Monday, 24 December 2012
On Simon Baz, Green Lantern (Part 1 of 2)
Inspiring polemics aren't typically fuelled by an excess of timidity. There may be exceptions to the rule, but I'm struggling to think of any. Passion, yes. Conviction. Daring. Scorn. Desperation. Loathing. Learning. Wit. Smart-mindedness. But not a deliberate and bloodless timidity. Sadly, that's exactly what the defining characteristic is of Geoff Johns' scripts for the Green Lantern issues which have featured his new creation, the Arab-American, Muslim protagonist Simon Baz.
It's easy to be baffled as well as underwhelmed by the title's past few issues, filled as they are with what at first seems to be persistently contradictory messages. On the one hand, Johns and his fellow hypesters at DC have made a fuss about the company introducing its first major-franchise Muslim hero. Yet having huckstered up the media's attention where Baz's religious and ethnic background is concerned, Johns has then managed to produce a protagonist who doesn't appear to be anything of a Muslim at all. Never once in all four appearances to date has Baz referred in any way to his religious principles, let alone undertaken a ritual or displayed a habit that we might associate with his beliefs. In fact, he's the Muslim who never once thinks of Islam, which, given how desperate and challenging his circumstances are, is a perplexing business. I've never met a believer who didn't frame their decisions according to one aspect or another of their faith, but that's not ever true here. You might imagine that a man of even passing religious conviction would refer to it when thrown into a world of alien super-cops and monsters, super-heroes and government-sanctioned waterboarders, and so on. But not Baz, who - the occasional appearance of his hijib-wearing sister aside - seems to have nothing of any distinct American sub-culture about him at all. (A brief, single sentence reference to a disagreement with his father over the propriety of his tattoo is the very closest we come to any culturally specific detail, and even that's hardly a conflict that's unique to any one aspect of American society.) Why would DC publicly drum up their introduction of a Muslim, Arab-American character and then make him so conspicuously lacking in anything but the very broadest markers of religiosity and ethnicity?
But then, why would DC announce Simon Baz as the next Green Lantern while intending to portray him as a car-thief? And if Baz is to be a criminal, then why constantly downplay the importance of his choice to be one? What's the point if Johns is going to represent the man as someone who only took cars which "no-one would miss", and who only did so because he was laid off in the economic slump and couldn’t provide for his hospitalised brother-in-law's child? Is Baz a symbol of an uncaring America or of its self-pitying underclass? For if it's important that we know that Baz is a Muslim and an Arab-American, then what are being told about the citizens of the Republic with those attributes who face equally hard times? And if all this business about criminality and cultural identity doesn’t really mean anything much at all, then why are we being told about it in the first place? What is Johns' purpose? For as Baz admits to his sister, he's made "thousands" of dollars through his thievery. That's no passing career, and yet here, it’s presented as a minor issue, as a mark of the burden borne by the soon-to-be-originised superhero. Even Baz's road-racing - which led to his brother-in-law ending up in a permanent coma - is used to solicit our sympathy for his hard done-by victimhood. That that aspect of his past actually shows, once again, that Baz is a bloke with a lack of impulse control matched an absence of common sense is just ignored
There may be, its seems, someone who bears some responsibility for the state of the economy, and for the acts that it influences some of the poor to commit. There may be groups and institutions who might be blamed for the way that American Muslims have so often been labelled and harshly treated. But Johns has no interest in suggesting who that might be. Where prejudice and economic disadvantage comes from seems irrelevant. In the absence of that key information, it’s impossible to grasp why Johns seems to believe that we should be so fond of Baz in spite of his habit of pilfering other people’s property. Johns hints and then hints again at some greater meaning, but he never defines himself. Underneath all these passing references to headline issues, all he does is give the impression that repeatedly indulging in substantial property crime during a depression is no big deal at all. In fact, Baz has only been laid off for four months, and yet he's well into his career as a thief by the time we meet him. We're shown no sign of poverty on either his part or that of his family, and yet a lack of funds is used to excuse his thieving. Could it be that Johns is suggesting that his brother's health-care is ruinously expensive, or that there's a lack of fair pay in the Federal bureaucracy that employs his sister? Why is Baz has been driven to these crimes, and to what degree is he responsible for his own actions? Sadly, there's no clear explanation in Johns' scripts, and that means that the reader's quite lost as to why its so important that this Muslim, Arab-American hero should be a thief . The sense that we should pity him saturates every page, but sense itself is absent.
But then, what did Johns think might be read from the fact that the Green Lantern ring which chose Baz as its wearer was clearly faulty? For a comic which seems to have been designed to accentuate the undeniable fact that Muslim, Arab-Americans are the equal of any others, Johns certainly loads up his scripts with examples of how Baz really isn't anything of the kind. He's the Green Lantern who got lucky despite rather than because of his history, and who'll have to establish that he deserves to belong despite the evidence that he doesn't. The well-meaning outsider who, full of potential and yet marked by his difference and a heavy burden of sins, has to prove that he's one of us and on the right side. With hard work, with a change of heart, with a public display of his willingness to sacrifice for the general good, with an end to the car-stealing, he can be as good as any other hero, just as good as the rest of us.
What an odd and disturbing set of choices these are on Johns' part. Yes, he's briefly presented us with scenes symbolizing how post-9/11 America persecuted its fellow Muslim citizens. Or it least, two panels are given over to (1) the sight of racist slogans on walls following the attack on the Twin Towers and (2) the adult Baz facing what seems a remarkably polite measure of police harassment. It's a shockingly mild, passing and misleading indictment which seems to be designed to explain much of why Baz ended up repeatedly breaking the law. But because Johns only sketches in the briefest and thinnest of details, it's impossible to grasp how Baz was affected. As quickly as he can, Johns moves on, and in doing so, leaves Baz as one of only two people breaking the law from that point onwards. Johns may have intended to be fiercely critical of the racism that's been leveled at the groups which are his subject, and yet his script keeps focusing on Baz's anti-social past instead. Accordingly, Johns doesn't so much defend Muslim Arab-Americans as sentimentalise a polite and facile version of their plight. Empathy, he seems to believe, will win over the unconvinced where facts never will. That the communities he's trying to speak well of are being primarily represented in his tale by a repentant petty criminal inevitably suggests that they have fallen short and need to reform and prove themselves. In that sense, he's not saying that Muslim Arab-Americans are the equal of their fellow citizens, but rather, that they can be good citizens if they make the effort to put right their wrongs. Though Johns undoubtedly didn't mean that, a crass polemic unavoidably generates crass readings.
Even when locked away by the state and faced with torture, Baz surprisingly expresses no political criticism of the Republic at all, and neither does anyone else. Strangely enough, the prejudice and persecution which he's faced since 9/11 hasn't led to any kind of political and/or religious radicalisation at all on Baz's part. Circumstances have helped drive him beyond the law despite his generous heart, but not beyond apathy. Beyond knowing something of what goes on in Guantanamo Bay, he appears remarkably apolitical. Some mixture of the economy and bigotry and the police and whatever else has made a felon of Baz, but it hasn't inspired any awareness of such influences. Johns seems to have wanted to make sure that there's nothing too contentious about his tale, and so he's left us with a character without the brain or heart to engage ideologically with the world that's supposedly been so cruel to him.
A Simon Baz who has behaved as he has because of a conscious loathing for a racist, capitalist system would be a 21st century version of the social reformer that was the O'Neill/Adams take on John Stewart. But Baz's life-story just suggests he's had it pretty tough and isn't it a shame? Because of the lack of specifics, just about anyone from any disadvantaged American community could be substituted for him in the narrative and nothing essential would change. This is not, beyond a few obvious signifiers, a story about Islam or Arab-Americans at all. All such details have been as stripped out from the story as they possibly could be. As such, Baz is nothing more than yet another one of Johns' entitlement heroes, who are admirable not because of what they do or say or think, but because they're wearing a superhero's uniform, performing the flashy stunts and representing the corporate brand. They're heroes because Johns says they're heroes, and that's that.
Johns' typical - and superficially elegant - strategies for sketching in backstory work very well when he's reminding readers of the origin of the likes of Starro The Giant Starfish. But they're shamefully inadequate when it comes to a story which carries with it a company-serving suggestion of political and social importance.
It may even be possible that we're not supposed to look to Simon Baz at all for the meaning of Johns' tale. Could it be that it's his law-abiding, loving sister Sira that's supposed to be expressing what Johns wants us to believe? She is admirably calm and sensible, loving, forgiving and clearly competent, though she's only appeared twice to function as Baz's conscience rather than a protagonist in her own right. (*1) If that's so, then why didn't Johns chose to lend her the costume and power ring? But no, the writer, as is par for the course, just doesn't seem too interested in how his work might be read in anything but the most general way. For this isn't a subtle depiction of America that sidesteps both politically correct and incorrect over-simplications, that offers a smart-minded mix of left and right wing points of view. Rather, it's a confused mish-mash which succeeds only in generating both PC and PIC values all at the same time. It means that Baz does appear to have been given a free pass for his protracted anti-social behaviour because of a trying degree of racist unpleasantness and economic woe. (Right wingers rise up in protest!) And yet Baz also appears to be representing a community while being characterised as catastrophic irresponsibility and persistently criminal. (Everyone to the left of the reactionary right wonders how that decision could possibly have been made.) In not making sure that he's true to one particular view, Johns has only succeeded in simultaneously pushing some of the least attractive aspects of several opposing ideologies.
*1:- She's even working for the Government, although she's asked not to come into work because other workers are frightened, it seems, of her association with her "terrorist" brother. Aren't there laws about that? Was there not a single workmate or organisation that she could turn to beyond the boss who, for all her pleasantness, told her to go away until the poor scarified people became less so?
But there is another way of looking at the overwhelming absence of coherence and sense here, and that’s to suggest that Johns is actually struggling to fulfil a very specific agenda. It might be argued that he isn't being unconsciously insensitive and frustratingly imprecise at all. For it often seems that Johns is trying as hard as he can to simply avoid taking a potentially contentious stance on anything at all that he can possibly avoid. So, America is shown to be running a savage regime of torture, which seems like a principled and daring matter to discuss. And yet the strong suggestion is that those who are running it at all levels are responding to an overwhelming danger and ought to be granted our sympathy too. Baz did, after all, drive a van full of explosives into a factory, though only through a mixture of light-fingeredness and ill-fortune. Indeed, only once are the soldiers and suits who imprison and torture Baz given to express anything other than an efficient if generally cold-hearted concern for the truth, and that's when a guard insultingly refers to him as "Muhammad". (Again, it's a moment that made as little play as possible of, as if - gosh - someone might actually notice that it's been said.) Torture's undeniably horrid, Johns and artist Doug Mahnke appear to argue, and innocent though highly suspicious folks have been subject to it. Yet they're also suggesting that the torturing has to be done, and that those who’ve been tortured have given every reason to make the authorities suspicious. There are more and less well-meaning government torturers on show. But that's not the same thing as a criticism of anything other than the procedural matters of how the tortured should be spoken to and when they ought to be made to suffer. The idea that torture should not be happening under any circumstances, and that those indulging in it are behaving as monsters, is quite absent. For all the sympathy that's shown to Baz, this is a comic that argues that torture can be considered necessary even if it's undoubtedly unpleasant.
But then, the America of the New 52 is one that's constantly under threat by apparently unstoppable and fearsomely predatory Others. Even in these four issues, packs of murdering aliens are running wild across the USA, murdering innocents in a disgusting fashion, and - oh no! - there's no-one to stop them. It's a context which can seem indistinguishable from a reactionary vision of America as the virtuous and yet largely defenceless victim of an entirely hostile, vicious world. The state is helpless in these stories when its not incompetent and corrupt! The forces of good are few and constrained by law and convention! The enemy has few if any virtues, and terrible things are happening to our people every day! Ammonia in the eyes of Alfred! Superheroes regularly stabbed right through and then stabbed again! In such a paranoid context, in which the conventions of the superbook are so often - if not exclusively - taken to bleak-hearted extremes, it becomes hard to suggest that even the most vile measures to protect the nation and the world aren't necessary. In the New 52, the reactionary are nearly always objectively correct; the world really has gone to hell, and only the most severe and immoral behaviour on our own part will save us.
Of course, Johns is no stranger to exploitation for exploitation's sake. So many of his tales rely on all typical ways of maintaining everyday life turning out to be entirely useless. Only the super-vigilantes can save us, and they can only do so by pushing everything but their own will to one side. It's a reduction to absurdity that brings with it ever darker shadows. For if society can't protect its members under any circumstances, then society's values and laws aren't just inadequate, but entirely counter-productive. Trying to load even a mild liberal concern into such a context is an incredibly trying business. When Johns suggests that torture really isn't a very nice thing at all while implying that it's a sadly necessary business, he contributes nothing to the debate beyond an entirely useless sense of regret and pity for those who've been tortured despite their innocence. The very worst that Baz is given to say about Guantanamo Bay is that submitting to its lack of lawyers and due process would get in the way of his being a good and successful superhero. And yet, that's the most radical gesture that Johns feels able to make. The New 52 is so often a comicbook far-right fantasy taken to a bloke-thrilling, ultra-violent extreme. Social criticism of anything other than an uber-rightist kind will always struggle in that framework.
to be concluded, when we'll try to make sense of that gun and that mask, of the fact that whole local Islamic community ostracized the Baz family because of the crimes Simon was accused of, and so on ..