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Archive: February 2004

Wailing and gnashing of teeth!

Jim Henley wonders what’s up with the X-Men’s return to spandex. After all, as Jim points out, Marvel seems to want to make their comics more “Hollywood friendly” so they can license more movies, but the spandex look is actually much less like the movie version of the characters than the New X-Men stylish-black look (although the movies don’t have the crazy puffy yellow vest things that the characters wear in New X-Men). I think the most obvious answer is that Marvel, in addition to deciding to become more movie-friendly, has decided to stop alienating their old loyal readers who were apparently threatened by the nonspandex costumes. This is especially clear considering lines like these in the Astonishing X-Men preview (which is apparently from Marvel Previews, I didn’t know that yesterday when I found it through Alan David Doane):

Scott: Sorry, Logan. Superheroes wear costumes. And quite frankly, all the black leather is making people nervous.

As I said yesterday, that sure looks like a little meta-assurance to the old-school readers that Marvel feels their pain, so to speak. In catering to this group of readers, though, Marvel is apparently alienating another group of readers, who have been complaining loudly about the return to spandex even as many readers are joyously celebrating the return to spandex in various comics message boards. Jim says:

The outrage is mildly ironic, in that devotion to the Morrison run signifies sophistication and the complaints about the clothing change have a whiff of You’re messing with my continuity! about them.

Uh, you know what, I was just about to type up to a whole five sentences explaining why I don’t think a return to spandex is necessarily a sign of lesser sophistication, but I actually don’t really care. Anyway, I hope that whiff of “You’re messing with my continuity!” didn’t come from this blog… now where’s that air freshener? It’s not like I’m offended by the spandex. I’m much more bothered by Chris Claremont’s insistence that the X-Men should be escapist fiction in which the “good” guys defeat the “bad” guys, and I think the fact that Joss Whedon has Scott calling the X-Men “superheroes” apparently without irony plays into that. But I talked about this already, so I won’t repeat myself.

And yes, I realize that this very post is, rather ironically, in the “Superheroes” category. I think we should probably delete that category, so we’ll see what Rose thinks…

“Logan: Here come the tights.”

An excerpt from Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men (from Kevin Breen on the Tony Isabella message board via Alan David Doane)? I don’t know if this is real… I don’t know who Kevin Breen is or why he would have access to dialogue from Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men. Maybe it’s real, though?

Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men:

Scott: …we need to get into the world. Saving lives, helping with disaster relief… we need to present ourselves as a team like any other. Avengers, Fantastic Four — they don’t get chased through the streets with torches.

Ah, right, Cyclops, that’s worked so well for the last 40 years, hasn’t it? (Where did I see some insane thing about how if gay people dressed up as superheroes and saved people then people would stop being homophobes?) Remember protecting a world that hates and fears you? I guess not. I guess Marvel’s new retro policy doesn’t include a return to paying attenton to continuity.

Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men:

Logan: Here come the tights.

Scott: Sorry, Logan. Superheroes wear costumes. And quite frankly, all the black leather is making people nervous.

Ooh, but who are these nervous people—the people in the Marvel Universe or the X-fans reading the comics in the real world? Joss Whedon’s going all meta on us! Three lines into this (possibly fake? possibly real?) excerpt, and New X-Men is already being dismantled: back to spandex, and if Scott is babbling on about how the X-Men need to save people, I suppose we shall assume the X-books are now ignoring the X-Corporation—you know, the huge multinational corporation the X-Men set up to save lives and help with disaster relief and serve as “traditional superheroes” when necessary.

New X-Men:

Hank: I was never sure why you had us dress up like super heroes anyway, Professor.

Scott: The professor thought people would trust the X-Men if we looked like something they understood.

Charles: That’s correct, Scott. However… I’ve been working on better ways to encourage people to trust mutants.

OK, there’s so much (meta)criticism of the X-Men as a metaphor of political activism in New X-Men, and this passage from Astonishing X-Men is so clearly against that criticism. Against the specific criticisms offered by New X-Men. Possibly against any deep critical readings of the X-Men at all—it seems very much in line with Chris Claremont’s goals as writer:

7;s an opportunity to tell the kinds of stories I love best — that is to say, ones which are grounded in attitudes of classic heroism and hope, the idea of characters working together towards a common and positive goal. Good guys versus bad guys, and the good guys win because that’s the way the world ought to work. And yes, this is fantasy but I can get a poisonous dose of dystopic reality — of the venality and banality of everyday life — just by reading the morning newspapers.

To me, a critical function of an escapist medium is not to mirror the life in which we live but present a brighter, more hopeful, dare I say more ultimately enjoyable alternative that possibly enables us to cope just a little bit better with all the crap. Here, in Excalibur, we start on the day after Armageddon — and the struggle here will be between those whose response is that of anger and retribution (yes, my friends, 16 Million has a critical place in the first year arc — the blonde from X-Treme #30 has a name and a purpose and pals) and those who want to try and build something better from the ruins. Not that much different from the struggle we see being played out in the Middle East.

(This is the philosophy of the guy who wrote the Dark Phoenix Saga in Uncanny X-Men?)

“Good” guys vs. “bad” guys. So… the X-Men are the good guys, right? Professor X would be a good guy, in Excalibur? Charles Xavier whose sole major accomplishment toward his goal of mutant-human peace in recent years (maybe ever, really) was coming out on national television while possessed by “bad guy” Cassandra Nova? And Xavier’s other big accomplishment has been setting up a superpowered militia in the guise of a school.

Magneto was a bad guy, right? Erik Magnus Lensherr, Holocaust survivor—and that’s not a moral justification for becoming a terrorist, but compare with Charles Xavier’s more privileged background (son of two of America’s top scientists, Oxford-educated). Erik Magnus, who was the real driving force behind the new mutant rights movement (hence the ubiquitous “Magneto was right” slogan). So he fucked up in the end and turned into a sad, addled drug addict, but just listen to his speech in issue #132, “Ambient Magnetic Fields,” in which he describes his own transformation from merely mortal mutant terrorist to transcendant mutant martyr (a transformation which, by the way, turns out not to be quite what it seems in Planet X):

This is the voice. This is the voice of Magneto. This is the voice of the Genoshan Nation. It’s a strange thing, to die in the darkness. It’s a strange thing to die. I was Magneto, the master of magnetic forces. Now I will be a voice in the darkness, echoing forever. Once, I was a mortal man. Now I am becoming memory, immortal. They must have thought they could silence us forever. Instead we have become magnetic. Unstoppable. Do you understand? Our voices will be broadcast around the world… into space. At the speed of light. At the speed of radio. Our voices traveling without end through the depths of time and space. Beyond this life. And far, far… beyond this death.

That speech seems to emerge from the gigantic Magneto Memorial some of the former Brotherhood of Mutants have built on Genosha (I hope Chris Claremont at least keeps that around in Excalibur). This isn’t some lame “Hitler was a vegetarian” moralizing. Magneto is a person—a fantastic and incredible person, because he is in a narrative of the fantastic, but still a person, and his fantastic and incredible qualities are the qualities of a real person magnified through the lens of fantastic metaphor. He’s a terrorist, and he eventually becomes a martyr, like John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness. I know people have trouble accepting that terrorists often have political agendas more sophisticated than “We hate X and want to blow it up,” but, well, they do. Magneto is a terrorist, not because he hates humans and wants to blow them up, but because he believes violent force is a legitimate means for achieving is political goal of avoiding a mutant holocaust. He’s a Jewish Holocaust survivor who’s willing to start a human holocaust to prevent a mutant holocaust. Yes, Magneto does bad things, but to reduce him to a villain who is defeated by the heroes is to engage in a dangerous moral and political simplification of extremely complex issues which seem inconsequential in an X-Men comic book only as long as you refuse to engage the text critically and acknowledge the possibility of reading it as metaphor.

My point: to say without irony that Professor X is a hero and Magneto is a villain must require an almost willfull ignorance of the text. To call Professor X a “flawed hero” and Magneto a “sympathetic villain” is even worse, because it indicates the speaker grasps some of the moral sophistication of the text but is unwilling to let go of easy readings and engage the text critically. I guess this is my own contribution to the question of whether superhero comics are worthy of critical analysis (I know, I know, I’m several days late to the conversation). “Superheroes” is just not a good name for this genre. So many of the texts have progressed in moral sophistication far beyond the point at which clear binary oppositions like “hero vs. villain” stop making sense, and to dismiss texts in the “superhero” genre as simplistic morality plays must require, again, an almost willfull ignorance of the texts. Now certainly plenty of “superhero” comics don’t transcend simplistic moral binary oppositions (e.g. the sort of thing Chris Claremont wants to write, apparently), but so what? It’s not Grant Morrison’s fault Claremont sucks.

Where was I? Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men:

Scott: …you’re not a fighter. Your power isn’t aggressive, it’s protective. That’s good to show. And people like you. Hank’s articulate as anything, but what people see is mostly… well, a beast. Emma’s a former villain, Logan’s a thug.

Didn’t we have a whole subplot in New X-Men about Hank challenging perceptions? That whole “gay” thing. “Logan’s a thug”? That’s a bit of an understatement at this point… maybe Whedon hasn’t read New X-Men: Assault on Weapon Plus or New X-Men: Planet X, in which Wolverine seems on the verge of giving up his personhood and becoming an animal. It’s not that any of this is bad (except the moronic idea that Emma is a “former villain,” see above), it’s just, if New X-Men is barely over and the X-books are already doing watered-down versions of its stories… Frankly, I’m suspicious of this excerpt’s veracity, because it’s such a precise and efficient demonstration that the Reloaded X-Men creators are trying (probably partly unconsciously) to pretend New X-Men never happened.

Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men

Kitty: So I’m what, a PR stunt?

Emma: Yes, our own poster child. Isn’t it sweet? “The Non Threatening Shadowcat. Or “Sprite” or “Ariel” or whatever incredibly unimpressive name you’re using nowadays.

Scott: Emma, shut up.

Hank: Am I the only one who’s dying to see the costumes?


Actually, having just read Planet X, I’m not surprised that the X-Men Reload books are ignoring New X-Men. Planet X is so gloriously apocalyptic that the X-books could spend years dealing with the fallout. I’m convinced I saw Morrison say he saw his run on New X-Men as the final end of the entire X-Men story (I can’t find the interview though), and I can certainly see how Marvel could have called this X-Men: The End and been done with it. Now, I haven’t read any of New X-Men: Here Comes Tomorrow yet, but here, at the end if Planet X, this alleged Astonishing X-Men excerpt just seems silly and inconsequential.

More on Planet X later, though.

“God takes special care of little animals, honey.”

It was David Fiore who inspired me to buy and read Grant Morrison’s Animal Man. I’m sure it’s not the Greatest Comic Ever and I wouldn’t want to set anything apart like that, but I feel a lot of affinity for it and it makes good sense to me. And did I mention it’s fun? I breezed through it gleefully, leaving mental notes for later exploration. And now I’m finally trying to get around to that part, which is not as easy or as much fun as the fun.

It’s a superhero story of course, and does what I think superhero stories can do best, show limitations. In part of the recent controversy over superhero merits, Tim O’Neil said that a story in which Superman saves the whales would not be an effective method of getting across a point about the need to save the whales. I concur, although maybe not for the reasons he intended. A story about Superman saving the whale should highlight the fact that even though Superman is great and can do almost anything, we don’t have him. If we want our whales saved, it’s up to us. Any Kryptonian hope would be false, baseless. Much of the point of Superman is that we don’t have recourse to him. I think this is one of the major themes Morrison addresses, one well-suited to the genre. Animal Man is really about the limits of power and the tendency to believe that those limits may not be as confining as they are.

Tonight I’m going to look at power, control and cats. Cats feature prominently in the story as the first and last animals shown, and with major roles along the way. They don’t seem as heavily imbued with meaning as the apes or dolphins or the fox and eagle. They’re cats, the kind you see every day. And there are people who are cat people and those who aren’t, like in the world we know. I’m interested now in cats who are saved and by what means, because this is a story element that, like many others, gets replayed and respun so that it changes meaning and sheds meaning on its other instances.

Issue One begins with a stereotypical cat situation, a cat in a tree being retrieved for a dowdy, fretting woman by a muscular blond. This is of course Buddy, our eponymous hero, who lands on his feet and deposits the frightened kitten into its owner’s loving arms. Isn’t he the greatest? Not only has he carried out the most Boy Scouty move possible, but he is immediately contrasted with portly Morris, who seems to barely humor his wife’s love of cats and certainly prefers his own peace and quiet. The story opening is so straightforward it’s not clear whether it’s tongue-in-cheek or just has some sort of sweet-natured retro innocence. Perhaps that holds true for much of Animal Man. At any rate, Violet, the cat owner, mentions that she hasn’t seen her cat Sheba in several days, which is way too blatant to even be called foreshadowing.

Fastforward to Issue Two, a cat in the bushes. It’s not surprising that it’s Sheba and not surprising that there are now kittens to complicate matters. In the next issue we’ll find that Morris seems not to have moved from his spot, napping with his lemonade beside him. Buddy, though, has gone on to bigger things, fighting mutating beasts in the city, clad in spiffy goggles and spandex. So Buddy’s wife, Ellen, and daughter, Maxine, are off in the woods, where Maxine finds the kittens. Ellen, though, has found a dead doe and a beer can and a snake. It wouldn’t be surprising even if we hadn’t seen them already that the first two have been left by ignorant hunters and the last is there as an allusion in case references to “the garden of Eden” and “Eve” didn’t ring enough bells. This story cuts off there until Issue Three, because the comic is called Animal Man after all, not Animal Man’s Family. Perhaps it should have been called Animal Man’s Family, but not this early in the story. At any rate, we return in Issue Three, where Maxine sees the hunters feed a cat to their dogs and then hit Ellen. Maxine is off like a shot to Morris, who can move when it matters, and who eventually saves the day in a way that’s still painful to all involved. Ellen and Buddy never discuss this in the book, but because of his devotion to animals and more explicitly to being a superhero, he is unable to save his wife. That honor goes to a man who may not even care about whether laboratory dogs suffer and shows that heroism and humane action take many forms. There’s a reason the other superheroes don’t have families, as the JLI representatives remark. They’re incompatible with the dangers and demands of being a superhero. But Buddy doesn’t acknowledge that. He lets the gaps in the story escape his notice because it’s easier and it lets him be the person he wants to be.

The kitten story isn’t over, though. Ellen brings the orphaned kittens home, only to find she can’t save their lives. For me, this was the most emotionally intense and painful sequence in all of Animal Man. She has pushed all of the emotions and fear and anguish of her assault into these kittens she’s saving to create a redemption for herself, and she can’t even do that right. “Why does everything have to die? I saved them. You can’t tell me they’re dead.” And she buries them with the children and Violet, knowing all the while how close she was to being in a grave herself that day.

And when Buddy returns home, his fear for his children is the world they’ll live in, the pollution and animal testing. He doesn’t realize or can’t understand that danger is more concrete and visceral and direct for the humans in his own family. “There must be some hope,” he thinks. “Just some.” And there is. A kitten is going to live, T.C. (The Cat?) and he has a role to play still.

T.C.’s most major role is in wanting his food in Issue 19. He can’t get any because, as Buddy finds, the rest of the family has been murdered and T.C. waits patiently on the bloodstained floor beside his catfood tin and a can opener. Hope is still there, by why? The cat can be fed, the cat will keep going, but all that matters most to Buddy is gone before he realized this was possible. Ellen was wrong, too. Saving the cats and the hopes placed in them doesn’t matter either. Giving too much power to your symbols doesn’t make them strong enough to hold. It doesn’t make them mean what you wanted them to mean.

In Issue 23, the Psycho Pirate unleashes a supercat from another earth. Like T.C., this cat sits beside its food, but it has laser vision that blasts open the tin for it. It doesn’t need human saving or human meaning or help to give it power. That’s what makes it fictional, even within this fictional story.

T.C. returns again in the penultimate issue to turn to a skeleton in Limbo as Buddy realizes he’s losing control of his metaphors. He’s carrying around a dead monkey to get to a place that doesn’t exist, and when he gets back, the cat is a skeleton. Everything around him has turned to nonsense.

And that leads us to the metacat, Jarmara. Grant Morrison writes himself into his story to explain that being a writer doesn’t matter enough. He has the power to make his characters (now including Grant Morrison) do whatever he wants, and yet this is meaningless to him. When it mattered he could not save the cat he loved. He had written the story and knew its meaning but he, too, found it easy to forget how much was out of his control. Superhero stories are supposed to be about great power and great responsibilities, but they’re really about what lies beyond the power, the responsibilities that can never be met. Even when you write the story, even when you create yourself, there are things that happen beyond you. What you do with them is up to you, but it’s easy to forget that being the author doesn’t mean you can stop it all, and sometimes assimilating the pain and making it part of your story hurts just as much. Grant chastises himself for thinking while Jarmara is dying that he can use her in his story, but he really couldn’t have done otherwise. He admits the boundary between Animal Man and Grant has gotten too permeable, that he feared “just becoming preachy” and that the his own life is being influenced by what he writes. He’s become inseparable from his story, which is why he finally writes himself in to wrap it all up.

The last episode in the book is a return to the fox story, which I haven’t touched on yet, but it’s a variation on the theme. It’s about looking for a meaning and a message when it isn’t there. No-longer-young Grant signals Foxy and gets no reply. That’s because Foxy doesn’t matter when it comes down to it, much as he’d like to believe in him. The last non-human creature in the book is Jarmara, yearning and hopeful in her photo with Grant Morrison staring back. Sometimes the stories you tell yourself aren’t enough. Sometimes there’s only death and loss of control and fear. And hope and love.

When Buddy’s family is “reunited,” there is no cat. There is only Jarmara, back in Grant’s dark room. I can’t believe this could be enough of a break or a boundary to keep out the pain, not for Animal Man’s Family. Probably not for Grant. Certainly not for me.

Lies, Damned Lies, and No Animal Man!

I said I’d post but that was before the area on my thumb where the skin got scraped off (how? I wish I knew) got puffy and sore. Serious typing doesn’t sound like fun. Not much sounds like fun except sitting around being grumpy, which is probably not the sort of experience I should share with what readers I have.

Can someone tell me what the perjorative term for superheroes was before spandex entered common parlance? Just long underwear, something like that?

Unrelatedly, I’ve been thinking about Neilalien’s (happy early blogday) criticism of comics blog groupthink. I’m not sure I’m what he would consider a guilty party, and I at least try not to weigh in on the Next Big Thing and how it will fail. Yet I was right there on Sean Collins’s list of people defending superhero comics criticism. That even though I’ve been really unexcited by superhero comics lately, or at least when I’m not reading them. I think it’s normal that people will seek out other opinions that are basically in accord with their own. So I guess I’m just saying a certain amount of groupthink is unsurprising. What is more so is that people would think there’s total diversity. There are plenty of opinions, but some are more popular or more acceptable in certain circles. I hope this wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. And yes, I’m sort of glad David Fiore doesn’t like The Dark Knight Returns even if it may not be for the reasons I don’t. But even more I wish someone would explain what’s so hilarious and transcendent about the rape scenes in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, since that’s something I don’t understand. At any rate, it’s been my goal to post only when I think I have something at least slightly new or different to say, and I’ll try to stick with that more closely. But not because I want to be a part of palindrome-approved groupthink! Just because it seems like a good rule of thumb. And speaking of thumbs, this is enough typing for now, and probably neither new nor different at that.

A Little More on Metaphor

Good old David Fiore quoted me into his critique of Tim O’Neil’s review of The Filth. That’s how I ended up in Tim’s response. The question at hand is whether it’s worth analyzing your average superhero comic. I think my own policy on that is pretty clear, although so far Peiratikos has mostly focused on analyzing pop culture we enjoy. I think the beauty of material culture is that it gives you something to look at and think about. I’ve never understood why many people are so insistent about classifying certain movies or books or whatever as “mindless entertainment”, since some thought must have gone into creating them and all sorts of commentaries about their intended audiences and critiques of society implicit in them can be made pretty easily. I’ve already written here about subversive sexual politics in a mainstream historical romance novel and I don’t think I’d have trouble analyzing action movies and certainly not superhero comic books.

I’m probably not a standard reader. Although they disagree about the Big Criticism Question, Tim and J.W. Hastings (and plenty of other readers) clearly treasure pure visceral/adrenaline reactions to particularly thrilling superhero sequences. I’m a word person and a pacifist and I don’t enjoy watching people beat each other up. I flip through fight scenes way too fast, meaning I sometimes miss plot points that are obvious to everyone else. And yet I still read some superhero comics and find many incredibly moving, whether dealing with loss or disappointment or love — just not usually ass-kicking. I don’t think these emotional responses arise from some sort of interaction with the sublime or the profundity of the medium but because, as David quoted me as saying, that I think “[superheroes] are perfect metaphors for a lot of things, which I find so fascinating. I think it’s that lack of specificity, lack of groundedness that lets people make whatever identifications they want. It really has to do with any kind of devotion or single-mindedness or dedication, I think. Or leaders or people working in groups or corporate drones, even. . . .”

What I said was just a throwaway comment to my own post on some superhero genre conventions, but I meant it. Note that I did not say, “For a good time, call John Bunyan.Steven has already discussed the dangers of allegory in the hands of bad writers and I think most good writers are wise enough to avoid it on their own. My point was that beyond any critique of geek culture or economics or moral representation, all of which can be interesting and insightful, superhero stories provide plenty of fodder for many kinds of metaphorical interpretations, and these differ from allegory. I don’t read superhero stories to see some mystical one-to-one correspondence between my life or current political situations in the text. Instead, it’s useful to see resonances with the kinds of choices and priorities and ethical judgments and heartaches I read. I can read myself through the text, or see elements of other sorts of problems through the lens of the comic. Just because I thought School of Rock elucidated some of the personality quirks of a someone I know doesn’t mean I think the movie was about him.

And what makes superheroes particularly useful for this kind of metaphorical reading is their polysemy and their divergence from everyday reality. They come with built-in critical distance. Even though there are standard interpretations of various superheroes, I think there’s plenty of room to add more. That’s what interpretation is, seeing a new insight into the characters or having the characters or story help you see something else in a new light, and then following that train of thought. And if Tim doesn’t want to do that, that’s fine, but I’m among the people who do want to analyze and interpret, and I hope to do so in ways that are meaningful for others. Maybe we’ll find out in tomorrow’s episode, when I start discussing Animal Man at last. (I know, that’s what I said last time too. We’ll see!)

Animal Man: The Secret

As I said, I’m holding off on in-depth postings on Animal Man until Steven’s had a chance to read it, but I plan to hit the symbols hard next week: Cats - Foxes (/wolves/coyotes) - Masks and Talismans - Primates (non-human) - Deus ex Machina/Meatpuppets - Gender(ed) Roles - Slaughter. Probably more when I get more time to reread and think.

For now, though, I was struck immediately upon reading in the second volume, just as everything is falling apart, that Maxine is onto something. I can’t quote because I don’t have the books with me at work, believe it or not, but Buddy and Ellen are busy. Maxine interrupts, holding her toy, with something like, “Daddy, Gorilla Murphy wants to tell you a secret!” I’m afraid I’ve got Gorilla M.’s last name wrong, but that’s not the point. Daddy has no time for this and shoos Maxine away, and Gorilla M. stays in the background until the very end of the very last issue, at which point Cliff is tossing him to the dog and Maxine complains.

Since so much is metanarrative, it’s possible the “secret” line is just a parody of the amazing wisdom of children trope, but I think there might be more to it. What would Gorilla M. have said? Would he perhaps have had a message from Grant Morrison? Could his secret have averted what happened after he was ignored? And why is he there at the end, because he still knows the truth? Or would his be a message of redemption?

I’m inclined to see his presence (and how do I know he’s a “he”? I don’t think there is textual support, but I’m unwavering) as a subversion of happy endings. Secret messages from outside the story can still creep in. Cliff didn’t succeed in feeding him to the dog, wiping him out. The secret is there and will eventually get out. Just not in this story.

Batman: What’s yellow and writes?

Robin: A ballpoint banana.
Batman: Exactly!

Commissioner Gordon: Penguin, Joker, Riddler…and Catwoman, too! The sum of the angles of that rectangle is too monstrous to contemplate!
Batman: We’ve been given the plainest warning: they’re working together to take over…
Chief O’Hara: Take over what, Batman: Gotham City?
Batman: Any two of them would try that!
Commissioner Gordon: The whole country?
Batman: If it were three of them, I would say yes, but four? Their minimum objective must be… the entire world.

Seriously, you know my favorite Batman story? Batman: The Movie! The one with Adam West and Burt Ward, I mean. Seriously, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, well that’s fine, but it just doesn’t get better than this, folks:

Robin: When you think, Batman, with those four supercrooks hangin’ around, it’s amazing somebody hasn’t already reported this place to the police!
Batman: It’s a low neighborhood, full of rumpots. They’re used to curious sights, which they attribute to alcoholic delusions.
Robin: Gosh, drink is sure a filthy thing, isn’t it? I’d rather be dead than unable to trust my own eyes!

But then, I have a soft spot for insane parody. (Guess what my favorite James Bond movie is… Right, Casino Royale!)

I think this is probably my last post on Batman (for a while, anyway), unless I think of more I want to say about DKR. While I’m here, I should note J.W. Hastings’s Watchmen vs. DKR post. To put it uncharitably, the idea seems to be that DKR is better than Watchmen because Watchmen actually excepts you to think and analyze the text (which, isn’t that what reading is—analyzing the text? just because it’s not a “deep” or “pomo” analysis dosn’t mean it’s not analysis…), whereas DKR is content to be a totally awesome book where Batman kicks out Superman’s teeth. And, well. I disagree, as you may have guessed from the fact that I’ve spent the last couple weeks analyzing DKR a whole lot. OK, and I thought the line about Watchmen being a 12-issue deconstruction was pretty funny, because I don’t remember much deconstruction going on in Watchmen at all and, as I think some of my DKR-blogging and certainly Rose’s post no working class hero indicate, DKR is fertile ground for deconstructive analysis of heroism (vs. villainy). Anyway, I am being uncharitable, as I said—this passage, J.W. is obviously engaging in actual thought and analysis:

Yet they are more honest and exciting than Moore’s comics, and, in the end, they are more complicated–not in terms of structure, but because Miller leaves things unresolved the moral questions he leaves us with are more pressing and harder to answer. Alan Moore draws detailed maps for his readers to follow, but Frank Miller tosses you into the middle of a dangerous world and forces you to choose sides.

…which makes me wonder why he said “analysis doesn’t really suit” DKR, but maybe he was just being, well, ironic. Or maybe the problem isn’t analysis in general, but “academic-style analysis” (whatever that is). At any rate, it all seems like a fairly strange critique of the books.

Oh, there was one other Batman thing… Paul Levitz on the necessary components of a successful Batman story (maybe a temporary link… are Yahoo! news stories temporary?):

There’s the “aspirational experience,” which Levitz says consists of how people react emotionally to the Bruce Wayne character, his traumatic childhood involving the death of his parents and how that leads the billionaire to use his riches to fight crime.

“It’s all about making you feel that if you went through something traumatic, you’d rise to the challenge in the same way,” Levitz says.

Right, I hope if my parents are murdered, I’d have the courage to beat the living shit out of criminals while wearing a rubber fetish suit. Batman as representative of a moral ideal we can aspire to? Of all the weird ways to reading superheroes… Oh well, here’s more lovely Batman: The Movie:

Vice Admiral Fangschliester: Avast and belay, Batman. Your tone sounds rather grim. We haven’t done anything foolish, have we?
Batman: Disposing of pre-atomic submarines to persons who don’t even leave their full addresses? Good day, Admiral!

Animal Man Mini-Update

I said last night that I read the first Animal Man collection. I was wrong, but I no longer am. After posting, I realized I’d actually read the second collection. I have some excuses, that I was exhausted, that I ignore issue numbers for no good reason except to convince myself that comics aren’t fetish objects, that I just was too excited to pay attention. Whatever it was, in retrospect I think I made the right decision.

Starting Origin of the Species, I was amazed to find how complex it was, how the story picked up in midstream, and I loved it. I had no trouble figuring out who people were, and there was plenty of exposition. Well, I didn’t always know the origins of the various characters, but that’s always the case when moving into a new series. I got a sense of who they were and followed along happily. So here were reality-bending aliens and flashbacks and fragmented reality. Then I opened the self-titled trade a few hours later and found a much more straightforward story, which at first I thought was just an elaborate alternate reality (and maybe it is). Eventually I figured out my mistake and made it through both books, so I’m caught up to where I should be. I think my reading benefited from my confusion, though, from being tossed into the story of a character who’s coming apart, who doesn’t know what’s happened or what’s real.

Animal Man Vol. 1 is interesting in that it’s sort of the opposite of everything I talked about last night. Well, at least Buddy is aware that there’s a formula he’s conforming to, that he knows what a superhero is and wants to be one. He has some delusions of grandeur, and his wife, Ellen, is a remarkably consistent voice of reason. Reason doesn’t work so well when reality is shifting, and her perceptions seem less accurate in the second book, or at least less in conformance with reality. But impetuous, idealistic Buddy just wants to be a hero AND do the right thing, which sometimes means he doesn’t think of the consequences of his actions. Ellen loves him because of and in spite of this. And in her role as almost a single mother and the family wagearner, she has as much power and responsibility without the animal benefits. The interplay and role reversals between these two characters are some of the most moving scenes I’ve ever read. I know their story won’t end fully happily, that it can’t, but I want to see where it goes anyway, and I’ll appreciate it.

I’m going to wait until Steven has had a chance to read the books before talking about one of my “pet” topics, if that’s even the right term, the Snake in the Garden sequence in book one. Expect more on Ellen and men with guns and kittens and Maxine sometime after the weekend.

no working-class hero

I’ve been chewing on Vaughan’s Madness in Gotham for, well, almost a month. One thing I find particularly interesting is the lack of real, definable mental illness (inasmuch as such a thing exists anyway). This could be a good thing, since it seems no one in a creative field can distinguish schizophrenia from multiple personality disorder. However, I wondered what fan reactions are, whether Joker really is innocent by reason of insanity. Do fans want to see him thrown back into Arkham Asylum because that’s what he deserves, or just because they know it’s the most permeable prison around? Or maybe he’s a bad example, since I think the belief is that he’s evil enough to twist the system, not insane at all. But does the lack of sanity of any characters, good or not, absolve or explain anything? Is it just a metaphor?

Steven got going on Super Origins (through the BatLens), or what David Fiore rightly calls “conversion experiences.” For Batman and most of his villains, this seems to come from a moment of pain and loss on which a life is built, suggesting that the only diagnosis they could safely get might be post-traumatic stress disorder. I realize that heroes and villains need origin stories and that this is a common type, but I always wonder about the reader’s emotional investment. That’s why I hate stories in which a hurt woman needs to be avenged by her man, but that’s a different rant. OK, maybe it’s not. People suffer. There’s plenty of pain. I realize it was awfully traumatic for Bruce to watch his parents’ murders, but it’s really amazing that he was able to lead a life in which that was His Hurt. How did he manage to move unscathed from being the Boy Orphan to being the Batman?

It seems to me there’s a class difference at work in these origin stories, though it’s not always explicit. Maybe it’s part of the Marvel/DC gap, too. Still, if you’re heir to a major fortune (Bruce Wayne), you may lose your parents but retain all your privilege and use it to fight evil covertly through philanthropy and as a superhero. If you’re a middle-class scientist like Reed Richard or Bruce Banner, someday your crazy ideas might go too far and damage you irreparably. If you’re explicitly marked as working class, like Ben Grimm or Matt Murdock, you get trouble on top of trouble. You’re blinded by radioactive waste and you only have one parent, who gets killed. You go along with your friend’s crazy idea and end up orange and craggy, untouchable and alone. It can’t work out this easily and I’m oversimplifying, but I’m not even getting into Women in Refrigerators or Black Superheroes.

What I’m really getting at is not that creators used stereotypes as much as shorthand and distortion. These are not stories meant to be read literally, which I guess should be fairly obvious from the pseudoscience and mysticism involved in most superhero origin myths. I’m not saying Bruce Wayne is a privileged white guy who brings his pain on himself. That’s not the point, nor is it news. Plenty of stories have gone that way before. I think what’s interesting is the insistence on the purity of this trauma reaction. Because they have these origins in which they keep their pain, each fight, each instance of property damage, each injury they inflict doesn’t have to hurt them. It’s just calluses on top of scar tissue. Because these are ongoing stories, heroes can garner more pivotal traumas along the way. At least temporarily, the lost of the late late Betty Banner was more of an impetus for Bruce/Hulk’s actions than the initial transformation. Because these are ongoing stories, heroes can’t feel the overwhelming agony and stress and worry and pain their exploits would bring them if they were thinking, sensing humans instead of heroes. But what are readers supposed to think and feel about all of this, about idealizing mad, repressed freaks?

Sometimes I get frustrated with superhero stories when it seems that this distortion is too extreme, when their lives get so far out of balance that I find no connection to my own. Maybe that’s because I’m just not looking hard enough. I got my Animal Man trades today, and I think it will address some of these issues. It certainly is fun so far, what I needed to reinvigorate me. Thanks, David, and others who recommended it. And this weekend I’ll get another pass at The Dark Knight Returns, so maybe I’ll have more to say on that.

And speaking of origins and animal men, has Rudyard Kipling moved into the public domain yet? And have there been any versions of his Just-So Stories rhinoceros story starring Marvel’s Rhino? Because there need to be.

(And speaking of lives out of kilter, will I ever learn to go to bed early before having to be at work early? Not tonight, it seems.)

Minor Elements of Style

This is not a review of Blankets. This is my first foray into Team Comix, sort of. Let’s say I think kids should be reading more comics. Hell, kids should read more of anything, right? So I’d be really happy that the ALA has cited Craig Thompson’s Blankets as one of the best Young Adult books of 2003. And I am happy. Sort of.

It’s not because I don’t think Blankets is something teenagers should be reading. If anything, at least the not-so-new elements of the story may still hit home with them. Instead, it’s the typos. If I’m going in for comics boosterism, I’m willing to say that while I agreed with Jim Henley and Eve Tushnet that it was a lovely book with inadequate content, it wasn’t awful and I can see why the people who love it do so.

But it really bothered me that there were major misspelled words and grammatical errors, since this isn’t a question of a proofreader somewhere not catching errors introduced to the copy. In an interview at the Suicide Girls site, Thompson responded to a question about whether he’d worked with an editor:

CT: Not at all. At least with my publisher the setup is a lot more causal than the publishing industry. To some extent that’s a perk but there was no editorial input. Even the spelling mistakes I caught myself with the help of a couple of friends.

I can’t quite avoid snarky comments about whether they caught the errors and decided to leave them in, but why is this the best setup for proofreading a 600-page work? Sure, small publishers can’t afford to provide hands-on editors, but can they afford to put out flawed work? In this case, at least, the answer is Yes, since even librarians don’t have a problem with it. But I have a problem. I’m not fully comfortable saying, “This is literature! Give it to your children!” when I’m embarrassed about amateurish errors. And certainly this isn’t true just in Blankets, but is much more widespread.

It doesn’t even really bother me that Craig Thompson, like many people, says “inferred” when he means “implied” in casual conversation, but it bothers me that no one’s there to stop him from doing it in his published comics. He’s making art objects that people want to buy and hang on their walls with errors immortalized. And I’m picking on Craig Thompson because he’s well-known and much-lauded. Plenty of lesser comics are much worse. Plenty aren’t.

I don’t know what I’m advocating. I’m not going to boycott books because of their grammar, nor will I read excellently spelled books I don’t like. Jen Hachigian has done her part with a series of Pocket Editor minicomics. I guess I’ll just continue to appreciate spending money on small press creators who manage to make good comics with good grammar and feel annoyed with and betrayed by the ones who don’t. We deserve better. I do, at least.