Monday, 29 November 2010

See My Friends: Marvel Comic's "The Heroic Age" TPB and Some Odd Outsider Feelings

1.

It had to be me that wasn't thinking right. For there are so many enjoyable moments in "The Heroic Age" that I just knew I couldn't trust my inexplicably lukewarm response to the collection. How could I feel so unimpressed when I could list a string of sequences in the book which I'm really pleased to have read? There's that laugh-out-loud page-turner in the Bendis/Romita Jr "Avengers" tale, for example, where Kang The Conqueror appears out of nowhere declaiming words of apparently world-changing importance only to be immediately silenced by Thor thumping him across New York City. There's the wonderful conceits of Roxxon Industries mining on Mars, in the Brubaker/Deodato "Secret Avengers" chapter, and of the "freakish nerve-toxin jellyfish that fill the water for a half-mile around the island" that's a super-villain prison in "Top Dog", by the Parker/Walker creative team. There's even a most-welcome two-page vignette from the much-missed team of Cornell and Kirk showing Captain Britain and M-13 on a state visit to Washington.


And it's not as if there are any major and common structural problems with the storytelling as a whole that I could fasten onto to explain my feelings of somehow not having enjoyed these stories which, in fact, I actually had. There's certainly no questionable ethics being peddled in either text or sub-text which might be generating a concerned distance in my mind, or if there are, they've sailed right over my head.

In truth, "The Heroic Age" is so obviously well worth the reading that I just couldn't deny that's so, even as I felt that I ought to be rather forcibly carping on about whatever it was that I was having a problem with.

Whatever that was.


2.

In the end, having done my best to exhaust all the rational explanations for my humourless and po-minded response, I thought I'd better consider, just consider, the possibility that I was responding irrationally to "The Heroic Age". And of course, and somewhat shamefully, that's just where the problem lay.

Now, this isn't particularly easy to write about, because it's both rather ridiculous and rather pathetic, but then, this is a blog that's as much about how judgements are made as it is about the judgements themselves.


And the truth is that reading about the many and various superheroes of "The Heroic Age" has left me feeling, without ever consciously realising the fact, rather left out by it all. I feel as if there's a party going on somewhere off in superhero-land, and that I'm not only uninvited to this bash, but that I'm also going to remain uninvited for the foreseeable future too.

What a rather sad thing to feel, and what an odd response for a man of my age to unknowingly have in response to a comic book. But there we are. I have the strangest sense, part wistful and part quietly shocked, that the characters who were my friends and role models when I was a boy now live a life that's so abstracted from the everyday realities that I experience that they don't seem to represent me, or the child I once was, in any substantial fashion anymore.

Although, it must be said, whoever said that they should anyway?


3.

It's not that the outstanding team of writers and artists who've produced "The Age Of Heroes" are delivering poor or even cynical work. Quite the contrary. There's a deep sense of respect for the history of the characters in these stories just as there's genuine skill reflected in a host of personal moments that the creators have constructed. To take but two examples;
  • Mr Bendis has Steve Rogers make sure to publicly credit Tony Stark for the idea that Luke Cage should be given the old Avenger's Mansion. It's a subtle but telling sign that Rogers is trying to mend bridges by paying a deliberately public respect to his colleague. A man less concerned with re-establishing old friendships would have declared to Cage that we "knew you were going to have problems adjusting", but that's not the case with Mr Bendis's take on the reborn Mr Rogers.
  • Mr Pak and Mr Van Lente have Amadeus Cho, half-smug and half-fantastically relieved, explain to Hebe that Hercules isn't actually dead, and the explosion of joy expressed in her behaviour provides "Blasphemy Can Be Fun" with a heartwarming and much-needed counterpoint to the apparent ultra-competence and even arrogance which Cho displays elsewhere.
Time and time in "The Heroic Age", the evidence is there on the page that the reader isn't being palmed off with shallow characterisation, poor scripting or a lack of respect for the history of the MU as a whole.

But for all of that, there very much is a sense in which the superheroes of "The Heroic Age" aren't my superheroes any more.


4.

In particular, there's one single page in "Possession", the New Avengers tale by Mr Bendis and Mr Immonen, which leaves me feeling strangely irritated. It's one which shows Luke Cage and Wolverine confronting Victoria Hand in an attempt to deduce whether she'll be an asset to their team or not. And , speaking as objectively as I can, it's a nicely judged scene, which emphasises the essential decency of Cage's character as well as Wolverine's willingness to play second fiddle to a leader he admires, and Mr Bendis never makes the mistake of having Hand appear too penitent and sentimentally vulnerable.

And that's all to the credit of the creative team.


But it's the setting and tone of the scene which alienates me. Because Luke Cage and Wolverine have always been outsiders to me, have always represented individuals who have never belonged in society, and who've never wanted to either if it meant their compromising in the least. And here they are, and they're not heroic outsiders anymore, but unabashed authority figures. Luke Cage actually owns the Avengers Mansion now! And for all that I'm not wanting Power Man to be sleeping over a clapped-out movie theatre and hustling for jobs in Times Square anymore, it seems jarring and rather uncomfortable to see him portrayed as one of the officer class instead, and a propertied one too.


And perhaps if Cage were the only hero to rise so far up in the status quo of the MU, of course, then that would be fine. But Marvel's Heroic Age has raised up all of its characters on show in the 340 pages of this collection into positions of power if not absolute respect, separated them from the everyday world where ordinary, typical folks exist, and given them lives of privilege so far removed from mine that I can't relate to them as I once did.

For the long process by which superheroes comics have become more and more concerned with superpowered folks in costumes and less and less with the society those women and men come from has now been topped off by the creation of a social class of superheroes helping to police and indeed rule the USA.


After all, there's Luke and Logan and Victoria, and they're discussing serious matters of honour and trust, but they're doing so on the terraced roof of Avengers Mansion, in the sun, tellingly high above and far away from the streets where ordinary folks live, and Victoria is sipping tea in her fashionable sunglasses, fulfilling the state's commission given to them by the President's superhuman head of national security, and my emotions are saying to me that these comfortable and exalted folks wouldn't know me and my life if my car crashed in front of them, beyond dragging me out of the wreck and checking if I were dying or not.

For once, a superhero could be anyone at all living any kind of everyday existence you might care to mention. That lone costumed crime-fighter could in fact be that other bullied kid in school, or the crippled doctor with the sunniest disposition who was always keen to help, or that carnival show-off who secretly longed to do something substantial and responsible with their life. Those superheroes of a different era didn't just represent their readers as characters in their stories; they were also, to a greater or lesser degree, living the same life as their readers too.


5.

But every single superhero in "The Heroic Age" is shown living a life that has no more contact with what we might regard as a typical world than I have with the rich, the powerful and adored of my world. Instead, I find myself reading about folks who seem to mix with no-one but their own costumed kind, as has long been a fact, and yet who also occupy situations of considerable wealth and power. This take on Captain America, for example, doesn't talk of taking direction from President Obama so much as of how he told his commander-in-chief "that the world needs what it always needs. Heroes." I always loved Steve Rogers because he was a lost soul, a man who was chosen to serve and who did so loyally, but who was no more special than you or I and who suffered endless depression and alienation as he tried to serve his nation without bowing to its powerful sectional interests. Now Rogers has "an entire country to worry about" and places his friends in positions of incredible power and responsibility without any mechanisms that I could see to ensure that they behave themselves in an appropriate manner.


It just seems that if Steve Rogers knows you, then Steve Rogers and no-one will decide for America where you serve, and he'll give you the keys to power of one kind or another without oversight or evaluation. For the Avengers are now being led effectively by an individual of huge power and influence in the American state, and each of them is, regardless of what it looks like, working for the nation, or at least Steve Roger's take on what the USA needs.

And even for those who exist outside of the charmed circles of the Avengers, such as the Agents Of Atlas, their lives are lived entirely surrounded by super-powered characters in fantastical environments. The Agents Of ATLAS, for example, can't have even sat in a corner coffee-shop for long enough to notice the bloke bringing over the cups and the woman in the back office trying to balance her sums. They tear around the world through their underground passages and their interdimensional portals and they seem to me, as do the rest of the heroes on show in these pages, to have nothing to do with the people they supposedly exist to protect and serve.


6.

Marvel Comics always seemed to me to be concerned with stories of folks who found it impossible, by chance or design or a mixture of the two, to either rule or serve the powerful of this world and those beyond it. Even Prince Thor was continually being banished from Asgard for the crime of trying to think for himself and act according to his conscience.

But now Marvel Comics seem to be about a power elite, who for all their noble sacrifices and willingness to serve, are beginning to constitute a class utterly separate from the typical woman and man of the MU. It's not just that these costume-wearing folks share their life in the company of others like them, but that they're now assuming positions of authority within the state too.


And the worrying fact that the lives of these superheroes are now so closeted from the everyday world is reflected in every story but one in this generous collection of 340 pages (*1). The massed ranks of the characters in Avengers Academy, for example, exist in a perfect bubble of a superhero school run by old Avengers, despite the fact that the series is sold on the basis of being about teenagers learning to use their powers. Well, it is, but they're not everyday kids from the moment they enter that super-costumes-only world, even if they were before.


Indeed, we only see the various super-folks of The Heroic Age existing quietly in what might be regarded as the "real" world in four scenes, wherein;
  • the rather beautiful Maddy is unconvincingly teased by those damn ordinary and uncaring boys for not being attractive enough. After that, Maddy's freed from living with the likes of folks like that and settled in Dr Pym's lab and her proper life can begin.
  • the out-of-costume 3-D man soaks up the highlife in a club and discusses being in a reality TV show about superheroes, before he sets out to join the community of ATLAS,
  • Brother Voodoo tries to keep his date happy while forever rushing out of a restaurant to save reality from one menace or another.
  • Hawkeye drops in, from his flying bike, to chat with his ex-wife's mother

Elsewhere, Amadeus Cho has his own endlessly-wealthy corporation with his own skyscraper. Atlas has its own nation. Hawkeye and Mockingbird, strangely positioned almost as "normal" folks with their flying bikes and hyper-fighting skills, slum it with the World Counterterrorism Agency. Even the super-baddies of The Thunderbolts have their own special comic-book base with their own super-powered co-stars.

Everyone's super-powered. Everyone lives in fantastic circumstances. Everyone's free of the constraints of the typical.


For I can't see a single "ordinary" person or even much of "everyday" life at all in these pages, unless we count Jameson's chauffeur-driven existence as Mayor passing for that. Even Spider-Man, the reader's traditional and uncomfortable representative in the halls of the great and mighty is now firmly established in a life of comradeship and relative wealth. For whatever problems he has in his own titles, we can here see Peter Parker tucking into a fine meal with his fellow New Avengers in a very posh and formal dining room, and we know that no matter how tough life is for Peter these days, it's not really tough at all. There's always a room and a meal, and a very big room and a very tasty meal at that, for him at the Mansion.

*1:- That's a story by Mr Busiek and Mr Djurdjevie where J Jonah Jameson observes a crowd of New Yorkers welcoming back the superheroes with the same fervour that so many of them showed in opposition to Cap's forces in "Civil War". I'll be writing soon on the fact that groups of typical individuals in the superhero universes seem to function more as mobs than citizens, and perhaps the warmhearted tale by Mr Busiek here might be discussed there.


7.

There's a very real sense in which the superheroes of the Marvel Universe now constitute a social class. They're not a disparate collection of individuals all carrying their own private inadequacies and limitations through life anymore. They're a super-powered cadre, united together in the good spirits of The Heroic Age and separated from and standing in judgment of the society that they came from. Everyone from the Valkyrie to the Youngest of the Young Avengers has a free ticket to power and privilege. Nobody need worry about status or the rent, or friends or support, or purpose.

And promotion into this elite is certainly not a matter of any Meritocratic promotion. The myth that we're given is that Captain America and Iron Man rise to the top of the state because of their personal qualities, and that they deserve to rule us and we're all better for the fact. But those "personal qualities" which allow Rogers and before him Stark to rise to political power are ones which come to the attention of the powers-that-be because of those chance variables of experimentation, mutation and super-powered experience which mark out the superhero from the common herd. Put simply, the accidental business of becoming a superhero is now a great big foot in the door where wealth, status and power is concerned.


Lord knows how Steve Rogers, a previously often taciturn man given to such misery, willfulness and impulsivity that he caused a super-powered war in the Marvel Universe, managed to pass the Psych evaluation required to OK him as fit-for-purpose where the wielding of such astonishing power over America's National Security is concerned. For all his skills, I just can't believe he deserves to be in such a post, or that he deserves to be where he is any more than a non-powered woman or man who's spent their lives learning the ropes of what it is to be a servant of the state might. Yet, he's a superhero, so he must be worthy of such power, despite all he's struggled with and all he's done before, and that, it appears, is that.

For superheroes no longer have to fear being caught in the supermarket storeroom changing into their long-johns, or of having no-one to call upon when they're trapped in Manhattan and there's no nightbus home to the suburbs. They constitute an elite now, socially and politically as well as in terms of Kirby krackles and lovely tight costumes.

Or so it feels, and those precious moments, such as when Peter Parker couldn't fight crime because his spider-suit had shrunk in the wash, or Wolverine felt he lacked a sense of belonging because he kept killing people without legal sanction, are now gone.


9.

Wearing a superhero's costume and wading into action while wearing it could once be seen as a symbol of those rare and wonderful moments when something remarkable could be achieved by the ordinary individual in their mundane lives. Matt Murdock could on occasion rise above the limitations of his life as a lawyer and achieve something through bravery and self-sacrifice which was made all the more special by the fact that he'd wake up the next day and go to work again as typical people do. And that mundane world grounded the superhero, made each appearance out in the streets fighting super-villains seem all the more remarkable by contrast with the world their alter-egos were usually seen in. But if there is no mundane world, then the superhero ceases to stand for "us", the typical person, and functions instead as a member of at best a community of our superiors or at worst an army of our betters. Indeed, the superhero stops being a superhero at all in those circumstances and becomes a super-powered officer or private, the costumes which used to mark them out temporarily from everyday folks now marking them in as members of a privileged class.


And accessing that class is tough, I'd imagine, in the MU. An ordinary person could work all their life and never become as competent as the least powerful superhero, such as Mockingbird or Hawkeye. Waiting for the luck of a benign radioactive contamination or a chance and productive natural mutation must be all most folks on the MU can aspire to. And while the lucky, if noble and hard-working, superheroes start to dominate key positions of authority in the state or of central importance to it, the children of superheroes are nearly always by the luck of their birth raised up into the privileged superhero class. Look at the Young Avengers, for example, a cast of teenaged women and men who's adventures I thoroughly enjoyed, but who constitute the newest generation of a lucky aristocracy of power.

And as America struggles through one challenging economic crisis after enough, the Avengers have their rooftop parties and discuss who gets the Mansion. What we're seeing in the pages of "The Age Of Heroes" is the latest consolidation of social advantage by an elite group of costumed and superpowered individuals forming themselves into what is beginning to look, as I said above, like a class. They have wealth, power and status. They control vital areas of the state's business. Access to their ranks is often achieved by following their own customs and adhering to their professional and independent judgments, while the superhero's children have a far, far greater chance of inheriting the mantle of advantage than the children of anybody else.


10.

I know that elsewhere in the Marvel Universe, there's still a mass of hard luck stories, but there's not that many characters anymore who are truly outsiders. Even Bruce Banner now his grand laboratories. And I know the impression of happy times and group action is something of an illusion created by the optimistic set-up of The Heroic Age, but beyond that illusion is a fact; the Marvel Universe is becoming a place that's as unfriendly in many ways for the reader who's something of an outsider, or feels so, as it was once welcoming. What was once a home for losers and free thinkers, misfits and non-conformists, is now the arena in which winners win more, and more, and then win again, and then talk about winning in their various grand headquarters amongst their many superpowered friends and allies.


And what would a Peter Parker bitten by that radioactive spider for the first time do when his new powers developed during this Heroic Age? No doubt he'd set himself off without concern or hesitation to see the Avengers, and perhaps, if he didn't go straight into one of their first teams, he'd get a room in one of the rather more pleasant wings of the Avengers Academy. He'd never have needed to have been the character that so many of us associated with because he didn't tend to win, because he didn't belong, and because he had nowhere to go for help when trouble came. In fact, who needs to be an outsider at all in this superhero-filled, typical-individual-free Marvel universe of The Heroic Age, except for all of those losers, those misfits, who can't leap buildings at a single bound or scurry up the sides of them really quickly?

It's a fine collection, The Heroic Age, of high-quality stories produced by extremely-able creators. But I can't see my fellow outsiders in that universe anymore, whether here or over in the X-Men's section of the MU, as we've discussed here in a different context recently. And given that even the supposed outsiders of ATLAS own a nation of sorts and live almost exclusively in their own rarified company, where can those who feel themselves at times to be powerless go to see themselves represented in today's mainstream Marvel books? For wherever the likes of me live and work in the MU now, they're not on the roof of the Avengers Mansion drinking tea with the not-always charming Victoria Hand.


11.

Please don't get me wrong. "The Heroic Age" is an undoubtedly worthwhile collection. I really would recommend it to you, and sincerly too, for all that I believe that the seperation of the superhero from the mundane is, and always has been, a very bad idea.

It's just I thought I was looking at one thing, and I was looking at another, and that's why I was having problems. When the "Avengers" and "Secret Avengers" storylines are collected, for example, I'll be reviewing them here in the light of what they are rather than for what they're not, for what's actually on the page rather than for what I expected, without realising it, to see there.


.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

"We Hold These Truths To Be Self-Evident": X-Civics 101 No 2: "X-Men: Second Coming" & Political Realism


1. By Way Of An Introduction To A Comment And A Polemic

This piece began when I received one of those not-infrequent comments from someone who, despite the interesting points they have to make, decides to be a touch sneering and patronising in the way they express themselves. I usually simply delete such dismissive contributions (*1); when I began blogging, the estimable Andrew Hickey, from the "Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!" blog, advised me to always make sure that I don't caught in pointless arguments here on TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics, and his advice has served me well. Yet there were bright and worthwhile points in the comment, and the superior air that the writer adopted could well have been an accident of method rather than a deliberate choice to offend. Lord knows I've written what I meant as respectful if playfully written words myself and ended up unwittingly offending others. And so I put aside my normal practise of simply opting out of any possible unpleasantness and began to sketch out an answer in order to discover how I felt about the issues being raised, rather than the tone they were often expressed in.



And in writing a reply for myself, I found that I was producing a companion piece of sorts to the recent blog here on the worrying politics of the "X-Men: Second Coming" collection. But whereas before, in the first "X-Civics 101" piece, I'd tried to rein in my feelings and the force of my opinions, relying on an attempt at humour rather than outrage and a focus more on individual issues rather than an analysis of the meaning of "Second Coming" as a whole, here I found myself giving way to a more emotional and less reasoned approach. Normally, I'd learn what I could from such an experience of writing the first-draft of an off-the-cuff and yet heartfelt reply, and then bin the lot, but I think it might be useful, and perhaps also honest, for me to nail my colours up on the mast here, as it were. Not because it's inherently interesting if I do so, or because my opinions are important in the slightest way whatsoever, but because, I realise, I'm always talking about the ethical content of other people's work, and I ought not to criticise without having at least something of the sense of my political opinions up and available for the shooting at too.

And so I've not edited the first draft of the reply that I wrote with an eye on protecting my statements from all-comers. I've left in my own feelings and my own unjustified stroppiness. I've not edited out the repetition of terms or added qualifying statements to protect my position. There are no supporting quotes or book references. I've simply replied with one apparently unguarded statement of opinion with another.

I have, of course, not printed the name of the chap or chappess who contributed the comment that first inspired this piece. They offered up their ideas for printing in a comment box, not as part of something quite different on the blog proper.

*1:- added later the same day:- on reflection, although the comment is, as Micah puts it below, blunt, it's not as rude as I originally felt. Indeed, the fact that I feel so strongly about these issues may have made me overly sensitive. I'm not sure. It is a dismissive comment with some snotty airs, but it's also bright and engaged. If nothing else, I'm glad it was left because it made me think, and I guess that establishes a point about its worth in an absolute sense before any finer sensibilities come into play.


2. The Unedited Comment Itself

"Not a bad article, however pointing moralistic fingers at the content of political decision making in the X-Men comics misses the point. The philosophy behind all of Scott's decision making is Realpolitik, and that shouldn't be a surprise as that very ideological shift is what they used to visibly mark his difference from Xavier in Messiah Complex (and even from Magneto, who is also an idealist in his own way.) Yes, the X-Men have become separatists as well as nationalists, and yes, their decisions are based on political realism (why in-debt themselves to superheroes whose political interest interests doesn't necessarily align with theirs and whose Civil Wars and Secret Invasion and Dark Reign politics, threaten the X-Men's current goal to stave off extinction). Anyone who didn't think that Emma Frost's ascendancy in the X-Men wouldn't signify realpolitik hasn't mastered the fundamental philosophy of the Hellfire Club. She simply realized that when practising mutant supremacy it helps to have more than four or five mutants at your beck and call. The X-Men have plenty of mutants available and a leader sympathetic to her political views. So when you morally or ethically condemn Cyclops's actions, or Marvel for endorsing them, you misread the current X-Men as a book about "superheroes and role models" instead of it being one where someone, for once in the comic, attempts to step beyond the meager and continually deconstructed "peaceful co-existence" trope that never worked for the comic."


3. And My Response

Hello:- As a politics graduate with 20 more years experience of teaching the subject in one form or another, I think it's probable that I do have a grasp of what realpolitik is. And it's never been a philosophy or practise which advocated snubbing possible and actual sources of assistance which might be accessed to attain a desired end. Quite the contrary, actually. If realpolitik really was the philosophy which motivated the X-Men's leaders during Second Coming, it's one that they either haven't grasped or one which the folks writing the book haven't understood. Realpolitik isn't concerned with attaining one's will without incurring future obligations. (For one thing, any such future obligations could be ignored once the desired end was achieved; that would be realpolitik) Rather, it's a philosophy concerned with attaining one's will, full stop. Whatever works is what gets put to use. And considering that the will of the mutants here was to avoid genocide, their scorning of national, international and superhuman assistance wasn't realpolitik; it was stupidity. It's not "political realism" to alienate support and deter assistance. That's the kind of political realism that characterises the "faith-based" community, the "my way or the highway" brigade in my country as well as yours, and we've seen how well that policy has paid off in the long years since 9/11, have we not?


"Second Coming" isn't based on realpolitik; it's based on the assumption that behaving as a terrorist is completely justifiable and indeed admirable as long as a glorious victory is achieved. That's quite a different premise, and presenting a story that frames Cyclops as a hero for having behaved in such a stupid as well as utterly unprincipled fashion is indeed a "step beyond" the ""peaceful co-existence" trope" you mention. Sadly, it's also a lamentable thing to produce, and I'll return to that point, I think, in a moment.

Secondly, at no point did I suggest that it didn't make sense for the X-Men to have "no more than four or five mutants" at their "beck and call". I mentioned not a whit of complaint about the fact of the size of the mutant forces. What I did criticise was the sense that this super-powered army with their undersea allies could ever constitute a community of victims. The X-Men in "Second Coming" are presented as terrible vulnerable, but that's ridiculous. They're a mighty band of super-powered characters, and they could have accessed all manner of help elsewhere.
But they've been potrayed as self-pitying victims so they can be thrillingly shown committing the profoundly illegal and unethical acts that they do. That they've been terribly hurt by "humans" is undoubted, but that doesn't mean that they've been driven into such a corner that the rule of law is something which oppresses their chances of survival. Cyclops instigates a rule in which the likes of terrorism, assassination, false imprisonment, unconstitutional conscription, and the abuse of minors are portrayed as heroic necessities. Your argument seems to be that mutant terrorism is the method by which the Mutants have succeeded in defining and protecting themselves, and that I should get over it because it works. But it didn't. The X-Men should've sought help and worked together with others to at the very least reduce the threat against them. That would've been realpolitik.


You seem to associate immoral behaviour with realism, as if doing as one will should not only be all of the law, with a small "l", but also be shown to be far superior to any other conventional legal or ethical option. The text of "Second Coming" certainly seems to want us to accept such a proposition. It skips unconvincingly over the possibility that the X-Men could ever have responded to their situation in a conventionally ethical fashion, and instead portrays the world as a vile predatory place with no decency for mutants and then, having fixed its case, expects us to applaud as terrible acts are committed and their perpetrators held up for our admiration.

You also seem contemptuous of my "moralistic fingers". But you're obviously a person who's well-versed in political theory, history and current affairs. You'll have noted that the moral criticisms I made were directed at the profoundly anti-humanist behaviour of Scott Summers, the supposed hero of Second Coming. Detention without trial, torture, assassination, conscription without legal sanction; all of these things are a mark of dictatorship, not practical and realistic politics. I wasn't concerned with these things because they're not nice. My argument was and is that there is a way of doing things according to democratic humanist principles which allows the state to operate without descending into tyranny. For all of its sins, Western democracy permits its citizens to live in a way that's more secure from abuse than under any other political system of scale. Certainly, the modern West is a far better place to live than Cyclops's Utopia is.


Dictatorship by its very nature, despite all the illusions of political realism which apologists for dictatorships always conjure up, inevitably leads to the collapse of human rights, and to the imposition of all those unpleasantnesses and wickednesses which human beings get up to when they're not at least partially constrained by ethical custom and law. Yet "Second Coming" paints us a picture of a society where dictatorship is a marvellously practical and ethical good, and that's what I'm pointing my "moralistic finger" at. Utopia neither works as well as it might nor behaves in any way that any decent-minded democrat might admire. It is, in effect, an inefficient terrorist state, and I don't think that's anything to represent in a heroic light at all.

And just as"Second Coming" isn't truly a book about realpolitik, it's certainly not one that tells us anything of value to do with "separatism" and "nationalism" either, unless you consider that both of these political ideologies have to be expressed in the form of terrorism justified by the rhetoric of the dispossessed. Neither separatism nor nationalism, after all, have to reject the rule of law or humanist principles. And so, no, I don't think it's "moralistic" to point all of this out, and, unless you consider the rule of law to be a bourgeois affectation and democratic government some kind of disposable fancy, I'd be amazed if you didn't think so too. For, quite frankly, if anyone can look at Utopia and see there a political system that doesn't immediately and utterly appall them, then they're either not looking hard enough, or lacking the education to process what they're seeing, or they're neither a democrat or a humanist in the first place.


As far as I'm concerned, there are democratic and humanist principles that aren't negotiable. We don't kidnap people, we don't falsely imprison them, and we don't torture them. We don't assassinate our enemies in the name of political or practical expediency. We don't deny co-operation, scorn help and then act horribly because help isn't coming, and we don't behave as terrorists do because that makes us terrorists ourselves. We certainly don't read books which unambiguously portray terrorist tyrants as heroes and regard it as an unimportant matter which should be passed off without comment. Honestly, at what point did our culture become so complacent that we can read a celebration of unethical behaviour which closes with the miraculous birth of lovely little superpowered babies, an ending which emotionally justifies every vile thing that's gone before, and not think; "Hang on, there's something rotten here"?


For there was no attempt to present alternative points of view to those of Cyclops which were given at the least equal weight and glamour to his. No, it was the brutes and the tyrants who were presented as the battle-turning heroes who counted for the most in "Second Coming", and that makes the book a profoundly anti-democratic tract, by chance or design, though I do subscribe to the cock-up theory where this book is concerned.

These aren't just "moral" points I'm making, as if a "moral" point was by its very nature an unrealistic distraction from practical politics. The rule of law and democracy aren't systems based on fey liberal, weak-kneeded principles. They are systems founded on supremely practical morals, which if respected and protected help preserve the body politic from collapsing into dictatorship. And dictatorship, as no-one needs telling, is always a very bad idea in every possible way, unless you're the dictator or a crony, of course.


The rule of law isn't a "moral". It's an expression of a host of practical principles which underlie a class of political system which serves its citizens better than any other in history. Regretfully, such democratic systems and the principles upon which they're built are currently being undermined in so many worrying ways, including through a blizzard of ignorant fictions in a variety of popular mediums.

As for the idea that the X-Men isn't a book about "super-heroes and role models", well, you've quite defeated me there. It's surely a comic that full of characters who dress like superheroes, who have powers like superheroes, who have the legitimacy with their audience that's granted to superheroes and who exist in a superheroic universe. If the X-Men isn't about superheroes, then I'd suggest that Marvel move it to its own universe, strip it of costumes and codenames and powers and see how many readers turn up to read it.


And ALL stories are about role models. That's how fiction works. We study each other's lives, fictional or not, and we compare ourselves to what we find there. The degree to which the role models in fiction influence us is something else I spent five years studying and twenty years teaching, and I'm well aware that democracy won't fall just because Cyclops and his merry mutants are portrayed as heroic terrorists. But that doesn't mean that such a portrayal is defensible, and as part of a wall of media product that heaps scorn on the ideals and practise of humanism and democracy, "Second Coming" is just one more example of the drip-drip-drip of political immorality which can't help but undermine that which so many generations of folks have fought so hard for.

And if you're not offended by a book that portrays such an anti-democratic stance as heroic, then the real question is why not? Seriously. How could these things not matter to you? I can understand berating modern democracies for not being representative enough, or humane enough. I can understand being frustrated and indeed furious with all their manifest short-comings and failures. But the fact of Marvel pushing hundreds and hundreds of pages with this message into the marketplace is surely something to care about. If it were an accident on Marvel's part, as it must have been, then it needs debating so that Marvel don't make the same


mistake again. (After all, Marvel isn't really wanting to be saying that terrorism is the heroic way for minorities to defend their interests even when all other alternatives haven't been pursued, is it?) And if it wasn't an accident, then Marvel should be challenged on the matter. They have the right to print whatever material they see fit, and I happily spend a fair proportion of my limited income on their products. But my loyalty to their brand is tempered by my absolute commitment to the business of being a democrat. It's something that really matters, matters more than just about anything else, and if you think that's "moralistic", then this isn't the blog for you on any level at all.

So, let's not worry about the X-Men know being about realpolitik, unless it's about how the practical utility of that concept can be undermined by incompetence and ignorance. And let's not have any more of this sneering, for that's what it was, at the "morals" I was discussing in the piece you responded to and in my words above too. Yes, the morality underpinning the existence of the modern democratic state is indeed sacred to me, but the practical business of protecting individuals from the capriciousness of power is more sacred yet. And I for one am bloody weary of a West that seems so very decadent that it thinks it can ignore the absolute value of these issues in the name of being ... well, what? Practical? Knowing? Sophisticated? Playful? Entertaining?


That we've stopped even being offended by the idea of superheroes behaving as these X-Men do is a deeply worrying matter. It's a reflection of a far greater and far more serious problem, an assault through self-interest and ignorance upon the very idea that human rights and the democratic state as we know them are anything more than a great "liberal/leftist" indulgence and, indeed, evil. Comics may not be able to solve that problem, but those that produce them could at least not contribute to the apparently-casual and yet in-practise systematic undermining of the principles which, for whatever their practical limitations, offer the best and only hope for a decent future we have.

When superheroes, including clearly abused children, are shown maiming, torturing, kidnapping, assassinating others as part of a deliberate policy on the part of the characters involved, then it's not the icing on the cake of a story or the addition of some some thrilling but unimportant grit used to add a daring touch of real-world issues. It certainly isn't so when the tale is told in the way "Second Coming" is. It is, of course. a terrifically productive thing to present superheroes behaving appallingly in the form of satire or irony, as broad and obvious comedy or even in the guise of wonderfully bad taste. But this is none of those things. "Second Coming" presents tyranny and terrorism, assassination and an abuse of care to the vulnerable, the violation of the rule of law and a host of other pernicious practises as HEROIC and undeniably NECESSARY.


And when that's done, it should be discussed and condemned. These things are more than important. They are all that keep us from the wolves. They're sacred, and we undermine them in the way that "Second Coming" does at our great peril.

An unfashionable opinion, of course, and expressed in an unfashionably sincere manner, but there it is. For if we can't take democracy and the rule of law seriously, then what is there left to be serious about?


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Friday, 26 November 2010

The Man Who Lost The Horizon: Gail Simone's Catman, The Secret Six & Revolutionary Character Change (Part 2 of 2)

Continued and concluded from yesterday;

7.

It's the fact that Thomas Blake has so successfully turned himself into a formidable super-powered mercenary while completely failing to attend to the root causes of his personal failings that makes the character such a beguiling one. No matter what he attempts, and no matter how hard he tries, he's always going to fail in the end, because, as we've discussed, his psychology is that of a dangerously obtuse, self-obsessed, self-pitying and irresponsible child. It's hard not to empathise a touch, and on occasion far more than just a touch, with a character that captures our most despicably childish qualities just as it's impossible to ever completely take his side. And so the fascination of watching him chase down one chimera after another is as strangely moving as it's often both amusing and, and on occasion, rather repellent. Catman's adventures are marked far less by the enigma of whether he's going to achieve his goals so much as how badly he's going to screw up along the way, and the more physically impressive he becomes, the more frustrating it is for him that all that strength and ferocity won't bring him the things that he's always wanted.


Everything that promises to liberate Catman simultaneously oppresses him. And so, although Thomas Blake might earn the respect of some of his once-fellow super-villains, and although he may occasionally achieve a substantial pay-day through craft and violence, he can't ever be generally respected for being a good man, because the costume he's using to try to earn that respect also marks his own mental flaws and ethical corruption.


8.

Ms Simone has been careful to constantly underline the fact that the identity of "Catman" constitutes an ideal for Thomas Blake of all that he could be if he just worked to make the most of himself. That costume, those powers, those compromised achievements, all serve as facets of an exemplar of the very best that Thomas Blake is capable to dreaming for himself. When discussing with Batman the state that Catman had allowed himself to degenerate into, prior to his rebirth in the hills of South Africa, Blake refers to a period "when I wasn't myself", implying that he's now very much himself. Fitting into that silly costume, with its soft blunt ears and its kitty-scratch emblem, fighting with some of the most dangerous characters on Earth-DC, living his wretched life on his own confused and compromised terms; all that constitutes for Blake the essential business of being himself. Catman is his better self, and without that, he seems to feel that he isn't a person at all, so much as waste of potential and life, an absolute loser. And the more he tries to live up to the ideal of being Catman, it seems, the more he assumes he'll one day perhaps become a better man, a more respected and admirable man. He confuses Catman with the whole of his potential, being ignorant of the things he might achieve if he could think in a clearer and more moral fashion. He assumes that the business of being Catman will polish and illuminate the true "Thomas Blake", so that he'll no longer have to be ashamed or confused or wretched, but shining up "Catman" just makes a better fighter out of an incompetent human being.


On occasion, Thomas Blake will sense that there's something exceptionally wrong with him that leads him into behaving in troubling ways. We see him trying to talk to Deadshot, for example, about his suspicion that there's some quality missing in the pair of them that causes them to do terrible things, but Blake's solution isn't to stop and identify that problem so much as to throw himself again into the business of being a better lion-themed super-mercenary. And in that, he's a recognisably late 20th century, early 21st century man; he unconsciously identifies his - shudder - inner self with virtue, and associates not being "myself" with betraying his own potential. If only he could be truer to himself, he seems to believe, everything would be far better than fine.

But, as we discussed yesterday, this identity of "Catman" is nothing more than the wet dream of a deeply flawed psychology. Thomas Blake's ambition to be an admirable force for good, while still being free to do whatever he wants, will always and inevitably be short-circuited by the fact that he's concentrating on his fighting skills and tracking abilities rather than his flawed cognitive processes. And his membership of the Secret Six of course only drags him further and further away from any possible moment of crisis when he might see himself for what he is. Being with the Six is as counter-productive a business for him as hanging out in "Cheers" would be for a chronic alcoholic, because living with his troop of vicious super-comrades reinforces all his delusions and provides him with the short-term pleasures and sense of purpose that obscures his inadequacies.


9.

Suffering as he does with a chronic inferiority complex and what looks like serious attachment issues, it's no surprise to note how quickly Blake decides that the Secret Six is his family and its members his precious friends. By his second adventure with the team, he's already decided that Deadshot might be the very best friend he's ever had, which is both a terribly sad and an absolutely insane judgment, no matter how bereft of decent company he's been. But Blake obviously needs to feel that he's loved by those around him, and so Deadshot is his worthy if worrying buddy. Similarly, it's noticeable how Catman declares himself willing to risk his life to rescue Scandal Savage from her insane and immortal father, despite his having fought with her for little but a few months, if that. These intense thoughts, feelings and actions are all way out of proportion with common sense, but Blake doesn't know how to contextualise his emotions or recognise his insecurities. And so, his need to belong over-rides whatever little common-sense he has. In truth, for all his taciturn nature and his appearance of being self-reliant, he's terribly needy. Deadshot's slaughter of Catman's precious South African pride, for example, is quickly swept under the carpet with a pathetic haste. And Deadshot's habit of, for example, driving cars into Blake and expressing a lack of concern for Catman's emotional and bodily well-being can't do more than faintly and passingly dent Catman's fondness for Lawton. It's a naivety about his colleagues that appears again when he declares that he can't believe that Ragdoll would ever betray them after that seems to have very much occurred. Any man who can't believe that Ragdoll might betray them has surely missed the point that Ragdoll, for all of his apparent loyalty and good humour, has very much got his own peculiar psychology too.


But Blake has a quietly desperate need to belong, and so Ragdoll must have absolute integrity and Deadshot must be a true comrade and mate. And so Catman lives in a state of constant denial, although occasionally troubled by thoughts which, for example, suggest that Deadshot and he might end up fighting to the death one day. It's a nightmare that most would regard as being worth remembering, but it never seems to inspire Catman to be any less trusting of Deadshot.

Indeed, such is Catman's neediness that he'll ignore the evidence of betrayals that anyone else might at the very least be lastingly upset by. The Huntress may stab him in the leg while seeming to flirt with him, but that can't affect his warm judgement of her. And even the loathsome Cheshire, who uses Catman as nothing but a walking sperm donor before betraying the Six to Luthor's Society, is defended by Blake when he's reminded that she triggered a nuclear bomb above the capital city of Quirac; "we don't know that she's blown up a country" he says, because he doesn't want to have to know that she's undeniably done so.


And so this drive to belong somewhere keeps him where he is, as part of a dysfunctional group that he chooses to regard as his pride even as they fail to achieve any so ordered and stable an existence. His observation that the Six don't talk to each other in the absence of the kidnapped Scandal Savage explains something of his fervour to rescue her. In her absence, his new family isn't just missing a member so much as it's missing a matriarch who constantly establishes and reestablishes social relations between otherwise alienated individuals, and the illusion of family means a great deal to Blake, even though the family he wants to believe in doesn't truly exist at all.

It's one of the aspects of Blake's personality that most endears him to us, of course. He may not be able to recognise, let alone articulate, his desperate need to belong, but everything he does is coloured by it. And at times it's almost as if he were an abused child that's moved home and school so many times that even standing at a bus-stop becomes a frightening process of hiding from anxiety and searching for reassurance among folks that must surely be his new best friends.


10.

Whatever doubts Blake has about being Catman and belonging to the Secret Six, the distractions and pleasures of his costumed identity provide him with more than enough moments of intense activity and sensation to stave off any fundamental questions about his objective situation. Like all social groups, the Six have their shared rituals which bond them. They meet across the table while Scandal Savage discusses missions and outlines where their fees have been invested. They change costumes together, as in "Dead Of Winter", where the team can't bring themselves to rush off as is absolutely necessary into combat without pulling on their fighting togs. And of course they're completely reliant on each other in the field, whether they're being hunted down by Black Lanterns or ambushed by a force of 50 or so super-villains outside Gotham City, a gang of costumed killers rather poignantly described by Blake as "mostly d-listers and losers". In the self-interest of protecting each other during their missions lies the illusion of close relations based on common and fond values rather than self-interest and need.


And in those brief moments of adrenalin-rush and attention-focus encountered during the Secret Six's usually-disastrous missions, Thomas Blake can over-ride all his demons and fully concentrate on those things that he really can do well. Whether it's determining battlefield strategy or trying to survive against armies of human killers and battalions of super-powered ones, Catman can not only live in the moment, but gain credit for doing so. He's the one who flies his colleagues in, the one who advises them on how to stay alive, and the one they can probably most rely on when the punch- ups start. It's no wonder he associates the role of Catman within the context of the Secret Six with success and fulfilment, because compared to what Thomas calls "The old me", the fat loser whose "milk and cookies" would probably have been "whooped" by Batman every time, as he admits, his new self at his teammates side has at least some status, some purpose and some measure of achievement.


And in this way, his membership of the Six constantly delays the moment when he'll have to come to terms with himself. At the beginning of "Unhinged", for example, Blake rather futilely confides to Deadshot that he's "lost the horizon", that's he lost faith in what we might call the "Catman project", and that he's even "thinking" about going straight. He's grasped that there's a fundamental quality of restraint and regret missing from his thinking and his behaviour, and that it's not his conscience troubling him so much as the awareness that his conscience isn't doing any such thing. It could have been a fundamental turning point in his life, but it's one that's lost as soon as the Catman costume is pulled on again and mayhem indulged in. And by the end of that misadventure, Blake is so consumed by costumed identity and so lost in the moment of trying to survive that he's found his horizon again. He is, he declares to the Huntress, no more unworthy of being saved from hell than all the other super-villains around him, and the fact that it's actually his own flaws that he should be concerned with, rather than the possibility that other reprobates might share them, has quite escaped him again.


11.

But of course, the business of being Catman and fighting with the Secret Six isn't ever going to inspire the transformation of Thomas Blake into a self-aware, well-adjusted, benign member of society. Belonging to the Six is for Blake a process which functions somewhat like methadone to a heroin addict; the very worst of his problems are temporarily controlled, but the treatment's no cure while the programme's addictive in itself. And as a consequence, Thomas Blake can't ever quite delude himself enough to feel entirely secure in his own skin, no matter what the Six achieve or who Catman out-slashes. It's a fact that can be observed in how he behaves with his colleagues when the bullets aren't flying, for he's usually seen sitting quietly and looking on whenever there's no fighting or planning to be done. Like a shy guest at a party who takes on kitchen duties in order to mask their awkwardness, Blake flies planes and drives cars, establishes strategies and worries about coming disasters, but he never seems socially at ease. Indeed, placed in the midst of these people who're supposedly his nearest and dearest, he often seems unable to handle casual conversation with anyone beyond Deadshot at all. In the "road trip", during "Compound Fracture", for example, everyone else has something to discuss, but Blake's quite silent and focused on the road. No wonder he misses Scandal, the social nexus of the group, when she's absent in "Six Degrees Of Devastation".


And no matter how Thomas Blake transforms himself, it's never enough to ensure that he's as respected beyond the ranks of the Six as he longs to be. He's constantly insulted by the folks he meets as well as the people he fights beside. He's "Captain Cat" to Tarantula, an "imbecile" to Batman, "a perpetual bile-stained amateur" to Dr Psycho, and even Ragdoll unkindly laughs at the idea that Blake might be mistaken for the Dark Knight. To Bane, Catman is nothing more than Batman's "pale brown shadow". In fact, it often seems as if Blake has only to walk into the presence of another super-villain to find himself being referred to as "Kitty" and "Catface", just as he was once the "cowardly lion" to Green Arrow before he remade himself. Even so, the respect he gets these days is a far more substantial brew than he ever earned before. Folks may still on occasion laugh, but they mock less as time passes, and so the costume and the codename and the colleagues all combine to make his long-term problems more tolerable in the short-term.

Being Catman in the Secret Six is certainly a more effective palliative for his feelings of inadequacy than his previous strategy of dying his hair black because he hoped it'd make him look "tough", but at least that option had the virtue of doing less harm to others.


12.

Finally, it's well worth noting how Ms Simone shows us how Blake's mind working to protect itself from the truth of his rather squalid, rather wretched existence. For example, when he's faced with circumstances which are particularly disturbing to him, Blake untypically calls on God or refers to religious concepts. It's usually a sign that he's ashamed of his behaviour or deeply concerned for someone else, or, usually, a mixture of the two. When he stabs Scandal for the second time, for example, he declares that "I sincerely hope to God you can heal from this.", as if he's somehow showing goodwill of any substance despite just having seriously wounding her. (Not stabbing Scandal twice in two separate occasions would've been the more godly approach to take, of course.) And when he's driving away from a host of freed North Koreans prisoners and effectively dooming them to death in the snow, he grasps at Deadshot's declaration that "It's only five miles to China. They might make it" with a shamed reply of "Christ I hope so." Of course, Deadshot's pathetic attempt to not feel guilty works on no rational level at all; five miles to weakened prisoners in hostile country might as well be five hundred miles. But Blake's desperate to find something that will assuage his guilt that he's calling on Jesus to help him feel better, if not help the prisoners themselves. Finally, in one of the series most touching and yet most stomach-turning scene to date, Blake is moved to assure Scandal that she still has a "soul" even as she's horribly torturing Pistolera, displaying the fact that he associates the sacred with the people he cares about rather than the things they do. Scandal has a "soul" because Blake doesn't want the Six's matriach upset, although it's hard to see what's soul-strengthening in the act of cold-blooded and protracted torture.


There's no thought that Blake can't turn into a defence against self-knowledge. Cheshire mocks him for wanting to be respected by "men of virtue", but the truth is that he wants to be respected as being a virtuous without having to behave in any coherently virtuous fashion. He's got a string of excuses that kick into gear whenever he feels he's being called upon to defend the morality of his actions. It's a fact that's best expressed in the speech he gives to the Doom Patrol in order to distract them before a super-powered brawl. Why should you be trying to arrest us, he asks;

"For petty little robberies and for stealing people's hats? ... Do you guys really care if money goes from some rich people to us, only to be replaced by insurance ... Look ... you all and us, we're in the middle. On the far end of one side, there's the Justice League, all shiny and sweet. On the other far end, there's people like Joker and Darkseid, who'd kill everything and everyone if they could. Us, we're in the grey zone. Neither side approves of either of us."


It's a speech full of what criminal psychologists have termed "techniques of neutralisation", or ways of convincing oneself that bad deeds haven't really been committed. And for all that the speech an attention-distracting ploy, the sentiments are too well-expressed and come too easily to Blake's mouth in stressful circumstances not to reflect his real thinking. Take a second glance at his speech and it's saturated with excuses such as;
  • we only steal a few little things. We're not serious criminals. Crime is relative and not absolute. Stealing a few things isn't really bad, especially compared to what others do.
  • the things we do don't financially harm our victims. They're always compensated, one way or another.
  • our crimes don't really involve violence or threat and they don't inspire upset and trauma; we're just thieves, and so thieving is all I need discuss here
  • other people want to kill everyone! We're not really bad when you compare us to them.
  • you're not liked either, you know, and you ought to throw in with us because morality is really a popularity contest. The more of us who're disapproved of, the less questionable our actions must be.


And it's a subtly clever touch on Ms Simone's part that Blake's criticisms of the superheroes he meets are founded in exactly the opposite principles to those self-serving ones listed above. If, as he argues, he and the other members of the Six aren't really to be considered culpable because they're not truly as bad as they might be, super-heroes are expected to be absolutely morally perfect or they're worthy of nothing but contempt. Green Arrow, for example, is attacked by Catman for being morally compromised by the programme of mind-wipes revealed in "Identity Crisis";

"You were all great once. You can be that way again .. But you'd better hurry. Before the line between you and us gets too damn blurry to see."

Now, the JLA did indeed cross a significant moral Rubicon there, but the point is that Blake expects those who represent authority to be perfect or they're not worthy of his respect, let alone the right to sit in judgment over him. He can't grasp that the value of the law remains even if those who serve it are compromised. He only sees folks who might limit his freedom and his own good opinion of himself. In that, he's like a child who argues that if her mother can raise her voice, then she can too, and whenever she likes as well. Super-villains, according to Blake, shouldn't be judged by what they do, but by whether they're as bad as "Darkseid" or not. But superheroes have to be utterly spotless or they're worth little at all. It's one rule for Catman and another for those superheroes who might challenge his own view of himself, the "little dictators" he hates so.



Even when Blake faces down Batman, who wasn't involved in the brain-wiping programme, he still has to find a way to neutralise his opponents moral authortity. And so he argues that Batman's only pretending not to be tempted to harm his various opponents, as if it would matter a whit if that were true or not. Batman's only playing a role of being ethically perfect, implies Blake, and somehow that makes Catman his equal. But the point isn't whether Batman is tempted to do wrong or not, but the fact that he doesn't do so. Blake will be Batman's moral equal when he starts behaving ethically and not before. Whether Mr Wayne occasionally wants to kick the Penguin off of a roof is irrelevant; he doesn't, whereas Blake travels the world killing large groups of people and then arguing that the survivors should be allowed to escape execution, as if that makes him a good man.

"I know we're not the Justice League." Blake later declares, just as he states that the Six are a "team of A-Holes". But by that, he doesn't really mean to say that he and his colleagues are immoral recidivists committing a string of appalling crimes one after another. He just means that he's rather hard-done by, but that he tries, and that he's well-meaning, and that other folks are far worse than he is. And then he pulls on the costume and he hides his immorality behind noble-sounding slogans of "honour" such as "I like to face my enemy face on - like a man", and he manages all the time to ignore the fact that he's doing all he can not to face up to himself at all.


13.

It's disconcerting to think that one day a writer might be given responsibility for Catman who sees him as nothing more complex than a previously criminal individual learning how to be a superhero. There's already a huge number of characters whose progress might be taken as a template for such an approach, from Hawkeye to the newest take on Ant-Man, and the assumption of many writers seems to be that everyone loves a handsome rogue who's seen the light. But, as I've struggled to express in these pieces, the true appeal of Catman isn't in his bad-ass-ness, or in any supposed superheroic apprenticeship, but in his deeply flawed personality, and any attempt to make a superhero out of him would require the character to cease being Catman in the first place.

It's the great strength of Gail Simone's conception of the character of Catman that while he can't ever win what he wants to achieve, he's not the victim of his own story either. He's every bit to blame for the things he does even as he endearingly longs for family and friendship and respect.


Yet the sympathy he inspires does at times threaten to overwhelm the fact that he's not just a bloke who's gone slightly wrong so much as a major-league criminal who's ruined the lives of countless folks all over the world. For he can sound so terribly plausible and caring and worthy of our sympathy, such as when he points out that none of the Secret Six has had a parent who cared for them. And then, having absorbed what sounds like a touching declaration of vulnerability, the reader recalls that Blake's not done a thing to rescue his own child from Cheshire since the events of "Six Degrees Of Separation". In fact, I've struggled to find a single reference to Catman's child in the later stories, let alone a sustained campaign on his part to try to find and help his baby. It's exactly the kind of occluded, unempathetic thinking that permits Thomas Blake to self-pityingly discuss the fate of his soul while, as Deadshot points out, utterly ignoring the plight before him of "two defenceless potential witnesses with a gang of humiliated racist scumbags."


Thomas Blake is an awful man, but he's also a profoundly lonely and well-meaning one. That's why we're so interested in seeing what he does next. He can be used to perform the most extreme of heroic deeds as well as the most profane and disgusting of immoral ones, and yet still stay true to the psychological profile that Ms Simone has created for him, which means that he'll never become stale as a character.

Or: Miss Simone hasn't created a heroically tormented bad-ass. She's created a pathetic but lethal bad-ass who can be put to use as superhero or supervillain without ever losing the studied contradictions which make him so compelling. And so, where yesterday we discussed how making a character popular doesn't rely on making them violently able, so today we've chatted about how making a character interesting can be achieved by putting noble dreams before them while ensuring that they're too flawed to ever fulfil such ambitions.

Huzzah!

Now, why aren't more folks writing clever in such a way?



Well, I always end up feeling somewhat dim after writing about Ms Simone's work, so I hope you'll forgive the above if dim is what it's been. Coming next, a piece on Marvel's new Heroic Age compilation. A splendid day to you, dear kind reader, and my best wishes for your sticking together!

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