Month: December 2004

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I’m So Ec-Site-ed
Just a pair of things going around (other than the flu) that you might want to catch:



1. have people seen The Comic Pit? This is an awesome fan site–a fan-of-fandom site, in fact! Now, you might consider this navel-gazing of an unprecedentedly twisted sort, but for a person with my proclivities, let me tell ya, it’s heaven! There’s an extensive (and annotated!) visual agglomeration of lettercol headers from years past…

like this one–from Gruenwald’s tenure on Cap (which Rose–the site’s creator–apparently hates! sniff!):



and this one (from everyone’s favourite world-war two comic):



She’s also got a fun collection of letters from my dearly departed countryman–T.M. Maple:


including this fondly-remembered gem:


Power Man And Iron Fist #85



Dear Editor,

It’s obvious from POWER MAN/IRON FIST #81, particularly the cover and the dancing “girls” sequence, that you people have been watching those old Hope-Crosby movies (or perhaps the SCTV parody of same.) The mind boggles at the motherlode of riches of which you have just scratched the surface. And why stick to Hope and Crosby’s “team-up” efforts for inspiration? Why not look to their solo pics? I mean, Imagine the stuff you could do working with White Christmas, Going My Way, I’ll Take Sweden, Paleface, Casanova’s Big Night, Boy’s Town… oops, that last one was Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney, wasn’t it? But, speaking of Mickey Rooney, what about all those Andy Hardy Movies? I can picture it now:

JERYN: Well, Heroes for Hire is really in a bind. We’ve just got to raise some money…somehow…

DANNY: Say, let’s put on a show.

LUKE: Yeah, we can get the whole gang together. The Beast and Daredevil can do their high wire act, and maybe we could get Rom to do his C3P0 impersonation…and I wonder if the ex-Avengers glee club is still going…

Sorry, I guess I just got carried away. (Say, what about Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life? Y’see, Luke gets real depressed because they’re closing his favorite movie theater-you know the one-and he wonders what good his life has been if he can’t even save a louse building from the wrecking ball…say, what if they put on a show to raise funds-you see how everything fits in?…)

Yours nostalgically,

“T.M. Maple”





Now where are the Lon Wolf & Uncle Elvis archives? That’s what I wanna know! (Oh yeah and Mike Bannon + Connie Lingus from Cerebus too!)

Go check it out for yourself!


Also:

2. Tom the Dog clearly does not like Essential Amazing Spider-Man #6. I can’t say that he’s wrong, but–given my own feelings about ASM #120-150–I just had to speak up in favour of these books, in the comments-section, just as Tim O’Neil predicted that I would!

Good Day Friends!

Dave

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The (New) Frontier (Anti)Thesis; or, one spaz in East Lansing tests the hypothesis that he has no audience by punning on the minutiae of American historiography! (anyone else got a Frederick Jackson Turner joke to share?)
(Soundtrack: Bikini Kill — Reject All-American)

So! You ask New Frontier to (boldly) go to Hell, and you get talked about, apparently! It’s not good talk–but it is talk, nonetheless! On the other hand, it is kind of liberating to know that a lot of the people who stop by this blog are only doing so in search of (further) proof of my insanity! What more could a writer ask for?

But let’s be cheezy and ponder what “little epiphany” we can derive from this particular “story arc”, shall we? Really, the best answer I can give to that question is that the “superhero genre” is a chimera that has outlived whatever usefulness it ever had. My initial contention was that Darwyn Cooke had given us Top Gun in superhero drag–but I’m forced to reconsider this statement by the fact that, for an awful lot of intelligent people (and I certainly include ADD and Chris Butcher in that group), New Frontier does represent something like the quintessence of the “genre”. I can only infer from this that they are talking about a completely different genre from the one I make a habit of discussing here (the most impressive recent exemplar of which is certainly The Filth… and that reminds me! I really do want to know how Chris plans to align Morrison and Cooke’s respective works–cause I don’t see it at all!)

I think I’m going to stop using the word “superhero” entirely. Criticism is supposed to be about precision, after all, and this term causes nothing but trouble. How about neo-existentialist romance? Don’t know ’bout you–but I like it. It eliminates the “heroism”–which is all to the good. Getting rid of the “super” is good too, because the “powers” manifested by the inhabitants of the genre that I’m interested in are not “super” at all–they’re an existential spotlight. They don’t separate the strong from the weak, or anything like that; they sharpen our focus upon the plight of the human subject. To introduce a familiar dichotomy from romantic literature–these are representative figures (as in Emerson), not “heroes” (to be worshipped, or deferred to–as in Carlyle).

Another benefit of looking at this stuff through the lens that I’m proposing here is that it liberates me (and maybe you too–if you can stop thinking about the comics industry) from having to act as if it’s more important for me to know about “Comics” (and manga too, apparently!) than about the history of literature, film and philosophy, when I want to speak about specific stories that have been conveyed to us in the guise of sequential art. I make no bones about it–I practice narratological criticism. I’m interested in stories as stories, and I don’t particularly care what “medium” they reach me through. There are, to be sure, comics artists whose work impresses me as fine art (Infantino, Schulz, Ditko, Colan, Sim, Barks, Simonson, Steranko, Wood, Eisner, J. Hernandez, and, yes, Darwyn Cooke, etc.)–but I’m not really qualified to say much about that, and, unless these folks happened to participate in the telling of a fascinating story (and, happily, many of them have), you won’t hear much about them from me!

Should all “comics criticism” be narratologically oriented? Of course not. Although it would be nice to see some of it outside of old lettercols and the blogosphere! The lack of “narratological awareness” (which is sort of like the reverse of “cosmic awareness”) amongst the canonizers has led us to inadequate genre-categorizations based upon purely visual elements (which can be reduced to one annoying, all-pervasive term: “spandex”), when, again, it is clear (to me at least!) that there aren’t many similarities between Cooke’s epic and the kinds of stories that I enjoy thinking about.

New Frontier, as I say, is Top Gun. It’s Star Wars. It’s Joseph fucking Campbell. I have nothing against these things except that I hate them all. (Which does not mean that I hate you, dear reader, if you happen to like them!) I can’t help it. I was born hating them, and it’s not gonna change. These are narratives that tell the story of a hero’s progress toward awareness of his/her role in the universe. They’re about finding your place in society, and, upon reaching this (dubious) place of “enlightenment”, acting decisively in accordance with the dictates of the universe. It’s a premodern narrative which presupposes that there’s a reason for everything, and that “happiness” lies in figuring out where you fit into the “big picture”.

The “superhero” stories that I’m interested in proceed from the exact opposite assumption–i.e. that there isn’t any order except that which we impose upon the world. Moreover, our awareness of our own subjective role in this production of meaning short-circuits our ability to believe in anything as “absolutely real”. All truths become provisional truths–which does not mean that we can do without them! By the same token, all decisions become provisional decisions (which, again, doesn’t absolve us from the duty to make them, it merely deprives us of the satisfaction of ever feeling that we’ve made the–objectively–“right” decision) It’s pretty obvious where I’m going with this right? In New Frontier, there’s only one decision to make, right? Destroy the monolith! All of the supporting characters agree that this is what the heroes must do. There is no inner conflict here. Does Peter Parker ever have the luxury of so clearcut a choice? No way. He chooses–but there’s always some residual responsibility left undischarged. Right?

A big part of my problem with New Frontier goes way beyond a silly disagreement about comic book genres and into the realm of the political. This series is like a crazy nexus where the American passion for “innocence” in the political, aesthetic, and religious spheres all collide. There’s the fucked-up myth of Kennedy (“if they hadn’t killed him he would have kept us out of Vietnam and preserved the American Dream”–uh, no…and, obviously, I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have voted for Kennedy in 1960–I’m just saying, the guy was a machine politician like any other, not the “good daddy” some people want to make of him); there’s the weird TCJ-fanboy obsession with the oppressed craftsman-gods, chained to their desks like ink-stained promethei, their beautiful pages ripped from their groins by corporate vultures every morn; and then there’s the whole “superhero-as-myth/symbol-of-uncorrupted-goodness syndrome”. Each of these ideas are linked by the will to believe in an Edenic time before the “horrible present”, a time in which “good and evil” were easy to distinguish from one another, and every decision was final. And, again, my contention is that this is a “retconjob”. The silver age was never actually like this… Not in my reading anyway. It was more like The Filth than a lot of people seem ready to accept. And, as always, I maintain that the “shortest distance” from “now” (Morrison) to “then” (the sixties at Marvel–and even at DC) is through Mark Gruenwald’s work.

I have to go in a sec, but think about what I’ve said in relation to DP 7. Or The Pitt. Or The Draft. Or almost any of the “New Universe” stuff. Are these “superhero comics”? DP 7 is a “32-issue limited series” in which the “superteam” spend their entire lives on the run from a Foucaultian Clinic, whose representatives play havoc with their memories and (para)personalites. At one point, Dr. Semple (a psychotherapist) observes that “the goal of all psychotherapies is attitude and behavior modification.” (this quotation could easily serve as the epigraph for a collection of Gruenwald stories!) These characters don’t wear spandex. They don’t have secret identities. And yet, the storyline they inhabit does share fundamental similarities with all of the “superhero” stuff that I’m interested in–from Ditko to Morrison.

Gotta go! But here’s a page from DP 7 Annual #1 that really cuts to the heart of what I’m talking about!


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Good Day Friends!

Dave

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It’s A Wonderful(ly fucked) Life

Oh yes. It really is!

Great post here on the subject of my favourite film (or, one of ’em anyway–right now it might be tied with Mulholland Dr.! and the two works are far more similar than you might think!), by Daniel Green.



A sample:


It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the few Hollywood films, maybe the only one, to show its protagonist going through an authentic existential crisis. He’s forced not just to think about what his own life has been about, but he confronts the prospect of annihilation itself, literally looks into the void of his own nonexistence. The extreme close-up of Jimmy Stewart’s terrified face, looking in utter despair from side to side after his own mother has denied him, as if he’s looking for some other universe to inhabit than the nightmarish one in which he’s currently trapped, is, to me, one of the most frightening and truly emotion-provoking images I think I’ve ever seen. This is hell indeed.

My own net-borne thoughts on the film can be found here

Okay. As you were. Resume merriment!

Good Afternoon Friends!

Dave

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My Mouth’s Bleedin’ Stegron! My Mouth’s Bleedin’

It’s like I keep tellin’ the cats–this might be the worst Christmas ever, but at least we probably won’t have to face anything like this:

And my mom sent me a coffeemaker (and Weetabix)!!!! Things are looking up!



Have a great holiday weekend friends!

Dave

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“Here they come now! It’s going to be okay”…
(Soundtrack: New Kingdon — Paradise Don’t Come Cheap)

I just read Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier… Jesus! Is this really what the pundits want from their superhero narratives? A drawn-out origin story (if I had my way origin stories would be forbidden!) that smoothes all of the most interesting properties out of the genre in favor of a straight-ahead Star Wars-style charge at the fuckin’ Death-Star, or island, or center, or whatever? With good cinematography?

This series gives up where Squadron Supreme begins. It’s all well and good to jump into the maw of the dinosaur, but it’s pretty stupid too, no? Is there anything admirable in these acts, unless you’re the kind of person who believes that human life is worthless until that big moment where all doubt can be cast out of the mind in favor of “pure action”. Is that what the vaunted “sense of wonder” is all about? Not from my standpoint, anyway. The real wonder is in the fact that no frontier can ever be crossed, no challenge can ever be met, and that, as I think Gruenwald and Morrison’s work demonstrates most perfectly (but they are very much in the tradition of Marvel’s Silver/Bronze ages, as I read these texts, at any rate!), no decision can ever be made–at least, not with the kind of orgasmic certainty that Cooke’s figures radiate.

The superhero narrative isn’t about mustering the “courage” to accept the dictum that “with great power comes great responsibility”, it’s about the Hamlet-style consequences of embracing such a motto, in a world in which our “responsibilities” are so radically unclear!

Cooke’s work is incorrigibly golden age in its orientation–longing for an “axis of evil” to combat, on autopilot… Those Nazis had a “wonderfully” tonic effect upon the existential drama, didn’t they? Is it any wonder we’re still so obsessed with them? Awful. And I’m sure this was not Cooke’s intention, but the fact remains that he presents a great (pragmatic) argument in favor of the current Bushite construction of world politics as a struggle against “Islamofascism”. Don’t you think?



Good Afternoon Friends!

Dave

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Truth in Advertising
(Soundtrack: Squadron Supreme Radio
–I’m not kiddin’!!!!)

Kudos to Greg at Dead Chicks and Mayhem for bringing us this delicious bit of self-analysis-cum-double-entendre:


Someone mentioned spoilers in the comments. I’m not going to put spoilers in every post, this whole site is a spoiler by nature.



Yes it is Greg. Yes it is….

Check it out–according to Greg, Identity Crisis poses a threat to our little sweetlings because, in the seven issue series:

the killer wasn’t evil and the heroes weren’t good. It was a giant sadistic story about nothing. To believe in everything is to believe in nothing and to believe in nothing is to believe in everything. That’s a terrible thing to push on a child whose main purpose at that stage in life is to be looking for something.

And here I thought the problem with Identity Crisis was that it was poorly written, advanced a reactionary notion of superheroes as the “Harlem Globetrotters of goodness” (complete with mindwiped New Jersey Supergenerals), and engineered the “character assassination” of one of the DC universe’s most interesting supporting cast members–Jean Loring! But I don’t suppose Greg would’ve minded that, if only Meltzer had made sure to drill into his readers’ heads that our antagonists are always “evil”, and that, oh yes, there is somethin’ to believe in out there kids, so just keep lookin’ until you find a “responsible” “grownup” who is eager to indoctrinate you!

Meanwhile, I haven’t stopped hating Identity Crisis, of course, and I thought I’d close this little post with a couple more scenes from Ray Palmer and Jean Loring’s pre-Meltzerian days–from Power of the Atom #9… (and no, despite what our pair of onlookers infer–the divorced couple are not getting back together here)

:

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Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

I wonder what Greg would make of this? Divorced people–behaving lovingly toward one another? Becoming friends!!!! The “cuckolded” Atom confiding his troubles to an “adulteress”? What has become of morality? Christ! Next we’ll be killing each other with boomerangs! That hurts…y’know?



Good Afternoon Friends!

Dave

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O Blogosphere!

We’ve got a beautiful thing here, don’t we? And, from my perspective, the greatest thing about it is that it’s a massive, open-ended, and unedited conversation–complete with typos, sleep-deprived grammar, and the occasional ugliness generated by misunderstandings (and, yes, sometimes generated by very clear understandings indeed!)

If we lose this “anything goes” attitude–man, we’ve got nothing left!

Now look. I disagree with Johanna Draper Carlson on almost every point she makes on her blog (even her frequent wheedling of “bigots”–of whom I’m no fan, I assure you–is so censoriously offputting that I find myself wanting to see their side of things!). Her brand of “feminism for women only” seems to me to participate in an essentialization of the feminine that hearkens back to Victorian “separate spheres theory”, and her disavowal of any interest in “sordid” subject matter gives me pause. On top of which, she judges works of art based on their “worth”, which is a far more defensible position than essentialist feminism or a devotion to bourgeois escapism, but still, I think you know where I stand on that question too! So yeah, I don’t think her ideas are helpful ones, and I want to combat them.

But I have never attempted to do anything to interfere with her ability to make her points, and if, as she claims, I have often been guilty of misinterpreting what she has said, I’m just idealistic enough to want to leave the decision on that matter up to the reading public (it’s immaterial what she or I think she is saying, isn’t it?)

Anyway, the latest incident between us is an extremely unpleasant one, and, frankly, I think she ought to be ashamed of herself. If I am wrong, well, too bad for me right? You will be the judges of that, my friends!



Question: is it ever okay to tamper with the comment-threads attached to your posts? I would say no. If you can’t deal with comments, don’t invite them. I will never delete anything that comes up here, I can assure you of that! Perhaps, you might argue, a blogger would be justified in taking this action if the comment in question contained truly objectionable (maybe Johanna would call it “tricky”) material (and you see how this feeds back into the question that spawned the debate, right?) Fine. But what’s objectionable? Threats. I can see that. Swearing? Less justifiable, but I’ll even grant the censors that one, if they want it. How about accusing a blogger of avoiding the issues at hand? Or, even, just being guilty of “mischaracterizing” their arguments?

Apparently, that’s enough for Johanna Draper Carlson. Check it out. What does that look like? That I showed up and threw a crazy fit right? Well, I did nothing of the kind, and hopefully the people who saw what I wrote before she removed it will testify to that fact. It was not a “friendly” post, but it was not threatening or vulgar in any way. If I had ever dreamed that she would stoop to this level, I would’ve kept a copy of the text, just to show you what I mean. If I recall correctly, what I said was that I was not going to apologize for seeing some affinities between her position and good ol’ “dead chicks and mayhem”‘s, because I see the affinities more clearly than ever now, and that if she wanted to change my mind on this subject, she would have to stop browbeating me and attempt to persuade me instead. I also accused her of being ruled by “editorial pique”, and, on that score, it looks like I was more right than I knew!

Anyway, I’m not enjoying writing this entry, I can tell you that! I love debate, and it’s impossible to rile me, unless you start playing these kinds of games. I had nothing “personal” against Johanna Draper Carlson before now–and I still don’t, I suppose… I mean, we’re not actually acquainted, right? We’re just so many words to each other!
Unfortunately, I am now a few less words to her–and her readers!–than I ought to be. And that’s just sad…

Good Night friends!

Dave

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How I Spent Last Weekend, Part II

Hey! If you’re interested in the historiography of 19th century sectionalism (and its possible relevance to our current “blue state/red state problem”!), might I recommend From The Exception To Misrule:
Sectionalism and Synecdochic Strife in America
? The footnotes got wonked up by htmlization, but, apart from that, I think it’s a very readable paper!

Good Afternoon friends!

Dave

“TKO’d By The Decision”: Irresolution & Dependence in Squadron Supreme

“TKO’d By The Decision”:
Irresolution & Dependence in Squadron Supreme

I’m proud of this paper! I had to cut it down quite a bit in order to maintain a clear narrative line–to the point where there’s no theological content left at all. It’s pretty much all about Decisionism in the text–and I realize that this might bore a lot of people… When it comes to seminar papers, you really “had to be there”… But if you do happen make it all the way through, please let me know what you think! Obviously, there’s a lot more to be said about this series… Also–there’s a fair-sized chunk of Stieglerian french text down there, and I’d love to hear what babelfish thinks it all means!

Okay, we all get the picture that things are rotten. Now what are we gonna do about it?

Golden Archer, Squadron Supreme #1

Well, this curbing of power policy hasn’t worked.

Hyperion, Squadron Supreme #1

Every reformer is a magician, or at least desires to become one.

–Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Squadron Supreme opens in ferment: the eponymous metahumans, in their dual capacity as agents of the American government and an alien mesmerist known as “the Overmind”, have reduced the nation-state system to impotence, and the world is ripe for revolution–or reformation. It is a classic staging of what Carl Schmitt would call “The Exception”, on a global scale, and there is no mistaking, in this extremity, where de facto sovereignty resides. The Squadron, as the only agglomeration of power still operating at full strength, must decide–and the terms of “The Decision” are equally clear: will they press forward with a plan for “reconstruction”, or will they decide against themselves and disband? The series dramatizes the “undecidability” of this fundamental question.

Jacques Derrida would undoubtedly look upon this situation and exclaim: “the time is out of joint!” (when is it not?); and, indeed, the problem of time (or, perhaps, more accurately, timetables) is central to an understanding of Squadron Supreme. Of equal importance is the matter of technological innovation and its relationship to the eschatological. Together, these questions set the parameters for each of the secondary decisions that the actors in this drama are forced to make, and conspire to frustrate the unthinkable dream of a “final decision”.

In the book’s initial tableau, Hyperion struggles to prevent the Squadron’s space-borne ivory tower, badly damaged during the catastrophic backstory, from hurtling earthward and exacerbating an already dire situation. Upon completing his mission (by redirecting the unstoppable object’s trajectory of descent toward a designated “splashpoint” in the middle of the ocean) he declares:

There it is. The finest man-made object earth ever put into the sky… the satellite headquarters of the Squadron Supreme… Now a dilapidated hulk… Maybe it was meant to come crashing down on our heads…(SS #1, 4)

The satellite’s demise very quickly assumes symbolic importance for his teammates as well–it is roundly interpreted as a sign that the Squadron’s wonted method of “heroism” has done little to make the world a better place, and may in fact be the root cause of the current devastation. Golden Archer sums up the group’s concerns, when the members convene at their subterranean replacement headquarters: “Okay, we all get the picture that things are rotten. Now what are we gonna do about it?” (SS #1, 18).

This question prompts Power Princess to embark upon an encomium to her native isle of Utopia, a community which “knew no poverty, injustice, sexual discrimination, or crime” (SS #1, 19). (Power Princess is an analog of DC Comics’ Wonder Woman–just as each of the other Squadron members have counterparts in that corporate universe’s Justice League of America series–and it is refreshing that this version of the character is not an “Amazon” from an essentialist-feminist paradise, but a proponent of a non-gendered human capacity for “more perfect” social unions). Her monologue, which is destined to provide the foundation for what the group will call their “Utopia Plan”, is worth examining in detail:

Defeatist talk will get us nowhere Kyle! It is deeds not words that will restore our credibility, and save the world in the process… As you all know, I am from Utopia Isle, a small island in the Southern Sea whose civilization has remained isolated from humanity since its inception… We Utopians believe ourselves to be the result of genetic experimentation conducted upon the human species long ago by beings we know of only as the Kree. While the rest of humanity was making flint spearheads, we developed a culture based on peace, fellowship, and the acquisition of knowledge… Within our small island community, we knew no poverty, injustice, sexual discrimination, war, or crime. We truly created a Utopia. When the outside world developed the atom bomb, my people believed their way of life–their existence–was in jeopardy. Building a starcraft, the Utopians left this world to find a new home among the stars. I chose to remain behind as their emissary to the outside world, a role I had assumed some years before. I had believed it possible to spread the Utopian philosophy among greater humanity. But in decades past, first alongside the Golden Agency and then with the Squadron, it was all I could do to combat crime. I could never make anyone–not even you–believe that Utopia was attainable. Maybe now, in the wake of this mass chaos, people will want to believe (SS#1, 18-19).

Her plea speaks directly to the concerns of recent theorists, such as Slavoj Zizek and Bernard Stiegler, who strive to understand the relationship between scientific innovation and the social.

Zizek, a sort of Lacanian-Marxist, treats the technological marvels of the age as threats to the human which must be confronted and tamed:

The digitalization of our daily lives, in effect, makes possible a Big Brother control in comparison with which the old Communist secret police cannot but look like primitive child’s play. Here, therefore, more than ever, one should insist that the proper answer to this threat is not to retreat into islands of privacy, but an even stronger socialization of cyberspace. One should summon up the visionary strength to discern the emancipatory potential of cyberspace in what we (mis)perceive today as its “totalitarian” threat (Did Someone Say Totalitarianism?, 256).

The relevance of this Zizekian choice to Power Princess’ speech is apparent in the opposition between Utopia (where the reign of harmony is made possible by a commitment to the “acquisition of knowledge” for social purposes) and the rest of the world (where the the murderously anti-social trajectory of the sciences culminates in the development of nuclear technology). Zarda, like Zizek, maintains that the transformation of these threatening “lords of life” into social boons can be achieved through an act of public will.

However, this “faith-based” solution is undermined by Power Princess’ own admission that her people are themselves most likely the products of “genetic experimentation” by the Kree. This begs the question: did they make a Utopia, or were they made Utopians? Did they ever have a choice? Here we find ourselves in territory that Bernard Stiegler explores, with fruitful results, in La technique et le temps:

L’invention de l’homme: sans qui’il faille s’y complaire, l’ambiguïté génitive indique une question qui se dédouble” Qui ou quoi invente? Qui ou quoi est inventé? L’ambiguité du sujet, et du meme coup l’ambiguïte de l’objet du verbe (invente), ne traduit rien d’autre que l’ambiguïté du sens meme de ce verbe… Le rapport liant le qui et le quoi est l’invention. Apparemment, le qui et le quoi se nomment respectivement: l’homme, la technique. Pourtant, l’ambiguïté génitive impose au moins que l’on se demande: et si le qui etait la technique? et si le quoi etait l’homme? Ou bien faut-il s’acheminer en deça ou au-dela de toute différence entre un qui et un quoi? (145)

Is our understanding of what is humanly–and socially–possible so intimately bound up (in what Stiegler establishes as a “strange relationship”) with technics that it becomes impossible to take the Zizekian hope seriously? Can the engine of society take an unprecedented course without first being refitted with the proper human parts? And if not–where does the impetus for change come from? From humans? Or from technology itself? There may not be any answers to these last questions–certainly, there are none in Squadron Supreme, although they are constantly in play.

The debate leading up to the referendum on Power Princess’ call for the implementation of Utopia centers precisely upon the question of the imperative to act. Earlier in the issue, during a rescue mission, Tom Thumb–in many ways the key member of the team, and the focal point of the book–remarks that “anythin’ broken can be fixed” (SS #1, 9). His flight-companions, Golden Archer and Lady Lark, embellish upon the thought with the following exchange:

Archer: Says you Thumb!

Lark: Tom Thumb’s right. Things can be fixed, given time.

Archer: But does America have that kind of time, Lark? (SS #1, 9)

In a very real sense, this is “the Decision” that the Squadron must make. Is the world running out of time? Or is this time of crisis a chaotic welter of possibilities whose liminal properties ought to be husbanded, rather than foreclosed upon? If it is the former, then clearly any program is better than none at all. However, if it is the latter, then the only goal that makes sense is the preservation of instability!

In the realm of superhero comics, the classic example of a team dedicated to the second proposition is Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol, whose adventures in deconstruction invariably present them with the challenge of disabling aggressive epistemes and narrative structures. Their first mission is an assault upon the encroaching totality of Orqwith (Doom Patrol #19-22), a variation upon Borges’ Tlön, a figure of the perfect work of art qua work of art (or plan for social organization), which accounts for everything, stops time, and devours our communal reality in the process. According to Borges:

Contact with Tlön, the habit of Tlön, has disintegrated this world. Spellbound by Tlön’s rigor, humanity has forgotten, and continues to forget, that it is the rigor of chess masters, not of angels. Already Tlön’s (conjectural) primitive language has filtered into our schools; already the teaching of Tlön’s harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has obliterated the history that governed my own childhood; already a fictitious past has supplanted in men’s memories that other past, of which we now know nothing certain–not even that it is false (Borges, 287)

The Squadron Supreme appear to choose against the Doom Patrol scenario by electing, without quite realizing it, to summon their own Tlön into existence. Their decision does most certainly pass through the realm of “undecidability”–after all, the random, telluric defense of neighborhood and planet against evil genius and space alien is the stock-in-trade of the American superhero–but, as Hyperion notes: “this curbing of power policy hasn’t worked” (SS #1, 20). The “Utopia Plan” represents an unprecedented departure for the group, which had hitherto always made it their policy to interfere in favor of the weaker term in asymmetrical power relationships between third parties. There is a certain logical continuity in this trajectory: the team’s evolution is analogous to the career of a “trust-buster” who decides that the only way to prosecute his/her mission is to deploy massive centralized power against her/his targets–becoming, in effect, an “anti-trust monopoly”.

Perhaps the most radical proposal to emerge from the meeting–and arguably the surest proof that we are indeed passing through “undecidability” in this scene–is Nighthawk’s implication that the Squadron ought to disband, which is couched in the observation: “the fate of the world–to be decided by a vote among the power elite. To think that it would come to this”(22). Is this a classic liberal attempt to evade the responsibilities of sovereignty, or is it a call for the use of the sovereign’s prerogative against itself? In view of the way Nighthawk’s subsequent actions contrast with Amphibian’s later abdication of responsibility (after committing a face-saving–but ineffective–act of sabotage, he retreats to an undersea realm populated by dolphins who “don’t understand” the affairs of the surface world), it seems clear that the ex-president does aspire to Decide, in a Schmittian sense. Upon decamping, he declares, simply: “you folks do as must do…and so will I” (SS #1, 23). This is an extremely important moment in the text, for if sovereignty is indivisible, and this series will eventually reveal itself to be the record of a struggle within the group-mind of the sovereign over precisely this question of implementation, then it could be argued that the Squadron Supreme never do Decide, because Squadron Supreme itself fails to emerge from the morass of the “Undecidable”.

Bearing this interpretation in mind, it is important to note that the surface triumphalism with which the first issue of the series concludes is haunted both by the rebel Nighthawk’s mere presence at the press conference (not to mention his inability to carry out his resolution to assassinate Hyperion) and the significant fact that, when the Squadron place their “Utopia Plan” into effect, it is revealed as a one-year plan (not coincidentally, the exact same duration as this limited comic book series). The very finitude of the measure undermines its total aspirations to such an extent that it begins to seem quite provisional indeed–more like a thought-experiment than a decisive act. Meanwhile, Nighthawk, with allusions to Lincoln fillingthe thought balloons above his head, is poised to play the role of John Wilkes Booth, vis-a-vis Hyperion.

Nighthawk’s relationship to his nineteenth century predecessor is crucial to an understanding of this scene. He memorializes Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator”; but Lincoln was also the great mobilizer, and the main beneficiary of the massive expansion of state power which occurred during the course of the Civil War. Perhaps the rebel’s failure to pull the trigger (like the Squadron’s failure to arrogate power to themselves for an indefinite period) signifies not a “lack of willpower”, but a desire to continue thinking through the ambiguities of this “Presidential différance” (the imperialist emancipator, who “forces the people to be free”), in dialogue with the other members of the sovereign Squadron, of which he remains a part, in spite of himself. In between the key scenes of the secret vote and the public decree, Hyperion remarks that “Kyle Richmond is an honorable man, his disagreements with us do not stem from vanity” (SS #1, 23), which does not explain why, if the debate is indeed concluded, he does nothing to prevent Nighthawk from “doing what he must”. It suggests, rather, that the conversation is just getting started, and that, moreover, it will be prosecuted, throughout the remaining eleven issues of the series, according to the conventions of a discourse proper to superhero comics–that is to say, in a “sign language” of hyperkinetic strife, punctuated by bombastic oaths.

Despite this instability at the heart of the Squadron (both the team and the series), the entity does present a united front to the world. Hyperion advances a will-based theory of “pure reform” that aspires to parallel Von Clausewitz’s description of “pure war”, a bogey-concept which the Prussian general ultimately fails to wrestle into the empirical arena:

…in the field of abstract thought the inquiring mind can never rest until it reaches the extreme, for here it is dealing with an extreme: a clash of forces freely operating and obedient to no law but their own. From a pure concept of war you might try to deduce absolute terms for the objective you should aim at and for the means of achieving it; but if you did so the continuous interaction would land you in extremes that represented nothing but a play of the imagination issuing from an almost invisible sequence of logical subtleties. If we were to think purely in absolute terms, we could avoid every difficulty by a stroke of the pen and proclaim with inflexible logic that, since the extreme must be the goal, the greatest effort must always be exerted(78).

This new commitment to “pure reform” (or at least to preserve the “perfect lab conditions” which would be essential to “pure reform”) manifests itself most impressively in the unprecedented vow that Hyperion makes to “hunt down and kill” (SS #2, 9) the Scarlet Centurion when he pops in for another of his ritualized invasions of the 20th century. Naturally, the stunned visitor retreats, grunting, “bah! you take all the pleasure out of conquest!” (10), and it is in this ideal space created by the liquidation of the supervillain from the superhero narrative that a phantasmagoric procession of “(techno)logical subtleties” issues from the mind of Tom Thumb. Proudhon wrote, somewhat disapprovingly, that “every reformer is a magician, or at least desires to become one” (What is Property?, 453), and this certainly describes the Squadron’s scientific wizard, whose twin quests to dispell the ills of the human body and the sources of social disharmony dominate the series from issue #2 to #9. (Proudhon’s own quest was founded upon the belief that humans could be persuaded, through the use of rational argument, to form “more perfect unions”. Clearly, the reform faction of the Squadron act upon a different assumption–i.e. that, in Stieglerian terms, human “species-being” is not a pure essence to be unearthed by a dialectician, but a dynamic thing that is, to a large–but not total–extent, determined by a “non-living” carapace of its own creation; a carapace which, moreover, must eternally be recreated, and embellished upon.)

Thumb’s efforts bring the problem of the relationship between time and technology into focus. The inventor’s fate is circumscribed by the mutually contradictory meanings of his maxim: “anythin’ is fixable”. Thumb seeks to “fix” (as in, to render operational–preferably optimally so–and, at least to some extent, autonomous; that is to say, powered by its own head of steam) the human condition, but every move he makes in this direction raises the specter of “fixing” (as in, to stop or render determinate, or, even, slangily, kill) this mercurial concept. His assault on the citadel of disease takes him on an errand into the future, where he eventually compromises his deontological value system by stealing the “panacea potion” from its owner, the Scarlet Centurion. This sacrifice, which pains Tom a great deal, ultimately comes to nothing, as he discovers that the potion has no effect upon twentieth century bodies. It is no “cure-all”, but rather a ceremonial balm that ratifies the impregnable constitutions of the Centurion’s fortieth century subjects. This suggests that, while techniques may indeed have the capacity to alter or extend human horizons, they must do so in time, and not by abrogating experienced duration, even in a world filled with time machines.

The Centurion’s world also raises a vital question that relates to Thumb’s most important invention–the “behavior modification” (or “b-mod”) machine. Society in the fortieth century appears “fixed” in both senses of the word. It is operating at full capacity; and yet, in keeping with a fairly common tradition of sci-fi speculation, it lacks that vital “spark” of unpredictability which characterizes our world. Is this the Centurion’s true “gift” to his people? A panacea that bears a family resemblance to Huxley’s “soma”, which robs human beings of their agency? Thumb’s “b-mod” device, introduced in issue #4, obviously contains many of these same terminal possibilities, and threatens to repatriate the “end of history” from the fortieth century to the twentieth.

The series explores, with equal intensity, the effects of this device upon those who use it and those who are incensed by its use (while delving only tangentially into the problems encountered by those who are ill-used by it). In Hyperion/Tom Thumb’s group, we see the beginnings of the formation of a caste of “unmodded modifiers”, who live only to see their alchemical experiment flourish. Nighthawk’s group, on the other hand, could be said to take a hard Proudhonian stance–i.e. if reform cannot be effected without “magic”, then reform is not an option. Trapped between them is the increasingly large group of “modified” characters, who show no ill-effects, so long as the environment into which they are placed does not contradict the imperatives of their “retraining”. Of course, this environment is never “lab-perfect” to begin with, and only becomes less so, as the faction of doubters acquires more leverage to conduct their “dialectical-interrogation-through-other-means” of “pure reform”.

The text demonstrates that what is truly abhorrent in the “b-mod” process is not any violation of an “intrinsic” human nature (or, as in A Clockwork Orange, some notion of the human aspiration toward the sublime–as represented by Alex de Large’s “redeeming” obsession with “Ludwig Van”), but the fact that no “hard training” of this type can possibly equip a human being for the complexities of social and political life. The process suits “Shape”, a developmentally-challenged individual, perfectly, because, in any case, he is trapped by his own biology in a childlike world in which the need to make decisions and to form adult attachments does not arise. It may even be said to have been effective in the case of Quagmire, who is presented with a chance to act upon the categorical imperative of ultimate devotion to the welfare of the group, and seizes it (although the moral status of this “forced march to sainthood” is certainly called into question by the eruption of an overwhelming tide of “dark matter” from this puppet of virtue’s body in issue #10).

The text’s most scathing critique of “pure reform” is enacted by the figures of Ape-X and Lady Lark. In the former, the categorical imperative is revealed to have multiple (and irreconcilable) meanings, thus reducing the unfortunate character to a catatonic state, reminiscent of a “computer crash”. The latter’s case is even more damning, and plays back into the dilemma of the “unmodded modifier”. Golden Archer “retrains” Lady Lark to “love him and only him for the rest of her life”, and then finds himself unable to reap any benefit from this situation, which quickly assumes the aspect, in his mind, of a one-sided “role playing game” that never ends. She is certainly disturbed by the information, conveyed to her later on, that the feelings she is experiencing have been implanted in her mind, but their pathological development into dysfunction doesn’t set in until Wyatt disappears, robbing her of the only object that she is now capable of cathecting them upon. This conduces to a defensible (if certainly not indisputable) anthropological statement: i.e. knowing why we feel a certain thing will not tend to diminish these feelings in the least (although it may certainly help us to understand why we might not want to act upon them), but knowing why others act as they do does impact materially upon experience. A case like this, in which the “programming” becomes more apparent than its content, exposes the (always precarious) romantic quest for “intimacy with otherness” as an unsatisfying sham.

Both of these examples serve to focus book’s critique of the social admixture of the “modded” and the “unmodded”. In Power Princess’ literal island of Utopia, the putative founders (the Kree), set the society in motion and disappeared, like the Deist’s “clockmaker God”. The Scarlet Centurion, a figure cut from the same cloth, does elect to stay amongst the “creatures of his brain”, with the result that he is periodically driven, by sheer boredom, to seek out, in fits of lust, the “spark” of the incalculable in other times and places. This would appear to be the Overmind’s motivation as well, and with that association to guide us, we are given to understand that the Squadron, who were dupes of this lust in the past, are on a collision course with a more authentic form of servitude to it in the future. The respective fates of Lady Lark and Ape-X demonstrate that “b-modification” cannot work if applied to only a part of society. It must truly be all or nothing–it is a question of “metahuman momentum”–which leaves the “pure reform” faction of the Squadron no logical option but to “renovate” society and then leave it immediately. Ironically then, the team’s effort to reinscribe themselves into the common life of their world forces them ever further out of its orbit.

The only other thinkable option is for the entire team to “b-mod” themselves–and this is precisely what places Nighthawk’s faction on the battlefield of undecidability. The group’s involvement (rather than mere opposition to) in the sovereign decision is dramatized most effectively by the scene in which its leader is forced to confront the same choice (whether to “b-mod” a fellow Squadroner in the name of expediency, or not) that his nominal opponents must ultimately face. Nighthawk’s acquiescence to the tactical abrogation of incalculability in the name of the same signifies the emergence of a potentially irreconcilable antagonism between technology and time in this text. The mere existence of the “b-mod” device (an “atom bomb of the spirit”) threatens to write finis to the human enterprise, as an open-ended process; and the only possible defense against this final solution may be irresolution–or hope–itself.

In order to sustain the possibility of justice, the sovereign must hold a portion of its decisive power in reserve for use against itself. Full implementation of any plan is just as unthinkable as “radical refusal”. Every refusal must be a rejection of something, the elimination of which causes the refusal itself to evaporate. Likewise, the decision to enact a program depends upon a certain amount of opposition. It makes no sense to act upon perfectly malleable material–which, by definition, would always already be so constituted as to render any further shaping of it unnecessary. In the absence of this opposition, there is nothing to do, and thus no real decision. On the other hand, if it is the case that every decision is shadowed by its own counter-decision, can it truly be said that any decision is ever made? Squadron Supreme suggests not–and that, furthermore, this may be a good thing.
Works Cited and Consulted

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Good Afternoon friends!

Dave

untitled

“Doesn’t Every Woman Want Her Buttons Pushed?”; or, Fuck You Brad Meltzer
(Soundtrack: Sleater-Kinney —The Hot Rock)

Oh my. What an absolutely grotesque conclusion. (by the way: if you haven’t read Identity Crisis #7 yet, and you actually want to, look away! bay-eby look away!)

How the hell did we get from this:

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And this:

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to this:

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So. Wrong.

I’m not even saying that Jean shouldn’t have been the killer–although I’ve always liked her (particularly Roger Stern’s version of the character in the late, lamented Power of the Atom) and, of course, I’m saddened by the news–but no way should this have been the explanation we got for it!

Even the facts of the case speak against Meltzer’s lame-assed “I want you back” (baa-ba-bum-bum!) dialogue… I ask you–if there was nothing more to it than that, why didn’t she just arrange for Ray to find her on the verge of choking to death? Come on! Couldn’t they have just allowed her to get on with her life and attempt to deal with her ex-husband in a manner befitting an intelligent, emotionally-sound, supremely competent professional woman? That’s how Roger Stern played it! Does every woman in a male protagonist’s life either have to love him or hate herself, or, usually, some combination of the two? (And no, don’t say it! This problem, like every other problem that people who whine about the genre complain about, goes way beyond superhero comics, my friends…)

Is this a good time to mention that Christine and I have decided to end our relationship, after nearly four years? There may never be a better chance for a segue, in the context of this blog. Yes, there’s a trail of tears running from here to Montreal and back again, but, for now, it’s the only move that makes sense, sadly. And you have my word that no killing sprees will result from the demise of this beautiful thing. That’s just how it is–as Strnad and Kane demonstrate in the first two jpegs above (the good ones!)


Anyway–whatever right? IC is a murder mystery, and someone’s gotta be the killer! As I say, it could even have been Jean–and with the exact same set of murders too–but not, I submit, for these reasons!

All Meltzer had to do was explore the possibility that this was one human being’s protest against the kind of self-centered messianism that a certain idea of the superhero represents, and I would’ve said: “okay, that’s sort of interesting”. This would be Jean saying: “keep it up you fuckers, and I’ll kill’em all!” But no, the author’s handling of the lobotomizing plot indicates that this was precisely the kind of question that he was unwilling to raise. Or, at least, not in an effective way. Superheroes must continue. And they must be able to count on villains that “don’t hit below the belt”–plus the unconditional support of their loved ones, who had better just grin n’ bear it, ’cause nothin’ else matters, see? Well fuck that. It’s not that simple Brad! Why don’t you go back and read Squadron Supreme–that’s THE superhero “identity crisis”. It’s the interrogation of messianism, in all of its forms! And it’s right up there with Animal Man and The Filth.


Tomorrow–my Squadron Supreme paper!

Good Night friends!

Dave