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