Monday, 23 January 2012
A Good Man Such As Zauriel
An afternoon hour spent in the company of Mark Millar and Ariel Olivetti's JLA: Paradise Lost has reminded me once again of how narrow the range of types and characters are in so many of today's superhero books. For Miller and Oliveti's 1998 take on Grant Morrison's angelic Zauriel is such a decent-hearted and smart, stable and fundamentally generous person that it's impossible not to wonder whether such an unqualified paragon would ever be allowed to carry such a mini-series today. Practically unique even in the context of the mainstream of its day, Zauriel's Christian-spirited adventures in Paradise Lost now seem wonderfully askew and anachronistic. Where's his willingness to opt for expediency rather than principle, his shocking circumstances, his angst, his short-sightedness, and his habit of being beaten down by adversity? What's the point of a superhero who's so fundamentally good?
Perhaps that catastrophic decline in the degree of heroic diversity might explain something of why I'm so fond of the adventures of the likes of Dirty Frank and Cyril "Knight" Sheldrake. For all that Frank is catastrophically disordered, and accepting that the Knight is a man with no little sin on his conscience, they're both fundamentally kind and decent individuals. One's sadly utterly barking, one's very much not, and yet both, you suspect, would make essentially heartening company. How the wheel has turned. It wasn't so many decades ago that the superbook featured an endless parade of straight-shouldered and cheerily family-friendly moral exemplars, which left the occasional appearance of a Wolverine or a Punisher seeming as dramatic and as exciting as a leather jacket, a D.A. and a flick-knife at the gates of a rural Fifties High School. Now the typical example of the sub-genre's monthly product is quite desperately short of folks who aren't glum and traumatised, compromised and fundamentally alienated, and it seems that it's the sane and pleasant super-folks who are now the seriously endangered and dwindling minority. So antithetical have the qualities of inarguable decency and moderation become that it wouldn't be any surprise to discover a tag-line for an upcoming epic which declared that superhero-X was finally, shockingly, going to succumb to their good side. Wouldn't that be just be terrible?
The character of Zauriel in JLA: Paradise Lost seems to be heretically perverse in the good humour, compassion and unselfishness which he displays. When the heavenly Justice Leaguer discovers that the woman he's abandoned his immortality for is in love with somebody else, for example, he doesn't wither into despair or embark on a career as the Anti-Angel. Instead, he's so pleased for her that he can hardly stop smiling. In that, he's the rarest of Christian characters in comics, for he's utterly lacking in that air of resignation and seriousness-bordering-on-the-joyless which so often tends to mar the attraction of the breed to those, such as myself, who aren't religious at all. While he may well at times be worn down by weariness and pain, as all traditionally heroic characters must be, he's never likely to betray his principles or give in to whatever dark side it is that a writer might attempt to give him. Zauriel's appeal is based in his adamantine strength of principle matched to his amiable if fiercely determined nature, which leaves him looking like anything but a passive and deferrent individual. What could be done with such an intractably decent character today, when even Captain America's been repositioned as the macho-posturing leader of a cadre of keen and expert torturers?
If nothing else, there's surely space for just a few more characters who might fulfill the role of the powerful other who won't just fight to defend us, but who'll be a generous friend after doing so? I can't think of many superheroes that I even like very much anymore, and less yet that I'd trust enough to want to get to know. Yet Zauriel seems to me to have been one of the more reliable and admirable of the cape'n'chest-insignia brigade, and it's a shame that there's so few of his like. There will be those who think that such a well-balanced superhero might lack the dramatic contradictions which can drive a plot forwards. Yet it's worth remembering that the presence of an angel from a Heaven which clearly isn't a reflection of any specific Church's teachings would be the most wonderful way of discussing a host of ethical and practical problems, should anyone have the desire and will to do so.
I'm becoming more and more distrustful of a sub-genre which so often seems to draw attention to the noble and the inspiring only so that those qualities might be shown being worn away and corrupted. If the market can support the dozens upon dozens of bleak and quite frankly disheartening books that it does, then surely it might also welcome the presence of just a few more optimistic, ethically centered and good-natured superwomen and men as well? Not to replace the standard-issue superhero, and not to serve as sources of mockery either, but simply to add a touch more variety and contrast to fictional universes which are so commonly grey and dispiriting places to visit.