Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Deconstructing Brett Ratner’s X3 (2006): How to Fuck It All Up and Betray Your Principles Without Really Trying




[Spoilers]

There is one utterly magical scene in X-Men 3: The Last Stand.

Although I haven’t seen the first two films recently, I’d even go out on a limb and say that it’s the single best scene of all three X-Men movies combined. It’s almost enough to convince me that Brett Ratner is as good a director as he says he is.

I’m referring, of course, to Jean, Xavier, and Magneto in the flying house. This is Wizard of Oz territory…through a glass darkly. And it is the best death scene of a major good-guy character in a sci-fi film since Obi-Wan Kenobi disappeared into his cloak with a touch from Vader’s light saber in 1977. Not even the sneaky reveal that follows the film’s final credits can spoil the tragic splendor that this scene achieves.

Why does it work? For one thing, Jean’s transformation into Phoenix is totally credible and visually spectacular—it makes one pine for the lost opportunity of an all-Phoenix script (more on the later). The slow levitation of Xavier from his chair; the terrifying moment when Jean performs the simple act of standing up; the use of silence; the distortion of Patrick Stewart’s face with a wind machine to suggest Jean’s incalculable power; the subtle, CGI Phoenix-effect that seems to blast away bits of Professor X’s skin like flakes of stone, as if he is looking into the eyes of a fiery Medusa—all of these details are just perfect. Having Magneto sprawled helpless on the floor, beneath the kitchen sink, watching these titans clash, watching the destruction of his friend and rival is a wonderful detail, rich with ambiguous affect. And then there’s Wolverine’s slow progress across the ceiling towards the sealed room, anchored by his claws, and the final awful glance he exchanges with Xavier…

Sometimes we say, a little more enthusiastically than we mean to, that a single scene is worth the price of admission. In this case, it’s literally true. It’s a shame, though, that the best scene of the film, if not the entire X-franchise, occurs about 30 minutes into the movie. What follows is a maddening hour or so of storytelling so sloppy that not even the masterful Ian McKellan (who proves once again that he can elevate anything he touches—even without Magneto’s mutant powers) and a posse of nifty new mutants can salvage it.

What went wrong?

A better question would be: what didn’t? For starters, the plot achieves virtually no dramatic tension and delivers no real emotional pay-off. Even worse, and with the notable exception of the flying house, it squanders its cast and effects, undermining potentially gripping scenes at every turn. This is most obvious when one compares Xavier’s death scene to the other two major death scenes in the film.

Or should I say death scene—singular. Poor Scott.



Not only does he lose the girl at the end of X2, and then lose her again to Wolverine in X3, he’s such a loser that he doesn’t even merit a death scene in the third film. Don’t misunderstand me: James Marsden’s preppy Cyclops (stubble or no stubble) is no match for Hugh Jackman’s studly Wolvie in the charisma department, and there’s no doubt that Famke Jansen and Hugh Jackman’s steamy grope on infirmary-table chrome is the raw material of deliciously indecent fanboy fantasy. But if Xavier’s “death” is one of the best scenes of its type, Scott’s is one of the worst—not just because it’s missing (!) but because its absence is so transparently motivated by the studio politics that mar the movie’s entire plot. Put simply: the studio clearly wanted soon-to-be-headliner Wolverine to be the film’s leading man. Exit: Scott Summers—and no mourning please. It might distract from the five-minute transformation of Wolverine from smoldering third wheel to primary love-interest.



Scott’s unceremonial ousting was also perhaps a side-effect of the expanded role for Halle Berry’s Storm. Berry, miscast from the beginning, and present only because the studio was worried that they needed a big name to draw the crowds to the first, untested X-film, is far and away the worst of the core cast members: she’s a talented actor no doubt, but she just doesn’t get superheroes. James Marsden may not have the star-power of a Halle Berry, but at this point, even if you like Berry’s stiff, bewigged den-mother performance (and frankly, I find that hard to believe), does it really matter? Is anyone really going to see X3 because they’re dying to see Halle Berry throw a lightening bolt in that absurd Jim Lee-inspired disco costume? In the comics, I’ve always preferred (punk) Storm’s leadership to Cyclops’s, and the angst-ridden showdown between Ororo and Scott for leadership of the X-Men in the Danger Room battle from Uncanny X-Men #201 is a classic. The shrug-inducing supplanting of Cyclops by Storm for leadership of the team in X3 epitomizes everything that is wrong with the film dramatically. Scott is simply removed by a fire-tressed deus ex machina and Xavier provides a lame justification for replacing Scott with Storm: he’s “changed” since Jean’s death. Huh? You mean he’s in mourning for his wife, therefore the Professor dumps him? Look into Patrick Stewart’s eyes when he tells Berry’s bewildered Storm about her promotion—not even he’s good enough of an actor to sell that explanation.



The clumsy dispatching of Cyclops is matched by (and to some extent is responsible for) the banality of the movie’s climactic death scene too. Logan’s killing of Jean should be gut-wrenching, but it feels hollow. There’s no emotional pay-off because, despite the torch he’s been carrying for her since the beginning and despite the white-hot chemistry between Jansen and Jackman, the movie doesn’t adequately establish this pair as a romantic couple on screen to make us feel the horror of what Wolverine must do. I’m sorry, but a make-out session with Phoenix and one growly “I love you” aren’t enough. Ironically, this scene would have played much better if poor dead Scott had been in Wolvie’s shoes, or even if he was simply a witness to Jean’s death (as Magneto was to Charles’s) since he and Jean at least have a fully developed relationship. Had Scott not been killed, and had he and Jean enjoyed a genuine reunion before the Phoenix completely possessed her, Scott’s anguish at the beginning of the film might have provided the basis for a truly affecting conclusion as we are forced to watch him regain his partner only to lose her again. As it is, we’re stuck with Wolverine’s unintentionally bathetic sob (the audience laughed) as the movie gives us a neat but empty simulation of a similar but much cooler scene from Grant Morrison’s New X-Men.

Yes, I know. I am a bitter, bitter fanboy, whining that the comic was better. And YES, I know that the films must obey their own dramatic logic and not feel bound to slavishly recreate the source material from twenty-some years of comic book continuity. But the film fails even on the more limited ground of filmic coherence. Its replacement of Scott with Logan is so shabbily and hastily done that the final scene between Wolverine and Phoenix is all special effects and no heart.



And this is too bad, because they almost had something great. We all understand the codes of a resolution like this: by “killing” Jean, Wolverine is elevated to the status of tragic hero. Moreover, the film’s violent climax is also a sublimated consummation of the Logan/Jean relationship. We understand that he is really killing “Phoenix,” not Jean, and in this way, Wolverine gets to have his cake and eat it too. Symbolically he “gets the girl,” but (ironically, given the circumstances) also keeps his hands clean because, technically, he doesn’t really get her: the consummation of their love remains only symbolic and sublimated—in other words, he doesn’t sleep with Scott’s girl, not even after she’s a widow. What makes this all so frustrating is that in many ways it is a perfect resolution: it maintains Wolverine’s role as noble tortured outsider who can never really have the girl, and must thus release his pent up energy in lone flourishes of Berserker rage. But because Scott’s dead, the one character whose anguish and sense of betrayal could invest this climax with some real human feeling is missing, so Wolverine is forced to inhabit the role of tortured leading man. For me, it didn’t work, because Wolverine’s supplanting of Scott’s role happens much too fast. This transformation would have worked better, I think, if it had been given more time to develop and if Scott, Jean, and Wolverine had been the focus of the film—in other words, if X3 had basically been a filmic version of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and completely dropped the poorly handled “mutant cure” plot, deferring it for a fourth installment of the film. What the overstuffed, underdeveloped plot of X3 shows us, very clearly, is that the X-Men should have been conceptualized as a 4-part series (with part three set in the Hellfire Club environs), not a trilogy.



In addition to creating a pacing problem in the Scott/Jean/Logan triangle, the screenwriters’ decision to intertwine the Phoenix story with the “mutant cure” plotline has several other, more serious consequences. On a very basic level, these two plots just don’t mesh well, despite the literalist retooling of Phoenix into an id-like split personality for Jean. Even if she is pissed off with the human race, why on earth does a “level five mutant” need to spin her wheels with Magneto’s Ewok brotherhood? (Is there some rule I don’t know about that requires disappointing third-installments of science fiction trilogies to be set in rainforests? I kept expecting Wicket and friends to drop from the treetops onto the unsuspecting backs of the government’s keystone shock troops. Self-duplicating Jamie Maddrox’s tribe-producing decoy was the next best thing, I guess. Perhaps a filmmaker’s clever jab at the primitivist logic of the Ewoks whereby all members of foreign tribes seem to “look the same” to the racial outsider? We should be so lucky. And boy, do I digress…) The bottom line is that in order for Jean’s reality-altering Phoenix to “work” within the context of Magneto’s war against the mutant cure, Jean has to be put on ice for most of the film. Why is she chilling with Magneto in the woods for 40 minutes? Because Brett Ratner needs to have Wolverine kill her later in a dramatic set-piece ending. Oh, okay. But really, who wants a Phoenix with clipped wings? The more I think about it, the more I love the Warren Worthington/Angels in America allegory, which picks up where Bobby’s coming-out scene from X2 leaves off, but those few soaring moments do not make up for the script’s unforgivable grounding of the film’s other great winged wonder.



The other obvious narrative and aesthetic weakness of the “mutant cure” plot is the introduction of Fraiser Crane’s wretched Beast. Oh my stars and garters. I like the Beast in the comic books well enough, I guess, but suffice it to say that Jar Jar Binks finally has some company in the film-ruining character Hall of Shame.* What CGIed, flatulent Jar Jar was to live-action/cartoon hybrids, Hank McCoy’s blue “Furball” is to Chewbacca-style hair, body paint, and prosthetics: in both cases, the originals were far better. Did X3’s costuming department run out of money? In a single stroke, this pretentious, cheap-looking team mascot demotes the franchise from A-level film, to B- or C-level direct-to-video hackery. Everyone knew that casting pudgy windbag Kelsey Grammer as a gleefully bouncy mutant superhero was a horrible mistake (only Robin Williams could have been worse). But frankly, I’m not sure that any actor could have made this visually absurd character work on screen. As I’ve mentioned in painstaking detail before, the absolute greatest danger besetting any superhero film is the high likelihood of looking ridiculous. There’s no other way to say this: there should have been no Beast. And while I’m on the subject, having the Beast, the BEAST, deliver what was in effect a fatal blow to Magneto is quite possibly the most incomprehensible dramatic choice the movie could have made. Literally anyone would have been a better agent of Magneto’s downfall—though having Mystique/Raven deliver it directly would probably have been the most satisfying choice.

All this dramatic and narrative bungling is bad enough, but my undying ire for Ratner’s mutant fiasco is reserved for the film’s ideological betrayal of every principle that made the first two X-Men movies meaningful, pertinent, and occasionally inspiring.

The film repeatedly gestures—most gracefully in the gay-Angel subplot—at the mutant-as-metaphor-for-difference principle that has underpinned the X-Men concept from the very beginning and which is foregrounded throughout the first two films. But these gestures are belied by the film’s flagrant ideological copout, which turns the X-Men into apologists for the very forces of homogeneity and repression (embodied, as ever, by the government) against which they are usually arrayed.



Simply put: Magento is more right than he is wrong. The state does want to exterminate mutants, it will draw first blood, and this is a war. Now, I know what you’re thinking: yeah…but some of those mutants are dangerous! And what about poor Rogue? She can’t even cuddle with her boyfriend Iceman who’s already ditched her to skate chastely around the pond with Kitty! Doesn’t she deserve the right to choose whether she takes the cure or not? Not all mutant powers are good!

But don’t be fooled: this is the film’s most ingenious and underhanded trick. It’s called sleight-of-hand.

Remember that every metaphor is a comparison that has a tenor and a vehicle. In the cheesy phrase, “My beloved is a jewel,” “jewel” is the vehicle (the metaphorical symbol) for “beautiful” or “precious” (the tenor or implied concepts to which the vehicle refers). Similarly, “a mutant” in the X-Men films is the vehicle for “difference”: racial, sexual, gender, etc. It’s common knowledge that this is the basis of the films’ and the comics’ political allegory.



For those of us who approach the films with some sense of this political allegory (and how can we not? they all broadcast it explicitly), it’s difficult to argue with Magneto, whose call to arms is basically a rallying cry on behalf of difference against the tyranny of sameness (racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and all its other manifestations). This has been Charles Xavier’s argument throughout the films as well. In other words, Magneto’s call to arms makes visceral sense to most of us on the level of the metaphor’s “tenor”—i.e. its real-world referent.

So how on earth does the film justify the bizarre turnabout by which the X-Men end up functioning as government patsies in the so-called “last stand”? It does so by cunningly (and unconscionably) switching from the level of the mutant-metaphor’s tenor (real-world difference) to its vehicle (fantasy-world mutation). In other words, because Magneto’s argument and actions are morally compelling at the level of the metaphor’s tenor (in the real world, we should all fight against racism and homophobia) the film can only provide a sort of pseudo-justification for the X-Men’s actions by retreating to the level of the metaphor’s superficial vehicle, that is, by acting as though mutant powers are real and by behaving as though what’s really at stake is the right of mutants to choose whether or not they want to keep their powers. Of course, this type of “choice” doesn’t make any sense on the level of the real-world tenor (a gay or black or Hispanic person does not have the option of a “mutant cure” and the whole point of the mutant metaphor is to say that framing the question this way in the first place is an obscene mystification). X3’s sneaky switch from the allegorical level of the tenor to the superficial level of the vehicle to justify its betrayal of the franchise’s politics is an object-lesson in how popular narratives exploit the double-level of allegorical narrative structures to produce deeply reactionary forms of art—and this is only one of the ways in which the film is a giant ideological copout that undermines the trilogy’s pop-radicalism in a way very similar to that dreadful final Matrix picture.



The somewhat more obvious markers of the ideological copout I’m talking about are (1) Magneto’s “evil mastermind voice” during the rally in the woods (a voice which McKellan presents with incredible restraint, as if he was secretly resisting the absurdity of the script and, likely, Ratner’s direction too) and (2) the embodiment of the mutant cure in innocent bubble-boy, Leech, who seems to be imprisoned in (and groomed by the stylists of) one of the austere cubicles from George Lucas’s THX-1138. How do you make the X-Men fight to defend an indefensible cause? Embody said cause in a sweet, innocent little lamb! Only an evil mutant terrorist like Magneto would harm a hair on the head of such a tender darling—oh wait, he has no hairs on his head. See what I mean?

And then there’s Xavier’s suppression of Jean Grey’s Phoenix personality. Now, suddenly, the reason for the incommensurable twining of the Phoenix story and the “mutant cure” story leaps into view. Clearly we’re supposed to understand Jean’s deadly id as another justification—indeed the main justification—for the X-Men’s qualified defense of “the right to choose” a “cure” for difference. After all, Wolverine himself kills her, becoming a sort of double for Leech, a more feral embodiment of the regrettable, but “necessary” cure. And Logan cries, of course, to show us that “cures” like this are a sad, regrettable thing, but necessary all the same—for without Logan’s difficult choice, Phoenix would have us all for breakfast, wouldn’t she? (Allegorically, at least, I wish she would. Now THAT would be a movie.) The point is that, like Rogue’s tragic, alienating power, Jean’s Phoenix personality provides the film with what can only be called “moral pseudo-complexity,” implying that in some cases it’s necessary to suppress difference. You know, when it’s dangerous. (To whom exactly? When? And who are the terrorists again? Ah…yes…)



As with Rogue, at the level of the vehicle (which is to say, literally), Xavier is morally justified in suppressing the Phoenix-power. The destructive Phoenix personality can hardly wander around unfettered. Indeed, Xavier’s mental powers act as a sort of “super”-ego here, for by repressing Jean Grey’s “super” id, he is doing no more than maintaining the general balance that all people maintain between desire and repression in order to live in society without raping, killing, and eating everyone in their immediate vicinity. At the allegorical level of the tenor, however, Xavier’s act is simply a callow anticipation of Leech’s and Wolverine’s various enactments of the suppression of difference. When read in this light, against the grain of the film’s coding, but with the grain of its implicitly conservative ideology, that sad parting smile that Professor X shoots Wolverine in the vortex of Jean’s disintegrating family home is a kind of sinister passing of the torch—an implied sanction for what Wolverine “must” eventually do.

Did it have to be this way? Absolutely not. The Professor’s suppression of Jean’s Phoenix power acquires its sinister meaning only from the context of the “mutant cure” storyline in the film. It should go without saying that there is nothing intrinsically unworkable about writing an intelligent Phoenix story that is consistent with, or even strongly in tension with, the foundational principle of respecting, even loving, difference that informs the X-Men concept. But by pairing the Phoenix story with the “cure” story, the film’s producers, writers, and director have, well…fucked it all up and betrayed the franchise’s principles. All without really trying.

Because, of course, they weren’t trying. X3’s ideas, like its plot, are a badly jumbled mess. Not surprising, since much of the film was reportedly shot without a script. The movie’s abrasively conservative ideology is not evidence of a right-wing conspiracy (that would be giving Ratner and his writers too much credit); rather it is the result of letting a banal, morally vacuous story concept (we need the “good” mutants to fight the “evil” mutants!) overtake the film’s more interesting allegorical possibilities. And let’s not forget that all the major stars of this sales record-breaking franchise were only ever committed for three movies. How do you keep the X-Men juggernaut going without Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Hugh Jackman, Famke Jansen, James Marsden, Anna Paquin, and Halle Berry? Transplant Xavier’s consciousness into a new actor’s body; de-power Magneto; kill Cyclops and Jean Grey. As for the rest, it’s never been hard to explain a few absences around the X-mansion: Logan is off doing his lone wolf thing in his own movie; a now human Marie (Rogue) has gone off to sow some wild oats; and Storm—well, who cares about her anyway? The deaths of the principals in X3 had nothing to do with telling a good story, and everything to do with “tying up the loose ends” so that Marvel could reboot the franchise as the New Mutants with cheaper, younger actors at some future time.

The fact that the film’s conservatism is unintended is no excuse, and has no bearing on the final product. Were my expectations for this film too high? Obviously. But the carelessness with which X3 was handled makes me angry because movie properties like X-Men—properties that have a global reach, which speak directly to kids, and which advertise their moral/philosophical pretensions—have a responsibility to follow through on the ethical vision they promise, even if those ethics are sometimes cartoonish and oversimplified. In short, these are relevant and potentially influential cultural narratives. They deserve better and so do their audiences. Didn’t someone once say, “with great power comes great responsibility”? Oh, wait, that’s right—Brett Ratner isn’t a comic book fan. Never mind.

Movies—good and bad—often contain scenes that come to stand, retrospectively, for the film as a whole. The microcosm of X3 is not, alas, the wonderful floating Grey-family home, with its extraordinarily allusive potential. It’s not even the messy, noisy, anti-climactic final battle between Magneto and his “evil” mutants, though it nearly could be. Instead, it is that awful tableau of Kitty Pryde standing on Astroturf before the cheap-looking Styrofoam headstones of Xavier, Jean, and Scott. A ghost mourning for ghosts. Is this what the once-scrappy X-Men franchise has come to? A dour simulation of gravity? An awed respect for elders? A tragic myth of origins? Let’s hope the kids of X4: New Mutants will remind us what it’s like to soar.


NEW! >> For a very different analysis, check out Thomas’s awesome response-essay defending X3 here.

NEW! >> The debate continues over on David Golding’s Pah!, here and here.

NOTES >> *For an excellent defense of Jar Jar Binks and of the newest Star Wars trilogy generally, see David Golding’s extensive film notes. (Sorry to be bashing Jar Jar again David!)

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Autobibliography Meme: Unpacking My Grade Six Library (1983)

It’s the question that I’m secretly dying to ask everyone I meet: what were you reading in grade six? Other than comics, I mean.

We spend a lot of time writing and reading about the comic books of our formative years, but what about everything else? Which authors, books, and series most defined us, influenced our tastes, and helped point the way to future possibilities?

Grade six is a good vantage point from which to take stock of this question because it’s such a precarious time. As the oldest kids in primary school, we’d just reached the pinnacle of the social hierarchy…and were about to slide right back down it, into the scary and unforgiving world of junior high. We were developing independence, but also trying not to get beaten up. We were also starting to discover who we might become as adults—especially in our reading choices. And, of course, most of us were 11 in grade six, just about to enter the hell of puberty—if we weren’t already roasting in its fiery pits. My own grade six reading list reflects the transitional nature of that time: it’s an awkward mishmash of children’s fantasy and adult fantasy, books that seem at once too young and too old for me, yet which I literally can’t imagine myself without.

My list is below. What’s yours?

This is a tagless meme, so if you have a blog and want to play, just post it and send me the link; I’ll add it below. If you don’t have a blog, feel free to post your list in the comments section here. 10 books, 4 books, 1 book—I don’t care. It’s all autobibilography.

(Compulsory Walter Benjamin link for inspiration: here. Go to it!)

1. Alfred Hitchcock Presents The Three Investigators – Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw, Bob Andrews, Rocky Beach, the Jones Salvage Yard, the Secret Headquarters, Tunnel Two, Red Gate Rover, the Ghost-to-Ghost Hookup, the three question marks—these were the touchstones of what are, quite simply, the best boy’s detective thrillers ever written. Created by Robert Arthur in the mid-1960s, introduced by Alfred Hitchcock, and written by Arthur, William Arden, M. V. Carey and others, this trio of boy-detectives was an updated, West Coast version of the (to me) dull-as-dishwater Hardy Boys. I fell in love with their spooky covers instantly when I discovered them in the basement of the public library beside my school and became a rabid reader of the series. I’ve managed to acquire and reread most of the books as an adult because I am pathetic, but let that not cloud anyone’s estimation of the perfection of this series featuring the crime-solving adventures of chubby boy-genius Jupe and his friends Bob and Pete. One day, I will write a magnum opus on this series. In the meantime, check out these cover scans from Seth T. Smolinske’s The Three Investigators U.S. Editions Collector’s Site and the goodies at Tunnel Two for a walk down memory lane.

2. John Bellairs – It’s impossible to separate the gothicism of John Bellairs’s eerie stories—The House With the Clock in its Walls, The Figure in the Shadows, and The Letter, The Witch and the Ring—from the creepy cover art and interior drawings by Edward Gorey and Mercer Meyer. The Three Investigators books were scary and thrilling, but ultimately they provided Scooby Doo-style solutions to weird mysteries that only seemed supernatural. Bellairs’s gothic fantasies were more deeply unsettling, preparing the ground for my junior high obsession with horror stories and novels of all kinds, from Poe to Dean Koontz. Note: the folks who run Bellairsia also have a cool blog.

3. Clan of the Cave Bear – At the same time that I was scouring the lower (children’s) floor of the public library for “spine-tingling” thrills, I was beginning to investigate the spinning racks of adult paperbacks on the upper floor in search of different sorts of tingling and thrills. I was in an Everest-climbing mood and looking for the longest books I could find—if they happened to be smutty epics, that certainly didn’t hurt. I read this first volume of Jean M. Auel’s prehistoric saga featuring Ayla’s naughty, violent, and possibly (okay, doubtfully) profound primitivist adventures with great attention. Some parts, er…more than once.

4. Choose Your Own Adventure – I was getting a bit old for these books by grade six and had just graduated to Steve Jackson’s incredible Sorcery! series of D&D-style fantasy-adventure books that added skills, spells, and dice components to the brilliant choose-your-own-adventure formula, but I still loved the original books and even tried my hand at writing one (The Attack of the Killer Worms, what else? It was canker worm season in Winnipeg that year.). My first one was Journey Under the Sea (#2), and my favorites were, perhaps not surprisingly, The Mystery of Chimney Rock (#5) (from my perspective a Three Investigators/John Bellairs mystery come to life!) and Inside UFO 54-40 (#12), which I now realize was a rip-off of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Added bonus: these books are now cool pieces of cultural history—what interactive media looked like before the internet. See covers and overviews of the complete series at Demian’s Gamebook Web Page.

5. Farley MowatLost in the Barrens and its sequel, The Curse of the Viking Grave, are classic Canadian adventure stories in the mold of Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London. I was introduced to the first book in grade five when our English class was divided into boys and girls: the boys read Lost in the Barrens, the girls read a book about a horse. I was glad to be a boy that day. Mowat’s books brought the myth of Canada as rugged, dangerous wilderness and “great white north” to life for more than one generation of Canadian kids; for me, their effects on my sense of Canadian identity, absurd though they are, still linger.

6. Susan Cooper – The only sustained fantasy cycle that I read before junior high and certainly a landmark of the genre. I’ve written about Cooper’s transporting Arthurian fantasy before and have a longer appreciation on the way. Suffice it to say that Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series was a moral and aesthetic revelation the first time I read it: it had a magic and depth that a lot of the mystery and gothic material I favored lacked, but it didn’t skimp on the mysterious trappings that I loved. These books were made that much sweeter by the fact that they were introduced to me by a very good friend – really, the first friend to expand my literary horizons.

7. Sidney Sheldon – Meanwhile, back on the main floor of the public library, I was still scrounging for lurid, smutty sagas. What first attracted me to Sidney Sheldon’s sudsy romance-thrillers were their titles, which, incidentally, haven’t lost any of their gleam: The Naked Face, The Other Side of Midnight, Rage of Angels, Master of the Game. His best title, Windmills of the Gods, was still to come. Essentially they were violent soap operas with appealing protagonists, twisted villains, and actual endings. I’ll spare you (and myself) a review of the many scribblers filled with notes detailing my own Sheldon-inspired plot-outlines from this period.

8. Lawrence Sanders – I cannot think of Sidney Sheldon without also remembering Lawrence Sanders. These were two of the biggest (if not the biggest) “Masters of Suspense” of the early eighties and I loved both of them, but in different ways. In a sense, they produced bestsellers according to the same formula: bucketfuls of wealth, sex, scandal, and violence. But the tone and style of their novels was quite different. In retrospect, I’ve come to think of their differences in terms of the DC/Marvel contrast. Like DC comics, Sidney Sheldon’s novels had a more mythic feel to them, evident even in his titles; they also tended to feature romantic plots more prominently. Lawrence Sanders’s thrillers and police procedurals were grittier, more brutal and (I was happy to discover) more tawdry, rather like Marvel. (And I don’t mean that as a slam of either Sanders or Marvel.) I particularly liked the grisly First, Second, and Third Deadly Sin novels—violent mysteries starring police detective Edward X. Delaney who was famous for “wet” sandwiches that he ate over the kitchen sink. I also loved Sanders’s kinky (and I realize now, often misogynist) sex-thrillers: The Case of Lucy Bending, The Seduction of Peter S., and a few years later, The Passion of Molly T.



9. The Name of the Rose – At the time I read this, I had no idea that Umberto Eco was a semiotician, much less what a semiotician was. I also didn’t know that this medieval mystery about libraries and poisoned books was actually a postmodernist fable that I would one day appreciate in a very different light. In grade six, I only knew that it was the coolest, most mysterious thing I’d ever read and that it was gesturing towards profound questions that I didn’t yet have the capacity to ask, let alone answer. In many ways, it remains my ideal of what good fiction should do: work at multiple levels simultaneously, providing equal satisfactions at each one. Of the ten entries in this autobibliography, this one was perhaps the most influential—pointing as it did towards the bibliophilic puzzles that would come to occupy me as an adult... Oh, who am I kidding?

So, there you have it: children’s gothic, adventure, and detective novels; choose-your-own-adventures; primitivist fantasies; smutty suspense, and crypto-postmodernism. What else would an 11-year-old kid be reading in 1983? You tell me.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Infinite Crisis: A Review of Criticism

In a recent article at the always splendid PrettyFakes, Prof. Fury challenged me to unleash some deadly postmodern jujitsu on Infinite Crisis #7 and prove that “this is the greatest thing ever instead of the worst.” Oh God, Professor. The pressure!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I loved Infinite Crisis for the most part. But as I look back over the series with a more critical eye, even I have to admit that by any reasonable aesthetic standards of storytelling, Infinite Crisis is a bit of a mess. Heck it is a mess—so much so that any straightforward defense of the series on aesthetic merits alone is pretty much a nonstarter.

The by-now-familiar critique of the series goes something like this. All together now: Important episodes and clarifying details are missing from the miniseries itself. It was necessary to read (and thus buy) many costly countdowns, prequels, and specials to “get the whole story.” Even when you opened your wallet wide and dug through the couch for loose change to feed your pathetic fanboy habit, the story itself still wasn’t fully told—not by a long shot. A detailed knowledge of the past twenty or more odd years of DC continuity didn’t hurt—though in many ways, it didn’t help either. And to add insult to injury, the story we do get in those seven issues is a disconnected assemblage of money shots, plot-hammers, and non sequiturs, strung together not so much in a narrative as in a kind of postmodern pastiche. In the end, the best metaphor for the storytelling strategy of the series might be that ubiquitous inter-dimensional crystal barrier whose shattering sets the whole Crisis in motion and upon whose fractured surface disconnected images swim in often jarring juxtaposition.

No one has eviscerated the series with more panache or gleeful malice than Evil (Genius) Robby Reed, who makes similar points and many others in a spectacularly baroque (and often hilarious) takedown of DC’s mega-event makeover. But other readers have been pretty handy with the hatchet too. Pól Rua of Comics Should Be Good has a scathing review that depressed me when I first read it, but that I now find myself agreeing with—at least in part. Brian Cronin, also of CSBG, provides one of the most balanced critiques of the series but still concludes with a damning: “Not Recommended.”

As all of these reviewers point out, in one way or another, the problem with IC as a story is that it provides only a simulation of narrative logic rather than the real thing. Its plot presents itself as character-driven when, in fact, characterization plays second fiddle to a ruthlessly story-driven “collection of scenes meant to ‘get something’ done,” as Brian puts it. What is Crisis “for”? To tweak the tone of the “new” DCU by symbolically (and permanently) removing the Golden Age Superman and Lois Lane from the canvas while setting up the premise of 52 and OYL by sending friends-again Bruce, Clark, and Diana on sabbatical. The result, as Pól Rua rather brutally puts it, is “a series of still images [that] flash[ ] across your eyes at high speed, with a couple of crowd pleasing group shots amateurishly scrawled by a series of fill-in artists to keep people from realizing that there’s no story.” Wonder Woman’s almost completely unmotivated killing-is-bad “epiphany” in IC #7, which Brian cites in his review, exemplifies this subordination of characterization and narrative logic to the mercenary presentation of plot-points. Echoing Robby Reed’s broader diagnosis of the underlying malady afflicting the series, Prof. Fury puts it best in his own searing review of IC #7 when he blasts DC for “settl[ing] on a publishing ethic characterizable only as pomo-funhouse capitalism, in which every book is merely an advertisement for a bunch of other books that are themselves advertisements for other books” and charges that “Infinite Crisis, ultimately, takes place in a catalog.”

Yowch! And here I thought that Geoff Johns was the idol of millions…

When I look at IC in the cold clear light of day—that is to say, now that the series has wrapped—I can’t really argue with any of these critiques. At least, not very vehemently. With varying degrees of vitriol (just saw V for Vendetta again—sorry) they are all pointing to genuine weaknesses of what should have been a much better series.

Moreover, like most readers, I’ve accumulated my own list of petty personal gripes and disappointments. The pious group-hug that opens Infinite Crisis #5 was a low point for me, no matter how much principled atheism the truly terrific Mr. Terrific brought to the proceedings. Like Brian Cronin, I was also irked by the way that, after all the initial fanfare, Donna Troy just sort of faded away—most likely because the reception of her Return was so chilly.

The real aesthetic catastrophe of these seven issues, however, was Alexander Luthor’s giant hands—quite possibly the lamest embodiment of cosmic menace ever produced in a comic book event of this magnitude. Yes, I get that they’re referencing Krona’s big blue paw, but I’m sorry: they just don’t work. Evil Robby’s side-splitting (and spot-on) parody of the, er…earth-grabbing scenes pretty much says it all. But the awfulness of the hands was brought home most painfully to me in IC’s version of the clichéd scene that is a fixture of every cosmic crossover ever written. You know the one: all the heroes who can shoot rays out of their bodies pool their energies into a giant power blast to beat back the bad guy.

The preposterous amputation of Luthor’s giant index finger in IC #6 attained a level of unintentional self-parody that is pretty hard for even the staunchest series-supporter to forgive.

And yet…

Apart from those risible golden hands, none of this really affected my enjoyment of the series while it was underway. I see the faults, I really do. But I see them the way a smoker sees the warning label on his package of DuMaurier Kings—which is to say, as a sort of surreal, misplaced, grimly amusing public service announcement that surely doesn’t apply to him!

What does it mean to see the lameness and love it anyway—to really love it, not as camp or cheese, but with sniveling unrepentant sincerity? Why do I feel the urge to defend Infinite Crisis, even now? And more to the point, on what basis could so doubtful a project even be attempted?

Well, for starters, were things really so bad? Most of the apologies I’ve read online are level-headed, if slightly sheepish, defenses by degree. They usually point out that, on balance, the plot holds together more effectively than detractors have claimed and that, on balance, the abundance of good scenes outweigh the few truly cringe-inducing ones. Many bloggers have already made this case admirably, eloquently, and with the kind of touching futility that I aspire to in most of my posts here at Double Articulation. I’m fully of their party, but the truth is that this line of argument isn’t likely to convince anyone who’s not already on side. This very post was originally going to be a gushing tour of my favorite IC moments, but this ground is already so well-trodden that I think I’ll content myself with merely mentioning one. Okay, two: the Chemo attack on Blüdhaven (holy shit—that’s the Brotherhood I remember) and Connor’s perfectly pitched half-page death scene. “Isn’t it cool?” Yes, it truly is.

A second possible defense of the series is not aesthetic but thematic—and this one just might help me make good on Prof. Fury’s pomo-jujitsu challenge because it actually makes a virtue of one of the series’s most serious and peculiar narrative flaws: its shoddy treatment of the Golden Age Superman.

Back when this all began, I made a bunch of rash speculations about multiplicity that haven’t exactly been borne out by the story’s conclusion. Nonetheless, I’m relieved that the series at least makes a show of repudiating a return to the simple 1950s values the Earth-2 Superman represents, even if this repudiation remains partial at best. From where I sit, the series’s ambivalent treatment of the Golden Age Superman—particularly his undignified death—is one of its most fascinating features. I’d even go so far as to speculate that many of the story’s aesthetic failings and incoherencies are merely side-effects of the deep-seated ideological discomfort that its author has with the Golden Age Superman—the iconic but profoundly conservative character from whom, as Alex Luthor coyly puts it, “everything comes.”

The problem with the original Superman for contemporary liberals, leftys, and zany radicals, of course, is that he has become synonymous with a vision of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” that seems increasingly untenable as we watch its consequences play out around the globe. This puts (liberal?) Geoff Johns in a rather uncomfortable position if he wishes to both pay homage to the founding character of the DCU and subtly repudiate this character’s symbolic political legacy at a fell swoop. The result, as we’ve all just seen, is vexed and—in narrative terms—unsatisfying.

For most of the story, Earth-2 Superman is cast in the unflattering roles of fascist villain and idiot/patsy, after which he is hastily (and unconvincingly) redeemed, only to throw a punch at Doomsday and then be unceremoniously dispatched by snot-nosed brat, Superboy Prime. If Superman’s perfunctory death scene is hollow and hardly touching, it isn’t because they were running out of pages, but because Johns’s heart just isn’t in it. Make no mistake: the real villain of Infinite Crisis—the villain that cannot be explicitly acknowledged as a villain because of his hallowed place in comic book history—is the Golden Age Superman, not Superboy Prime, who is merely a convenient proxy or doppelganger for the elder Supes.

It is, of course, on this note of bizarre irony (Superman as villain) that the series begins, and for some readers, the series’s barely disguised contempt for the original Superman has been an unforgivable insult—a violation of the sacred trust of childhood fantasy. But for Johns, who is a relatively young writer—part of the generation that grew up on Wolfman and Perez’s New Teen Titans, not Siegel and Shuster’s Action Comics or its Silver Age heirs—there is no such sacred trust to recognize: the Golden Age Superman is just a symbol for him (as he is for me), and if the extraordinary abuse that Supes takes in Infinite Crisis is any indication, a fairly pernicious symbol at that.

The speech that “our” Superman delivers in the climactic scene of IC #7 nearly makes this ideological struggle explicit: “It’s not about where you were born. Or what powers you have. Or what you wear on your chest. It’s about what you do… It’s about action.” These remarks—which plainly reject the stagnant and antiquated authority of tradition, power, and symbolism in favor of a kind of situational ethics—are of course addressed to Superboy Prime, not to the Earth-2 Superman. But if you buy my argument that Superboy is really just an authorially-displaced version of the former that allows Johns to tell us what he really thinks of old-school Superman, then it isn’t hard to see their relevance: this is Johns’s last word on how the current Superman differs politically from the Golden Age progenitor—a progenitor, I might add, that it is the story’s job to bury once and for all. The death of the Golden Age Superman at Superboy Prime’s hands in Infinite Crisis #7 is thus not a murder so much as a sort of dramatically externalized “suicide” in which the now darkened image of the original Superman tears apart his and earlier, nobler self-image, thus retracing the historical trajectory of the late twentieth-century’s increasingly troubled reception of the Superman mythos.

Why all this fuss to distinguish the new Superman from the old? Why now? Obviously, it makes a strong statement about the new DC. There’s nothing like (the simulation of) a clean break with the past. But Johns is a topical writer, as his Khandaq stories show, and the fact that the values associated with the “old” Superman have enjoyed a dangerous and disheartening resurgence in recent years surely plays a part in how Johns’s treatment of the Earth-2 Superman unfolds. My own feeling is that the basic conflict of Infinite Crisis (like so many pop productions these days) is very loosely conceived as a satire (or perhaps simply a parody) of contemporary American foreign policy. Overgrown child Alexander Luthor’s absurd quest for “the perfect earth” and his violent smashing together of different worlds in his cosmic “Petri dish” to achieve this Quixotic end by force, all remind me of another overgrown and equally sinister child whose actions on the world stage are no less careless, cynical, or destructive.

Naturally, the series performs various plot contortions to disassociate the Earth-2 Superman from Alexander Luthor. But, like this Superman and Superboy Prime, their valuations of simplicity in the moral/political sphere are not fundamentally different. Of course, such parallels and thinly veiled satiric barbs are not really the “point” of Infinite Crisis, and I would hardly characterize the series as a political allegory; nonetheless, I don’t think the resemblances between Luthor’s apocalyptic machinations, Superboy’s deadly tantrums, Superman’s nostalgia for a supposedly simpler time, the Bush Administration’s rhetoric, and the overseas adventures of the American war machine are entirely coincidental.

Thus, for someone like me who gets a kick out of cheap political shots at people and policies I don’t like, Infinite Crisis works as a diverting, if not particularly deep, satire of current politics—regardless of how clunky a resolution of the plot we’re subjected to in issue #7. Beyond this, and more subtly, Infinite Crisis is also fascinating as an example of how contemporary superhero comics are wrestling with the conservatism of their legacy in relation to the obscenity of the current political scene. From this point of view, what makes Infinite Crisis interesting are its flaws—especially those moments when conventional story-elements like the death of a founding patriarch fall flat, when wished-for pathos degenerates into bathos, banality, or even a kind of pop-sadism. This is precisely what we are witnessing in the story’s inability to genuinely mourn the passing of the Golden Age Superman, the hero from which, for better and for worse, “everything comes.” I find the story’s failure in this regard heartening, but only a little.

The fact that the story can’t really commit to its only political subtext, that it must still make the gesture of paying respect to the figure it secretly despises, that it is still intent on recuperating the promise of moral simplicity he represents, despite the remarkable degree of contempt it manifests for this very morality, attests to the intrinsic limitations of mainstream mega-events like Crisis, whatever their satirical overtones. Contrary to my initial hopes, what Infinite Crisis ends up representing politically is how easily an already vague satirical subtext is dissipated by the series’s logistical and corporate concerns: the need to go on, to perpetuate the brand, to “reinvent” by recycling, to “make the lines between heroes and villains in the DCU clear again,” as Dan Didio is so fond of repeating. Thank goodness for Gail Simone’s deliciously subversive Villains United and her forthcoming Secret Six.

But don’t get me wrong, despite getting a little carried away in that wild and wooly debate with Marc Singer a few months ago, I wasn’t expecting Infinite Crisis to provide a profound political justification for its existence. I would have been perfectly content with fun and pretty, so everything else was gravy. As it turns out, I relished its satiric flourishes, such as they were. I also ended up enjoying it as a conflicted cultural artifact that provides a revealing of X-Ray of current attitudes and tensions. I’m certainly not knocking it for being politically ambivalent or even, ultimately, vacuous.

And this brings me to my third and last defense of the series. As much fun as it might be for me to mull over its satirical and political dimensions once the dust has settled, this type of intellectual pleasure is mainly retrospective—it has very little to do with the nature of my (almost unseemly) enjoyment of reading Infinite Crisis while it was still unfolding. What’s up with that? How can it be both “the worst thing” and “the best thing ever”? What is Infinite Crisis anyway?

Fortunately for me, Brian Cronin has already answered this question with perfect clarity: “Infinite Crisis was never about telling a story.” Matthew has answered it too, in the comments thread for Brian’s article: “So maybe it wasn’t a good comic. Was it a good Big Event? Very possibly. I think it positioned DC very well to make better comics in the future. Of course, they still have to go do it.” And so has The Fortress Keeper: “Infinite Crisis was less about weaving an intricate plot with stunning art and rich characterization than delivering the requisite number of ‘popcorn’ moments and setting the stage for future storylines.”

Infinite Crisis is not a story but an event. That sounds like a bit of a cop out since there’s no reason why these two categories should be mutually exclusive: is a well-written “event” really so inconceivable? But, for me, and I think for these other reviewers, the point isn’t to defend IC on the basis that it is “only an event” and thus (?) the rules of good storytelling need not apply—not exactly. Rather, it is to try to account for why, as readers of comic book “events,” so many of us are prepared to overlook the narrative flimsiness of the actual products.

So, how can such “events” be both “the worst thing” and “the best thing ever”? For me at least, the answer is that I don’t actually “read” them in the conventional sense all—and I don’t really think I’m meant to. Brian is exactly right when he says that “Infinite Crisis was never about telling a story”—in fact, virtually no corporately-driven “Big Event” is—and the corollary of this simple fact is that, as a reader, I bring a different set of expectations and reading practices to this kind of text than I do to my usual monthly comics. Big Events like Crisis are not so much stories as Acts of God: we can marvel at them but when Wonder Woman has a spontaneous change of heart, it’s almost pointless to ask “why?” Formally, they are not narratives but gestalts or force fields—they hold everything together with a kind of self-generating magical causality. One doesn’t read them so much as surf them, looking for familiar faces, promising encounters, surprising juxtapositions, important plot-points, and “popcorn moments.” This is the mode of nonreading that the original Crisis taught me, and frankly, every now and then, I like it. Would it have been nice to have a better story? Of course. This isn’t (just) another Jim Roeg-style apology for bad art. The Fortress Keeper’s point that “Infinite Crisis’s failure…to string much of a plot together robs otherwise emotional scenes of their gravitas” is irrefutable. Nonetheless, there really is something special about Event comics like Crisis, even when they fail to deliver on everything they promise.

The “something special”—and the reason why so many of us enjoyed the series, warts and all—is not just that it contained so many great moments but that, as Matthew says, “it positioned DC very well to make better comics in the future.” It’s impossible not be a little bit cynical about this kind of consolation. Of course DC wants us all to take out second mortgages in order to buy more comics, and in this regard Prof. Fury’s diagnosis of the situation as “pomo-funhouse capitalism” is bullet-proof. But it also tells only part of the story. The embarrassing truth is that—for me at least—the pomo-funhouse capitalism of DC’s latest Big Idea really is fun because it overlaps with the pleasure of narrative incompletion in a uniquely powerful way. What we buy when we shell out $5 for an issue of Infinite Crisis isn’t a story—and many of us are not disappointed because that’s not what we’re looking for anyway. What we’re buying is something like the promise of futurity—a promise that inheres in all serial narratives, but which is particularly acute in Big Event miniseries that are by definition transitional and which exude futurity like an aura. In Joseph Conrad’s classic modernist novella, Heart of Darkness, the unnamed narrator famously remarks that, for the story-telling seaman Marlow, “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.” This characteristic bit of Conradian obscurantism is about as close as I can come to naming my sense of the peculiar way that Big Event comics function at the level of readerly affect and why they’re able to satisfy fairly primal narrative cravings, even when their execution is mediocre.

At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. When all else fails: modernist-jujitsu.

Friday, May 12, 2006

On Existentialism (Part 2): Jim Roeg Does(n't) Cry

So, I had a really, really nice surprise this morning. Gorjus of PrettyFakes fame has paid me the coolest compliment I think I've ever received--check out his utterly amazing artwork based on the final panel from Steve Gerber's and Sal Buscema's Marvel Two-In-One #7 and this recent post by yours truly.

Paper Dolls Don't Cry (This Purse Will Look Great With That Dress!)

Gorjus, what else can I say but THANK YOU! (And please forgive me for stealing this image straight off your site. It's spectacular, and I love it. *Sniff*)

Sunday, May 07, 2006

On Existentialism: Why Paper Dolls Do(n’t) Cry, or Steve Gerber’s Myth of Sisyphus

Everything that is beautiful and profound and human about Steve Gerber’s melancholy aesthetic is summed up in this exceptional panel from Marvel Two-In-One #7 drawn by Sal Buscema:

The world has just been destroyed in a most improbable way: down-and-out alcoholic Alvin Denton (a one-time lawyer whose wife was killed in a car accident and whose daughter ran off with cult) has just blown a tune on the mysterious “Celestia” harmonica, an instrument of fate that “plays the notes of destiny.” Alvin’s cataclysmic playing accelerates his own self-destruction, but it also generalizes the calamity by magically literalizing the truism that the drunkard is “destined to see his whole world destroyed.” The harmonica thus becomes a sort of final blast of the divine trumpet, unmaking the earth and setting Alvin, his “daughter” Valkyrie, the Enchantress, her henchman the Executioner, and the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing adrift, “floating in a kind of un-space amid the pieces of Alvin’s shattered existence.” After a brief skirmish with the Enchantress and the Executioner, it is the Thing who takes up the harmonica called “Celestia” and contemplates which song will best remake the universe.

This moving panel is Gerber’s Creation scene, and it is a précis of his meditation on what it means to be human in a world where, as Sartre once said, existence precedes essence.

Would Gerber call himself an existentialist? Can his work be characterized so narrowly? Perhaps not. I freely confess that I have not read enough of it to say, but smart people who know far more about Gerber than I do seem to think that it has existentialist dimensions, so the connection is at least worth exploring further.

Consider the resonance between the small panel from Marvel Two-In-One #7 (above) and this passage from Existentialism in which Sartre explains his famous dictum by first defining “man” in terms of divinely created essence and then discarding this vision of being for an existential one:

When we conceive God as the Creator, He is generally thought of as a superior sort of artisan.... Thus, the individual man is the realization of a certain concept of divine intelligence.... [Conversely,] atheistic existentialism, which I represent,…states that if God does not exist, there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence, a being who exists before he can be defined by any concept, and that being is man, or, as Heidegger says, human reality. What is meant here by saying that existence precedes essence? It means that, first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself. If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be. Thus, there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it. Not only is man what he conceives himself to be, but he is also only what he wills himself to be after his thrust toward existence. (389-90)
Sartre calls this idea, that “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself,” “the first principle of existentialism,” and I cannot help speculating that it is also a sort of “first principle” for Gerber’s own philosophical, searching, often absurdist, spandex melodramas.

“What do I play ta make the world come back? ‘Melancholy Baby,’ mebbe—or ‘Stardust’? Nuts—how kin I make jokes at a time like this? I’ll just blow—an’ hope fer the best.” What is this but a sly parody of metaphysical thinking? What is this but an existentialist creation scene in which transcendental tropes like the divine breath of creation and the music of the spheres are recast as melancholy human music played on an instrument whose haunting wail is synonymous with the complex emotional register of the blues? Instead of a world of essences, created by God or some other transcendental principle, Gerber gives us a world of existence, created by a man and symbolically (re)created here by Marvel’s greatest existentialist character, the Thing. The rocky, heavy, earth-bound Thing, as Gerber presents him, is an exaggerated, defamiliarized image of humanity grasped as pure existence, without God, without any transcendent consolations whatsoever. If Sartre’s famous dictum that “existence precedes essence” entails the acknowledgement that man creates God, not vice versa, then this scene, in which the Thing takes God’s place to recreate the world in his own flawed and finite image, becomes the embodiment of that difficult existential dictum. It is a “minor” creation scene whose very off-handedness (it is literally one tiny panel on an eight-panel page) is precisely the point. No Kirbyesque cosmic grandeur here. No Eternity, no Celestials, only “Celestia,” stamped on the tin-plating of a dime-store harmonica. And yet, the grandeur and significance of the act is in many ways more profound than the dazzling effulgence of Kirby’s cosmic fantasmagoria.

What makes this panel so moving is that we do not see the Thing’s eyes. They are downcast and hidden by his enormous, craggy brow. This is the bent head of contemplation, responsibility, consciousness—what Sartre calls “anguish”: what is felt by “the man who involves himself and who realizes that he is not only the person he chooses to be, but also a law-maker who is, at the same time, choosing all mankind as well as himself, [and thus] cannot help escape the feeling of his total and deep responsibility” (Sartre 391). But the bent head of the Thing’s anguish is balanced against the musical line that rises from the harmonica, those few sad notes that instantly remake the world as a place of absurd, often painful, but still potentially beautiful habitation. The emotional texture of this perfect panel—for which much credit must go to Sal Buscema—is signified by the harmonica itself: a commonplace instrument inscribed with “celestial” significance.

The sublimity of this panel is inseparable from the symbolism of the Thing himself. To be human in an existentialist universe is to be a Thing. This is what Albert Camus taught us in his famous allegory, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” where Sisyphus, plaything of sadistic gods, another brute compelled to wrestle with rocks, becomes “the absurd hero,” a prototype of existentialist consciousness—in short, a prototype for the Thing himself:
The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock back to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight.... [O]ne sees merely the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it and push it up a slope a hundred times over; one sees the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass, the foot wedging it, the fresh start with arms outstretched, the wholly human security of two earth-clotted hands. At the very end of his long effort measured by skyless space and time without depth, the purpose is achieved. Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments toward that lower world when he will have to push it up again toward the summit. He goes back down to the plain.

It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step towards the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.

If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn. (407-08)
Gerber’s Thing is not “scornful” of fate so much as he is glumly prepared to endure it, but the sense of tragedy that surrounds his character stems precisely from his consciousness of the absurdity and interminability of his suffering. Yet, for Gerber, as for Camus, this “tragic” existential consciousness isn’t cause for despair. The Thing in question may be Ben Grimm, but he is also “ever-lovin’” and “blue-eyed.” As Camus puts it in a moment of startling reversal,
If the descent [of Sisyphus] is sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy. This word is not too much.... One does not discover the absurd without being temped to write a manual of happiness.... Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable. (408)
In Gerber’s existentialist creation scene, the Thing is a Sisyphian creator-hero, poised precisely between melancholy (what Camus calls “the victory of the rock”) and the astonishing claim that “One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (Camus 409). Confronted with the oblivion of “un-space,” nothingness, the Thing wonders: “What do I play ta make the world come back? Melancholy Baby, mebbe—or Stardust?” Read the lyrics to these songs. They are melancholy and nostalgic, but something else too:
You shouldn’t grieve; try and believe
Life is always sunshine when the heart beats true.
Be of good cheer; smile through your tears;
When you’re sad it makes me feel the same as you.
Set in the context of Gerber’s existentialist creation, these songs, especially George A. Norton and Ernie Burnett’s “My Melancholy Baby,” are something like the “manual of happiness” to which Camus enigmatically alludes. They are blueprints for a mode of living authentically, consciously, in a world where nothing but our existence is pre-given, where value must be made, and where—for better or worse—anything is possible. “Be of good cheer; smile through your tears; / When you’re sad it makes me feel the same as you”: this is the magnificent ethical vision of Gerber’s committed existentialism. Look a little further down the page from the scene in which Ben Grimm’s human music remakes “not the best” world but “the world as we know it.” You will see these three panels in which Valkyrie realizes that the one man who could have provided her with the “truth” of her identity is now forever out of reach:

How else could an existential creation end except with a discovery of the death of the Father? Gerber’s story allegorizes the frustrated hope for easy answers and “revelations” about identity and being. It gives us only Val’s confrontation with the blankness of her own identity and her dawning consciousness that she, like Grimm, is a human thing “condemned to be free” (Sartre 393). That is, she is condemned to, but also liberated by, an existence without essence: empty, except for what she chooses to become. It ends with Ben’s hard-boiled compassion, a gruff rephrasing of those tragic, beautiful, affirmative lines from “Melancholy Baby”: “Whatever ya are, kid—it ain’t that. Or my shoulder wouldn’t be getting’ drenched. Paper dolls don’t cry. Only us real people got that problem.”

This statement is more paradoxical (and joyful) than it seems because, of course, Val and Ben really are “paper dolls” in at least two senses. As comic book characters, they are literally “fiction[s]”—in this sense, Val is right to lament that she is “an empty façade, a fiction,” even if she does not grasp the metafictional significance of what she is saying. But Val is right in another, profounder sense too if we take her anguish over being “an empty façade, a fiction” as a moment of genuine existentialist consciousness—consciousness of a world without essences, a world not designed and governed by some divine “father.” “Fiction,” in this sense, simply designates an identity that has become unmoored from the consolations and pseudo-certainties of metaphysics, and in this sense Val and the Thing are fictions, are “paper dolls”—just as we all are in an existentialist night. The exquisite irony of this ending is that paper dolls do cry, despite what Ben says to make Val feel “human.” In other words, this concluding sequence appears to oppose “paper dolls” to “real people,” but it actually does something far more interesting: it redefines what it means to be human in a single stroke by collapsing the distinction between “paper dolls” and “real people,” making it untenable. This is the deconstructive moment of Gerber’s “Two-In-One” where the shift from metaphysics to existentialism that had been condensed in the panel of parodic creation (the Thing and his harmonica) is unpacked and dramatized as a minor, and deeply moving existentialist fable in which the Thing now plays his fully human role instead of playing a parody of God.

For me, what accounts for the incredible pathos of this ending is the paradoxical nature of Ben’s consoling remark. Val’s tears affirm the most profound truth of Gerber’s universe: that to be human is to suffer. But Gerber’s genius is to make this tragic truth its own consolation, for it is precisely Val’s suffering that affirms her humanity at the very moment that she sinks into anguish at not having a metaphysically-grounded identity. There’s something strangely uplifting about this melancholy ending. Camus:
If the descent [of Sisyphus] is sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy. This word is not too much....One does not discover the absurd without being temped to write a manual of happiness....Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable....

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. (408-409)
To this, Gerber might add that the difficult happiness that accompanies existential freedom flourishes not in the isolated, alienated figure of Sisyphus, the “absurdist hero,” but in communities of other such “real people” whose marginality has provoked them to similar struggle and reward. The Defenders are, of course, a very prominent expression of this communal impulse in Gerber’s work, and as plok says in his fascinating inaugural "Seven Soldiers of Steve" post, Gerber’s Defenders valued community in a way that Englehart’s did not:
[For Englehart’s Defenders], being a “non-team” was primarily a way of acknowledging that they each preferred their own individual, solitary company to that of society’s, and they were all secure enough in their own skins that they never apologized for preferring to be strangers.

Gerber’s Defenders, though, were different. They wanted to fit in and find their place as much as their previous iterations wanted nothing of the kind: Gerber’s Valkyrie was less the warrior-woman and more the ingenue, the foundling abandoned on identity’s doorstep; Nighthawk (introduced to the team by - who else? - Len Wein, who it must be noted was the one who instituted this shift to a friendlier “non-team,” that was more a group of friends who all hung out together than a pack of loners jammed together by necessity, or an organization with code-names and signal devices) was a man trapped by his own conditions of past and class and error, who wanted nothing more than to make a fresh start, even if to do so made him a less confident, less effective person; the Hulk was more a misunderstood child than a threatening monster; and Dr. Strange was (as Kurt Busiek put it in his Defenders run) a warm and avuncular presence, suffused with calm and inner peace, rather than the sometimes-impatient, work-obsessed prima donna he had often been portrayed as before. Each of these characters remained as potent, and potently symbolic, as they had been earlier; but because their attitude to their world had changed, what they had to do in it changed as well. They wanted to fit in, yes: but on their own terms and in their own places, instead of merely taking up desultory roles or niches at the centre, where the other superheroes lived. Because they wanted their roles to fit in with their lives, not their lives with their roles.
As even these few remarks indicate, plok’s analysis of the Defenders as a “meditation on life outside the mainstream, but not all the way outside the mainstream,” takes the notion of a superheroic community of misfits who “wanted their roles to fit in with their lives, not their lives with their roles” in the direction of the politically engaged consciousness that is central to Gerber’s stories, including the stories in Marvel Two-In-One that I haven’t even begun to analyze here. I agree wholeheartedly with plok’s reading; all I have been trying to sketch out are some preliminary thoughts about the existential subtext of Gerber’s political project—particularly his fascination with marginality and questions of responsibility and social justice. It isn’t for nothing that the issue of Marvel Two-In-One I’ve been speaking about ends with a strange embrace, with tears on a compassionate but unyielding shoulder of rock. It ends, in other words, with a strange human community—the Thing and Val—an odd-couple of the type that Marvel Two-In-One, especially Gerber’s, will specialize in. Indeed, Gerber’s stories in Marvel Two-In-One (as the book’s title and concept suggest) are really all studies of the strange community motif that is not just a consolation but (I suspect) a genuine political goal. In a future essay I want to explore how, in Gerber’s work in these issues of MTIO, the strange community emerges as a vision that is at once philosophical, ethical, and political: democracy, or perhaps, “America” as non-team.

In the context of such utopian yearnings, the fact that existential themes often take the form of melancholy or despair is not surprising—such expressions are signs, perhaps, of the Sisyphian difficulty of achieving the sort of social transformation to which the stories themselves repeatedly allude. But Gerber’s existentialism is not just a cry of anguish. As I’ve been suggesting here, it is also the precondition of a kind of grim (Grimm?) optimism: the strange happiness of Sisyphus who struggles with the anguish of his own freedom and the awesome responsibility that such radical freedom entails. This is the happiness of Ben Grimm (a cipher for Gerber himself) who must play the world into existence on a cheap harmonica. And most of all, it is the painfully human happiness that is presented to us like a gift in that memorable image of Valkyrie wrapped in the Thing’s embrace: it is the happiness of knowing why paper dolls don’t cry but also why they do, of what it means to be “real people,” and of the strange communities that such difficult knowledge makes possible.


Works Cited

Camus, Albert. "The Myth of Sisyphus." Trans. Justin O'Brien. Casebook on Existentialism 2. Ed. William V. Spanos. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. 406-409.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. "Existentialism." Trans. Bernard Fretchman. Casebook on Existentialism 2. Ed. William V. Spanos. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. 387-406.