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Archive: July 2004

“NOBODY cares about your stupid hat.”

You can’t say I didn’t warn you. Back when I read Seaguy #1, I said the story was boustrophedon, and of course I was right. (Although I’m convinced enough not to bother looking it up that the hieroglyphs are not boustrophedon, because nobody writes boustrophedon script vertically.) While it was awfully prescient of me to recognize that the story would swing around so that its end is the beginning only up a notch, in retrospect I realize a lot of Grant Morrison stories do that. But Seaguy does more than that. When people are discussing what happened and what happens next, the bigger question seems to be whether Seaguy knows this is boustrophedon, whether he has fought his way down one line and back another to find himself right where he began though slightly different. Or is it a Moebius strip or a circle or something like that, where he passes Go and grabs a new pal and ends up back at the start as if nothing has ever changed?

That’s not a question that really interests me, or at least not one I want answered. I don’t have any problem believing this is a cycle Seaguy has repeated before without knowing it, and that at best he’s learning incrementally as he goes, but that requires the Mickey Eye system to be something like the Matrix, giving Seaguy free will and freedom merely to be able to take them away when he (mis)uses them. The idea isn’t just that a person can only give away self-awareness by consensual choice, because we see naked Doc Hero being coercively brainwashed, and Seaguy goes through a similar process less nude process. Other readers think Seaguy is more aware and planning subversive activities. If he isn’t now, I’m sure he will be soon, if we clamoring readers get our promised “Slaves of Mickey Eye” sequel. I like the am-bi-gyoo-ity, and I like it that it’s not clear whether Mickey Eye (whoever the Eye corporation/government may be) approves of it.

And since I’m now a pro at clairvoyant exegesis, I have a new theory. Although it’s perhaps not obvious in Seaguy’s plot, Seaguy is himself following closely in the path of another famously watery hero, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know this. I realized that the servants of Mickey Eye who were reeducating Doc Hero and Seaguy had a strangely consistent way of reminding them about consensual reality. “Nobody wants the Eye to be unhappy.” “Nobody actually thinks you’re crazy… you just got bit by a crazy thing.” “Nobody cares about your stupid hat.” At first I thought these were just versions of “We have always been at war with Eurasia,” but I think it runs deeper. Who is this nobody who opposes all that is accepted and acceptable? Seaguy, the hero and protagonist and subverter of the enforced status quo! Well, maybe he will be, or is sometimes. But that’s what made it clear who he resembles, a more famous nobody, Odysseus.

As we all recall, Odysseus left the Trojan War having angered Poseidon, who kept him from going home until he’d wandered for ten years and lost all his crew, though he retained the love of his canny wife. His most famous exploit, the one we all recall, is his runin with the uncivilized Cyclops, Polyphemus, whom he blinded. Polyphemus wanted to know who his visitor was, and ever-wily Odysseus said his name was “Nobody” (well, sort of, since it’s hard to translate accurately, as well as being an elaborate pun on the name of Athena’s mother) so that when the other Cyclopes came to check up on their screaming relative Polyphemus responded to their inquiries by saying, “Nobody is hurting me!” And so the Cyclopes left, and soon Odysseus left too, with plenty of cheese and wine and goodies, though minus a few companions.

So where does this leave Seaguy? He’s been losing beloved companions, and he’s definitely dealing with a one-eyed menace. He’s a nobody in a larger sense, an unemployed slacker who would like to be a hero but can’t even outhero iron umbrellas. He enjoys stories to the point where he doesn’t seem to differentiate between the Mickey Eye show and Aten-Hut’s hieroglyphic history (and even though I’m super-picky about joke names, because no joke was made about it, that is the best joke name I’ve heard in a long time). And it’s possible he has a faithful woman waiting for him, She-Beard, who loudly laments the fact that “not one man [has she] found,” perhaps because she hasn’t yet had the dramatic unveiling scene in which (he hopes) she’ll recognize Seaguy as her own and take him up to her bedroom, or perhaps because she’s looking for a hero who is also a no-man and she hasn’t yet figured out that this is Seaguy’s gig. Of course, it’s not clear whether she’s a wily Penelope who’s manipulating the more powerful forces around her or whether she’s merely bait Mickey Eye uses to bring heroes out into the open, but there’s time for this to become clear. There’s time for all of this, since time, too, waits for no man.

Ultimate X-Purgation

Rose and I were at Target yesterday looking for the Marvel Age Spider-Man’s Pal, Gus Beezer book for her brother’s birthday, which was unfortunately unavailable. We picked up Classic Origins instead, which reprints the first issues of a bunch of Marvel characters. We also picked up Marvel Age reprints of Ultimate X-Men: The Tomorrow People, Ultimate Spider-Man: Power and Responsibility, and Emma Frost: Higher Learning—if you’re going to get comics of questionable quality, you might as well get them cheap.

I’ve been reading Ultimate X-Men, and it seems to have been expurgated. I’ve looked at these issues in online previews and flipping through the TPB at the bookstore, and I distinctly remember several scenes which are missing from this printing. The opening scene of Sentinels slaughtering people in L.A. and then stepping on a mutatn and his puppy are gone. The scenes of Storm, Colossus, and Beast being recruited to the X-Men are gone. Wolverine being shot down by Weapon X as he leaves the airport in issue #2 is gone. Wolverine hacking his teammates to pieces in the Danger Room is gone. Enough of the text is left intact that you can tell those last two scenes did happen, but their removal leaves obvious and awkward hiccups in the narrative’s pacing. (Bumps which are somewhat mitigated by the pacing hiccups which the insufficiently skillful Mark Millar created himself.) This expurgation doesn’t really make the book more ‘appropriate’ for children: the most graphic violence has been removed, but it’s still a very violent story. I’ve read the first two issues (approximately—there are no markings to distinguish one issue from the next, so I’m guessing where the issues end and begin), and I’ve certainly read nothing that makes me think this story about a team of snotty, sexually charged adolescents violently rescuing the world’s deadliest assassin from a black ops military operation belongs in the same ‘all ages’ line as the Gus Beezer comics. It’s not that I think kids shouldn’t be allowed to read stuff like Ultimate X-Men. I read Stephen King novels when I was eleven years old, but I don’t think they ought to be sold in the children’s section of the bookstore.

Besides, doesn’t Mark Millar hate it when comics publishers censor his work?

The Squirrel Army

The Squirrel Army: Steven Berg is Private Nuttykins, Rose Curtin is Brigadier Crazypaws... but stick them together to form Peiratikos and they become the noble team known to the world as Lord or Lady Wobblebottom!

28 July 2004 by Steven | Permalink | One comment »

“X-Men, Emerson, Gnosticism”

“X-Men, Emerson, Gnosticism”: Geoff Klock writes about gnostic and posthuman themes in Ultimate X-Men and New X-Men. I haven't read it carefully yet, so I have may more to say about it when I have.

26 July 2004 by Steven | Permalink | Comments disabled

“We can’t damn the torrent of death and injustice”

I wanted to write about Identity Crisis, but it’s as if I’m being stalked by the post I meant to write. I ended up thinking about it while writing about Eightball, and then while Steven was writing I ended up reading Daredevil: Guardian Devil, Kevin Smith’s epic and awful attempt to Make Daredevil’s Life Hell. (No, I don’t know why I’ve been driven to capitalize important words lately in a way I know everyone finds frustrating, and I don’t know why I write asides like this either, to head off complaints on that front.)

Guardian Devil is horrible in many ways, from the constant in-jokes (ooh, Silent Bob says nothing about Catcher in the Rye! Dogma is showing at the theaters Daredevil passes!) to the hideous Cabbage Patch Kid at the core of the story to the spectacularly dreadful dialogue. And then there’s the story! See, it’s really about consent and forgiveness and the pure vision inspired by pure, true love, but that’s trapped under layers of craziness and blood. I’m not even sure how to summarize, so I’ll just hit the highlights. Matt Murdock is Daredevil, of course, and his girlfriend at the beginning of the story is Karen Page. The story starts with Matt in the confessional, perhaps about to mention he’s been sleeping with Karen or something like that, but really just because Kevin Smith is obsessed with bad ring structure and an early confessional joke leaves room for later ones. There’s a throwaway line about how lapsed Catholics just return to the church for Christmas and confession, but unless “confession” was a typo for “Easter,” most of the many lapsed Catholics I know must be so extreme they’re not even living up to their lapsed-Catholic duty to seek out Mother Church after nasty breakups. I know Kevin Smith’s is not my mother’s Catholicism, but he seems to get things wrong so much more often than he gets them right that I don’t understand his insistence in harping on Catholicism.

And speaking of harping on things, let’s get back to Karen Page. See, she’s a radio dj now, but back in the good old days she was involved in less wholesome entertainment as a means of financing her drug habit. While Daredevil let her back into his life (and that was very sweet of him, I’m sure) she is sure he hasn’t been able to forget her past and that he can’t look at her as anything but sullied, and so she decides the time has come to become Matt’s ex-girlfriend. And I need to pick up the pace if I hope to ever escape even the first issue, not to mention the whole story. Matt/DD runs out of the confessional to save a teenaged girl and her little baby from being run down by a car going 90 in Hell’s Kitchen. And while he manages to save them, both baby and girl disappear in the ensuing craziness. Oh, and I forgot to mention the silly, portentous narration to inform us that a maternity ward(s?) has blown up, which returns to be a major plot point when the villain admits that this was a total coincidence and nothing more.

Anyway, Matt goes to his law office, where his partner Foggy is smitten with a client in a divorce case, a woman who plans to get a lot of money from the husband who had her sterilized without her knowledge or consent. Foggy is in a serious relationship with Liz Osborn, but that’s not getting in the way of anything here. Daredevil hears and then loses the heartbeats of the missing girl and baby, but is saved from another super-keen chase scene by the girl’s appearance at the law firm, because an angel has told her that Matt Murdock is Daredevil and that he’ll take her baby, which he does, before she disappears again. And people who are not absolute morons who think it’s normal for mothers of two-month-olds to refer to their babies as “it” will be really shocked in another issue or so when it turns out this baby, potentially the Antichrist, is a girl. Icky! Well, probably the ickier point is that the baby might be the Antichrist, polluting all it touches, according to an old man who mysteriously confronts Matt with secrets about his own past and secret identity. So poor Matt, unwilling to do so much as change a diaper, is able to pass the baby off to his other ex-girlfriend, the Black Widow, whose ridiculous maternal instinct makes her keep Matt from dropping the baby from several stories to the ground to rid the world of this absolute evil.

Wow, this is getting long. Once the Black Widow is gone, Karen shows back up to tell Matt that her HIV test has come back positive and then she collapses in tears before he can talk about how much it sucks to be the foster dad to the Antichrist, maybe. Meanwhile Foggy has been discussing his case with his client, Lydia, and things get a little hot ‘n’ heavy, and the next thing you know, Lydia’s been thrown through a window and Foggy’s getting jailed on murder charges. Foggy’s mother, who runs the law firm, fires him but Matt nobly leaves Karen in her misery to get to work and even more nobly resigns his own position at the firm, which does nothing to shore up support for Foggy’s case. Meanwhile Karen gets a visit from the same weird old man, as yet unnamed, who tells her that she’s been polluted with AIDS because the wicked baby’s miasma destroys everything it touches, and although this is the first she’s heard of the baby, she finds the story plausible enough that she agrees to help get the baby handed over to the old man’s organization, Sheol. Clear so far?

Anyway, Matt tries to get the baby back from the Black Widow to kill her (the baby, who perhaps generally goes by “it” because it resembles the Joker’s hideous dollbombs in The Dark Knight Returns more than it does any real child) and in the process does some serious damage to the Black Widow. Matt, as Daredevil, tries to stop a crime only to realize it’s a setup, and gets knocked out and captured. He’s able to eventually fight his way away from his captor, Baal, and escapes, bruised and ill. He decides to pay a visit to his mother, a nun who runs a mission downtown somewhere. Sister Maggie takes in Daredevil and the baby, and he sleeps for two days while Foggy is suffering (and because I forgot to write about Matt’s meeting with Foggy, I’ll just note for the record that the obligatory prison rape “joke” is made then) and Karen is presumably hysterical and maybe the Black Widow has regained consciousness. Then Sister Maggie and Matt share some touching moments talking about whether God exists and Sister Maggie slaps Matt across the face for suggesting that God might not be what she expects. Then Karen has tracked Matt to the shelter and asks to be given the baby so she can give her away to Sheol and clean up their lives. Matt, being perceptive for a change, remembers that he’s never told Karen about the baby and that she’s part of an Evil Trap.

Matt escapes and visits Dr. Strange, who deduces Matt has been given a colorless, odorless, tasteless drug and is hallucinating. Oops, that’s going to mean an awkward apology to the ex he just beat up!! Then they both talk to the demon Mephisto, even though Matt has promised he won’t talk to Mephisto, and Mephisto is apparently more up on his holy scripture than either of the humans, because he reminds them that the Antichrist should be a fully-grown adult man, not a baby girl. Matt Murdock’s convinced, but this reminds me that I forgot to say the baby’s mother, Gwyneth, claimed to be a virgin and that her heartbeat told Matt that She Was Not Lying. Also she escaped and was running in the first place because someone was in the process of slicing up her newly dead parents, but this part isn’t particularly relevant, but just gruesome for its own sake.

Ruminating on a cryptic quip from Mephisto, Matt decides to swing back to the shelter, only to find his mother and the other nuns and the poor innocents who came to the mission downed in blood. Bullseye is there, looking for the baby. Karen offers to give her to him, but it turns out she’s just given him a statue of The Baby Jesus. Meanwhile Sister Maggie, bleeding profusely, tries to sneak the baby out of the mission. Bullseye, not amused by this, manages to skewer Karen with one of her own true love’s sticks, and she dies in Matt’s arms in an egregious Pieta scene in front of the altar.

Then Matt’s off after the bad guys, knowing someone must have hired Bullseye. But who could it be? Artfully placed newspapers let us know that the aged representative of Sheol is John (later Jonathan) Curtain, which is not how you spell the name, people, but then his pseudonym “Macabes” is not exactly “Maccabee,” if that’s what it’s supposed to suggest. But who is this guy and what does he want with Daredevil? All becomes clear when Matt fights his way through a bunch of outclassed ninjas and then meets Baal again, who claims to be Matt’s guardian angel. Matt is able to figure out he’s not a real angel/demon but just some guy in a suit (and his real name’s Gabriel, ha ha!) and so is able to disable him and head on to see the main bad guy. It turns out this is Mysterio, Master of Special Effects. He’s dying because of illness caused by the plastics he’s used in his special effects and costumes for all these years, and he thought it would be fun to utterly destroy a superhero. The obvious choice would have been Spider-Man, but apparently he worried that clone fears would make this less satisfying. Luckily everyone knows Daredevil’s identity can be easily bought from the Kingpin, as well as information about his Catholic guilt and women trouble, and so it was easy to unmake the Man without Fear. All it took was a guy in a weird marble-headed suit dressing up in the latex skin (at least I think that’s what happened) to be old John Curtain and put the fear of God into Matt and Karen. Oh, and then slipping Matt a hallucinogenic talisman and hiring Bullseye in the first place. And most of his bodyguards were apparently doped up too.

And Doctor Strange’s skills of perception must not have been as faulty as he feared, because his prediction that frat boys and athletic teams would just love this mystery hallucinogen proves to have been borne out when it is used as a date-rape drug… against Foggy! Yup, Lydia was a plant all along, given false memories or something to trick Foggy into believing her story of forced sterilization enough to take the case and be seduced and then be framed for her murder, which is either some sort of suicide or she’s destroyed by some weird demon-thing and is not herself the demon-thing. Unclear, but all part of Mysterio’s plan! And then there was that baby, a symbol of the purity Daredevil idealizes and hopes to protect, but Mysterio was able to make Daredevil believe it was an evil baby almost to the point where he would have destroyed it. And it turns out the poor kid was the result of a virgin birth, since Mysterio’s henchmen had kidnapped the mother and artificially inseminated her, then using the magical drug to make her believe she’d seen angels sending her to Daredevil. All becomes clear! And Mysterio dressed up as a doctor to give Karen a false positive reading on her HIV test, just to make Matt hate her more for being an evil whore who’d put Matt’s very life at risk by having sex with him. The fact that he was completely covered in her blood during her last moment doesn’t seem to have caused him any worry, but luckily it didn’t matter since she probably was HIV-negative anyway.

Laughing at the way he has ruined all aspects of Matt’s life, and most of all his faith and hope, Mysterio commits suicide, although it’s not clear whether this is totally intentional. And that’s that, except not. Matt still has to search the building to find the baby, who still has a role to play in the touching epilogue in which Matt is reunited with a healing Sister Maggie outside a non-exploded maternity ward and decides to name the soon-to-be-adopted non-Antichrist baby … (wait for it) Karen!. And then he does manage to apologize to Black Widow, who is more sympathetic now that Matt has just lost his girlfriend. And Foggy gets to apologize to his girlfriend, who doesn’t care that he was drugged and unable to consent to anything or understand reality, because he chose to spend the night with another woman and therefore They Are Through. And Spider-Man commiserates with Matt about how difficult it is to lose someone you love to a bad guy you hate, which is a lesson Matt has already learned about 6 million times with his previous ex-girlfriends, and then Matt heads off to confession again only to (ha ha!) skip out once more to defeat evildoers as Daredevil!

And if you thought that synopsis makes Guardian Devil sound like an excellent story, be warned that the writing has such sophisticated errors as the one in this post’s title, part of a sentence in which “everyday” is used as a noun. And the art is just bizarre, with grotesque characters who are recognizable from one scene to the next mostly because of their distinctive garb. And if you’re not sure why you suffered through that whole explanation, you may be wondering what all of this has to do with Identity Crisis. In my mind at least, a lot.

Identity Crisis #1 features the mysterious murder of Sue Dibny, non-superpowered wife of the Elongated Man, with the shocking twist being that she’s pregnant, though there are no hints that the baby would have been the Antichrist. Then in issue #2 it turns out that a long time ago she was hanging out at the JLA space station while the heroes were off taking care of some disaster and Dr. Light managed to find his way onto the space station, where he sexually assaulted her. The response of the heroes was to cart her off to a hospital and psychically lobotomize him so he couldn’t follow through on his threats to do the same to other women who consort with the JLA. Since the members of the JLA who weren’t involved in meddling with Dr. Light are unaware of what went on, we can assume that the Justice League of America didn’t urge Sue Dibny to testify against him, despite having plenty of physical evidence as well as witnesses to the assault. Or maybe we’ll learn that Sue chose not to testify, chose never to be open about this part of her life,which is why we readers are just now learning about it.

Identity Crisis is not painful at every turn the way Guardian Devil is, but I’m worried it could become every bit as muddled and bad in the way it deals with gender imbalances and interactions. So far what we see is that it’s easy for superheroes to forget that regular people can control their own lives, make their own decisions. And admittedly it would probably be hard for heroes to keep on the right side of the line between being heroic and meddling and micromanaging. Still, there’s more than this. It’s not just that non-superpowered women can’t defend themselves against supervillains, but that all the male characters are worried about protecting all the female characters. Sure, Black Canary is dismissive of their concerns, pointing out that she hasn’t even been killed, but I hope the JLA don’t equate being protectors of the weak and powerless with protecting and overprotecting women.

There’s plenty of time to further flesh out Sue’s role in all this, show how she dealt with the pain of her assault and its aftermath and her recovery, how the decisions she made to remain with her husband (whose lack of a secret identity prompts the crisis in the title) affected her later life, her years spent in an over-secured apartment that still proved permeable. And if this doesn’t happen, if this is just a story about how much it annoys men when you break their toys or women, I’m going to be unhapy. And I’m making this more essentialist than I ought to, since Black Canary and Zatanna were both part of the group that chose to punish Dr. Light for assaulting Sue, for assaulting the sanctity of their base and their perceived safety, but we’ll see how this plays out.

I have more to say, but for now it’s time for an end-of-episode moral on behalf of Sue Dibny and myself:
If you learn a friend has been sexually assaulted or abused, don’t be like the JLA; saying “I’m going to track down that bastard and make him (or potentially her) pay” takes the power to make that decision away from your already friend, who is already dealing with the pain of forcible loss of power and choice. Be supportive, be sympathetic, be hurt and sad and angry, but be respectful and fair, and your friend will probably appreciate it.

Brief reviews of comics

Ex Machina #1

Writer Brian K. Vaughan
Penciller Tony Harris
Inker Tom Feister
Colorist JD Mettler
Letterer Jared K Fletcher

“If only there were a real superhero to save us…” “It’s like an action movie, but there’s no Bruce Willis to save us…” I read a lot of comments like that on Internet message boards, even heard people say things like that on CNN, in the days following 11 September 2001. It was only a matter of time before somebody decided to write a superhero comic that asks, “What if there had been a superhero around on 9/11?” (That idiotically pious and ill-conceived issue of Amazing Spider-Man published a couple months after 9/11 doesn’t count.) There are several ways you might address the question. There’s straightforward wish-fulfillment: a hero appears, stops the plane, saves everybody, and brings peace to the world. Or more vengeance-inspired wish fulfillment, like Chuck Dixon’s aborted American Power series. There’s political allegory, like the “President Luthor invades Qurac” story from DC. There’s good old critique of power, a cautionary tale about the danger of relying on heroes. (I don’t think anybody’s written such a story about 9/11 yet, but there’s certainly no shortage of superhero comics that address the theme.)

Vaughan, luckily, looks like he’s going for nuance in addressing the question. Mitchell Hundred’s limited effect on the 9/11 attacks and his legal inability to join the military in Afghanistan (and later, presumably, in Iraq) suggest that this story isn’t about wish fulfillment. The opening scene which takes place sometime after 2005 hints that Vaughan is setting up a story that deals with the dangerous mixture of hero worship and politics in post-9/11 America, but not in a trite “superheroes = power-mad fascists” way:

People blame me for Bush in his flight suit and Arnold getting elected governor, but truth is… those things would have happened with or without me. Everyone was scared back then, and when folks are scared, they want to be surrounded by heroes. But real heroes are just a fiction we create. They don’t exist outside of comic books.

So far, Mitchell’s status as a decidedly amateur superhero has been as harmful as it has been helpful in the political arena. His superheroic reputation was enough to get him elected mayor, but he’s not so powerful that it’s like Superman being mayor of New York (or Lex Luthor being president of the USA, for that matter). It looks like Vaughan is aiming to address hero worship as a political issue without drifting into a critique of the excessively powerful. It remains to be seen whether Ex Machina will finally agree with Mitchell’s pessimistic stance on heroism.

DC Comics Presents #1: Mystery in Space

First, as for the cover painted by Alex Ross: Too bad for Ross they included the original by Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson on the inside front cover. Ross’s cover, bland and stiff as typical for his work, appears especially lame in juxtaposition with Infantino and Anderson’s brighter and livelier piece. Ross’s attempt at a tribute loses the boldly clashing colors and sharp black lines of the original in favor of a tastefully restrained color palette and Ross’s typically fuzzy and indistinct figures. Boring.

“Crisis on 2 Worlds”

Writer Elliot S! Maggin
Artist J.H. Williams III
Color Jose Villarrubia
Letters Todd Klein

Government officials in the small African nation Swazeria confiscate Adam Strange’s amazing Rannian technological artifacts and trade them to a terrorist group in exchange for weapons-grade plutonium. They build a nuclear missile and launch it at a neighboring hostile country, but Adam enlists Sue Dibney’s help to hack into the missile’s routing computer (which is apparently Internet-based) and reroute the missile into the path of a Zeta beam that teleports it to Rann, where its fission explosion fizzles harmlessly due to the “geological signature” of Rann. The idea seems to be to tell the kind of story you might find in a class Golden Age or Silver Age comic: slightly disjointed, bordering on nonsensical, but packed with action and fun ideas. It’s also unabashedly antinuclear, although in a rather apolitical way that avoids stepping on controversial toes.

This is a fun little story, but I think the pace is off—it needs to be about three pages shorter, and the weird unresolved subplot about the kid and his “rare East African harness zebra” ought to have been dropped. The story would probably also have benefitted from slicker art and brighter colors. The art looks like it’s trying to be sober and realistic, which is the opposite of the tone this story needs.

“Two Worlds”

Writer Grant Morrison
Penciller Jerry Ordway
Inker Mark McKenna
Colorist Snocone
Letterer Bob Leigh

The art for this story isn’t exactly brilliant stuff, but it’s what I meant when I said “Crisis on 2 Worlds” needs slicker and brighter art. Ordway doesn’t just swipe the style of the Infantino/Anderson Mystery in Space cover, but he alludes to it convincingly in his own style.

Morrison’s story is even more blatantly political than Maggin’s. A team of stupidly arrogant soldiers captures Adam Strange. Their commander forces him to tell them how to travel to Rann and then leads an invasion party—which is attacked and destroyed by the Rannian monsters Adam tried to warn them about. The obvious real-world reference is Vietnam (although I suppose you could read the story as political commentary on the Iraq war if you wanted), which Morrison mentions in his narration. Adam Strange’s story is accompanied with narrative captions that tell the story of Julius Schwartz’s desire to encourage kids to become scientists and astronauts through his optimistic sf comics:

Adam Strange—lost on a science fiction vision quest to heal the psychoanalyzed traumatized soul of his people—preparing his children not for a glorious space race with Russia but for the alien killing fields of Southeast Asia

I don’t know if the narrative about Schwartz is factual or imagined, but combined with the Adam Strange story, it gets across the optimistic drive toward a world based on rationality and science in the early Cold War pre-Vietnam days, which I suppose was an important theme in Schwartz’s DC work in the 1960s (I’m trusting Morrison on that, since I’ve not read enough of the relevant comics to know if it was really a common theme).

“Two Worlds” ends making the same melancholy point as “Crisis on 2 Worlds”: Rann is an ideal world of peace on which even the planet’s geological and ecological properties work to prevent war—but how will we Earthlings manage to save ourselves from ourselves? Morrison’s answer is not satisfying—but then, what answer would be? In the end, he captures the goofiness and beauty of the comics of Julius Schwartz’s era without indulging in nostalgia for that time. It’s a lovely tribute.

Identity Crisis #1 & 2

Writer Brad Meltzer
Penciller Rags Morales
Inker Michael Baia
Colorist Alex Sinclair
Letterer Kenny Lopez

What I want to know is, why isn’t anybody worried about Zatanna’s boyfriend? Everybody’s worried about the superheroes’ girfriends and wives, but nobody’s expressed anxiety that Dr. Light and Co. might go after the superheroines’ boyfriends and husbands. Do any of the women superheroes even have non-superpowered boy toys? For that matter, why haven’t any of the gay superheroes expressed concern for the safety of their same-sex life partners? I can’t think of any gay superheroes in the DC Universe. Are there any? Isn’t it awfully convenient that all the men have normie wives or girlfriends to put on a pedestal and protect, over whose mutilated and raped bodies they can shed manly tears when the supervillians get hold of them… but none of the women have husbands or boyfriends who might have to suffer embarrassing emasculation if they had to be protected by a girl? Is it a coincidence? Or are (overwhelmingly male) comics creators simply incapable of imagining a man willing to date a woman strong enough to punch a hole through his chest?

Or maybe many of the women superheroes of the DC Universe do have boyfriends and husbands, but Brad Meltzer was too busy pandering insultingly to the patronizing fears of the men in his audience that he forgot to mention them in a story in which the fact that superheroes have families and friends is gravely important.

Not Really More Eightball #23

So, this weekend I read Eightball #23, and I’m still not sure what to say about it. I can’t say I’ve ever liked anything I’ve read by Dan Clowes, and yet I keep reading his books. So here I am, with yet another story I’d describe as vapid just because it’s nothing but surface and not a surface I find interesting. Here’s another story in which there’s no internal life for the protagonist and no external world, either, since he interacts only with his delusions. I’d call the work soulless, except that that implies I think there are souls in other things. For me, Clowes’s work here and elsewhere is always flat, dull, uninspiring, and I haven’t been able to figure out what it is that causes such a spark in other readers.

I don’t want to play the gender card because this I don’t think this is about my gender, but because of my own experiences and general orientation toward the world, I’m just not really interested in seeing any stories about how great men think they are when they sadistically protect women from the Big Bad Male World. This goes for Identity Crisis, too, and more so. I’m sick of reading about poor, oppressed boring white men and their whiny hangups about how much women suck. I just really don’t care. At all. I suppose I’d be happy enough reading things like this if I didn’t ever have to come across it in real/internet life, if it were some exotic phenomenon and therefore had some peculiar depth and insight, but that’s not the way things seem to go. And depth and insight are what I’m looking for here, some evidence that maybe the people who do these sorts of things have at least the possibility of looking at themselves and realizing how stupid and cruel and self-defeating their actions are, but I probably shouldn’t go to literature looking for false hope.

I’m not saying I can’t come up with a critique of Eightball, only that I get so annoyed or bored by other concerns that I don’t want to bother. So this isn’t backlash or review, just bemusement and a reminder that I don’t have whatever thing it is that allows people to love Dan Clowes, and I think I’m ok with that anyway and will be if it changes too. Then again, this moving is getting to me and I’m clearly not myself. I spent part of the weekend actually wanting to dust and vacuum. Weird.

The Eightball backlash arrives!

Marc Singer has this to say about the common overuse of the term “backlash” in the comics blogosphere:

“Criticism” does not equal “backlash,” or “snobbery” for that matter (as you should damn well know, Abhay). […] Do we really need to hear those disclaimers now? Or is the problem that this time the object of scorn is a fan darling, not one of those eminently safe targets like Liefeld?

Marc is replying to a commenter who pinned the word “backlash” on Marc’s critique of Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s work on Daredevil, but the above quote applies equally well to Sean Collins’s use of the word in his round up of recent discussion on, among other topics, Eightball #23. Now, I’m sure Sean means well, but he has a habit of crying “backlash” every time somebody expresses a less than entirely positive opinion concerning something Sean likes a lot (e.g., Blankets). The problem is, “backlash” usually carries a connotation (whether it’s intended or not) that the backlashers are antagonizing or attempting to punish the targets of backlash for pushing too far in a direction the backlashers don’t care for. Merely offering negative critique of some popular and well-liked work isn’t really backlash, but attacking those who like some popular and well-liked work—whether directly, or indirectly through a critique of the work—certainly is. It’s true that Steve Pheley begins his review of Eightball by writing, “Really, I don’t understand what the fuss is about,” but questioning the outright absurd mania with which, e.g., Alan David Doane reviews Eightball should hardly be lumped in with “‘Dan Clowes has no clothes’ backlash,” particularly considering Steve goes on to suggest he rather enjoyed the book. (And after all, Alan’s review contains entire sentences typed in all-caps and bizarre ranting about Dan Clowes’s “arctic shit-knife.” He’s sort of asking for people to giggle at him, really.)

What I’m getting at here is, if I never see another comics blogger use the word “backlash” again in my life, I will be so happy.

(By the way, I was actually expecting Sean to pull out his trusty “backlash” stamp for my own review of Eightball. I didn’t ask what all the fuss is about in my review, but it’s what I was thinking as I wrote. I mean, as I implied at the end of my review, I’ve read or am aware of so many stories [usually but not always written by white American males] about “I’m a horrible monster because of my repressed homoerotic urges that I can’t get over” [although the homoeroticism is usually annoyingly coy and subtextual, as in “The Death-Ray”], and come on Dan Clowes, we had to read this same story a million times in high-school English [not that our teachers were ever willing to admit they were forcing us to read practically nothing but stories about subtextual homosexuality], it’s time to write something new. I mean, I’m sure Clowes really felt like he had to write this story, but why do there have to be so many American male writers who have to write this same story? If there’s a “‘Dan Clowes has no clothes’ backlash,” I’m probably part of it. Although I think he probably does have clothes, it’s just that maybe he should try on some different clothes, to strain the metaphor.)

(By the way again, see Ken Lowery for hilarious “backlash” [1, 2].)

Eightball #23

Eightball #23, by Dan Clowes. Fantagraphics Books, Inc., 2004.

If Eightball #23 were pitched as a Hollywood movie, the high concept might be “A Separate Peace starring Rorschach from Watchmen.”1 As High-school students forced to endure A Separate Peace already know, the novel is at heart a tragic tale of repressed homosexual love. In short: Gene and Finny desparately want to make sweet love with each other, but cannot act on their desire thanks to years of repressive social conditioning. (They’re a couple of WWII-era rich boys trying to dodge the draft by getting diplomas from their exclusive boarding schools.) Finny sublimates his unspeakable desires into being a fine athlete and a ‘nonconformist,’ while Gene sublimates eir schoolboy crush into typical childish envy of Finny’s athletic talents. Eventually, Gene sublimates so much that his love turns to hate and he pushes poor Finny right out of a tree. Finny dies.

The most important thing about A Separate Peace, though, is that all that steamy homoeroticism is entirely subtextual. The novel pretends to be about envy, insecurity, denial, the cultural malaise in elite boys’ boarding schools in WWII-era New England, nice themes that teachers can assign in high-school English classes without offending students or parents. If you asked author John Knowles about the homoerotic subtext, he might even claim not to know what you’re talking about. But the malaise, the undercurrents of moral corruption, envy and denial that bubble to the surface of the text when Gene pushes Finny out of a tree, rise from a repressed subtextual volcano of hot gay sex. That’s appropriate, I suppose—the boys of Devon boarding school are so repressed that even the story about them becomes repressed.

In his review of Eightball #23, Sean Collins writes:

And finally, of course, there’s the unspoken sexual dimension of Andy and Louie’s relationship itself. Paired killers are not at all uncommon, from the Hillside Stranglers to Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, and often the killings serve to consummate the sexual tension that the killers themselves aren’t (or, sometimes, are) willing to consummate themselves. It’s no coincidence that, just before Andy and Louie’s traumatic “break-up,” Louie seems to have found an actual girlfriend and Andy has finally acted on his love for Dinah. The two don’t need each other anymore.2

Like Gene and Finny, Andy and Louie’s motto is “Sublimate!” They borrow some superhero-comics metaphor and mix in the classic ’sex = death’ equation familiar from entirely too much repressed American fiction. Andy, thanks to his dead scientist father, gains superstrength when he smokes and comes into possession of a death-ray which zaps its targets right out of existence. After discovering Andy’s powers, they embark on a spree of violence, punishing men who have committed ‘crimes,’ often sexual, against women. The one exception is their punishment of Stoob for snubbing Louie, but given the homoerotic context, it seems likely that Louie’s antagonism of Stoob is inspired by a schoolboy crush. Little boys, of course, express romantic love by chasing little girls around the playground and pulling their pigtails. Louie is a little old for schoolboy crushes, but since his repression prevents him from simply fucking the boys he loves, he falls back on an especially violent version of pulling pigtails. His behavior becomes regressive and aggressive.

That’s where punk and superheroes come in. Louie is attracted to the pointless violence of punk rock (his immediate response to the first punk song he hears on the radio is that “It makes me want to kill somebody” [p. 6]), and he adopts the most simplistic and reductive, Wertham-inspired definition of superheroes: powerful thugs who pummel justice into weak criminals, most of whom wouldn’t have been criminals anyway if not for the existence of the superhero. Andy and Louie’s attempts to bring justice to the world raise an old moral quandary of superhero comics: may self-appointed heroes be held responsible for creating and enabling a cycle of violence and destruction that wouldn’t have existed if not for their selfish insistence on adhering to simplistic and aggressive notions of justice?3 “The Death-Ray” approaches the question with a literalism at once amusing and too simplistic—too simplistic mostly because there have been so many other supehero comics that have already addressed this question with relative subtlety and sophistication that Clowes’s interpretation looks like the Cliffs Notes version in comparison. Andy and Louie literally create criminals: for example, they leave a cash-stuffed wallet on the street and then attack the first sucker who picks it up and tries to take the money (p. 19).

Sublimation, of course, ends in tragedy. After Andy acquires his death-ray, Louie pushes him to move from superpowered beatings to killing. Louie’s sister left her boyfriend Sonny for another, allegedly evil and abusive, guy, and Louie convinces Andy to help Sonny out by zapping the other guy. Sublimated sexual release through murder turns out to be a little too intense for Louie, though, and he effectively ends his quasi-sexual relationship with Andy by getting a girlfriend. (Andy seems to have the same idea, and at about the same time in the story he decides to express his love for his housekeeper Dinah.) The end of the relationship leads inevitably to Andy’s murder of Louie with his death-ray. After that, Andy, who’s basically a passive slug who goes along with whatever Louie suggests, and now left with no direction other than the one Louie set out for him, lives the next 25 years of his life following that direction. He lives his boring, passive life and occasionally gets out his cigarettes and death-ray to distribute justice among the pettiest of petty criminals.

It’s appropriate that Andy’s costume is clearly inspired by Spider-Man’s, since Spider-Man is probably the quintessential loser-hero popularized by Marvel in the early 1960s. Andy’s problem, unlike Spider-Man, is that he’s just as much a loser when he’s playing superhero as he is in his normal life. He’s such an unimaginative loser that he can’t think of anything more interesting or worthwhile to do with his powers than beat up an insensitive bartender (p. 36) and zap a possibly abusive boyfriend (p. 38) (not his own boyfriend, his neighbor’s). The panels in which the adult Andy goes into superhero mode are drawn in full-color, contrasted with the monocrhome panels of Andy’s everyday life. The contrast creates an artificially higher level of visual interest that isn’t reflected in the narrative—as I said, Andy is equally a loser as a superhero and a regular guy, basically indistinguishable. In the first scene of the story, the panels go full-color when Andy confronts a litterer and doesn’t zap him (p. 1). As it becomes clear that color panels of adult Andy mean he’s in superhero mode, this early instance may engender a minor hope that Andy is capable of standing up for justice without resorting to absurd violence, but that hope is dashed when Andy later meets the same guy sitting on a park bench and zaps him (pp. 39-40).

In his writing on Watchmen, David Fiore discusses Spider-Man and Rorschach:

Take Peter Parker, for instance. When we first meet him he’s an ostracized nerd—a nonentity. In more realistic fiction, this type of character only has two options open to him: either he continues to endure social oppression, or he becomes a “somebody” by “standing up for himself”, thus altering the power dynamic in his community. In the actual event–he does neither, thanks to the spider bite. Throughout Ditko’s run, at least, Parker remains the same bookish nerd he’s always been. And yet, his newfound indifference to the power structure that so determined his life before his “conversion experience” enables him to develop actual relationships with other characters… His “adventures in morality”, as Spider-Man, ground him.

But what if that adventure consumed his entire life? Wouldn’t that “grounding” then become something akin to a burial? […] if he got trapped in that condition, he wouldn’t be a “free spirit”, he’d be more like a wrathful ghost. He’d be like Rorschach, in fact.

When Walter Kovacs gives up his dual identity, he upsets a delicate balance. No longer grounded, he goes underground—and his capacity to relate to the world rots away. Rorschach’s strange destiny is to become the undead embodiment of his own moral law.4

David calls this “failing the Rorschach test,” and Andy surely gets an F- on that test.5 As an adult, he doesn’t even bother distinguishing between his normal and superheroic lives by donning a costume.

Andy’s narration is written in speech balloons (he appears to speak directly toward the reader) instead of the more traditional captions. The effect is similar to documentaries or reality-tv shows in which footage of an event is edited together with interviews with people who participated in the event—the effect is enhanced by two “What do you think of Andy?” interview sections with other characters from the story (pp. 4, 41) in which they also speak directly to the reader. It’s a neat twist of the comics form that gives the story a confessional tone. Andy doesn’t appear in special interivew panels to narrate, though—he usually narrates at the same time he’s participating in the narrative, so that his adult narration of flashbacks to his high-school days comes from the mouth of his teenage self. That’s appropriate, since Andy is such a static character and the only change he manifests as he grows older is increased assurance in his stunted emotional and social life.

I think it’s really too bad Clowes allowed the homoeroticism to remain a subtext, really. We’re not living in the 1950s anymore, and nobody’s going to assign Eightball as a high-school reading assignment, so why be coy with the subtext? American literature (including American comics literature) has plenty of stories about fucked-up repressed guys already. Male comics writers of America, get over your crisis of masculinity! We already get that masculine culture and superhero comics are seething with sublimated homosexual urges, so what I’d like is some more comics (superhero or not) about totally unrepressed gay guys who have hot sex and aren’t loser serial killers.

1 Lev Grossman, in Time Online Edition article “If You Only Read 10 Trashy Novels This Summer”, offers the equally appropriate and much funnier “IT’S LIKE Holden Caulfield with his phaser set on kill. Phonies beware.”

2 See Sean Collins’s “Eightball #23″, Comic Book Galaxy.

3 This question is actually probably raised by superhero comics themselves much more often than by moral critics of superhero comics. Clowes’s story follows a long tradition of superhero comics which offer self-critique: Frank Miller’s Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Brian Michael Bendis’s Daredevil, Gran Morrison’s New X-Men, etc. etc. and so forth.

4 See David Fiore’s “Rorschach Test”, Motime Like the Present.

5 Again, “The Death-Ray” follows a long tradition of such ‘heroes’ who choose to reject their human identities in favor of living entirely within their superheroic identities, including Rorschach himself, various interpretations of Batman (e.g., in The Dark Knight Returns), various interpretations of Wolverine (I’m most familiar with Morrison’s take), various interpretations of Spider-Man (e.g., during the early-mid 1990s prior to the Spider-clone storyline), Daredevil (e.g., during Bendis’s current run on the title), Superman (in Kingdom Come), Captain Marvel (in Peter David’s run, in a rather offbeat way). Just about every DC or Marvel character seems to have been run through this particular story at least once.

Spider-Man talks too much

Rose and I were watching the Criterion Collection Chasing Amy DVD this weekend (why is Chasing Amy in the Criterion Collection, anyway?), and the deleted scenes gave me a newfound appreciation for the movie. If you think the final cut of the movie is preachy (and I certainly do), just wait till you see the deleted scenes. There’s an extended skee ball scene in which Alyssa takes about five minutes to explain why straight boys shouldn’t call each other fags and cocksuckers. There’s an extended darts sequence in which Alyssa tells a several-minute story about the true meaning of love. (In short, a guy’s girlfriend is raped and killed in a dark train station while waiting for him to arrive for a visit, and he donates money to the station to install more lights and then spends the rest of his life riding the train every day, apparently out of some misguided sense that such activity will assuage his obsessive guilt and grief. Remember that this story is about the true meaning of love.) There’s a scene in which Kevin Smith performs a cinematic equivalent of burning his detractors in effigy, a moment of meta-preachiness. The movie already has dozens of sermons (from Why I Became A Lesbian by Alyssa to Chasing Amy by Silent Bob). Kevin Smith has trouble integrating his moral ideas into a narrative. The result is a moral fable that seems more simplistic than it needs to be. It’s annoying, because the characters become generic speech-givers who continuously tell me about abstract moral concepts I’ve already figured out.

I want less Alyssa lecturing on her decision to become a lesbian because she didn’t want to force herself into a heterosexual role she wasn’t sure she’d fit, and more scenes like the opening one in which a couple of cruel fanboys mock Banky for being an inker, a task they mistakenly believe involves mere tracing of the pencilled comics pages. The former scene is boring because it’s clear from that opening scene that the movie’s going to be about open- and closed-mindedness and the problems with pigeonholing people into roles they don’t really fit. Note how the opening convention scene gets the point across with relative subtlety and freedom to interpret, while Alyssa’s lecture lazily falls back on telling you exactly how you’re supposed to interpret the text.

Of course, this is a highly subjective issue, and plenty of people obviously have no problem with Chasing Amy. I personally have no problem with stories that explicitly address thematic material in narration, but I generally loathe (as you may have noticed by now) the results of authors allowing unprocessed thematic material to get into the dialogue. I despise characters who act like they know what the story’s about. I prefer ambiguity to certitude.

This post wasn’t supposed to be about Chasing Amy, though. I was going to write about Spider-Man 2, and I only mentioned Chasing Amy because those preachy deleted scenes helped me clarify a problem I had with Spider-Man. Now, Spider-Man 2, as all the other comics bloggers have already pointed out (and as anybody familiar with Spider-Man comics presumably guessed anyway), is about that old Spidey Slogan, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The first movie introduced the theme, and the second complicates it. Basically, his Spider-Man identity has caused Peter Parker two related problems:

  1. He neglects more mundane responsibilities (getting an education, paying the rent, delivering pizzas on time) in favor of devoting all his energy to his superheroic responsibilities.
  2. He avoids his friends and family, not exactly because he neglects his responsibility to them but because he takes too much responsibility for them, especially for Mary Jane. He believes his Spider-Man identity will endanger them if he remains close, so he pushes them away. (His avoidance of Harry is a little more understandable, since Harry actually wants to kill Spider-Man.)

Peter has to decide who gets to call the shots—Peter Parker or Spider-Man? Whose responsiblities are more important? Otto Octavius allows “Doc Ock” to call the shots (the fact that Otto is able to take control and save the city by destroying his fusion device suggests that he does allow the octopus arms to control him), and look where it gets him. Spider-Man’s urges are undoubtedly more heroic than Doc Ock’s, but that distinction doesn’t actually matter much. Doc Ock’s monstrous urge may threaten the entire city, but of course we know Spider-Man will take care of the city. The really engaging question raised by Doc Ock’s monstrous urge is whether he will manage to pull himself back from the brink—will he die a monster? So it is with Spider-Man: his superheroic (but equally monstrous) urge doesn’t threaten the city, but it does threaten to sever the ties of friendship and family. Will Spider-Man become a superheroic monster, a Fiorean solipsist, or will he pull himself back from the brink?

So that’s the stakes, and fine stakes they are. The problem, of course, is that the movie gets so damn preachy in addressing them.

The movie’s not all preachiness. The first scene, one of the best, lays out the moral landscape without spelling it out too much. The opening shot is of Mary Jane once removed: a billboard Peter watches longingly. “She looks at me every day,” Peter tells us—but he misspeaks, as Jim Henley notes, “for ’she’ is simply a billboard of MJ at her most made-up and ethereal—flat, creamy, dreamy, two-dimensional and, we might note, looking out at nothing from our left.” This is as close as Peter believes he can get to MJ without putting her life in grave danger. Later in the scene, Peter is fired from his pizza-delivery job after failing (and for not the first time) to deliver a pizza on time—he delayed the delivery to assist the police in apprehending a couple of criminals. “Joe’s 29-minute guarantee is a promise, Peter,” his boss tells him. By this point in the movie, an attentive viewer should understand the central conflicts of the story. The opening scene is a skillfully constructed narrative that explains the conflicts concretely, and the movie does not need to resort to more abstract moral explanations—intelligent viewers can figure it out for themselves. Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn’t have the confidence to let the narrative speak for itself, and they ended up shoveling nasty thematic material right into the characters’ mouths.

By far the most offensive scene is the one in which Aunt May explains the concept of heroism to Peter. The basic idea for the scene is a good one: as Jim Henley notes, May’s speech seems motivated not by any healthy notion of heroism but by a weirdly sadomasochistic urge to punish Peter for his responsibility for Uncle Ben’s murder:

It’s . . . a bit . . . unsettling. There’s the possibility that she’s announcing Peter’s punishment: make it up to me by giving up your one chance at happiness. It’s also possible that we’re simply seeing where Peter’s own maladaptation to the problem of self-sustenance versus altruism comes from: Aunt May knows that she and Ben sacrificed much for the sake of their nephew, and she expects Peter to do the like when presented the opportunity. Giving what you can’t afford to give comes naturally to her. It’s the dangerous lesson her ward has absorbed.

So Aunt May wants to give Peter a disturbing Christ complex. That’s a great way to raise the stakes, but too bad the scene doesn’t live up to its potential. Aunt May really shouldn’t need more than a few seconds and a few well-chosen suggestions to sow her poisonous seeds in Peter’s soul, but the scene drags on for long minutes as she foolishly belabors the point. By the time she wraps up, she’s oversold her heroic ideal so much that Peter looks like a blind idiot for not realizing she’s trying to manipulate him.

Then there’s the Uncle Ben dream sequence in which, as I recall, Uncle Ben actually goes so far as to say aloud “With great power comes great responsibility.” Peter’s decision to toss his Spider-Man costume in the trash, the subsequent (and hilarious) “Raindrops keep falling on my head” scene, are all we need to figure out what Peter has decided to do with his life. We remember from the first movie that Peter feels guilty about Uncle Ben’s death. Trundling out the ghost of Uncle Ben to explain all this to us indicates a stunning lapse of taste on the parts of the filmmakers.

Luckily, the movie recovers its wits in time for the ending, which dumps the characters back into lovely moral confusion. Mary Jane’s decision to stick with Peter is the movie’s response to Aunt May’s masochistic ideal of heroism. See how her decision is packed into that one all-important sentence, “Isn’t it time someboday saved your life, Peter?” and that one final closeup shot that shows her inability to decide whether she’s made the right decision? Just imagine how much the scene would have lost if Mary Jane had been required to explain herself in an Aunt May-style speech.

My point, as I said, is that I can’t stand characters who talk like they’ve read the script and know what the story’s supposed to be about. Characters who act as mouthpieces for authors who are too lazy or too scared to construct a narrative that stands on its own. Spider-Man 2 is most disappointing as it establishes a strong narrative but then falters and gives in to sermonizing.