Month: June 2004


Come Out and Pray

(Soundtrack: Ramones Leave Home)

I’m pretty excited! On Friday, I received my teaching assignment for the Fall:

130 Writing: American Radical Thought

Involves drafting, revising, and editing compositions derived from readings on American radical thought to develop skills in narration, persuasion, analysis, and documentation. Instructors can organize course readings around any combination of topics: conquest and revolution, natural rights, socialism, technology and its problems, radicalism of the 1960s, and capitalism and expansionism. The course will examine the assumptions and positions of radical thinkers and organizations as well as assess their impact and influence on social change and policy.

Plan “A” is to build the course around a discussion of the abolitionist movement. Plan “B” (which would be plan “A” if I was certain of being allowed to do it) is to base the whole thing on Animal Man #1-26.

Naturally, I did a lot of thinking about “American radicalism” over the weekend. Is there anything distinctive about it? Well, yes and no. It’s really just “bourgeois radicalism” (which can be found in any Calvinist-based culture), only purer, because undiluted by the traditionalist Medieval hangups that people like Jim Kalb want to retcon into the origin story.

In Europe, radicalism has tended to run on a rhetoric of “class consciousness”–although, of course, even there, most advocates of the “Proletariat as Revolutionary Class” were not workers themselves… In America, this rhetoric has been conspicuously absent from successful campaigns against oppression. While John Brown, the IWW, Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X made their feeble attempts to “fight the power”, their more enlightened comrades busied themselves with the task of yanking the mittelamerikan heartstrings… Sustainable progress is never forced upon society by an oppressed minority, it is conceded by an embarrassed majority, through the agency of a miraculous rejection of class interest. In the nineteenth-century they called this “Come-Outerism”. More recently, it has gone under the alias of “liberal guilt”–and it was a wonderful thing, before Reaganites labeled it “malaise” and declared it bad for morale… Of course it’s bad for morale! The “city on a hill” is no vacation spot, it’s a panopticon–proximity to God brings a more intense scrutiny upon inevitable abuses, not a divine “attaboy!”

Does this have anything to do with superheroes? Is it a coincidence that the purest bourgeois culture in the world produced this unique genre? Of course not! The superheroes that I’m most interested in (those in the Ditko-Gruenwald-Morrison tradition–with Superman as a precursor) explicitly reject the idea that their powers ought to be used to satisfy any of their personal needs (including the Batman/Wolverine/Punisher-style need for vengeance/personal aggrandizement…) I should add, as a corollary to that statement, that this is why the ol’ secret identity chestnut is so crucial to the genre. When Peter Parker puts on his costume, he’s saying: “okay, this has nothing to do with me and what I want anymore–this has to do with my power to help others” It’s like a middle-class person agreeing to pay taxes in order to help ensure that everyone has access to medical care. It’s not “charity”, it’s a duty–and, just to insure against any confusion on that point, it’s best that the benefactor remain anonymous… In this way, superheroes obey Dickens’ (“Bourgeois radical” extraodinaire) famous directive: “It is required of every man that the Spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and [webswing] far and wide…”

Of course, this doesn’t apply to characters (like Batman) whose secret identities are merely hiding places and offer no resistance to the hero’s restless spirit. We called this “failing the Rorschach test”, and I would agree that their stories yield easily to the “fascist critique”. Is it any wonder that this type of character enjoyed an overwhelming surge in popularity during the eighties–when the “liberal guilt” model of democratic citizenship went into eclipse? Again–this is why Morrison and Gruenwald are so much more important than Miller and Moore: the latter pair inadvertently helped drive a Reaganite stake into the heart of profoundly liberal genre, while the authors of Captain America and Animal Man gave us superheroes as fragmented subjects instead of willful monoliths!

Tomorrow, I’ll start looking at some of the problems with “come-outerism”, beginning with Stanley Elkins’ celebrated theories about the limitations of bourgeois activism!

Good Afternoon Friends!



Get Out on the Links!

Matt Rossi is investigating Superman’s iconicity! There are two parts so far–and there may be three by the time you get there pilgrim! It makes for fine reading!

Steven Berg has rounded up most of the recent batch of posts on the alleged fascism inherent in the superhero genre for your convenience…

You can add Adam Completely Futile to the list Steven–I’m not convinced, but I’d like to see Adam follow up on his brief discussion of figures like JJJ, who serve to defuse charges of fascism against the hero by quarantining that opinion in the poisonously denunciatory word balloons of “villainous” characters…

Also–if you haven’t read the most recent “Grim Tidings” column by Graeme McMillan, on the subject of his passion for The Invisibles, you’re missing out! I know Graeme’s got quite a reputation as the snark-master, but really, I don’t know why he bothers when it’s clear from items like this that he actually has a great deal of substance to say! (Is it just fear of sounding like a “fanboy”? Listen–if feasting upon a work of art and loving it is “wrong”, then I don’t want to be right!)

We’re off to see The Big Lebowski at the good ol’ Cinema Du Parc!

Good Afternoon Friends!


Silly David! These Are For Kids!

(Soundtrack: Elvis Costello Extreme Honey: The Very Best of Warner Brothers Years)

Heidi MacDonald wonders:
“I would like to know why superheroes are so very, very important to this guy.”

Meanwhile, Tim O’Neil wants to know:

Why are we even talking about these books? The superhero genre is such a tiny, insignificant corner of the comics medium that it is simply galling on the face of it that so much literal and digital ink is wasted on the subject. Yes, wasted . . . because I’ll be damned if I think that bad 70’s Spider-Man comics deserve this kind of rigorous explication while Louis Riel or Quimby the Mouse or even The Boondocks are never discussed. Love & Rockets makes 99% of even the best superhero books look like dog puke, and I never see anyone discussing it. I’d love to see Fiore tackle a book like that, something I think could actually reward such a deep examination.

But Tim! I think of criticism as an art–and wouldn’t you agree that the worst thing an artist can do is worry about how people will perceive their creation? (Which does not, of course, mean that I don’t want people to fuel up on what I write! I make no bones about that–of course I do!) But I have to write about what interests me. And my primary interest is in a tradition of Puritan existentialist romance storytelling rooted in 17th century sermons and poetry…It’s a tradition that, as a novelist, I feel myself to be a part of (an insignificant part to be sure–but a part nonetheless!) This is why I’m so interested in romanticism in general–especially in its Transcendentalist guise. And Hawthorne. And Capra. And Frank O’Hara.

And it’s my sincere belief, as a student of American Culture, that, in the latter half of the twentieth century, the purest avatars of this tradition are Marvel Comics and Paul Auster’s novels. It’s that simple. You don’t have to believe me, of course. But I do confess that I’m a little saddened when people respond to my arguments/glosses by saying: “well, I don’t know why Fiore’s doing this, because the stuff he’s talking about isn’t worth discussing…” Where would I be if I let that kind of reasoning influence me? After all, Aaron Haspel (whom I respect a great deal!) doesn’t think Emerson, Keats, or Frank O’Hara are any worthier of discussion than Spider-Man! I have no choice but to trust in my compulsion to write about these works!

What does it matter what Gerry Conway’s intentions were? My goal in writing about the Gwen Stacy Clone Saga is not to convince you that these comics are sheer genius, but to convey to you a sense of the effect these books have had on my mind! And how on Earth can I do that if you’re too busy focusing on the limitations of the material in question to pay attention to what I’m saying? Of course, if you want to tear my writing apart, be my guest! I welcome that kind of discussion!

Okay, just a couple of quick hits before I have to take off:

1. Seaguy #2–am I crazy or is this series turning into Joe Versus The Volcano? (I love that movie by the way!)

2.The only interesting information I gleaned from Ronin Ro’s Tales To Astonish (aside from the fact that Vince Colletta was an asshole!):

According to Mark Evanier (quoted on page 165): “[Jack Kirby] didn’t like losers, he didn’t like dead people, and he chose not to dwell on failure and defeat and death in his work.” No wonder I find Kirby problematic–he’s like the anti-Morrison!

Good Afternoon Friends!


On Superheroes & Hero Worship

Tim O’Neil is right, of course, when he argues that looking up to super-powered authority figures is a fascistic thing to do:

Which is why I just don’t think an intelligent, grown adult can seriously accept most superhero books on face value, because to do so is to court the worst kind of moral laziness. There have been a relative few books that have actually attacked the ethics of superbeings in one way or another, and whenever these books have tackled the notion of even semi-realistic superheroes, they have almost always touched on the fascistic elements implicit in characters who can change the course of mighty rivers with their bare hands.

But here’s my question: what intelligent adult accepts anything they read at face value? That’s why I would say that the only people who shouldn’t read superhero comics are kids who haven’t developed a critical perspective yet! Look at Tim–he’s a smart guy, but he seems unable to entertain the notion that these heroes are just textual elements in a swirl of narrative. Why? By his own admission, it’s because he read too many superhero comics as a young child. I started reading these things when I was 12/13–after I had already learned to love Dickens, Hawthorne, Hammett, and studio age movies, and I’m here to tell you–I never “looked up” to superheroes.

It comes down to this–Tim’s interpretation is Carlylean; mine is Emersonian (for a comparison between the respective authors of On Heroes and Hero Worship and Representative Men, see my undergraduate thesis.) Tim has responded in depth to the “literature of ethics” interpretation of superheroes, but what has he had to say about my own existentialist gloss on the genre–“the literature of moral and epistemological inquiry”? (also Tim–I’d love to know what you think of the Gwen Stacy Clone Saga!)

That’s it for now!

Soon: Seaguy #2, Mary Jane #1, Ronin Ro’s Tales To Astonish, and much more on Amazing Spider-Man #121-151 (oh yeah: if you’re intrigued by all of that seventies spider-man stuff, but haven’t been able to make head or tail of what I’ve said about it, check out Scott Tipton’s excellent–and linear!–look at the Gwen Clone Saga here!)

Good Afternoon Friends!


(Not So) Good Grief!

(Soundtrack: Garrison Starr Eighteen Over Me)

For whatever reason, Peter & Gwen’s relationship just wasn’t working out. The series’ collective unconscious–represented by the lettercolistas and the editorial staff–understood this perfectly. Who knows how this would have been handled in a more traditional soap opera–but in a superhero story, where emotions/thoughts that cannot be expressed within a social framework inevitably bubble up as colourful hero/villain skirmishes, Gwen’s death by violence at the hands of the Green Goblin seems inevitable. And it served Peter’s needs very well. Issue #121 left the young hero poised to embark upon a lifetime of very purposeful mourning. He could cherish the memory of “the only girl [he] ever truly loved”–without having to bother himself with the unsatisfactory details of their relationship…

Uncle Ben dies that Spider-Man may live; Gwen dies in order to relieve him of the burden of dating. The Amazing Spider-Man, up until #122, had been a massive sequential bildungsroman–very much in the “what does not kill me makes me stronger”/”romance of personal integration” school of storytelling. “Spider-Man” is the protagonist–and the narrative fosters that character’s growth at all times.

The Jackal is absolutely right to blame Peter for Gwen’s death–and by resurrecting her, he declares war not only on Spider-Man, but on The Amazing Spider-Man itself! In issue #139 Peter expresses a bewildered satisfaction with his progress since his beloved’s death…and also realizes that he hates himself for taking everything in stride so philosophically (going so far as to wish for “something really lousy to happen”) Is it any coincidence that this is the same issue in which the Jackal (who had first appeared in #129-130 as just another guy in a suit bent upon taking over the city’s underworld)now returns as a man whose only goal appears to be the destruction of Spider-Man? This is why I love John Ostrander’s idea that the Jackal is Peter Parker. He comes to fulfill Peter’s darkest fantasy. And to force him to acknowledge that, in this world, “people can need each other–and still know that they shouldn’t have each other” (ASM #149)–and it’s not because they die either. It’s because each of us lives in different worlds. And they’re almost impossible to align. That’s why Gwen had to be brought back, and given a chance to live her own life, as a protagonist in her own right, in the world beyond the penultimate page of ASM #149.

What does all of this have to do with Mary Jane? Well, I’m going to have to save most of that for later, but here’s one thing I do know: her walk with Peter through the campus grounds, in ASM #141, is a really key scene. He projects Gwen’s face onto the landscape, moping, as always, about his rough luck and his development as a Hamlet-style hero; but she counters with this interpretation of his behaviour and recent events: “You’re the tensest person I’ve ever met Pete. I think that’s what makes you so loveable. You always look like you’re going to fall apart–like a Charlie Brown who’s just had the football jerked away from him.” Her assessment is apt, and we begin to see the narrative from her perspective, not his. If the final scene of ASM #122 is a prelude to intersubjectivity, then this is the real thing! And it’s no surprise that the linear development of the protagonist that had been going on since Amazing Fantasy #15 comes to a staggering halt right there… And after this, all bets are off for the remainder of Conway’s run–supporting characters follow their own arcs, regardless of the needs of the storyline, living characters beg dead ones to enact their revenge, and the erstwhile protagonist splits into two–it’s like a bizarro version of Hitchcock’s Vertigo!

Good Afternoon Friends!



(Soundtrack: Sleater-Kinney Dig Me Out)

Yeah! Now that’s how you write an “infodump”! As Peter makes a desperate attempt to cobble the events of the preceding issue into a narrative that makes sense, irrationality incarnate looms over his shoulder, begging him to restrict himself to the facts…

After all, what good is the deductive method in a world in which scenes like this can occur?

None at all my friends! And it’s a world that anyone with a good memory and the merest spark of Frankensteinian creativity can understand! And notice that Peter’s definitely looking in the right direction for help, even if Mary Jane is momentarily just as stunned as he is.

This is a woman who, a couple of issues later, will have this to say:

Forget the standard “it’s her or it’s me”–and even that “either you get yourself together, or I’ll get you together myself!” stuff, interesting as it is, is beside the point. The important question here is: “Are you listening to me?”

That’s Gerry Conway’s run in a nutshell: he turned Mary Jane Watson into a person worth listening to (and she may be the first supporting character in any super-hero comic who ever was worth listening to! Gwen Stacy certainly wasn’t–throughout Stan’s later run, she “enabled” the hero’s spider-solipsism), and then challenged Peter to pay attention to her. He didn’t make it easy either–the thrill of the past and the outre present major obstacles to inter-subjectivity. But then, that’s life!

Presssed for time, sadly!

But lookee here–they’re talking Gerry Conway on the Comicon Messageboards!

And by the way–if you happen to be looking for a detailed, issue-by-issue breakdown of this entire run, look no further than this site! The author (“the Hobgoblin”) is far more concerned with the battle scenes than I am–and he doesn’t seem to love Ross Andru’s Hopperesque art nearly as much as I do–but he’s pretty thorough, and he’s got some pep too!

Good Night Friends!