Thursday, 28 October 2010

Jon Favreau's "Iron Man II":- What Tony Stark Once Suffered To Learn, Tony Stark Soon Forgot: The Superhero Beyond The Comics 2


Everyone's at least something of a villain in "Iron Man II", except for some of our superhero's friends and those thoroughly unaccountable Agents Of Shield, and yet one of the very worst of the bad guys is Tony Stark himself.


There's no doubt that one of the antagonists in "Iron Man II" is the American state itself, as represented by her government and her armed forces. The movie portrays Senators and generals as incompetent and self-serving individuals who simply can't grasp that Tony Stark should be permitted to do whatever he wants to because Iron Man is here to save us all. It's a juxtaposition between, on the obviously good side, a roguish and dynamic capitalist billionaire, and, on the clearly bad side, those conceited and short-sighted servants of the state, and it's a contrast that's strangely referred to by Jon Favreau in his director's commentary, where he discusses Stark's appearance before Senator Stern's committee;

"Here he is ... Howard Hughes trial ... where they're trying to nail this guy down, but his personality is too large. And he has public opinion upon his side, because he's doing wonderful things, and there is peace and there is prosperity. And he's more powerful than the Senate, and it's almost like Caesar. It's like a Caesar-like rise ... that we wanted to mirror .. "

It's such an odd thing to say, but it explains a great deal about a movie that sees Tony Stark repeatedly place the security of America and the safety of its citizens at terrible risk, before being counter-intuitively rewarded with a medal for his self-interested actions from the US Government.

Because Mr Favreau doesn't seem to grasp that Caesar destroyed the Roman Republic, and destroyed it because he acted in his own interests rather than that of the state. In doing so, he wiped off the map what little political freedom remained in Ancient Rome, and set the newly minted Roman Empire on course for decades of Civil War, hundreds of thousands of casualties, and centuries of despotic, rather than oligarchic, rule. Caesar isn't the hero of anyone's history but his own, unless you happen to be a fan of tyrants and their tyrannies, and I'm sure that Mr Favreau most certainly isn't that.

And Howard Hughes? Howard Hughes corrupted the American political process for decades with vast sums of illicit cash and huge reserves of political muscle.

Which means that positioning Tony Stark in their likeness, as they scorned the political process in the name of nothing but their own utterly-selfish interests, is either a considerable miscalculation, or the most subtle ironic colouring a director's ever given to a Hollywood blockbuster movie.


"Iron Man II" isn't a film which can watched and enjoyed in isolation from the first movie in the franchise, beginning as it does at the moment that the main action of "Iron Man" closed. But there's a fatal discontinuity between the meaning of the first movie and that of the second, which means that the films don't so much follow smoothly one on after the other as they do stand in direct contradiction to themselves. In essence, the problem is that the Tony Stark of "Iron Man II" has either pathetically regressed from the self-knowledge he acquired from his trials, or that he's not the same person at all in the two films, despite all appearances.


The first movie was a unpretentious masterpiece of concision and precision. The arc of "Iron Man" was, of course, the story of Tony Stark's heroic journey from irresponsible capitalist to humane businessman, and everything that appeared on the screen was subordinate to the simplicity and purpose of his vertiginous learning curve. The charming, charismatic Stark was a symbol of the destructive excesses of privilege; he was the capitalist with a supposed big heart and zero self-awareness, unable to help himself grasp that love was standing before him just as he was damning untold numbers of victims who stood where he could never witness their fate. And if Stark couldn't be said to be as crippled inside as the victims of his weapons were both in mind and body, he certainly wasn't benefiting from a life of such unimaginable wealth and indulgence, given that when trouble came, there was only Pepper Potts that he might truly rely on to help him out.

Tony Stark, in his impossible extremes of advantage and his various substance abuses, in his adrenalin-fuelled faux-narcissism and relentless promiscuity, was everything that the movie "Iron Man" was against. He was an unthinking, uncaring beneficiary of the freedoms of modern American society who had turned away from his responsibilities as an individual citizen and member of the human race.

People had died because Tony Stark hadn't even cared enough to recognise that what supposedly benefited him so greatly had horribly wounded and murdered them, and in the end, his disengagement from his moral self was going to terribly hurt him and then almost kill him.


In retrospect, it's astonishingly how few characters there are in "Iron Man" who're granted even the slightest slither of screen time. There's Tony, of course, who's wounded the world and who now must be wounded himself until he chooses to grow up. There's Pepper, the symbol of the decent and loving life that Stark can't engage with as long as he remains corrupt. There's Rhodey, the mirror who shows us through his courage, strength and loyalty that Stark too has those qualities, or Rhodey couldn't care for him as he does. There's Dr Yinsen, who teaches Tony what it is to care for others at great cost to oneself, and who so tellingly helps to create a dysfunctional artificial heart for Stark which works better in a moral sense that his fully-functioning natural one ever did. There's Odadiah Stane, Tony's surrogate Father who's the symbol of predatory selfishness, the capitalist that cares for nothing so much as he does for more power and money. And there's Raza, if you can call him a character at all, a symbol of all the pain and suffering that inevitably gets kicked up when power without responsibility starts to meddle in other people's lives.

To feature just five characters of any substance and one type in a movie lasting longer than two hours is a remarkable achievement, especially as the film never feels sparse or under-populated. (*1) Instead, the remarkable accomplishment of the script and the production together is that text and sub-text are always pulling together in the same direction with considerable force and meaning. And of course, to do so, everyone's story is subordinated to Tony's, and as Tony learns what it is to be a human being and not a social parasite, so each of the others is either rewarded or punished according to the degree that they've sought and used power and wealth to hurt or help others.

Most importantly, Stark himself suffers grievously for his sins. He quite literally loses his own heart, an irony which was quite lost to Stan Lee when he wrote the initial origin for the character in 1963, and a fact which lay dormant in the strip for years until its metaphorical power became obvious and irresistible. And so, how brilliant is it that even Tony's new heart can't function properly until he rethinks it and then trusts Pepper to help him install it? He trusts her not just because he has to, because he has no-one else, but because he wants to, because it's the last act of his necessary emasculation and one of the first of his rise upwards, a process defined not by his ability to hurt others, but by his capacity to trust them and sacrifice for them.

"Iron Man" isn't just a brilliantly concise script. It's a marvellously constructed morality play. And since the morality and the story coexist and serve each other's interests all the time, the ending of the movie is far, far more satisfying than a typical popcorn movie blow-out.

*1:- I hope you'll agree that Ms Everhart is too slight a role to mention here.


The assumption of "Iron Man II" seems to be that Tony Stark is now a hero and that anything he does will be a reflection of some moral superiority. Quite simply, Stark can do nothing wrong even when he's plainly doing little else but. Even the most terrible and immoral screw-ups by Stark in the film are swiftly papered over and retribution for them never arrives in the process of the narrative or even at its closure. In fact, Stark's failings and conceit are actually purposefully disguised or largely ignored in the story, so that behaviour which should be portrayed as at best immature and at worst profoundly dangerous are either shown as humorous, or worthy of pity, or even admirable.

Consider again Stark's appearance before Senator's Stern's Committee near the beginning of the film. The scene is fixed so that it's Stern who appears to be the dangerously would-be demagogue, and his scientific advisor Hammer is played out as a self-serving idiot. It's an ugly business, actually, because the case the two of them are putting forward is morally and politically correct in pretty much every detail. No nation-state could ever tolerate a private citizen owning such a weapons-system as the Iron Man armour, let alone retaining sole individual control over it. America is a nation where, for all the absence of gun-control puzzling to the European mind, weapons capable of flattening skyscrapers are, shall we say, tightly controlled. The Iron Man armour is capable of destroying any conventionally armed representative of the state that we might imagine, let alone flattening much of any city in the land, and so it's hard not to believe that Stark's possession of it would be, and very much should be, a cause for serious concern. Furthermore, Stark is a citizen of the USA, and it actually is his duty to share, if not indeed cede, the control of that technology. He's a citizen of the polity and it's utterly inappropriate for him to possess control of a super-weapon which could threaten the state. After all, if something happens to Stark without America having the scientific knowledge to prepare a defence against the proliferation of the Iron Man technology, the USA would be at a considerable disadvantage in terms of both conventional warfare and defence against terrorist attack.

Yet the film presents a fiction in which all Government servants, be they scientists, politicians or soldiers, are so utterly incompetent, if not also criminally viperous, that they shouldn't be in control of the technology used to make parking meters, let alone in charge of the nation-state of America and its massive arsenal. It's a fixing of the argument through misdirection and moral carelessness that ends up presenting Stark as a man of the people rather than one behaving in a profoundly anti-democratic sense. And yet, if the weapons system Stark had developed had been a selection of super-smallpox viruses, for example, I doubt he would be being seen by the audience of "Iron Man II" as the hero of the piece, threatening the nations of the world as he would be with a far less visually-inspiring and far more emotionally and intellectually disturbing threat. Indeed, few viewers would believe that any biological weapons Stark might create should be in anything other than a government laboratory if not a furnace.

It's as if we're all so beguiled by the beauty of the armour and the romance of wearing it, as well as the endearing marvel that's Mr Downey's performance, that we forget that Iron Man is a weapon of mass destruction that could create a disaster on the scale of 9-11 in a second, and that it couldn't ever be left in the private hands of even the best of women and men, let alone one prone to bouts of massively irresponsible behaviour.

But although the Iron Man armour is undoubtedly a WOMD, the movie is absolutely determined to portray Stark as the only human being who deserves to wear it, as if Stark's judgement is perfect, and perfectly in harmony with the needs of America's citizens, as if he'll never be too tired, drunk, ill or just plain human to run the risk of making a terrible misjudgment with all that power at his disposal.

As if everyone else in the American state is unworthy to even ask Stark if they can touch the shiny skin of his lovely armour.

But by refusing to share or destroy the Iron Man technology, Stark is, as Caesar did, putting himself above the rule of law. And, despite what the movie would have us believe, if you doubt that Senator Stern was correct in his argument with Tony, just recall the scene where Stark gets drunk, brawls with a similarly bearmoured Rhodey, terrifies his party-guests, puts them all at great risk and then destroys the building they're in. Whether it's his property or not that's been blown up by the childish punch-up, the very fact of the fight should serve as the beginning and end of the evidence needed to prove that Stark simply should not have that tech under his control. For he can't argue that he's trustworthy if he's plainly not, as if one catastrophic lapse of judgement is forgivable if you're Tony Stark, as if one little blow-up between two WOMDs on private property is a quiet petty matter of no social importance.

But then, it isn't just one lapse of judgment, and this movie's take on Stark provides us with an arrogant and ignorant man for whom the lessons of the first movie seem almost to have been quite utterly forgotten. He continually parades a habit of quite terrible decision-making, selfish behaviour and confused thinking in general. He claims, for example, that no-one else in the world can possibly produce weapons-tech similar to the Iron Man armour that might threaten America, as if he knows nothing of history, as if he's never heard of the complacency of the West before the Soviets exploded their own atomic bombs, and as if he doesn't realise that defence systems need to be developed now in case his brilliant mind is wrong. It's an unforgivable arrogance that the film never calls him on despite the appalling consequences of his conceit when Whiplash later uses stolen Stark technology in a vast terrorist atrocity which the movie chooses to portray as a rather thrilling special effects set-piece. And Stark's failure to adequately protect his super-weapon suits from theft, and Rhodey has no problem at all in stealing the "War Machine", is the root cause of the damage all those Hammer weapon suits rain down on Jersey. It's a carelessness on Stark's part that's the equivilant of the US Army permitting the removal of a nuclear weapon and its silo and everything in it, but the film would have us forgive Stark's lapse simply because we love him and trust Rhodey.

In such a manipulative fashion does "Iron Man II" smother us with illogic and sentiment to the point that we can't see Stark for the public and criminal menace that he is, and he undoubtedly is. We watch the film's climax, for example, where a smug Tony is being given that medal for his role in facing down Whiplash's assault upon Flushing Meadows, and we are supposed to have never noticed that it was all Tony's fault. He let the tech fall into Rhodey's hands, just as in his extreme arrogance he failed to focus on preparing a defence against the Iron Man system falling into the wrong hands or being developed independently. And so the responsibility for the firefight which destroyed so much of Queens at the film's climax, and which cannot have done anything but destroy of tens of lives and destroyed billions of dollars of property and vital civic resources, is all on Stark's hands. He really wasn't to be trusted, he really wasn't in control, and he really shouldn't have been permitted to keep those wonderful and ferociously powerful weapons in the garage under his little beach house.

He's not a hero and he doesn't deserve a medal, he really doesn't. "Iron Man II" is a movie that lies to us about what right and wrong are, just as the first movie did exactly the opposite.


If "Iron Man II" is yet another movie that, without intending to, positions the state as an incompetent if not evil organisation somehow existing solely as a body to screw up the lives of otherwise virtuous individuals, it's also a movie that violates its own apparent moral intentions. For if the events of the first "Iron Man" are to mean anything, in sense of the broad ethical brushstrokes that inform Hollywood blockbusters, Tony has to be seen to have absorbed what he's learnt at such cost to himself and so many others in Afghanistan and in Stane's LA. It isn't, after all, a heroes journey if the hero returns from the land of dead and forgets to recall the truths that he learned there.

And yet the Stark we find in "Iron Man II" is plainly still a moral idiot, which might generate time-filling conflict and the audience's pity, but it isn't true to the first film. Unhappily hesitating to go to a party and yet drinking to excess before blowing the building up isn't a sign, for example, that Tony's reformed his ways. It's a sign that after all the trouble in the first movie, he still hasn't learned his lesson. He still can't trust Pepper, he's still an adrenalin junkie at the races, he's still courting the excesses of celebrity life, and he's still thinking of himself before others, even though he's slightly kinder than he was before.

For the first Iron Man movie is rendered a waste of emotional involvement if all that Tony can show in the way of self-knowledge in the second movie is a slight measure of gratitude and sorrow. And if Tony won't share or control his tech, control his behaviour, trust his friends or accept responsibility for his actions, if he permits himself the award of a medal when he should be in a cell somewhere, or being sued into absolute poverty in the law-courts, then he's learnt nothing.

And so, when the second movie ends on Stark being given that obviously worthless piece of metal and a pretty ribbon for his part in suppressing a major terrorist crisis which he through his negligence and arrogance caused, I can only conclude that the pressure of creating "Iron Man II" was so intense that Mr Favreau and his team missed the fact that the Senator should've been waving Tony off to a Federal Prison rather than spitefully sticking a tiny needle into Stark's chest.


And so "Iron Man II" simply doesn't function as a conventional and humane morality play, which is a shame, because superhero movies always seem to work best when they're constructed to clearly reflect moral as well as personal conflicts. And yet, so diffuse is the second movie in its multiplicity of roles and ill-defined and separate plots, that it's hard to make sense of what it means on a symbolic level. Or more truthfully, it's hard to accept what the movie is saying given the excellence of its predecessor and the obvious gifts and hard work of the movies creators. But watching the film time and time again, it seems sadly true that it is indeed a film in praise of Caesar and whatever at all Caesar might choose to do, as if the individual capitalist and man of great power should indeed be granted the status of saviour of the Republic regardless of the fact that he's disobeying the Republic's laws.

It's as if any attempts by that spoilsport state to stop Stark partying with his repulsors, to deny Tony his apparent right to threaten to drop in and blow up foreign powers as well as homebased opponents, is somehow a threat to, rather than a denial of, civil liberties.

It's as if what gets said and shown in movies is irrelevant as long as the audience is having fun, fun, fun.

And the fact of that is a genuine shame. For in the first movie, Tony Stark was our representative in the world of the idle and uncaring super-rich. He was lost there and only became himself when he was locked away with his mortality and his guilt, with the memory of Dr Yinsen's sacrifice and Pepper's love for him. But "Iron Man II" has a quite different take on the super-rich, it seems, or at least, the capitalist class that are brilliant and wildly entertaining if socially irresponsible. Stark is a hero because he's Stark and we love him, regardless of what he does, but the government is unfit to trust, the army are all morons except for rare individuals who stand with our heroes even as they steal from them, democratic oversight is not to be trusted, and only the capitalists like Hammer who're too incompetent to produce good work without putting Russian super-villains to use aren't to be trusted.

It's not what you do that counts, apparently, but who you are, and whether we love you or not.

Worse yet, it's a movie that makes self-pitying excuses for the immorality and incompetence of its own hero. Tony's dying, so of course he can mess around with those WOMDs at parties. Tony wasn't loved by his father, so of course he finds it hard to love, and so on. But whatever the narrative evasions, the hero's journey doesn't permit excuse-clauses to modify whether the heroically-transforming programme takes or not, and so, this Iron Man simply isn't a hero, just as the Stark of the first film most certainly was.


Nothing happened in "Iron Man" that wasn't designed to tell us something about Tony's fall and rise as a mensch. But the connection between events and meaning is so confused in "Iron Man II" that it's no surprise that the film closes with such a soggy and smug ending. The narrative's momentum is constantly slowed and often quite derailed by water-cooler moments and bright ideas that aren't connected to anything other than passing fancy and the need to get a movie into the theatres regardless of whether it makes sense or not. Why, for example, is Stark dying of the "palladium" in his system? If it's further punishment for all his sins as an arms manufacturer, or even for his continued arrogance, then how can we make sense of his release from slow death achieved by the odd and painless penance of learning to love Daddy? Stark hasn't sacrificed anything beyond accepting the evidence of his eyes and ears when faced with his father's dewy-eyed testimony on film. In fact, Stark's freed from his suffering while his appropriated technology is still out there in the world; the hero has been rewarded despite doing nothing of social value at all to deserve it. Nor does he seem to have learned anything of moral value from his experience of being poisoned, except that perhaps he might love himself abit more because daddy loved him. But then, Stark's journey in "Iron Man II" is to consistently screw-up and to then be helped out when he hasn't earned his rescue. Indeed, if he hadn't been given his father's work by Nick Fury, Stark wouldn't even have avoided a painful deathful by macguffin. He's survived through chance, through no specific sacrifice, and with no essential moral knowledge gained.

Well, what was the point of it all then?

It's another example of how any meaning that can be taken from the film is either absurd or disturbing, and that couldn't have been the intention. After all, if the Tony of "Iron Man II" is dying, the logic of the hero who's already faced death is to seek an end that helps others, not to go racing in Monte Carlo. And so even when Stark puts Whiplash's rampage to an end, he's only cleaning up a desperately awful mess that he's largely responsible for in the first place; it doesn't mean anything in terms of behaving heroically, especially given that he emerges unharmed and unreformed himself. He's not protecting the people so much as tidying up his own mistakes.

Tony's not even fully aware of the sins he's committing, because the movie-makers themselves don't seem to have been, or perhaps they didn't care, and so he can't convincingly earn absolution, let alone our respect, at the end of "Iron Man II". That medal stands for nothing of value at all.

Lost in a mass of plot-lines and a melee of barely realised and irrelevant characters, and hiding in plain sight beside moments of genuine pleasure and some extremely wearing camp slapstick, lies a reversal of moral purpose. The first Iron Man movie showed how Tony Stark became part of the human race. The second shows how he's somehow now superior to the rest of us, safe above his fellow citizens and their laws, and, look, he even gets a medal and the hand of Pepper Potts too at the end.

But that new heart of his is now powered by what Jarvis declares to be "a new element", an impossibly rare and expensive substance, the knowledge of which has been passed down from one generation of the inconceivably rich Stark family to another without having been made public knowledge in the meantime. The secret science that might save the world from all its energy problems has been locked away for decades until it might save Tony.

It's a story-fact that provides as coherent a meaning as any other from this confused movie, which seems to be about how the super-rich and the super-bright and the super-fortunate can do what they want in their own interests, and even in defiance of their best interests, even down to the hoarding of ideas that might so positively transform the world and weapons which certainly could destroy it.

But Tony already had a new heart, a heart that worked perfectly well. We saw Pepper help him put it into place, and the last thing he needed was a fancier, more expensive model at all.


Well, of course it's good fun. The creators and performers are clearly often brilliant. But it's confused and ill-thought through, and Caesar never was a hero. He brought down the Republic because he didn't want to do what the state demanded of him, because he felt that he was better, that he was more important, than everyone else. He was the most brilliant general with the most fearsome army in all of the Roman Republic and he wanted to do whatever he thought was best.

It's not a good example. You can't dress a democrat in a demagogue's clothes and not confuse the point, just as you can't have a hero who faces his own mortality in one movie and then forgets all the lessons he's learned when facing his imminent death in the next.

nb: added December 1st, 2010: there's an alternative and far more positive reading of the film offered by one Johnny Sorrow in the comments below. You'll need to scroll down a fair way, but it's a well-written piece and given that it completely disagrees with the above, I would recommend you take a look. It'd be worth your while.

Thanks you for visiting. Coming soon; "Darkest Night" and a 2000 ad-based piece. I hope you might consider dropping in at some time and seeing how those two ideas have developed, and that you'll accept my best wishes for your having a splendid day.


Monday, 25 October 2010

"Batwoman: Elegy" by Greg Rucka & J H Williams: On The Nature Of Virtue And Correct Conduct


It's impossible to say whether "Batwoman: Elegy" is an angry comic book that's been written by an angry man.

But I strongly suspect that it is.


"Batwoman" is a book at war with the very terms of mass political debate in the West of the 21st century. It's not exclusively left or right wing, radical or conservative, or even, save us, politically playful and post-modern, though in its own way it's any and all of those things.

But it is a comic that displays an uncommon exasperation with some of the absurd and insulting assumptions which too often shape the contemporary political debate. And in its own quite deliberate fashion, the book's a rejection of our culture's often-unthinking acceptance that happiness and meaning can be found in either conforming to social pressure or in rejecting the wider society in search of individual satisfaction.

For in "Batwoman;Elegy", the argument seems to be that a life well lived can't be constructed from conformity and service at the cost of fundamental individual freedoms, and vice versa too. Instead, in Mr Rucka and Mr Williams work here, freedom and duty aren't positioned as opposites, the state and the individual aren't separate and exclusive principles, and duty and choice are the Janus-headed sides of the same coin.


"At least I'm not pretending to be something I'm not!" shouts Kate Kane at her closeted lover Renee, at 6:12:4. But, of course, Kate is herself living a lie, and it's a lie that obscures a fundamental truth of her existence that's every bit as fatal to suppress as Officer Montoya's public identity as a lesbian. Of course, the two of them exist as opposites, one fulfilling her sexual identity and the other her social responsibilities, and neither of them can grasp that the solution to each other's problems are hiding in plain site right there before the pair of them. Renee may not be out, may not have told her colleagues and her family that she's gay, but she is fully engaged in the purpose of serving the wider community of Gotham City. That Renee's life is blighted with the weight of secrecy and the fear of discovery doesn't mean that her life is entirely a "lie", as Kate in her unconscious defensiveness spits out at her, any more than the fact that Kate is openly a lesbian makes her a self-evidently honest and complete person.

For Kate, with all her families wealth, can afford to be out just as she can't, in terms of her own soul, afford to be defining herself solely in terms of indulgence and social indifference. She can try to internalise that great myth of the modern west, that our individual identity and our happiness can be fixed and furthered by adopting a role that attends only to our atomised selves, but it's a myth that will destroy her, just as not being true to the facts and blessings of her own personal sexuality will inevitably threaten to destroy Renee Montoya too.


Kate's dilemma is so beautifully captured by the synergy of Mr Rucka and Mr Williams work during the scene where she first encounters the Batman (6:13:7). In the panels leading up to this initial meeting, Kate has been depicted in Mr William's art with a simplicity of form borrowed in part quite deliberately and respectfully from the style David Mazzucchelli used during his days illustrating Marvel Comic's "Daredevil". And this brilliant appropriation ensures that Kate remains a substantial and respect-worthy figure in the scenes leading up to the appearance of Bruce Wayne, just as it permits an immediate visual contrast to be drawn between her semi-cartoony two-dimensionality and the far more "realistic", the far more heavily-rendered and detailed, figure of the Dark Knight.

It's a lack of substance on Kate's part that's emphasised as she stumbles backwards with the shock of The Batman's appearance, faced with a character that's as solid and unmoving as a fundamental moral principle. Kate, we're surely being told, is a cartoon of herself, but this man in a mask is profoundly real. The rain splatters off off of him without leaving a trace because he's not defined by the situation he's in, by his circumstances or his role, and when she looks up at him, Kate and the reader can all of a sudden see Gotham's grey heavens rather than the city's endless grey walls and pavements.

And so, when Kate stands in The Batman's shadow and watches him pull himself wordlessly up into the sky in response to the Bat-signal's call, it's suddenly obvious that she's not a victim anymore. She's not the victim of a government that would demand its citizens lie about their very nature all in the name of a prurient morality and electoral cowardice, and she's not a victim of the legends of self-expression through sybaritic indulgence and inward-looking obsession.


James Ellroy recently characterised contemporary culture as being, in part, one strongly marked by "self-pity (*1) ". And "Batwoman: Elegy" is a book that places its lead character into such extremes of jeopardy and suffering that the reader might that fear the tale is going to be yet another comic book indulgence of angst, yet one more soap-operatic construction where an endless tsunami of ill-fortune is designed to heighten a never-ending, rarely-interrupted, sense of tearsome, oh-woe-is-me despair.

But, of course, "Elegy" is concerned with anything but the weighing down of the reader with a sequence of internal and external calamities in preparation for a long delayed and supposedly cathartic punch-up. Nor, indeed, does Mr Rucka ever suggest that such tale-closing brawling is the point of his story at all. Instead, Kate's progress isn't the usual cycle of endless and overwhelming super-heroic problems punctuated by brief and Pyrrhic victories. Rather, her salvation is found in the simple fact that she's learnt to fight, to "soldier on" (1:16:5), and that she's learned to fight in both the private and the public spheres of her life, serving herself and her city's community.

And so, Kate Kane as a private individual isn't a haven into which "Batwoman" can retreat between superheroic showdowns. Instead, Kate is engaged upon her own struggle with injustice just as her alter-ego is, albeit in a different sphere, and she too wears a costume and faces down the enemy with bravery and fortitude. It's a point that can be seen in the scene of the Fundraiser (3:13), where Kate's appearance as an obviously out and individually-minded woman causes her step-mother to groan "Oh, Katie ... You couldn't have worn something appropriate? (3:13:4)". But Kate knows what's appropriate, and what's appropriate is to declare to the polity that she's not ashamed of her identity and her sexuality, despite whatever that defiance may cost her. And so when she's accused of "trying to draw attention to herself (3:14:2)", with her almost necrotic skin-tone and her wonderfully scarlet Louise Brooks hair-style, with her uniform of a tuxedo which both mimics and mocks conventional formal masculine standards, Kate is declaring that she's just "making sure" that she doesn't "stay hidden (3:14:2)", because she shouldn't ever have to be.

For Kate's journey has been to grasp that the private and the public spheres of life aren't separate, and that politics isn't a matter just to be ignored on the TV and attended to once every while with a tick in a ballot box. And by embracing the fact that she needs to always exists in a social sense every bit as much as she does as an individual too, Kate is that rarest of creatures;the democratic citizen.

And "Batwoman: Elegy" seems to be so disgusted with self-pity and defeatism, though compassionate to personal pain, that every element of the book appears to declare that we're lost if we allow ourselves to conspire with our own oppression, if we abandon society to its bigots and its self-interested playmakers. By being herself, by challenging the idiocy and prejudice around her simply by refusing to respond to the intimidation of disapproval, Kate Kane is of course fighting the good fight every bit as much as Batwoman does.

Or, as Kate's father puts it, she's not "alone (7.9.5)". There's a society beyond herself that she can choose to belong to, if she can just remember in her pain that a wider society in its various forms exists and needs to be engaged with.

*1:- James Ellroy, "This Much I Know", The Observer Magazine, 24-10-10


When Kate is shown dancing with Captain Maggie Sawyer (3:18/19), the two of them are portrayed with such a laudable and appropriate lack of shame, are pictured with such dignity and strength, that the judgements of everyone else in the room are pushed quite rightly away to the very periphery of the dancer's attention. There in the centre of things the two of them move, carving out the directions of their own lives, one formally embedded in the state's bureaucracy and one acting in a rather less conventional fashion to help others, and they're not stereotypes, but people.

And the grace and discipline of their dancing seems to emphasise a point that's as exasperated in its meaning as the text and art are beautiful in their form. What, these pages self-evidently demand, could possibly be wrong with this?


Saturday, 23 October 2010

Paul Cornell's "Secret Identity", from the short-story anthology "Masked":- The Superhero Beyond The Comics No 1

In which the blogger attempts to discuss a rather touching and clever short story without giving too much away of the tale. But please be aware that there may possibly be unintended spoilers ahead;


Nihilism, it seems to me, is whatever Paul Cornell isn't.


"Secret Identity" is a short story so unfashionably optimistic, good-hearted and clever that it might almost have been adapted from an early Silver Age DC comic written by John Broome and drawn by Carmine Infantino. Or, such might be imagined if National Periodicals had been in the business of printing four-colour adventures where both the hero and the community he's protecting were world-famous gay icons.

It's a story of faith, compromise and ingenuity, grounded in what appears to be an ardent belief that there's nearly always a solution to disconcerting problems if only the folks involved can just be a touch more clear-headed, honest and unselfish.

"Canal Street (night-time)" by Michael Gutteridge


But Mr Cornell's tale isn't a backwards-looking indulgence haunted by the ghosts of old comic books. Instead, the old superhero archetypes being put to use in "Secret Identity" are very much alive and flourishing in the skies above Manchester's Canal Street, reincarnated and reinvigorated as magical English heroes and villains. It's a fact that's true in particular where "The Manchester Guardian" is concerned, who's very much an extra chord or two added to the old Captain Marvel riff, a rainbow-costumed superman who shares something of his body and something of his mind with Chris Rackham, an endearingly unremarkable and loving gay man. (*1) And failing to exhaust the noble Guardian's patience are the players on the other side. such as Top Hat, a super-villain who channels the dress sense of Mandrake the Magician and who seems to spend a great deal of time being thrown through outer space, and White Candle, a femme fetale given to breaking and entering the homes of absent gay men, and Jumping Jack, who's;

"Not the murderous sort, this one. The fun kind of magic villain of Manchester most enjoyed. His lightning just gives you a bit of a jolt."

It's as if Paul Cornell had taken a good and hard writerly look at Alan Moore's Neopolis and decided that something much less sprawling and crowded, something better humoured and considerably more English, would be a very good idea indeed. Somewhere, perhaps, full of typical un-super folks who just happen to be gay while struggling to come to grips with the typical, un-super questions of everyday life, while above them, like angels and devils perched on Canal Street's conscience, the costumed brigade act out a series of options of how life might be lived, and look downwards on occasion for inspiration to the men in the city below.

*1:- The relationship between Chris, the yarn's Billy Batson, and the Manchester Guardian is one so cleverly worked out that the Big Red Cheese himself, and all of the Shazam family too, might benefit greatly from Mr Cornell's conceits here being put to work over in Fawcett City.

"Jim Ashton heard the magic explosion. So could all of Mantos." (page 1)


It's taken for granted that the idea of the super-hero is a very good thing in itself in "Secret Identity". There's no literary shame, no self-consciousness about these silly if endearing creatures in their "form-fitting" costumes and their ridiculous abilities. Nor, indeed, is there a sense of an over-reverent attachment to the cape'n'tights battalions, or a desire to load the Manchester Guardian and his antagonists with a symbolic weight of worthiness and relevancy. Instead, the super-folks are no more and no less important than the everyday folk in the story, the capes and the uncostumed being equally vital individuals in Mr Cornell's tale. And so, rather than being yet another "meta-commentary" on super-heroes and the traditions of the genres, "Secret Identity" is a refreshingly thoughtful meditation on what it is to be a good person, rather than what it is to be a person thinking about good and bad comics.

There is, however, a deliberate commitment to expressing an unjaded sense of wonder here, both for the " ... magic 'hero fights' in (the) skies ... " and for the lives of earthbound folks trying to make their way in a world where just staying in love and on the right side of the community can be a challenge at the best of times.

In truth, this isn't a tale about superheroes at all, any more than it's a story about gay men. It's not about roles at all, and it's blithely dismissive of the 21st century myth that human beings are best off occupying the space proscribed by certain specific lifestyle choices and gaining meaning from sticking within them, changing only as mores and other fashions do. "Secret Identity" is rather single-mindedly focused on the process of being a person, an individual human being rather than a role or even a stereotype, whether that person might be found in Manchester's streets or high above them in Manchester's skies.

It's not about gay men and superheroes, any more than it's dismissive of the real and fictional lives of superheroes and gay men. It's about being a good person, and the process of what that involves.

"That night, all of Canal Street looked up from their pints to hear a very solid impact of magic villain with water ... " (page 14)


Stare hard at the apparently random, meaningless and cruel order of things, Mr Cornell seems to be saying, and have the faith to be honest and unselfish, and there'll be a way forward that's better than silence, self-deception and selfishness. It's a Socratic view of the universe, a faith that there's a truer world and a clearer purpose to be found there if we can just look hard and honesly enough for it, and that's exactly what Chris and Jim and the Manchester Guardian eventually manage to achieve in "Secret Identity".

In fact, the answer was there in front of them all the time.

Everything is connected, everything can made to make more sense, and look, there's all those superheroes "dumping energy into the atomic void" and "throwing glamors and dazzles and feints" to help sugar the message too.

"Crowds were rushing onto the pavement from the Cornerhouse bar ..." (page 8)


Mr Cornell's Manchester is laid out with all the precision of a soundstage for the Batman TV show. It has both the clarity and the lack of specific detail of a child's memory of a blisteringly hot day. Everywhere is a set designed without authorial indulgence against which the tale can be told, but it's never anything other than the thinnest of sets. There's a canal, and the nightclubs, there's the doorman and his bouncers, the punters and the gawpers, but beyond there's little to tell us that Canal Street is anywhere different to anywhere else in a British inner city where folks live their lives in the day and more folks arrive to live the life at night-time too. And while some of this lack of detail is undoubtedly due to the necessary brevity of the short-story form, it's hard not to believe that Mr Cornell's also deliberately insisting that the gay community should be regarded as a profoundly typical one rather than a strange and unknowable other-world that requires anthropological notes for the straight reader to make sense of. And as a consequence of only describing life on Canal Street in the most general and everyday of terms, the reader is compelled to fill out the scenes in the gay community there with parallel experiences from their own past, and if those experiences have been of a straight life, well, there's no unbridgeable difference between the one and the other anyway, and so the point is made.

There's no sociology, no "outsiders primer" here, no well-meaning if patronising attempt to educate and enlighten an audience. Presumably, Mr Cornell has faith that the readership will be far too knowledgeable for that, and it's hard to not perceive a belief on his part that his audience are simply too humane-minded to need any such nannying. For "Secret Identity" is a story about two gay men who are in love, rather than gay men. They're not representatives, types or symbols. Jim's passionate and threatened and waspish when he's trying to express his fears. Chris is somewhat baffled, sincere and he finds it hard to express himself quite as precisely as the Manchester Guardian would. Take away their sexuality and to a large degree, and for all the fundamental and vital parts of themselves that would be lost, they'd still be the same people, just as a superhero might still be a decent and caring person even if their "lifestyle preferences" were perceived unfairly to have changed.

And Mr Cornell's quite determined about this, for all of his relaxed and unpretentious style. No-one in "Secret Identity"benefits from the playing of a role, from being fixed with a definition of themselves that leaves compromise seeming impossible. And this principle, that people should be defined by what they choose to do rather than the roles they inhabit, is accentuated by the somewhat featureless city, by the lack of sensory information, by the absence of any too-specific slang or the minutiae of whatever the various clubbing sub-cultures are wearing on this evening or that. For "Secret Identity" uses the tradition of generalised, constantly recyclable, comic-book images of "the city" and "the street" and puts them to use to keep us focused on the story itself rather than the detail of the background.

It's the individuals who happen to be - amongst many other important qualities - gay that "Secret Identity" is concerned with, and not the colour and detail and potentially distracting complexities of gay Manchester itself.

"Canal Street (daytime)" by Michael Gutteridge


We've come to a damn strange place culturally where the use of the word "decency" to describe a text fondly is almost a taboo-breaking matter in itself. "Decency" seems to at best to summon up a sense of a vaguely well-meaning, almost vicarly, almost camp, niceness. At worst, the word summons up the sicknesses of the meddling and even poisonous fundamentalisms of the various moral majorities. But "decency" seems to me to be the best word to sum up "Secret Identity", and, perhaps, the rest of Mr Cornell's work that I've come across too.

It's not that his work lacks passion, as if decency was an easy option, a calmly-arrived-at business that cost not a bead of sweat or a single moment of self-doubt and despair. In fact, "Secret Identity" is a quite noticeably passionate if also good-humoured and fiercely tightly-constructed text; it's certainly not "decent" in the sense of conformist or dull. But the story seems obviously concerned with a moral purpose as well as the writer's duty to entertain and charm and amuse, and so the enemy in "Secret Identity" isn't Top Hat or White Candle or any Canal Street-threatening super-villain at all. Instead, the real antagonist on show is the very-human tendency for characters to hold to the beliefs they're familiar with and the principles which they take for granted.

It's the dual absence of unselfishly critical thinking and the knowledge of how to use that to compromise that's hurting everyone to a greater or lesser degree in "Secret Identity". You can see it in Tall Ben the doorman, set on defining who's gay and who isn't without flexibility or humour, and in the Canal Street community itself, who've seemingly decided that the Guardian's services are only truly welcome if he conforms to their definition of what's acceptable and appropriate. You can see

it in the Manchester Guardian himself, so bound to his fixed beliefs about how to do the right thing that he allows himself to disappear from existence after every brief moment of super-intense life because he wants to be respectful of Chris and his mortal existence. You can see it in Jim, who's so frightened of deception and uncertainty that he's ready to run away from love, and in Chris, who's unexamined life is to a degree not worth the living because he's not engaging with a fundamental truth that he barely lets himself accept.

Everyone's living a role and everyone's hurting themselves and others, and yet the answer has been in place for the tale's three main characters from almost the very beginning of the tale. And of course that's a question of good plotting, of foreshadowing and being true to the reader by leaving the tale's macguffin in everyone's plain sight, but it's hard to suspect that it's not something else too.

For without being anything other than fun, and without displaying the slightest evidence of a po-face, this is a mystery play of sorts, a morality tale where the closing message is that it's not who you think you are, it's how you think and care about those around you, and indeed yourself, that counts.

"The applause his magic hearing had picked up came from the tower of the old Refuge Assurance Building." (page 4) -- Refuge Assistance Building by Paul Waters at


"Secret Identity" is a story so lacking in cynicism on first reading that it's actually quite disconcerting. And although trace-elements of the familiar modern day obsession with doubt and despair are still absent on a second reading too, it's hard not to be cheered by a story that's this engaged with the necessity of imaginative compromise, of the need for folks to be both kinder to and smarter with each other. At times, reading "Secret Identity" seemed so out-of-its-time that I felt like a man collapsed under the weight of a savage hangover being helped up by a remorselessly cheerful optimist. It's certainly hard not to suspect that anyone burdened with a fashionable degree of social disengagement or an unfortunate weight of despair may hold "Secret Identity" in something of contempt, if they can raise the intensity to feel so moved at all.

But it's that quality of decency, of hopefulness and purpose, in "Secret Identity", that I find myself responding to now. It's an insidious business, this decency, it sneaks in under the cover of superheroic hi-jinks and kitchen-sink drama, and it leaves the mind whistling an unexpectedly and perhaps slightly embarrassingly happy tune.

And so, for all that I could be way off of the mark here, I'd still bet a handful of solid, bank-worthy coins of the realm that whatever nihilism is, Paul Cornell most certainly isn't.


Friday, 22 October 2010

"The Micronauts" by Bill Mantlo & Michael Golden:- "Take Him To The Body Banks!":- These Things Scare Me, Those Things Don't Part II


There's nothing more frightening than politics, and that includes, disturbingly enough, the politics of a long-cancelled Marvel Comics book that was apparently concerned with little more than the never-ending punch-ups between very little Japanese toys.


The politics of the first issue of "The Micronauts" are as fascinating as they are strange. On the one hand, it's a story of how a society is utterly corrupted by the promise of eternal life. On the other, "The Micronauts" is a tale of how only hereditary monarchies, whether micro-human or micro-alien, can, if allowed to proceed according to custom, ensure that civil society is ethically governed.

Of course, it's also a comic full of super-heroes and science-fiction spaceships, but we're only going to be concerned with the fundamentally scary stuff here.


Normally, the reader might expect that a tale which seems to so obviously satirise capitalism, and the corrupting effect of the market upon the human propensity for greed, would present some kind of democratic opposition to the evil powers corrupting the people with the temptation of endless youth. But Bill Mantlo positioned the royal family of Homeworld as the only legitimate protectors of the people's freedom in "The Micronauts", a confusing matter, since hereditary, ruling monarchies aren't historically known for standing up for the freedom of the people. But, perhaps Baron Karza was refusing to cut the aristocracy in on the profits of his immoral and highly popular invention of eternal life, and, perhaps, that caused the King and his family to fly the flag of "abstract choices (such) as ... freedom" in the absence of popular support and firepower.

Or, perhaps, Prince Argon of Homeworld really is that rarest of creatures, the blue-blooded man of the people, though obviously not so much of the people that he's ever actually permitted a democracy to arise on what's obviously his planet.


"Homeworld" opens with the Royal Family and their few "Elitist" supporters being hunted down "by an entire world that has turned upon their hereditary rulers". After all, it is at times hard to imagine that the people, and just about any people too, wouldn't sign up to a regime which promised eternal life and good health, regardless of how noble their "hereditary rulers" might have been. "Burn the elitist swine!" screams a soldier in a crowd of rebel troops closing in the Prince, mirroring, no doubt, the thoughts of those millions who, though not taking up arms themselves, want Baron Karza securely in power so they can join the ranks of the never-dying.


If the positioning of Homeworld's Royal Family as the only decent strata in micro-society is somewhat counter-intuitive, historically unlikely and disturbingly politically incorrect, it does lend "The Micronauts" a rather different spin where the polemics of the standard modern-era science-fiction fantasy are concerned. It's a strangeness which prevents the book from being just another left-of-centre rant against the market and the pernicious selfishness of various social elites, because in truth "The Micronauts" isn't typically left-of-centre and caringly inclusive at all. For instead of a suffering people alienated from a despotic ruling class, as we typically see in such stories, Mr Mantlo presents a Homeworld where the masses are utterly unreliable and self-interested, where scientists and academics - such as Karza - are dedicated to turning the established and virtuous order upside down, and where mortality and democracy are a far less popular option for the people than despotism and immortal life.

It's the oddness of these politics, combined with their strange feasibility where the appeal of an individual forever is concerned, that helps the first incarnation of the Micronauts breathe as it still does. Regardless of the plot's progress through familiar territory, half Star Wars, half Fourth World, there's always that disconcerting sense that the world we're seeing is essentially strange and disturbing even though it looks quite standard-issue for a comic book. That in itself creates an unease in the narrative, a suspense that makes the state created by Karza seem both stereotypically evil and yet quite disturbingly different too.

After all, this is world where the people, or a substantial mass of them, have not only opted to sign away their freedom in return for eternal life, which is at times a quite sadly believable proposition, and fundamentally scary in itself, but where a great deal of the raw material for the immortal strata of society will come from the bodies of their fellows who either resist the system, or are consumed by it regardless of their opinions one way or another. The people of Homeworld, in Mr Mantlo's script, are untrustworthy and faithless, they're easily seduced and led astray, and they need strong leaders to save them, and their royal betters, from absolute disaster.

In fact, the people of Homeworld aren't the victims of tyranny at all, as the mass of folks living under the rule of tyrants in such tales so often are. They've not been twisted and crushed and suppressed despite their longing for freedom by the brutality of a super-scientific state. Instead, the people here are Baron Karza's willing executioners. They're the underclass, they're the lumpen proletariat, they're the worst fears of those who believe that democracy, or indeed political freedom of any substantial kind, is a very bad idea because the people will just ruin everything, and they'll take the better kind who deserve to rule down to hell with them. Those commoners, they'll just breed and break the law and destroy the naturally virtuous order and then they'll be demanding to live forever too.

And so, Mr Mantlo's contempt for "the people" in "Homeworld" is as uncommon and challenging as his portrayal of "the people's" weakness in the face of the prospect of immortality is at times worryingly convincing.


There's a telling, though apparently quite accidental, moment in "Homeworld" where Prince Argon charges the proles bent on his destruction while shouting "For freedom!". The irony of this on the lips of a "hereditary ruler" isn't one that's deliberately placed into the text, but it is amusing that Argon's inappropriate battle cry is followed up by one of his retainers declaring in response "For you -- my Prince --", before being blown up by what seems to be the dread Baron Karza himself.

I think that's great. Argon's convinced himself that he's fighting for "freedom", but even his men know that they're really taking up arms for the "Prince", and taking up arms for the "Prince" gets those ordinary folk killed stone dead every time, although Argon himself, of course, is only stunned, and survives to rule again.


While Karza may in appearance look like a fusion of Dr Doom and Darth Vader, he's actually a mixture of Doctor Frankenstein and Dracula and whoever you'd choose, if choose you would, between the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Mao. He's a scientifically brilliant vampire who's extended his own life and power through stealing the futures of others, while he's used his demagoguery to convince the broad mass of the people to sign up willingly, indeed enthusiastically, to vampirism too.

And so, when Karza declares that Commander Rann is to be taken to the body banks, it's as if the worst fears so effectively encoded in Marx, Shelley and Stoker have been fused together. This is the totalitarian dictator who promises not racial purity, but personal immortality for the privilaged members of the race as he defines it, and who controls a command economy based on the appropriation of the actual bodies of the less favoured members of society which might just keep him in power forever. Well, of course so many of the people have signed up to his cause, Mr Mantlo seems to be saying. Who'd expect anything else? And for the few who'd resist, well, they're faced with being shipped to the body banks and serving as spare parts for the next round of renewed life for the privileged and compliant men and women of Karza's immortal new order.


Baron Karza scares me, scares me not because of his horses hooves and his silly chest insignia, but because he represents a particularly worrying suspicion about the nature of the people, if not their aristocratic and supposed-betters; with a product as seductive as living forever, Mr Mantlo is telling us, a tyrant might stay in power forever, and most of the mass of the people would be extremely happy to see him there too, as long as it isn't their hearts and kidneys and so on that were keeping the wheels of the immortal economy turning.

And Karza scares me because he chooses to build his new regime on the bodies of his opponents, imagined and real. A scientist that insanely brilliant could no doubt, in the best comic-book tradition, have devised cloning facilities to create an immortal life for his millions if not billions of supporters. But he doesn't, and the very act of speculating why that should be is a disturbing business in itself. Karza, quite frankly, is the type of vampire who wants to terrify, dismember and drain dry his victims rather than rely on even the most tasty and satisfying plasma. For it's not just the power he wants, it's the experience of taking it from others that he's made helpless and stripped of all hope first.

I'd support Prince Argon myself against such a beast.


By distancing itself so strangely and yet so slightly from the politics of both the real and the typically imagined worlds, "The Micronauts" carries enough of a sense of difference in its pages to scare the reader a little more than it should considering the relative conceptual poverty of the source material. And for that reason, the rebellion on Homeworld feels far more disturbing than it should. It seems to embody the fears of the right and the new right that the unworthy poor will strip the deserving affluent of their just rewards, and the fears of the left that the masses will be corrupted into following the trifles of the market rather than their own supposed best collective interests, and the fears of the centre that morality and reasonableness will be swept away by selfishness and irrationality. And it carries the shadow of regimes which literally wiped out the broad mass of their perceived enemies for no better reason than the vile chimera that everything would be marvellous once the tiresome industrial process of the slaughter of the dangerously unworthy was completed.

And so, while I can't bring myself to believe that Prince Argon's hereditary monarchy could be so virtuous and wise, royalty being as vulnerable to Baron Acton's dictum as the rest of we poor mortals are, I certainly can believe in a population which signs away its fundamental values, their very freedom, for forever. Or, at least I can if it's a population that's been raised in Prince Argon's splendid realm and encouraged to do what they're told and to not think for themselves where the business of governing is concerned. Hereditary rulers, after all, need their people to be stupid and compliant, and that's hardly going to promote the kind of free-spirited thinking that might encourage citizens to ask pressing questions of a bloke with horses hooves, a big black mask and promises of personal immortality.

And if there were such a people living on a science-fiction world, who'd never been allowed the chance to govern themselves, to think for themselves, then I can almost, almost, believe in Baron Karza too.

Next, indeed, tomorrow: the always interesting Paul Cornell & his short story "Secret Identity", a tale of superheroes and sexual identity set in Manchester that's well worth discussing, and one which is to be found in the print anthology "Masked". Yes, it's time to take a semi-regular look at super-heroes in books, real books, I think, and I've got an awful feeling that I'll not be able to avoid calling the pieces "But They Left The Pictures Out!". Mea Culpa!

The politics of "The Micronauts" became more confused, and even at times - shockingly! - clearly democratic, as time passed, but I jumped ship soon into the title's second year. I seem to recall that Prince Argon was later revealed to be a considerable super-villain himself, but the above piece was based on a single comic, and indeed a single panel within it, which has always disturbed me since I read it more than 30 years ago. --- I hope your day is splendidly as free as possible of immortal lures, ruling classes , faithless mobs
and centaur super-scientist villains as well, and since you got this far, thank you very much for reading!

(And, of course, anyone with any somewhat-scary moments from their own comic-book reading history is strongly encouraged to add them to the comments. I thoroughly enjoyed the contributions last time round in "These Things Scare Me " number 1.)


Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Gods Must Be Stupid: J. Michael Straczynski & The Rebooting Of Thor, part 2 of 3

For any that might be curious, the first part of this discussion of the JMS Thor can be found in the September 2010 archive to the right of this page;


Given the freedom to radically reboot the Thor franchise, I wonder why J. Michael Straczynski choose to populate the book with such a host of exceedingly stupid characters.


Readers have surely learned to brace themselves when they note that Mr Straczynski is bringing out the nature talk again. For one of the signs that a JMS character is supposed to be taken very seriously indeed is when they're speaking about the seasons and the fertility of the earth. It's a trick seen recently in "Superman" 701, where Jonathan Kent is summoned up in a flashback to explain how "Anything that stays in the the same soil too long withers and eventually dies", a statement that sounds very worthy and yet makes little apparent sense in the context Mr Straczynski has placed it into (*1). And the JMS nature metaphor can be observed at work again in Thor # 10, where Baldur tells Loki that;

"... if we are to learn anything from the seasons, it is that change is inevitable. I do not know that you have changed within as you have changed without. But for the first time, for the moment -- I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt." (10:20:4)

What's most interesting about Mr Straczynski's nature metaphors is how they're used to lend a spurious authority to the characters who're saying them. It sounds very grounded and wise, after all, for Balder to justify his thinking concerning Loki, the God of Mischief, with reference to "the seasons". It's as if Balder is in touch with some profound and ancient wisdom of the soil, some centuries old folk-knowledge that sagely informs the new King's principled thinking. But the truth is that Asgard's newest King is just clearly speaking nonsense, and all the references to the cycles of nature can't obscure that. For surely Balder has noted that every single God that he and the readers knew before their recent Thor-assisted reincarnation have been reborn with exactly the same character as they'd had before? "I do not know that you have changed within as you have changed without" says Balder to Loki, as if the fact that Thor's half-brother has been recast in a woman's body means that his character might have altered where everyone else's has stayed absolutely constant, as if an immortal's personality fixed over a period of at least a thousand years can have suddenly radically changed because he no longer carries a set of external sexual organs.

After all, it's not only common sense, or the matter of a simple observation of the consistent nature of the Gods brought back from their Ragnarokian deaths, that should tell Balder that Loki shouldn't be trusted. He has, after all, schemed openly to raise Balder to the throne of Asgard alongside Thor, an act that's brought a coldness to the warm intimacy previously enjoyed over the centuries by the now twin Kings of Asgard. Is Balder so naive, so impossibly empty of guile, that he isn't disturbed and suspicious by the fact that Loki has created a new political status quo in Asgard?

Because, I think you'd agree, the fact of a few tens of hundreds of years of having Loki betray his fellow Gods, to the point of constantly seizing the throne of Asgard, should surely lead Balder, and all his fellow Gods, to be far more than exceptionally careful in their dealings with him. But, quite contrary to common sense and experience, Loki is allowed back into Asgard's apparently-tiny elite and given the freedom to act and advise as if he were merely a head-strong young man who'd been guilty of a touch of petulance if not spite in the past.

But Loki is as irredeemably evil, as absolutely toxic, as the Gods go, and given that no-one else's nature has changed, why on Earth, or anywhere above or below it, should Loki's?

Balder, we must assume, is a fool with a head full of nature metaphors and very little practical wisdom indeed, no matter how sage and in touch with the seasons Mr Straczynski is trying to portray him as.

*1 - As discussed in "The Hero As Survivor Of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" in the July archive.


But perhaps there are some grounds for thinking that significant changes have occurred to the gods since their rebirth on Mr Straczynski's watch. Their personalities, it's true, may seem more or less consistent with what went before, and their fundamental morals certainly are, but they all seem to have lost a good few IQ points in their latest incarnations. Balder, for example, is a God who's fought with the Avengers and who respects them greatly. He's no stranger to Earth and he's shown a capacity to operate successfully on Terra Firma. And yet he permits the exodus of Asgardians to Dr Doom's Latveria without seeking the advice of a single significant mortal. It's an act of, yes, stupidity, which seems quite unimaginable. Perhaps it was intended as a marker of a developing regal hubris on the part of Asgard's new king, although there's nothing in the text to support any such suspicion. In Mr Straczynski's scripts, Balder is portrayed as a wise if over-trusting god, capable of debating the finer points of constitutional politics with Dr Doom in such a way that it seems inconceivable that Asgard's people could ever be allowed to move into Latveria under his rule. But off they go with barely a hint of a public debate, or a courtly one either.

Indeed, given that Latveria exists on Marvel Earth in a region which the Norse Gods are unlikely to feel any nostalgia for, the Vikings never having been more than a raiding presence in the land carved out by the Bullpen between Hungary and Serbia and Romania, the reader is surely entitled to wonder why Balder didn't just petition Sweden, Norway, Iceland or Greenland for use of a chilly mountain or two. (Perhaps, we might surmise, because that wouldn't have permitted a team-up between Loki and Dr Doom, a story that was apparently far too beguiling a prospect for writerly restraint to come into play.)

But it's as if many of the major characters in Mr Straczynski's work in "Thor" lack any such thing as a fixed identity. They shift from one position to another as it suits the plot. And so Balder, as we've discussed before, now appears in the presence of a train of naked women adopting the poses of porn models in his court, and he removes Asgard to Latervia, two decisions which this reader for one finds utterly out of character. But then in all honesty, JMS's Balder is consistently daft, and ineffective, and often just plain wrong even when the text demands that he be taken quite seriously as a noble king. It's a stymying contradiction between how we're supposed to see Balder and how the character is made to act, and it can be seen again in his decision to support great fixed battles between the reincarnated gods of Asgard as a common leisure activity because;

"It is good for them to have something to do, to release their high spirits." (11:2:1)

This again sounds like a very good idea, except for two matters which we might expect a bright God who's for so long held senior positions in the court and armies of Asgard to note. Firstly, he's not grasped that the common Asgardians are now so exceptionally stupid that they can't understand straight-forward and fundamental truths when they're spelt out to them in very simple language indeed. "Do you not understand? Do none of you understand? While we are on Midgard, we are vulnerable." he shouts at his fellows after one has killed another for a drunken insult, but the shame isn't entirely theirs. For surely a good and able king should understand the needs and limits of his people, especially after he's known them for so many centuries? And if the common godly folk, or the male ones anyway, are incapable of grasping that death is final for them when they're so near the Earth, why is their co-King allowing them to fight at all? Shouldn't Balder have instead taken radical measures to ensure that his people are educated and policed beyond the gesture of giving them a grand mass punch-up or two at times?

Because the truth is that no matter what the surface of each JMS script seems to testify to, Balder, and indeed Thor, are appalling leaders. It's not merely that the decisions they make are questionable, although I can't remember either taking a single sensible political stand. It's far more that they seem to have no idea that they're capable of doing more than reacting to events, a puzzling business since Thor himself has been King of Asgard before. In truth, they've assumed power without assuming responsibility. Asgard, after all, was once a city with a vast hinterland, an empire, a nation constantly at war, a city of warriors, traders, scientists and magicians. Brought back from extinction with so much of what it once was now absent, Asgard and its people surely can't be expected to rule themselves in a laissez-faire fashion.

The complexity of Asgardian society and its previous adaption to a life of extreme challenges and constant duty can perhaps be best expressed by referencing "The Mighty Thor" # 136, in which Thor's then-girlfriend Jane Foster is brought to Asgard and temporarily given godly powers. Nurse Foster's first appearance on the Rainbow Bridge (136:3:1) occurs as ".. the loyal cavalry of Asgard" ride out because "The powerful and sinister Kingdom of the Trolls hath risen against us." And before Jane Foster can catch her breath, a huge troll "prisoner--for interrogation" (136:3:2) is carried past her, surrounded by weary but determined troops. Asgard, we learn, as we've learnt so many times through the past decades, is a mighty power engaged constantly upon the business of war and diplomacy, preparation and indulgence. It's a state characterised by an ill-explained but obviously complex social hierarchy, with a thousand years at least of formal and informal codes of behaviour, and simply experiencing it leaves Nurse Foster absolutely shell-shocked.

For Odin's city was the most fantastic, most exciting destination in the nine worlds, a place so incredible that the typical mortal mind could barely cope with the simple matter of experiencing it.

But now Thor Odinson, and for a fair period Balder too, have been content to leave Asgard floating without purpose above the grasslands of the American mid-west, and to strand the Asgardians therein without anything to do at all beyond the occasional organised bout of mass hair-pulling. Bereft of their previous roles, and without anything to do in their place, the previously thoroughly well-drilled and purposeful Asgardians have swiftly degenerated into a brawling, murdering, disloyal mass, but neither Thor nor Balder seem able to grasp what's going on at all.

It may be an interesting way to generate conflict, to reduce the men of Asgard, in the absence of any women beyond Sif and Balder's naked followers, to a macho mob longing, as Dr Doom puts it, for "mountains and snow and year-round hunting (601:5:5)". But it requires Thor and Balder to be quite frankly idiots, as poor a pair of Kings as any in human history, to allow the very situation to arise, and it also reduces the male-folk of Asgard to a nation of brutes, to a mass of folks who once loyally served Odin, his state and sons for centuries and who've now collapsed into thugs and ignoramuses in the space of weeks. And the choice for the Gods, when the threat of social collapse became obvious even to its rulers, was never, as Loki advises the dense Balder at 11:20:3, between staying in Asgard or leaving. The choice was between doing nothing beyond arranging a few mass fights while allowing the culture and state of Asgard to decay, and embarking on a deliberate programme of nation-building. Simply taking the godly brawlers to Latveria, as occurs later, solves nothing, as any half-capable King or Queen should know.

And it seems to me inconceivable, as well as utterly irresponsible, that the Kings of Asgard could have spent their reigns engaging so little and to such slight effect with the lives of their subjects.

Or as the youthful Tim declares to Dr Blake (600:6:4-5-6) while explaining where his black eye came from;

"Jimmy Miller thumped me in the eye .... Thumped him back. ... We were playing Asgardians.... That's what they do. One of 'em thumps the other, then he thumps the guy back ... thump, thump, thump, thump ...."

Well, big little Tim couldn't have seen all that thumping going on in Asgard, which means he's watched the Gods knocking the immortal life out of each in the land around his hometown. (Perhaps they've even brawled their way through the streets in front of his home.) In fact, Tim's seen so much mindless violence from the gods that he and his pals have invented a game called "Asgardians".

And that's what Mr Straczynski has done to the Asgardians too, turned them into a game where they're stupid people hitting each other. They hover above one of the quietest parts of the world in a dull and uninteresting shell of a celestial capital, they descend to Earth and beat each other up, they clamber back up and then they repeat the process, no doubt, the next day too. Dull, stupid, too-bored-to-do-anything-but-fight Asgardians, ruled by supposedly capable Kings who can't imagine doing anything to save the nation beyond a few mead-fuelled games of hair-pulling.

Why would anybody care about these characters and their city-state? Why would anyone care about a story in which everyone is stupid, and in which they've been written to be so uncharacteristically stupid because otherwise the story could never happen? For only Loki is anything close to intelligent, but he's torturing idiots, which leaves him looking far less like a fearsome super-villain and far more like a sixth-form bully let loose in the lower school for an afternoon's cruel japery.


But then, who is there to advise the Royal Courts of Balder and Thor about the degeneration and disorder that's afflicted the Godly people? Where are the many and varied men of the great city? For in the JMS take on Asgard, there's simply four immortal classes as far as can be seen, and none are characterised by an excess of brain power; Kings and their immediate family, favoured heroes, the mass of very-male Gods who live to fight and drink, and, of course, those naked ladies serving Balder's court. And so there doesn't appear to be anyone except the royal family to steer the ship of state, and clearly they're not up to the business of government at all.

And any magical realm that relies on Loki for constitutional advice is obviously in serious trouble.

But this was a nation of magic and technology, of spaceships and super-artillery and far-seeing view-screens, a state which was so unbelievably technologically advanced that its science, in the very best Clarkeian tradition, seemed like sorcery. Where, therefore, are the scientists, the magicians, the craftsmen and scholars and engineers? Indeed, where is anyone of learning in Asgard at all? Where are those who helped Odin build and maintain the Empire of Asgard in the first place? The complex social hierarchy of the Gods has collapsed, their intelligentsia disappeared, the imperial bureaucracy evaporated, and the accumulated knowledge of the centuries has not only apparently vanished, but is seemingly quite unmourned too.

Even the ranks of the military seem utterly decimated and denuded of leadership. Where are the loyal captains of the Asgardian Army, those fine and loyal men who'd led the Gods in their wars of self-defence and conquest through the long centuries? Why are they allowing their men to behave in such an undisciplined fashion, and why aren't they warning Thor and Baldar about the crisis in their ranks?

Or is it, perhaps, that none but the souls of the supposed rabble and scum of Asgard were reincarnated? Perhaps only the stupidest, most beastly, and most damaged made it through to this rebirth of the people of Odin. Perhaps all that's left is the sort who sit around and allow themselves to be bored all day, dreaming of fighting and hunting and little else but.


If Asgard is the depressingly violent, sexist and empty-headed place that a closer read of the JMS "Thor" reveals, why should we care for it at all? And if, as the shade of Donald Blake declares at 1:12:5; "Where ever there is Thor, there is Asgard", then what does this Asgard say of Thor? Why should we care of a character who rules this hollow, thuggish land with its boring and beastly people?

Why should we care for an Asgard that's a dull and dirty castle where the Gods are so thick that they throw their own feces over the walls because they've never heard of hygiene or sewers, and where the common godlings spend their hours fighting for fighting's sake before the impressionable eyes of Tim and his mates. (11:3:1) Why, Norman Osbourne was actually right! If this is the common herd of Asgard, you wouldn't want even a small group of them anywhere near the smallest human settlement, and you certainly wouldn't be happy with them operating in full force in a major city, as the soldiers of Asgard once did, for example, when Thor fought Malekith (349). We know from history what happens to cities when undisciplined, disloyal and ignorant men are allowed to fight there, don't we, and it's impossible to believe that today's Asgardians have changed so much in such little time. How New York City hasn't been sacked by Asgard's men before on their various and occassional active duties there escapes me. Perhaps Odin was using his Odinforce to keep them in check?

Or perhaps those men of Asgard and these of Mr Straczynski's haven't very much in common at all?


Volstagg's declaration that Asgardians have no sewers, or knowledge of such, and that the godly excrement of the Golden City have always been "traditionally" fired "over the wall" (6.:3:1) is a gag which establishes once and for all that Mr Straczynski's Gods are a ignorant people unable to even come to grips with their own refuge problem. A culture which inhabits a huge metropolis and solves its waste problems by "firing" detritus over a huge wall into a void is a profoundly stupid culture unworthy of respect. It's certainly a culture which would require a whole class of underling Gods, or perhaps Trolls and other slaves, to collect all the waste produced by a city of so many tens of thousands of creatures, to collate it and then, using a specific technology, fire it off into the unknown. (They have no sewers at all, or concept of them, so gathering up the muck for disposal must surely always have been quite a considerable task considering all the ale-houses, barracks, private homes, and stables at that end of the Rainbow Bridge.) Quite frankly, the skies of Asgard must have been darkened throughout history with either flying unheavenly filth or the containers filled with it, and that just seems daft for such a mighty, space-faring race of godlings.

But perhaps JMS was joking? Perhaps Volstagg is supposed to be having a non-too subtle laugh at the expense of his Mid-Western neighbours? Amusing, no doubt, but it would leave us with a Volstagg that's aware of the offense he's causing his American hosts, with all that dumping of godly waste, and yet cares not a whit about it.

And there, using the evidence of just that single scene, is evidence of another problem with these scripts. On the surface, Volstagg's comment is funny and illuminating. It's an example of playing to the groundlings, of throwing an amusing obscenity out to break up a quiet moment in a generally glum tale. For all their long-life and power, it says, the Gods exist in a mundane reality just like we do, and nothing humanises a godly people so much as knowing that they simply dump their foul-smelling poop over the walls of their city.

But dig just a little and expect the script to still make the sense that it appeared to on first reading and it doesn't. It's simply unbelievable that the gods could be that ignorant, and if they're not, if they're actually somehow far brighter than they seem, then they're cruel and they're mocking with their own foul-smelling ordure the good Oklahomans who they're sharing that little corner of the USA with.


One thing that I certainly couldn't dispute is the popularity of Mr Straczynski's "Thor". As the man himself said about the book's commercial success in an interview with Matt Brady at Newsarama;

"It's been amazing to watch, because for Thor, which was always a mid-selling book, to be in the top ten for every single issue since the reboot is just a great compliment."

But the case I'm trying to make here is not that JMS isn't capable of writing popular books, but that he didn't seem concerned with "Thor" to create a comic that makes sense and rewards further reading. There's absolutely nothing wrong with these scripts that a rigorous editing process and a rewrite or two wouldn't have solved, but as things stand, this is showy but shallow work. There really is a sense of words being written at great speed, of scripts, particularly as the series continues, being produced in haste, perhaps in a blur of inspiration and perhaps not. But, whatever the facts of the circumstances of their construction, the scripts don't make sense, and that can be plainly seen in the scene in Thor # 11 where the Thunder God decides to mark the anniversary of Captain America's supposed death, by, as a newsreader explains, shutting down for;

"... sixty seconds, every newscast, every radio, every satellite and cable broadcast around the world (which) suddenly went totally silent ... Then came back again a minute later as if nothing had happened." (11.12.1)

It's another of those JMS moments which seems deeply touching, or at least sentimentally affecting, until the reader actually thinks about it. On the surface, Thor's explanation for his shutting down of the Earth's media communication systems seems quite laudable; he's trying to honour the anniversary of Captain America's passing. "I can .. give you a moment's peace from the vultures." (11:22:2), explains Thor over the Captain's memorial, and by "vultures", he means each and every media organisation involved in discussing Steve Rogers's life and passing on that apparently sacred evening.

But Thor is quite indiscriminate in who he means by "vultures", given that he shuts down all communications everywhere across the globe, including that great mass of the world that probably wasn't debating Steve Rogers in any fashion. Even those who were might hardly be expected to be doing so in a prurient and intrusive matter, and the truth is that in a democracy they have every right to do so anyway, as long as they're not breaking the law. But the law means nothing to King Thor, and nor does it doesn't matter what the people of, for example, Mongolia or Namibia are discussing, because only his concerns and his feelings are important. If he believes that the people of every nation on earth should have their media disrupted, then that's what he's going to do.

Thor is every bit as much the selfish musclehead as the rest of Mr Straczynski's Asgardians, an emotional fascist, and yet the script clearly places the reader in a space where they're meant to be touched by his actions.

Of course, it's quite impossible to imagine that shutting down all those means of communication for those sixty seconds didn't cause casualties. How could such a blackout not do so? That minute chosen by an arrogant, self-obsessed god at random might gave been the time when a damaged airliner sought help, or a desperate individual phoned a radio station for much needed advice; indeed, the reader can perhaps play a game of counting the social problems potentially created by Thor's arbitrary action during those long 60 seconds. Who knows how many lives were blighted to a lesser or greater degree by the incredibly self-indulgent antics of this supposedly heroic God?

Yet this moment is presented as a heroic one by Mr Straczynski. There's nothing of ironic distance in the text to suggest that this was the inconceivably callous act of a god commandeering the communications of the entire Earth to celebrate his own private concerns, nor is there anything to point out that Thor's loathing for the media is incredibly all-encompassing and quite frankly unfair. But, if there had been, this scene might have made sense. It might have shown us a Thor who is not only arrogant, but ignorant, who feels he has a right to dominate the lives of most of the earth's people in the name of his own feelings, who grasps nothing of other's rights, and who thinks that his experience of the worst of America's media justifies disrupting the entire globe and its business.

Although, in fact, that's exactly what Mr Straczynski has shown us. Regardless of how the text presents it, of how the art depicts it, this is the action of a tyrant, and, given that we learn in our lives as time passes to trust people by their deeds and not their words, it's another sign that Mr Straczynski's Thor is a profoundly selfish and anti-democratic force who shouldn't be trusted by anyone not in his immediate circle.

And that, in a snapshot, is how the JMS take on "Thor" functions. It looks like "Thor", and it often sounds like "Thor", but scratch the surface and ask for sense rather than sentimentality, and it's a story of ignorant, callow and selfish male Gods behaving like spolit and supernaturally powerful children. And so, when Thor is exiled from Asgard at the end of 600, I must admit that I couldn't care less. For who could be concerned about what happens to this Thor, unless watching a character who looks like Thor and hits things hard with a hammer is enough in itself? And who's concerned with what's going to occur to this empty, soulless Asgard, with its stupid inhabitants and the stinking mountain of godly feces piling up beneath its walls and floors suspended high above the Oklahoman grassland? (*2)

*2:- I know Asgard's not there anymore, but this is a review of the JMS Thor, and it was there when he jumped ship for DC.

Ah, well, I would remind the casual reader that they might find several good reviews of JMS's work in the archive, so please do consider that fact before perhaps deciding that I've got something against the man rather than a few problems with some very specific areas of his work. Next time? I suspect something of Halloween is on the way, and beyond that, well, something else. My best to anyone who's made it this far, and I really do, as always, hope that your day is a splendid one.