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.
          
         
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10 comments:

  1. For what it's worth I am reading one monthly ongoing which *seems* to be about a fundamentally good man who has *so far* not compromised his ethics - but it's only on issue #5 so there's still time - and that's Morrison's Action Comics.

    It would be nice to have a greater variety of superheroes. I lay the blame (whether justly or not) at the feet of Wolverine.

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  2. Hello Ed A:- Oh, yes, they're out there. A declining minority, but still hanging on. I was thinking this morning that I should have added Volstagg too from Gillen's fine recent J.I.M. issue too, for example.

    And there's no doubt that Wolverine really did, as you say, serve as an inspiration for several generations of the grim'n'gritty. As a character, he always seemed to work best to me when he wasn't surrounded with casts who were often as, shall we say, single-minded and independent of conscience as he was. I look back and recall how Cyclops and the Angel were once characters who stood in direct opposition to Wolverine ethics, and now it'd be hard to tell which of them deserves to be delivered to the International Court of Justice in the Hague first.

    Not that a want anything of a return to the moral certainties and cheesy smiles of the early Silver Age. I'm very partial to my anti-heroes. I just don't want to read about an entire culture of them.

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  3. The whole focus of Morrison's JLA was that the heroes were exactly that. 'Heroes' that we should look up to, and who stood by, and trusted each other and tried to be an inspiration to the world.

    As the 'inspiration' thing is the only way that comicbook superheroes can actually affect the real world, it's another way he was trying to bring the fiction and reality together.

    I'm halfway through a complete Morrison JLA reading project and it's striking how AS SOON AS Morrison lets go the reins, during the run, then distrust and bad faith between the heroes comes into play. Most notably was a story by Christopher Priest in a JLA Secret Files and Origins swhich shows Batman and Oracle 'bugging' the moonbase to get the dirt on everyone. This preceded Waid's Batman Protocols story which he started very soon after Morrison left.

    Reading Morrison's comics I can see that he strove to present the heroes as admirable at every turn and to that end he deliberately avoided what would have been easy 'dramatic' confrontations-between-the-heroes storylines.

    Morrison's JLA, which established Zauriel's character, was the tent-pole of a bright and optimisitic little Golden Age in DC comics, or so it seemed so to me. He was deliberately trying to 'infect' the rest of the DCU at the time with its influence - its 'influenza', if you will!

    Zauriel was a wonderful character, so big-hearted and compassionate and uncynical. When I got to Paradise Lost in my reading project though, I was surprised to find that Millar took as his starting point the exact moment that Grant had left Zauriel (at Shannon's door) and from there used the character to advance a very different worldview and theological lesson than Morrison had been using the character and heavenly concepts for. A polar opposite of Morrison's viewpoint, even.

    Where Morrison used his JLA War in Heaven storyline to push a questioning and rebellious attitude to the 'higher powers' and to elevate humanity in the great scheme of things, Millar used Zauriel to present a very orthodox Catholic view of our subserviant relationship to 'the man upstairs'.

    Which is not to diss Millar's mini-series. One of the limits to continuity is that these four-colour heroes should be able to be adapted as metaphors for whatever message or 'moral purpose' (as you might perhaps call it?) that the writer wants to get across. Morrison adapted Fox's concepts and characters to explore his own themes and messages after all.

    The Hollywood setting of Millar's mini highlights that Zauriel acts very differently to how cinema heroes of the 90s act, in putting a higher power, and his own responsibilities and duties, above his selfish desires.

    My little study of the much-ignored Paradise Lost mini, looking a little closer at the Christian underpinnings of it, is under the link.

    I hope the link to my own post isn't bad form, but as Paradise Lost is somewhat under-represented on the blogosphere, I thought you might like a squizz at it.

    (BTW I think your recent renovations mean that I can post at your site again.)

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  4. Hello Figserello;- That’s a very good point about Morrison’s Justice League. It was a stance that was particularly important at that point in the Nineties when most every editor was demanding comics that were impossibly bleak and grindingly pessimistic. It was such a relief to see superheroes being treated as adults who were not only capable of getting along, but happy to. And in extending that respect to second and third string characters who would usually have been nothing but cannon fodder, Morrison helped a great many comics readers believe that the sub-genre wasn’t passed the point of saving. There were a few other creators who were creating their own versions of good and even great comics at the time, but Morrison’s JL was a highlight of the period. I did feel that the quality of the book gradually declined after the Darkseid saga, but it was always a book worth spending time with.

    “Morrison's JLA, which established Zauriel's character, was the tent-pole of a bright and optimisitic little Golden Age in DC comics, or so it seemed so to me. He was deliberately trying to 'infect' the rest of the DCU at the time with its influence - its 'influenza', if you will!”

    One of the times when editorial fiat actually works to a creator’s advantage, given that Zauriel was created when Hawkman was taken off the list of characters which Morrison could use :)

    “Where Morrison used his JLA War in Heaven storyline to push a questioning and rebellious attitude to the 'higher powers' and to elevate humanity in the great scheme of things, Millar used Zauriel to present a very orthodox Catholic view of our subserviant relationship to 'the man upstairs'.”

    My memory is that both writers were drawing a distinction between the “Presence” and his various ranks of heavenly creatures, but I may well be misremembering Morrison. Given that Millar was presenting a second rebellion in Heaven, I’d suggest that that wasn’t a very Catholic point of view, but I will have to go and re-read the Morrison issues to make any kind of useful comparison. You’re obviously far sharper on those Morrison issues, so I will go back. I will agree that Millar’s Zauriel is quite clear that there’s difference between the hierarchy which surrounds God and God himself, and that would seem to reflect Millar’s view of Catholicism, which seems to one in which there’s a clear distinction between an absolute loyalty to God and a respectfully questioning attitude to the Church itself. Yet your point does make absolute sense in general even as I think of going to hunt out the Morrison issues. Morrison does have the belief that humanity is itself a kind of godhood, created to serve the planet in some mystical way which my mind struggles to want to recall after wading through the mysticism of Super-Gods. The two of them would undoubtedly have a different take to God in their work. However, it should be noted that Millar’s 1993 series Cannon Fodder shows a similar distinction –in a very different light – between Heaven and God. (And there’s a huge James Blish influence there too.)

    “The Hollywood setting of Millar's mini highlights that Zauriel acts very differently to how cinema heroes of the 90s act, in putting a higher power, and his own responsibilities and duties, above his selfish desires.”

    Yep. And yet, in drawing off a Wings Of Desire riff, it also pulled in some drifts of the influence of Continental cinema too. I think it’s one of those comics which folks ought to recall when they’re claiming that all of Miller’s work is childishly transgressive.

    “My little study of the much-ignored Paradise Lost mini, looking a little closer at the Christian underpinnings of it, is under the link.I hope the link to my own post isn't bad form, but as Paradise Lost is somewhat under-represented on the blogosphere, I thought you might like a squizz at it.”

    Absolutely! No problems at all. I’m grateful for the link and I’m pleased that you can post again. More than that, I’m grateful that you would want to! Thanks.

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  5. Hey, Figserello! I look up to see that link and I can't see it. Feel free to reproduce the link as text and I'll cut'n'paste it so I can visit.

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  6. "I did feel that the quality of the book gradually declined after the Darkseid saga, but it was always a book worth spending time with."

    As much as I love Morrison's treatment of the heroes in JLA, I think he might have hamstrung himself a little as the series went on, in showing them to be such paragons all the time. The drama and conflict had to always come from outside the team, and then there was the difficulty in topping things like the Heavenly Hosts as villains or the end of the entire cosmos as a threat in Rock of Ages, and he did those early on.

    Despite how great it was while it lasted, perhaps it always had a certain 'shelf life'.

    It was one series, by the way, that was very inviting to non-comics devotees. A lot of my non-geek friends at the time enjoyed reading it.

    "My memory is that both writers were drawing a distinction between the “Presence” and his various ranks of heavenly creatures, but I may well be misremembering Morrison."

    You are pretty much correct, and that helps in placing the two works in the same continuity, at least. However I still say that the two writers worked respectively towards and away from that Zauriel/Shannon meeting with ideologically opposite artistic purposes.

    True, God doesn't act at all in Morrison's two-parter, but it looks like he is completely absent from his creation, he's abandoned it. The meeting with Shannon is the triumphant end-point of a story pitting mere humans (or our mortal champions) against divine beings. The conclusion asserts that somehow we are the equal of our heavenly 'betters'. Zauriel's love for a mortal is a vindication of our worth. Millar turns that on its head as a starting point for his story, by showing that Zauriel is completely mistaken in loving Shannon.

    In JLA, Morrison is deliciously ambiguous as to whether the heroes recieved divine help in their struggle against the Hosts. I haven't got the comic in front of me now, but Superman says something at the end about great forces being on their side. Of course he defeated them partly by harnessing the great scientific forces of gravity and electromagneticism, so...

    As a lapsed Catholic myself, I got a kick out of the trappings of Catholicism in Millar's story. Shannon is a Catholic (Irish touch to her name there too), but that may be a tad problematic. Do Guardian Angels only fall in love with Catholics? Perhaps they only guard Catholics? After all, Zauriel chose to base himself in a city in a diocese that according to wiki has the US's largest Catholic population.

    Perhaps I'm being mischeivous, but the infinite love which the angels are supposed to represent is starting to narrow down a bit under Millar's pen.

    "Given that Millar was presenting a second rebellion in Heaven, I’d suggest that that wasn’t a very Catholic point of view..."

    What's this? Lapsed and also ignorant of the basics of my faith too, it would seem. Do the protestant theologies allow for subsequent rebellions in heaven?

    But then the author of the original Paradise Lost wasn't a big man for the Pope either, so the template of the whole story might not be the most Catholic... :-)

    My link should be under my name in my post above, but here it is again.

    http://captaincomics.ning.com/forum/topics/jla-revisited?commentId=3370054%3AComment%3A197038

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  7. Hello Figserello:- Thank you for the link. I think that you're right that Morrison's JLA eventually suffered from the lack of internal conflict. In fact, later issues of the run were often at their best when some disagreement did appear, such as the effect which Orion had on Aquaman. But there was also the problem of seeing so many of Morrison's favoured plots playing themselves out. In particular, the "everyone becomes a superhero" plot rarely works, and it certainly didn't here. Still, an underachieving Morrison beats about 80% of te opposition every time.

    I'd not considered that Zauriel was mistaken in loving Shannon. My take was that he had no divine right to have his love returned, as it were, and that his love for her as a human being was far greater than his love for her as a person. I'm doing some writing about the character next weekend, so I'll check out your p.o.v. as I re-read everything I've got. I've not done the proper work yet, so I'm uneasy about my existing belief that Millar is having Zauriel experience that infinite love you've mentioned. I do apprciate that material about Catholicism and Zauriel in your comment. I will definitely be travelling to your Zauriel article!

    "What's this? Lapsed and also ignorant of the basics of my faith too, it would seem. Do the protestant theologies allow for subsequent rebellions in heaven?"

    I hope I didn't sound snotty there. I certainly didn't intend to. Mea culpe. I do find it interesting that quite alot of Millar's work in the Nineties shows the influence of Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror which has religious overtones. And Blish's Black Friday, for example, is concerned with the devil's overthrow of heaven, and I'd swear that was an influence on Cannon Fodder. By which I mean, Millar's pop take on Christianity really does scoop a great deal that's not in the bible at all. In fact, the bible doesn't really seem to appear too much! The Omen, yes, a variety of forteana, yep, but the Bible less so.

    Which, I suppose would make sense. I'm not suggesting it's so, but a religious writer might enjoy playing with the media traditions which circle a religion rather than the religion itself

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  8. "Still, an underachieving Morrison beats about 80% of the opposition every time."

    Very true.

    As I mentioned a while ago, my JLA readthrough is still stuck on DC One Million, so its been years since I read the any of the JLA comics after that. I did cool a bit at the time as the series went on, but I'm keen to see what I make of them now, once I get over the roadblock that is DC1m.

    A 'pop take' on Christianity is a good way to put it. The religious angle Millar appears to be presenting in PL doesn't quite chime with my own views, such as they are, but I was glad to see him use a superhero story to explore such a worthwhile topic that mattered to him. More of that sort of thing, I say.

    No, I wasn't implying you were being snotty, just highlighting my own prodigious ignorance. Too many comicbooks and not enough time spent studying 'the world as it is', belief systems and all, on my part.

    Great to hear that you are going to explore Paradise Lost a little more. It's worth a ponder. I'll be looking out for your piece on it in whatever format it appears.

    All the best

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  9. D'oh!!

    On rereading my Paradise Lost posts just now, I found I'd repeatedly got one of the main character's name wrong. Thus I've deleted and corrected them. They can now be found here:

    http://captaincomics.ning.com/forum/topics/jla-revisited?commentId=3370054%3AComment%3A218616

    Sorry about that!

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  10. Hello Figserello:- Those One Million crossovers do need collecting in a great big Omnibus. I've just re-read the Chase issue as collected in the new collection of the character's tales. It's good stuff. If Atlantis Attacks can be given an Omnibus, then DC One Million can. And perhaps in such a form, it might be a more attractive narrative to those who've struggled with its charms before.

    I think you're absolutely right to note that Zuariel deals with matters which matter to Millar. We could both be wrong, of course, but it does seem as if such books have a genuine passion at their core. Even in the scenes with the Ultimate Avenger's take on the Punisher and Ghost Rider, there's a sense that Millar is touching upon issues which he's concerned with.

    I'm glad I'm wasn't seeming to be snotty, though I never imagined that you'd ever be being anything more than friendly if I were so cack-handed. We've swapped words for a good while now & I've always appreciated the civility of our discussions.

    The Zauriel piece will be appearing in my book on Mark Millar for Sequart publishing, whose development had been delayed by the requisite circumstances beyond my or Sequart's control, but which is now powering along quite nicely :)

    No problems with the link. Thanks for clarifying things.

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