I’ll Scratch Feuerbach, You Scratch Mind

I’ll Scratch Feuerbach, You Scratch Mind

(Soundtrack: Kill Rock Stars and 5RC Online Radio)

 Tim O’Neil’s recent piece on Marvels   has a lot going for it, and anyone with even a minor interest in superhero comics (or “romancing” of any sort) ought to profit from reading (and thinking about) it… Early on, Tim asks:

The question behind Marvels was whether or not, shorn of any considerations of complex mythology or hackneyed narratological conventions, the superhero genre could be a vehicle for real and penetrating human drama.

And right here, he loses me a bit, because I can think of several better questions than this, like:

1. What qualifies as “real penetrating human drama”? (I’ll tell you right now–I don’t see anything like that in Marvels!) And why does Tim oppose this formula to the fantastic elements that he sees Busiek straining to overcome? Is he equating “fantasy/romance” with “escapism”?

2. What narratological conventions are we refering to here, anyway? And hasn’t the improper use of a dramatized (“first-person”) narrator been the single most “hackneyed” narratological convention of all, since the mid-19th century?

3. Perhaps most importantly–why was this book done at all? And what kind of a genre statement does it make?

Tim summarizes the book’s mission in this way:

So, how exactly does one go about selectively applying conventional psychological reality to one of the most pointedly odd and deliberately artificial constructs in the history of fiction – i.e. the Marvel Universe?

I think he’s right about that–but the interesting thing is that he seems quite content to take this, the creators’ stated intent, at face value, never bothering to question the wisdom of their undertaking, or to problematize their terms. And just look at those terms! They’re just beggin’ to be “unpacked”… Take “conventional psychological reality” for instance! If it’s “conventional”, then it isn’t real!  I could go on with that, but why bother? The main point here is that, in certain critical millieus, “psychological realism” does enjoy such a privileged status that we have agreed to forget that it is merely conventional (and here we are haunted by our old friend, “suspension of disbelief”). And so we just take it for granted that, of course, it makes sense to muse upon what it would be like to live in the Marvel Universe. And you know, I just don’t think that it’s a valid or interesting question…

Nor do I think that Tim comes anywhere near proving that Busiek’s narratological maneuver (forcing the reader to adopt the POV of the “man on the street” in a world of “realistically”-drawn Alex Ross figures) enables him to conduct “a particularly deliberate and thorough dissection of the assumed conventions of superhero narratives.” Tim seems to think that there is a great deal of ironic value in demonstrating that we all should be afraid of superheroes–and that Marvels is a preemptive strike upon Ross’ mythological project. No way! Ross isn’t that  stupid! Reverence and terror come from the same place–and the Gods (wherever they have had any hold upon human beings) have always inspired both. How is Marvels any different from Kingdom Come in this regard? You cannot judge the Marvels. Point finale. This is the opposite of irony, Tim. And it gets even creepier if you follow Tim’s fascinating suggestion that we think of these mythological figures in connection with the “real marvels”–i.e. war machines/terrorists/weapons of mass destruction of all sorts… You cannot judge the commander-in-chief? Oh yes you can! The power he wields, just like the power attributed to the miraculous beings within this text, is a product of the human imagination, and, as such, can and should be judged by each and every one of us. The same “naturalization of fantasy” which drives Marvels is responsible for raison d’etat,”the market”, and every other institution/”truth” whose foundations are no longer visible to the vast majority of people who “don’t want to be taken out of the story” of their lives.

Of course, I’m not blaming Ross/Busiek for capitalism, or for George W. Bush, or anything else–but I am saying that their need to “literalize” the fantastic world created at Marvel in the sixties (and earlier) is indicative of a greater philosophical/aesthetic problem (and not merely an American one either). Ludwig Feuerbach’s mid-nineteenth century critique of Hegel sets this up very clearly–i.e. the history of human thought has been warped by the assumption that God is the subject, and “Man” is the predicate; when, in fact, men and women themselves are the subjects… In our more secular age, most people would probably agree with this statement–and yet, they forget it every time they accept anything on faith (which they do with alarming regularity). For a moment, I thought that Tim’s review might take us to this place, and condemn Marvels for muffing a great opportunity to comment upon our species’ inexhaustible talent for alienating the best (or, at least, most powerful) aspects of ourselves…i.e. if Sheldon had, at the end of the book, realized, somehow, that these new gods were just so many chimeras to be dispelled (or, at the very least, taken responsibility for them in some way)!

In fact, Busiek takes the opposite tack by forcing Sheldon to assume a position of abject “gratitude” toward them. “Realistic psychology”? I guess so–if this guy is supposed to be a portrait of a medieval peasant ruled by fear and ignorance of the constitutive principles of a social order he “never made”. Maybe that is what this book is about–and if it is, I heartily apologize to Busiek and Ross, because then it would at least qualify as competent satire. In any case, this still wouldn’t be making very good use of the Marvel Universe, which, as far as I’m concerned, corresponds exactly to what Nathaniel Hawthorne described as the ideal site for romance (in his preface to Blithedale): “a theatre, a little removed from the highway of ordinary travel, where the creatures of [the author’s] brain may play their phantasmagorical antics, without exposing them to too close a comparison with the actual events of real lives”. Again–the point of establishing this “theatre” is not to provide a “refuge” from reality (as in “escapist literature”), but rather to create a vantage point from which the author and reader may meditate upon (and talk over) the conventions that structure our perception of “reality” (not merely at the time of book’s composition, but at all times–a romance is no mere “debunking exercise”!). And the figures in these fictions are “larger-than-life”–but the purpose of making them so is not in order to inspire awe, but rather to cast a spotlight upon aspects of our own lives that we normally would not have the courage (or the self-absorption) to confront! The interesting thing is that Hawthorne used a Sheldonesque narrator in the Blithedale Romance itself–an observer figure in a world of heroic/demonic men and women–and yet the effect in the novel is entirely different, precisely because, as the book progresses toward its appointed catastrophe,  Coverdale is gradually revealed as, not an “ordinary joe”, but the spotlight itself…

And here we return to a subject that has been dear to my heart since I began this blog–the search for an “eye-level aesthetic”.  It’s not as if I’m preaching against “wonder” here. I’m a big fan of “Otherness”, and I don’t believe that art could exist without it! But let’s stop craning our necks in search for it, hunh? Let the era of “horizontal wonder” begin! Human beings are amazing enough in all good conscience…so let’s leave the reverence out of it!

Good Night Friends!



  1. “In fact, Busiek takes the opposite tack by forcing Sheldon to assume a position of abject ‘gratitude’ toward them.”

    I just flipped through the last several pages of Marvels, which confirmed my suspicion that I disagree with you about Sheldon’s attitude at the end of the book. After Gwen Stacy dies, he sits around being depressed for a while because her death is what finally snaps him into full disillusionment with the “Marvels.” He eventually seems to come to the conclusion that it’s crazy to “worship” (or whatever) these superheroes who fight and fight for “good” and never actually do anything useful. The book ends with him saying, basically, “Fuck the superheroes, I’m going to hang out with normal people now.” (And then the future Ghost Rider shows up to throw a hidden wrench in his retirement plans.) So I’m not sure where you’re getting that Sheldon finally returns to his initial state of abject awe.

    I do think Marvels has a lot more going on than it gets credit for. I think Tim did have some interesting points, although I also disagree with his use of realism, even after his clarification that he’s not claiming superhero stories’ nonrealistic nature is a flaw that must be overcome.

  2. Why is it that yours is the only blog where I ever forget to sign my name to comments?

    Steven, author of the preceding comment

  3. hmmmm….well, I’ll admit that I’m pretty fuzzy on the details of the book Steven (I read it at the cash at Paragraphe a few years ago–long before my “return” to comics)… perhaps I’ve been somewhat unfair…although I remember feeling, at the time, that Sheldon winds up, if not exactly worshipful, then at least convinced that “the marvels exist, and they’re scary/wonderful, and there’s nothing to be done about them”…or something like that… I do remember the “retreat” you’re describing…but it seems to me that it’s a retreat that reinforces the divide between humans and the inscrutable gods that loom over them… which, of course, is meaningless, because the “gods” are man-made…anyway–perhaps I’ll have an opportunity to take another look at it some time soon!




  4. Yeah, I think it’s at least a little more complicated than that. I mean, Sheldon’s got some weird little speech about how he can’t be the documentarian of the Marvels anymore because he’s seen too much, and he’s “inside” now, where he can’t see anything straight. I don’t have any idea what that’s supposed to mean, actually. Maybe at some point I’ll write about Marvels myself, except that I have much better stuff to write about first.


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