. Fantasies of power (adolescent male or otherwise) are one way of reading them, but no way is it the only. I’m not sure I particularly bother with the concern of power at all when in my reading. Now, a Thor comic critiquing American foreign politics (that is, a properly non-facile one not written by Bill Jemas or some other monkey) probably would involve some critique of power themes in the superhero genre. “Thor is a powerful god but still fails to affect what he thinks is positive change” is simplistic, but is a high concept that maybe you could do something interesting with. The interesting thing is why he fails and what that means for the metaphor.

    — 21 January 2004 at 12:04 am (Permalink)

  7. Rose says:

    Shaenon, I think you’re right about the marketing side of things. It sounds like a sales pitch gone awry. Or rather, the sales pitch part sounds ok, but the execution is amazingly bad.

    I was also fascinated by the awfulness of the proposed first adventure. I mean, if some blond god were here mucking around in my politics and culture and arbitrarily changing laws right before an election, I probably wouldn’t appreciate it either. And I can understand, from that perspective, that the hypothetical country’s veiled women might not want another man telling them what they can do with the expectation that they’ll do what he wants, even aside from their feelings about the status quo. But somehow I don’t think even that is what he was going for. If we’re going to keep it in the allegorical context Jemas wants, ugh! First of all, it’s a great way to prove the common argument that American pop culture is a force working to undermine Islam! Second, it’s really, really annoying to be patronized, and that’s what this proposal is all about. Thor knows what’s right and good and can just go do it wherever he wants, and even if things don’t turn out the way he wants, it’s just because the stupid people haven’t seen the light. Could this be an allegory for the bizarrely counterintuitive outlooks Jemas had on where Marvel should go, with books pandering to adolescent males of all ages with girls staying home reading magna? Or, even worse, the totally anti-intellectual attitude that can reduce anything to simplistic sales pitches and nonsensical superficial sociopolitical “analysis”? And let’s throw in a hot chick while we’re at it. Fanboys dig hot chicks, right? But not women with ideas, be they online or veiled in hypothetically fictional countries. If they don’t want what they’re told to want, they’re the ones at fault and right there as fodder for Jemas jokes. Grrrrr.

    — 21 January 2004 at 3:39 am (Permalink)