Friday, 30 April 2010

Why Am I So Vexed That Geoff Johns Vexed Me? - Green Lantern # 52 And The Dangerous Myth Of How We're All So Special

1. Was Scrooge Wrong?

On September 29th, 1725, in the same year that he wrote "A Modest Proposal" - unquestionably (*1) the most brilliant piece of satire in the English language - a somewhat weary Jonathan Swift wrote to Alexander Pope:

"I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is toward individuals: for instance, I hate the tribe of lawyers, but I love Counsellor Such-a-one, and Judge Such-a-one: so with physicians—I will not speak of my own trade—soldiers, English, Scotch, French, and the rest. But principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. This is the system upon which I have governed myself many years, but do not tell, and so I shall go on till I have done with them. I have got materials toward a treatise, proving the falsity of that definition animal rationale, and to show it would be only rationis capax. Upon this great foundation of misanthropy, though not in Timon's manner, the whole building of my Travels is erected; and I never will have peace of mind till all honest men are of my opinion."

By now 47, Swift had few if any illusions left about the species he belonged to. I have often imagined him as Gulliver after his return from the land of the wise and rational Houyhnhnm, shunning human company and talking to the horses on his farm far away from people.

And it's Swift, Gulliver and the horse-shaped Houyhnhnm that my mind keeps turning to when I try to engage with the script of "Green Lantern" # 52 and the matter of why it vexes - and indeed upsets - me so.

Because it does. It shouldn't. I do know that.

But it does.

(*1) Don't get me wrong. I'm a firm believer in the rule that there are no absolute judgements where the value of art is concerned. But that rule is plain wrong where it comes to "A Modest Proposal". That is all.

2. I'm Rather Fond Of Earth Myself, Mr Johns

I've spent far more time than is good for anybody, I suspect, worrying away at the issue of why I've been so vexed at "Green Lantern" # 52. And, of course, the truth is that there has be something more than coloured tights and many-coloured power rings going on for it to irritate me so. Even if that "something more" is merely a matter of personal importance to me, rather than an issue of a more serious and general importance, it's still there. It's still a-itching and a-pricking to get out.

And it tasks me. It's my own (very little) great white whale. I've written and deleted one piece already on why science and Geoff John's cosmology don't sit well together. And that didn't get to the nub of the vexing. So I wrote another entry applying anthropological and sociological concepts to the task of rubbishing Mr John's work. And that didn't do either. It was an entire waste of my time, and surely would have been of yours.

So, what is it? Why should anybody in their right mind be vexed at Geoff John's incorporation into the history of the DC Universe of the idea that intelligent life first appeared on Earth, and that Earth remains precious because of that?

It's just a story. It's just a big, long, money-spinning, water-cooler moment, pop-corn-tasting, multi-book crossover crafted with no little skill and a brilliant grasp of what the fanboy market demands. It doesn't matter.

But, you see, I think it does. I feel uneasy, even ashamed, to think that, but I do. I can't shift the feeling that I'm taking comic books too seriously, or failing to get the point that they have no point beyond fun-filled entertainment.

But I think there's a terrible and lazy arrogance at the heart of this new throwaway-double-sized-coke-and-chocky-drops take on creation and cosmology.

And I believe that I've belatedly reached the point where I think that even colourful and harmless little superhero comics have gotten so far above themselves that, without realising it, they're peddling more - or perhaps that's "less" - than just pleasurable nonsense.

3. A "Santa-Claus-Does-Not-Exist" Warning


I. It's not that I object to the impossible science of this wad of retro-continuity that's been lobbed into the DCU's past. To be able to read these tales of power-rings and Guardians and lords of the dead, and then decide that the evolutionary science is rather misapplied, would surely be the judgement of a big obsessed crazy person. Because, of course, superhero comic books are founded on a profound scientific ignorance. We know that. The Yellow Sun doesn't make Kryptonians super-powered. There are no Kryptonians. There are no super-powers.

It might as well have been the whole point of superhero comic books and indeed films to mock science and the public's total lack of interest in the scientific plausibility of their well-loved action icons.

II. I can recall as a boy trying to justify my obsession with American comic books to my Father by declaring that they were teaching me physics. Ever a man happy to help the guilty party tighten their own chosen noose around their scrawny little sinner's neck, my Father investigated the proffered issue of "World's Finest", with Dick Dillin art if memory serves. And there, faced with a declaration put into the mouth of Superman that his X-Ray vision would track the photon-trail of an escaped bad-guy, my Father's considerable powers of invective were punctured by the realisation of the depth of the ignorance before him.

"But it's rubbish." he said, with the air of a man defeated by my stupidity and the sacred holy writ of cloaks'n'costumes I used to defend it.

And he was right. It is all, pretty much, rubbish. We know this.

Radiation doesn't give you super-powers. Years of training can't turn you into a Batman. The Human Torch is such a colossally daft idea that it only works because the very idea of a man made of flames cleans out the mind's rational impulses like an intellectual laxative. It hits us right between the eyes with the full force of its' own stupidity and leaves us mentally drooling, mind-wiped and gurgling about how pretty those lovely fireballs are.
But that's OK. I rather like that, as I suppose is somewhat obvious. Willing suspension of disbelief and all that. It's harmless, except to my poor Dad's blood pressure, and, yes, I surely grasp that super-powers can act as a metaphor and aren't to be taken literally.

I get it.

So it's not the unlikely - as in "pretty damn well impossible" - science itself that bothers me. After all, even given what we know about evolution and the tenacious capacity of life to generate itself even in the most extreme and inhospitable environments, it's still more likely a prospect that life first evolved on Earth than that any human being could be as good an archer as Green Archer,(*2) or as fine a martial artist in her high heels as Black Canary.

No, it's not the dumb science. It's the dumb arrogance of the very idea that there's nowhere more important in the whole galaxy, and particularly this entire universe of us, than Earth.

And worse yet, on the dumb arrogance scale, is the regrettable and egregious belief that even more than Earth is wonderful, human beings are wonderful.

I mean, that's more than rubbish, or even dumb rubbish. That's actually dangerous rubbish.

(*2) I can't shift the voice of Bill Hicks in my head over this one: "Well, he could, Bill, if he, like, practised enough."

4. They're Absolutely Everywhere


There are somewhere between 200 and 400 billion stars in our galaxy alone. (I know this because I've just looked it up on Wikipedia.) And though I have no mathematical imagination at all, I think I can take it on trust that that's a great deal of stars, and that a considerable measure of space is required to sprinkle them through it.

How is it then that the Heavens of the superhero universes are knee-deep in Earthlings? We're everywhere. You can't turn around without bumping into the Fantastic Four, and sometimes it seems that every little planet of sentient raddishes thinks Superman is their hero. And how we human beings are involved in absolutely all of what's going on. We cause everything, we solve everything, we enlighten everyone, we pose with our glowing hands on our shapely hips and God himself must look down and think how he wishes we'd been around when that trouble with the Rebel Angels had broken out. We're just fabulous.

Don't you love us?

And though we can barely land a car-sized spaceship on Mars without crashing it in our "real" world, which might you may imagine inspire a little perspective and humility, out there in the superhero universes, everything's fantastic and everything's about fantastic us. The forgotten X-Man Vulcan conquered the entire Sh'iar Empire. (An entire Empire! The Allies have been in Iraq for more than seven years and it's still incredibly hard going there, for everyone that's involved.) The Inhumans have done the same to the Kree. Richard Ryder, a rather young Earthman, has saved the entire inter-galactic police force of the Nova Corp, and then the universe itself. Several times. The Guardians of the Galaxy, composed of Earthfolks and characters who've largely been defined by their fortunate exposure to the master-species, troll around the universe righting wrongs which all the other countless gazillions of more technologically advanced species strangely can't. Even Earth computer intelligences - would that be "viruses"? - such as Ultron seem to be able to overwhelm the tech defences of ancient cultures who've existed in a state of war, and therefore battle-ready defensiveness, for centuries.

Yes, there's always an explanation, a McGuffin of one degree of silliness or another, but it's still hard to swallow when, time after time, Ultron and the likes of Dr Pym's boy are taking on ancient alien civilisations and winning. We're well into downloading-the-virius-from-an-Apple-Mac-into-the-Mothership territory with every new example of that happening.

Out there, the non-Terran "good guys" may occasionally be a little alien looking, but on the whole they've learned to actually be good guys through their socialisation with, well, us! Huzzah! Huzzah for us! Warlock, jewel-headed version, Warlock, strange techy-kid version, the Silver Surfer; on and on goes the list. What would all those literally countless alien species do without us to save them, conquer them, and enlighten them, inspire them?

And it's exactly the same in the DC Universe, whose order is maintained by its own interstellar police force, the Green Lantern Corp, which is of course blessed to contain quite a few humans among its members. Ah, those human beings! (Particularly those mostly-white, middle-class, male American humans.) You'd think that the immortal Guardians who set up the Green Lantern Corp millions of years ago would have a little more knowledge and experience than a few 30-something "fearless" super-heroes, but you'd be wrong. You surely would be. For when disaster threatens, it's the guys from the blink-of-an-eye industrial culture on Earth who know what to do, and it's the immortal and massively experienced ones who dither around like fools.

And even where the slight possibility of human fallibility appears, it's so rarely that the alien, the truly not-like-us, is allowed to close the conflict, resolve the story, and show that Earthfolks aren't the be-all-and-end-all. Even when Geoff Johns portrayed the Humans of the 30th century as thoroughly unpleasant racists, or at least "specists", they still had to be saved by more of their own kind, or at least, good guys and gals who mostly look as if they were their kind. How I wish that "Earth-Man" and his cronies had been dismantled by some truly alien heroes. A big walking pit of slime and a twelve-armed goddess made of boulders would have done for me there. It would have been a relief.

A relief.

And I didn't realise it until I wrote the last sentence, but it's absolutely true: I'm so sick of human beings being grand and wonderful that I think I want to set off a Doomsday Cobalt Bomb myself.

Life would go on. It wouldn't be human life, but it'd go on.

And I bet whatever it is that survives the nuclear holocaust, whatever slime or cockroach it is that munches it's way to the top of the radioactive evolutionary tree, they wouldn't waffle on all the time about how bloody great they are!

We're not. We're really not.

We're quite probably the opposite to so bloody great.

I'm with Swift, and I too prefer the horses. (*3)

(*3) This may be one reason for my fondness for Beta-Ray Bill, and indeed Comet the Super-Freudian-Nightmare Horse.

5. They're Absolutely Everywhere, And Yet We're Better Than Them


Human beings have a terrible habit of assuming that the group they belong to is inherently superior to everybody else's. And in truth, habit is completely the wrong word to use here. This tendency to divide the world into "in-groups", or our folks, and "out-groups", or those folks who aren't as good as we are, happens in every human culture and in every historical epoch. It's what human beings do; they get snotty about each other. And this may even be hardwired into our brain. It may be a byproduct of the interaction of our psychology and our physiology. It's certainly a tendency that's intensified and shaped by culture.(*4) It's the way we are.

Or to put it another way; we have a tendency to believe that we belong to special groups who are better than other groups.

And as soon as we think that, we're heading for the same trouble we've always been in.

We're better than you. God loves us better than you. We may just have to do some terrible, logically-indefensible things to you because, well, we're just better, you know?

Nah-nah-nah-na-na-nah.

Tuskegee. Abu Ghraib. Hola Camp. Auschwitz.

(*4 - Anyone who's curious and who hasn't tripped down the strange byways of social psychology could do worse than Google "Milgram", "Tajfel" or "Zimbardo". That would give a start on some of the different ways that we lovely human beings divide the world into "our side" and "their side", and what that can result in.)

6. Not A Digression: On "Star Trek: First Contact"


In "Star Trek: First Contact", Captain Picard tries his best to explain to Lilly, a woman he's encountered during a bout of time-travel to the past, how different his future world is to her capitalist present.

"The economics of the future are somewhat different. You see, money doesn't exist in the 24th century ... The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity. "

Now, imagine being an actor and being asked to pull off those stiff, self-righteous lines. But Patrick Stewart does so brilliantly, speaking them almost absent-mindedly, as if they were the fragments of a well-loved and familiar catechism learned by heart in childhood. An item of well-rehearsed and implicitly believed-in faith, as it were.

But, despite the technical brilliance of Mr Stewart's delivery, the content of the little speech is utter rubbish, of course, though it's a brave stab in trying to explain what gives the Federation the moral right to charge around the cosmos offering - on its' better days - to meddle in everybody else's affairs for everyone else's best interests. For the justification for the Federation and Starfleet is that they constitute a complete break with human history, that they are the consequence of an evolutionary leap ahead in terms of social morality and organisation. We're completely different from all the human beings that have come before us, says Picard, we're unselfish and that makes us a source of good.

It seems that that old devil money, and the greed it inspired, had always been the problem for humankind, and now that the Federation has the technology to satisfy everybody's needs and wants, Utopia is to all intends and purposes extant on Earth and, through Earth's men and women, the stars too. Humans have become Houyhnhnm. And what's left for us is a mission to fulfil our secret and true natures, and to become a source of trans-galactic goodness.

Which is, of course, as I'm sure many folks that I've not been fortunate enough to read yet have said before me, pure Marxism. It's exactly the same logical escape hatch which Marx left in his theories. (What's to stop the working classes from falling out among themselves after the Revolution's over about who gets what? Why, there'll be so much of everything that nobody will ever need to fall out again. Technology will liberate us from greed and see to that.)

And the Federation is, therefore, in all seriousness, another word for "Communism". It's another word to sign up how human beings will need to be utterly socially, morally and technologically transformed so that they're fit to Lord it across the cosmos.

Because we're not fit for that yet. And only a complete break with everything we have ever been will make us fit for that task.

Or to put it another way, whether its Communism or the Federation, or whatever Utopian vision for a worthy human society you care to invest your faith in, it'll never come about because we'd have to be the Houyhnhnm to be that splendid. Because we can't do that. We are hard-wired for prejudice, socially constructed for selfishness, historically and culturally hemmed in by ideologies of irrationality, of short-sightedness, of opportunism and selfishness. And it's all we can do, from one generation to the next, to try to tackle these big and terrible beasts that are part of us before passing the struggle on to the next generation, who'll do the same. And so it goes. (*5)

We'll never be like the Houyhnhnm. If we could, we'd be Houyhnhnm.


(*5 - John Gray's "Black Mass" is particularly strong on this problem, and I'd highly recommend it to you, though I couldn't say to be convinced by much of the conclusions.)

7. Special, So Special

The fundamental problem with Geoff Johns placing the origins of all "sentient" life on Earth is that it makes Earth special. In fact, it makes the Earth far far more special than everywhere else everywhere. And as soon as a place becomes perceived as "special", it warps the perceptions of those folks who feel that they belong there. It's a problem that's been part of human culture from as far back as recorded history begins, as far as anybody can tell, and it's hard to believe that human beings thought any differently before they started leaving records for us to obsess over.

Even today, it's hard to escape the conclusion that, for example, far too Americans are still driven by their ridiculous sense of American Exceptionalism, of Manifest Destiny and that shining city on the hill. It rarely has a good end to feel too special, not matter how feel-good TV psychobullshitters tell you otherwise. And we Brits are the same, and sometimes we still nostalgically and rather pathetically succumb to the dregs of the brew that summons up "Land Of Hope And Glory" and pride at Britannia once having ruled the waves. It's such a short hop from Shakespeare and "This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This other Eden, demi-paradise .." to the idea that stealing a quarter of the World and looting it for our own interest was a benevolent assumption of the "white man's burden".

We all do it. It isn't excusable, but we all do it. And as part of "it", there's always that sense of a magical, pure, morally-exalted place that somehow makes the people who live there more special than those who live over the next hill.

But being a Roman, or a Londoner, or an inhabitant of the "real" America, or even "America", is hardly a moral qualification for anything more worthy than the selling of postcards.

And "Earth" really isn't in any way important, except, of course, to us. To us, it's home. It's the only home we've got, and it's the only one we'll ever have. It's a shame, really, that we've had such a damn good go at buggering it up, but there you are and so it goes. In those so-familiar words of Douglas Adams, we're "... an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy." We're twenty-six thousand light-years away from the centre of that galaxy, and we're so far from anywhere that matters that we think we're pretty neat.

8. Modesty: The Superior Person Carries Things Through


But so many of the comic book creators of super-hero universes just can't seem to conceive that modesty and a less ethnocentric view of the universe might be the way to go. No, to them there's simply no power in all of creation that human beings aren't superior to. Apokolips of Fourth World is brought to its knees and destroyed by Brother Eye and the Pied Piper. Asgaard is destroyed by ordinary bombs in "Seige" last month. (*6) Sorcerer Supremes and Scientist Supremes have to come from Earth, and from America too.

It's a damn good job that Neil Gaiman has retained some measure of control over "Sandman" or some clan of fools will have the Justice League invading the Land Of Dreams and ending the tyranny of Dream.

Look at how super-human beings race across space in little aircraft somehow souped up with unimaginable technology to allow light-years to be crossed in between panels . Zipping from star to star has become as interesting as a bus ride from one shopping centre to another, because human beings simply have to be able to do anything and everything that any alien race can do. It all feels oddly like a kind of ideological suburbanisation, in which all the wild lands of our imagination, all the challenges and all the differences, get paved over with banality so that we're left with a universe where I'm sick of how often and how easily we drop in on Rann or Kree-Lar.

I think I'd see a super-hero comic book set in a recognisable New Jersey or Swindon as being more exotic than one more jaunt to the barrack rooms and communal dining halls of Oa.

And I think that we've long past the point in comic books where we have to be a little careful about preserving the different, the strange, the worlds where America isn't either the model or the solution. Those concepts of Alan Moore's that the Green Lantern creative team has been demystifying and rationalising over the past few years? They retained their power and fascination because they weren't rationalised and their strangeness was deliberately ill-defined. But on we trundle, paving over the different so we can have another big super-powered punch-up on it.

And as we constantly waffle on about how we're better than everyone else, about how nobody can beat us, about how our little bacon-foil spacecraft can turn back huge invasion fleets, how our Gods will kick their Gods back into their inferior mythological somewhere-elses, how nobody in the whole 200 Billion star-systems in our galaxy is as smart as Reed Richards or as pure'n'punchiful as Superman, well; it bleeds out the mystery, it smooths out the fear, and it's also quite unbelievable. I can happily accept a man who can run faster than the speed of light, or even an Android who can walk through walls and fire recycled sunlight through his head, or his eyes, or whatever. It doesn't matter, I'll believe it.

But Earth, the most precious place in all of existence? And you and me, the saviours of the universe? And most every time too?

Oh, please. It doesn't even work as a dramatic conceit.

Isn't anyone else bored by this? It's not just insidious. It's dull.

Or as my old man would say: "But that's rubbish!"

(*6) I certainly got that wrong. Thanks to Ben who points out in the comments how it was the Sentry who destroyed Thor's home. His well-worth-reading comment is below.

9. In Closing: My Own Lack Of Humanity, or: Why I'm Not Fit To Rule The Cosmos

I. Very occasionally, I would have a good idea in the classroom.

Once, in order to try and help my RE students come to grips with Christian teaching, I suggested they imagine in their head the worth of their favourite possessions. (I never asked them to tell anyone else what this sum might amount to. Having come from a - what can we say? - less prosperous home in my youth, which I can tell you did not go well in the affluent Grammar School I mistakenly earned a place to, I'd no intention of embarrassing anyone.) And then I placed in front of my students a checklist of life-changing, even life-saving, medical and social provisions in front of them. Are these possessions you've thought of as being your most precious belongings essential, I'd ask them, challenging them to consider whether they could do without them? And then we'd have a general discussion of how much non-essential possessions might raise if they were sold, and how that money might be spent on what probably should never be called "doing good".

So, if everybody in the class had something they could sell for a pound, and we all shared that profit, we calculated that we could pay for a 15 minute operation that'd allow one trachoma sufferer to keep their sight. And then I had the students investigate Trachoma, and they reported back on how, for example, the disease causes the eyelashes to grow into the sufferer's eyes, and how the sight is painfully damaged and then irreparably destroyed.

And we talked about what it would be like to be suffering this, and knowing what awaited us as the pain increased, and how tough it might be anyway in a developing country, and how much we might want somebody to come across the horizon and save us.

You know, like Superman. Giving us our eyesight back.

And they were great about it, and that form had a collection of spare change every week, which they ran, and which I play-grumpily contributed to, and at the end of the year we had enough for about three and a half people to undergo the operation. (We decided that we'd saved seven eyes instead. It felt better than wondering and giggling about the half-a-person.)


II.
But that was all very well and good. I felt useful and shamefully worthy. And perhaps it helped explain Christian ethics and perhaps it even encouraged a few students to reach into their pockets every once a while. But now I look at the little bookshelf we asked our neighbour to build us in return for my wife helping his daughter with her reading, and I look at the three Absolute Editions I have there, and the two Marvel Omnibus editions, and I think, that's five people's sight there. No need to debate about morality or worry about trickle-down economics. No excuse that giving a few pounds might intensify the culture of poverty or get swallowed up in the administrative costs of some top-heavy charity. Nope, those books up there are simply resources that can be swapped for five people's eye-sight. It's a straight swap.

All I have to do is sell them on and in a few week's time, five people who are painfully losing their sight will be free of that awful spectre.

And it's not as if I need those books. Oh, I worked for them,and I damn well did work for them, and I do love them, but I don't need them.

Not like somebody I've never met needs their eyesight. Not on any level at all.

But I don't sell those books.

I've not been selling those books for years.

And I doubt very many of you do that either. Perhaps I'm being cynical, but most of us don't. Not because we're evil, or even particularly selfish. But because we're people. And "people" aren't generally the sort to set the universe to rights, to lecture Gods, redeem galactic empires, or save all of existence from the Infinity Gauntlet. We're not even very good at selling our books to help other people who really do need our help.

You're mostly the sort of folks like I am, I reckon; the sort of folks who don't benefit at all from hearing how unique and peerless and moral we are. Because we know what we are, and it doesn't help us to keep hearing how cosmically wonderful, how universally essential we are.

And I'd like to see to more of us and what we're actually like and how we truly live in the comic books that we read. Not as "relevancy", or misery, or hectoring and lecturing.

I'd just like us to stop pretending we're so damn gifted and good and special.

We're not Houyhnhnm, and we never can be.

10. Lost In The Stars


Jonathan Swift wrote that "We have just enough religion to make us hate each other, but not enough to make us love each other." Which is, I suspect, where most of human thought is concerned, religious or otherwise, still largely true. And so I do think that we might leave the Guardians and the Kree and the rest of them alone for a while as we work on cracking our own problems. Or, at the very least, that we might work on not being so heroically in denial about what it's like simply to be us.

At least, even though I accept that 70 comics a month from Marvel detailing the running of the super-hero volunteer hospital wouldn't help anything, we might at least have an end to the bilge and cant. (*7)

And as for the Earth being special, I rather think of it as being precious and somewhat somehow displaced, as evoked by the song "Lost In The Stars" by Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill;

"Before Lord God made the Sea and the Land,
He held all the stars in the palm of his hand,

And they ran through his fingers like grains of sand,

And one little star fell alone ... "



(*7) Except for this bilge and cant, of course. This is my bilge and cant. I needed to put it somewhere. So I put it here.


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21 comments:

  1. So, Beta-Ray Bill is a cosmic Houyhnhnm, then? Because I can see that.

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  2. Hello Josh, and you put that so well. "Beta-Ray Bill, the Cosmic Houyhnhnm". I would certainly buy that!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great article! And yes, reflecting my own irritation with the Cult Of Earth.

    Where do you stand on the Cult Of Individual Specialness? I'm going to go into a rant here (almost certainly with swears), but I have a particular problem with Dr Strange in this regard.

    Time was, Strange was an arrogant, egomaniacal wreck who, through his many grevious flaws, found himself halfway up a mountain in Tibet bellowing at an ancient mystic. Learning that there are more things in Heaven and Earth, etc, and finding it within himself to sacrifice his easy lifestyle and go down the difficult road of sorcery - purely because it's the only way he can think of to save the life of a crazy old man who he doesn't much like - he cleanses his ego, lays down his arrogance, stops being a venal little bastard and, in time, becomes The Master Of The Mystic Arts.

    And if someone else as well or better qualified had wandered into that temple a week earlier, someone else would have been Doctor Strange. (Well, Doctor Jennings or Doctor Richlieu or Doctor M'boto. Point is, that someone else would have been Master Of The Mystic Arts.)

    In other words, Strange was not special - or rather, he'd once thought he was special, and then he'd lost every token of his specialness and any talent he'd had - talents he'd misused because he'd thought he was special - and THEN learned into the bargain that he was an insignificant ant and everything he thought he knew about the workings of the universe was a bunch of hooey.

    And then he BECAME special through the only means human beings have to become special - painstaking hard work and an acceptance that you can be better than you are.

    What a great story! Man poisoned by ego, ego is stripped away, now-penitent man learns higher truth, becomes wise man and superhero. It'd be hard to wreck that, right?

    Cue sudden revelations - because Dr Stephen Strange, venal scumbag who becomes tragic loser who becomes incredibly hard-working student... that story's kind of lame, right? I mean, he starts off not being a hero, then he's just a loser (and we all hate losers, right?) and then he has to like... WORK to become a hero. Like study all night and take lessons and everything. It's a total bummer.

    Cue the sudden revelation that Stephen Strange was... SPECIAL! All the time! Just anybody COULDN'T have done it! It's got the be that special little boy, chosen for his special destiny by the Ancient One before sperm even hit egg! Fuck reinventing yourself, Steve, just let your inner specialness shine. All that time you were a prick, it was just you knowing how special you were! Fuck hard work, you're a natural at this magic shit 'cause you're special, special, special! It's not that we're all ants - it's that everyone ELSE is an ant except YOU! YOU SPECIAL, SPECIAL LITTLE FUCKING SNOWFLAKE!

    Yeah, buddy, you're so extra-especially special that now everybody wonders why readers can't relate to you any more. (Actually, the reason is probably that he's been reinvented every six months since the early nineties, but that's a whole other rant.)

    Um... sorry to go off topic there, and feel free to bleep out some of the curse words. It is sort of on-topic, I guess... what do you think?

    ReplyDelete
  4. GREEN LANTERN is a difficult title.

    On the one hand, a writer needs to be able to write Jet Age swagger with some conviction. A shockingly large number of quality writers are defeated by that requirement. They just do not believe in their core that an old-school fighter jock can be a relatable protagonist. Geoff Johns certainly does not have that problem.

    On the other hand, it requires a genuine broad mindedness. Thinking about cosmic issues is too often bounded by the Star Trek derived thinking you are rightly decrying in your blog. What should feel like an amazing journey is all too often reduced to being a collection of straw men for the author's personal hobby horse, or (worse) a droning over explanation of how one old straw man is connected to another. None of it is a pale shadow of the deft, satirical tone of Swift, nor the eerie mystery of Moore.

    Why Johns is so vexing to me is that he clearly has the talent to be a better writer than he currently is. He has a technical mastery of the medium that has rarely been matched. He obviously loves and cares about the characters. His gift at plotting is remarkable.

    He just doesn't seem to have that much to say. His good guys are good because he says so. His romances are wonderful because he says they are. Earth is the center of the universe because he buried the big white McGuffin there. Who, ultimately, cares?

    I have read a lot of Geoff Johns comics and don't really have any sense of him at all.

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  5. Hello Mr E - and how I wish I'd thought of "the Cult Of Earth" when I was writing this. I struggled for days, literally, to bring this beast under control & that title would've really helped. It's almost as if one of us is actually a writer & one of us a blogger!

    And I'm absolutely with you on the "Cult of Individual Specialness", as I hope you thought I would be. I had a section which I had to prune down about American Exceptionalism, the points of which I only touched upon in the end. (I still intend to return to the topic, not to have a go at the USA, because I hope I've made it clear that such ideas are absolutely typical of most human cultures, but because it informs alot, I believe, about some comics.)And there what concerned me was that being "good" becomes a function of simply existing within the borders of a nation, rather than actually doing anything to earn any greater measure of "goodness". So "good" is something you are rather than something you aspire to & strive to work towards. As I say, touched upon, but not developed.

    And your Stephen Strange point chimes exactly with that whole topic of "instrinsic" v "achieved" virtue, and it's a shift in the superhero narrattives that you put your finger on which I fear has become more and more prevelant the further we come from the '60s. There was a wonderful narrative tension in,for example, Stan Lee's first wave of heroes, because chance granted them their powers & yet all of them had to work-work-work to justify their new advantages & make something of themselves. I can't think of any of them who were "special" in themselves. Indeed, Thor had been exiled to Earth for being a dick & Iron Man gradually became the story of the capitalist who learned that predatory capitalism hurts others & eventually comes home to hurt the capitalist.

    And that's exactly what I want to read. As far as I can see, hard work is everything, or if not "everything", of course, then a huge factor in what we are that culturally is becoming more & more devalued because it's HARD to work HARD and that's not something the consumer citizens in our society want to hear about. Every day as a teacher I would, in my own cack-handed way, struggle with the years in schools that had allowed students to retain the cultural belief that they were either "swots" or "the middlin' type" or "stupid". And these labels had nothing to do with potential or even achievement. They were, to make a point rather than to be a serious statitician, 35% labelling, 35% a lack of being "scaffoled" and pushed", and 30% a strange latching on to this excuse in order to excuse being lazy. It's the curse of British society in my mind, Mr E. Our culture has always been about being born as something - King, sportman, nerd, whatever - and not about learning to fight through work-work-work. The Cult of Individual Specialness is of course the kind of thing that makes Kings "Kings" and the rest of us "proles". And it's so Anti-American, even as it's sadly traditionally British/English, that I'm amazed it's become so sentimentally prevelant in so much of the USA's popular culture. And saddened too.

    So, not off-topic at all, of course, Mr E. Absolutely the topic. All my heroes/heroines, fictional or "real", are triers and failures. And nothing gets that poor undeserving goat of mine more than the Cult Of Special anything.

    I really do wish I'd thought of that title though! "The Cult Of Earth" would've looked fine.

    Thank you very much for the comment. I hope you have a very splendid day.

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  6. Hello Dean - and you do put your finger on a strange contradiction in Mr Johns' work. I got absolutely cussed a few months ago by some Brit posters - not in connection to my two blogs, I should say - because I praised Geoff Johns highly for his unchallenged ability to scrape off the barnacles that have obscured old characters - all the stupid continuity, the angst, the poor decisions - and said that I thought his promotion at DC was well-deserved and a relief. If anybody can help us avoid the worst excesses of broken-back-Batman and so on, Johns at the moment looks like the best candidate on the blocks. So I don't lack respect for his work. And you are so right to nail this point by stating that Mr Johns "got" Hal Jordan in a way that so many of his peers and predecessors failed utterly to do. It's to Mr John's great credit.

    But there's a difference between his conceptual abilities - which are splendid, even if they're not all to my taste - and how he puts them into practise in his stories. He is undoubtedly a fine craftsman - I wrote that in this blog and I stick by it - but I too share your worry that his main theme seems to be an endless "heroes journey", which has become so sadly the norm in comic books/film/TV in its' most obvious form: heroes are good, romance is good, villains are bad, just as you rightly argue. I wish Mr Johns would take less huge themes, less massive - massively money-spinning! - story-arcs and drill down to smaller, more personal, more intimate points. Perhaps he might inform his stories by some "touching base" with some content that isn't inspired by comic books, popular culture or story-telling manuals and norms. Let's get some history, philosophy, economics in there - just a few sparks to throw things off in a slightly-less conventional form. It would throw a few curves into what is, for all the narrative twists, rather narrow and unengaging-for-me stories.

    I agree wholeheartedly with everything you say, and I share both your respect and frustration with Mr Johns. Indeed, I admire his attention to and fidelity to the market-place. I think he respects the fanboy hardcore and understands it as no other modern day writer does.

    But that kind of lock on popular taste doesn't tend to last, although he's surfed the wave for a good few years now. And I suspect that sometimes you maintain your position by seeding the main fare with some unexpected influences. The "heroes jouney" is always there in one form or another; that's why it's such a ridiculous concept as far as modern story-telling manuals are concerned. But what makes stories truly interesting is the individual spin. And at the moment, I can't see much of an individual spin to Mr J's work beyond his undoubted individual competence. Which I would prefer to 98% of his fellow super-hero writers over the past 30 years, hand down, of course.

    Thank you for your comment. I hope a splendid day is coming to you!

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  7. America has two main philosophies: Rugged Individualism and It's Not My Fault. We are a nation of people who think they are the best, plus people who won't accept blame. We teach our children that they are special, and argue with the referees when they strike out in Little League.

    I'm a teacher, and it amazes me that parents argue with teachers over their children having to do homework. There is a sizable group of children whose parents will side with them when a teacher reports their bad behavior. I thought this sense of entitlement only happened in the suburbs, but I teach in the inner city. I don't encounter this behavior very often because I teach students with autism (I have a whole 'nother set of issues to deal with), but the teachers who work in regular ed talk about this stuff on a regular basis. Our children aren't being taught to take responsibility for their actions.

    Anyway, I liked Johns' JSA comics just fine. While it was never my favorite series, I enjoyed it for years before losing interest. His Superman stories were fun, despite the uncomfortable politics you note. I found his Green Lantern stuff uninteresting, but could see its appeal. He struck me as a competent super-hero writer whose work was equally capable of being good or bad, like Fabian Nicieza or Chuck Dixon.

    His dominance in DC (along with the editorially-driven plot-by-number stories), however, has made DC the comic book company in which I'm least interested. I find his recent writing both bland and excessively violent and unpleasant(excepting the Superman stuff), and have no interest in Blackest Night. It's just not my thing, although plenty of people like it. The Cult of Earth stuff you point out, along with the Cult of the Silver/Bronze Age and overreliance on shock tactics, make me uncomfortable with Johns' work.

    -Mike Loughlin

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  8. Hello Mike! - and your first sentence made me laugh out loud! It's fair cheered my afternoon here bashing away at the typewriter to hear from you. It's good to hear that I wasn't imagining that what you quite rightly term "entitlement" is indeed infesting our cultures on both sides of the Atlantic, or rather, I'm glad I wasn't entirely imagining it and sorry to hear that I wasn't entirely imagining it too. I think that "cult of specialness" is a terrific political tool & a wonderful ideology to get the passive support of folks who want an excuse not to take responsibility for their lives. And I would like the comic books which taught me so much about responsibility when I was boy - and they really did - to challenge this rubbish about being "special". If everyone is special, then nobody is, and everybody gets prizes. Insanity.

    I thoroughly agree with what you say about Mr Johns' JSA work, and indeed with all you've written! To be honest, I wish I'd had that clear a grasp of his work when I started beating this beast of a subject into its current lumpy form. You've put your finger on the growing centrality of violence in his stories which, you're quite right, is unpleasant. There's a kind of critical mass in his work which is, if not already here, close by, and I appreciate you saying what you have here; it may be that there's no way back from this constant hammering of old plots & thousands of characters flying backwards & forwards at each other with menace. I wonder if Mr Johns is even aware of this slow spiral in his work down to this kind of populist junk narratives. It seems a long way from Stars & S.T.R.I.P.E.S. And I don't think it's healthy.

    It's always splendid to hear from you, Mr L. I wish you well with your work & hope your day is a splendid one.

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  9. I tend to give live-action SF shows like Star Trek a pass on the Earth-centric thing just because it's hard to focus on aliens when every one of them requires expensive makeup or CGI [1]. Comics have less excuse. It's as easy to draw an alien as a human and the slight abstraction inherent in good comic art [2] means that even a non-SF-oriented reader should find it easy to identify with a talking rock or an eyeball with tentacles.

    I've been seeing a lot of the "Cult of Individual Specialness" lately. I'm not sure whether there's more of it or if I'm just noticing it more. Every pop culture character is the Chosen One or the Slayer or one in whom the Force is particularly strong. I think it's also the reason the Doctor is now not just a Time Lord but the Last of the Time Lords [3]. (This goes back a ways--many of the ideas floated for reviving the show in the 90's used the concept, or put the Doctor on a Campbellian "Hero's Journey." Then the BBC novels blew up Gallifrey years before Russell T. Davies had the idea. Interestingly, the idea that the Doctor was Special seemed to pop up around the time people who'd grown up as fans started writing the stories.)

    The biggest problem is when the hero's special super power is Being Right, where the hero is not right because he does the right thing but because the narrative believes that anything he does is right. It's the chief trait of what SF writer Kit Whitfield calls a "Macho Sue" character. (Google the term, and her essay should be the first thing that comes up. Interesting reading.)

    I can enjoy a "Cult of Individual Specialness" story once in a while if it avoids that pitfall... but it usually also has to be a story where what makes the character "special" doesn't really have anything to do with what the character wants to be. Maybe it's a distraction, maybe it's an onerous responsibility. Either way, power fantasies are more bearable when the power turns out not to be easy.


    [1] Farscape did a good job--the whole point of the show was that the hero was cut off from Earth--but it still leaned heavily on one humanoid species.

    [2] Nope, not an Alex Ross fan.

    [3] Cue stentorian voice.

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  10. Hello, Wesley - (1) I don't mind TV SF shows being centred asround Earth and/or Humans. You're right that it's pretty much unavoidable. I object when the message is that humans are special and will somehow, to one degree or another, save the universe & everyone else. Babylon 5 & Star Trek, for example, are saturated with it. Farscape wasn't, you're quite right. Neither was, regardless of it's many faults, Firefly.

    (2) I hadn't considered the RTD Dr Who in that light before, and I'm going to have to give it some thought. Particularly as regards the Eccleston series, I was so won over by what seemed to be the conceit of the Doctor with PTSD & Eccleston's performance that I know I'm blind to faults that should bother me. I know I was more and more uncomfortable with the last three series & specials until the end, and I think you may have given me an "in" to a better grasp of that. My thanks. I shall chew on it. (Wouldn't it be good if most of those who talk about the "heroes journey" hadn't lifted it straight from the dreaded Vogler or even worse his many adherents? Wouldn't it be splendid if they'd actually tried to read something of Gilgamesh, or even Campbell's actually work rather than the cheap guides to it. The whole concept - even in Campbell - strikes me as a ridiuclous example of unfalsifiable reductionism, so common to snake-oil salesmen these days, an idea so hard to prove that anything can be included in its provisions.)

    (3) I've never even heard of the "Macho Sue" concept. Thank you. Please throw as much homework my way as you can. Your blog is great on material on writing, and I'll take absolutely everything you can throw my way.

    (4) That's another point I'd not considered. (Another one!) The protagonist who is special despite their own specialness, if you will. And there would be some real force to that. If you can ever recommend some examples of that, I would be grateful.

    (5)On the whole, I'm against chosen ones of any sort. History really is clear on this point, and I know it sounds pious, but it is also true; as soon as anyone feels special, or is regarded as special, bad things happen. Human beings are "special" when they realise they're not and act accordingly. (cue "Life Of Brian" - "His shoe!"

    I like that stentorian voice. It's compelling me to google "Macho Sue". Thank you very much for your comments.

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  11. Mr W - and FINALLY - completely missed the (1)/ (2)/ (3) bit because I was caught up in what you were writing. And THEN went on to add a (1)/(2)/(3) of m'own in a different context. Talk about being so accurate that the subject misses the point!

    Nice shot. Like a dinosaur, I was dead before I knew I was toppling over!

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  12. The recurring theme of "humanity is so special and noble" is particularly funny when you consider that superhero comics actually suggest a far more pessimistic view. Because the demands of the genre require each superhero to have a variety of different bad guys to fight, there are more supervillains than superheroes in the DC and Marvel Universes.

    Therefore, the average person randomly irradiated/mutated/whatever on a comic book Earth is *considerably* more likely to use his/her powers for personal gain, if not out-and-out "evil". Do-gooders are a *minority*!

    Again, this is largely because of the dramatic demands of monthly superhero comics, but I imagine our real world with the addition of superpowers would not be dissimilar.

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  13. For the "special despite their own specialness" thing... it's something I see more in written fiction than in the media. I suppose one classic case would be The Lord of the Rings: Frodo is the one person in all the world who can carry the magic MacGuffin to the Crack of Doom... but it's all burden, no benefit. And in the end he fails--the ring's only destroyed because earlier, when he was in his right mind, he'd spared Gollum's life.

    Another fantasy example is Laurie Marks's undeservedly unnoticed "Elemental Logic" series (three volumes so far, the most recent being Water Logic), in which the magically-empowered ruler of the fantasy kingdom spends most of her time not using her powers: it's in her nature to take action only when necessary and after a great deal of thought, and she'd rather be fixing things (she's a blacksmith) and spending time with her large family.

    Kage Baker's Company books are also good--they're about people who've been picked to become powerful immortal cyborgs and sent back in time to preserve lost historical treasures. Which sounds neat, until they find they're being manipulated and sometimes sacrificed for their employer's purposes, when they really just want to do their (mostly scholarly) jobs.

    Novels often complicate "chosen one" narratives. The best ones notice, and acknowledge, that being a "chosen one" means you've been chosen by someone, for their own purposes, and what that really makes you is a pawn...

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  14. This was far deeper and far more extensive that any critique I have had for Blackest Night and to another extent Siege.

    One feels like a preach-fest on why my hero is so wonderfully good that it doesn't want to share the spotlight on the organization of heroes, who, by the way, all share the same powers as the hero being glorified.

    The other is just a brainless fight with no major point or ramifications... Just one big brawl to "clear the board" of lifeless carrion.

    Yeah I pretty much oversimplified my point but now I can truly see why some independent comic fans want nothing to do with "the big two".

    As far as Earth being the center of everything, now I think I know why I love reading the "cosmic" books more than "earth bound" heroes books. I truly, truly hate their sensibilities.

    Thx for helping my brain expand a little Colsmi

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  15. Justin - you are absolutely right there. If the possession of powers indicates "specialness", then the mission that the "special" folks have to strive to achieve would not be, shall we say, a conventionally moral one if weight of numbers determined whether "heroes" or "villains" were on the right side.

    Which does show two particularly pernicious conventions of the superhero comic book. The first is that characters still fall into "good" and "bad" characters, with shades of grey too often provided not by "real" people but by those who shift between lawbreaking and "heroic" behaviour. We desperately need a superhero comic which does for capes'n'costumes what "The Wire" did for TV cop shows. We need more people and less heroic figures. Whether anyone is going to infiltrate the mainstream to achieve that is beyond my future-reading powers - which are sadly nil - but it must surely be a viable step forward. Old and apparently irredeemable fictional genres have been rescued before; I think particularly of the BBC's "I Cladius" in the 1970s, which took the "sandal'n'toga" genre & produced a thing of wonder, and on no budget too. If that can be done, perhaps superheroes can be nailed to. Or was that "Watchmen" and the whole project dead and buried. (I don't say that it has to be a "serious", portentous take on the genre.)

    The second pernicious trend is that of taking one population and deciding that one segment is special while the rest are not only not special, but actively dangerous, all based on our personal morality and prejudices. (Superfolks we like = good, including stone-cold killers like Wolverine & The Punisher. All others pretty much = bad)I'm going to be having a whack at something to do with this in the next couple of blogs, so I won't say too much for fear of confusing myself, but as soon as a population is divided up into "good" and "bad", with no other obvious role being allowed, the next step is - to take a modern example - to decide that the "real America" is "our folks" and the rest is all "other", all dangerous anti-social destructors from the planet "destroy-all-decency", despite both groups seeming from the outside to no more "special" than the other. And that doesn't go anywhere good.

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  16. Wesley - thank you for your comment. Reading, for example, what you write on SuperDoomedPlanet.com reminds me of how I've lost track of the SF/Fantasy genres, and how hard it is to jump back in when you've lost most of your reference points. (There came a point where I nipped out to the "mainstream" and I find that for a very, very long time I haven't been back. And we all know that the longer you leave a return, the harder it becomes.)

    I had thought of Frodo after reading your first comment here, and I love that "all burden, no benefit" line you write, which we might have put on mugs and given to everyone who looks likely to construct a "found-on-a-boat-of-reeds, born-of-kings, will-save-us-all" epic.

    I shall just have to use you as my gatekeeper for a while, Wesley. There will be no comeback, no requests for reading lists. You won't even know I'm there. I'll just scurry 'round your blog for a while. But I really ought to go back and have a proper look around the genres which I so loved quite a shameful time ago. Even though it looks rather intimidating and not-for-the-regular-reader on the awards lists at the moment. I'm just terribly out of the loop.

    I'll have a go at a Company book, I think. Thank you for the advice.

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  17. Hello Daryll - I very much appreciate your kind words. And I too understand why so many "indy" readers want, as you say, to have nothing to do with the big Two. Which is a shame, a real shame, because there are really good things going on there still, even if we may agree that these last two big crossovers have had a few problems with them. And if I have a go at the Big Two at times, well, it's because I still have a tremendous amount of affection for what they've done and for a fair amount of what they're doing. (I'm just about to start on my last draft on a piece that I'll be putting up tonight on a mini-series from DC which has just come out in TPB that I've got some considerable time for. I don't want to come across as a "big Two" hater, even though that "specialness" business does get my goat!)

    I too have always a fondness for the cosmic books. If only we could have a little less focus on how wonderful WE are & a little bit more on how WONDERFUL everything else is, I think I'd love them more.

    Have a splendid day, Mr D!

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  18. It's a minor correction, but Asgard met its demise at the forehead of The Sentry/The Void/Wretched Character to Begin With. A schizophrenic drug addict spells the end of the home of the gods, tears War in half, and explodes Chaos. Riddle me that; explodes Chaos. The anthropic face of the ineffable pops like a sporing fungus in the face of human chemistry.

    One of the reasons I liked Civil War was seeing Captain America lose, seeing him, in spite of all of his good intentions and conviction, fall to the terror of the average person on the street. In Siege, the punctuation of that loss has since dissipated. The Good Guys Win.

    Thank you, very much, for this post. You've certainly put your finger on that itch at the back of the head caused by Blackest Night.

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  19. Hello Ben! - thank you not only for the correction, but for the splendidly civil way you made it. The very first comment on either of my blogs - back when I didn't know anybody had even come across my blogs at all - was, when I read it, a brutally contemptuous few sentences about how I'd mis-spelt the name of a character, ending with "Dammit! These things matter.". And of course, it was anonymous. That certainly nipped my delusions of interblognet fraternity right in the bud! You're the antidote to that, so thank you.

    And I think we're safely on the same page about the Sentry, who I find myself writing about in small part for the blog piece I hope to post this very evening. I'm going to have to go back to my copy of "Siege" so I can understand how I misremembered it so. I was looking at the relevant pages when I wrote the blog! I think I have a problem with the Sentry in that he's such a daft, portentous, appallingly-written character that my mind immediately tries to re-write his adventures so that (a) they make more sense, and (b) the Sentry isn't in them. I can't be having that exploding Chaos in my head.

    I never got to the catharsis of enjoying the pricking of Captain America's perfect man-of-the-American-people role that you did because I was again mind-wiped by the sheer stupidity of the story-line. Of course super-powers should be registered. Of course you can't have masked vigilantes on the streets without training, over-sight or reference to the rule of law. (There is such a thing as the rule of law in Marvel-Earth, isn’t there?) It's such an obvious argument that I was amazed anyone could ever think to mention it - it's the elephant in the room & best ignored unless you want that elephant constantly waving it's big big big trunk in front of every scene Marvel presents to us. It made so little sense that I couldn't engage with it, emotionally or politically. And they killed “Black Goliath” off too, dammit!

    I think I'll head over to Marvel Digital and have another look at Captain America and his Civil War adventures. You've inspired me to go and see what I missed there too. Thank you for commenting, and I hope you have a splendid day!

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  20. I give Johns a complete pass on "Earth is special" because, dammit, earth is. Why are most of the universe-threatening events happening on or near earth? Clearly such events must either be happening in the vicinity of mighty heroes or they're not happening at all, and if there are teams of heroes out there as mighty as the JLA, they've somehow never been depicted in comics. So does that mean earth special in both its population of heroes and also its ability to attract threats?

    To a certain extent, seventy years of comics have forced the question, and I am satisfied with Johns's answer. It's not a perfect answer but it will do. And yes, I am an American, but I am as frustrated with American Exceptionalism as you are. (Probably more so; you don't have to work with the people I do.)

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  21. Hello kingbeauregard:- having spent a significant amount of time writing about Darkest Night a few weeks ago, I'm less troubled by the Earthcentricism - a new useless word! - than I was. And of course you're right, Earth is special. But I still stand by the main points I made, though I hope I didn't come across as hammering American Exceptionalism so much as the tendency of human beings to portray themselves as so wonderful that the universe exists for them and their purposes. There are still surviving pockets of British exceptionalism over this side of the pond and they're never particularly aware or even pleasant people! My best to surviving the trials of working with the folks you mention!

    But I guess the question is not whether Earth is made special in a comic book, but the use that that's put too. So I'll be sure to keep my eye on what Mr Johns is doing and if I have to eat humble pie, well, it'd be my pleasure!

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