How To Brood

(Soundtrack: Public Enemy — Revolverlution)

“Tell wind and fire where to stop–don’t tell me!”
–Madame Defarge, in A Tale of Two Cities

“If you want to fight the power you have to be the power.”
–Chuck D

Tim O’Neil has some very interesting things to say about Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America run, and promises to discuss Quasar shortly! Sounds good to me! As some readers may remember, I did tie in one Filth-post to the cosmic Avenger’s adventures, but I haven’t done anything else with the series, because (as in the case of Doom Patrol) I’m missing way too many issues…

But to get back to Cap–I wish to apologize to Tim, because I completely misunderstood his point yesterday, when he argued that the character, ideally, should never “brood”… Here’s the paragraph that cleared it up for me:

Gruenwald’s Cap didn’t brood. He thought a lot, yes, but he had those thought balloons sticking out of his head while he was doing stuff – riding his motorbike or clobberin’ baddies or something like that. I think I recall a few times when Steve Rogers was laying awake in bed and thinking, but that’s hardly brooding. Brooding is sitting atop of gothic Gargoyle and musing about how you will never have a healthy sexual relationship because you keep thinking about those pearls around your mother’s neck when she was shot and where oh where is my sidekick in the shortpants? I don’t like this whole girl Robin thing because they aren’t anywhere near as sexy as prepubescent boy-children.

Exactly. Cap’s problems are never personal (although, mid-way through Gruenwald’s run, the protagonist’s relationship with Diamondback did explore a very important question–i.e. is Steve Rogers’ “old-fashioned” liberal individualism truly universal, or is it hopelessly tangled up with a middle-class, white, male identity?) However, this doesn’t mean that Captain America always “knows what’s right”–or that Gruenwald makes things as easy for him as Tim implies. Sure, blatant law-breakers cross Steve’s path fairly often, and Cap never hesitates when lives are in danger, but you always get the sense that these altercations are the easy part of his job.

An analogy: I happen to have very strong–bordering on maniacal–animal rights sentiments, coupled with a horror of imposing my will upon others. I spend an inordinant amount of time just wishing more people would agree with me–and I take every chance I get to express my feelings on the subject in unconfrontational language–but if I happen to see my neighbor beating his/her dog, I’m going to stop them. What a luxury! To confront a situation that allows one to act purely on principle! Doesn’t happen often, does it? Well, traditional superheroes get one such opportunity to cathect their moral sense every month–and maybe they need it! After all, I hate hunting with a blind passion, but I know that I can’t stop it singlehandedly. If I could, there might be some Squadron Supreme-style trouble in the boreal regions of North America. Unless, of course, I had some way to let of steam by stopping certain even more obvious offenses.

That’s what superhero fights are–these characters don’t restrict themselves to the capture of criminals in order to “perpetuate the status quo“, they do it in order to save the dream of sustainable, popularly-based progress from their own supermoral radicalism.

I liken superheroes to Calvinists because it seems to me that they face exactly the same set of choices that Protestant sectaries do. The extreme right-wing Puritan’s (theocrat’s) sole imperative is to align the world with the Word as he/she conceives it. Setting the house in order, if you will. The extreme left-wing Puritan (antinomian), on the other hand, wishes only to proclaim the Word–even if in doing so they set the house on fire. In reality, most American sectaries (and most superheroes) have adhered to a middle course between these two poles. But they’re all radicals (they are all concerned with pushing society toward some Ideal state)–and the interesting thing about American radicalism is how moderate it has been when compared to its European analogues.

Most superheroes–and Gruenwald’s Cap preeminently–have tendeded toward “come-outerism”. In issue #336, Brother Nature (a sympathetically-portrayed superpowered eco-terrorist) and the newly defrocked Steve Rogers engage in a struggle that results in the destruction of the very Redwoods that the ex-forest ranger had been trying to save from developers. All of this leads to a very characteristic page of Gruenwaldian introspection (which, as Tim rightly points out, leans heavily upon the now-verboten use of thought-balloons):

Rogers (thinks): This man’s situation parallels mine in certain respects. We’ve both devoted ourselves to higher ideals…he, the sanctity of nature–me, the American Dream! “Brother” found he could not accomplish his goals within the legal system, so he went outside of it. Way outside, to hear him tell it… In my case, the government I once worked in harmony with made it so I could no longer work with them! The question is…do I follow Brother Nature’s route–become an outlaw–a guerilla–in order to further my ideological pursuits?

(A panel reveals the extent of the destruction)

Brother: Oh mother! Look what I did! Look what you made me do!

Steve: Don’t blame me for your actions! You didn’t have to lose your cool like you did… I don’t have the power to disrupt nature–you do. Everyone is responsible for the consequences of their own actions, regardless of circumstance!

Brother: You’re right man! I blew it! I did the very thing I was trying to prevent!

Steve: That’s the danger of crossing the line and becoming a renegade. There’s no telling how far you may be obliged to go to accomplish your wnds. You might even end up harming that which you most want to protect!

Steve (thinks): In my case, if I were to wage war against the commission for the right to be Captain America, I too may have to go so far that I would hurt the ideal I serve. No matter what the personal cost. I must not declare war on appointed officials of my nation’s government!

It sounds like the hardening of a protean respect for process into a quietist creed. However, this is not Steve’s final thought on the matter by a long shot… The thing I love about Gruenwald’s Cap is that he is always more concerned with the dreaming than “the dream”. Idealism must remain molten–fired by a respect for other minds… And let’s not forget that we’re headed for this!

Good Day Friends!


One comment

  1. Sure, blatant law-breakers cross Steve’s path fairly often, and Cap never hesitates when lives are in danger, but you always get the sense that these altercations are the easy part of his job.

    These types of acts are nicely described by Victor Turner as Social Drama. Societies and cultures, for the most part go along a normative route until someone rocks the boat, in which case, members of the community become ideologically/morally dichotomized.

    These are points in human culture where, as Arnold van Gennep describes in his classic “Rites de Passage”, there is first separation, transition and then incorporation.

    Turner seems to believe that most aesthetic genres (as well as rituals, following van Gennep; sports; games) are a type of “meta-commentary” that emerges from cultures to reflect a “safe” space for the mediation of points of “rupture” within a culture (I think Richard Wollheim has taken a similar route w/ respects to the visual arts).

    I’ve been thinking alot about comic book super-heroes as being a type of Bloomian “Strong Poet” engaged in a revisionist moralism using idiosyncratic social dramas (e.g. physical engagements with so called “super-villains”) as a means to negotiate the moral and ideological terrain of their respective cultures (of course, we can look at comic books themselves as a sort of “meta-commentary” to explore these contested terrains).

    That’s what superhero fights are–these characters don’t restrict themselves to the capture of criminals in order to “perpetuate the status quo”, they do it in order to save the dream of sustainable, popularly-based progress from their own supermoral radicalism.

    While it may be obvious that super-heroes seem to accept it as uncontested their errant fisticuffs (for some reason, I just really like the word “fisticuffs”)–certainly the connotation of indignance due to some offense to the super-hero’s mores–but I think the etiology of super-heroes’ reasons for fighting very much inflects how they fight.

    Having just watched Spider-Man 2, and having been involved in a huge analysis of The Dark Knight Returns (I know you can appreciate my linking the two) I’ve really been struck by how the theme of ascetism (amongst other themes) are differently explored by the narrtatives. Consequently, we can look at fights as a means to “perpetuate the heroes’ own idiosyncratic status quo”. And I suppose what I mean by that, is that, since super-heroes are engaged in doing something out of the ordinary–they must constantly “misread” mores (and one justification for them being able to do so is by giving them super-powers) so that they can continually engage in fisticuffs. One of the reasons I find Batman so appealing is that, all trauma aside, he has created the conditions for his own misprision, and quite often, controls the stage of his own social dramas

    I think I’ll stop ranting now… 🙂

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