continued from yesterday's piece on chuckling and somewhat-mild taboos;
So familiar and comfortingly absurd are the conventions of the superhero narrative that creators who wish to poke fun at them have to be careful not to stray into the realms of the absolutely obvious. For in many ways, and even to some of its most fervent admirers, the superhero has long been, by dint of its profoundly conservative form and its cultural ubiquity, something of a parody of itself anyway. This may disturb the more literal minded of its fans, who often appear to want to regard the superhero as a sub-genre not of fantasy but of realism, and perhaps, for them, yet another take on the undeniable wonders of Kurtzman and Wood's "Superduperman" may prove enlightening and instructive, even some 61 years after the original's first publication. But to those of us who can, for example, enjoy the suffering doled out to Wile E Coyote without ever needing to believe that such a wonderfully foolish creature actually exists, and who can happily dip into Saturday nights with Dr Who without worrying about the laws of physics being contravened therein, a very conscious and willing suspension of disbelief is all part and parcel of the revelling in the premise that a man could fly, even though he can't. Well, of course he can't, for that's as obviously ludicrous a premise as the idea that a huge number of people given god-like powers would behave, on the whole and as a class, utterly unselfishly. Yes, the
audience mostly knows that there are underpants being pulled over tights. They know a great deal about the sexism, the power fantasies, the ridiculous premises, the continuity re-wipes; it's something of a waste of effort to try to forcibly remind the reader of those very things which they have to knowingly compensate for every time they pick a superhero book up. For just as we have to work to ignore the sentimentality and prudery in British Victorian fiction, or the happy-ever-after endings for the central couple in rom-coms, superhero books require a degree of an effort of will to enjoy in the first place. The problem with the superhero sub-genre isn't that folks aren't aware of many if not most of its unfortunate aspects, but rather that creators and audience often simply shrug and accept the staples of the sub-genre as givens, as if the very business of producing cape'n'spandex epics inevitably involves worrying issues of social representation and dodgy attitudes towards violence and law. It's as if a great deal of the community associated with the production and consumption of the adventures of Superman and his many costumed children just takes it for granted that there will be sexism, racism, disturbing attitudes to constitutionality, and so on, while regarding those who bemoan such things as killjoys and idealogues, or, more insidiously, as humourless folks who just don't get the joke.
Or to put it another way; it's not that we don't know, but rather that we don't, on the whole, really care, even when we thoroughly disapprove on occasion of what we're reading.
It's for this reason that directly mocking the worst aspects of the cape'n'chest-insignia brigade rarely amuses, because the satirist runs the risk of being so crassly obvious in their observations and objections that they inspire not laughter, but ennui in their audience and a shrug-shouldered dismissal for their work. To engage with issues such as the body fascism and gender inequality inherent in so much of the Big Two's output, for example, requires something other than the presentation of barely-clad, porn model-esque hyper-heroines pouting as they worry about breaking their nails while fighting crime and knocking off their counterparts of various genders. Frankly, since it would
be hard, for example, to produce work that's more ingrained in its sexism than that in some of last year's X-Books, which I've been reading this past week, the effort to mock sexism with an even-greater measure of it would be as unsuccessful as it is pointless. (*1) Even the most corrosively amusing of strips assaulting the very idea of the superhero, such as Rick Veitsch's "Brat Pack", the Mills/O'Neill "Marshal Law", and Garth Ennis's "The Boys" (*2), often seem so close to the very thing that's being mocked, albeit with a few extra twists of sex and degeneracy thrown in, that the entire and estimable enterprise can on occasion feel quite futile. In many ways, the superhero, just like reality TV and the gambling lords of Wall Street, can be remarkably resistant to being satirised, so close is its form and conventions to anything that might be produced in an attempt to undermine it. After all, if the Arsenal mini-series showing an implausibly drugged out and hallucinating master-archer side-kick beating up drugs addicts with a dead cat can pass with editorial sanction in a mainstream 2010 DC book, then satire attacking the superhero in its broadest sense is quite dead. (*3)
*1:-Only some X-Books, I hasten to add. I even read one last week which, pleasingly, made me enthusiastic about returning next month for more. I'm sure folks would be unsurprised by its identity.
*2:-I often love the bile and the passion and the invention invested in these books, as well as the regularly brilliant storytelling. I'm just unconvinced about the satire, because it's neither particularly surprising or daring. A satire of those who produce and buy superheroes, however, bloggers included, might hit closer to the target, if again it can avoid the stereotypical.
*3:- Is it possible that I dreamed this? Surely it can't ever have happened?
As a consequence, one of the more effective ways to poke fun at the superhero is to do so in an apparently straight fashion with a supposedly respectful tone, to present what seems to be an utterly conventional narrative while challenging it with the intrusion of complacency-derailing barbs which stray only a touch or two beyond that of the sub-genre's normal and often absurd practise. In constantly inciting the audience to engage with the superhero with as much irony as unquestioning involvement, the audience is being trusted to think for itself, as it surely should be, while its choice of entertainment is respected and delivered without snobbery or dismissiveness. Rather than being alienated by a creator's apparent scorn for the superhero, the audience is rather given the ammunition to catch themselves indulging in the worst excesses of the sub-genre. The trick, of course, is to avoid making the critique so explicit and hectoring that its meaning hits the reader before the pleasure of the conventional superhero narrative does. For that reason, much of the best satire of the superhero sub-genre appears not as an obvious and extreme expression of apparent loathing, but as a remarkably standard-issue form of the product, almost indistinguishable from the material it's deconstructing. Such encourages the reader who's already largely if not entirely aware of the ridiculous nature of the entertainment before them to laugh at being outsmarted and made to think twice, rather than their being cruelly, albeit at times entertainingly, mocked.
One admirable example of this is to be found in Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's "Welcome Back Frank", in which The Punisher's return to NYC inspires a sub-culture of repellent and yet strangely familiar urban vigilantes to develop. Its a B-plot which works with and not against the reader, gently and joshingly reminding them that its their job to police the morality of the material they choose to consume. As ludicrous a business as the violent actions and psychotic ambitions of the Vigilante Squad are, they never violate the tone of the black comedy of The Punisher # 1 to 12, but, rather, thoroughly compliment it. In doing so, the reader, who's simultaneously being given both a respectful MU adventure story and a playful deconstruction of it, never feels preached at or scorned. Given that most of the only audience who'd care to read about the values of the spandex-and-face-mask crew being satirised are self-evidently superhero fans in the first place, the rest of world caring not a jot, it surely makes sense not to alienate the bulk of them with lashings of self-aggrandising genre-loathing. After all, the ambition for most critical-minded creators is surely not to destroy the superhero, but to make the sub-genre smarter, its content less well-worn and morally slap-shod. (*4)
*4:-There are of course notable and laudable exception. It's hard not to conclude that Pat Mills would happily destroy rather than deconstruct the superhero.
My favourite example of such playful satire, and the second of the three laugh-outloud scenes which I want to discuss, is to be found in Mike Baron and Jeffrey Butler's "The Badger" # 5, from May of 1985. It's the second event on the frameless introductory page re-capping The Bager's previous adventures, following the collapse of Capitol Comics and the book's "transfer" to First. As was the case with the Spider-Man panel we looked at yesterday, the humour here is created through the juxtaposition of an apparently typical superhero brawl with a word balloon which reveals a different context to the familiar scene than was at first apparent. Because, of course, the eye tends to read the visual aspects of the panel before processing the text, the frequent consumer of superhero books will inevitably at first interpret the scene as being one of a superhero thwarting a robbery in a supermarket. In this, Jeffrey Butler's energetic and yet obviously somewhat awkward style, as yet strongly influenced far more by the contents of other comic books rather than real life, serves to carry the message of "superheroic business as usual", so similar is it to the second-division mainstream Marvel books of the time. Yet the dialogue is so contrary to expectations that it immediately provokes at the very least a smile and a sense of complicity on the part of the reader. "Next time, fill out the goddam check before you get in line!" spits The Badger, and we're left amused at (a) the unexpected break with costumed convention, and (b) the fact that we can't help but recognise some of our own everyday anger and impatience in the Badger's actions.
For Mike Baron's scripts on The Badger at their best fed off the truth that most of us have on occasion wished for the ability to impose ourselves upon the world not to right great social ills or rescue utter strangers, but just to be able to go about our everyday lives without running into folks who don't behave in the way that we expect and want them too. In declaring war on teenagers who torture ducks, on men who garden late at night, as well as absent-minded shoppers, The Badger as a character serves as a litmus test for our own civility. As a consequence, the laugh that follows the unexpected word balloon is immediately chased off by one inspired by an awareness that we too have been infuriated beyond measure in a thousand minor social situations, by drivers not indicating on a roundabout, by folks who use several cash cards in a row when there's a queue for the bank machine behind them, by people working on their cars during summer afternoons with their blaring radios making the air shimmer even more than the heat does. To laugh at the Badger is to own up to the very worst instincts informing the superhero fantasy, by the desire for the power to impose our will quickly and completely upon anyone who transgresses against our normative expectations without reference to the individual circumstances of each incident.
Essential to the meaning of the panel is the cashier who recoils from the violence in what's obviously shock, who reminds the reader of what the precise point of that beating is. For this frame from "The Badger", like all successful satire, takes pleasure in being both the thing that's despised and the criticism of it. After we've taken a measure of prurient pleasure at the brutal beating of what's at worst no more than a self-involved customer at a checkout, we surely do need a not-too-obvious but still explicit statement of what violence actually is and how it disfigures all of us. In "Welcome Back Frank", that contextualising component is the fate of Maria Lopez, an innocent cleaner murdered by The Vigilante Squad during one of their self-proclaimed heroic rampages against crime. In The Badger, it's the cashier, through whose shaken and frightened eyes we see the Badger's behaviour again. It is a shame that Mr Butler placed her so far back into the background of the action, and that the colourist chose to obliterate her in purple, bu then, if she'd been made too prominent in the reader's gaze, the whole conceit would collapse immediately, the brutality of the insane Badger being made explicit far too quickly for the purpose of the brief scene to work.
As a series, "The Badger" juggled a mass of influences and components which rarely entirely gelled, being a typical Mike Baron book of the period, saturated with interesting ideas and an informing energy, but missing the sense that the scripts had been wrestled through a solid third and fourth draft. Druids, insane superheroes, multiple personality disorder and, of course where Mr Baron was concerned, lashings of martial arts, all sat uncomfortably together in an entertaining and yet unintergrated and often lumpy mess. (*5) Perhaps the tag-lines for the series - "Why would anyone put on a costume and fight crime? They'd have to be crazy!" - revealed a concept too thin to be endlessly played out without a great deal more content being loaded into narrative too. Yet I recall several people becoming fans of The Badger simply because of the single panel discussed above, and no matter how later issues, despite their eminent virtues, disappointed, those readers and I still kept buying the book, in the hope of receiving a hit from its pages as substantial and enjoyable as that first contained in that one single scene on the first page of "The Badger" # 5.
This single event made me laugh first at its unexpectedness, and then for its inappropriateness, and then, finally, because it so effectively exposed how lazy and self-regarding my own thinking had been. The superhero comic, Mr Baron seemed to be saying, needs to be as much about the person being punched as the wish fulfilment figure applying the debate-closing pummelling. In that, he deftly established the point that it's not the superhero sub-genre which is of itself inevitably dumb, so much as the willingness to leave unchallenged some rather dubious taken-for-granted assumptions concerning it on the part of both creators and readers.
*4:- If memory serves, Mr Baron even had his version of the Wally West Flash learn something of the martial arts while bearing a 'death touch', which would seem to be a case of gilding the lily.