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Soundtrack: The Young Fresh Fellows– Because We Hate You

Just to clarify: the only reason I ripped into Steve Englehart’s Captain America run, a couple of days ago, is that you will often find comments to the effect that the John Walker storyline covered the same ground as the “Nomad saga”, and was therefore redundant. Darren Madigan, in one of his Martian Vision pieces, calls Gruenwald “creatively larcenous” (I’m sorry Darren, I couldn’t find the exact passage, but I swear it’s in there somewhere!!), and I imagine he had Captain America in mind when he wrote this (and if I’m wrong, I am sure Darren will let me know–I expect no less!!!).

The late Mark Gruenwald has acquired a strange reputation, over the years. Yes, he liked working with established characters, and avoided adding new ones to the continuity, whenever possible–in fact, his grasp of the “overpopulation crisis” in the Marvel Universe led him (and Scourge) to take drastic measures in 1986… Indeed, Gruenwald’s role as Marvel’s “continuity cop” has become a lightning rod for criticism in recent years. His detractors act as if that’s all he was…

But he was so much more. For one thing, he may have been the only creator working in the industry in the eighties who understood just how wrong the “grim n’ gritty” trend was, and had the deep structural knowledge and wherewithal to critique it effectively (although, obviously, since Cap never became a huge seller, the critique had its’ limits). And his vision of Steve Rogers as the exemplar of Emerson’s notion of the “infinitude of the private man” was so exactly right that I really can’t read anything that came before without finding it wanting somehow (how’s that for a Bloomean triumph of misprision?). I know that Jack Kirby & Joe Simon didn’t conceive the character this way–back in the forties, Cap was an anti-Nazi whirlwind, pure and simple. I also know that Stan Lee didn’t write him this way once he was revived–the sixties Cap often got forced into the role of “old fogy” and straight-man for upstarts like Hawkeye. Yeah, everyone always wound up loving Steve, because his “professionalism” and never-say-die heroism were awe-inspiring (amongst his comrades, I mean–I don’t get too excited about it) and often won the day for the good guys. But Stan’s Cap was pretty freakin’ stodgy, and, really, at least for me, not very interesting. His role, it seems, was to serve as a reminder of how easy it had been to be a liberal back in the “good old days”, when Fascism threatened to engulf the earth. All of his thought bubbles (when he wasn’t pining for the dearly-departed Bucky) concerned the question of whether he was an anachronism. Stan channelled all of his middle-aged “nostalgia” issues through Cap, and, as a result, he did nothing with the character, at least nothing that makes sense when you try to align him with Peter Parker, or Dr. Strange, or most any other Marvel protagonist of the Silver Age.

Now, Englehart did something with the strip, but I’m convinced it was the wrong thing! The “disillusioned hero” bit is fine, but it just doesn’t suit a liberal paragon like Cap–the whole point of liberalism (as I’ve defined it, and will go on defining it) is that it is impervious to disillusionment… Gruenwald’s “Cap no more” storyline differs from Englehart’s on precisely that point!

Okay, as usual, I’ve gone on for too long trying to place my argument in context, but I hope it’s worth it. I think I can safely dispense with my assault on DeMatteis’s take on Cap–I’m prepared to say “it sucked” and just leave it at that (although, if anyone cares to debate the matter with me, I’ll be happy to oblige). Now, I’ve got to go to bed! But I’ll leave you with this Gruenwald fun-fact (and keep in mind that I’m no fan of post-modern punning, but it does complicate the picture of Gruenwald as a staid continuity nut):

the title of Captain America #309 (which takes a look at the world though the eyes of three very distinct–and yet strangely linked–characters is:

“Nomad
Madcap
Cap”

I don’t know what it means, but there’s food for thought in those three lines, no?

And there’s a lot more (of greater substance) in that issue and the subsequent hundred or so that Gruenwald wrote. I’ll get into Madcap tomorrow. And maybe Flagsmasher too. It’ll be fun.

Fall Back!!
Dave

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12 comments

  1. Dave,
    can I put in a little word for–or maybe just about–“grim’n’gritty”? God knows you’re not alone in disliking it, and when I reflect on the Image garbage of the early ’90s (Deathstryker and whatnot; basically everything but The Maxx) and some of the less elevated Batman graphic novels (ever read The Cult?), I agree that it seems like a bad idea.

    On the other hand, I read Dark Knight Returns, Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum when I was seven years old and they influenced my taste in comics and everything else irrevocably–though Arkham is the only one that stands up to a mature rereading. Similarly, when I started reading Busiek’s stuff I found his prostrate stance toward the super-hero tradition to be just about fascistic (the famous Marvels image of Phil Sheldon photographing Giant-Man seems emblematic here) and it prejudiced me against the whole positive super-heroes tradition.

    Sorry to ramble, but I guess I’m asking why you think that the better dark material like Moore’s mid-’80s period and Morrison’s Batman and Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer–even if you don’t like it–isn’t a legitimate expression of political and emotional anguish in a bad time. In other words, why isn’t a dark take on super-heroes one legitimate approach among many to the genre?

  2. John,

    Certainly, there were some very good things that came out of the “grim n’ gritty” revolution, and you mention several of them. I will be the first to admit that great works can be built upon just about any philosophical/theological foundation.

    However, my objection to these works (and keep in mind that here–as always–I’m overstating my argument like mad) is that they only strengthen the positive, “heroic” portrayal/negative, “ambiguous” portrayal binary that I argue the Silver Age Marvels managed to remain blissfully unaware of. You’re right, Busiek’s take on the Silver Age is essentially fascistic, and needed slapping down. (and, frankly, Alex Ross’s new Mythology book is even creepier…) But the point I’m trying to establish is that the Lee-Ditko-Kirby-Heck-Thomas-Colan-Englehart-Andru-Buscema-Conway era need not be interpreted a la Busiek. And if you don’t read them that way, then you don’t need to overcompensate by going overboard with “anti-heroes”. Marvel’s characters were never intended to be heroes in the first place. Heroism is a concept that originated in classical honour-based societies and it just doesn’t belong in a world as modern as the Marvel Universe… Now “Sainthood”, (visible, invisible, or–yes–anonymous!!!), well, I think that fits VERY nicely. And it’ll be my task, in the next couple of years, to make the very best case for that proposition that I can…

    Dave

  3. Christ. This will be another multi chapter post.

    Okay. Gruenwald as conceptual thief has nothing to do with him rerunning Englehart storylines, which I don’t honestly think he did, anyway. (Gerry Conway stole from Englehart right left and sideways all through the Silver Age; our running gag in my college clique was about how grateful Conway must have been when Englehart created Coyote, so Gerry could have some ‘original’ ideas again.)

    I consider Gruenwald to be creatively larcenous because he uses other people’s characters without permission. By which I specifically mean, if you want to write Justice League, guess what… go apply to DC for the job. If you want to write Green Lantern, hey… I’m sure Gruenwald had Jeanette Kahn on speed dial. Do NOT simply decide to use your editorial influence to give Marvel’s version of the JLA (Squadron Supreme) its own series so you can do the JLA story that DC won’t let you do because, guess what, you’re a shitty writer. Do NOT turn Quasar into Green Lantern just because you feel like writing that character.

    Beyond that, I think Gruenwald was an embarrassingly continuity trivia obsessive geek who did not ever remotely understand the basis for good fiction. But, on the other hand, I don’t think YOU understand it either, and that’s just where my head is at and always has been at, and you know that.

  4. Okay, second entry: you are being too hard on Stan’s interpretation of Cap. Yes, he was whiny and he only had the one thing, his concern about being an anachonism, and that got old. But Stan was coming to his characters from a more or less formulaic place… he’d found something that worked and he did it over and over again. That formula demanded that every character have some tragic flaw or central character issue that could never be resolved. Spider-man’s was guilt, as was Reed Richards’, while most other Marvel characters (perhaps because of the Lee-Kirby experience with monster comics) had essential flaws that manifested themselves physically… the Thing was a freakish monster, Bruce Banner became the Hulk and could not control his super powered rampages, Iron Man couldn’t survive without wearing his chest plate, Daredevil could never have a ‘normal’ life because he was blind.

    Probably the major reason Stan lost interest in Hank Pym so quickly was that Hank had no tragic flaw, and that made him boring to Stan. Similarly, Stan never seemed to really have any idea what to do with Thor in Thor’s own mag, again, because Thor was too perfect. Stan was only interested in Thor’s lame alter ego.

    With Cap, Stan had to come up with SOMEthing, and it was hard, because, well, Cap is perfect and what are you going to do? So he fell back on tired formula, making Cap feel guilty about Bucky’s death, and also having Cap wallow in self pity about being ‘a man out of his time’. It was pretty lame, but it at least gave Cap some kind of personality, which was essential to the Marvel approach (as contrasted, for example, with one’s complete inability to tell Superman’s thought balloons in any Gardner Fox JLA story from Hawkman’s, or Green Lantern’s, if they didn’t mention any proper nouns or character definining

  5. Last but not least, I wish people would stop putting me in the position of defending Kurt, who is a complete asshole, but still, I think you guys have it wrong with all this ‘fascistic’ nonsense. That’s way too analytical. Kurt simply loves the characters, loves the whole Silver Age, and like me, he feels that fiction works best when it is set in a credible, believable, interesting world that the reader wants to, at least temporarily, visit.

    All MARVELS is about (other than Making Kurt Famous) is making the Marvel Silver Age seem real to a new generation of readers. That’s it. You have said in the past you think that’s a mistake because you want stories to simply be stories, fraught with symbolism and relevance and theme and arc and structure that reflects incisively on whatever the hell it is that you’re really interested in, and frankly, I resent the way you try to make my childhood imaginary friends nothing more than a mirror to reflect your own particular obsessions that have nothing to do with them.

    Superheroes are a lot of things, including commercial properties meant to make their owners wealthy. But they do not exist for purposes of validating your own particular scholarly theories regarding matters completely outside their sphere.

    As to ‘fascism’, of course superheroes are fascists… I mean, duh. They wear masks and beat up people who behave in manners they find disagreeable. What makes superheroes acceptable and even admirable is that they live in a universe where violence is an appropriate response to certain kinds of evil, and they are never wrong in their applications of it.

    Yes, in our universe those guys would be dangerous loons, but that’s why the Marvel and DC Silver Ages are cool… they are BETTER worlds than ours, which is why I

  6. Okay, I’ll finish that last sentence… ‘which is why and many others enjoy visiting there so much. And I’m sorry you guys just don’t seem to get that.’

  7. Darren,

    You know I rerspect your opinion, but listen, super-heroes aren’t facists unless you read them that way. I’m not the only one who makes these characters “mirrors to reflect my own personal obsessions”. Every strong reader does that. Take a look at what you just posted. You sure do! And you’re gonna have to take responsibilty for this–the Madigan/Busiek interpretation of the Silver Age (whether it is right or wrong) leads directly to the “grim anti-hero” stuff that you HATE. They’re just sides of a coin, and it flipped in the eighties. Busiek tried to force it back onto the other side in the nineties. Gruenwald was engaged in a completely different (and more interesting–to me) project. He was trying to rescue the Marvel Universe as a unique consctruct of ironic Calvinistic Liberalism, by laying bare its’ roots, and slashing away all of the hero-worship and “realistic” amorality that had accreted upon it, over the years.

    Dave

  8. I don’t know. Trying to blame those of us who enjoy admirable and heroic larger than life protagonists for the grim-n-gritty excesses of the Modern Age seems to me a whole lot like blaming people who believe in a healthy, open attitude towards human sexuality for acts of brutal rape taking place when women go outside wearing skimpy clothing.

    They may be two sides of the same coin, but I didn’t control the flip, nor did I insist that the majority of comics creators and publishers in the 1980s suddenly decide to produce amoral fiction.

    As for what Gruenwald was trying to do, well, I’m more or less comfortable trying to ascribe motives to Kurt’s creating MARVELS because I once knew him very well. I’m not sure how it is you’re comfortable with your absolutely unconditional assertions as to the rather nebulous motivations and intentions of a guy I’m not sure you ever met who’s been dead for quite a while now, and who as far I’m aware, never once used the word ‘Calvinist’ in anything he ever wrote. Again, I think you’re insisting on seeing what you want to see in your comics reading, and it’s stuff that’s far outside those comics’ sphere.

    You could say the same thing about me, I suppose, but if you’re honestly insisting that my looking at the Silver Age as being comprised mainly of character driven tales of larger than life heroes dealing with (in the Marvel Universe) human level character issues, I’m going to think you’re talking out your ass.

    Let me see now: the Marvel Universe as a model of Calvinist Liberalism, or the Marvel Universe as a three dimensional backdrop for larger than life heroes with somewhat realistic human character issues to deal with. Which one of those ‘mirrors’ (i.e., contexts/matrices for comparison, contrast, and cogent analysis) strike

  9. Come on Darren!

    Are you honestly gonna dismiss my ideas just because they don’t take a “fan’s eye view” of the comics you loved as a kid?

    We can boil our disagreement down to this: for you, art is an escape from a place (this plane of reality) that you don’t seem to like very much… For me, it’s something I turn to for a subjective take on life in this world. Maybe that sounds harsh (or maybe not… I’m just paraphrasing your own comments), but it’s an important distinction–I cannot think of Marvel comics as portals into a “World We Never Made”, I think of them as works of art produced by people who live amongst us… I’m not a proponent of “escapist entertainment”–I want full engagement at all times…

    But even if I was–what’s all this about the Marvel Universe being a better place to live? Do you really yearn to find yourself where physical violence is sufficient to deal with your problems? Maybe you do, and if so, there are about a million books dealing with comics as sites for this kind of wish-fulfillment (like Gerard Jones’s new book, Killing Monsters and the notorious Comic Book Creativity as Displaced Aggression, by Ronald Lanyi) that you can turn to for corroboration of your ideas.

    But here’s what really needs clarifying–I don’t know where you get the idea that I’m “bringing in all kinds of things that have nothing to do with the comics”. What the Hell? I study American literature, and I can tell you that I’m not alone in thinking that an understanding of Calvinism/Liberalism/etc. are essential to understanding the context within which American literature has developed. I’m not saying that you have to agree with me–I don’t care if anyone ever agrees with me, as long as they find what I’m doing interesting–but I am saying that my interpretation is not nearly as far-fetched as you seem to think it is. Whatever else you might think about me, you can at least believe that I know the American Romance tradition very well, and that I wouldn’t have begun this project if I didn’t think I could demonstrate that it is possible (not COMPULSORY) to view the Marvel Silver Age as belonging to that tradition. These comics were produced in America, by Americans, and, whether they knew Calvinist and Liberal concepts by name, I am quite sure that they understood them in spirit. Of course, as I’ve said, I overstate my thesis constantly–but that’s how scholarship works. I expect my readers to engage me in debate. I’m not gonna write their dialogue for them!

    Finally, of course I never met Mark Gruenwald, and I expressed myself badly if you understood that I was saying I knew what the man was actually thinking as he wrote these comics. What I meant was–comics that are attributed to “Writer–Mark Gruenwald” seem (to me) to exhibit the characteristics that I identify. I call this the “Gruenwald project”, but obviously, it’s pretty much the same as my critical project, which aims to wipe out the stale hero/anti-hero dichotomy that you want to cling to.

    So! Let me have it! (but don’t try to slip out of the “two-sides of the coin” accusation in such a facile manner next time. Either prove to me that the “flip” isn’t inevitable, or just swallow that bitter pill. To quote Sam Spade: “there’s no third way!”

    Dave

  10. I’m not trying to slip out of anything. You in no way addressed my point, which is that your blaming me and other hero worshippers for the anti-heroism of the Modern Age is like blaming people who think women should wear whatever they want in public, and who maybe even enjoy seeing them wear the legal minimum, for acts of brutal rape. You want to address that, I will continue to engage on the subject. You want to refuse to address it, that’s fine. You want to accuse me of doing something I’m not, I’ll ignore you.

    Now, it should go without saying that I think your ideas regarding the Marvel Universe are what I think they are. It should also go without saying that that’s a subjective opinion and regardless of how it may frustrate anyone, not really subject to objective verification. However, our ‘disagreement’ came about when you said “I’m not the only one who makes these characters ‘mirrors to reflect my own personal obsessions’. Every strong reader does that. Take a look at what you just posted. You sure do!” This is clearly you attempting to say that your view of superhero metarealities is no weirder or more extreme than mine, and, well, you’re way too smart to believe that, but as long as you want to hide behind crap like that, and absolutely refuse to engage the solid, valid responses I have made, I’m going to discontinue debating with you.

    In general, there isn’t any point in me having any kind of debate with anyone who thinks Gruenwald’s work on Captain America was remotely in the same class as Englehart’s, anyway. Our subjective reality tunnels simply do not coincide, and frankly, if I have to keep reading you running off at the keyboard about how badly ‘broken’ and ‘misjudged’ and ‘inappropriate’ and ‘invalid’ and I don’t know what the hell all else Englehart’s run on Capta

  11. WOW your comment threads SUCK.

    Okay…

    In general, there isn’t any point in me having any kind of debate with anyone who thinks Gruenwald’s work on Captain America was remotely in the same class as Englehart’s, anyway. Our subjective reality tunnels simply do not coincide, and frankly, if I have to keep reading you running off at the keyboard about how badly ‘broken’ and ‘misjudged’ and ‘inappropriate’ and ‘invalid’ and I don’t know what the hell all else Englehart’s run on Captain America was, while you slobber in the most annoying fashion imaginable on the boots of one of the demonstrably worst writers who has ever sullied a Marvel Comic, I’m just going to have to stop reading your whole blog. And I don’t want to do that, so I’m not going to argue about this any more.

    As to me wanting to live in the Marvel Universe, yeah. Call me crazy. I’d like to actually live in a place that contains people who, upon being given great power, use it responsibly and admirably. Barring that, I like to visit there once in a while, and the ability to do that is what the Modern Age took away from me, and I am in no way responsible for that.

    Now, feel free to keep talking about the Calvinist liberal moral theme structure that pervades the essential hero-villain invisible saint diad of the entire superheroic mythos, but I’m not going to comment on that nonsense any more. Sorry. Perhaps you’re right and it has everything to do with the Marvel Silver Age, but it has nothing to do with MY Marvel Silver Age, and I like mine a great deal better than I like yours.

  12. Darren,

    Okay. If you want me to say that I think ogling women is tantamount to raping them, well, I’m sorry, I’m not gonna do that. However, I will say that if, when you think of women at all, you think of them only in their capacity to excite you sexually, then you are, sooner or later (if you’re a writer), going to write about attacking them (“just as a thought experiment”, you’ll tell yourself)…

    Likewise, if you obsess on the sheer physical power vouchsafed to “super-heroes”, and the ability they have to affect other people with these powers, you will, sooner or later (if you are a writer), wind up writing stories about the abuse of said powers (just as a thought experiment–and if it does boffo business, you might never stop…). I’m not talking about actual fascism when I discuss the Madigan/Busiek interpretation, I’m talking about a fascist aesthetic. Your understanding of these comics is centered on power relationships. Mine centers on an individual, existential dilemma. We obviously get a kick out of different things, and require different food for thought…

    As for my “slobbering all over Gruenwald”–again, this kind of phrasing comes out of a very particular worldview that I just don’t share. I don’t have any heroes, and i haven’t made any statements that would lead anyone to conclude that Gruenwald’s my idol, or that I want to have tons of his babies or anything like that. That’s a distortion forced onto the text by your own predilection for hero-worship. Let’s not forget that most of your current ire was aroused by my questioning of the godlike status that Steve E. enjoys in your mental universe. I likeSteve Englehart, remember? I just don’t think he’s infallible (even at his peak), and where his take on the Marvel Universe diverges from my own, I’m going mention it. There are no sacred cows in my world, there’s only reasoned argument, which you can take or leave…

    Dave

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