Wednesday, June 28, 2006

On America: Steve Gerber’s Wundarr and the Alternate Fantastic Fours of Marvel Two-In-One #1-8

A number of very silly things happen during Steve Gerber’s brief tenure as the writer of Marvel Two-In-One #1-8, a sequence that is part of what plok has ingeniously recognized as the longest graphic novel in the world. Silliest of all, perhaps, is the appearance of dimwitted “sky-child” Wundarr, who blunders through several issues like an overgrown toddler. First he is lusted after and then mothered by nubile Atlantean It-girl Namorita. Then he is babysat by longsuffering Ben Grimm. Eventually he just goes away, and it’s difficult to lament the departure of this “22-year-old orphan from space with the mind of an infant and the strength of an elephant” because, in many ways, Wundarr is just another in a long line of Forest Gumps—those irritating simpleton-everyman figures through which American popular culture seems determined to reflect an image of the national self as idiot savant.

That “America” is on the agenda of Gerber’s Marvel Two-In-One stories cannot be doubted. In issue #3, guest-starring Daredevil, there’s a hilariously overwrought set piece in which Matt Murdoch and Foggy’s sister, Candace Nelson, attend “an avant garde patriotism play” called America Shall Endure. With typically Gerberesque understatement and restraint, it begins with a black man dressed as a slave delivering a jeremiad to Lady Liberty, features Captain America as a white supremacist, and concludes with Adolph Hitler blowing his brains out as a suicidal personification of America! Set alongside this sort of shrill but (I must admit) amusing agitprop, Wundarr’s story feels a lot like counterpoint, providing a less critical, more romanticized take on America as a naïve “star-child”: a little immature perhaps, even dangerous, but not yet the suicidally fascist state that Gerber parodies so savagely in the avant garde theatrical provocation being stage-managed by hypnotic agents of “Black Spectre” and hate-mongering femme fatale, Nekra, Priestess of Darkness.

Indeed, by the end of this issue, Reed Richards has even come up with a way of dealing with Wundaar’s excessive energy build-up that would allow him to make love, not war: a costume that “keeps the tremendous power circulating thru him, so he can’t cause another blast.” Naturally, Wundarr’s bare-chested love-god duds include “a device in the belt buckle that will allow him to release the pent-up energy harmlessly.” Indeed! It’s as if Gerber has substituted a masturbatory Wundarr for a suicidal Hitler in this issue’s parade of national allegories. This is all quite funny, if patently ridiculous, but there is something intriguingly ambivalent about Gerber’s depiction of Wundarr. Something that reflects a deeper ambivalence that Gerber feels about America during the mid-1970s.

That is, as much as Wundarr might be construed as an idealized, or at least optimistic image of the potential innocence of American power, Wundarr is more obviously Gerber’s parody of Superman, that other great symbol of Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Like Supes, Wundarr is not only super-strong, but the last of his race, the lone survivor of an exploded planet, launched into space as a baby. Lest we miss the point, Ben helpfully telegraphs Gerber’s parodic intent by mocking Superman’s famous catch-phrase.

But what is the point exactly? Does this parody of DC’s Nietzschean “overman” intend to place Superman in the category of the white supremacist “Captain America” and the suicidal Hitler of America Shall Endure? Or is the parody murkier than that? Does it mock national fantasies with one hand, while covertly recuperating them with the other, making Wundarr less a parody of Superman than a sort of tongue-in-cheek reiteration of his most ambiguous aspects? Or is it simply a meaningless filigree on the age-old inter-company rivalry between Marvel and the Distinguished Competition? It’s difficult to separate these strands, and one suspects that that is partly because Gerber has only half-worked out this mishmash of ideas and references. But it also seems likely, given the violent oscillation between utopian and dystopian versions of America in Gerber’s MTIO stories, that the ambiguities inherent in his treatment of Wundarr (parody of “fascist” America? romantic-satiric national self-image?) are symptomatic of a more fundamental ambivalence that stems, it would appear, from an authorial point of view fixed upon an often dystopian national present that nonetheless contains the seeds of a potentially utopian future.

We can see this interesting dynamic being played out particularly in issues #4 and #5 which guest-star Captain America and the Guardians of the Galaxy respectively. The story in a nutshell is that the Thing, Captain America, and Cap’s S.H.I.E.L.D.-agent/girlfriend, Sharon Carter, must use Doctor Doom’s old time-machine to journey into a dystopian future-America, where all that survives of humanity is enslaved to “the Brotherhood of Badoon” and their drone-like army of “Zoms.” Their guide from the future is bewildered but sexy refugee Tarin, an earth gal from tomorrow who helps them team up with underground rebels the Guardians of the Galaxy to achieve a symbolic victory over the despotic Badoon. Captain America, “our symbol of liberty,” as Tarin calls him, pronounces the tale’s moral: “Man won’t settle for a fleeting taste of liberty. We’re not made that way. The need to be free is in our blood. Your empire will fall because it must—because we are human.”

The storytelling is not spectacular. But that’s because Gerber seems only interested in the symbolism—and more broadly in the sometimes head-spinning political allegories that his narrative establishes. As this brief synopsis suggests, the present-day Captain America, “a living symbol of liberty,” acts as an inspiration to the rebels of the dystopian future and is the spiritual source of their victory over the embodiments of oppression—the Badoon. But as we’ve already seen, Gerber’s acerbic satire of contemporary America in the avant garde patriotic play from issue #3 suggests that America is far from the ideal that Cap symbolizes for the future—heck, it even features a Cap doppelganger who hypocritically beats the black slave while preaching respect for minorities! The neat thing is that, in Gerber’s narrative, this isn’t a contradiction—at least, it isn’t a careless one. Rather, what these two stories demonstrate is the split within Gerber’s vision of present day America as a nation containing simultaneously utopian and dystopian elements.

In these stories, Captain America shifts between representing the corrupt and the idealized version of American “liberty,” suggesting that Gerber diagnoses current injustices as corruptions or betrayals of original ideals that stubbornly persist in certain peculiar but increasingly marginal forms; Gerber thus dramatizes the solution to America’s problems in the present as a nostalgic return to the ideals of the past. This is perhaps why the temporal jump into the dystopian future of 3014 A.D. feels so vertiginous. At the level of the science fiction story, it is a dystopian future that foregrounds the utopian aspects of the present in Captain America, a move which seems to celebrate at least some aspect of the present and which puts the responsibility for social transformation squarely on the reader’s shoulders. (This move is perfectly consistent with the political dimensions of Gerber’s existentialist fable in MTIO #6-7.) Yet, at the same time, the veneration of Captain America as the inspiring embodiment of liberty in this story ironically implies the need for present-day America to conduct a similar return to the ideals of the past. This strange paradox is suggested by the doubling of Captain America by future Guardian of the Galaxy, Vance Astro. As Vance explains:
You were my boyhood idol, Cap. I even saw you in action in person once, with your partner the Falcon, back in 1972, I think… I was born in 1962, Cap…but I spent most of [the intervening 1000 years] asleep, in suspended animation…aboard the first American rocket headed for the stars. I left the earth in 1988, traveling at a velocity of a million miles per hour. Even at that speed, the journey to earth’s nearest stellar neighbour required a millennium. But a mere 200 years after I left, a man named Harkov came along with a new theory that made faster than light space travel a reality. When I came out of my ship on Centauri-IV, a colony of earthmen was there to greet me! I felt as you must have, Cap, when you were released from that iceberg back in 1964, after decades.
In effect, Vance is a transplanting of the Captain America concept of “past ideals for present ills” into the future, a move that makes this future time stand as both a warning about how bad the present could become and as a symbol for how bad it already has become—a representation of the dystopian aspects of the present that Geber exaggerates in the stage-play in issue #3. The dystopia of 3014 A.D. is thus both a satirically exaggerated representation of the dangers of the present and a fictional technique for highlighting what is most potentially redemptive about it.

So what is redemptive about it, according to Gerber? What is the “utopian” element that somehow survives in present-day America? That Captain America sometimes represents?

In political terms, it’s obviously something like democracy; in social terms, it’s something like harmonious diversity, a sort of existential multiculturalism. What makes Gerber’s representation of these political and social ideals so distinctive and so enjoyable are the ways that he makes them inseparable from a critique of the traditional family—that social institution that is most strongly linked to insularity, conservatism, and aristocratic social forms.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Gerber’s gleeful travestying of the traditional family focuses in on the “First Family” of Marvel Comics: the Fantastic Four. There’s a significant irony here, for as I’ve mentioned before, the Fantastic Four is already a wonderful example of how Marvel Comics opened up and challenged the model of the traditional nuclear family, rather than simply reaffirming it. In a sense, Gerber seems to recognize the weirdness and a-typicality of the FF, but his project in these issues of MTIO is to push the family team’s strangeness and heterogeneity much further. It’s interesting, for instance, that the very first panels of MTIO #1 concern Ben’s irritation that Gerber-favorite Man-Thing has stolen his name—as if Gerber were announcing that the Thing was going to have to fight for his status as the family freak.

(After his space ship crash lands, Wundarr also mistaken believes that Man-Thing is his mother—quite possibly the most delectably absurdist Oedipal parody ever penned!) Moreover, that first issue of MTIO concerns the Molecule Man’s failed attempt to revenge himself on the FF, which is foiled by his inability to locate them. (He is trapped by a “nexus of mystic forces” that prevents him from teleporting out of the Man-Thing’s swamp!) The point is that we’re in the position of the Molecule Man here, for Gerber’s MTIO issues never really deliver the Fantastic Four either, even though many members of the team appear on the fringes of the stories.

What Gerber delivers instead are two alternate versions of the Fantastic Four, examples of what I’ve earlier called Gerber’s “strange communities.” In issue #4, it’s “chrononaughts” Captain America, Sharon Carter, Tarin, and the Thing who form an alternate version of the FF, referencing and changing the FF’s original use of Doctor Doom’s time machine from FF #5—an adventure in which the Thing himself underwent a strange transformation into Bluebeard the Pirate! (The presence of team-alternate Medusa, rather than Susan Richards in MTIO #4 is also a suggestive detail.) In MTIO #5, the four alternate-FF “chrononaughts” from the present are themselves supplemented by yet another alternate FF: The Guardians of the Galaxy, “four lone survivors of four lost worlds, each pledged to destroy the Brotherhood of Badoon!” Like the makeshift team of “chrononaughts” who unite for a common end in issue #4, the Guardians of the Galaxy are a team notable for their lack of blood ties. In fact, their difference and separateness from each other is hyperbolically represented by the “last-of-their-race” trope.

These alternate FFs, I think, are representations of Gerber’s ideal of social, political, and national collectivity: strange communities that are also communities of strangers, brought together for a common purpose (the defense of liberty), but with more particular individual differences and interests that are radically non-totalizable. In the case of the four “chrononaughts,” the team itself is only a temporary assemblage, the members of which will separate and recombine as the need or desire arises. Welcome to the Gerberverse: Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben reinterpreted through the lens of the Defenders.

This, at least, is what I was getting at in that earlier post for plok’s Seven Soldiers of Steve, when I claimed that
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 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.
Does Gerber ultimately provide any concrete answers? Beats me, True Believer. But he definitely has a compelling way of posing the important questions.


Anonymous said...

"An authorial point of view fixed upon an often dystopian national present that nonetheless contains the seeds of a potentially utopian future."

Is this a description of Steve Gerber's writing, or a description of the typical Double Articulation post?

Jim Roeg said...


Anonymous said...

Are these collected anywhere? Where did you get ahold of these?

Jim Roeg said...

Thanks, plok - and no hurry! There's also a lot more to these issues than I was able to touch upon in this post. I didn't even get the the ultra-bizarre Ghost Rider/Thing team up to save Christmas in MTIO #8...!

nobody - The first twenty issues of Marvel Two-in-One have been collected in a Marvel Essentials Edition that includes a whole mess of other related fun stuff. It doesn't make it as far as the classic "Project Pegasus" saga, though if you scrounge around, you might be able to find that great out-of-print TPB collection.

Jim Roeg said...

Hey plok - great to hear from you, as always! As you've probably gathered, I've been away (see most recent post), playing hooky and the like, soaking up the sun, all that jazz...

About Gerber, I'm sure you DO know what I'll say about that, though I'll add that it sure is a lot of fun to watch someone with such a strong social vision bouncing around in the goofy world of superhero genre stuff--sure, sometimes the "denser, more complicated meanings" are simply products of the more banal demands of storytelling, but that doesn't detract from the fun of it, or the pathos. The weird Christmas issue of MTIO co-starring Ghost Rider is filled with odd contradictions if you take it at all seriously, though in that case, the complicating factor is the overtly religious theme, which is always hard to control given its allusiveness. One day I'll get to that day! (And ditto for that Iron Man Annual...though I wouldn't be at all surprised if we're still having this exact conversation at this time next year, given the amount of things I've got going on right now!)

Really enjoyed hearing about the "(something) Adventure!" series--sounds almost Johnny Questy. And I too loved Encyclopedia Brown. It was one of the few other children's adventure/mystery series that I really enjoyed, such a little snob I was (nothing's changed!).

BTW: glad to hear that you read Hard Times--a remarkably pertinent book still, don't you think?