Wednesday, 13 April 2011

The Mighty Thor, The "Frail And Feeble" Donald Blake: What Are We To Make Of The Hero & His Alter Ego In "The Mighty Thor & The Stone Men From Saturn", from August, 1962?


Nowadays we'd hope that Donald Blake would have been raised to feel a great deal more positively about himself. For though we're never told directly that he's a man haunted by his disability and alienated by that reason from the wider society, most everything else about "The Stone Men From Saturn" tells us that Thor's creators expected us to feel almost as much pity for Blake as we would a decent-hearted sympathy for the character. It's implicit in the text, for example, that it's Blake's lameness and its broader consequences which has driven him to holiday alone on "The windy coast of Norway". He's identified from the very off in terms of his disability, labelled as "frail" even before anything of his character and his qualities can be revealed. He is, in the terms of the story, there to be pitiful and pitied, to be apparently perpetually damned by the cruelties of fate while awaiting a

         
miracle so that his life can truly begin. And so, there's little of him in the text that's explicitly admirable or actively heroic. He's curious enough to investigate the scene of an apparent alien sighting, but there's little of purpose in him doing so. It's as if he's just looking for a theme for his daily holiday walk. Indeed, there's nothing of a man enraptured by nature or ennobled by his independence from the banalities of modern society in the brief scenes we're shown of Blake before the invasion of the Stone Men begins. Quite why he's on holiday in such a distant and difficult place is left unexplained, though the assumption is that he's a lonely and unloved man. And "The Stone Men From Saturn" certainly opens with a panel showing "a frail figure silhouetted against the bleak sky", which leaves the reader in no doubt that Donald Blake is not a happy or a well-fated individual. Life itself is bleak for Blake and it seems obvious that it's his very frailness which causes this. The idea that his holidaying alone in the challenging terrain of rural Norway might be portrayed as a marker of independence and strength never seems to have crossed the mind of the tale's creators, who were, quite understandably in the context of their purpose and their times, engaged in, as Stan Lee later wrote, establishing Blake as "thin, lame and defenceless - the exact antithesis of his awesome Asgardian alter-ego".

            
But then, that opposition between strength and weakness also extended to matching and opposing qualities such as obvious bravery and an unheroic desperation, optimism and pessimism, good cheer and downheartedness. It's an unintended consequence of the story's construction, therefore, that the only disabled character on show isn't just weak, but powerless, a victim, an outsider, a man who, if not exactly defeated by life, is thoroughly alienated by it. A sigher, a worrier, a man living on the periphery of things, his disability seems to control him rather than informing him as just one more element of his nature. And so Donald Blake is only roused to the kind of heroic achievement that the text so obviously lauds by becoming someone else, someone who's clearly not disabled, who's physically perfect, someone who wins because he has every advantage already in his hands before any effort needs to be made.

          
This is certainly not the reading which Stan Lee, Larry Leiber and Jack Kirby intended for the tale of Thor's first appearance, and few would've read the story in such a light at the time. I'm not suggesting that we ought to even consider judging the decent-hearted work of these liberal gentlemen by one strand of the thinking of fifty years later, and that's especially so since they so obviously intended Blake to be seen as something of a courageous individual. After all, the Marvel revolution didn't present its readers with unsympathetic alter-egos for its major stars for years and years after Thor's creation. Donald Blake was obviously intended to serve as a symbol of the decent and powerless, the hapless and helpless adolescent who could undoubtedly fulfil their potential and establish their moral worth if only they were physically powerful enough to do so.

         
But no matter how kindly the creators attempt to depict Don Blake, there's always a sense that his physical weakness brings with it mental limitations too. And so, Dr Blake is never shown managing to raise himself into any kind of sustained pattern of positive thinking. His mind is portrayed as being almost as limited as his body is, and there's a clear suggestion that the one constraint is associated with the other. Yes, he's shown refusing to abandon his attempts to flee from the alien Stone Men, but he's also dispiritingly quick to declare that his situation is "hopeless", and, sighing, that he's "trapped". There's very little of the indomitable about Donald Blake, and little of a hero's characteristic refusal to bow before hopeless odds either. Unlike some other Marvel alter-egos, who carried aspects of a traditional hero's personality before they became gifted with the hero's power, Donald Blake is as shaky in his character as he sadly is in his physique.When he finally does declare that he "must keep trying ... mustn't give up", it's presented as if he's wearily struggling not to abandon the fight to live rather than as a statement of unarguable principle. His anger is labelled as "helpless" rather than defiant, and his thoughts are framed constantly in negatives, such as when he says  "I -- I can't run fast enough". And whenever he's discussed by another character, or indeed by the narrator, his weakness as well as the fact of his disability is always stressed. He's the "lame passer-by, with the gnarled old cane!", he's "a skinny gent" who obviously couldn't be "Earth's secret weapon".

He's never a person, he's always a disability with a person attached.

             
"The Stone Men From Saturn" isn't cruel or insensitive in the sense that a kneejerk political correctness might have it, but it is a tale from a quite different era. It's taken for granted in the text that being disabled will quite probably cause a man to be quiet and lonesome, if not actively Saturnine and socially isolated. And it's assumed that the only function in a heroic text that a handicapped man can fulfil is to be the victim of superior might and the "before" in a superheroic transformation scene. That Blake might be not only determined to survive, but resilient and optimistic and highly able neither fits the purposes of the text or the social norms of much of the fictional givens of the period. The disabled may be good people, may be academically able and professionally gifted, but they must, according to the at-best adolescent logic of this tale, long to become whole, to become the be-muscled jock, the individual who can transform worlds through their overwhelming might rather than through the application of their minds and their hearts. And the tale seems to take it for granted that the reader will presume that a lack of such a physical "completeness" will inevitably mean that the disabled can't ever be truly themselves, can't be truly alive, can't ever actually win. As Thor says upon defeating his alien opponents, displaying the joy and enthusiasm so tellingly absent in every single panel in which Dr Blake appears;

"I've beaten them. I've proven that the power of the hammer and the might of the thunder-god are invincible. Nothing can conquer Thor! Nothing!"


Nothing can conquer Thor, indeed. But if only Dr Blake had shown such self-belief and resilience himself before he stumbled upon the hammer, then he might have been able to make a better fist of his own friendless life. He would undoubtedly have needed the identity of the son of Odin to beat up hostile-to-Norway aliens, of course, but he certainly wouldn't have needed all that godly strength and those four shiny chest baubles in order to approach the world with something less of a victim's profile. "The Stone Men From Saturn" suggests that it's the apparently random chance of becoming Thor which determines whether Don Blake can be happy and purposeful or not. That's not a healthy suggestion to be making where disability in general is concerned, for "Everything will be fine if and when you get impossibly lucky" is plainly neither an inspiring nor an empowering theme in any such context.           

It's not that I'm not pleased for sad, isolated Donald Blake as he finds himself in possession of the invincible power of a God. I'd be pleased for anyone who's so obviously suffered as it's implied that Blake has. Yet, at the tales end, the identity of "Thor" has become the preferred one, and "Thor" has decided that "Donald Blake" is now nothing but a disguise to prevent the Thunder God from becoming an "international curiosity". Again, the unavoidable meaning is that disability is something which separates the individual from the world, that marks them out as different and broken, and that salvation is to be found in not being disabled. Similarly, since the disabled are, it seems, inevitably marginalised and treated as harmlessly unworthy of closer attention, Donald Blake's body will serve as a useful hiding place for Thor as he waits to battle against whatever it is he's going to be fighting. The superhero narrative is a problematical one at the best of times. Here the challenges it poses for creators and readers become all the more obvious even as the best intentions of all concerned are evident.

                 
If only Donald Blake hadn't been the only person with a disability in the story. Then he'd have been an individual rather than a representative of an exceptionally broad and rarely-presented class of folks, and whatever weaknesses and strengths he displayed would have been personal qualities rather than representations of how those who aren't like "us" really are. Certainly, as the months passed on the new Thor strip, Blake became both a far more impressive character and a considerably more sensitive role-model. But here, he's a victim, and a loser, and he's saved only by becoming someone else, someone who represents physical perfection, someone who is whole. Donald Blake may deserve the power of Thor, as the message carved into the hammer's flank declares, but he can only truly become himself by leaving his hardly-entirely crippled body behind and becoming a Nordic superman.

It's Thor who represents humanity in its battle against the Stone Men, those unimpressive symbols of the ever-threatening outsider, while Blake becomes nothing more than a place for Thor to hide away in. The message is unavoidable, although obviously unintended; the handicapped aren't the real heroes, although they may certainly have ill-defined but undeniably noble hearts. (We're given plenty of evidence of why Thor deserves to be known as the "mighty". But there's nothing beyond his job title to suggest why Blake should be considered "worthy" of the power of Thor in the first place.)

          
But if attitudes to disability are thankfully undergoing some measure of a positive modification these days, that shouldn't cause me to suggest that Stan Lee, Larry Leiber and Jack Kirby were ever anything other than sympathetic to and respectful of Donald Blake. It's just that Blake is here a victim struggling with the burden of his difference, and yet, from the perspective of  49 years later, and ignoring the whining in a few of Blake's thought balloons, it's hard to see the Doctor as being anything other than a man who's already attained heroic status, who's in no need of being swallowed up by Thor's musculature and power in order to become a protagonist of stature. He may not be any direct use against the Stone Men, but heroism isn't, as we all of course agree, marked by the ability to punch aliens in the flat-nosed face. Indeed, Blake is a remarkable man, as his creators obviously always intended and yet here struggled to establish. He's a doctor, an individual of obvious great skill and learning, and a man who despite his significant physical disadvantage holidays alone on a walking tour of rugged rural Norway. To have this man reduced in the text to the role of a helpless Billy Batson awaiting the thunder which brings Captain Marvel is a miscalculation, but not an uncompassionate one. Adolescents, and often many of us who are long past adolescence, long for a moment of overwhelming fortune to raise us up in the world, to make us all that we might be if only fate had delivered everything to us on a plate. But that longing isn't a marker of a potential hero. Rather, it's a marker of a lack of resilience, of a surrender of our lives to chance, to good fortune, to the futile hope of great things happening which we might neither deserve nor entirely control.

            
This first appearance of Thor in "Journey Into Mystery" expected us to pity Dr Blake, and to cheer as the body which clearly hadn't held back his considerable achievements was replaced by that of a great viking superhero, as if the second is all the more splendid a heroic identity because the former is all the more wretched an existence. Yet re-reading this story now, I realise that Donald Blake already seems to be a hero of sorts to me long before Thor and his punch-up with the fiendish Stone Men arrives in the narrative, and that's because I want him to occupy that role in the story. And that's no doubt exactly as Lee, Leiber and Kirby always intended, no matter how compromised a tale "The Stone Men From Saturn" now appears to be, from the perspective of 2011, from the vantage-point of our own troubled and confusing times.

            
.

31 comments:

  1. Thanks for this, Colin. As a person with a physical disability myself, I've always detested this part of Thor's early character. In most media, and this comic is no exception, disabled people are portrayed as either suicidally depressed albatross-bearers or messianic untouchables. For anyone who thinks I'm overreacting, I always present a thought experiment:

    "You've got one hour to name any disabled character who's been shown cracking a beer open with his friends, or going to the movies with his significant other. Go ahead. I've got time."

    There are very few comic book characters who are disabled, and of those that are, I can only think of one (Oracle) who has a power that doesn't nullify their disability (see: Daredevil, whose power is "super not-blindness", and Thor.) I can't wait until all people- regardless of race, sex, age, beliefs, or orientation- get to enjoy the hero paradigm.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hello STP (I hope that's an acceptable acronym :)) I'm both pleased and I guess relieved that you found some worth in the piece. I wanted to avoid stridency, but I didn't want to avoid the point. Added to that is the fact that Thor's creators clearly never meant to be anything other than respectful, and it's so easy to start pointing fingers that it's neither fair nor helpful to point. And yet your point carries overwhelming weight where I'm concerned. Oracle is a remarkable example of what can be achieved, and Ms Simone is to be congratulated. But where are the other examples? I spent some time last year discussing the representation of mental illness in the superhero mainstream. Physical disability is equally poorly dealt with, of course, and it seems such a shame. The superhero narrative has such a capacity to discuss difference in a respectful and productive fashion. It's a terrible waste of such a promising medium.

    The Splendid Wife and I just had a go at your thought experiment. We did not do well. I hope one day we'll have so many excellent examples so readily at hand that we won't even need to discuss the issue any more :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Excellent post, nothing to argue with. Donald Blake is pretty fascinating for me, and I was kinda hoping that this was the beginning of the series. I haven't read anything between around this story and the first 10 or so Simonson issues, and I was a bit puzzled to see that Donald Blake was retconned somewhere along the way into not having been a real person at any point (Wikipedia was only slightly helpful here) and then Simonson even discards him as a guise. Yet later, Stracynski seems to have decided he was sorta real and brought him back. Of course it's selfish of me to want this "explained" but then again, there's probably something there in relationship to your subject, right? Not-even-existing was definitely a step down from even his initial portrayal, after all!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hello Carl:- thank you for the comment. Writing the above made me realise that Don Blake is pretty fascinating, as you quite rightly put it, and that I'd like to know more about him. I suspect that I'll be returning to him, and for many reasons, including the fact that I was capable of reading that story for many years without having the nous that there was something disturbing, if undoubtedly well-meaning, about the very premise it was based upon.

    As far as I understand, Don Blake was eventually revealed to have been an identity imposed upon Thor which, in combination with said identities mortality and physical weakness, was intended by Odin to teach Thor "humility". I must hunt down the exact way that Mr Lee phrased that. I think that might tell us something of what Blake's purpose was, beyond complicating life for Thor and serving as the lead character's own pet hostage/significant other in constant distress.

    Things do get terribly complex with Blake as the decades roll on, but that's only to be expected with 49 years of story and so many creative and editorial teams. I was rather baffled as to what JMS was doing with the character, where he came from and why he existed in the form we were given, but that may be just because I was generally .... disappointed at the choices made in the re-boot. The last I saw of the character, he'd lost something of the use of his leg again. I'd like to go back and read of what's happened since, especially with very good writers such as Mr Gillen and Mr Fraction on the case. The disability angle would no doubt be fascinating.

    Ultimately, of course, I think we both want to see the same thing, namely Blake working to define his own life under his own terms despite his disability. Since, as STP says above, those with physical disabilities are rarely on-panel in comics unless everything's made as sanitised and pleasant as possible, it'd be good to see Blake as an exception to the rule, neither practically typical nor a victim. Certainly NOT as a victim or an angst-ridden example of tragedy defined SOLELY by their disability, but as a person, just as Barbara Gordon is depicted by Gail Simone, for example.

    There certainly is some kind of unintentional meta-comment on disability and superhero comics lurking in the decision to have made Don Blake a character who never having existed at all as a distinct individual in some takes on Thor! Still, there's the chance to do some fine things with the character now. In fact, I must go check out the books, my finances notwithstanding, because good things could well have been happening for many months now.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi Colin: Thanks for another fine post. Two things come to my mind:

    First, I happened to have been taking another look at Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol the other day. There's a volume that suggests just how superhero comics can go re: the portrayal of disability! I've sometimes thought about picking up the Preminger DP Showcase to see how it all began: out of curiosity, does anyone have a sense if that run is adds anything interesting to the portrayal of disability?

    Second, as far as the disappearance of Blake goes, this was a point that emerged from the general complication of writing Thor as both man and god. As Stan has remarked (and the stories bear this out), it took them a good while to figure out how to deal with Thor as both a character in the the world of men and of gods. The stories ping-pong awkwardly between the two and, the more this happens, the more confused Blake/Thor becomes; at times, it's unclear if Blake was always Thor, Thor was always Blake, Thor is just a persona of Blake's or (the version they settled on) Blake was just a persona of Thor's. Stan and Jack retconned it themselves to affirm the later. I think it was a question of finding a way to make these narrative worlds and character possibilities work together and, in the end, the superhero won out over the doctor. Neat, though, that these same problems (gods/men) would haunt so much of Kirby's later work, though I too remain disappointed when Blake gets Odin eliminates Blake altogether (in the Simonson run, beautifully recolored in the new Omnibus).

    Thanks for such a lively and civil space, Colin!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hello Nick:- "a lively and civil space" is a generous thing to say and I appreciate it. I'd certainly like it to be so :)

    The Doom Patrol point is excellent! vaarna, a commenter from Finland who's kind enough to pop in at times, would certainly feel it was a point well worth the raising. The Grant Morrison run was of course written to exactly the purpose you describe, and I've been wanting to write about his issues. What you've done is make me wonder about those early Arnold Drake issues. I'll have to go and dig out my Showcase Presents reprints, but I can't recall the Chief being anyone's victim or focus for pity. But that may be my memory malfunctioning. Thank you for the nudge in that direction, it's must appreciated.

    You're absolutely right to point out how Mr Lee and Mr Kirby searched for the right role for Blake. In fact, that would be an intersting thing to research. I've always enjoyed reading those early issues and noting those issue-to-issue refinements and changes which were seen as perfectly par-for-the-course until continuity became such a considerable concern. I find myself admiring SL and JK all the more when I can see something of how their thinking was changing in the evidence of their pages.

    Ah, the new Simonson Omnibus. I have been saving, I have. If only there were another few months to put the pound coins away! Those big books disappear fast.

    My best to you, Nick.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Oh, those omnibi do disappear fast! I was reserving funds for the Simonson for six months, so I feel you. It seems that a few months after the Omnibi, though, they're now releasing the contents as multiple "Ultimate" trades. In the case of the Simonson, that might be the most pleasant way to read, since the single volume is truly unwieldy--the biggest volume of the few I've bought yet, and definitely not easy to read in bed.

    Love to hear about your thoughts on the earlier Doom Patrol if you get to it. A cheery day to you as well!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Colin,

    An interesting point, well-argued, as always.

    Perhaps it's my imagination, but something odd emerges from this discussion. You remark that

    Yet, at the tales end, the identity of "Thor" has become the preferred one, and "Thor" has decided that "Donald Blake" is now nothing but a disguise to prevent the Thunder God from becoming an "international curiosity".

    Putting that together with the panels and dialog you reproduce from the comic, it's striking that although Thor is now Blake's primary identity, he always speaks of himself in the third person.

    I'm sure it wasn't intended, but this is reminiscent of the sort of splitting and alienation from self that can occur after abuse. You end up looking down from the ceiling at yourself, where the one looking down is the powerful, acceptable version of the self, and the one on the floor is the weak, pathetic version, the one who was vulnerable to being hurt and humiliated, and isn't the person you'll admit to being.

    I don't know whether there's really anything in that. In any case, that grandiosity and lack of affect is why I find it hard to care about the Thor comic. Perhaps it's built into the concept-- Thor wouldn't be quite as mythic if he was worried about how things were going with his girlfriend. That leaves stories of physical conflict involving someone who's, well, a god. That, in turn, forces Loki to be one more cardboard supervillain.

    In contrast, the old Scandinavian myths were a bit more fun. In them Thor is a rather thick but very strong and good-natured sort with flashes of temper, and Loki, however he ends up later, is a trickster and occasional ally and companion of Thor. For example, when Thor loses his hammer to a giant, Loki gets it back for him by conning the giant into proposing marriage, and then dressing up Thor as the bride to be. The giant gives Thor the hammer as a wedding gift, and, well, you see where it goes from there.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hello Nick:- to my knowledge, that Thor omnibus hasn't arrived in the UK yet. Certainly Amazon.UK haven't got their stock in. It always feels strange that elsewhere gets these precious things and we don't yet. Mind you, what's a few weeks? There were years in the 70s when the entire US output of Marvel never arrived over here.

    You've joined a small but select group of folks whose positive thoughts about the Doom Patrol have made me wonder why I've never gone to that book before in any detail. I shall put that right :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. I have to confess that Thor is my least favorite character of the Marvel Silver Age. The remarkable thing about Walt Simonson's work on that title was he managed to make the premise so consistently entertaining.

    My resistance is partly based upon the curious figure of Dr. Donald Blake. Unlike so many superheroes, Blake's transformation does not provide him with a liberation. Rather, it is the freeing of Thor from the prison that is Dr. Donald Blake. We are meant to understand that leaving as an educated, productive albeit moderately disabled man is a punishment sufficient to teach the Norse God of Thunder humility.

    It inverts one of my favorite themes of super-heroic fiction: the act of transformation that puts a person's inner life on public display. Thor is not a fantasy expression of Dr. Blake anymore than Brad Pitt is an expression of me. They are (at most) entirely different people and (at worst) Dr. Blake is like a shell for a hermit crab to shed once it has been outgrown.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I'd love to see you tackle Morrison's Doom Patrol, issue-by-issue. I mean, it may very well melt your brain in the process, but it's an idea.

    (And STP is fine, but I usually go by Tomato in the Web-verse.)

    Tomato

    ReplyDelete
  12. Don Blake is back? Is he still someone Thor turns into/emerges from or is he a seperate guy now? (And you know we're talking about comics when you write a sentence like that!)

    "You've got one hour to name any disabled character who's been shown cracking a beer open with his friends, or going to the movies with his significant other."

    And irritatingly, the only one I can think of is Garrett from 90s cartoon Extreme Ghostbusters (who didn't quite crack a beer open but only because a kids cartoon wouldn't let him), the team's designated headstrong adrenaline junkie and unable to walk since birth. After Barbara Gordon, he's it. The most physically active guy being the one in the wheelchair is a bit obvious, but if you're in the target audience at the time the main thought is "this guy's cool" because he gets a lot of the cool lines and zaps ghosts in the face and, crucially, there's never a plot or subplot where he's bothered about being disabled. (Egon Spengler was my fave though, cos he's EGON)

    - Charles RB

    ReplyDelete
  13. Hello Brian:-

    "Yet, at the tales end, the identity of "Thor" has become the preferred one, and "Thor" has decided that "Donald Blake" is now nothing but a disguise to prevent the Thunder God from becoming an "international curiosity"."

    That is the implication of that first tale, in that Blake, occupying Thor’s body and mind, thinks to himself that being in his godly form all the time would make him a source of that international curiosity. I suppose it might have been Stan’n’Larry’n’Jack trying to work out a reason for why Blake should ever NOT be Thor, since they couldn’t at first think of Blake living a worthwhile life as “himself”. Again, there is the chance that the contents of that first tale reflect an inability at that moment for them to consider that Blake might be an identity that’s entirely valid and entirely worth maintaining, and of course that’s an attitude which to a degree – and sometimes a considerable degree – Thor’s creators later modified by showing how skilled and important a doctor Blake is. He can do things that Thor can’t, he can contribute in ways Thor can’t.

    I think you’re absolute right to suggest that Blake does seem to be a man in this story who has suffered terribly and who is desperate to be someone else. Later, as I say, that becomes a complicated business. In fact, Blake’s thinking itself is shown to be faulty; he assumes that Jane Foster couldn’t love him because of his disability when in fact she adores him. That’s another spin on the Blake character, that he’s allowed his disability to impede upon the positivity of his cognitive processes. He’s not a victim so much as a man who thinks he is. That’s an interesting situation and one which would’ve benefited a great deal more careful attention.

    There IS a problem with Thor, isn’t there? There are few creators who’ve managed to make us care for him in the way that we can engage with other, more human characters. The JMS incarnation, for example, as I’ve tried to write about, was just to me self-pitying and quite frankly stupid. The Simonson Thor was always engaging, but still hard for me to empathise with. An undoubtedly great book, but it’s telling that I stopped rushing out to buy it after the first year. That doesn’t mean I don’t still enjoy it or admire it, because I do. But I still found it hard to see the world as the God sees it and to be beguiled by that. Having said, Thor The Frog gets my vote every time.

    Ah, but those myths are far too much the reflection of a profoundly un-American culture. I don’t mean that as an anti-American gibe, as I think my love for America is, although not unconditional, considerable. Rather, American popular culture does find it hard to incorporate Royalty, power without reference to truth, justice and the USA way, and in that “way” is a strong sense of pop-Christian morality. Thor the warrior, the wanderer, the basher of others who glorifies in his own power while screwing up and still being presented as out hero:- it doesn’t fit the American template, anymore than the Vikings would’ve taken to the Blake/Thor version of the story.

    Well, that’s the thought that came to mind when I wrote this! I have a feeling I’ll be changing my mind on that in about 15 minutes :) But thanks for inspiring my thoughts.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hello Dean - "I have to confess that Thor is my least favorite character of the Marvel Silver Age. The remarkable thing about Walt Simonson's work on that title was he managed to make the premise so consistently entertaining."

    Thor must be the most problematical hero on Marvel’s books from that first wave of books from the Early Sixties, in that his problems have never been obvious as, say, Henry Pym’s, and his successes rarely as considerable as many of his fellow Lee/Kirby fellows. There have been long runs which I respect and I’m very fond, even if I can only love sections of them; Lee/Kirby and Simonson of course, an adolescent liking for the Conway/Buscema issues. But I can’t say I’ve ever loved the character even when I’ve liked his book. That’s an odd thing, but often the moments I’ve loved most with Thor have come in other books; the scene in Engelhart/Tuska’s Avengers 138 where Thor is raging in a Quinjet against Whirlwind and promising vengeance while the Beast sits shocked and rather intimidated behind him, Thor showing respect in a Christian church in a Shooter/Perez issue. I like the idea of Thor a great deal more than I’ve ever really liked Thor.

    ”My resistance is partly based upon the curious figure of Dr. Donald Blake. Unlike so many superheroes, Blake's transformation does not provide him with a liberation. Rather, it is the freeing of Thor from the prison that is Dr. Donald Blake. We are meant to understand that leaving as an educated, productive albeit moderately disabled man is a punishment sufficient to teach the Norse God of Thunder humility.”

    Yes! Absolutely, I’ve always had deep, deep problems with any narrative where characters rise above their humanity to become gods or god-like. As far as I can see, the challenge isn’t to become god-like, but to become a better human being. (And those god-like characters never seem any better, any more well-balanced, once they’ve risen up to godhood anyway. Usually they then have to be shown the very humility they left behind in the first place.) And Don Blake was actually a decent egg and an interesting bloke. Anyone melancholic enough to holiday in Norway on his own with his disability is a really interesting bloke. Far more than the musclebound god who replaced him.

    ”It inverts one of my favorite themes of super-heroic fiction: the act of transformation that puts a person's inner life on public display. Thor is not a fantasy expression of Dr. Blake anymore than Brad Pitt is an expression of me. They are (at most) entirely different people and (at worst) Dr. Blake is like a shell for a hermit crab to shed once it has been outgrown.”

    But we do seem to inhabit a culture in which a great many people seem to feel that they’re best represented in popular media by beautiful, never aging people, and that folks should – SHOULD - be beautiful whether they’ve been shown to have been transformed or not. It’s astonishing to watch the Danish cop show “The Killing” and note how all the folks on show HAVEN’t had face-lifts, haven’t had work done around the eyes, or if they have, it’s minor. US and, as time passes, UK TV is full of frightworks, an entire culture represented by people who in attempting to reject the image of age are somehow allowing themselves to degenerate into gargoylism. By which I mean, following your mention of Mr Pitt, perhaps that first Thor issue is a pure statement of one kind of 21st ill; the centrality of the illusion of the worthy and the beautiful rather than such being judged in terms of people’s actions.

    That issue of Thor was 49 years ago, of course. But reading your comment, it suddenly seems quite appallingly contemporary, and ugly. It’s so naked in its apparent values that it’s almost satire, and yet, its obvious that the text was written with sympathy for the underdog, the powerless. It just can’t conceive of any other way forward for them except to become anything other than themselves.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Hello Tomato:- "Tomato" it is then! Huzzah!

    I've always wanted to do a piece every 10 days or so on a run of comics. But I've tried to stay away from things which a great deal of other people do very well; top tens, weekly reviews, issue-by-issue reviews, general reviews of books. I say that not because I think those approaches aren't valid, but because the net is full of people doing them so well that my contributing to those traditions seems redundant. But in truth, those are all things I'd love to do.

    Of course, I don't mean that others aren't writing pieces such as the ones I do, or writing them very well. I just mean that it's a less crowded sphere of the blogosphere and so I thought when I started off that I might find a place there.

    Of course, discussing the Doom Patrol issue-by-issue under GM is made all the more intimidating by the fact that there are so many very knowledgable GM fans out there. It's a specialised field of study out there, GM studies, and I'm unsure what I'd be able to contribute.

    Love to do it, though. I'm sure I'd learn a great deal. Mmmmmmm.... Thank you for the idea.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Colin,

    T tend to blame the demands of open-ended serialization for much of the flatness of the comic book Thor (but then I blame everything on serialization, anyway). If the Scandinavian myths had been meant to be cranked out month after month with the same characters, with no end in sight, they would have been quite different. As it was, you could wait until you got a really good story, and it didn't have to be anything like the rest. See the Prose Edda.

    But clearly there are deep cultural differences as well. To mention a couple of relatively superficial examples, the myths were written from a standpoint in which everyone understood quite clearly that they were going to die. The gods would have their Ragnarok, and then things would begin after them, just as for everyone else. And Scandinavian culture valued cleverness, so Loki wasn't simply a negative figure, though he was regarded as malicious. The Vikings loved tricks. Although they weren't terribly good at besieging cities, one thing that did work for them was to catch a bird that nested in a city, tie a burning twig to the bird's leg, and let it fly home to start a fire.

    In general, the figure of Loki is extremely complex, and I'm not sure anyone really understands how it's all meant to fit together. One part the comics leave out, for example, is that he lets someone named Svaðilfari get him pregnant and gives birth to "the best horse among gods and men." (An eight-legged foal, in case you were wondering what a really good horse is supposed to look like.)

    Thor has more to him than you might think, as well. He was the god you'd invoke in a marriage ceremony, and he was especially important to fishermen (and still is). When I was living in Sweden, there were still a few people wearing a Thor's hammer around their necks, as in the Viking days, the way people will wear a crucifix. There are a lot of versions of them, some quite sophisticated. I wear one myself sometimes, since, you know, the Christians got it all wrong, though we're too polite to bring it up.

    Anyway, it seems to me that Kirby and Lee were at their best they were emulating the older style of mythology -- gods who were basically human, if on another level in other ways, like Zeus, the cheating husband. When they tried to imitate what they thought mythology was like, they stumbled.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Hello Charles:-I’m afraid I had a JMS problem with the Thor issues I read, in that I just couldn’t grasp what he was talking about, or why, for a great deal of the time. Don Blake’s relationship with Thor? Er, I can’t really remember in detail, because my mind’s rejecting the details, but Thor and Blake ended up the run I waded through sharing a body while still being quite distinct and separate people. I was losing the will to go on at that point, as well as getting furious about problems to do with things such as sexism, which we’ve swapped words with before.

    " And irritatingly, the only one I can think of is Garrett from 90s cartoon Extreme Ghostbusters (who didn't quite crack a beer open but only because a kids cartoon wouldn't let him), the team's designated headstrong adrenaline junkie and unable to walk since birth. After Barbara Gordon, he's it.“

    Oh, that’s a good call. I love how you bring examples to the table that I’d never think of, or, indeed, ever know of. He sounds like a great character too, but honestly, isn’t it shameful that that’s all we can think of? I felt somewhat saddened by Dr Blake’s first appearance when I re-read it, but I knew that in the context of the time a significant degree of give had to be granted the creators. But now? I think there’s a whole generation of creators who just don’t seem to be thinking about social justice at all.

    “Egon Spengler was my fave though, cos he's EGON”

    Ah, well, of course. And you shall forever look like Egon in my mind’s eye from now on :)

    ReplyDelete
  18. Hello Brian:- I do know why you should feel that way about “open ended serialization”. My feeling is that its part of the challenge of the monthly game. I know that sounds so obvious as to be quite moronic, but what I mean is that there have been books which took the challenges of monthly publication and used that to create a uniquely vibrant product. Daredevil under Miller, the X-Men under Claremont/Byrne, Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, the first year of the JLI, of course the Lee/Kirby FF and the Lee/Ditko Spidey, the first year or so of the Levitz/Giffen LSH. All of these were titles which created something splendid out of the monthly grind. There are of course a host of other and more modern examples, although I do feel that the structuring of stories so that they work for the trade has led to a lessening of the kind of density which made the above stories in part so compelling. But I do think that the challenge of open-ended serialization is one of the things which makes the sub-genre so compelling, as well as, of course, frustrating. Can the creators make it work?

    I’ve left out post 2000 titles from the above as I’m having a go at writing about this very subject at the moment.

    I thought your discussion of myth was fascinating, if I can say that without sounding sycophantic. And of course, taking the richness and ambiguity of what we know of the Norse Myths is impossible in the superhero form, even if American culture could prove welcoming to the quite different and often challenging forms and conventions you touch upon. The old pregnant-male-god-giving-birth-to-horse riff just wouldn’t likely work well in today’s mainstream, although I suspect that it could be made to play out just fine with a competent creator.

    I’m particularly interested in the Norse Gods myself, although I’ve never been to the climes you have. Yet living as I do in the East of England, which was occupied territory as far as the Saxons were concerned, the Vikings having popped over not for a spot of international thievery, but for a programme of nation-building. There’s a fantastic mix of Christian and Norse iconography lurking around in shadows of East Anglia’s history and I love that blurring of cultures. The English tend to forget how much of their past is informed not by Scandinavian raiders, but Kings and kingdoms too. I will, if I may, regard Alfred of Wessex as a personal hero of mine, but that doesn’t mean that I’m buying into the Viking-as-other myth. (I’m neither pagan nor Christian.) As a consequence of this interest, I find the mention you make of details such as the Thor crucifixes interesting, especially – if I may – because Larry Leiber’s script for that first Thor tale presents a clearly pagan Norwegian fisherman. I’m not suggesting that means anything; it just makes me smile.

    I must admit, I grow more and more fond of the Lee/Kirby version of the Gods which developed by chance and design as the months passed. Their Asgard was of course nothing like the source myths, but that was all to the good for me, for the reasons mentioned. I found the background of a super-scientific race which also rode their magical horses compelling. The confusion, the unexplained, the juxtapositions, all made me ask questions of what was going on. Even the strangeness of Odin’s bath chamberlain, or some such office, ,made me feel there was something fascinating about this culture. Sadly, since then, the wonderful confusion of that Asgard has been long pushed to one side. Oh, well, I enjoyed it. By not making sense, and yet by providing a great deal of interesting material, it made me try to make sense of it.

    ReplyDelete
  19. "Er, I can’t really remember in detail, because my mind’s rejecting the details, but Thor and Blake ended up the run I waded through sharing a body while still being quite distinct and separate people."

    They should've worked out a rota, with little post-it notes if one had to borrow the body for longer than planned. They're sensible blokes... (One nice bit in the current Avengers cartoon, we early on saw that Bruce had come to terms with the Hulk and was willing to make deals with him)


    "Oh, that’s a good call. I love how you bring examples to the table that I’d never think of, or, indeed, ever know of. He sounds like a great character too, but honestly, isn’t it shameful that that’s all we can think of?"

    More irriting, the cartoon got a rep in some quarters for being overly PC, in large part cos he was in it (and cos another new Ghostbuster is, gasp, a girl). However, that's the view from older people: when the cartoon was shown to a focus group of young kids, so one of the showrunners told it, they found Garrett was universally the most popular. Everyone remembered his name from just one episode, everyone thought he was the leader (Egon was), and everyone wanted to be him when asked which character they'd want to be. And whether to PC or not PC, that sounds like it was worth doing.

    "But now? I think there’s a whole generation of creators who just don’t seem to be thinking about social justice at all."

    Seems like it - some do and it's always notable, like Paul Cornell saying he was very careful with Faiza Hussein or a Batman villain or this Soldier Zero character (I think that was the name) who was disabled in human guise, because he didn't want to get it offensively wrong. (Some feminists were bothered by the villain and he actually apologised for it)

    “And you shall forever look like Egon in my mind’s eye from now on :)"

    Not far wrong... ;)

    - Charles RB

    ReplyDelete
  20. Hello Charles:- a rota would be nice for Don and Thor, wouldn't it? I recall they had several meetings in some other-dimesional place too, a kind of extra-reality front room in their shared body. But as I say, it was all so awful the minds blanks it out ...

    I love the idea that the kids who were actually watching the Ghostbusters cartoon so liked that Garrett character. I'd like to have seen the faces on any doubters in the network who saw that data ...

    Ah, well, on Mr Cornell; as with Ms Simone, I trust him to do the job properly. One of the first thing I wrote about on this blog was Faiza, and she remains in my memory an ideal of how to approach representations of communities which others either botch up or simply ignore. Though I've not sampled Soldier Zero, I have no doubt it'll be worth reading. It's finances, not a concern about the subject matter that holds me back there. One of the reasons that I looked forward to the Action/Secret Six crossover was that it gave the appearance of a comic book universe in which everyone was to be trusted where the representation of those who aren't blokes with muscles is concerned. Of course, there's lots of other creators who put the work into researching their material. But there seems to be more who either care to research, or don't even care to think of these issues. I loathe the PC approach to things, but I loathe the "duh, I don't care enough to realise" approach too.

    And finally; EGON! EGON!

    ReplyDelete
  21. Hello Colin,

    You make an interesting point about serialization. While I do think it's mainly harmful, there are certainly exceptions, as you point out, and in the end it's just one particular kind of artistic constraint. Paul Cornell and Gail Simone come to mind immediately as writers who know exactly how to manage this, giving us well-defined arcs within an ongoing series.

    It was also good to hear about your experience living in the East of England. The Vikings were very inclined to assimilate whenever they settled anywhere. Brian Boru is said to have freed Ireland from a Norse occupation, but in fact the Vikings had come to raid and ended up starting Ireland's major cities -- Dublin, Limerick, Waterford, Wexford, and Cork. Brian Boru couldn't have kicked out the Norse because by that point they'd become Irish.

    Similarly, a Swedish tribe called the Rus once ruled Russia, by invitation (in fact, that's why it is called Russia). After a few generations you really couldn't tell them from the Russians any longer. And, of course, the Normans at the Battle of Hasting were the descendants of Vikings who the King of France (to the extent that France had a king at the time) had given a province in order to buy them off from sacking Paris yet again. The battle itself turned into a conflict between the old Viking shield wall (phalanx, basically) and the cavalry tactics of the Norman invaders, who had adopted the European style.

    One instance where the Scandinavians accomodated European culture at home was when the Icelanders adopted Christianity. They took a vote on it, as they customarily did with things. Iceland had seen a lot of blood feuds, and they were sensibly inclined to seek non-violent resolutions where feasible. A lot of people, but by no means everyone, wanted to become Christian, so they decided that, to avoid conflict, everyone would be Christian. Officially it was now punishable by death if you were caught worshipping the old gods -- "but only if you get caught," as the law helpfully stated. As a practical matter, nobody would ever get caught, since there were very strict customs about not prying into what people did on their own homesteads. A nice sort of balance between the public and private.

    It's odd how things worked out in the end when Scandinavia proper ended up adopting Christianity. People would come across pictures of the old gods and take them to be demons. The Thor's hammer, which had been worn for centuries, was now regarded as sacrilegious, since it was looked at as an upside-down cross (which it really isn't). While I don't actually believe in the Norse gods myself, needless to say, I can't help pointing out that it was slightly before 1350 that Scandinavia converted to Christianity, and we all know what happened next.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Hello Brian:- you’re very gracious on the matter of serialization. Your initial comment has had me thinking about the matter over the past few days and it strikes me that it’s no coincidence that my favourite comics have always been ones which functioned well on in a serialized as well as a collected form.

    “ …. In the end it’s just one particular kind of artistic constraint”

    Well, indeed. But I do find it odd now you mention it that I’ve read so little of what does and doesn’t help a good month-to-month series. I’m at a loss to think of much which has been written about that particular issue. I certainly think I ought to search out what’s been written. Any and all nudges would be much appreciated.

    “It was also good to hear about your experience living in the East of England. The Vikings were very inclined to assimilate whenever they settled anywhere. Brian Boru is said to have freed Ireland from a Norse occupation, but in fact the Vikings had come to raid and ended up starting Ireland's major cities -- Dublin, Limerick, Waterford, Wexford, and Cork. Brian Boru couldn't have kicked out the Norse because by that point they'd become Irish.”

    Well, that does mean what you mean by “assimilate”. I’ve got no desire to hold to old stereotypes about the Vikings, but the evidence from Britain isn’t that they joined pre-existing communities as equals, or rather, they didn’t when they had the power to do otherwise. Wherever the Vikings had the power, they took it, which is, I hasten to add, the way of the world. The Saxon kingdoms did the same with each other, although there is some evidence – disputed I give you – that the Vikings committed acts which in the context of today would be considered genocidal, as in the Orkneys. Yet, in the context of the time, I tend to the “The Vikings were powerful and often decisively violent opponents” stance than the “The Vikings were the Devil’s own” one.

    Your second point about how Viking culture was adaptable to local conditions is one that I’ve always been fascinated by. It’s remarkable how malleable those various Norse cultures were. It’s easy for those who bemoan the Norman invasion – of which I’m ironically one – to forget that only two kings before William stood the Danish dynasty of Cnut’s family. Everything is, as you establish, far more complex than those long-haired Vikings versus those harmless, peace-loving westerners.

    ”One instance where the Scandinavians accommodated European culture at home was when the Icelanders adopted Christianity.”

    I agree, but isn’t Iceland a wonderful example of how it’s impossible to generalize with that word “Viking”. The experience of the Shetlands isn’t that of Greenland, and so on.

    ”It's odd how things worked out in the end when Scandinavia proper ended up adopting Christianity.”

    I agree, and “odd” is of course here a synonym for “tragic”. If there’s one quality that I regret about historical Christianity it’s its claim to a monopoly on religious truth. For that reason, and despite the ideology of peace which also characterizes Christianity, I tend to feel more sympathetic to the pagan than to Christian point of view. Not because paganism was in any way morally superior, but because there tended to be more freedom of conscience in pagan cultures. Well, as long you were pagan too, or a Christian not associated with a period of war between one culture and the other …

    ReplyDelete
  23. Hello Colin,

    While I have a general picture of Viking history, it's a different matter to have a more ground-level view -- to live in a place where it's local history -- and I find it very interesting to hear what you have to say about that.

    Yes, both "Viking" and "assimilate" are rather elastic terms. In the Irish case, at the time of Brian Boru the Vikings were still Hibero-Norse, and not standard-issue Irish. And in the case of the Swedes in Russia, "assimilation" didn't imply that anyone was getting kinder and gentler. Even by the standards of the Vikings, the inventors of the Blood Eagle, the Russians were a tough lot. (Not that the Irish weren't.)

    As for the Normans, the tone was set when they first accepted the territory. They'd shown up to sack Paris yet one more time, and the French king pointed out there was nothing left to steal, and offered them a province instead. That meant the leader of the Vikings would be the King's vassal, and he was therefore instructed to kiss the King's foot. He called one of his lieurtenants over, not bothering to deal with it himself, and the lieutenant did kiss the foot, but held the King upside down to do it.

    Sweden today is a very civilized place, on the whole, and in certain ways the opposite of the way things were in earlier days. Still, I wonder sometimes how much of the aggression simply got diverted. "Mobbning," or childhood bullying, is a frequently discussed issue, and it's interesting to think of how this all plays out in "Let the Right One In."

    Yes, "sad" is exactly what I did mean by "odd." I confess that when it gets to the point in history when Christianity becomes dominant, I feel as if someone's sucked all the air out of the room. Pagans just seemed more to the point. Putting dodgy value judgments aside, paganism did tend to be more of an open framework, which was an important point for the Romans when administering a highly heterogenous empire. They were always happy enough to add some more gods (well, look at their core pantheon), but they saw monothesists as potentially dangerous, because they tended to isolate themselves. Whatever their political problems with the Jews, the Romans nevertheless respected Judaism, as decently old, though that didn't extend to Christianity.

    I wasn't aware of what Lee and Kirby made of Asgard, and it sounds well worth looking into; thanks for mentioning it. As for the chamberlain of the bath, I don't know what the comic made of that, but the later French kings had a lot of such offices, and they were considered quite important, because the King deliberately made himself inaccessible. It was all pretty calculated, as a way of focusing attention on the king's person as a way of asserting power.

    I imagine you know the story of Loki, Útgarða-Loki, and Logi, but if not, here's a good summary: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loki. The story was very important to me when I was growing up -- the Vikings are, after all, my ancestors, thugs though they might have been. What the story meant to me was that sometimes, when you find it difficult to do something, it's because it genuinely is difficult. That is, it's not because you're weak or unmotivated, and you should see the thing honestly, not try to bluff through or feel pointlessly inadequate. This is a crucial point in the hard sciences and in mathematics. Very often the really valuable breakthroughs are made when you have to go from A to C and there's an apparently uninteresting point B you have to go through first, which you annoyingly can't figure out. B is what's likely to lead you to a really deep discovery.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Hello Brian:- thank you responding as you have to my last comment. I was hoping that I’d not sounded disrespectful, and I’m glad, I presume, that I didn’t.

    “While I have a general picture of Viking history, it's a different matter to have a more ground-level view -- to live in a place where it's local history -- and I find it very interesting to hear what you have to say about that.”

    Well, it’s remarkable how much of the Viking wars and settlements still echoes on out here here. The Splendid Wife and I went not so long to one of the sites claimed to be scene at which St Edmund was tied to a tree, shot full of arrows and beheaded. It’s a peaceful little rural village now, with a lovely little stone bridge and a disproportionately large community theatre. Past and present all nestling together, even down to the presence of a board letting visitors know of how towns would, in the early medieval period, jostle to be known as the place where Edmund met his terrible and noble end at the hands of Danes who insisted he abandon God!

    ”Yes, both "Viking" and "assimilate" are rather elastic terms. In the Irish case, at the time of Brian Boru the Vikings were still Hibero-Norse, and not standard-issue Irish. And in the case of the Swedes in Russia, "assimilation" didn't imply that anyone was getting kinder and gentler. Even by the standards of the Vikings, the inventors of the Blood Eagle, the Russians were a tough lot. (Not that the Irish weren't.)” As for the Normans, the tone was set when they first accepted the territory. They'd shown up to sack Paris yet one more time, and the French king pointed out there was nothing left to steal, and offered them a province instead. That meant the leader of the Vikings would be the King's vassal, and he was therefore instructed to kiss the King's foot. He called one of his lieurtenants over, not bothering to deal with it himself, and the lieutenant did kiss the foot, but held the King upside down to do it.”

    Ah, it’s all true, isn’t it? I find that I find the extremes of anti-Viking propaganda just as offensive as the school of thought that’s arisen which claims that the Vikings were peaceable farmers and splendid almost-socialist partners and landlords to the folks whose lands they popped into. I’m always suspicious of the politically correct who claim that the Vikings were nice, the peoples who invaded 5th century Rome entirely lovely and the pre-Roman Celts peace-loving hippies with a taste for ceremonial swords. In terms of warfare, if the Vikings were often as savage as they could be reasonable, well, that was the rule of the time. I’m not defending it, I’m just suggesting that there were few states of the period who wouldn’t have taken resources and territory during the time with such force if they could have. As for the peaceful-land-without-imperialist-powers argument, the discovery of mass graves in a British iron age fort announced this week seems to put paid to the remarkable belief in some quarters that pre-Roman Britain was a paradise of peace and plenty. Whatever did some archaeologists think those hill forts were for? Oh, yes, ceremony. Right.

    cont;

    ReplyDelete
  25. cont;

    ”Sweden today is a very civilized place, on the whole, and in certain ways the opposite of the way things were in earlier days. Still, I wonder sometimes how much of the aggression simply got diverted. "Mobbning," or childhood bullying, is a frequently discussed issue, and it's interesting to think of how this all plays out in "Let the Right One In."”

    Ah, human beings. They just don’t seem able not to be awful to each other in one form or another. As I get older, I become conscious of how important law and education are to a culture’s decency, but I’ve never believed that the unpleasant stuff can ever be done away with. Childhood bullying was rife in every school I ever taught in in England.

    ”Yes, "sad" is exactly what I did mean by "odd." I confess that when it gets to the point in history when Christianity becomes dominant, I feel as if someone's sucked all the air out of the room.!

    Terrific phrase! Yes, I know exactly what you mean.

    ”I wasn't aware of what Lee and Kirby made of Asgard, and it sounds well worth looking into; thanks for mentioning it.”

    I’ll be writing about the strange constitution of Lee/Kirby’s Asgard in the near future. I say this not to suggest that you read it, of course, but just to say that I do believe it’s worth looking out for too!

    Thank you for the reference. I hope I never intimated that the Vikings were thugs. There simply are no cultures where the worst of human nature isn’t active and doesn’t spill out sooner or later, and though my hero is Alfred, who seems to have been a solidly decent chap to all and sundry, including his Viking opponents, that doesn’t mean I take my love for the man and his achievements as a sign that his enemies should be mine :) Sadly, Alfred was the exception for the Saxons too in many way. Individuals are decent, aren’t they, but rarely, over a period of time, can the same be said for any culture.

    It’s been fun swapping ideas with you. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  26. Hello Colin,

    You certainly didn't intimate that the Vikings were thugs. My word, not yours (and said with some fondness).

    In general, anyway, Sweden really is pretty civilized. When I first got to Stockholm I relaxed in a way I've never done anywhere else. Partly it was that Sweden was a whole country full of people with the same cultural traits I'd inherited. More than that, though, there was a sort of calmness and lack of emnity that you don't always find in a city. I never worried for a moment about where I was walking in Stockholm, day or night. There was a fair amount of nonviolent crime, mostly on the part of drug addicts, but little violence. (Apart from the police, who liked to crack down on certain social groups, that is.)

    In general there were strong restrictions on anything that might be seen as encouraging violence, and movies were censored. On a visit, after I'd left, I was prevented from seeing an American movie that told stories of gang life, with a view toward showing potential gang members that they really didn't want to live that way -- precisely because it was about gangs. You could see it if you belonged to the film club, which I no longer did, but not otherwise. It didn't matter if you could prove you weren't Swedish, as I tried doing.

    One night I was walking home and heard a woman shouting "Let me go! Let me go!" I looked across the street and there was a man about six foot five with a woman across his shoulders.

    That happened to be a bad night for me anyway. I was just coming from dinner with a woman I was interested in and her fiance, a Swiss man who just sat there and smiled amiably as she tried to cuddle with him. As for the situation at hand, I knew I could change the picture enough that the man would have to let the woman go, but I'm really not very big, and I was pretty sure I was about to lose my front teeth. Since Swedish law is very strict about fighting, I also expected to get booted out of the country, at best, and probably to have my taxes looked at as well. Not that I was well disposed towards the man to begin with, of course.

    So when I got across the street, I imagine that I was looking a bit intense. By then the man was sitting on the sidewalk holding the wrist of the woman, who was looking angry but nothing else. He saw my expression and explained quickly that she was drunk.

    Well, at least one of them was, anyway, I thought, but didn't want to say anything out loud. The situation had turned out not to be so bad, but if he heard my American accent, it might change. I didn't need to say anything, however, since though the street had looked completely empty a moment before, there was now a large group of people standing in a circle around the man and lecturing him on manners. Knowing Swedes, they just hadn't wanted the social awkwardness of being the first on the scene ... The woman left while this was going on, and so did I.

    So it basically seemed to work, through law and education, as you say. You didn't get the sense that there was a lot of repression and that the lid could come off at any moment; things felt in balance. But Sweden is a small, quite homogeneous place with a lot of unwritten rules, though fewer than in Germany, say. If you see someone nearby when you're going through a door, you have to wait and hold the door for them, even if they're at the bottom of the stairs and you're at the top. At the same time, if you're crossing the street, and the light changes, you'd better run. As one of my Swedish teachers pointed out, following the rules is not the same as politeness.

    This has been fun. Thanks to you as well!

    ReplyDelete
  27. Hello Brian:- I'm glad I wasn't rude. t's sadly easy to do on the net and I do try to avoid it.

    I'm rather facsinated by Sweden myself, though I've never been there. It's an interestthat began with the Martin Beck novels and I've moved on through the obvious, and few less obvious, suspects which have been written in Sjowell and Wahloo's wake. I was interested to read your basically positive view of the culture. Much of what I come across in fiction is essentially negative, often seeing Sweden as a culture is decline, as a society which has sold its soul to interests inside and outside the nation. And yet much of the journalism I read is far more nuanced. It's interestng to hear of your persoanl experiences there; it sounds like a lovely place in many ways. It must be heartening to visit somewhere you have a kinship with. Following rules may not be the same as politeness, but in a culture such as the one I share where there's too little of rules AND politeness, well, I go for the informal social rules above rampant selfishness.

    It has been fun. Take care :)

    ReplyDelete
  28. What I liked about the old stories is that a person with a disability could be dispirited and beaten down, that a woman could be a nurse (like Jane Foster) and that this and things like it could be presented in a story and be deemed acceptable.
    Now everything has to be scrubbed clean to make sure no one is offended. It's unfortunate and unnecessarily limiting.

    Ivan

    ReplyDelete
  29. Hello Ivan:- I too regret the political correctness which reduces everyone to a reflection of a particular standard. I regretted it in the past when women could ONLY be nurses and when the ONLY function of a character being handicapped was to increase our longing to see them become "normal". And I regret it now that there's so often the silliness of ONLY having women who are masters of the universe. To make Jane Foster a doctor in the way JMS did in his Thor reboot was a classic case; she retained her "Dr" title and yet was still portrayed as a lovelorn, family-deserting romantic idiot. On the surface, a PC icon, underneath the same old silly thing.

    For me, the only way to get rid of the "unfortunate and unnecessarily limiting" stereotyping you mention, of both PC and patriarchy, is to start filling up comics with PEOPLE, with closely observed, true-to-life, fascinating people. If superhero books have a broad range of female characters in them, then it will be fine to have a female nurse who longs to be a home maker, because there'll also be a female superhero who's the best possible leader of the Avengers there can be. The more women we have of all types - ie recognizably real folks - the less any one will have to represent 51% of the population. It's when everyone either has to be a PC superwoman OR a muddle-headed leave-it-the-men-dearie victim that the whole thing fall apart.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Colin,

    I'm trying to figure out, please forgive me, what the difference is between the idea of Thor and OMAC. Both premise a meek and weak-willed individual transformed by a higher power into a superman, full of decisive ACTION! and CONFIDENCE! 

    Obviously, there are many differences, and I also have hardly read any Thor at all, but on paper, that description sounds remarkably similar, though Buddy Blanks isn't actually disabled, just meek and easy to push around.*

    As we've discussed previously, the government agency that created OMAC has remarkable potential to seem fascist** if care is not taken to make the enemies that require their intervention even worse. 

    And regarding representation of disabled people in popular media who are just regular blokes, isn't sad that most prominently Joe Swanson from Family Guy springs to mind? Of course, he gets mercilessly made fun of, but so does everybody and everything else in the show, and he actually gets a fair amount of character depth, as well as quite literally having a beer with his buddies at the bar pretty regularly. 

    Of course, this is also a show that has a Stephen Hawking stand in - brilliant professor, robotic wheelchair, computer voice - who seems to exist soley for the jokes. 

    On that note, South Park also has one or two disabled characters, who are also both mocked and developed. But South Park also has talking Christmas poo and stoner towels, so who knows? 
    ***

    *one of the sad things about the series being cancelled with [SPOILER ON A FIFTY-YEAR OLD COMIC] OMAC having been transformed back into Buddy is that it seemed like it was going to explore Buddy's personality, and maybe how he could be heroic, too.  Nobody ever knows what Kirby planned, do they?

    ** I made the connection recently between those masks the agents wear to conceal their nationality with the suits the drug agents wear in A Scanner Darkly (though I've only seen the movie). Nothing really to add, just thought that was interesting. 

    *** God, I feel dirty even talking about this stuff on a classy blog like yours. Still, culture is culture, and for the record I think SP is a show with far more heart and depth than FG.

    ReplyDelete
  31. Hello Historyman:- the truth is that both OMAC and Thor are versions of Captain Marvel, who with his magic word "Shazam!" - of course - could turn himself into a super-powerful adult. All the alter-egos of these superheroes are powerless in one way or another, all their superheroic guises are fantastically powerful; that's the central riff, and around it creators weave their own takes.

    The central difference between Thor and Omac isn't actually that telling in the first issues of each. Thor is a character drawing off myth, OMAC one in a science-fiction setting. OMAC is placed in a far more violent and desperate setting than Thor originally was, but essentially, the difference comes - I think, I'm no expert - when Marvel start building Asgard around Thor. As soon as that other-world starts getting constructed, Thor takes on a very different identity to any other hero. OMAC of course never had the time to develop, being cancelled after just 7 or 8 issues. A shame. As will be obvious, I'm a great fan of the strip, or at least I am when Kirby is writing it. As you say, it's a real shame. Who knows if Mr Kirby could've made the book fly, but I'd like to have seen him have more time to try.

    I shall bow to your knowledge of South Park and Family Guy. Even given Stephen Fry recommending both, I've never really gotten around them. I will, and I know it's shameful. It's just that only-enough-hours-in-a-day problem. I'm glad you're out there researching for me :)

    You're right about A Scanner Darkly. It's a brilliant and heart-breaking book. I've always been suspicious about the parallel between the cops in one and the other. I've never read anything of Dick reading comics, but OMAC was published in 74, 3 years before ASD was published. I'd like to think there was some small degree of influence between two of favourite creators ... :)

    ReplyDelete