Are These Some Knives I See Before Me?

Are These Some Knives I See Before Me?

(Soundtrack: Guns n’ Roses — Appetite For Destruction)

One of the most interesting aspects of this very interesting Tim O’Neil piece on creeping nihilism in the superhero genre in the late-eighties/early nineties is the author’s contention that:

I’ve an idea that it might be possible to pinpoint the origins of this ideological breakdown to the advent and extreme popularity of Wolverine. As a fixture of Marvel’s best-selling Uncanny X-Men, Wolverine as easily the most popular new character of the late 70s. But the problem with Wolverine, from a practical point of view, is that regardless of the fact that he’s a character in a children’s comic book, his major power is a set of razor-sharp adamantium claws, he is a character who possesses the potential to kill. Not that any superhero doesn’t have enough power to kill any number of people, but the fantastical nature of most super-powers keep the issue relatively moot. Super-strength is for fighting the Hulk, not for killing thousands of people in downtown London in the space of an hour. But everyone knows what a knife is for: knives cut people. Knives can kill.

I think he’s got a very good point here. One of my problems with Watchmen (as a genre statement) has always been that Moore took superheroes (which, in my reading, work best as aspects of “existential romance”) and encased them in flesh (retroactively redefining “decisionist phantasmagorias” as mere “power fantasies”)… Again–I like Watchmen, but I deplore the book’s influence…not only upon Liefeld and the Image crew, but also upon critics–like Geoff Klock & Tim O’Neil–who assume that Moore’s interpretation of the Silver Age is correct… I think he’s dead wrong (or, let’s just say, he’s right about Kirby, but wrong about Ditko and most of the other creators who made the Silver Age interesting to me!), but that’s a battle for another day… What I want to get back to, for now, is Tim’s pre-Moore, “materialist” explanation for the advent of “the Darkness”/murderousness in superhero comics. That’s right, it all comes down to these fuckers–

and it’s not their attitudes either–it’s their “powers” themselves…

It’s a very persuasive idea. These guys just don’t lend themselves to the staging of existential dramas. This isn’t Cap and his shield, mired in a personal “cold war”, struggling to define what it is, exactly, that he is “sworn to protect”. This is a shooting war–and the targets are, for the first time, I would argue, purely external… Wolverine and the Punisher aren’t “their own worst enemies”–they’re yoursif they decide that you need killing! And, contra Tim, I would contend that it is with the accession of these two figures to prominence that the superhero genre becomes Manichean! This is why I consider Gruenwald and Morrison’s various efforts in the late eighties so important (if ultimately doomed, at least in the context of their own time)–these were the two writers who saw which way the wind was blowing, and attempted to save the genre for “romance”!

Just as an aside though–there was a major character walking around the Marvel Universe with a sharp-edged weapon before 1974:

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I always loved the way they tried to deal with that–sure, you can have a pitch-black vorpal weapon, but if you actually dare to use it on anyone, you’re done! (thanks to a convenient curse/stipulation that the wielder of the blade must never shed blood–and, of course, in the late eighties, Simonson plunged into that aspect of the legend to the hilt!)

Good Afternoon Friends




  1. David:

    Why oh why do I read your blog? It always makes my head hurt! I’d like you to clarify “Manichean” and how it applies to superheroes. Mani founded a religion based on the idea that there were two equal gods — the material, evil one and the spiritual, good one. Of course, he was killed right quick by those who determine if people are heretics or not. Did he influence the Cathars and Bogomils? Ah, that’s the question, ain’t it? So, are you saying that with the rise of Wolverine and the Punisher, that comics became more “black-and-white” and “eye-for-an-eye”? How are you using the adjective “Manichean”?

    See: reading your blog makes me remember my studies for my Master’s Degree. Damn you, Fiore!

  2. I always forget to leave my name. It’s me, Greg B. And I was thinking about Wolverine the other day. It’s unfortunate that he and Frank Castle became so popular, because in small doses (like Adam Sandler!) they’re effective. I’m sick of ninja, introspective, crying-when-his-fiancee-dumps-him, teaching Kitty Pryde, comforting Natasha Romanov Logan. I want Logan hitting on Jean Grey at inappropriate times and drinking copious amounts of beer because it doesn’t affect him. That’s just cool.


  3. See, I think you’re unnecessarily confusing things by insisting that Watchmen really has that much at all to do with the Silver Age. Sure, there are bits and pieces scattered throughout, but the fact that most of the heroes are non-powered “mystery men” places the bulk of the book’s moral considerations firmly in the Golden Age – hardly your bailiwick, but I think it’s an idea worth exploring. Not *every* book written since the so-called “Silver” age has been a reaction to the “Silver” age…

  4. ah–that’s a good point! (both of you!)

    Greg–you’re right, of course, I wasn’t using Manichean in its true sense, but merely in its debased pop-cultural “my way or the highway/there is a true enemy to vent your rage upon” sense…

    Tim–yes: the “power fantasy”/simple-escapism critique works for the Golden Age of superheroes… and I suppose it’s unfair of me to assume that Moore’s view of the Silver Age is similarly simplistic, but then again, you know as well as I do that most commentators do treat the Silver Age as “the golden age with jokes by Stan Lee” (and that’s exactly what it is–if you’re talking about a Jack Kirby work), and as long as that (from my point of view) misconception persists, I will continue to make my arguments against it!


  5. I was never that much into Wolverine; for some reason Kitty and Nightcrawler were more interesting. The tragic alienation/intangibility thing, I suppose. And I remember someone talking about how a couple comic writers complained that everybody took Frank Castle as a protagonist when he was actually meant as an antiheroic villain figure.


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