In which the blogger concludes the past two days worth of pieces on taboos and chuckling with a word or two about some far more considerable taboos indeed. You have been warned, and, yes, there will be one particular spoiler for the ninth tpb of the splendid "The Goon";
Just after the mid-point of the Sixties, Dr Harold Garfinkel conducted an experiment upon a small number of undergraduate students, who were told that they would be participating in the training of a new counsellor who was pioneering a fresh method of helping those seeking assistance. The subjects were asked to frame a series of questions which could only be answered with a yes or a no about any one personal problem of theirs.
What the students weren't aware of as they exposed their private concerns in this experiment was that Dr Garfinkel was randomly generating his answers rather than offering up the slightest measure of reasoned response to his subjects questions. This process could result in students receiving both of the possible answers to a particular question if it were repeated or rephrased during the supposed consultation, and the process inevitably provided the undergraduates with answers which suggested contradictory approaches to the issues at hand. Faced with responses which often simply didn't make sense, and which regularly delivered quite utterly contrary advice, the students struggled to make sense of the information that they were being given.
Though some of them were confused, frustrated and angry, all of the subjects persevered to the end of the experiment, and in doing so managed to convince themselves that the answers they'd received were both relevant and useful where their individual problems were concerned. In essence, Garfinkel concluded, human beings spend much of their lives unconsciously assuming that they understand what's happening to them regardless of whether events actually do make sense or not. Faced with a scenario such as that provided in the experiment, which made no sense at all, homo homo sapiens draw off their commonsense assumptions about everyday life and adapt them in order to make the unfamiliar and the nonsensical appear normal and meaningful. In Garfinkel's fake counsellor procedure, the students invented explanations for why a question which initially prompted one particular answer later drew its opposite, and assumed, for example, that the "trainee" had deduced some informing information about them between the first and second time they'd asked a specific query.
In essence, and avoiding an entire and necessary world of jargon and detail, the student subjects weren't able to process the idea that they were the victims of a deception. Everything about the situation, from the status of the person they were told they'd be talking with to the fact that they'd been asked to discuss a personal problem, meant that they felt that they were in a situation consistent with their everyday expectations. After all, society would fall quite apart if we had to always work consciously and constantly to figure out whether the world is lying to us or not. We all carry our fictions about how our life operates with us, and we make sense of the world in terms of them rather than in a direct response to what's actually happening around us.
Of course, Dr Harold Garfinkel had his own taken-for-granted fictions about how life functioned. For example, in his own bubble of everyday assumptions as a social theorist, he presumed that it was perfectly acceptable to ask trusting young students to share questions of their private concerns while responding to them with amoral gibberish.
In such a way do we accept the perfidy of politicians, the gobbledygook of oracles, and, to a far more pleasant and cheering effect, the presence of The Goon in the role apparently marked "heroic protagonist" in his thankfully many and estimable adventures.
Part of the joy of The Goon is how it constantly subverts the reader's expectations of how popular comic book fiction works. Consider the two panels above, for example, where The Goon has been clearly placed in the space in the narrative normally reserved for the indomitable hero. Even The Goon seems to believe, in this sequence, that he deserves to play out such a heroic role, given that he's presenting himself as a man of a rough but fundamental decency, facing down a small troop of obviously bad guys who he clearly regards as morally inferior to himself. After all, they're the ones who like "to gun down defenceless people in the streets!", they're the cowards, and we know that the polar opposites of cowards are always, or nearly always, heroes. In such a way does creator Eric Powell ensure that his reader's gain the pleasures that they expect from genre fiction while constantly subverting their expectations. For The Goon does defend the streets of "the town on the edge of Horse-Eater's Wood", as we'd of course expect a hero to do, but he does so largely because it's his town, because he's a brute of a gang-boss, and because incursions into the status quo of his life aren't about the threat of disorder to order, but rather about challenges to his power and profit. Standing against the Goon are all number of occult antagonists, Zombie Priests and Chug Heads and - Gawd bless Mr Powell - the Communist Airbourne Mollask Militia, but despite all the commonsense assumptions generated by our lifetime of experiencing the heroes journey narrative in any number of mediums, the simple presence of vile enemies doesn't make the man facing them down a hero in himself. The Goon is not a hero, or a prospective hero on the path to redemption, or even a vaguely half-virtuous individual. He's actually something, if not a very great deal, of a monster.
This story is heading eventually for The Goon's salvation, our experiences tell us, the man is a protagonist belatedly discovering his tarnished but gallant destiny, and perhaps he is. But for almost a dozen trade paperback collections of his misadventures, The Goon has been at best a better sort of vicious crimelord, and in being so has done one terrible thing after another.
It's been such fun.
Bound as we are are by our sympathies and expectations, it takes a degree of effort to remind ourselves again and again of the real Goon, of the brute, the murderer, the thief, the extortionist. And the force that it takes to ensure that there's a slither of irony separating us and our affection for him can collapse even when The Goon's behaving in quite breathtakingly audacious and shocking ways. So it is in the first chapter of "Calamity Of Conscience", where the Goon accuses one of his town's small-scale entrepreneurs of paying protection money to his rival Lambrazio. As such, Mr Powell presents us with one of the tropes of a straight-forward gangster tale, with The Goon playing the role of the beleaguered crime-boss reasserting his authority over the locals with an accusation, a threat and the promise of an exceedingly extreme painful beating. And, as such tropes run, the criminal that the Goon is threatening is far more of an odious character than he is, meaning that we take the Goon's side when perhaps ethically we shouldn't care for anyone in these panels at all.
At first the scene is so typical and undemonstrative that the reader can't quite come to grips with the information that its first panel, at 1.17.1, is delivering. (See below.) Then doubt and double-takes kick in as the mind scabs over itself and works overtime to try to speedily re-write what it's experiencing in order to eliminate not just the surprise of it, but the sheer banality of that panel's obscenely disturbing content. For Cloyd, the local tradesman, is there-in shamelessly engaged in the pimping of his horse Emma, and not to other cartoon horses. "Don't you want to look nice for the gentlemen callers?!" asks the scowling Cloyd just before he threatens to take his strong "pimp hand" to Emma, and the mind, which now accepts something of what's being suggested, struggles not to think too deeply about what's being evoked here.
Yet the narrative rolls on without paying the slightest censorious attention to Cloyd's callousness, or even to his self-proclaimed profession of horse pimp. It's as if Mr Powell regarded the sequence as being of no greater or lesser degree of objectionability than any other that he'd created. And so, the impression given is that the Goon and his town are obviously quite used to the very idea of the grisly purpose that Emma's being put to. No-one really notices because it all seems rather everyday and typical, and so, no-one cares. It's just what happens round that neck of the woods meaning that when The Goon, as he notices Cloyd, isn't concerned with any ethical issue at all, but rather with the eminently practical question of who the pimp's currently paying tribute too.
In truth, there are two quite separate narratives unspoiling across and down this page, one that we think is happening because that's what we're used to, and one which Mr Powell is hiding so masterfully in plain sight before us. What the reader believes they're seeing is a showdown between our man, the grubby-handed but hard-punching man of the streets, and that horse-abusing, pervert-exploiting Cloyd. As such, Cloyd's angry denial of having made any payments to The Goon's opponent Labrazio comes exactly as expected. Well, of course Cloyd will deny any culpability, and of course he'll do so in an annoyingly disrespectful fashion, because that will move That Goon, as we expect, into a situation where he'll have to entertainingly reassert his self-assumed sovereignty over Cloyd with an audience-cheering display of violence. But the second narrative, the real narrative, is actually there before us on the page all the time, and it's got nothing to do with bad men, horse-meddling or not, and better men who'll teach them a moral lesson of sorts, no matter how we anticipate being witness to any such event as we turn the page.
All of this is possible because Mr Powell has completely fooled us about what kind of story it is that we're reading. In essence, he's relied upon on most of us naively reading his quite transparent narrative in a sunny, optimistic fashion even as he's preparing to subvert some of our most unthinkingly sacred presumptions. For the reader has been led to expect that The Goon will be (1) appalled by Emma the horse's treatment and (2) infuriated by Cloyd's discourtesy. Surely, our preconceptions tell us, The Goon's going to seriously hurt Cloyd, and they tell us this because we've unconsciously noted that several vengeance-triggering plot-points have been passed, meaning that we're steeling ourselves for the atavistic joy of seeing one mean little specimen of a horse pimp getting his, and probably more than once too.
And in doing so, we quite forget, once again, that The Goon isn't a superhero, or a hero, or even very much of a human being either. He's a gangster, and gangsters in the stories of crime bosses and their underlings are just as likely, we surely know, to punish a pimp by despicably disfiguring "his" livelihood, "his" prostitute, as they are to physically assault the likes of Cloyd.
But all the same, who could possibly have expected that The Goon would then be shown, in a double-page spread, as above, pummelling that sweet little abused Emma so savagely rather than assaulting her reprehensible pimp? "Pow!" declaims the sound-affect, in a tone suggesting a wooden mallet slamming into a slab of untenderised meat, and then there's no doubt that the incredibly unfortunate Emma is taking a solid and disturbingly Kirby-esque left hook straight to her face, The Goon's arm is shown stabbing past the dismayed Cloyd, who seems to have expected to be beaten as much as we did, and there, The Goon's undoubtedly shattered the poor horse's cheek. It's an appalling business, the capillaries in Emma's bulging eyes breaking and criss-crossing her scleras with broken red traces, her left nostril collapsing, the entire structure of her muzzle being thrown away from the bindings of her musculature by the impact of The Goon's assault.
And then, unbelievably, the beating doesn't end there. "Not in the face, Goon! She'll never be an earner again!!" pleads Cloyd, but nothing's going to stop The Goon extracting his revenge and, presumably, blowing off just a little steam at the same time. Turn the page and now he's got Emma is in a headlock, he's landing jabs with his right fist, he's making his point about who's boss here with a quite literally unimaginable degree of deliberately-conceived violence.
It's one of the most appalling and yet also the most impossibly funny things that I've ever read. If I at first laughed less than my memory tells me that I surely must have done, then that could only have been so because a man can't laugh that loud when he's forgotten in surprise and consternation to inhale. Or exhale. Or indeed move to any significant degree at all.