Wednesday, 30 October 2013
On "Infinity" #1, Comic-Book Logic & Innocent Illegal Aliens
You and I might think twice before showing a group of illegal and almost entirely harmless aliens - real comicbook aliens - being needlessly and brutally beaten up by Captain America, Hawkeye and a small squad of intimidating SHIELD troopers. What's more, I suspect that we'd feel particularly uncomfortable about using the same scenario in order to generate a brew of sniggers and machismo at the alien's expense. I'm certainly confident that we wouldn't portray these thick-headed, brawl-happy super-people as heroes while presenting their beat-upon refugee victims as part comic relief and part threatening outsider. Not when the latter are quite understandably fleeing universal genocide, and causing no harm to anyone at all while doing so. After all, the politics of the West in this 21st century are haunted by the scapegoating of the outsider by the demagogues of the reactionary right. Given that, who could possibly come up with a sequence such as that set in a crowded Palermo apartment block in Hickman and Cheung's Infinity #1 and not think that some other approach really might be better?
One problem with comic book fans such as ourselves is our susceptibility to comic book logic. That often appears to be just as true for the fans who become professionals as it for those who fund their royalties. For even in the terms of continuity and panel-to-panel storytelling, the third chapter of Infinity #1 makes little sense at all. Push aside the politics for a moment and what's left isn't a well-crafted comic that only the fun-spoiling PC-minded could complain about. Put simply, Hickman and Cheung's storytelling often makes little sense at all. On the surface, there is a faint sheen of believability created by a sense of impending disaster; S.W.O.R.D., tasked with protecting the world from extra-terrestrial threats, has detected unearthly intruders lurking in Sicily. Yet quite why they require a team of Avengers to subdue them is on second reading hard to work out. That they're refugees rather than, for example, terrorists is quite obvious from the statement of the S..W.O.R.D. operative in the chapter's second panel. What's more, the Skrulls appear to be so closely monitored that even their excrement has been collected and analysed. What is it about them that requires not just Captain America and Hawkeye, but Thor and Hyperion to subdue them? Sadly, the scene as played out relies upon the reader simply assuming that alien refugees are by their very nature - and despite all that we've told about them in the story itself - highly dangerous examples of the Other who require muscular pacification. With the apparently serious threat confirmed, the Avengers are called in to lead a three man "S.H.I.E.L.D. containment team", and the immediate problem is solved through the beating senseless of the Skrulls.
Comic-book logic, as so often, fails to obscure the slapdash silliness of the scene. Why did the Avengers need to be called in to deal with a well-established problem which had previously been allocated to just three S.H.I.E.L.D. agents? Why did Captain America and his weapons-bristling comrades stride without any cover, and with no obvious haste, through a building where this apparently dangerous menace awaited? Indeed, why was no effort made to clear the building of the vulnerable citizens who were living there? (If there was time to test the poo, there was time to get the building emptied.) Why, if there was a concern about the threat posed by the Skrulls, did the team smash through an apartment front door and then pause before subduing the apparent threat? Who knows what unknown weapons might have been triggered in that deeply-blokeish moment? Sillier yet, why did Steve Rogers then grimace and declare, "Your call. How do you want to do this?" to the cornered aliens, when his manner, the shock of the door's demolition and the arrows and guns aimed at the Skrulls were almost bound to inspire physical resistance? What promise of anything other than extreme unpleasantness was Rogers offering? Given that nobody apparently knew whether the aliens were armed or not, why did the forces of truth and justice fail to ensure that their targets were immediately and completely subdued? Given that this is the Marvel Universe, why didn't all involved just gas the apartment, or teleport the Skrulls away, or encase them in a force field, or even - since he's shown flying outside - simply had Hyperion deal with the matter, given how fast, strong and invulnerable he is? Instead, this is an exemplar of idiocy. If any method could be trusted to forewarn and then provoke the refugees, and to thereby increase the likelihood of innocent bystanders being harmed, then this was it. Beneath Hickman and Cheung's attempt to fuse super-heroics with the urban thriller is a senseless parade of absurd, story-undermining self-indulgence.
Even the fan-pleasing sight of Hawkeye warning an Italian family in their own language to hide in their room is totally asinine. For it suggests that the team has no-one associated with it who's taking care of the building's civilians. Hawkeye is, after all, one of the two leading members of this strike force, and yet he's also the one who's communicating with the locals and attempting to - rather pathetically - protect them from harm? (How will hiding in their room guarantee safety from aliens who require four Avengers to overcome them?) But then, there's no sign of Italian super-people - or indeed Italian members of the emergency services - in this story at all. For "Avengers World", read "America's World"; even the business of communicating in Italian is, it seems, best left to an American super-archer. (*1) S.W.O.R.D., which may or may not be a U.N. agency, declares that the Avengers must charge into Italy, and that's what's shown to be appropriate and virtuous. It's a choice that reduces a sovereign nation to a picturesque backdrop, while once again flying a flag for how implicitly superior American protagonists are. Worse yet, the scandalous lack of professionalism on the part of the American team results in Italian citizens being placed in entirely unnecessary danger. How odd then, that the meaning of the scene seems quite obviously intended to be that the Avengers are highly competent and profoundly impressive superheroes. Comic book logic, indeed.
*1:- I'd be just as uncomfortable with the suggestion of how superior a Pax Britannica would be, or indeed, that of any state.
For all the touching faith of fans that Hickman has a plan that will make sense of everything, his stories often bend and fracture under the weight of golly-gee-wow indulgences. His series-spanning arcs may well emerge intact, but many individual scenes are often apparently thrown together from a love of spectacle for its own sake. (It's a problem we've discussed here before.) Still, that's nothing more or less problematical than any other example of never-mind-the-quality-count-the-explosions craftmanship. But the depiction of the refugee Skrulls is a far more unsettling business, and it's much harder to shrug and ignore. For the Skrulls are never presented as victims, as innocents worthy of sympathy and support, and that's true even when they're declared to be both refugees and harmless. Not a moment is given to consider their well-being or the legitimacy of the way in which they were subdued, although space is given to emphasising just how impressively butch their subduers are. Though they were never a threat, their very existence on Earth's soil is portrayed as justification for their being beaten up. Even if the intention is to show how rattled the planet's defenders are, the lack of concern for these blameless aliens is a worryingly cold-hearted business.
In fact, as can be seen from the scan above, Infinity #1 revels in Captain America's brutality. There's no suggestion of the story siding with the Skrulls, and that's true even as they're living in obvious poverty after having fled across the stars for their lives. Captain America's opening declaration to them is brutal and aggressive and apparently designed to provoke conflict. In fact, it bristles with contempt. At first, the Skrulls faced with this aggression and disdain are portrayed as figures of fun, clustered round a table like a family of sit-com losers. Sadly, this isn't an attempt to portray them as decent potential citizens, for it's a joke. How funny, that they look like us, with their pizza and their sweaty vests, and yet, underneath, they're nothing but the Other. To laugh at the panel, and to cheer along with their being assaulted, relies upon nothing other than the reader associating illegal immigrant with law-breaking threat. Neither does the art ever once take the side of the Skrulls, or imply that we should question the morality of how they've been treated. Yes, they are relatively slight figures in the scene in which they're thrashed unconscious, and yet that's how Skrulls have often been depicted. Comicbook logic insists that even the less obviously bulked-up of the species are potentially dangerous. But then, comicbook logic means that we don't even see at first how appalling their treatment has been, and how inept and savage the scene's supposed saviors are.
The drip-drip-drip of pop culture doesn't, as we know, tend to transform the politics of its consumers. But we're also aware that it most definitely does reinforce existing beliefs. That Infinity #1 is a sloppily plotted piece of work is simply a matter of craftmanship, and of the reader's taste. It doesn't really matter beyond the critical discourse of what a story is, and how it should be told. But that Infinity #1 is also disturbingly heartless, and thereby politically insensitive, is a far more worrying and regrettable business. If Mr Hickman and his colleagues had intended for us to read that scene as a subtle critique of power cut loose from oversight and empathy, then perhaps the meaning should have been made more obvious. As it is, this is an ugly book, with an ugly message, and these are not the times for undoubtedly good and honourable creators to be being so careless. Even if all of this unsettling talk of "Avengers World" is really a smart-minded prelude to a tilt at Exceptionalism and its brute excesses, this single comic in its own right tells a rather different and unsettling tale.