Wednesday, 17 March 2010

He Even Took His Socks Off! Why We Long To Be The Hero Revealed, And Yet Not The Hero.

1. I Love You More When You're Undressed

There are moments when I wish to partially undress in front of strangers.

No. Please. Wait a minute!

It isn't quite like that.

Let me explain.

2 The Hero Revealed, Not The Hero.

My wife is convinced that I want to be a super-hero. She's sure that if only I was a little fitter, my ligaments less pingable, my short stubby legs less like two chipolata sausages bent awkwardly in half to approximate knees, that I would have the Lycra and the thigh-high boots dragged on at the drop of a car-alarm.

But I don't think that I want to be a super-hero. At least, I don't think that I do. I've given the matter some considerable thought across a significant portion of my 47 years on Earth, and I think that what I actually want to be is be a super-hero at that moment of the action when the hero's existence is revealed.

I want to be in that moment when my chubby little, not-suitable-for-guitar-playing, fingers rip apart the front of my Premierman extra-large shirt to reveal my identity-defining insignia beneath. (I don't actually know what insignia that would be, actually, but I have no doubt I'll be compelled to give the matter some serious thought now. If anybody might care to design one, I'll wear it in my heart forever.) I want to see fear mixed with significant, almost adulatory, respect on the faces of the people I'm showing my top under-garments to. And then I want whoever it is that's been shown my vest and the symbol scrawled on it to just go away. I'm not too concerned how they do it. Running away in fear and terror swearing never to return would be acceptable, as long as they're not being too loud in their distress, because that always attracts attention. Backing off trying to look undaunted while leaving the neighbourhood with surly expressions would be tolerable: I know some folks have a surfeit of pride. And to tell the truth, I'd even be happy with a nod of the head, a swift non-demonstrative apology, a shake of the hands and a promise on the evil-doers part never to darken my tiny little hometown ever again.

I don't care who they are. Super-villains. Robert Mugabe. Anti-social drunk footballers in early middle age thinking the concrete balls outside the Hawthorn Hotel should be hauled into their deer-killing family tanks and taken home as a trophy of diminishingly-potent masculinity. That bloke at the end of our road who covers his flower beds with tautly-affixed black plastic bags and leaves his garden like that all year round. (I mean, why? Why?) It doesn't matter who they are, all I care about is that they go away.

But actually striping off the rest of the clothes and trading punches with the ne'er-do-wells before me? It's not on, really. The simple logistics are too challenging. I am a man who regularly stumbles and trips his way across the bedroom floor like a one-legged ex-ballet dancer hopping in his sleep simply by trying to take off his socks at night, and who never remembers to make something other than his socks the last thing to be removed. I have actually several times managed to twist my ankle while standing still. This is true. So public undressing while preparing to engage in superhuman - or even standard-issue ordinary human - combat is a bad idea.

But far more importantly, hitting people has consequences. And I suspect that most people who like super-heroes have a profound dislike of consequences, of responsibility beyond the bills and the housework, of the real and threatening world beyond their doorstep.

I mean, if you hit someone, if you really hit someone, it never ends. It has consequences. And comics tell us this. How many times has Batman to capture the Joker again before we all learn that partial disrobery and violence isn't the solution?*

* Though neither is the chosen solution of the testosterone-positive minority of "I've-missed-the-point" fans who feel that Batman ought to just execute his arch-enemy. What is wrong with these people? Have they never heard of the Law Of Character Perpetuation? Kill off one smiling white faced smiling psychopath and pretty soon they'll be another one just like him, but with even less history and questionable charm.

3. Not Thinking About My Superhero Career, Baby

The aching bones, the swollen muscles, the twisted ankles, the wrenched backs, the burnt retinas, the post-traumatic stress disorder, the guilt, the shame, the endless and irreducible responsibility, the anxiety, the constant worry about whether we look good in unforgiving Lycra.

As I have tried to explain to my long-suffering wife, racing the onset of the inevitable "Oh not comics again" cognitive protective process that causes her eyes to glaze over and her left hand to reach out for a gardening magazine, being a superhero is an unbelievably hard job. I don't think we'd want that job.

I wouldn't. I wouldn't want to be hunted down through the gutters of Apokolips, no matter how glorious the cause that brought me there. I wouldn't want to be standing in front of an exasperated Hulk, wondering why until that point I'd never noticed my mutant ability to unconsciously retract my testicles to a quivering point directly behind my lil'man-nipples.

I always imagine that iconic Steve Ditko/Stan Lee sequence where an exhausted Spider-Man, tormented by the certain death of his Aunt May if he allows himself to be trapped, hauls an unbelievable weight of machinery and debris off of himself. It's possibly the most involving, most moving example of action in Spider-Man's almost 50 years of comic-book existence, but as a middle-aged man who struggles to haul himself in and out of a very low-rent gym every day, because I pretty much have no choice in the matter, all I can think of when I review those pages is: "That is going to hurt in the morning. No amount of deep heat and shallow exhausted sleep is going to untweek those biceps. Peter Parker, my young lad, you have got to start taking better care of yourself."

For, yes, I think we'd all like to be the Spider-Man who has just thrown tons of Ditko-debris away and freed himself from certain death, who stands in the moment of triumph, the devil behind him, sweet victory ahead. But the Spider-Man who had to exceed super-hero design specifications to free himself? The Spider-Man who has to try to stand up afterwards and, worse yet, walk forwards while his muscles spasm and his nerves start to send the signal to begin numbing up the surface of his skin?

No. You don't want to be that Spider-Man, not really. At least, I don't think you do. I certainly don't.

4. His Back, His Poor Scarred Back

There's a touching scene in an old Batman story by Alan Brennert and Joe Staton where Catwoman sees the Bruce Wayne's naked back for the first time and flinches because it's a patchwork quilt of scar tissue, impact wounds, and all the other visible manifestations of 40 years of impromptu battlefield surgery. (You'll find it in "The Brave And The Bold" # 197, from 1983) It's a scene which has been "homaged" time and time again over the years since, most notably in an Alex Ross black and white poster page, though Ross chose to graphically show what Brennert and Staton only referred to. It's a mark of Brennert's almost entirely unrecognised brilliance as a comic-book writer that he nailed something which everyone who read it must have immediately recognised as "right" and "true" for the character, and yet pretty much no-one would have thought of it before. For being a superhero, particularly for "normal" folks, as we so often laughably think of The Batman, could only come at the most terrible and traumatic physical cost.

We may be used to the idea now that most sane folks wouldn't want to be the Batman outside of a temporary immersion into a computer game. But I'm not sure that all of us who continue to dabble in this strange little hybrid genre of ours have quite cottoned onto the idea that it isn't simply Batman whose super-hero life would be an unending trauma. It would be all of them. All of them. Physically progressively broken down, mentally scared and with a high probability of early-onset neurological disorders, they would all be, sooner rather than later, hobbling around, confused about who they are and wondering where they were going.

Because that's what happens when people fight all the time, when they're in a consistent state of heightened anxiety and awareness. Alan Brennert opened a right can of worms with that one panel all those years ago. He pointed at something which the genre still hasn't - no matter how many painkillers Daredevil so injudiciously guzzles down - come to terms with, and probably never will. Perhaps it simply can't.

Human beings, and pretty much all of the super-human beings too, weren't made to be in the trenches of a never-ending apocalyptic war. Not whether its a war on super-crime, super-gods, or whatever other overwhelmingly evil opponent you might think of.

But of course I'm telling you something you already know. Doc Samson is the single most over-worked mental health professional on Marvel Earth. Night Nurse? Never gets to sleep, has to drink from a drip while she sets an endless line of broken superhero femurs. Dr Midnight? Is really called that because he never gets out of superhero surgery until the witching hour at least.

And the closer and closer superhero comics get to the event horizon of their spurious if-often-affecting obsession with "realism", the more this central fact of the realities of human anatomy and psychology will loom as the elephant in the room:

These folks should all be dead. 100 times over. Dead, dead, dead. Deader than Deadman.

And he's really dead. As far as dead comic book characters go.

Which isn't very dead, really. But there you go.

5. If We Don't Believe That That's Violence, What's All That Violence For?

The truth of the matter is, of course, that one of the least important ingredients of a superhero comics is the violence. We know this. If it were the violence that sells, then it'd be a simple matter to conquer the Diamond Top 10. Now, this would seem counter-intuitive to many folks who'd never willingly turn the glossy cover of a costume-and-cape book over unless mockery was their mission in mind, but it's so. And I think we can establish this with the simple expedient of looking at the work and extreme popularity of Brian Bendis, who, with the odd visceral dismemberment of Olympic deities aside, actually tends not to push his artists in the direction of mindless, page-after-page violence. Sometime is indeed going on here, Mr and Mrs Jones, but you really don't know what it means. Because there's a secret that superhero fans have keep quietly to themselves, and even from themselves, for decades now. A counter-intuitive truth that anybody contemptuous of the underpants-over-their-tights brigade would never consider.

Whisper it. Superhero comics aren't really about superheroes, or superheroes and supervillians fighting each other, although the colours of the spangly uniforms and the Kirby-krackle spitting off their powers are fascinating and exciting in their own way. Because if Superman belly-pokes the Toyman with his super-strong Kryptonian finger, we superhero fans aren't really that interested in who's going win. We know who's going to win. The children of the 1940s might have been concerned that Captain America or The Red Bee might loose their life in battle. But readers aren't worried now. We're older, more media-savvy and we've been reading these comics for so long now that we can reel off a whole series of case-series where capes have died and returned to life before the hearse was even filled up with petrol and checked for oil.

So what do we want, if we don't want endless scenes of mindless violence?

I mean, what's the point of all that muscle if it isn't driving someones nose into someones brain? (It could be the brain of the person who owned the nose. It could be somebody else's brain. The nose could have been removed from its' owner body. The nose might not have been. But the question remains the same.)

6. Civil War: Civil Disobedience In The Name Of Irresponsibility

When Marvel Comics ran their elephantine cross-over event "Civil War", it was billed as a battle between those who supported the comic book US Government's demand for the super-powered to register their identity with them, and those who refused to do so in the name of individual freedom. And of course most readers were appalled at the idea that the likes of Spider-Man and Squirrel Girl would have to give up their secret identities and possibly go to work for the man.

But I don't believe the popular response had anything to do with a libertarian versus state power conflict. It can't have. Anyone with half a brain in their heads, or at least one without a nose inserted into it, could see that any government would be utterly irresponsible if it allowed masked super-powered vigilantes to roam their streets. Governments protect the rule of law, not Daredevil's right to pop out on a whim and whack anyone he suspects of being really rather bad.

No. The fan's objection to Super-Hero Registration in Civil War was rooted in something far more prosaic. For most fan's like to imagine popping out, bashing a few anti-social louts smoking outside the late-hours supermarket, and then dashing back for a cup of tea and Newsnight. The idea that they might have to clear their lout-bashing with someone, or explain their actions to a professional superhero manager, or put in some mandated community hours patrolling the town's all-day summer music festival while cider-drinking punk rockers shout obscenities at their colourfully-attired backs; that's what the objection was about.

Because there's as many reasons for the popularity of superheroes as there are people reading superhero comics. But certainly one of them is the straight-forward appeal of irresponsibility. We don't want so much to fight crimes or right wrongs as fight some crimes very occasionally when we can be bothered and when it doesn't cause too much fuss and bother.

7. Except For The Real Nutters Of Course

Of course, there are a small number of comic fans who would take whatever super-powers they could get and embark upon a killing spree the likes of which only the Great Dictators of the Twentieth century could match. These are the posters who type in really big capitals GIVE SUPERMAN HIS MASCULINITY BACK, by which they mean "Have him kill lots of people". And if I ever seem a little contemptuous of all those, like myself, whose superheroic dreams only go as far as clipping a few surly teenagers round the ear as they ask for 20p for some ciggies outside the newsagents of a Tuesday night - and without saying 'please' I might add - then don't let me obscure the fact that a healthy society is better served by idle would-be superheroes than potential mass murderers dreaming of proving their manhood by flash-frying all and sundry with their stupid-vision powers.

8. A Return To The Point About Exhibitionism

And that's where my idle daydreams of flashing my fearsome chest-insignia at threatening criminals come into play. Because the insignia of super-heroes have a simple purpose, beyond the cash-raking practises of modern marketing. The insignia is the equivalent of a really big, mean dog's growl. It wins the fight before it's started by letting everyone know exactly what's going to happen before it needs to happen at all. In a world where would-be urban gangsters push strangers into the road to avoid their attack dogs, where roads are a stage to allow scowling louts to wander in front of cars while sneering that "What you gonna do about it?" look that can strip a bonnet of paint and a man's face of a long-cultivated beard, in a world where neighbours come to blows about grass that's too high and borders that are too broad; that colourful symbol of "I'm gonna whoop you sucker" would be worth it's weight in gold.

Until of course that lover of wild flowers and high looping grass rips open her shirt too and reveals her own badge of super-poweredness, because then we'd have to fight. And if we wanted to be fighting, if we really wanted to be fighting, we probably wouldn't have been designing our chest-symbols in the first place. Or dreaming of the deterrent effect of selective super-hero undressing. We'd just be out there punching people.

And I suspect that for alot of us, the slight desire to actively fight the good fight is actually the desire to not have to fight the good fight at all. We don't want to change the world so much as be left alone by it.

Which is quite rightly a sin by the lights of political activism. But not so sinful once the day has already been filled with nappies, the school run, the plumbing, the bills, the cats, the bats, the aspirins to ward off heart attacks, the stumbling across the carpet naked except for two socks and a pair of glasses.

Listen to me, you. Gggggrrrrrrrr.

Good doggie. Doggie go home. Me doggie go home. Work on trouser-and-sock removal 'stead of fighting.

9. Ah. More Socks, And Superhero Socks too

Warren Ellis is a crafty devil. For someone who's public persona would have him spending all his time endorsing deviant sex, psychedelic indulgence and non-conformist anti-state agitation, he really has spent alot of time thinking about what superhero fans want from their comic books. (Perhaps because superhero comics aren't by his own admission anywhere near his favourite kind cup of tea.) Underneath the cutting-edge scientific concepts, the smart "I'm a rebel me" dialogue and the widescreen ultra-violence, there's also some charming staples of superhero convention hiding in plain sight. There's always a secret base, some measure of sentimental team-bonding, and, in "Ultimate Secret", the best superhero-changing-clothes scene in many a long year. The details of why and where aren't relevant to enjoying the moment where Captain Marvel (2005 version) disrobes in preparation for activating his Kree battlesuit. For not only is the scene a collection of snippets evoking most every great "where can I change" scene in superhero history, it's also a significant innovator, for Ellis and Steve McNiven have remembered the importance of socks in this vital moment of transition from mortal to super-mortal. And it's the little touches like this that matter, those previously unthought of moments which tell us so much about the character concerned. Look, he can't even leave his socks on. Captain Marvel has to be naked before he can flash anything at anyone. Which again is counter-intuitive, but, for all of those too sock-challenged to pull something like this off before combat, admirable too.

9. The Hero Revealed
It's when Arthur pulls Excalibur from the stone we love him most. Everyone around him can see that he's the King. He's won the battle without doing any more than waving the sword around. Before him is the slaughter of the children, the fall of Camelot, the betrayal of Guinevere with Lancelot. But in the moment he held that sword, he must have felt that there wasn't a soul in this world or any other that wouldn't back off the moment he lowered Excalibur in their direction.

Safe at last, sword in hand. The worst long before him, a distant future when folks know that he holds Excalibur, and yet don't back off at all.


  1. Is the last paragraph a metaphor?

  2. Hi Duncan. I'd be glad to answer why I put that last paragraph there, but I'd be fascinated to know why you think I did so before I do. Would you mind? What do YOU think it's doing there? An odd question perhaps, but in truth I'm just as -if not actually far more - interested in your thoughts here as mine.

  3. The ability to crystalize and hold that quicksilver moment forever in our hands is what makes comics so compelling and joyous.

    Opening All Star Superman to the double page spread of a young Clark eulogizing his father with his future self (AND the squad of superheroes he would inspire to take up his mantle) in the audience is my current favorite of this type.

  4. Smitty. That Blog. Now. By the order of some totally mythical, bogus authority, I demand it. (Last time I'll mention it, but at least I'm trying.)

    But now I shall head off to my All Star Superman hardbacks and hunt down that scene. Because I read things in trade these days, I often don't absorb as much as I did when I was reading issues one at a time, and repreading them as I waited for the next cab off the rank. And anything as cool as that which you've described deserves to be burnt into my memory.

  5. Smitty. That Blog. Now. By the order of some totally mythical, bogus authority, I demand it. (Last time I'll mention it, but at least I'm trying.)

    But now I shall head off to my All Star Superman hardbacks and hunt down that scene. Because I read things in trade these days, I often don't absorb as much as I did when I was reading issues one at a time, and re-reading them as I waited for the next cab off the rank. And anything as cool as that which you've described deserves to be burnt into my memory.