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“This would be a good death…. But not good enough.”

I think Frank Miller really wanted to be writing 300 when he was working on Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. It’s clear from the mention of porn star Hot Gates (= “Thermopylae,” for those readers who’ve let their Greek get rusty) that the story wasn’t far from his mind. But Batman is no Leonidas. In fact, he’s explicitly an antihero. Miller has set him up to reject heroism in the classical mode, to deny himself the pinnacle of immortality, Heroic Death.

I keep meaning to post my translation of some of Tyrtaeus’s poems, because there’s nothing like a good Spartan number to make you want to go out and throw yourself onto a spear. At any rate, Miller’s Batman is aware, instinctively if not consciously, of these Greek heroic tenets, but is in the odd position of having to hold himself above them while exhorting others to take them up. It’s a beautiful thing for a young man to die in battle, but Batman is no longer young. He’s not entirely willing to take on the role of an old man, training youngsters to fight and imparting wisdom and rousing slogans. He wants to be out there on the front lines, but he can’t give himself over to the lure of martyrdom.

Steven has already taken on Batman’s final words, but I’m interested in the other bookend, the face that stares from the first page of that story straight into its mirror in the last panel (and not a true mirror; the faces tilt in the same direction, symmetry broken by the story) Bruce Wayne descending into flames. “This would be a good death… …but not good enough.” It’s a call to heroism, a split-second decision that a literal blaze of glory is nothing compared to superpower. Does he know in that moment of fiery certainty that he will end up creating his own status quo? Or perhaps this is what makes DKR epic, a struggle over so much with so little really gained, a play of principles and ideals to give meaning to the stretch of living before death. Batman’s name lived on (in infamy) after his retirement, but nothing he had done seemed to matter. Gotham was falling apart and memories of a mythical figure were no deterrent against the collapse. Heroism was a sham and Batman knew it. If he died fighting, his death would mean nothing. There would be no lasting fame or glory as a monument to his deeds. Even his life so far had left no impact. Something needed to change, and each of the major foes he faced - The Mutant Leader, The Joker, Superman himself - helped Batman mold himself into his new heroic mold, his bourgeois good-enough heroism, his only hope for lasting change.

Even with Batman back in the saddle (though not yet literally) the Mutant Leader is clear on where he stands, what makes him a leader and vigilante:

We will kill the old man Gordon. His woman will weep for him. […] I myself will kill the fool Batman. I will rip the meat from his bones and suck them dry. I will eat his heart and drag his body through the street. (p.44)

It may be more likely this is a universal threat than a sign that the Mutant Leader read The Iliad a few too many times in his formative years, but I still think the lack of references to dogs gnawing on genitals is probably more a sign that dogs are as absent from Gotham as horses than that the sentiment is not present. The Mutant Leader likes to talk big, but he wants to be a hero. He wants his visage and voice to be known, feared, remembered. “We are the future. Gotham City belongs to the Mutants. Soon the world will be ours.” (p. 44) Batman’s seen the preview for Troy; he knows how these things work. No matter how many minions he mows down, what matters is the mano a mano, and he buys into this heroism, at least for the moment. He cuts off his escape routes and fights. And yet it isn’t enough to be pure of heart (or whatever the singlemindedness driving Batman is); muscles matter. The Mutant Leader is young, tough, and stopped by someone younger and wilier and more female, Carrie Kelly, who won’t adhere to the rules of heroism if it means letting Batman die. This heroism isn’t dead, though. A barely healed Batman sets up a rematch on the Mutant Leader’s terms, turning them around and doing what the Leader had done to him, shifting the advantage of the “fair” fight. The Leader doesn’t die a hero. He had no name and his stunned followers immediately turn to Batman in his stead. How could this be heroism if it leaves no legacy even among those who claimed loyalty to the ideal?

Then there’s The Joker, who knows the value of a trademark. He doesn’t fight fair but prides himself on his ability to outsmart anyone. Batman can’t fight him squarely on those grounds, can’t afford to take hostages the way Joker does, although he’s not above manipulating and attacking the police. This is a Batman who takes time out in a busy fight to admonish a child who almost said “ass!” (p. 145) Being the anti-Joker won’t work either, though, since every person the Joker threatens is under a greater threat because Batman is present. The Joker knows that killing people Batman can’t protect hurts him at least as much as personal physical damage.

The Trojan Horse is a hero’s trick because the Trojans don’t get to tell the story. The Joker doesn’t care about the way he’ll be portrayed when this is all over. He wants control of the narrative Batman will replay to himself for the rest of his life. He wants the last laugh, and he gets it. Killing Batman would have been satisfying, but reminding him of the limits of his heroism is the best legacy the Joker could desire. Batman beat the Mutant Leader playing by his rules, but who set the game here? Who was the winner? Again, the one who saves the day and Batman’s life is Carrie. Again, she doesn’t seem to wonder about whether this makes her a hero.

And then there’s Superman, the biggest Good Guy of them all. He clearly believes Tyrtaeus that “it is a beautiful thing when a good man falls and dies fighting for his country.” Well, ok, it’s not his country or planet, and he falls but can’t manage to die, but at least his heart is in it. He does right because he is right and he doesn’t question. He’s not a guilt-creature like Batman but the sort of principled person Batman longed and failed to be. Batman, still haunted by the Joker, sets up another role reversal. He wants to bruise Superman rather than defeat him, wants to defiantly die in his arms. But he doesn’t want that death. It wouldn’t be good enough. He has a message, more universal and less personal than the Joker’s revenge narrative. “They showed me that the world only makes sense when you force it to,” he tells Superman (p. 194). This is perhaps the conceptual heart of the story (as well as the emotional epicenter, according to J.W. Hastings). Batman admits his insanity and the cognitive changes he’s put himself through, defends his masochistic crusades: it was all to make the world make sense!

But what sense does it make? Enough, perhaps, or enough for both of them to know what they’re fighting for, or at least why they’re still fighting at all. And just as Batman has subsumed and digested and reformed his adversaries’ techniques, Superman keeps a spark of Batman alive inside himself, letting it show in a roguish wink. This is a world where the old ways don’t work, where there are now several ways to be a hero, none of them wholly successful. The Achilles trajectory doesn’t work for superheroes who can wrap themselves around a nuclear warhead and come back ok, either. But Superman can go on trying to resolve the dissonance between state and justice while Batman tries to figure out what it means to be a hero and a leader. I think he has a good idea. Good enough.

Grim & Gritty Frippery

I spent the weekend sick and miserable, so it’s probably good I wasn’t blogging. I did manage to read Brian Michael Bendis’s and Marc Andreyko’s Torso, which I really enjoyed, and watch Labyrinth, which I didn’t. Though From Hell overdid the annotations to the point where I would almost have rather read them than the comic, I would have liked to know where liberties were taken and what the sources were for Torso. Maybe this was in the floppies.

I also finished rereading The Dark Knight Returns, and it’s given me a lot to think about. Before I say anything substantive, though, I have a question that’s bothering me. I’d appreciate any insights from any of my readers who are also DKR readers. What’s up with all the women with asymmetrical orange hair?

I’ve already commented on how strange Gotham’s homogeneity is to me, and maybe this is related. It doesn’t seem to be a look like those of the Mutants or Sons of the Batman or Nixons, since the style crosses a spectrum of women who are really only related in that they figure prominently in the story.

It seems unlikely that asymmetrical orange hair is a fashion, because Ellen Yindel, Carrie Kelly and Lana Lang don’t seem like they’d have any interest in following fashion trends, though the almost-indistinguishable talking head news anchors certainly would. It doesn’t seem to imply that the women in question are professionals, since Carrie has it and the prostitutes don’t. So basically this hair is some sort of leitmotif and I can’t quite put my finger on it. It may be some sort of meta note, something that women with power display, whether or not the characters choose to present themselves that way. I’m still at a loss, though.

And the story ends with Carrie in the new Batcave starting a new life. What will her hairstyle be when she’s an adult? And why?

“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.

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.

“But ‘comic book’ doesn’t work for what we do these days.”

In reading the Mars Import interview with Craig Thompson I came across this description of the book’s subtitle:

MI: BLANKETS bears the subtitle, “an illustrated novel.” Is this your own personal entry in the what-the-heck-should-we-call-these-things” derby, or simply a marketing decision made with bookstore sales in mind, or both?

CT: Yeah, both. It DOES sound a bit pretentious, but “comic book” just doesn’t work for what we do these days. And graphic novel doesn’t either. Neither does “illustrated novel”. But at least it’s a raw enough term that it sparks a reader’s curiosity, rather than polluting their preconceptions with images of super heroes and Garfield.

Ok, maybe I’m just being pedantic, but isn’t the important part that it’s a novel not that there are pictures inside? Anyone who picks it up sees the pictures. Blankets: A Novel would explain that it is, in fact, a cohesive story rather than, say, a chunk of collected monthly floppies from an ongoing series. When I bought The PowerBook it had the subtitle A Novel both to differentiate it from Jeanette Winterson’s nonfiction writings and to keep people from thinking it was some sort of laptop how-to. I’m not sure why the standard “graphic novel” doesn’t work for Thompson, but it seems to me that an illustrated novel is quite a different thing, and far from a “raw” concept or term. I guess I just don’t see why, when something’s being put in the graphic novels section and is clearly full of sequential art, it’s important to comment on the cover that it’s got words and pictures. It seems the more pertinent information is what the story content is, rather than its pictorial context. What am I not seeing?