Tuesday, June 28, 2005

On Comics Before Collecting (Part 2): Blocks, Unfinished Stories, and the Comic Book Sublime

Have we lost the ability to take pleasure in fragments, bafflement, and incompletion? Do we no longer enjoy the experience of arriving at an epic tale in medias res whose conclusion we will never learn?

It wasn’t always this way.

After crossing that threshold between intensely studying the pictures to imagine a story and deciphering the words in the speech balloons to summon it into being, our earliest memories of actually reading comics are most likely associated with the uniquely pleasurable confusion of the fragment. The unresolved cliffhanger. The incomplete or unfinished story. In the time before the direct market—and before the limited autonomy of allowance—when getting a comic was contingent on the vagaries of the 7-11 comic rack and the caprice of parental indulgence, the half-told tale was so inevitable as to be a basic feature of comic book reading itself.

The Avengers 176 (1978), “Destiny Hunt,” was probably not my first experience of narrative incompletion, but it is certainly one of my most fondly remembered and profoundly satisfying--or is that unsatisfying?--ones. This issue, I would learn, ten or fifteen years later, was the penultimate chapter of the epic “Korvac Saga.” It came in one of those two-comic packs that were once sold in drug stores and supermarkets. I’d persuaded my mom to buy it for me during a shopping trip to Safeway and felt I’d gotten away with something diabolical, artfully tricking her into buying me two comics instead of the usually allotted one. The other comic in the pack--The Mighty Thor 277 (1978), “Time of the Trolls”--had an attractive cover, but was in every sense secondary. I had never read a Thor comic before, and at the time my interest was only vaguely piqued by myth and fantasy (in retrospect, I suspect that the Thor cover must have struck me as promising a reading experience that would be more demanding and educational than fun). I had never read Avengers before either, but the cover—a collection of unfamiliar superheroes displayed around the luminous, energy-filled silhouette of a man whose power was concentrated in a dense core of Kirby dots clustered in his torso—gripped me instantly and didn’t let go. It was a long car ride home, and I still remember what is now a strange juxtaposition: taking the comic books out a grocery bag containing milk, potatoes, onions…

What was it like, reading this Avengers comic at six years old?

The story had already begun. I didn’t know what was going on. I recognized few of the characters. And though I understood that the rounded panels on page two were recaps of a previous issue, my vocabulary and narrative skills weren’t yet up to the task of really piecing the action together. What’s more, there was something stiff and unappealing about those flashback panels with their flat text boxes and non-sequential illustrations. Although I could read on my own quite well, I was bored by static panels and narration: my eye went to dynamic pictures and word balloons.

What I liked about this comic were the characters. The sheer number and diversity of superheroes it contained! Iron Man, Starhawk, Moondragon (a bald woman!), Hawkeye, Quicksilver (a jerk), Wonderman, Captain America, Black Panther, Thor, Hercules, Black Widow, Ms. Marvel, Yellowjacket, Wasp, Jocasta (a woman made out of metal!), Captain Marvel, Vision, and Scarlet Witch--many of whom were not named within the story, an omission which only increased the experience of immersion. As little as a year earlier, before I could really read on my own, I had a more primary, elemental enjoyment of differentiation. Susan Storm was beautiful and turned invisible. Reed Richards could stretch and invented things. Johnny was a Human Torch, and the Thing was orange and rocky. Now, this pleasure was deepened by the richer characterization effected by the (still surprisingly zippy) dialogue.

In one of the best scenes of Avenger-bickering ever scripted, Jim Shooter has the sublimely arrogant Moondragon interrupt an argument between Quicksilver and Hawkeye over the Scarlet Witch’s ostensibly indecent marriage to the android, Vision. Pricked by Hawkeye’s liberalism, a priggish Quicksilver fumes, “There is a great difference, Archer, between purity and propriety! That…thing my sister is with is a machine! It has no right to--” At which point, Moondragon intervenes and “cleanses” Quicksilver of his “self-righteous judgments” with some kind of psychic ray, inviting the startled pair to thank her as she departs. Hawkeye retorts: “Thank--? Hey! Wh-Where do you get off, Baldy? Treatin’ someone’s mind like a…bathtub with a ring! If you’ve hurt Quicksilver--!” But the latter, rubbing his head demurs: “No, Hawkeye, there was no pain. It was more like…insight…” At six years old, I could not have followed Quicksilver’s hairsplitting over “purity” and “propriety,” nor, I suspect, did I understand the word “insight.” And yet, this minor scene was, for me, the heart of the book—I read it over and over again as if I could wrest the meaning of the argument from the page by the sheer intensity of my reading. At one point, I’m sure I asked my mother for a definition of “insight,” but it was an elusive word.

This was one of my first memorable fictional encounters with the complexity of human interaction. The fact that the initial argument could seemingly be resolved in Hawkeye’s favor by the appearance of a more powerful third character, only to have Hawkeye reverse positions and take the part of his former antagonist against his would-be ally, and then to have Quicksilver himself concede (albeit, with dubious agency!) the virtue of Moondragon’s psychic lobotomy was an exciting and perplexing discovery.

In this way, page three and the top of page four formed a sort of brick, or stable fragment within the story that was infinitely more interesting to me than the story as a whole. This “block” had a heft that the surrounding panels of ephemeral narrative business surrounding it simply did not possess.

Looking back on this issue now, I’m struck by the degree to which the episodic quality of the story itself reinforced this intuitive practice of fragmentary reading. In fact, the first half of the story consists primarily of two sorts of scenes. Inside the mansion, Avengers squabble amongst themselves in a series of loosely related vignettes (Hercules throws Thor through a wall; Natasha, the “Black Widow,” zaps a deliciously bemused Hercules with her “widow’s bite”; Iron Man and Moondragon jockey for position). Outside, meanwhile, Avengers dispersed in the field respond to Moondragon’s telepathic summons. These latter scenes (in which the characters are generally not named) are even more fragmentary and (to a six year old reader) uninterpretable than the mansion scenes: Ms. Marvel is perched on a rooftop having trouble with her “seventh sense cognition”; Yellowjacket and the Wasp are shrunk down to size and talking to ants; the male Captain Marvel soars through space; the robot, Jocasta, suddenly bursts from a purple trench coat on a busy city street to the amazement of passer-bys.

As was so typical (and wonderful) of 1970s Marvel, great delight is taken in providing these moments of sudden public exposure with a comic chorus-like commentary, usually from mustachioed man who cry, as they do here, “Huh? A-a woman m-made outta metal?! A-anybody see Alan Funt around?” I of course had no idea who “Alan Funt” might be, never having heard of Candid Camera. Adding to my confusion, the word balloon containing the Funt gag was ambiguously positioned, and I mistakenly attributed it to Jocasta herself, assuming that she was either engaging the surprised man in banter, or trying to alleviate his nerves. I wondered if Alan Funt might be an Avenger.

(Later, the unforgettable set piece of this issue—the Avengers’ commandeering of a city bus to take them into the sinister middle class suburb of “Forest Hills Gardens” where a deadly cosmic being they know only as “the Enemy” is thought to be lurking amid the perfectly manicured lawns and ornamental shrubs—raises this meme to nearly self-parodying heights as steaming ousted passengers threaten to write the Mayor, their Congressman, and Anne Landers, while Iron Man promises that call them all taxis at the Avengers’ expense!)

Like the earlier scene between Moondragon, Quicksilver, and Hawkeye, the minor four-panel scene between Hank and Jan (in which the couple suddenly grow to normal size and fly off, surprising an onlooker who croaks, “Da wife ain’t gonna believe dis!”) and the two-panel scene of Jocasta on the street which echoes it were the “blocks” on which my first microscopic reading focused and to which it repeatedly returned. There was little interest for me, at the time, in assembling these Avengers fully into the pattern of a larger coherent story, except in the most general way. I could see that they all ended up at the Avengers’ mansion to pool their efforts at…something, but it was the subtle details of these “bricks” or “blocks” that held me.

The four video monitors on the wall containing isolated, decontextualized images of Jocasta incognito, Moondragon meditating, Ms. Marvel on her rooftop, and Captain Marvel in space that Iron Man fiddles with on the terrific splash page of this issue concretize these “blocks” very suggestively. Without meaning to, perhaps, these discrete, juxtaposed “video” images (ostensibly narrative and forward-moving images, yet strangely static ones, disconnected or “dangling,” pendant-like, from the narrative thread that strings them together) precisely capture the reading-effect the story produced for me as a six-year-old reader.

Once the Avengers have assembled at the mansion and coordinated their search for the mysterious “Enemy” that is eluding them, the story became easier to follow, and to some extent the fragmentary pleasures of the first half are succeeded by a more coherent narrative drive. All the characters become absorbed within a single action: feeding the findings of their various searches into a computer, pinpointing the location of the threat, waiting for a bus (!), and fruitlessly searching the apparently benign home of a man named “Michael.” The climax of the story consists--all too uncannily--in a moment of radical narrative disjunction: the revelation that Starhawk literally cannot see “Michael” (who is standing right in front of him) and his false belief that the Avengers are making him the butt of some bizarre practical joke. The Avengers now realize that they have indeed stumbled upon the “Enemy”--the only being powerful enough to selectively blind Starhawk in this way.

This scene, dramatically speaking, is a tour-de-force. In retrospect, though, and on a personal level, it is much more. At the level of plot and affect, the reactions of the other characters to Starhawk’s outburst conveyed (and elicited in me) a genuine thrill of horror at a more-than-human power that can warp perception to such a degree that one’s own eyes could not be trusted. More abstractly, the (non)confrontation between Starhawk and Korvac is a (non)confrontation between blindness and insight, between partial and perfect knowledge. On a purely personal level, therefore, it also stages the (non)confrontation between reading in “blocks” and reading for narrative synthesis that I was only just learning to negotiate. In other words, it stages the (non)confrontation or impasse between reading the bricks and reading the wall. Starhawk, the selectively blinded superhero, becomes a metaphor for myself as a child reader as surely as Korvac, the seemingly omnipotent and omniscient machine-god-man, embodies what adult knowledge—what the coherence of narrative—might look like to a child who is still playing with blocks.

But these are the fanciful reflections of an older reader who, in attempting to reconstruct an experience of childhood reading, has been tempted into narrative at the very point in the story when narrative is precisely what has to be resisted, because it literally stops short. Starhawk’s meltdown precipitates Korvac’s acknowledgement of his true identity (a mad god with a plan to save humanity that the Avengers have somehow interfered with), and culminates in one of the most memorable full-page cliff-hangers of my childhood: The man, “Michael,” transforms himself into his true shape—the yellow and purple energy being Korvac—and promises to make the Avengers pay for “destroy[ing] the hopes of a universe, the dreams of a god.” And this, for me, was where the story ended.

I didn’t make it to 7-11 soon enough the next month. Or maybe they just didn’t stock the Avengers that week. It wasn’t until much later, once I had been collecting comic books for ten years at least, that I sought out the conclusion to that old story that I still read with enormous pleasure at the family cottage where it had come to reside. You know, I hardly remember that subsequent issue now. For me, the Korvac saga ends in medias res on the final page of Avengers 176. It ends unresolved, and yet not exactly unfinished, for it has a kind of aesthetic, almost metaphysical closure that is in many ways more satisfying than the narrative closure it manifestly withholds.

The final image, in which the Avengers cower before the looming, homicidal god is the most powerful of the issue. As Korvac grows to his full, towering height, the Avengers vainly shield their eyes from the blinding transformation, and the artist, David Wenzel, imbues this image with all the sacred connotations that Shooter unsubtly weaves into the script--most obviously in the form of Starhawk’s blindness upon glimpsing the face of some awful divinity. It is also subtly present in the Avengers themselves, arms flung out before them in gestures that simultaneously convey helplessness and something approximating supplication. This strange sense of religious appeal inheres most strongly in the ambiguous postures and attitudes of the figures in the foreground: Hercules (a semi-divine member of the team, and the only one who risks casting so much as a side-long glance in Korvac’s direction), Moondragon (the mystic), and of course, Starhawk, the blind star-man himself. It is the latter two especially who seem almost to reach out to Korvac at the very same moment that they ward him off--yearning and yet retreating from the terrible blossoming of his power, the revelation of his true, unbearable form.

The ambiguity contained within this astonishing final image--the desire, simultaneously, for annihilation and self-preservation--is the ambiguity of the sublime itself, however one might choose to characterize this complex and universal notion. And the happy coincidence which made this cliffhanger into the de facto conclusion of the Korvac saga in my own personal comic book history provided me with a particularly vivid, even paradigmatic, example of how the serial form’s inevitably unfinished narratives could afford profound pleasure and even profound wisdom through their very incompletion.

On a very simple and immediate level, the story satisfied. It was complete in and of itself--but only in the manner that “blocks” are complete. If I read it as a “block,” and not as an unfinished narrative (and I have no doubt that, on some level at least, I did), then the final image of this issue depicted not a cliffhanger, but a self-contained episode, indeed the last episode of the story: the triumph of Korvac over the Avengers, the inevitable triumph of the divine or of the abyss over even the most heroic assembly of protagonists. In short, Greek tragedy. Or better still, the enigmatic final encounter with death whose “resolution” is necessarily unknowable and, strictly speaking, unrepresentable. Sublime.

And yet this will not entirely do, for of course I did know that there was more, that this apparent triumph of Korvac was only gestural, that the Avengers would regroup and find a way to confront the unconfrontable, overcome the threat of god the destroyer. For some reason, however, this awareness of incompletion did not diminish my enjoyment of the story. Incompletion itself turned out to be the bearer of its own unusual satisfactions. Keeping the story open, escaping the drive for closure, was not necessarily disappointing; it could also be a kind of affirmation, an assertion of the inevitability, not of death and endings, but of continuity and possibility. The serialized story that never ends, the ending that might come, but has not arrived yet. A story that beckons hesitantly towards endings and yet is at pains to ward them off, or at most, casts only a side-long glance towards them. Hercules’s story… Moondragon’s story… Starhawk’s…

This non-ending to the Korvac saga is the story of the comic book as serial form, in which endings are constantly projected and closure is endlessly deferred. And it is the story of much else besides.

Look again at the final image of “Destiny Hunt.” Hercules is still daring to glance into the divine abyss. Moondragon still seems to summon this ending with the same gesture by which she protects herself from it. But Starhawk, once blind to Korvac's presence, now closes his eyes and looks away, as if to shield them from the newly dawning, unbearable light...

Thursday, June 23, 2005

On Comics Before Collecting (Part 1): Choosing

What was it to read comics before "collecting"? What was that experience of “picking your comic” at the drug store, the newsstand, 7-11?

It was, in the first instance, an experience of selection. This was before allowance, before careful mental calculations. A comic was a treat, and you could have only one.

But there were so many. Each cover touching some hidden place in your chest, like someone plucking a string. A giant green man bounding over the surface of an alien planet. A royal-looking man in a metal mask with a green cape. A man shooting webs like a spider—Spiderman! A family in blue uniforms. A man fighting robots. A boy on fire. Their poses filled with power. Each one setting off a vibration. Some uncomfortable flutter of excitement. What desire felt like before it met its object. Which one?

Choosing was a posture. Crouching on a dirty floor at the back of Neiman’s Pharmacy, spinning the rack slowly. Standing up to look at the comics on top and feeling the blood rush to your head. Or feeling the floor press into your knees as you study the covers laid out in an impossibly long row beneath the racks of magazines in a newsstand on Portage Avenue, where your dad stands above you, rooted for a moment in his own world. This was what it was to choose.

You pick them up in turn and look at the pictures inside.

It’s like opening a window that you fall into. Everything is tense with movement; nothing’s frozen. The boxes on the page are not flat but deep. They seem to go on and on. And you fall in. This is what you’re trying to do. To disappear into the boxes. To fall in and disappear. This is your wish.

But something stops you. Sometimes, the inside is not exactly like the outside. In this one, Spiderman is fighting a white wolf-man with a jewel on his throat, but only in a few boxes. The rest is of people talking. A bunch of spacemen, a man smoking a cigar, a girl with brown hair in an office. The green monster is on every page of that one. But there’s some other funny-looking man with green hair. And where’s the planet from the cover? There’s one with a man with a star on his front who throws his shield at the green man from the other comic. You think about this one very hard. Something’s not right here, and it’s caught you. Is the green man a bad guy? You go back to the other one. It looks different now, maybe this is the one. But no. You don’t like the silly man with green hair. You go back to the one with the shield throwing man. But there’s something about the pictures that isn’t right. They’re too scratchy.

Then you open the one with the blue family and it’s immediately different. There are more people here. The pictures and colors are just right. They don’t seem to be pictures at all. The boxes are filled with weight and the movement of bodies. There’s a tug in your chest, a dull brightness in your eye. You feel yourself falling.

The blue family lives in a big building like the ones downtown. They’ve just come home from a fight and their uniforms are torn up, but there are bad guys in there, waiting for them. A red demon with a blaster on his hand that shoots pink energy. A man in a green costume with lightening-lines on his face and a green staff that’s filled with power. Every page is stuffed with boxes overflowing with color and motion. Every page crackles with light and energy. The elastic man, the good monster made of orange rocks, the blue woman who disappears, the boy on fire.

You close the cover. You cannot read much yet. Someone will sit beside you and read this to you. There’s a story here, and you want to know what happens.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

On Fear: The Sociopaths of Batman (1989) and Batman Begins (2005)

I had not been a regular reader of Batman or Detective Comics until the mid-eighties, when Frank Miller lured me in with The Dark Knight Returns, but even before Dark Knight, my limited exposure to Batman had been enjoyable precisely because Batman's villains were genuinely creepy. The first two villains to make a strong impression on me were Dr. Phosphorus, the radioactive skeleton from Detective Comics 469 (1977), and the Scarecrow, in Detective Comics 503 (1981).

One wonders if David Goyer didn't have this marvelous cover depicting Batman transformed into the Scarecrow's doppelganger on his bedside table when he penned the screenplay for Batman Begins, a film which strikingly thematizes the nature of fear by linking Batman's origin story to Dr. Jonathan Crane's psychopathic alter ego. For the movie plainly adopts the thematic implications of this evocative image--an image that iconically suggests the complexity of a character whose neurotic, often ambiguous "heroism" is as much a symptom as a willed act, and whose relationship with fear as much a martyrdom as a strategy.

Many elements make this meticulously orchestrated and on balance successful Batman film outshine the series of films it was designed to make us forget. Perhaps the most important of these, however, is Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow--the first genuinely scary big-screen bat-villain.

From the second Murphy appears on screen, our skin begins to crawl. His beauty is unnatural and chillingly asexual. We know that we are in the presence of a sociopath long before he dons the horrific Scarecrow mask and blows fear dust in our eyes to create some of the most archetypally nightmarish scenes I've ever seen in a comic book film, from the maggot infested death-mask's bat spewing maw to Crane's flame-snorting black steed. How appropriate that he's a Jungian.

By far the most inspired of these images, however, are those that transform our vision of Batman himself, propelling him directly out of the clunky batsuit and into the realm of Lovecraftian myth. From the tar-oozing demon who terrorizes a drugged out Crane to the wraithlike nightmare with glowing red eyes that swoops over the fear-crazed Gothamites, the film gives us images that capture both what we imagine an encounter with a real Batman might feel like and the uncompromising spirit of the film as a whole. They also show us what it takes to produce a Batman movie that doesn't only not suck, but that edges towards a kind of mythic grandeur.

Don't get me wrong. I loved Tim Burton's Batman (1989) at the time. I was astonished at how good Michael Keaton was in the title role, and the film's look and kineticism thrilled me. In many ways, it remains one of the great comic book movies. But even back then I had to will myself into "enjoying" Jack Nicholson's Joker--a hammy performance that set the tone for all subsequent bat-villains in the increasingly dismal series of films. Initially, Nicholson's scenery-chewing antics were a boon to the whole enterprise because their sheer weirdness got the movie noticed by a whole demographic who might otherwise have quite happily ignored it. For many mainstream viewers, there was undoubtedly something novel and even vaguely transgressive about an actor of Nicholson's stature rampaging through art galleries dressed like a homicidal mime and squirting people with acid through his boutineer. Hey--even I'll admit, it was kind of fun.

But I didn't want it to be "fun," exactly. I wanted it to be scary. I wanted it to be mythic. And in order to be either of these things, it had to take itself seriously.

In a way, of course, it did. At the time, people praised (or panned) the movie for its "edge," its "darkness." But everything's relative, and this edginess was only notable by comparison to the camp adventures of Adam West and Burt Ward in the 1960s. Keaton's broody Batman was a step in the right direction, of course, but Nicholson's Joker was a throwback to the goofy villains of the show I'd watched in Sunday morning reruns, updated only by a sadism that was not in itself frightening, precisely because it was the banal sadism of all 1980s screen villains. And cinematic sadism, in any case, is rarely frightening. It might be diverting or revolting, depending upon one's tastes and the contexts in which it is deployed. Often, it is merely tedious. Nicholson's sadism was at least joyful, and this made it bearable. But it also made it "comic-booky," in the worst mainstream sense of the term. It was "comic-booky" in precisely the way that real comics are not.

This is why Roger Ebert's complaint about the original Batman film was only half-right. "The movie's problem," he charged, "is that no one seemed to have any fun making it, and it's hard to have much fun watching it. It's a depressing experience. Is the opposite of comic book 'tragic book'?" Watching Batman is a depressing experience, but not for the reason Ebert claims. It's not that the film is no fun, but that it's too much fun--but "fun" is the wrong word. The peculiar feeling the movie evokes--an affect unique to Tim Burton's art--is depressing fun, or fun-that-isn't-fun. Not a cheerful apocalypse, not even a grim, apocalyptic joke. More like a pop nihilism that chickens out and in the end refuses the void. A timid Burtonian darkness that can't resist being just a little bit cute.

If these weren't problems enough, what irreparably marrs Nicholson's Joker and absolutely prevents him from frightening us is not simply Burton's precious gothicism, nor even Nicholson's braying performance, but Nicholson's celebrity itself. Ebert is right when he says that "Nicholson's Joker is really the most important character in the movie"--and this is true only because it is Nicholson's Joker. Nicholson cannot perform the great disappearing act that would make his Joker a truly terrifying source of chaos. We never forget that we're watching Jack; and in this way, the sociopath is domesticated by celebrity. Even if Nicholson had given a different performance, it would never be quite as frightening as a comparable performance by a lesser known actor.

It's no accident that the most terrifying screen psychopaths--Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers--are faceless nobodies or heavily made-up character actors. Nor is it an accident that Murphy's hooded Scarecrow is the first Batman villain who could legitimately join their ranks. We fear what we cannot name and this why celebrity villains cannot frighten. Jim Carey's Riddler and Arnold's Freeze are only the most painful illustrations of this rule. The relatively more obscure (though not for long) Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow is their diametrical, creep-inducing opposite.

Batman Begins is not a perfect film. The mixed reviews that it has received are to some extent earned. For audiences that have become accustomed to the weightless artistry of films like The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon the fight scenes do feel a bit stiff and old-fashioned. Bale's Batman voice is a bit silly, and the film does lose some of its visual power the moment that Bale actually puts on the cumbersome batsuit, which is still too heavy and militaristic. But these are minor complaints about a film that mostly gets it right, at least in all the ways that count. Its a film that restores some much needed dignity to a tarnished franshise and does justice to the spirit of the stories from which it grows.

For this reason, I am (almost) more consoled than irritated when bores like The Globe and Mail's Liam Lacey proclaim:

All of the story is so absurdly humourless that it is dramatically inert, as if Nolan had decided the only way to make the Batman character more substantial was to put weights on his wings. Genuine opportunities to explore a political context--the obvious post-Sept. 11 references to white powder, terrorist attacks and the political manipulation of fear--are wasted. Stylistically, the movie is similarly disappointing. Where are the dizzying perspective shots that made the first Spider-Man movie so much fun?

Where indeed, Liam? We agree about the missing perspective shots, but could it be that you're really looking for a different Batman movie altogether? The "humorous," "fun," "intoxicating, mad, gothic bang" from 1989 you pine for in the opening lines of your review? What is consoling (though at the same time frustrating) about a review like this one--a review that charges the film with "humorlessness" and describes the Scarecrow as "a snidely simpering Cillian Murphy who puts a burlap bag over his head"!--is that it ironically confirms the film's success from the point of view of a comic book audience that takes the affective power of the superhero genre seriously and is able to appreciate it when filmic adaptations attempt (and succeed) in translating comic book gravitas into a new medium. Only a mainstream film critic who does not understand the genre of superhero comics, who is unable to experience them as anything other than frivilous funny-books, and who expects his superhero blockbusters to be as airy as popcorn, could dismiss a film like Batman Begins as "humorless" with a straight face.

It's not surprising that a certain kind of film snob will simply not "get" a film like Batman Begins. And it is all too tempting to say: well, it wasn't made for you anyway. But the impasse is worth reflecting on. The fact that a film like Batman Begins can be made, and the aesthetic distance between this movie and Tim Burton's Batman, or between Nicholson's Joker and Murphy's Scarecrow, suggest that the superhero comic book has come a long way towards recognition as a significant cultural form. The charge of "humorlessness" in reviews like Lacey's is an index of how far it has yet to come.

Of course, this is all coming from a defensive fan-boy, and we are a notoriously humorless lot.


  • Roger Ebert, "Batman," Chicago Sun-Times, June 23, 1989.
  • Liam Lacey, "This Batman Doesn't Fly," The Globe and Mail, June 14, 2005.

    Related Links
  • There's a nice discussion of this article on the boards at Bloody-Disgusting: Horror Movie Entertainment. Thanks to Straker for starting it.

  • Thursday, June 16, 2005

    On Debris: Fantastic Four #184

    Fantastic Four was my favorite superhero comic before I "collected" comics, and this issue--Fantastic Four 184, "AFTERMATH: THE ELIMINATOR!" (1977)--holds a special place in my memory as one of the first FFs I ever read. And read... and read... and read... and read... So it came as no surprise that when I picked up the recent Marvel Visionaries TPB reprint of Perez FF from the late 'seventies last week, every lush Perez/Sinnott panel from issue 184 seemed practically to leap off the page in a way that the earlier issues in the collection--issues that I hadn't read as a kid--did not. All those readings and rereadings (how many? fifty? a hundred?) had somehow transcribed each panel of the story permanently onto the recording pad of memory, and in the process, the images themselves became fuller, richer, deeper, more three-dimensional, more tantalizingly real.

    Everything I would later come to admire (okay, worship) about Perez's New Teen Titans work was all already present in this visually stunning issue: the emotional dynamism of his figures, the obsessive detail of his backgrounds, the density of his nine-panel pages, and of course, his penchant for Amazonian warrior women.

    (At the beginning of this issue, Thundra and Tigra enact a deliciously reactionary travesty of second wave feminism, slyly leaving Ben Grimm to take care of the clean up from last issue's battle on the grounds that "housework is demeaning to women," only to end up in a cat-fight over him moments later. In retrospect, the seven-foot Grappler and the orange-furred cat-lady seem like two parts of Koriand'r's body that have yet to merge. There's an uncanny panel on page 4 in which the two women part ways on the street outside the Baxter Building; Perez will "reunite" them a few years later in DC Comics Presents #26 (1980) when an orange-skinned Tarmaranian princess blazes across Manhattan.)

    Perhaps even more strikingly, there is the debris. No one draws debris with as loving a hand as Perez, and it is everywhere in this issue: it floats in the form of space rocks through the Negative Zone; it litters the floor of Reed's battle-shaken laboratory; it's showcased in a two-page spread when the Fantasticar is blasted out of the night sky; the house on Whisper Hill is a monument to it, and it's there in more subtle ways as well.

    The disconcertingly organic-looking "metallic egg" that Ben finds in the grass on Whisper Hill from which the Eliminator has "hatched," for example. How appropriate that Ben should be the one to find it--for what is the Thing, but an embodiment of Perez's fetishization of debris? A walking pile of "orange rocks." It is of course Ben who is abandoned to the task of "sweeping up" in the opening pages of the issue: a task that becomes the basis for a visual gag that gave me such pleasure I've never entirely forgotten it.

    Having gathered up thousands of pounds of wrecked equipment, Ben "sweeps it under the rug" by unrolling a giant wedge of floor and shoving all the junk beneath it. Faced with a giant lump in the middle of the floor, he (naturally) stomps on it, flattening the bulge, but also bringing Reed and Sue running, imagining yet another attack on their constantly besieged headquarters. Ben, the animated pile of rubble, becomes, inevitably, an "instant trash compactor"!

    What is it about Perez's debris? What makes it such a source of pleasure? And why does it make such a lasting impression? The cover provides a clue, though not a pretty one. It's a shot of the FF's climactic battle with the Eliminator in the middle of a wreckage-strewn abandoned house. The Eliminator--clad in blood-red body-armour, his bald, veined scalp showing through the top of a matching head piece notable primarily for its slitted, cyclopean eye--is perhaps the most self-consciously (even parodically) phallic villain in the Marvel pantheon. On the cover, he towers menacingly over the decimated family team. An orange flare from an expended energy blast simmers in one outstretched palm, while pink energy crackles in the wrist of his hammerhead-tipped other arm. At his feet, the Invisible Girl lays unconscious or dead in the rubble. Johnny tries helplessly to "Flame On" in the background, while Reed, literally powerless in this issue, clings impotently to the Eliminator's leg. Only Ben faces the foe head on and looks like he might, in some way, be a match for the grotesque phallus that has destroyed his family.

    This comic was published in 1977, at which time I would have been five years old--far too young to have any conception of the wry sexual subtext of a book like this one. But the multiple readings I subjected it to lasted well into my teens. Went on, in fact, throughout that entire nebulous period of my personal history during which Ben's ingenious "trash compacting" solution to getting rid of the "lump" in the middle of the floor of the family home might have begun to take on new connotations. Indeed, if there was ever a comic book that would have simultaneously excited and allayed a boy's anxieties about bodily transformation and "self-abuse" this is it. The plot of this issue turns on Reed and Sue's search for their young son Franklin, who has been abducted by a coven of witches associated resident good witch Agatha Harkness. The search leads the family to Harkness's gothic residence on Whisper Hill, where they encounter the terrible Eliminator, a cyborg-like being who has been sent by the coven to eliminate all evidence of Harkness's existence. For interfering with its destruction of Whisper Hill, the FF must of course pay the ultimate price.

    The battle between the FF and the Eliminator in the gothic setting of the Whisper Hill house is--unwittingly, no doubt--an astonishing parable about the sense of danger and exhilaration that accompany sexual maturation, and masturbation in particular. When Reed, Sue and Ben (the adults of the team, though "uncle" Ben is only ambiguously so) are shot out of the sky and make their way to the house, they find Sue's kid brother Johnny Storm hanging limply from the balustrade: "It's the squirt al'right," Ben says, "Looks like somebody hung 'im up there ta dry!"

    As soon as Johnny is retrieved, the grotesquely virile Eliminator bursts through the wall like some maniacal id and announces his mission of total destruction.

    In a marvelously suggestive series of skirmishes involving the dousing of Johnny's flames with his boot-vents, blasting Sue with an "Omni-Beam" from his forehead, thrashing the Thing with his hammerhead "fist," and finally turning Johnny's flames against him, causing him to heat up uncontrollably and "go nova," the Eliminator appears to kill each member of the family.

    Believing his mission to be completed, he opens his chest plate and, in an image whose autoerotic connotations still thrill me, inserts all five of his metallic fingertips into five waiting holes in his robotic chest to trigger his autodestruct sequence. Only at this point, does the team materialize from the shadows unharmed, having been protected all along by Sue's invisible force shield. In the end, it is the phallic Eliminator who "goes nova," destroying the gothic house he haunted, while the resilient family unit survives the climactic blast, shielded by Sue's force bubble.

    Like much gothic literature, "AFTERMATH: THE ELIMINATOR" is about repressed or secret sexuality, about guilt, desire, anxiety, and about the place where all these things converge: the family. Its setting is the paranoid, debris-strewn domestic space of "Whisper Hill," and like the ancient castles of many gothic tales, this space becomes a realm for both the symbolic satisfaction, but also the symbolic management of forbidden forms of desire. Like much gothic literature, in other words, "AFTERMATH" is an incredibly ambiguous story, productive of both satisfaction and chastisement. It would be difficult, I think, to be a 10 or 11 year old boy and not to be unconsciously thrilled by the terrifying virility of the Eliminator, whose single-minded pursuit of his fulfillment shows "no mercy" to the family and the social restrictions it represents--a fulfillment that is also visible, in various ways, in the characters of Johnny and Ben. And yet, the story is not a simple wish-fulfillment. For its symbolization of emergent sexuality as simultaneously monstrous and unstoppable, and thus necessarily secret (the Eliminator's very raison d'etre is secrecy: "It is my solemn duty to eliminate all evidence that Agatha Harkness ever dwelt among your primitive race..."), very precisely captures the emotional confusion of the comic's target audience. The Eliminator is, as Ben (the "trash compactor") says, "ugly." Thus even though the FF family seems constantly to be cracking up and falling apart, it is, in this act of naming, as well as in many other ways, indestructible and ultimately triumphant over the pleasurable but anxiety-provoking forces that threaten it.

    Perez's meticulously drawn debris, in this context, becomes a very complex and multivalent metaphor. It is, most obviously and most crudely, a tangible sign of surplus pleasure, the "waste" of Onan's "sin." How else to account for the incredible satisfaction it affords? But it is not only that, for its very status as debris--literally garbage--marks it as something that must, in Ben's phrase, be "swept under the rug," even if this act of "sweeping" is more like a cosmic boom that always threatens to bring the parents running, fearful of an attack on the family sanctum. Debris, waste, garbage: the double edged language of private pleasure.

    Tuesday, June 14, 2005

    On Nostalgia: Adult Children and Childish Adults

    Looking over my previous post (June 12th, "My Golden Age"), I was struck by something strange that I wasn't fully conscious of when I composed it. Why would my Golden Age be marked not by the fabled state of unselfconsciousness (that state of pre-lapsarian Edenic simplicity that is so often attributed both to Golden Ages and to childhood itself) but by an intense and pleasurable awareness of an adulthood that comic books simultaneously held out and held off? Why would this period of intense joy (there's no other word for it) be defined not by its innocence of adult things--death, preeminently--but, on the contrary, be directly bound up in the melodrama of precisely these realities? Why, in short, am I now nostalgic for this "Golden Age" of adult childhood now that I dwell so incontrovertibly in this rather absurd and wistful state of childish adulthood? Why am I not nostalgic in quite the same way, with quite the same degree of intensity for, say, the arguably more genuine (and certainly earlier, more innocent) Golden Age of Donald Duck, of Huey, Dewey and Louie?--those figures that I identified at the outermost reaches of my comic book memory.

    There are several things to untangle here.

    First, are Golden Ages golden because they are periods of innocence, or does their gleam designate something else? Not some simple myth of Edenic innocence, but a more complex pagan myth in which concepts of innocence and experience are impossibly and permanently blurred? Might such a pagan myth not be a better representation of childhood as a whole, and not simply of what I am calling adult childhood, the weird adultness of children, than the more simplistic primitivism of a certain Edenic version of the Golden Age myth?

    Second, and a corollary of this, is it possible (or logical) to make a distinction between the "real" Golden Age of Donald Duck on the one hand and what I have privileged as "My Golden Age" of adult childhood (associated with the strange euphoria produced by the death of comic book heroes, even ones I didn't "know": Kara, the Flash, etc.) on the other? Is Donald Duck really more purely "innocent" of adulthood than these later representations whose ambiguous state of adult childhood is the object of my nostalgia now? Intuitively, I feel the answer must be yes--but how are they different exactly? My favorite Donald Ducks were always set in Sumerian Crypts or ancient Egyptian Tombs where the twin threats of death and mummification were omnipresent... Again, once we begin to look closely, the strange liminal space of adult childhood seems to stretch infinitely back to the beginnings of memory itself. When do we first become aware of death, exactly? Is this knowledge ever really that far away, even in our most innocent "Age"?

    Third, regardless of how one answers such questions, what is this peculiar structure of nostalgia by which the childish adult idealizes--actively, creatively--a state of adult childishness, marked off from, yet still ambiguously connected to, some earlier state which he designates (perhaps incorrectly, distortingly) as simultaneously more innocent and less intensely pleasurable than its successor? What is at stake, exactly, in nostalgia for "My Golden Age"?

    I won't attempt an answer to all these questions today, except to say, about this last point, what is most obvious: that we construct the Golden Ages we want and, perhaps, that we need. We construct them as consolation, as a myth or fantasy of plenitude, and these myths are inseparable from our present, from our desire, from our disappointment, and from our fear. What then does it mean to construct a Golden Age on the cusp of adulthood, a Golden Age in which one is already brushing up against its most intense objects of desire: adulthood itself, "real" anguish, "real" joy, and the whole dangerous world of mortality and consequence?

    What is this Golden Age but the dream of a childish adult who has crossed over and now faces his own mortality, who now seeks refuge in the myth of mastery that comic book death provides? And not fake death, either. In the pages of Crisis there were no reassuring resurrections or last-minute saves. The "consolation" and "mastery" of comic book death were of a different order than what they have since become (here's nostalgia, again). The mastery held out by Crisis (a carnival death if ever there was one), by the death of Terra (a prototype for the adult child, my alter ego perhaps), was, quite simply, the mastery of catharsis: the power of art to represent, release, and purge powerful emotion. To hold up a terrible knowledge before our eyes, and to release us from its crushing weight. Not mastery exactly, or even consolation. More like wisdom, maybe, but wisdom of a blinding sort because it receded again to a bearable place the moment you closed the final page and returned the book to its plastic sleeve.

    So why, then, if this process is a general function of comic book art, does its magic seem to have lost its charm? Why nostalgia? Why not simply open a new book? Have the comics changed, or have I? Are they no longer built to perform their cathartic role, or have I just become insensible to it?

    Both, I suspect, though not in any simple way. Geoff Johns and his merry band are currently orchestrating a most remarkable and promising rejuvenation of the form precisely by making the Golden Age period of the 1980s central, by putting this nostalgia to work in the present. Again, the paths of the argument branch off in several directions. To keep to the original thread, though, I would say that what's changed most significantly is my relationship to death. To my own death especially, to its inevitability--far off I hope, but one never knows. To the deaths of the people I love (again, one doesn't want to think of it). When I was ten, thinking about death was beginning to become thought about something in which I knew myself to be implicated in some way, but it was still abstract, still an experiment, and the concept of non-being could provide a certain frisson and not just sorrow or cynicism. Nostalgia for this time in which death was not simply unimaginable in real terms (Donald Duck in the kitsch space of the Pharaoh's Tomb), but was simultaneously imaginable and innocent--neither quite one nor the other--is the ultimate consolation and pure fantasy of the childish adult. It is the ambiguity of this state of adult childhood that I desire now, when death itself was a kind of impossible adventure, a merely possible danger. And reading comic books, a blinding wisdom.

    Sunday, June 12, 2005

    My Golden Age

    I grew up reading comics in the golden era of the early eighties, when Wolfman and Perez were on The New Teen Titans, Levitz and Giffen were on Legion of Superheroes, Moore, Bissette and Totleben were on Swamp Thing, and Barr and Aparo were on Batman and the Outsiders. Back then, these were the books that did everything right: sharply defined characters, character-driven stories, tight plotting, real surprises, and gorgeous art. Each of these books had a far-reaching creative vision--something that was only possible because each had a writer-artist team that was in it for the long haul, had an extraordinary synergy, and clearly had a genuine love for the medium. These were the comics that made me a "collector," and I've no doubt measured every comic I've read since against these ones. Not against their quality exclusively, but against a certain, somewhat indefinable feeling they gave me: of being involved in a fully realized, aesthetically precise, and absolutely adult fantastic world. This was adulthood as a ten year old boy might imagine it, to be sure. But it was adulthood nonetheless: characters who wore capes or were made of muck, but whose problems and triumphs were taken seriously and presented with (and inspired in me) a level gravitas that I could not adequately convey to my skeptical mother--though I certainly tried. I remember foisting upon her "Who Is Donna Troy?" and Crisis on Infinite Earths #7, in an effort to convince her of the depth and artistry of the trash on which I squandered my allowance. (I think she saw a glimmer of what I meant when she read the story of Kara's sacrifice, but when the issue of Swamp Thing in which a zombie boy eats his mother made my little sister cry, whatever good will I had garnered instantly evaporated.) Over the years, many comics appeared that expanded and brought mainstream attention to the genre (Dark Knight, Watchmen, Sandman), and I certainly enjoyed and appreciated these developments. But--no doubt because I was growing up--I enjoyed them in a different way. There was something "adult" about these comics too, but it was now a more self-conscious and deliberate adultness that they projected, and like my own growing adulthood, I could only enjoy them anxiously and with a sense of regret that something purer and deeper had passed and was now permanently out of reach.

    Like all golden ages, mine was time-limited, but it probably lasted longer than most. It was marked at its outermost edge, by Carl Barks's ducks, the Riverdale gang, the Space Family Robinson, Magnus the Robot Fighter, and some early Marvels--tattered, coverless, and yellowing copies of which are still neatly stacked on a low shelf of the family cabin. I remember it best as a Saturday morning trek to 7-11 through blizzard-deep snow to pour over the offerings of the comic rack, and later, as bus trips downtown to the 10-cent bins at the big, grungy comic stores, whose cavernous features and unsmiling staff made a strangely potent impression and became inseperable from the magical quality of comic books themselves. I'm not quite sure when this early period of enchantment ended. It happened gradually through my teens and was certainly associated with the opening of a small comic shop near my home, run by a guy who was a bit of a snake, who talked too much and encouraged "speculation," though I didn't know that word then. I still loved comics, but their mood was changing, getting darker. And all my favourite books seemed to be falling apart--ironically, at the very moment that everything seemed poised for takeoff. Perez left the newly launched "Baxter" Titans series to complete Crisis, and Wolfman got writer's block. After a great Alan Davis run, BATO and its Baxter counterpart had fizzled out. Giffen left the Legion. Alan Moore and DC had their big crack-up. There was still lots to be excited about, and I was excited. I was buying more comics than ever before: Sienkiewicz was on New Mutants, Bill Willingham's sexy, subaquatic-looking art on Elementals had caught my eye, Frank Miller was painting swastikas over a butch assassin's breasts in Dark Knight, and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were taking it all apart. It was a momentous time to be reading comics, and the comics themselves seemed to be growing up right alongside me, matching me step for step, sometimes outpacing me. It was exciting, but a little bit scary too. Sometimes it even felt a bit like work. My child's vision of adulthood was changing, becoming more serious, perhaps, than I really wanted. I found myself, for the first time, moving a little more slowly through my stack, not reading everything I'd bought, thinking that maybe I'd save the more serious comics for later. Somewhere in there, my golden age had ended.