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Archive: January 2004

Narrative static cling

I’m thinking about David Fiore’s proposal for a essay, “One Damned Thing After Another: Death’s Refrain and Narrative Stasis in Amazing Spider-Man.” Now, to paraphrase David’s argument, in Spider-Man, when Peter Parker’s and Gwen Stacey’s relationship is in danger of progressing to the point that it unbalances the narrative stasis of the text, writer Gerry Conway killed Gwen—and later resurrected her “to provide the readers (who had been too shocked by her death to say goodbye to the character the first time) a chance to mourn her properly, and then allowing her to walk out of the pages of the series forever… intensifying the “logic of loss” at its’ [sic] core a thousand-fold.”

It occurs to me that Grant Morrison’s New X-Men has some kind of inverse (or something) relationship with this idea. Well, this part of the Spider-Man narrative and the X-Men narrative previous to Morrison really aren’t comparable… The death of Gwen Stacy “purifies the “Spider-Man concept” of its’ narrative excrescences.” There’s nothing “pure” about the X-Men narrative! All these relationships and characterizations were set up decades ago—the somewhat troubled marriage of Scott and Jean, Scott’s mopy lack of personality, Jean’s Phoenix-inspired sometime arrogance and aloofness, the Jean-Logan-Scott triangle. I don’t know if the Jean-Scott-Emma triangle is old or if it was introduced by Morrison, but certainly the sexualized tension between Emma and Jean goes all the way back to the X-Men: Dark Phoenix Saga. But anyway all this stuff was set up and then just allowed to stay around, stagnate, become incestuous and absurdly horribly complicated. Then Morrison comes along and explodes the living fuck out of it all. But rather than returning the characters to some previous state of narrative purity (N.B. at this point I’m just bullshitting, because I have no idea what Morrison is actually going to end up doing with these characters in New X-Men: Planet X and New X-Men: Here Comes Tomorrow), he allows them to finally leap out of their ancient deep ruts and run off into a brand new narrative.

I don’t know what I’m talking about, just thinking out loud.

(Hmm. David, have you considered Gwen Stacey’s death as a version of the world-healing myth, repairing and cleansing a broken world and returning to a primal state of purity?)

The mummudrai of Charles Xavier

New X-Men: Imperial brings to my mind a certain kind of superhero story that uses a narrative structure of utter simplicity:

  1. Bad thing X is represented by an evil monster.
  2. The heroes fight the evil monster and defeat it.
  3. The theme of the narrative is, “X is bad.” You can add nuances to the theme depending on which heroes are in the story. For Captain America, “X is bad, but we can defeat it with patriotism.” For a team book, “X is bad, but we can defeat it by working together.”

You see it a lot in PSA comics. Daredevil fights Vapora the Gas Leak Metaphor, stuff like that. X-Men of course provides a famous example: Sentinels a metaphor of institutionalized bigotry, ooh.

Now, in Imperial, Cassandra Nova, the mummudrai, is Charles Xavier’s dark half. It tries to destroy Charles’s dream, tries to kill him and his X-Men, forces mutant-human relations into a crisis state by destroying Genosha and putting the X-Men’s school into the public eye (hoping, I suppose, to start a war between mutants and humans). Charles and Cassandra are psychically linked—does Cassandra’s forcing Charles to out himself suggest a hypocrisy Charles sees in his own method, his refusal to publicly acknowledge and take responsibility for his mutant status? Cassandra punishing Charles for his cowardice? The mummudrai metaphor even incorporates the classic Sentinel metaphor, first as Cassandra sends her army on its genocidal mission in Genosha and then as it infects the X-Men with nano-sentinel germs.

The mummudrai’s stategy is to point out all the failings and stupities and pathetic flaws of her opponents, demolish their self-esteem until they’re too weak to fight back. With Charles, she actually embodies and seeks to bring about his failures. So the mummudrai is Charles’s dark half—not so much his “evil” or “immoral” half as his failed half, the self-destructive part of him that would give in to his self-perceived flaws and accept (welcome) defeat. And that’s bad. But we can defeat it by working together.

OK, remember my previous writing about political metaphors in New X-Men and about narrationy themes in New X-Men:

New X-Men is about characters attempting to create themselves by creating narratives, and it’s about characters losing control of those narratives.

I think my reading of Imperial fits that, don’t you? But then Imperial is this crazy superhero story with an absurd and simplistic metaphor, which is not necessarily at the level of sophisticated writing one would expect from Grant Morrison (it’s certainly not the level of sophistication I was expecting after reading all the praise people heap on the book). Why did Morrison write this? Rose suggested one answer:

…so is it showing that meaning and metaphor can still arise from something so broken and ugly?

I don’t think I’d use the phrase “broken and ugly.” Maybe I’d say, “It’s showing that meaning and metaphor can still arise from those silly little awkward stories about Superman fighting Smoko the Cigarette Monster or whatever, stories that are often dismissed as irredeemable crap written by hacks who didn’t care. Maybe not especially entertaining (in all senses of the word!) meaning, but meaning nontheless.” In fact, I will say just that! Right now:

It’s showing that meaning and metaphor can still arise from those silly little awkward stories about Superman fighting Smoko the Cigarette Monster or whatever, stories that are often dismissed as irredeemable crap written by hacks who didn’t care. Maybe not especially entertaining (in all senses of the word!) meaning, but meaning nontheless.

the pain of backward-glancing thoughts

This could be a long, meandery post, so I’ll get right to the point. Arguments about morality (and plenty of other things) often get phrased in a way that creates some link between the activity in question and historical precedents. I have an example here, but all I want to know is what mythical past these people are interested in finding again. I’m not one to think we live in the best of all possible times or anything absolutist like that, but I’d rather have the freedoms I have now than ones I would have had in plenty of other historical contexts. And so I don’t know what to do when I read in the Cincinnati Enquirer’s letters to the editor:

“Sexual abstinence and monogamy are major pillars of a lasting society. Children deserve to hear the truth regarding life - anything of true value must be obtained through self-control and seeking to honor the interest of others above self. Without more emphasis on abstinence training in the culture, promiscuity will continue to defraud the masses of true beauty and eventually life itself.”

I’ve succeeded so far in staying out of the marriage debates, because my views are strong and not going to convince anyone who disagrees with them. In fact, I’m not sure it’s right to call them debates when all the terms are contested. I’m just interested in the idea that there’s a way things used to work and that we ought to be working our way back to that. (Well, ok, I also have a lot of interest in the ideal of self-sacrifice, to the extent that this would be one of our categories if I wrote what I think about most often. I think there’s a lot of good to be found in placing the “interests of others above self” and am in many ways not yet comfortable choosing my desires over others’, but I’ve also hurt myself almost irreparably in the past by doing this. And so I’m very conflicted and thinking a lot about it.)

Anyway, going back to going back, in last night’s episode of Quicksilver, Isaac Newton was trying to work backwards to figure out what laws god had set to govern the world, and he (Newton) was using geometry rather than calculus because it was less abstract. Because calculus was an abstraction of geometric issues, using it would necessitate distancing himself from the truth. If I still had my copy of The Search for the Perfect Language I’d be able to cite all the arguments about in what language god spoke the world into existence. According to Herodotus, who didn’t have the Genesis god to contend with and merely wanted to know what language children raised without language would speak, I think it was Phrygian. So I know there can be a primordial urge to know and understand and contend with who we were, and that’s what the whole thorny “creation of self through narrative” is supposed to address, and I will come back to that theme soon. I’m just not sure how people hope to do this on a cultural level. And I’m not even being pedantic about being in a pluralistic society and all that. I just want to know where people want to be, I guess.

I don’t even know what it means to have a society supported by “sexual abstinence and monogamy” (presumably as a binary opposition, not simultaneously for any given individual) because I can’t imagine there’s ever been one and I’m not sure what criteria a person could come up with to force any past history into this simple a setup, even after nipping off unnecessary heels and toes. I’m always interested in the personal metaphors and touchstones that people create for themselves, but it’s hard to imagine anything that would make me want to project them onto some sort of system of norms. David Fiore has lots of fascinating and fun theories about big-R Romantic and Transcendentalist influences in Marvel comics, but that doesn’t mean (I hope!) that he goes around on message boards telling readers that it’s the only way to read these comics “correctly”. That was really the core of my initial realization about the “creation of self” thing. I understood taht it was a theme that linked most works I really, really enjoy, and that it seemed to be this aspect of them that I found attractive. I don’t think other people have to see this or like it, but it’s become a useful system for me.

Growing up, I read a lot of historical fiction, and I haven’t entirely given it up as an adult. One thing I often find exasperating is putting a modern protagonist with modern sensibilities and tone in the guise of a legitimate historical picture, which can happen in books from The Moon Lord (where it was fascinating in its own way) to the Oprah-approved The Secret Life of Bees, which annoyed me a lot. Then there’s the aforementioned Quicksilver, which I’ll have to blog on more when I’ve finished it, because the same narrative tricks used in different places in the text seem to be giving me vastly varying impressions. What made history interesting was that it was different from my life, and there are translation issues involved for me to understand (to the best of my ability), and I’ve always enjoyed thinking about that. I thought about what it would be like to translate myself into a Greek context or a medieval Christian one, but that doesn’t mean I’d advocate moving society in that direction. I’m not sure I advocate moving society at all. I’m much more interested in individuals. And it’s because I’m interested in them that I wonder why so many of them long for something they never knew, something that exists only in their imaginings, and yet they feel the pain of its absence. I follow my own advice: forget your nostos, but keep your eyes open. For me, at least, it’s better that way.

Iliad Super-Lite

I don’t think there’s anything I could add to this, so I merely note that my friend Jeffrey has managed to sum up the good old fall-of-Troy story in limericks. I’m impressed.

Now, this New Frontier…

Augie de Blieck Jr. in his Pipeline column on Comic Book Resources:

The issue reads like a storyboard to a feature film, and not just a comic book.

“Just” a comic book?

To clarify a bit, I’m questioning an implicit assumption I see here that New Frontier is better than “just” a comic book because of its apparent aesthetic association with movies, or at least with movie storyboards. I doubt Augie intended to suggest that movies are better than comics, but nevertheless I see in the subtext some ambivalence about the worth of comics compared with movies.


Eve Tushnet has written a good essay on Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Now I’m almost tempted to reread Watchmen… Her stuff on symmetrical patterns in the text is making me think of Jorge Luis Borges’s labyrinths—symmetrical patterns and labyrinths as metaphors for reality, reality as an unsolvable puzzle we are driven to solve.

I’d make the “two unsuccessful replacement gods” Eve mentioned a trio, adding Nixon, responsible for outlawing masked vigilantes (along with Keene of Keene Act fame, I suppose) and for coming dangerously close to starting a nuclear war with the Soviet Union for the sake of whatever American ideals still exist in the world of Watchmen. Not only masked vigilantes and big blue superguys threaten the world with their attempts to impose a moral meaning or pattern. Adrian Veidt, Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach, Dan and Laurie, Nixon, all have an asymmetrical power relationship with the rest of the people in the world—I mean, they’re potentially better equipped than others to create and manipulate patterns of meaning in the world. Veidt and Nixon are especially similar, in that they both choose methods of acheiving their goals which kill millions of people.

Stupid Javascript

Look, people: don’t use that stupid Javascript that disables right-clicking, OK? It takes five seconds to disable Javascript and then I can download your images to my heart’s content. Actually, I don’t even need to waste my time disabling Javascript. I can just go to “File → Save As…” and save your HTML and all the images on it to my hard disk. If you want to keep people from downloading your precious images, don’t put them on a public web server. If you want to mark your images as belonging to you, learn about embedding metadata.

New X-Men, hurrah

Sean Collins gives away tons of spoilers for the current New X-Men story. OK, New X-Men: Riot at Xavier’s was a neat revisionist take on classic X-Men political themes adapted to the pet themes of New X-Men. I was impressed with Grant Morrison pulling the soap-opera stuff together to address those themes in Murder at the Mansion. And with his managing to make Wolverine’s backstory (including even Origin!) fit into the ever-growing creation-of-self narrative. And now… Magneto, Phoenix, Apocalypse, future storylines, all the hoary old X-Men plots coming together into what I’m starting to be able to grasp as a coherent whole, and jesus christ. I think Sean says it all:

Wow. This is the kind of geeky, idea-intensive frisson that the best, most highly-detailed SFF can engender. I love love love it. More more more!

Damn it, why hasn’t Marvel published New Worlds Planet X in TPB form yet? (Yes, I’m evil and waiting for the trade. I might be more willing to buy New X-Men single issues if Marvel didn’t destroy the aesthetic of the work by sticking ads all over it.)

The Moon Lord

I promised an update on sexual politics and more in the now tragically out-of-printThe Moon Lord. If you want a glimpse of the writing style, Amazon offers a little excerpt, which should whet your appetite for more, or not, as the case may be. Neither of the reviews I found give the names of minor characters, so I’ll just make them up as needed. So with that out of the way, I’m sure we’re all ready for a romp through a medieval romance.

Now, despite the introduction you may have read about the brave chevalier Tancred de Vierzon and his runins with Richard the Lionheart, it isn’t really his story. Well, it is, but it’s more importantly the story of Rosamund Bourton, mistress of Wynnsef castle. With her ne’er-do-well older brother away on the crusades, Rosamund is capably managing the household, though a fat, ugly, old, wealthy neighbor is trying to gain control of the manor and its mistress. His plans are foiled when Tancred and his troups, back from the crusade, overtake Wynnsef and claim it for themselves. Now things really get intersting. Rosamund, recognizing Tancred by his special symbols (Does this tie into the big Superhero Discussions) and his crescent-shaped scar, realizes she and the women of her household could be in for a rough time. So, in a brilliant flash of anachronistic insight, she calls upon Tancred’s well-known honor and makes him swear that he and his men will abide by what is basically The Antioch College Sexual Consent Code. No man will engage in any sexual activity whatsoever with any female in the household without first getting her explicit verbal consent, and there’s not to be any trickery with getting women drunk or anything like that, because that doesn’t count. The men grudgingly agree and take full control of the castle.

At this point, the plot boils down to a romantic comedy, in which Rosamund learns that this horribly vain and useless Tancred has actually occupied the castle to spite her brother, who had shown himself to be a scoundrel, not exactly news to her, by engaging in some traitorous act I’ve now forgotten, which was news indeed. Now Rosamund finds herself falling for the honorable Tancred in earnest, but he’s just too darned honorable! When she gives him his bath, he won’t allow anything that might give the impression of impropriety to go on, or when it seems he might, they get rudely interrupted. When she sneaks into his room to confront him, he has some Oriental herbs burning to ease his slumbers, and he refuses to take advantage of her in her inebriated state, having inhaled the toxic fumes, despite her repeated pleas that he do so. And Tancred, who originally took Wynnsef to anger Rosamund’s brother, finds Rosamund to be so honest and capable that he can’t help but fall in love with her completely. However, Tancred doesn’t think he’s good enough for such a beautiful and pure lady, because (at least as I recall) he had been tortured and molested by the Saracens who left the scar on his cheek.

Meanwhile, her best friend, whom I’ll call Elizabeth, a novice in a local convent, comes to visit and eventually falls for Tancred’s right-hand man, Mehmet or something like that, who happens to be a Saracen. Eventually Elizabeth gets excused from being a nun by her chipper Mother Superior and is able to get on a horse heading east with her beloved, off to start a multiethnic family. There are several more twists in the Tancred/Rosamund story, which does manage to reach its logical culmination, since this is a romance novel. But then Tancred is driven away by something or other. And Rosamund’s land is going to be repossessed and she’ll be married off to the hideous neighbor, but at the last minute there’s something very exciting that happens instead, and I won’t tell you because I don’t want to ruin the surprise. And what a surprise it is! Ok, not really. It’s a happily-ever-after.

What fascinated me about this book, though, was what seemed like fairly radical content under its surface. I haven’t read enough romance novels to make any kind of informed comparison, but it seemed more overtly political than the books my classmates chose (except maybe the one about the lawyer for the evil land-grabbing corporation who fell in love with the lawyer who wanted to save the lakefront property as a bird preserve). I assume, like superhero comics, there’s a major aspect of wish-fulfillment going on here, and so I wonder if the author was trying to make an explicit point about issues of full consent and the like. And while the middle American readers might not be keen on multiracial couples (or maybe they are, which would be a fine thing in my eyes) they don’t seem to mind love matches between Franks and Musselmen (to use the book’s term) or, according to classmates, Apache and white settlers. If this were a realistic modern story of a woman with strict rules about sex and more pressure from her family than she wants (because Rosamund is more than happy to share the task of running the castle with the right man) who falls in love with a rough but sensitive man of his word who’s a troubled survivor of sexual abuse, I’m not sure whether it would find as many readers. Add in the best friend finding bliss in a relationship her society wouldn’t condone, and we’ve got something pretty much unlike what I’d expected from a romance novel.

The book was not without flaws, several of which I’ve already mentioned. I wasn’t really comfortable with the rape-fantasy aspects of it, although they were perhaps mitigated by the elaborate consent structure. I’m not sure what message to take away from that, that it’s good to have such structures in place but that it’s still nearly impossible for a woman to say “yes” when she means “yes” or what? And then there’s what seemed to me like a lack of historicity. I don’t like my historical stories to be so pristine and easy, although this one clearly had at least some reasearch feeding it. The “Saracens,” both good guys and bad guys, didn’t seem to get beyond cliches, but I suppose they’re not as cliched as the handsome, principled swordsman with a heart of gold. Still, since I had to read a romance novel, I think I made a good choice. It certainly seemed better once I realized the promiscuous characters in several different modern-setting books my classmates chose were named Rose. Usually they save a name like that for alcoholics and suicides! Anyway, those are the bones of it, and anyone who’s interested can read more. I’m almost tempted to try to dredge it up again, but I don’t think I’ll make any special effort. Once may have been enough.

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.