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Soundtrack: The Minus 5—“Let The War Against Music Begin”

Well, I’m done with Klock’s book, and I’d like to do this right & give you a 500-word précis + critique, but alas, there is no time for such meticulous treatment (although the book merits it, I think…) That said, here’s my haphazard attack:

What is Klock’s thesis?

He does a nice job of summing it up himself—“. . . the third age of superheroes will establish itself by defeating the silver age. . . The strong writing [in Warren Ellis’s Planetary] here retroactively reconfigures [comics] history to set itself up as the inheritor of the new age of superheroes. Planetary and The Authority are the apex of the study addressed in this book not because every work cited culminates here, but because these works are strong enough to make it look that way” (Klock, 165).

So, Klock’s whiggish history of comics jumps from landmark to landmark on the way to Warren Ellis’s work, and I guess that’s a valid exercise, but his book makes no effort to get outside of Ellis’s paradigm of the tradition he is supposedly supplanting, and that’s not so great… The problem is that Ellis doesn’t defeat(when you’re discussing Bloomian criticism, you can’t get away from this kind of language) the authentic achievements of Marvel’s Silver Age. Klock may be correct in identifying Planetary and The Authority as the legitimate successors to the “self-conscious” late 80s/early 90s works that he privileges (Dark Knight, Watchmen, Marvels, Kingdom Come), but he makes no case for these books–which supposedly force all of us naïve silver age readers to reflect upon the reactionary politics, disturbing sexual undercurrents, and insanely convoluted continuity that grew out of the contradictions of a medium in which the protagonists faced the contemporary world every day (regardless of the decade) without ever aging—as offering anything more than a few possible interpretations of what the Silver Age was all about. There’s nothing definitive about the Miller/Moore critique of the “fascism” latent in the super-hero concept, and the idea that, until these two whiz kids showed up to do our hard thinking for us, we in the audience simply read super-heroes in a mode of transfixed awe is preposterous.

We aren’t meant to “look up to” Marvel’s protagonists! I don’t understand how anyone who read those comics (and Stan Lee’s prototype narratorial tone, which strikes me as extremely self-conscious) can make that argument. Spider-Man doesn’t “know best”—not even Mr. Fantastic does (outside of his area of expertise, which is scientific invention, not moral stewardship). The whole point of Marvel is that these “heroes” are always at war with themselves, a fact which should nip any possibility of hero-worship on the reader’s part in the bud… And about the continuity “difficulties”—well, I don’t see the problem, frankly. But then again, I don’t believe that real people develop any more than Marvel characters do—once we get to a certain point (maturity/”conversion”/the origin story), we just start having “experiences”, and they all just pile up on top of a pretty static psyche—things affect us, but they do not change us…

I think that Marvel Comics (along with stuff like Hammett and especially Chandler—in which the central characters never “develop” either) ought to be read as a sub-genre of the American romance tradition (as opposed to the novelistic/realist tradition—I’m not talking about “love stories” here!) Nathaniel Hawthorne, in the preface to The Blithedale Romance, explains pretty clearly what the strange, static half-enchanted, half-realistic world of his medium is useful for:

[My] whole treatment of this affair is altogether incidental to the main purpose of the Romance; nor [do I] put forward the slightest theory, or elicit a conclusion, favorable or otherwise, in respect to Socialism.

In short, [my] present concern with the Socialist community is merely to establish a theatre, a little removed from the highway of ordinary travel, where the creatures of [my] mind may play their phantasmagorical antics, without exposing them to too close a comparison with the actual events of real life. (BR, Norton critical edition, 1-2, italics mine)

As a latter-day, secular-minded Calvinist, Hawthorne is very much a precursor of Stan Lee (yes, Stan Lee is Jewish, but cultural transmission doesn’t go from parent-to-child—my job will be to show that it did go from Hawthorne to Lee, stay tuned! One thing is for sure– I certainly don’t have any Calvinists in my family tree, and I share Hawthorne’s preoccupations…). The danger of fascism never arises in Silver Age Marvel Comics because everything in these books is scaled down to the level of the individual psyche—the struggles are spiritual struggles, and they are convincingly portrayed. The most interesting thing about all of this is that the readers (those who wrote the letters anyway) at the time seemed to recognize this (as Miller and Moore et al. do not) and did the work of transposing the insights gleaned from the comics to the world stage—by equating super-powered self-consciousness with the struggle within the American mind itself, as the country nervously attempted to live up to its post-World War Two role as the “hope of the world”—thus bringing Perry Miller’s Errand Into the Wilderness full circle.

Now, if you want to argue, Louis Hartz style, that this distinctly American mode of existentialism prevents social critique of any kind and supports the status quo, that’s fine, but that’s another debate and it certainly cannot be made to fit with the charge that the comics seethe with latent fascism…

I have a lot more to say, and I’m sure it will all come out in the days to come, but for now—

good night friends!

Dave

(the preceding was typed last night, but there was a problem with my blog-manager, so here it is, at long last!)

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6 comments

  1. I couldn’t follow about half of this post… when you start talking about Hawthorne my eyes just glaze over and I skim down to the next Alan Moore reference… but I will say this… if Klock feels that Ellis’ work is the apex of the Modern Age, or what the Modern Age is all about, he’s probably right, and that’s exactly what was wrong with nearly everything IN the Modern Age not written by Moore, Gaiman, Peyer, or Busiek. (And most of the good stuff Busiek wrote was wannabe Silver Age, as was most of the good stuff by Priest, whom I didn’t mention, but should have.)

  2. Darren,

    Actually, Klock feels that what we usually call the “modern age” was actually just the silver age in decline (which you might perhaps agree with), I’ve got some thoughts banging around in my head about all of this–specifically about what, exactly, the Silver Age is–and I’m gonna get ’em off my chest tonight!

    Dave

  3. For my thoughts on what ‘the Silver Age’ was, go to:

    http://www.javapadawan.com/calliope/mv38.html

    where I go into it in far, far too much length.

    Here’s an excerpt:

    “To me, primarily, what the Silver Age meant, at both companies, was a certain element of being larger than life… of being a fantasy, and somewhat intrinsically unrealistic… not in a bad way, but in a good way, in that the Silver Age, like the Golden Age before it, depicted fictional realities and imaginary universes in which there were actual Heroes who were better than real people… not just more competent or more powerful, but ethically and morally superior to real people, and who undertook to protect the weaker, more normal folks from the depredations of relentless Evil. These were also universes where Evil was a simpler, more straightforward, and easily detectable thing, that could be resoundingly defeated, at least for a little while, by clean living, valiant action, and a solid right hook to the jaw. These universes were not realistic, no, of course they weren’t, but the ways in which they varied from the reality we all had to live in made them better… places it was fun to escape to, places any sane kid, or young at heart adult, would have instantly leapt through any open portal to, given a second’s opportunity to do so.”

    “And, in writing all this, it occurs to me that what I’m actually saying is that, to me, the Silver Age represents the era when the superheroes I loved as a kid… still had souls. And the death of the Silver Age, therefore, to me, is defined by those moments when the people entrusted with the fate and well-being of those souls… sold them, and me, and everyone else who loved those characters, right dow

  4. Aaahhh… cut off again. More excerpts:

    “And, in writing all this, it occurs to me that what I’m actually saying is that, to me, the Silver Age represents the era when the superheroes I loved as a kid… still had souls. And the death of the Silver Age, therefore, to me, is defined by those moments when the people entrusted with the fate and well-being of those souls… sold them, and me, and everyone else who loved those characters, right down the river, in exchange for stock options and HMO coverage and a nice 401K package and, for all I know, free goddam cable and a time share condo in the Bahamas.”

    But once upon a time, in what these days seems like a galaxy far, far away… all superheroes, and supervillains, sidekicks and love interests, editors-in-chief and eccentric scientists, extradimensional imps and alien super-pets… all of those weird, motley, garish, four-colored denizens and citizens of the imaginary worlds so many of us lived in for so much of our childhoods… every last one of those wondrous weirdos had souls. And those of us who were part time residents of that awe inspiring epoch, and who would have happily moved there if we just could have figured out how… we called that impossible, astonishingly golden era, perhaps ironically, the Silver Age.”

  5. And one more excerpt:

    “It was a time when titans walked the Earth, and pounded typewriters, and wielded pencils and erasers and inkpots and brushes, and anyone with twenty cents could, for fifteen minutes at a time, teleport up to a satellite headquarters, run round the world fifteen times in a single second, shout “AVENGERS ASSEMBLE!” as a costumed man on a winged horse flew above Manhattan spraying Adhesive X across a looming concrete skyline, swing on a web beneath the shadow of a cackling maniac on a bat-shaped jet glider, or become a raging half ton of unfettered, emerald fury with a childlike sense of wonder in frayed purple pants that were always torn at the knees. We could fly on wings and antigravity chest straps or swim in the darkest ocean depths, talk to birds or fish, hurl ourselves counterclockwise around the Earth’s equator at translight speeds to travel into the future and meet our friends, the greatest teenage superheroes of a bright and shiny future. We could climb a wall with a Caped Crusader, look up and see a bat-shaped shadow cast on a passing cloudbank, feel a lump form in our throats and a delighted smile break across our faces as a man who had always thought he was the last survivor of a doomed planet found a family he never thought he’d have in the form of an adorable, cheerful little blond-haired supergirl who was actually his cousin.

    It was a time of legend – and the world would never be the same.

    It came upon us mostly unnoticed and none of us can agree on when it left. But we all know it’s gone.

    Those of us who lived there for a little while mourn it to ourselves, quietly… quietly… because so many of you don’t understand. You read the reprints and you think you get it, some of it, a little of it… you think you do, but honestly, it wa

  6. Damn, I hate comments threads that truncate me and don’t tell me they’re going to truncate me. Okay. Here’s the rest of the passage below:

    “Those of us who lived there for a little while mourn it to ourselves, quietly… quietly… because so many of you don’t understand. You read the reprints and you think you get it, some of it, a little of it… you think you do, but honestly, it was so corny, and silly, and unrealistic… wasn’t it?

    Sure it was.

    Take my word for it.

    It was a time of legend…

    …and the world will never be the same.”

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