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.