Month: June 2004



I like this little piece by Gardner Linn (no permalink?), which argues that films can do superhero action better than comics, but cannot match the latter medium’s capacity to convey the ironized melodrama which is at the core of (for instance) Spider-Man’s appeal. Can you imagine a film version of the Gwen Stacy Clone Saga? It would be almost impossible to do properly. (That said, I’d love to give that screenplay a whirl!)

Dave Fiore vs. Ninth Art–The Rapprochement? (with the notable exception of Antony Johnston, who prefers to remain aloof!
Johnston: “Did you just call me a loof, you rude little fucker?”)

You’ve all seen Jim Henley’s piece on Englehart and suicide bombing, right? If not, get over there–it’s interesting!

Speaking of Englehart–I really want to discuss his work on West Coast Avengers soon, particularly #17-24, which the author himself has described as “the most complex time travel story ever done”! Not only do I agree with this humble assessment–I also think it’s a very fine example of “historiographically aware” superhero writing.

Oh yes–and check out this Forager piece on “the intentional fallacy fallacy”, in which JW claims that critics like yours truly, who tend to write the author out of the picture when dealing with a text, have ulterior motives for doing so. No question about it–he’s right!

Spider-Man 2 tonight!

Good Afternoon Friends!


Now and Gwen

(Soundtrack: Frank Black —Black Letter Days)

Okay. Back to Spider-Man. And historiographic reading–specifically J.M. Dematteis’ rather facile resolution of the Peter-Gwen-MJ dilemma, which has been reprinted as the epilogue to the Death of Gwen Stacy trade paperback.

I’m not a fan of this story (entitled “The Kiss”) at all, but it’s extremely pertinent to my discussion of the Conway Amazing Spider-Man run (which began here, and left off here).

I interpret the entire clone saga as an inspired exploration of Peter Parker’s guilt complex. The story assesses the costs of identity-formation through narrative-building.

Time and again, Gwen Stacy had been identified as “the only girl Peter had ever truly loved.” And, like a lot of alienated teens, the young man’s ideas about romantic love are lifted straight outta Schlegel’s Lucinde (i.e. a “pefect love” can make up for the loss of a perfect God). However, it was also becoming dreadfully apparent, as Stan Lee’s tenure on the title wound down, that the Peter-Gwen relationship was in neutral. Neither Peter nor the readers were prepared to deal with this fact, and the lettercols pleaded for a way out of the dilemma. Gwen dies so that the relationship doesn’t have to. It was really the only way. A perfect love, by definition, cannot disappoint–but it can be “stolen”! Enter the Green Goblin.

This is standard melodrama fodder, and it’s always powerful. The tree of “spiritual growth” is watered by the (metaphoric) blood of those we’ve loved–and super hero comic books, as Marc Singer has argued, get a lot of mileage out of the literalization of certain ideas that, in life and in more realistic stories, must be dealt with metaphorically. In this, again, they show their kinship with romance narratives like Moby Dick–in which “evil” becomes not merely a bedeviling concept, but an actual thing that can blow your ship to smithereens.

And so it is with Gwen Stacy–doomed to become “the past” incarnate. Until the Jackal brings her back–as a different person. The original Gwen–the one that Peter has spent a couple of years erecting his new, adult identity upon–is still dead. But the new Gwen isn’t aware of any of this, and she’s ready to slide back into the old routine. This threatens to drive Peter mad, because he had just settled into a nice little routine of his own, which permitted him to wallow in the memory of this particular “water under the bridge” without drowning in it.

And now, all of a sudden, he is pressed into service as a lifeguard–to rescue “Gwen-in-herself” from the quagmire of his own romantic appropriation of her memory! Amazingly, he is able to do so–and, in Conway’s last issue, the reborn woman sets out to make a life for herself outside the confines of the series. It’s an impressive non-resolution to the problem. “The past” as it was remains buried in Gwen Stacy’s grave, but “the past” as it is lives on, free of Peter’s tendency to romanticize.

I’ve gone on too long now, and I’ve hardly said a thing about DeMatteis’ story, in which Peter reflects upon his life as a series of stills in a photo album, thinking to himself: “as time passes, I see that the greatest gift Gwen gave me in her short time on this Earth, was the courage to love…” No way! The only gift a person can give to anyone else is themselves. The rest is appropriation. “Emotional growth” is a crock of shit. People are more than fertilizer.

Gotta go!

Good Afternoon Friends!


A Marvel Zombie Hath Reasons For Reading X-Men That de Campi Knows Nothing Of

(Soundtrack: The Bobby Fuller Four — Live At PJ’s Plus!)

In the newest edition of Ninth Art, Alex de Campi declares:

I suppose it just goes to show that on a big franchise, the title is all. Unless they’re uber-stars like Joss Whedon or Jim Lee, artists and writers don’t seem to matter that much. They didn’t to me when I was a kid. When I was 11 years old and buying X-MEN, I could go into nerdy, ridiculous depths about the details of Wolverine’s back story, but I don’t think I could have told you who the writer of the series was. I hope this means I was an unusually ignorant child, but I doubt it.

Now, I didn’t read comics when I was 11, so I can’t even participate in this poll, but what I would like to know is: if you did, did you pay attention to the credits? (as a side note, I would like to know: how many 11 year olds are buying Marvel comics anyway? I thought the “problem” with tha Big Two these days was that kids don’t dig on ’em no more?)

I’ll lay my cards on the table–every superhero fan I’ve ever met seemed extremely (even pathologically) interested in the creators of the books they read. Alex sees 117 thousand sales for Grant Morrison’s X-Men and 107 for Austen and she infers that this happened because people don’t care who’s writing the book.

I disagree.

My assumption is that people who loved the Morrison run bought the next one just to see how differently Austen would handle the characters. That’s what I would have done back in 1989.

In the mid-eighties, just before I discovered Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, my favourite superhero series was Gruenwald’s Captain America (my other big favourite was Cerebus), and I became obsessed with buying up back issues of the title, even though I had problems with many of them for what they were in themselves (Cap as a hard-charging patriot, instead of the symbol of the “infinitude of the private individual”? what the hell is this?), simply in order to keep track of how drastically the author had changed the character.

The exercise was valuable to me, because I approached these texts “historiographically” (or, as I’ve put it elsewhere, I was building up my “awareness of the tradition”), and I think this practice is fairly common amongst superhero readers.

Am I off my nut?

Please do let me know!

Good Afternoon Friends!


“Hey Hey JJJ, How Many Spiders Did Ya Slay Today?”

Just checking in briefly to muse upon a subject first raised by Adam Stephanides:

superhero comics don’t just implicitly say that we should place our trust in powerful heroes, they explicitly say that if you mistrust heroes [as characters like JJJ, the man who financed the construction of the Spider-Slayer robots, and Bolivar Trask, inventor of the Sentinels, do], you’re either a bad guy or being duped by the bad guys.

The Howling Curmudgeons have been thinking about JJJ a little bit too, and Mike Chary asks the same question I would–namely, is JJJ a villain? I’ve never thought of him that way. In a Silver Age Marvel story, the hero is a person who attempts to use their power responsibly, and the villain is a monster of lust bent upon abusing his/her power over others. But where are the folks whose intentions are fundamentally decent, but who nevertheless use their powers irresponsibly? That sounds like JJJ to me. Ditto Bolivar Trask. The publisher of a New York paper has a lot of influence, and the temptation to use it in ignorance–especially when one is thinking of winning the puiblic’s approbation–must be powerful indeed. JJJ and Charles Foster Kane have a lot more than a job in common. And here, again, we have another argument in favour of the secret i.d.–you have a much better chance of using your power judiciously if you know that no love can accrue to you through its application to the problems of the world.

There’s a lot more to say on this topic, of course, and I hope some of you folks will take up the baton! (I’m a little distracted right now–we saw Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 last night, and I’m still trying to figure out what I thought of it… Clearly, I sympathize with anyone who wants to get rid of Bush, but I don’t like political discourse which centers on “corruption”… Bush is bad ’cause his ideas are bad–not because he’s “corrupt”. All politicians are corrupt. It’s a given. In Canada, we may be about to take a massive step backward into right-wingery simply because the Liberals got caught with their hands in the till! What the Hell are these poll-respondents thinking: “Yeah, that Paul Martin abused our confidence, and all of a sudden, you know, I think gay people are bad, just like that nice Stephen Harper”? What the fuck? Anyway, I’m not gonna be much help to the Liberal party either, because I’ll be voting NDP on Monday, just like I always do…)

Good Afternoon Friends!


A Memory is Never Finished

(Soundtrack: Sleater-Kinney Call The Doctor)

We saw a sneak preview of Before Sunset last night and then rushed home to revisit its precursor–Before Sunrise–on video. I can sum up the appeal that Linklater’s diptych holds for me in a few words, spoken by Julie Delpy’s character in the first film, which both works live by:

You know, I believe if there’s any kind of God, it wouldn’t be in any of us. Not you, or me… but just this little space in between. If there’s any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something… I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed, but… who cares, really? The answer must be in the attempt.

(you can read the whole script here, if you’re in the mood–although I wouldn’t recommend that; in general, it’s not the matter of these conversations which is so compelling, but the manner in which they are conducted–and you’ve gotta watch the film to experience that!)

In keeping with my preference for revisiting the old, rather than scratching vainly at the scab of “absolute originality”, I liked the second film even more than the first. Or perhaps I should say that the second has added lustre to the first. And a third, if made in the same spirit as these two, would undoubtedly have a similarly intensifying effect. This is, of course, why I love corporate comics so much–I truly do believe that, the more you think earnestly about anything you ever loved, the better it gets. These films stake out a philosophic/aesthetic position which is in direct opposition to the one that Charlie Kaufman puts into the mouth of “wise fool” Donald, in Adaptation:

I loved Sarah. It was mine, that love. I owned it.
Even Sarah didn’t have the right to take it away.
I can love whoever I want.
You are what you love, not what loves you.

No way! A memory is never “yours”. It must always be rebuilt through narrative. And a story is always told to someone else–even if that someone else is an idealized projection of your own mind. You aren’t “what you love”, you’re a part of whatever you help bring to light through interaction with others. Implicit in Donald’s statement is the idea that the artist’s task is to nail down the way he/she feels about the world–capturing objects in the treacle of love like flies trapped in amber. I can’t agree with this at all. I prefer to see art as the attempt to create “a soundtrack, magnetized, out of sync, to the filmstrip of the (intersubjective) Sublime”.

Near the beginning of Before Sunset, Delpy asks Hawke why he wrote an entire novel about one night that happened nine years before the events in the sequel. After hemming and hawing his way through a bunch of stock responses, Hawke finally admits that he wrote the book in the hope that she would see it, read it, and show up to discuss it with him. In other words, it was an attempt, as Hawthorne would put it, “to open up an intercourse with the world.” He gets his wish–and the discoveries that these two make about what “really” happened to them in the first film expose the proprietary theory of memory for the sham that it is. Our lives don’t belong to us. We rent them to each other at sympathetic rates.

Good Afternoon Friends!


We Are All Liberals Now–And We Always Have Been

(Soundtrack: Joey Ramone — Don’t Worry About Me)

Okay–since three of my favourite people (John Commonplacebook, Marc Singer, and erstwhile guest-Motime columnist Jamo) saw fit to question my confident assertion that Fascism “can’t happen here [in North America]”, I think I owe it to them (and to myself!) to clarify my position a little bit…

When I say that we are all liberals, well, I’m exaggerating a bit, of course. There will always be Jim Kalbs out there, trying to pass their crusty Medieval rhetoric off as something indigenous to the New World–but these people will never make much headway in America, because their love of hierarchy renders them absolutely unfit to participate in the debates that will continue to define the culture. Forget Jim Kalb. Forget Fascism–that kind of thinking grows out of an organic conception of the state, and North Americans (outside of Quebec) just don’t think that way.

However, Neocons are something else again. These are classical liberals. Their conception of society is just as atomistic as mine is. They’re just letting Original Sin get them down, that’s all…

As I’ve often stated, my understanding of American culture grows out of an obsessive engagement with Puritanism, and it owes a great deal to Perry Miller and Sacvan Bercovitch. The crux of the matter is this: Right and Left don’t mean the same things in North America that they do in the rest of the world.

When you get right down to it, radical Protestantism, which is just another name for Puritanism, is only concerned with one thing–the individual’s relationship to God. Ethnic ties, the rights-and-duties associated with feudal hierarchy, the connection of a people to the land–all of these things were anathema to the Puritan mind, from the most extreme theocrat (the right-wing of the movement) to the wildest Quaker (the left-wing). The Puritan “Errand” was a quest for a place in which individuals could act out the drama of their own salvation or damnation without interference. That’s America. Everyone gets a chance to hear “the Word”. If they’re schedueled to be saved, well, good for them. And if not, at least they can’t say they never had a chance.

In a later, more secular, age, this would be redefined as the “pursuit of happiness”. Thoreau expressed the same desire when he set out to “corner life”–whether it proved to be sweet or “mean”.

Everyone wants the chance to pursue happiness, whether they’re destined to attain it or not. But the question then becomes–what does it take to ensure that everyone gets this chance? I happen to believe that people require free access to education, medical care, and a moderately comfortable existence before they can even begin to figure out whether they’re “saved or damned”. The state cannot grant happiness to its citizens–but it can (it must!) ensure that all of the preconditions to happiness are met. That’s the rationale behind an “economic Bill of Rights”.

Then, of course, there’s the matter of “national security”. People aren’t gonna be doing much soul-searching if the borders aren’t secure. American expansionism is always about creating a stable situation for the individuals within the polity. That’s where it differs dramatically from the “test-your-nationhood” expansionism espoused by breast-beating Fascist theorists. Of course, you can still do a lot of harm whilst fighting to “make the world safe for democracy” (even, or maybe especially!–if you are sincere), and we’re seeing a fine example of this in Iraq. The right-wing Puritan’s greatest fault is the tendency to place so much emphasis upon strengthening the polity that the original point of the Errand is forgotten. That’s what Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme is all about–and I think I’m going to begin discussing that series very soon. It’s not really a Lord Acton scenario–absolute power doesn’t corrupt absolutely, but it certainly furnishes those who wield it with the opportunity to make terrible mistakes. On the other hand, left-wing Puritans (like me–and Kirby’s Forever People, right J.W.?), focus upon the Word to the exclusion of all else, and thus run the risk of being trampled…

Another quintessential American problem has arisen out of the hubristic belief, on the part of some of the country’s citizens, that they possess the ability to recognize “the unregenerate” when they see them. Skin colour, ethnicity, work ethic, sexual preference–none of these things have anything to do with a person’s status before “God”, and yet all of them have, at times, been interpreted by fools as markers of “sainthood” or “damnation”. This is why I disagree with Marc Singer when he argues (by implication) that Americans have accepted the idea of a hierarchy in the past. Americans have always been, and always will be, radical egalitarians. However, they have very often been guilty of arbitrarily excluding huge numbers of people from the social contract (reducing this noble idea, in the process, to a pathetic “Gentleman’s Agreement” between “Visible Saints”–a far cry from what it was meant to be: a covenant which enables every individual to work out his/her destiny before “God”), based upon an untenable inference of moral superiority on the part of those in power. Again, for reasons of “national security”, some steps must be taken against those (murderers, rapists, etc) who pose an obvious threat to the majority’s pursuit of happiness–but this calls for the nicest possible judgement on our part, because no human being can tell for sure whether another person is a member of “the Elect” or not. I prefer to believe that they are–it makes life a lot more pleasant–but the point is that I don’t know for sure, and neither do you (and neither does “God” for that matter–there is no God–so don’t tell me God inspired you with the knowledge that all “lazy/gay/whatever people are going to Hell”! Stick with the program here son!)

Good Afternoon Friends!


More Power, More Responsibility

(Soundtrack: Live —The Distance To Here)

Okay. Here’s why the “superheroes are fascist” argument is ludicrous:

1. the genre is uniquely American

2. As Louis B. Hartz has demonstrated, quite convincingly I think, American culture was “born liberal”

3. Fascism cannot take root in a culture that has never embraced the concept of hierarchy… In North America, the only example of this type of society is my own home province–which still has metro stations named after Nazi-boostin’ cleric Lionel-Groulx and Ultramontane pro-slavery pontiff extraordinaire Pius IX…

This is why the shrillest complaints about the authoritarian implications of superpowers have tended to be voiced by Europeans. As Milo George points out:

All this [talk about Fascist superheroes] may sound silly to us, but that’s mostly because the only Fascist dictators we’ve ever personally encountered were our parents when we reached our teens and maybe some really really strict teachers in high school.

So much for that.

However, this is not to say hyper-individualistic societies don’t have problems of their own, or that superhero comics can’t help us to think about them!

Take a look at this passage, by Stanley Elkins, one of the most important American historians of the twentieth-century:

…Transcendentalism was quite unable to “transcend” its culture and its age at all: far from revolting against the age, Transcendentalism embodied, in aggravated form certain of its most remarkable features–its anti-institutionalism, its individual perfectionism, its abstraction, and its guilt and reforming zeal. Moreover, the intellectual features of the reform movement most relevant to this inquiry–abolitionism–very strikingly duplicated those very features just enumerated, particularly guilt and its counterpart, moral aggression.

Sound like any characters we know? Elkins’ betes noires are “intellectuals without responsibility”–maverick moralists like Garrison, Emerson, Wendell Phillips, Theodore Parker, etc. who refused to moderate their rhetoric or work to find institutional solutions to the problems of the Antebellum period. Basically, he blames these folks for the Civil War. Personally, I don’t think the conflict could have been avoided, but more about that later… For now, I just wanted to point out that Spider-Man, Animal Man, and, perhaps most importantly, Gruenwald’s Captain America, are perfect examples of this American type–for whom “great power” brings a “great responsibility” to act out upon their convictions which, from a certain point of view, can actually seem irresponsible!

I’m not a fan of Elkins–and, since I’m a supporter of PETA, I’m sure you can guess which side of this argument I fall on!–but he must be dealt with. We can just forget about the fascism stuff though–it’s a “red harangue”…

Alas, I must be off to work!

Good Afternoon Friends!