Academic

Councils of Perfection

As I mentioned at the LJ, this paper leaves out about 90% of what I would have liked to (and probably still WILL, someday, perhaps in a book-length project on Morrison) say about Animal Man, but I did the best I could! And please bear in mind that this paper is addressed, primarily, to people that have no familiarity with the book or the genre in question.

But enough excuses! Please, just read it, and tell me what you think!!!


Councils of Perfection: Genre and Generosity in Animal Man

And my ending is despair,

Unless I be relieved by prayer,

Which pierces so that it assaults  

Mercy itself and frees all faults.  

As you from crimes would pardoned be,

Let your indulgence set me free.

–Shakespeare, The Tempest

All I can do is join protest groups and write this comic.

–Grant Morrison, Animal Man #26

 Grant Morrison’s Animal Man (1988-1990) articulates a theory of agency which vaporizes the generic categories of author, autobiographical subject, protagonist, and audience into a fog of aestheticizing and intersubjectivizing energies. The series derives much of its ethical thrust from genre/narrative tendencies unleashed by the Marvel Comics of the 1960s, and depends, to an even greater extent, upon the editorial turmoil into which the “DC Universe” had been plunged during the mid-to-late 1980s. From the start, Morrison signalled (through a variety of textual and para-textual devices) his intention to take full advantage of his emergence at a crucial moment in the history of the genre by broadening the scope of the superhero story—not merely, as others had already begun doing, by forcing the protagonist into a new relationship with his/her/our world, but by developing a significant critique of the moral subject itself. The resultant storyline moves, through a series of epistemological leaps, toward the delineation of a kind of narratological Great Chain of Being. Under this new dispensation, every position in the sequence is defined by its occupant’s responsibility to loosen the grip of history/plausibility/coherence upon the lives of those under her/his diegetic care.

      Animal Man is deeply rooted in the history (and prehistory) of the superhero genre, and would not have been possible without the specific fan culture that emerged in the Marvel Comics letter-to-the-editor columns (“lettercols”) of the 1960s. The sine qua non of this subculture is a sense of “fan entitlement” (which brings the sensibility of the coterie into the realm of the mass-produced) that has no real precedent in the annals of popular entertainment. The Marvel lettercol represented a logical development of the fan forum, pioneered by science fiction “pulps” of the 1920s/30s and the sci-fi/horror comics produced by EC in the 1950s. These earlier pages were themselves significant departures from the “feedback”-oriented pages that were (and continue to be) a staple of periodical literature.

      The one person most responsible for this shift in policy was Hugo Gernsback, the publisher of Amazing Stories, a magazine which anthologized public-domain classics from the 19th-century alongside the contributions of genre-enthusiasts of its day. The lynchpin of this low-overhead (and, by all accounts, low-yield, at least by aesthetic criteria) marketing strategy was the “Discussions” column, which debuted in the June, 1926 issue. Gernsback printed the correspondents’ full addresses, thereby generating the connective tissue between hobbyists who shared the publisher’s belief that every reader of these stories was a potential scientist, and a potential “scientifiction” writer (Tymn, 14-49). To be a fan was to contribute to a group hypothesis concerning the destiny of the human race, purely for the pleasure (or, in some cases, the displeasure) of the thing. Conscientious participation in the dialectic entailed a duty, on the part of each fan, regardless of his or her status within the community, to scrutinize and pronounce upon the plausibility of the narratives that emerged from the process. Consequently, the lettercol, as the institutionalization of this imperative, retained its importance within fandom long after its catalyzing role had been played out.

      Writers and editors who grew up in this subculture generally adhered to its ethos when they moved into positions of influence at the comic book companies that had almost completely supplanted the pulp magazines by the mid-1950s. The careers of Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger at DC, William Gaines at EC, and Stan Lee at Timely (later Atlas, later Marvel) each followed this trajectory. At DC (home of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.), the full implementation of Gernsbackian policies was initially hampered by the editors’ paternalistic assumptions concerning the age- and literary competence-levels of their readers, but EC (publisher of titles like Tales From the Crypt, Weird Science, Shock SuspenStories, Psychoanalysis, etc.) continued the practice with ironic gusto, in the guise of the “E.C. Fan-Addict Club” (Pustz, 26-43).

      Timely/Atlas/Marvel was, in fact, one of the last comic book publishers to fall back upon this tried and true method of stimulating/taking advantage of fan-involvement. However, once Stan Lee was given free rein over the new line of superhero titles the company proposed to develop, in the wake of DC’s revitalization of the genre in the mid-to-late 1950s (at the dawn of what fans call the “Silver Age” of superhero comics—the “Golden Age” having concluded with the Second World War), he turned the lettercol into a textual interface which became absolutely integral to the reader’s experience of the Marvel narrative. The process was not instantaneous. It began with a promise to tell stories more intimately linked to the “everyday” concerns of its audience (romantic difficulties, making rent, paying for—and succeeding at—college, feelings of alienation and a deep distrust of the cant of patriotism and “civic virtue”), drew momentum from the jocular overtures to speculation extended to the letter-writing public by Lee himself (in his capacity as editor), and eventuated in a de facto creative pact between the nominal producers and consumers of these texts which guaranteed the continued vitality (or, at least, viability) of the line’s superhero characters (i.e. Spider-Man, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, X-Men, etc.) from month to month (Pustz, 43-65).

      The Marvel Universe functioned, as a grand narrative, in a manner similar to the Wikipedia site (although it was, of course, constrained, in many ways, by the far more primitive technological conditions under which its creation was transacted). It existed, at all times, in singular form—but was always under pressure from the margins (in the lettercols—where readers made a practice of accounting for inconsistencies in the published narratives with explanations that became canonical).

      The DC Universe, on the other hand, was very much a multiverse. It featured extremely clear lines of demarcation between the core and the periphery “worlds”—each of which, however, became increasingly riven by internal contradictions in the 1970s and 1980s. DC’s superhero line was 20+ years older than Marvel’s (Superman—its flagship character—was created in 1938; Fantastic Four—the first Marvel Universe title—debuted in 1961); and, until the publisher’s supremacy in the field was threatened by its younger competitor in the early-to-mid-1960s, its editors had never deemed it necessary to adopt any sort of a policy concerning the narrative coherence of its venerable slate of titles. Under pressure from Marvel—which had proven that most superhero readers  were sophisticated enough to appreciate the tight “continuity” that unified the Marvel titles, and also that many fans were actually old enough to have been reading the adventures of the perennially-thirty Superman for 25 years (although very few of them were sophisticated enough to appreciate the existential absurdities of this last)—DC took steps to rationalize its output.

      The story in Flash #123 (September, 1961), entitled “Flash of Two Worlds”, laid the groundwork for the multiverse concept. This tale, by Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino, explains that the Silver Age Flash (Barry Allen) had adopted his costumed identity as an homage to the Golden Age Flash (Jay Garrick), a comic book character whose adventures Barry had enjoyed as a child. Things become more complicated when the current Flash bursts through a dimensional barrier and finds himself in the world that those old comics had chronicled. Naturally, he meets his counterpart, whose world would become known as Earth-2, and their growing friendship would facilitate a host of similar meetings between the heroes of the two different worlds (even between those—like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman—whose identities are exactly the same on both planes). Gradually, the multiverse principle expanded to include all manner of peripheral worlds, including Earth-X (home of the “Freedom Fighters”—who struggle endlessly on against a German Reich which triumphed in World War 2), Earth-S (home of Captain Marvel—a popular hero/Superman “clone” of the 1940s absorbed by DC through a spectacular lawsuit against his original publisher), Earth-3 (a world ruled by the “Crime Syndicate of America”—villainous counterparts of DC’s Justice League of America), Earth-Prime (our world), etc.1 

      Many writers and fans grew attached to the multiverse, which underwrote the existence of numerous characters (i.e. the Legion of Super-Pets) and story elements (e.g. alternate histories, as represented by the Nazi-scenario; or a world ruled by superheroes; not to mention the entire sub-industry of books, some of them ongoing monthly titles, devoted to chronicling the further adventures of the “Golden Age” generation—and their children—on Earth-2) that would never have fit within the confines of the more streamlined narrative published by Marvel, the undisputed industry leader by 1980. However, an equal or greater number of participants in the subculture objected to this nebulous structure for the very same reasons. Moreover, the multiverse had proven to be less and less effective, even on its own terms, as a shield against the inevitable incoherencies of an increasingly sprawling corpus (e.g. when, exactly, did the stories in Batman begin to be about the Earth-1 Bruce Wayne instead of his other-dimensional predecessor? On which Earth(s) did Superman begin his career as Superboy?)      

      Matters came to a head when, in the mid-1980s, DC’s editorial staff conceded the necessity to gird its superhero line for renewed conflict with its younger, wirier opponent. The result: a twelve-month long “maxi-series” (which would have an impact upon every single title published under the DC banner) entitled Crisis On Infinite Earths (1985-86). The eponymous event was a massive conflagration that melted all of the myriad worlds into one brand-new diamond-hard Earth, the exact characteristics of which would be unveiled in comics published by the company after the final issue of the Crisis. In a symbolic move, many prominent titles—notably Superman, Flash, and Wonder Woman—were cancelled and re-started (or “re-booted”) at #1. Naturally, as a corollary of this, many characters and, theoretically, all of the events of the preceding 50 years were purged from the continuity, leaving DC’s writers and artists in the ideal position to speak directly to the superhero fan of 1987.

      The company also initiated a fairly extensive search for new and interesting talent to throw into the narratological breach. A pet axiom of the time held that non-American writers (presumably less immersed in the superhero subculture) would be less “conflicted” by the changes that had been wrought upon the DC Universe, and would therefore be more adept at furthering the revolution. Proponents of this theory generally relied upon the evidence of English curmudgeon Alan Moore’s critically (and, to a limited extent, commercially) successful re-invention of Swamp Thing in 1983, long before the Crisis had been implemented. Grant Morrison, a Scottish punk and Sci-Fi writer, would become one of the key figures in this comic book restaging of the “British Invasion”.

      In his autobiographical preface to Animal Man (printed, no doubt, for reasons of expediency, in issue #2), Morrison gives the following account of his engagement to write the series (after describing his youthful fascination with the character—whom he had first discovered as a “back-up reprint feature” in early 1970s issues of Supergirl):

I’d finally managed to get myself off Social Security and was working full-time as a comics writer—doing “Dr. Who” and “Zoids” for Marvel’s UK operation and the “Zenith” series for 2000 A.D.—when Karen Berger [a DC editor] phoned me up and asked me if I’d like to meet her, Jeanette Kahn [the President and Publisher of the company] and Dick Giordano [Vice-President and Executive Editor] in London, with a view to doing some work for DC (This was DC’s third major talent search in the UK, the first two having yielded people like Brian Bolland, Dave Gibbons, and Alan Moore.) Needless to say, I was on the first train to London, the very next morning. While the train idled at Crewe, I thought of Animal Man and saw this as the ideal opportunity to give my childhood fave his big chance. Revivals of old characters were very much in vogue at the time and I didn’t have very much trouble selling the concept (Animal Man #2, 25). 

In this passage, the author walks a characteristic tightrope between enthusiasm and glib detachment—presenting the episode as a once-in-lifetime opportunity for his protagonist, rather than for himself.

      This oddly compartmentalized fervour carries over into the remainder of the text piece, in which Morrison describes his creative process and declares his ambition for the series. It is worth quoting at length:

   I wanted first of all to do something a little different from the “gritty realism” that was so much in evidence at the time [the Reagan era witnessed a pronounced devolution in superhero comics, particularly at Marvel, into Dirty Harry-style exercises in vigilante aggression—exemplified by the antics of new fan-favourite characters of the period like Wolverine and The Punisher], something more aligned to the bizarre traditions of the 1960s Flash or even those few, early Animal Man adventures [also from the 1960s]. I also decided to remotivate the Animal Man character by making him a zealous animal rights activist. This allowed me not only to deal with some of the animal abuses that I find personally disturbing and indefensible but also to question the morality of more extreme activists, some of whom are talking about killing scientists and poisoning foodstuffs.

   With this in mind, I submitted a proposal for a 4-issue mini-series that would chronicle the radicalization of Buddy Baker [Animal Man’s real name]. The proposal was not only approved but I was then asked to continue Animal Man’s new exploits into a regular monthly title. From #5 onward, I hope can try some more interesting and experimental stuff, all of which is going to lead to a major reworking of Animal Man’s origin and an assault on the fundamental reality of the DC Universe (AM #2, 25-26).

Omitted from this statement of purpose is any discussion of the link between the author’s political and formal concerns.

      Morrison’s readers, already two months deep into the series, would certainly have recognized the “radicalization” storyline as the one in progress before their eyes. Issues #1-4 dramatize Buddy’s half-hearted attempts to curb the rage of the B’Wana Beast—a relic of the “Silver Age”, like Animal Man, who derives his powers from African mythology—in the face of the injustice done to his friend Djuba, an intelligent ape who had been kidnapped by poachers, then experimented upon (and ultimately murdered) by scientists testing a new strain of Anthrax to be used for military purposes. However, while the preface seems to indicate that the series would then “progress” from overt activism toward lighter, more experimental literary play, it in fact does something like the reverse.   

      Animal Man #5 (“The Coyote Gospel”) opens with a short vignette: a sympathetic, gay, Christian big rig truck driver and a young hitchhiker named Carrie discuss the perks and perils of relocating to the big city in search of a better, or a more exciting, life:

Carrie: You just think I’m a loser, like everyone else. Well you don’t need good grades in Hollywood and I’m going to be somebody. I had my tarot cards read.

Trucker: Hff! I spent three years in LA, man, and we’re talking Dante’s goddamn Inferno here, okay? I’d probably still be hooked on smack or dying in an aids ward if it wasn’t for my friend Billy there [points to a picture of himself and his friend, dangling from the sunshield of the cab]. He gave me this cross see? Solid silver. I’ve never taken it off since. Billy and the Good Lord saved my life, man. (AM #5, 1)

A few minutes later—after a pleasant interlude in which the pair perform a duet in sync with Jonathan Richman’s “Road Runner” on the radio—a strangely anthropomorphized coyote flashes before the windshield and is quickly obliterated by the truck (2). The trucker tells his guest not to look back—but the panels of the comic book don’t give us any choice. The reader is forced to contemplate the mutilated corpse—and to watch its subsequent (painful) regeneration into a whole, eventually upright (in a full-page illustration, see fig. 1), coyote. A caption declares: “That was a year ago” (3-5).

      On page 6, Morrison returns to the bosom of Buddy Baker’s sitcom-style, lower-middle-class suburban San Diegoan family, which had played a prominent role in the opening storyline, and would continue to do so throughout the series. Buddy is frenziedly throwing out every vestige of animal matter that he can find in his refrigerator, and tells his son Cliff (9 years old) that they will all just have to learn to eat things like “tofu or something”. Clearly, these events are meant to be read as the immediate aftermath of the adventure with B’wana Beast. Soon, Buddy’s wife (Ellen—a graphic designer) arrives home from work. She takes him to task for throwing out a week’s worth of groceries—and for failing, in general, to reconcile his noble urges with “reality” (specifically economic reality). An out-of-work stuntman nearing thirty, Buddy’s only career plan is to continue to develop his power to absorb the special abilities of any animal (from elephants to earthworms), in the hopes of “doing good”—and possibly earning his way onto the Justice League International, which would bring in a decent stipend. Ellen and Buddy had engaged in similar conversations throughout the previous issues, but the motif’s recurrence here—now yoked to the moral decision to stop eating meat—is decisive for the future direction of the series.

      Buddy storms out to clear his head in the desert, where he will eventually meet up with the unnamed truck driver from the opening vignette. From a series of captions, we learn that Billy, the man’s friend and probable lover, died in a freak accident two weeks after the coyote incident. Later on, the man glimpses a depressing headline (“Prostitute Slain in Drug Raid”) over a photograph of Carrie on the cover of his newspaper. He concludes that, somehow, the Coyote (he calls him “the devil”) is responsible for these terrible events, and resolves to kill him again. (Leaving the reader to assume that he must have “looked back”, against his own advice. How else could he have known about the animal’s resurrection?) He returns to the primal scene, armed to the teeth. When he finds the Coyote, sitting meditatively on the ledge of a canyon, he opens fire upon him with a rifle. The creature is smashed to bits by the fall. Narrative captions dwell upon every detail of the damage done to his body. However, he quickly rises once again, only to be targeted and blown up by more of the truck driver’s machinations (the last of which, a bomb, catches its architect in the same trap).

      Meanwhile, Animal Man drops in on the scene and introduces himself to the now-completely healed Coyote, who hands the hero a scroll which contains the “Gospel According to Crafty” (17). This strange tale, illustrated in the far more “childish” style familiar to viewers of Saturday morning programs, recounts how Crafty, originally no different fromn the rest of his fellow cartoon-denizens of a world plunged into “endless violence and cruelty”, came to doubt the justice of his plight, said “no more”, and rose up “into the presence of God” (19). God, depicted as a faceless man armed with paint brushes, asserts that Crafty will have to punished for his rebellion, and the accused declares his willingness to “bear any punishment that will bring peace to the world” (20). God grants Crafty’s wish—declaring a moratorium on violence in the cartoon world and banishing the sacrificial victim into the “dark hell of the second reality” (Animal Man’s Earth-DC), wherein he is given “new flesh and new blood…and taught new pain” (20-21). Several panels, including one that clearly references the Prometheus myth (see panel 2, figure 2), depict his suffering, and his determination to persevere, in the hope that he might someday “overthrow the tyrant God… and build a better world”. Animal Man looks up from the scroll and whispers, regretfully, that he cannot read it (21).    

      At this point, the truck driver, felled by his own bomb, recovers just enough of his strength to load a “magic silver bullet” (melted down from the cross given to him by Billy) into his rifle and shoot the Coyote through the heart with it. As the “devil” falls, the man mutters to himself: “Oh Billy, I did it. I saved the world.” Then he dies (23). The final page (see figure 3) consists of five panels, the first of which shows Buddy leaning dejectedly over the dying creature, followed by a series of “shots” which gradually pull back from the scene to reveal the Coyote lying in the iconic position of the crucified Christ, on a symbolically-cropped intersection in the desert, while the artist-God’s brush drips red paint (24).

      This final tableau becomes infinitely more interesting when it is read in conjunction with issue #5’s cover image (see fig. 4), which depicts Animal Man in roughly the same position as the Coyote. However, whereas the “God-hand” in the diegetic image is only shown in a destructive relationship to his creation (dripping the Coyote’s blood), the hand on the cover is actively engaged in the delineation (the subjectification?) of the series’ protagonist. Crafty’s God is merely a cruel tyrant, who could conceivably be overthrown. The creative force depicted on the cover is a more complex thing—certainly no less cruel than the monstrous deity who torments the Coyote, but perhaps a great deal more essential to the being of its victim. Is Morrison saying that life itself is nothing more than a drawn-out process of being drawn in to a trap? Perhaps it is more likely that he is drawing our attention to the ways in which genres (whether they be superhero stories or systems of belief) interpolate their participants (be they authors, readers, or protagonists)—painting them into a corner with a very limited palette of life-choices and possible attitudes toward events.

      Raised in a martyr-culture, Buddy (along with most of his readers and creators) inevitably discerns a kind of beauty/glory in the Coyote’s terrible death which he (and probably we, as well) cannot help envying (i.e. “All good comes out of suffering”). Thus, the Coyote Gospel is transformed into the Gospel of Animal Man, and, by extension, the Gospel of every single person who looks at the text but, like Buddy, fails to understand it. The remainder of the series will probe this scenario with relentless rigour, exposing, at every turn, the vanity of its protagonist’s (and of the Western Moral Subject’s) desire to “make sense” of suffering. 

      The response to “The Coyote Gospel” was, by all accounts, overwhelming. In issue #8’s lettercol (the series generally ran comments on three-month delay), Art Young, the assistant editor in charge of fan mail, elected to run short excerpts from letters on the story, in the hopes of squeezing in as many comments as possible. Discussion of the literary/cultural allusions within (and the formal properties of) the work tended to crowd out the political discourse that had been the column’s (entitled “Animal Writes”) stock-in-trade:

Poets know that the best metaphors are unexpected… I don’t find theology out of place in superhero comics, it’s the mythological potential of the genre that got me hooked on them years ago (Debbie Bird, AM #8, 25)

I am astounded at the variety of sources you have managed to incorporate into a mere 24 pages. Warner Brothers cartoon mesh seamlessly with the archetypal Prometheus myth. Add to that some metaphysical speculation about destiny and the workings of an omnipotent deity, and you have a truly remarkable achievement (Peter Knapman, AM #8, 26)

Of the page’s “stock company”—a small group of fans who, even at this early stage of the series, had established themselves as monthly participants in the dialogue—only Mark Lucas’ letter saw publication in issue #8:

[…]We see the monster in us all for not perceiving the Coyote as a friend, as a child would, but as a demon, when we ourselves are the demons watching the world from this view[point]… (AM #8, 26)

The interpretation of the story as a blanket condemnation of fallen/misguided humanity is common in fan-appreciation of Animal Man—and it can certainly be supported by reference to the text. However, when read within the larger context of the series as a whole, “The Coyote Gospel” can be construed to have a very different meaning (which we will return to later). Generally, readers praised the book for its inventive technique, along the lines of reception set down by Morrison in his “preface” (which was warmly embraced and much commented upon by the fans), and its author quickly acquired a reputation as the latest in a long line of comic book creators who were going to make “art” out of a trash medium. 

      The “text proper” of Animal Man #8 also brought Grant Morrison, as an autobiographical persona, back into the forefront of the story (although this was not to become evident until several months had passed). Page one of the story—entitled “Mirror Moves”—features a series of shots of a computer monitor, upon which the words “I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos. – Albert Einstein” gradually appear. The remainder of the issue is given over to domestic scenes (between Buddy and Ellen), and a domestic invasion perpetrated by the Mirror Master, a Glaswegian ruffian hired by a shadowy para-governmental organization to convince the young superhero, through intimidation, to abandon his political activism and return to the business-as-usual of battling “super-villains” and aliens. The confrontation is largely played for comedy, and affords Ellen another opportunity to show herself to be the head of the household, when she kicks the invader down the staircase. However, the story’s epilogue (in which the Mirror Master reports to his employers) also sounds the warning note that Buddy’s activities are under surveillance by powers beyond his ken. This is echoed twice over by two further epilogues. The first of which (“Epilogue II”) introduces a Native American Physicist named James Highwater, standing on a mesa in the middle of desert, wondering:

Why am I suddenly here? I don’t remember driving or walking to this place. Is it only some existential terror that makes me feel as though I have been newly brought into the world with a full set of memories and a purpose already prepared for me? Or could it be true, after all… That Einstein was wrong? (AM #8, 23)

“Epilogue III” returns to the computer monitor from page one, as a cursor drags the reply “He doesn’t. I do.” across the screen, beneath the quotation from Einstein (24).

      Most readers interpreted the computer’s owner as a megalomaniacal master-planner in the grand tradition of the genre. Others noted the possibility that this figure could be another guise of the omnipotent artist from issue #5. However, this kind of speculation was quickly overwhelmed by the advent of the protagonist’s long-promised (and much-anticipated) multi-part “origin story” in Animal Man #10-12 (which even reeled madly outside the confines of the series into issue #39 of, appropriately enough, at least on the surface of things, Secret Origins). One of the most cherished conventions of the genre, “origin stories” are always closely scrutinized (even memorized) by fans—and Morrison’s “The Myth of the Creation” interfaced with the tradition in ways that made even some of his most vocal champions uncomfortable:

“Be strong. Be careful. Beware” [an allusion to the final words spoken by the demiurgic yellow aliens—more on them presently—who put Buddy through his paces during this part of the storyline] Are you telling your readers to “be confused”? I don’t mean that nastily. In a year, we’ve seen a dozen fine stories; next month B’Wana Beast returns, and if the subject is Apartheid, I anticipate something that Joseph Lelyveld could have put into Move Your Shadow (see how highly I esteem Grant Morrison’s work?). But an origin is supposed to explain everything and allow us to move on to the next stage of the hero’s development. This didn’t do that, although it did make me knit my brow a lot (Charles Sperling, AM #16, 26).

In Secret Origins #39, Morrison (abetted by artists Tom Grummett and Doug Hazlewood) re-presents a version of Animal Man’s “original origin”, from Strange Adventures #180 (1965). It is a typical DC Silver Age origin: a guy with not too much going on in his life receives a wake up call from space and an immediate opportunity to thrash some beasts; goes home feeling powerful, blurts out a marriage proposal to his breathlessly waiting sweetheart and faints. That’s Buddy the first (pre-Crisis).

      On page one of Animal Man #10 (see figure 5), we find a kind of epilogue to the origin story that recreates the beginning of Buddy’s second Silver Age adventure (an encounter with completely generic yellow space aliens), again in the style of a 1960s comic. This page is the first item in a triptych that is at the heart of Morrison’s prophesied “assault upon the fundamental reality of the DC Universe”. The second item (AM #11, 2–see figure 6) is virtually a copy of the first, with a few alterations in the visuals (Buddy’s punk hairstyle, the wrecked spaceship) and with the words in the dialogue balloons completely scrambled. Clearly, there is some problem here—although it is supposedly resolved the following month, when those same yellow aliens prompt the post-Crisis Buddy to give his own account of the day in question. The key scenes recur a third time (AM #12 22—see figure 7), with the original syntax restored, and the dialogue, costumes and hair redone for the late seventies.

      The bookend “myths of the creation” (which bring to mind the two versions of the beginning of the world in Genesis) completely undermine each other, leaving the middle one–the meaningless one–to stand as the “true” secret origin of Animal Man. It is so secret, in fact, that it’s absolutely opaque! These are not “creation myths”, this is creation as myth! And without a stable origin, Buddy Baker has no real identity–he will always be other than himself…In issue #12, the reborn character discovers an ability to multiply himself, by absorbing the powers of self-replicating bacteria… In more ways than one then–Buddy II becomes Animal Men…

      A powerful anti-ontological argument runs through Animal Man. The mind instinctively recoils from the idea that consciousness springs out of the void. The standard antidote to this supposition is to posit a God or an Ideal which is the one and only something, and which we are all a part of (solipsism/pantheism). At certain points in the book, Morrison suggests that most people would actually rather embrace nihilism than entertain the notion that whatever meaning there is in the world is founded upon radical absence.

      The author comes out into the open, as a dramatized character, in issue #14. He wanders along a canal near his home, pondering the writings of David Bohm (Wholeness and the Implicate Order), contemplating the next act of his drama (which he fears is in danger of becoming pretentious), thinking to himself: “Sometimes you wonder, in an interconnected universe, who’s dreaming who?” (6-7). This interlude ends when Morrison stumbles across the sleeping form of James Highwater (one of the many figures this narrative encourages the reader to juxtapose with its nominal protagonist, in an endless concatenation of actors whose agency is infinitely deferred… Highwater himself had previously borne witness to a similar deconstruction of the willing subject, in AM #10, during an interview, in an insane asylum, with the Psycho-Pirate—a character who claims that every word he says has been scripted and lives in fear of being “removed from the continuity”—which ran parallel to Buddy’s “origin story”), and gently nudges the man’s shoulder.

      The physicist awakens in bed in an unfamiliar hotel, knowing only that he has been charged with the duty to contact Animal Man. However, this meeting is postponed by a series of adventures in AM #15-17 which hearken back to the “political”/”realist” mode of the first four issues. Buddy helps to curtail a Dolphin slaughter in the Faroe islands (#15); celebrates the publication of Ellen’s illustrated book by inviting her to take a quick trip to Paris (a few months earlier, Buddy had been inducted into the Justice League, thereby gaining access to a sophisticated teleportation system), during which, of course, he is forced to deal with a kind of “super-villain” (#16); and participates in an illegal raid on a medical research facility, in which “sight-deprivation” experiments are being performed upon monkeys, whose eyes have been sewn shut (#17). Buddy violates the “superhero code” by dropping one particularly bloodthirsty Faroese (who characterizes his enthusiasm for the traditional dolphin slaughter as a form of anti-Americanism/post-colonial empowerment) into the middle of the ocean; and, in #17, his rage against the speciesist paradigm reaches a fever pitch (an emotion eloquently captured by the issue’s austere cover illustration by Brian Bolland—see figure 8). The presence of these story elements, in the midst of the supposedly “literary” and “experimental” leg of the series, speaks in favour of a more holistic reading of Animal Man than anyone, including Morrison (who voiced the concern that the more “propagandistic” aspects of the book tended to undermine its integrity as a “work of art”), advanced at the time of its publication.

      The key to this interpretation lies in issue #16 (“The Clockwork Crimes of the Time Commander”)—the story set in Paris. The eponymous “villain” is a kind of metaphysical anarchist who achieves—temporarily—the ability to obliterate the distance between the present and the past. Buddy and Ellen first become aware of this man’s machinations when they encounter a Tyrannosaurus Rex on a cobblestone street. Soon, Animal Man’s Justice League comrades inform him: “Time’s gone crazy! We’ve just seen German tanks and cavemen chasing Jean Paul Sartre! The French Revolution is happening right around the corner” (AM #16, 14). However, when the team of heroes locates the Time Commander, he is standing in a graveyard, exulting in the various reunions (an old woman and her long-dead husband, a young woman and her cat) that his actions have made possible, crying: “love denies entropy! Through love, we abolish death” (17). Of course, the superheroes, whose default mission is always the preservation of the status quo, undertake to stop him, and all of them (except for Animal Man) engage in the mission without any sense of inner conflict. Ultimately, even Buddy concludes that the Time Commander’s threat to the clockwork mechanism of the political/natural cosmology of the West (which interpolates each of us as, before anything, beings-in-time) must be suppressed. The remainder of the series (#17-26) can be construed as an argument against that decision.

      Highwater finally reaches Buddy’s house on the final page of AM #17, then collapses into an unfinished sketch of himself. Issue #18 opens with a voice saying “…Buddy?…” in the dark, and a surreal vision of neighbors Tricia and Roger bearing down upon the unseen protagonist with tearful concern and a glass of water. In caption-boxes someone thinks “there’s something important I mustn’t forget… is that a door in the darkness?” Then we loop back into kitchen-brightness: Ellen pouring a glass of water for the flustered physicist (whose limbs have been disappearing for short periods lately), Maxine and Cliff (the Baker children) chattering in the background.

      Buddy and James set out upon their authorially-mandated adventure into monism, dreaming bridges across abysses under the influence of peyote, and the tutelage of an intelligent fox-spirit called “Foxy”. (Earlier in the series, Highwater had found a page of a comic book on the floor of the Psycho-Pirate’s cell which contained the autobiographical account of a child’s—subsequently revealed as Morrison–friendship with an imaginary fox, also called Foxy). Many Castenada-style revelations occur to the two men (including one in which, for a moment, the protagonist is able to “see” the reader’s face, looming over the page), but none of them count for anything against Buddy’s return to consciousnes in #20, on the floor of his kitchen, where he’d been since Roger offered him the first glass of water. It is revealed that during that whole burst of a-mesa-ing grace, Ellen and the kids were already dead (victims of a second “government” plot to stifle Animal Man’s activism).

      Morrison beautifully dramatizes a mind attempting to cope with the unthinkable–not its own anihilation, but the loss of what it loves. The cure is far worse than the disease. By plugging into “unity”/pantheism, he loses the capacity to relate, and the text maintains that relation is the only fount of meaning in this world. The mystic’s vision of union with the divine is depicted as a self-defense mechanism, a sop to the apocalypse, which humans generally gain access to by poisoning themselves with intoxicants, starvation, or sleep-deprivation. Far from being “at one with the universe”, Buddy isn’t even at one with himself. He has no identity–or, at any rate, he is not identical to himself.

      In issue #22 (illustrated by Paris Cullins & Steve Montano, not by Truog, or even by Tom Grummett, who had filled in before), Buddy wanders (thanks to a staple of the genre—the time machine), alienated, through his past, thinking: “sometimes I watch them but they don’t seem real. They’re his family, not mine. My family is dead. It’s driving me mad. It’s driving me mad” (14). In direct contradistinction to the Psycho-Pirate’s fears, Buddy is never in continuity. His reality is fluid–he’s treading “elseworlds”.

      The subsequent issues detail Buddy’s desperate attempts to find his way back into a life with his family that he increasingly comes to understand as nothing more than a “story” (with no diminution in his desire for it). Issue #25 follows the protagonist through Limbo—a repository for all of the characters removed from the continuity during the Crisis. The cover of this issue depicts a monkey at a typewriter. On the surface, this figure seems like just another avatar of the artist-God—and indeed, the monkey is scripting the first page of the story contained within the book. However, it is significant that this scripter-God turns out to be a denizen of Limbo, and thus shares a plane of existence with the alienated dregs of the DC universe. The monkey enjoys none of the aestheticizing detachment that the series’ preceding Gods and authors did. The God of the Coyote Gospel proves to be unassailable. The Art Martyr (from issue #6) almost blows up the planet with his ultimate creation—and dies without knowing (or, indeed, caring) whether or not his apocalyptic set-piece has achieved its final aim. The monkey, on the other hand, merely types out a passage from The Tempest, smiles, and keels over–becoming a dead-weight in Buddy’s arms as the latter wanders purposefully nowhere through the meaningless tundra. Is this scene a depiction of the creator as a burden upon the created?

      Certainly. However, the monkey’s saga also contains this plea against a well-made plot, direct from Shakespeare 

And my ending is despair,

Unless I be relieved by prayer,

Which pierces so that it assaults

Mercy itself and frees all faults.

As you from crimes would pardon’d be,

Let your indulgence set me free. (The Tempest)

Prospero, in his last extremity, asks the audience to abrogate the dire chain of cause-and-effect at work in the narrative—and this is exactly what Morrison (under the influence of innumerable pleading letters from his readers) eventually does. The author saves the characters he (and they) has/have grown to love by splicing his/their hopes to the Shakespearian comedy, which brings something out of nothing by calling for a sympathetic response.

      The figure of the monkey serves as a stand-in for Morrison’s dying cat, Jarmara, whom he had carried back and forth on endless trips to the vet that ultimately proved to be of no help at all (an account of which is given to Buddy, by the author himself, in issue #26). Jarmara’s death is the preeminent symbol of limitation in this book. Literally anything else can be changed, on a whim–but not this. As Morrison tells Buddy, her death was “not fair. But who do I complain to?” (AM #26, 18)

      Thankfully, this is not the case with Buddy’s family. They are inhabitants of a “world created by committee”, and this committee is quite as capable of conspiring to bring dead characters back to life–no matter (as letter-writer George Gustiness puts it in #23) “what sleazy stunt [they] have to pull”–as it is of visiting horrific persecution upon its charges. It becomes a question of which convention the audience will embrace: comedy or (1980s-supehero-style) “grim n’ gritty” tragedy (a mode which, paradoxically, has always been far more satisfying to the tortured human psyche.)

      In issue #25, the mysterious typing figure, which later proves to be Morrison, thinks (in response to limbo-bound Merryman’s question: “Let’s face it, who cares about the space canine patrol agents in this day and age?”):

I care. It’s stupid, I know, but I care. All the things that meant so much when we were young. Under the blankets late at night, listening to long-distance radio. All those things: lost now or broken. Can you remember? Can you remember that feeling? (12)

The author is quite right to invoke the names of specific letter-writers (AM #26, 17)—most of whom do remember the things (and the characters) that he is talking about with affection–when the time comes for him to make a decision in Buddy’s case. Ultimately, it is they, as a community of wellwishers, who agree, for old time’s sake, to waive their right to a sacrificial lamb, thereby empowering Morrison to restore Ellen, Maxine, and Cliff to Buddy’s world. “Maybe, for once, we could try to be kind” [in lieu of striving for “realism”] (AM #26, 19), Morrison explains. (Echoing  Emerson, in “Experience”: “Let us treat the men and women well. Treat them as if they were real. Perhaps they are”). It is a triumph of generosity over genre. Or, rather, it is a flying leap, out of tragedy, into another genre entirely: Old Comedy (which is driven by the need to recognize the Other, and the limits of the imperial self).

      In the book’s final moments, after Buddy has been reunited with his family, Morrison completely abandons the pose of the self-begetting (and aesticizing) creator. He stands on the edge of the canal, shining a light across the water, in search of the face of the Other (whom he calls “Foxy”). In this posture, he is the embodiment of Judith Butler’s “subject who can never fully give an account of himself [and who] may well be a result of being related at non-narratable levels of existence to others in ways that have a supervenient ethical significance” (Giving an Account of Onself, 135). Ultimately, it is the example of this unexpected humility which constitutes Morrison’s most effective argument against the human tendency to seek order, coherence, plausibility, “realism” at the expense of the living beings whose life stories we (either as individuals, or “by committee”) can easily rewrite.

Works Cited and Consulted

Adams, Timothy Dow. “Introduction: I Am a Camera.” Light Writing and Life Writing: Photography in Autobiography. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2000. 

—-. “To Prepare a Preface to Meet the Faces that you Meet: Autobiographical Rhetoric in Hawthorne’s Prefaces,” ESQ 23:2 (1977), 89-98.

Althusser, Louis. Selection from “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Toward an Investigation).” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. V. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 1476-1479, 1482-1509.

Barthes, Roland. Roland Barthes. Paris: Editions Seuil, 1995.

Butler, Judith. Giving an Account of Oneself. New York: Fordham UP, 2005.

Cavell, Stanley. Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

—-. Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2004.

Klock, Geoff. How To Read Superhero Comics and Why. New York: Continuum Press, 2002.

Morrison, Grant, Chas Truog, Doug Hazlewood, et al. Animal Man #1-26. New York: DC Comics, 1988-1990.

Moskowitz, Sam (1954). The Immortal Storm: A History of Science Fiction Fandom. Westport, CT: Hyperion Press.

Pustz, Matthew J. (1999). Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers. Jackson, Mississippi: University of Mississippi Press.

Smoodin, Eric. Regarding Frank Capra: Audience, Celebrity and American Film Studies, 1930-1960. London: Duke UP, 2004.

Tymn, Marshall B and Mike Ashley (Eds.) (1985) Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Weird Fiction Magazines. London: greenwood Press.

Clobberin’ Time: Escapism, Engagement, and the Dialectic of Excitement in Marvel Comics, 1961-1966

Clobberin’ Time:

 

Escapism, Engagement, and the Dialectic of Excitement in Marvel Comics, 1961-1966

[Personism is] a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre syle, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages. In all modesty, I confess that it is the death of literature as we know it.

–Frank O’Hara, “Personism: A Manifesto” (1961)

 The Marvel Universe exploded into being, with an ironic, self-aggrandizing bang, in March, 1962 (captioned by “The Greatest Comic Magazine in the World” blurb on the cover of the otherwise-unheralded Fantastic Four #3). This declaration of principle-your-leg was promptly incorporated into the comic’s logo, and, over the course of the next five years, would flower into a reasonably accurate appraisal of the state of the art in America (at least in its “above ground” manifestations). Marvel built up its readership during this period by reconstructing its (implied) readers; inscribing the new model “Merry Marcher” (conceived as a combination of revival convert, interlocutor and ”editor-at-large”) into the scripts of its “realistic fantasies” through a variety of textual interfaces and initiatives. This process was both nurtured and constrained by generic, commercial, cultural, ideological, and world-historical imperatives that intersected most revealingly in the Marvel fan page.

      The fan page—or “lettercol”—had been a staple public relations strategy of “pulp” (and, later, comic) magazine publishers since the 1920s (particularly of those companies which serviced the unusually self-conscious science fiction fan community). Initially, Marvel deployed the device in its standard “bouquets or brickbats”/”letter to the Editor” guise. However, audience response (called forth by the increasingly conversational/hyperbolic narrative/editorial style adopted by writer Stan Lee) soon dictated a change in policy, epitomized by the metafictional bleed between “story” and letters in Fantastic Four #10 and #11 (Jan and Feb, 1963). Even Lee appears to have been staggered by the degree of enthusiasm elicited by the material that he, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby were creating; and his 1963/1964 editorials betray a certain uneasiness with the possibility that readers might well be more excited by their own role in fomenting “The Marvel Age of Comics” than by the nominal “content” of the books themselves. These qualms would soon evaporate under the glare of national scrutiny, as the company furled its banner around the nexus point between narrator and narratee, “reality” and “fantasy”, parody and epic, “high” and “low” culture, student and G.I., radical and conservative, producer and consumer, publicity and public, professional and fan.

      Science fiction fandom, which coalesced into a demographic to be reckoned with in the 1920s, established a model for consciousness-raising that would serve as both an inspiration and a foil to Marvel in the 1960s. Sam Moskowitz traces the origins of the subculture to the “Discussions” column of Amazing Stories, the first magazine devoted entirely to the genre (Moskowitz, 5). This immensely popular venture, the brainchild of cost-conscious publisher Hugo Gernsback, anthologised public-domain classics by the likes of Poe, Verne, and Wells alongside the tentative first efforts of their epigoni. The lynchpin of this low-overhead (and, by all accounts, low-yield, at least by aesthetic criteria) marketing strategy was the fan forum, which debuted in the June, 1926 issue. Gernsback printed the correspondents’ full addresses, thereby generating the connective tissue between fans who shared the publisher’s belief that every reader of these stories was a potential scientist, and a potential “scientifiction” writer (Tymn, 14-49).

       In the past few decades, the theorization of mass culture has moved (although far from unanimously) away from an “effects” paradigm toward a discourse of “use”/“appropriation” (Brooker and Jermyn, 91-93) that Gernsback’s audience would certainly have understood. Subcultural insider Sam Moskowitz’s The Immortal Storm: A History of Science Fiction Fandom, published in 1954, provides a textbook account of the ways in which “some individuals may seek to express their otherwise silenced identities through a common interest in a symbol, icon, or text, and, then, redress their alienation through the social nature of fan practice” (Alexander and Harris, 5). Of course, Moskowitz’s particular fan/subjects owed their group allegiance to “science” (defined as “progress”) itself, and their sense of “empowerment” derived as much from a perception of intimacy with “the future” (would Bourdieu call this predictive capital?) as from the communal ties they often forged.

      In this respect, science fiction fandom could be described as having some of the characteristics (in hyper-teleological form) of what Theodor Adorno (1994), in his analysis of faddish interest in astrological columns, calls  “secondary superstition” (48-49). Gernsback’s slogan, after all, was: “Extravagant Fiction Today—Cold Fact Tomorrow” (Tymn, 16). However, Moskowitz’s typical actor is, in many ways, the exact opposite of Adorno’s simultaneously passive and calculating recipient of messages from the Irrational Beyond. While science fiction fans did (and do) tend to see a kind of providential logic in the vagaries of technological development, they most certainly did not commonly defer to “expert” forecasts of the trajectory of Absolute Science; and they were even less likely to wish to use “information” gleaned from the hobby to their material or social advantage. To be a fan was to contribute to a group hypothesis concerning the destiny of the human race, purely for the pleasure (or, in some cases, the displeasure) of the thing. Conscientious participation in the dialectic entailed a duty, on the part of each fan, regardless of his or her status within the community, to scrutinize and pronounce upon the plausibility of the narratives that emerged from the process. Consequently, the lettercol, as the institutionalisation of this imperative, retained its importance within fandom long after its catalysing role had been played out; although Moskowitz maintains, quite convincingly, that the most vital fan activity had moved on to other fora—i.e. the “fanzines”—by the late 1930s (13).         

      Be that as it may, Julius Schwartz and Mortimer Weisinger (charter members of New York’s “Scienceer” fan club in 1933) brought the lettercols with them when they acceded to editorships at DC Comics, just a few years after Moskowitz published his chronicle, and the move is generally seen as one of the key contributing factors in the revitalization of the superhero genre in the late 1950s (Pustz, 44). However, while the lettercols in Flash and Superman magazines undoubtedly did stimulate a certain amount of fan interest, they interfaced with the community in a markedly different way than their pulp predecessors had. In the first place, these books featured the adventures of continuing characters, rather than anthologized material, with the result that the letters tended to focus upon the imagined worlds contained therein, rather than the creative personnel (the majority of whom received no by-line) responsible for their production. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, DC’s (accurate) construal of its readership as largely composed of young children inevitably fostered an asymmetrical power dynamic between the editors and their correspondents. Older fans of these characters (in both their emergent “Silver Age” and World War Two Era—or “Golden Age”—incarnations) did exist, of course, and many of them wrote letters of comment to DC, but their concerns (and characteristic modes of expression) fitted awkwardly into the fora presided over by Schwartz and Weisinger. By 1961, fan publications such as Roy Thomas and Jerry Bails’ Alter Ego (Schelly) had arisen to capture the reactions of this estranged segment of the community on paper, but the peripherality of these glosses prevented them from performing the (potentially) heteroglossic function of letters imbedded within the primary texts themselves.   

      Moskowitz’s history abounds with precedent examples of this diversion of fannish energy into parallel (and parochial) publishing schemes. Fandom has always been as productive of schism as it is of community, and subcultures, like Protestant sects, are unstable by nature. Indeed, the argument can be made that, if the American public has been “defanged” politically by the “culture industry”, it is not because citizens have been reduced to mute simulacra of humanity by its machinations, but rather because they are too busy discussing the meanings and minutiae of its products to bother with anything else.

      In this sense, mass culture merely stole the spotlight from bibliocentric Christianity upon the country’s psychic stage.  The difference, of course, is that while religious disputes in the 18th and 19th centuries generally paralleled and reinforced political divisions (thereby helping, at least in some cases, to force a resolution), movies, comics, pop songs, and bestsellers have dwelled far less relentlessly upon questions of individual and collective morality. Moreover, these diverse entertainments (Adorno and Horkheimer to the contrary) cannot be made to cohere into a monolithic conversation piece capable of drawing audience members from across the ideological spectrum into one spirited and potentially politicizing debate. The importance of the Marvel Universe, as it evolved into a collaboratively imagined (and maintained) textual playground, lay precisely in its growing serviceability as a venue for this kind of notional pastime (albeit on a miniature scale) during a crucial period in American history. The remainder of this paper will concern itself with an analysis of the formative stages (1961-1966) of this unique narrative structure.

“Realistic Fantasy”

      The “Fantastic Four Fan Page”, featuring reactions to the title’s premiere issue (cover-dated November, 1961), debuted on page 20 of FF #3. The early columns adhered, in most respects, to industry standards laid down by Weisinger and Schwartz. Letters are addressed to “The Editor” and generally confine themselves to “knocks” or “boosts” of the material. Fans are identified by name and place of residence, but their full street addresses are withheld. Only the editor’s somewhat “wackier”-than-usual responses (later credited to Stan Lee himself) convey any sense of the possibilities that would soon open up. Lee’s tone, clearly recognizable in the very first exchange printed in a Marvel fan page, owed a great deal to the public relations style pioneered by William Gaines’ EC comics in the mid-1950s:

DEAR EDITOR:

I think the Fantastic Four will become a great success. The Thing and the Torch are very new and different. I would also like to know what the name of your artist is.

Alan Weiss

Pardee Place

Las Vegas, Nevada

[Ed:] It’ll become a success?? What do you think it is NOW? Chopped liver?? Considering that our artist signs the name JACK KIRBY on everything he can get his greedy little fingers on, I think we can safely claim that that’s his name! (FF #3)

      As in this instance, reader response tended to emphasize the novelty and “realism” of the characters (particularly of The Thing, whose “cosmic ray”-born powers came yoked to a rocky, orange body that set him apart from his colleagues and all previous protagonists of this type of story). In actuality, the Fantastic Four was conceived primarily as a generic segue between Marvel’s (and artist Jack Kirby’s) then-house speciality (the one-shot “monster tale”) and the atomic-age superhero trend launched by DC in the late 1950s. While some correspondents, notably Bill Sarill, deplored this “creeping monsterism” (FF #3), most of them keyed in approvingly on the elements of these stories that distinguished them from those published by the company’s chief competitor. If readers chose to interpret the Thing’s difficulties as a nod toward “realism”, Lee was not about to correct them.

      In the flattering post-script to FF #3’s column, the editor noted that: “unlike many other collections of letters in different mags, our fans all seem to write well, and intelligently. We assume this denotes that our readers are a cut above the average, and that’s the way we like ‘em”. During the course of the following year, Lee and Kirby strove to bring the title into a closer alignment with the expectations evinced by (and raised by the previously unsuspected existence of) this audience. The series was reset from “Central City” to New York. Protagonists that had been conceived as icons (leader/father figure, female love interest, hot-headed teen, anti-hero/outsider) were suddenly subjected to the canons of a very different type of storytelling. “Character development” (along with its corollary: “continuity”) was placed at a premium. In deference to the older superhero fans who played an increasingly large (and increasingly valued) role in fostering the early success of the book, the stories were infused with a sense of the genre’s history (epitomized by the resurrection of the Sub-Mariner, created by Bill Everett for Marvel in 1939, in FF #4). Most importantly, the jocular tone of the first lettercol deepened into a more purposefully ironic style, and spread to the text proper, encouraging responses in kind from the readers. The product of these changes (and dialectical exchanges), motivated entirely by commercial considerations, was a brand of “realistic fantasy” (bordering on the grotesque) that resembled nothing so much as a more philosophically optimistic variation upon the works of Nathanael West.      

Stan and Jack

       Sales and fan enthusiasm escalated throughout 1962. After beginning at a bimonthly publication rate, The Fantastic Four “went monthly” in September of that year, prompting the beleaguered editor to beg his readers to keep their letters short. No matter how preoccupied they became with plans for new characters—such as Spider-Man (who debuted in Amazing Fantasy #15, cover dated August, 1962), and the Incredible Hulk (who first appeared in issue #1 of volume #1 of his own—ultimately unsuccessful–magazine in May 1962)—designed to flesh out (and capitalize upon) the world that had sprung to life within the pages of the FF, Marvel’s creative personnel (primarily Lee, Kirby, and Steve Ditko) understood their sacred obligation to the proselytizing readers who were conducting the company’s advertising campaign on their own free time.

      Fan letters also began to play an important role in shoring up continuity glitches that might otherwise have damaged the fictional integrity of the emergent Marvel universe. Bruce Fogel’s mock-irate letter in FF #4, which complained about the inconsistent presentation of Sue Storm’s powers, instigated a primitive version of the “No-Prize contest”, in which readers vied for the honour of sparing Marvel’s creators the disgrace of being proved incompetent storytellers. In this case, a bounty ($5) was offered—and subsequently awarded to Jonathan Latham, one of 73 readers to come up with a plausible solution to the problem, in issue #6. However, Lee quickly deduced that fans enjoyed these opportunities to co-write the stories to such an extent that no further financial incentives would be necessary—and so the “No-Prize” was born.      

      The Bakhtinian carnival within the lettercols finally spilled over into the main feature in early 1963. The cover of FF #10 depicts the artist and scripter standing with their backs to the reader, marvelling at the raucous situation they’ve concocted this month. An arrow-shaped blurb drives home the point, announcing: “In this epic issue: surprise follows surprise as you actually meet Lee and Kirby in the story!!” The much-anticipated event comes to pass on page 5, which shows the pair in their Marvel office, surrounded by images of the company’s other properties and sacks labelled “fan mail”. The diegetic Lee and Kirby agonize over their incapacity to create a more interesting villain than Dr. Doom, a character they regret exiling to space in a previous issue (a footnote—the first of its kind, and destined to become a trademark aspect of Marvel continuity-consciousness—reminds the reader that this event occurred in issue #6). Their problem is solved when Doom himself wanders onto the scene, barking: “you are searching for a story—well, I shall give you one! Here, phone Mr. Fantastic—say what I tell you if you value your lives” (FF #10, 5). Naturally, they do, and the rematch proceeds apace.

      The lettercol of this same issue serves notice of two far more important innovations, from our point of view. It begins with this disclaimer:

Hi fans and friends! Look—enough of that “Dear Editor” jazz from now on! Jack Kirby and Stan Lee (that’s us!) read every letter personally, and we like to feel that we know you and that you know us! So we changed the salutations in the following letters to show you how much friendlier they sound our way!

As promised, all of the letters (with the exception of one missive directed to the “editors of the greatest comic mag”) are addressed: “Dear Stan and Jack”. This became the standard form of address at Marvel, and it did indeed attest to a growing sense of solidarity between creators and fans. Secondly, in response to “literally hundreds of requests,” the editors announce their intention to expand the lettercol to two pages.

        FF #11 (Feb 1963) yielded even more interesting metafictional commentary upon the “lettercol effect”. The two stories contained within the issue certainly made good the cover’s promise to deliver “offbeat” entertainment. The first of them, “A Visit With the Fantastic Four” was billed as a “special bonus to our readers…the type of story most requested by your letters and post cards” (1). The “splash” page shows a mixed (by age and gender, but racially homogenous) group of New Yorkers lined up at a newsstand on the most important day of the month—i.e. the day the new issue of Fantastic Four appears. Meanwhile, in the foreground, a Kirby youth crows: “Hey Charlie look! I just got the latest copy! And my letter’s on the fan page!” The vignette demonstrates that while, even at this early date, Marvel no longer conceived of its customers as exclusively male and under 13, the company still expected its most vociferous champions to hail from this segment of the population.     

      Support for this conviction abounds in the story itself, which features the characters’ responses to representative reader questions about the daily lives of Fantastic Four. The most jarring episode of the encounter centres upon Sue Storm’s reactions to her “fan mail”:

Reed: We’ve come a long way since those early days… and had many almost unbelievable adventures!

Sue: But they were your adventures—the three of you—much more than mine!

Reed: Sue! What are you talking about? What do you mean?

Sue: I-I hadn’t wanted to mention it Reed, but I’ve gotten a number of letter lately—some disturbing letters… There! A number of readers have said that I don’t contribute enough to you…you’d be…better off without me! And perhaps they’re—right! (FF #11, 9)

   

The creators’ attempt to settle this controversy, which had been brewing in the lettercols for months (and which definitely savoured of homosocial playground logic), tells us more about their own limited understanding of the relationship between gender and genre than the implied reader’s. Reed delivers a paean to Lincoln’s mother (“who didn’t help him fight the Civil War…[but who nevertheless was] the most important person in the world to him”) and Ben Grimm (the Thing) exclaims: “if you readers wanna see women fightin’ all the time, then go see lady wrestlers!” (10).

      Almost as an afterthought, Reed points out that Sue had, in her invisible way, contributed materially to the group’s battlefield triumphs. This aspect of the defence elicited the most satisfying comments from readers, with the result that, one year later (in FF #22), Sue acquired extra powers which enabled her to do more of the fighting that (Ben Grimm to the contrary) superhero fans (including the women who composed between 10 and 15% of the letters published in Marvel fan pages between 1962 and 1966) could be forgiven for wanting to see all of the protagonists engage in.

      By this point, it had become clear that, when readers clamoured for “realism”, they meant something more akin to the “reality” of a close, responsive relationship between narrator and narratee than to “psychological realism”. These people craved the assurance that their concerns would always be faithfully noted, translated and inscribed into the fantastic terms of the text. To the extent that Marvel succeeded in upholding its end of the bargain, it defied both the Adornian and the De Certeauan models of the relationship between cultural producers and consumers. Marvel readers were more likely to be the co-producers of—rather than “produced” by—the stories they consumed; and graffiti becomes impossible when the owner of the building hands you the pen (even if he or she never hands over a share of the profits).

Letterqualms

      This is not to say that the company always practiced what it preached—particularly in 1962/3, when the small operation dangerously overextended itself in an effort to broaden the scope (and the profitability) of the Marvel universe. Of the new superhero titles that appeared during this period, only The Amazing Spider-Man received its own lettercol. Readers of the other books (Journey Into Mystery, Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense, and the short-lived Incredible Hulk) were expected to send their comments to the “Fantastic Four Fan Page”. Even more telling was this editorial plea from the “Special Announcements” section of ASM #7 (Dec 1963):

Here’s our most difficult announcement: we want your permission to discontinue [“The Spider’s Web”]! Now hold on, before you hit the ceiling! We KNOW you enjoy these two pages! We enjoy’em too! But, they take HOURS to put together—to select the letters, write the copy, etc. and we’d rather spend that time producing new strips for you. We feel it would be best to have only one clearing house for all Marvel Mail, and that would be the FANTASTIC FOUR mag. So how about it? Suppose all the mail for all Marvels is sent to FF? That’ll give SPIDER-MAN two extra pages for longer stories, features, or what-have you! We’ll do nothing till we hear from you, so let us know. But, as a special favor, we hope you’ll tell us you don’t mind.

Needless to say, the respondents did mind. In fact, they were so insistent that, by May 1964, all of the Marvel titles (including new additions The X-Men and The Avengers) had been granted lettercols. 

      Hand in hand with this initial incapacity (due to understaffing) to fully implement its lettercol strategy came a more philosophically motivated reluctance on the company’s part to engage readers intelligently on subjects considered tangential (or even hazardous) to the maintenance of a “shared universe” that came preformatted to the ideological specifications of the Kennedy sixties. As one might expect, the most glaring failure, in this regard, concerned Marvel’s penchant for casting Communist agents as villains.

      The Fantastic Four’s showdown on the moon with the self-explanatorily-named Red Ghost in issue #13 (April 1963) provoked an uncharacteristically circumscribed debate in the lettercols. The printed objections to this type of story tended to deplore them as clichés, rather than as instances of Cold Warmongering:

Come on now! You have a good thing going and what do you do? You introduce an Ivan What’s-His-Name? What I mean is that issue #13 was very much under par!! Now that the Russians know that they can get cosmic powers, guess what’s gonna happen? The Earth’s gonna be run over by Super-Russians!

[Robert Caldwell in FF #18]

…in the last panel of issue 12, we are informed that in the next issue the FF will meet “one of the most powerful super-villains of all”. This turns out to be the “Red Ghost”. Never in my wildest flights of fancy did I dream “red” would refer to the communists! Nor did I imagine that the tale would take place on the moon. Both of these were disappointing.

[Steve Gerber—one of many future Marvel employees published in these early columns–in FF #19]      

Supporters of the anti-communist adventures, on the other hand, tended to applaud Marvel for taking a “courageous” political stand in keeping with its reputation for “realism”:

      I feel that you should definitely continue to pit your heroes against the forces of communism, which is a much bigger threat to our nation than crime is… One other company, when asked why it did not have its heroes fighting Communism, replied something about not involving itself in politics, etc. I felt that their approach is somewhat cowardly… [Communism] is a constant threat to our entire nation, and it should be dealt with accordingly. I am glad at least one company is realistic enough to call our attention to this threat and arouse our interest against it…

[Alex Nicholson in FF #29]

And there you have it. So far, the proportion is heavily in favor of calling a spade a spade, or a red a red.

[Editor’s reply to Alex Nicholson in FF #29]

“Communism” in these stories is barely distinguishable from Nazism as it was depicted in World War II-era popular culture (and in “retro” Silver Age titles like Marvel’s Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandoes). It is not treated as a competing ideological system (nor even as a potentially “subversive” one—as evidenced by the satiric vignette of McCarthyite hysteria on page 4 of FF #20); it is merely an “evil empire”, banal to some, transfixing to others. This would begin to change in the mid-1960s (at least in the lettercols), as Marvel’s cultural profile rose and its demographic support shifted leftward.

Pop Art Productions

      From the beginning, Lee’s bombastic ironies, Kirby’s vorticist thriller tableaux, and Ditko’s clammy surrealism had encouraged the occasional slumming highbrow to make extravagant claims on Marvel’s behalf. Meanwhile, the company’s impresario adhered to a strikingly traditional conception of aesthetic hierarchy:  

At school we wrote a paper on whether we like comic books or not and our reasons. Although I got an “A” my teacher wrote a note on my paper saying that I should be smart enough to realize that good books are better than comic books. I tried to tell her that comic books are good books… I would like you to print a comic in which the FF meets an educational villain…

[Billy Robbins in FF #29, Aug 1964]

Actually Billy, there’s much truth in what your teacher says. While we DO try to inject as much quality writing and fine artwork as possible in our mags, they can never replace “good books”, nor are they intended to. Comic books are like candy—strictly for fun. You still need a balanced diet of classics and other fine literature. Actually, we’re darn proud of our readers, most of whom are equally as conversant with Saroyan [a strangely “middlebrow” example] as with Stan Lee—and that’s how we want it.

[Editor to Billy Robbins in FF #29]

As the sixties progressed, however, this position became increasingly untenable, as Lee found himself deluged by media interest (a steady stream of “Comics! Not just for kids!” articles began appearing in The Village Voice, Esquire, and college newspapers across the country in 1965) and reports from fans more impressed by the author’s lyrical claims on behalf of the “Marvel Age of Comics” than he himself had ever been.

      In an effort to catch lightning in a bottle, the company launched the Merry Marvel Marching Society (MMMS–an order of fandom that emerged as an extension of the convivial spirit of the lettercols) in January 1965. The MMMS inaugurated a campus craze (memberships were offered at a rate of 6 for the price of 5 for “college chapters” of the Society), and it became a (w)rite of passage  for MMMSers to chime in with their personal impressions of the death knell of the high-low binary in art:

As Corresponding Secretary of Epsilon Chapter of Beta theta Pi Fraternity, I have been unanimously directed by the chapter to convey to you Epsilon’s approval concerning your superb monthly edition which your firm so modestly refers to as a “comic magazine”. Here at Epsilon, the Marvel Portfolio is infinitely more than a “comic magazine” meant for monthly amusement; it is a way of life… Needless to say, the brotherhood recognizes the deeper significance of the Marvel Portfolio. The chapter has supplemented its regular college curriculum (indeed, replaced!) with courses in “Thing, 269,” “Spider-Man Seminar, 672,” “The Fantastic Four as an Epiphany, 203,” “Concatenation in Captain America, 237,” and “Thoreau in Thor: An Act of Civil Disbelief, 313.” The chapter awaits your next monthly masterpiece to slake its literary thirst.

[Nick Henry, Centre College of Kentucky, in FF #38, May 1965]

…Instead of learning of insignificant persons such as Plato, Shakespeare and Freud, I am spending my time at college studying the real history makers like Ben Grimm!

[Lynn Wilson, Pitzer College in FF #41, Aug 1965]

      A corollary of this type of adulation was an increasingly sophisticated scrutiny of the political implications of Marvel texts that often caught the management flatfooted:

As the Fantastic Four leave the domain of the Skrulls in issue #37, they say, “It’s a different galaxy… with a different race of living beings… and yet… it seems that ambition, and hate, and love, are the same everywhere in the universe! Perhaps we’re really not so different from others… either on earth… or in the void of space! And the day all mankind realize that lesson… we shall all come a step closer to brotherhood… and universal peace!” A fine sentiment! But, you aren’t as humane to Earth people! In [Tales of] SUSPENSE #64 [starring Iron Man and Captain America], a devilish dictator called “comrade leader” forces the Black Widow to carry out his “evil purposes.” Fighting against the Russian ghouls is one of the “richest, handsomest, most glamorous munitions makers of all time.” Iron Man says the Russian gunmen talk “like true Commie tintypes.” Man, the John Birch Society must love Marvel when you come up with something like that! Let’s face it, there’s no purpose behind that kind of anti-Communist tintype except promoting hate, and your FF speech is in direct contradiction to that. George Carter, the guy from England whose letter appeared in FF #37, said, “your magazines are intended to be used for entertainment, not for political indoctrination.” Yes! And your answer seemed to scorn his membership in a left-wing organization and said that your “democratic British friends would set him straight.” Well, Prime Minister Wilson is a member of a left-wing organization, the Labor [sic] Party, and I don’t think he is considered undemocratic by many responsible people. What I’m saying boils down to “stay out of politics.” I don’t think this is any moment to play games with super-patriotic heroes…

[Dan Clark in FF #41, August 1965]

Gosh, Dan, someone’s gotta be the villain, and we can’t use the Republicans just now—they’re having enough trouble! […] Anyway, we’re not sure that Britain’s Labour Party can accurately be called a “left-wing organization,” but after finishing the story we’ve just read, we’re too tired to argue!

[Editor to Dan Clark in FF #41]

The company’s popularity with a widening demographic was purchased at the price of its easy acceptance (and promulgation) of Cold War liberal maxims which, as in this exchange, were inevitably exposed as the melodramatic accoutrements of an ideological system as patently fictional as the Marvel Universe itself. Soon, readers would take Lee’s defensive statement that “someone’s gotta be the villain” more seriously than he had ever intended it—and would even begin to suggest that those responsible for the state of American society (including the Democratic and Republican parties) and the world in the mid-1960s ought to be the villains.

      The Spider-Man lettercols spoke most directly to this subject, especially after protagonist Peter Parker moved on to college in issue #31:

Now that your comics have become controversial enough to appear in The Village Voice and Cavalier, and to get Spider-Man’s and the Hulk’s picture in Esquire as two of the twenty-eight people who count the most with teenage and college rebels, I feel you should take a serious stand. My main concern is Spider-Man. Will he enter adulthood as a super-hero defending the United States, giving money to charities such as orphanages and hospitals? Or (as I desperately hope) will he go through college and become the first intellectual, left-wing liberal super-hero, helping to stop wars, supporting SNCC, CORE, and the NAACP, singing songs of Bob Dylan and every so often commenting on the works of Jean Paul Sartre? Spider-Man has the potential to become the greatest comic hero of all times! Already, his followers have disregarded the other group of phony [DC] super-heroes. As a member of the MMMS, I would like you to give Spider-Man a break. Don’t push him into manhood too quickly. Give him a chance to develop into a super-hero with a mind of his own, a personality, and, at least, a better judge of clothing. The choice, gentlemen, is up to you.

[Art Raveson, Stockbridge School, ASM #35, April 1966]

You present a powerful, persuasive case, Artie, but before we make a decision, we’d better hold off until the next mail arrives. We’ve got a hunch the John Birch Society may demand equal time.

[Editor to Art Raveson in ASM #35]   

By this time, Marvel’s basic strategy for channelling the energy unleashed by this “dialectic of excitement” was firmly in place. The company dared not alienate its growing number of enthusiasts on the emergent New Left, but neither did it wish to repudiate its faith in the party of FDR, Kennedy and LBJ. The solution was to allow its characters to be all things to all people, and to insist upon this textual multivalence in the lettercols and editorial asides to the reader.   

      The most explicit gesture of this kind was Marvel’s decision, in effect between September and December 1965, to publish its comics under the “Pop Art Productions” banner. Reader Betty Ann Lopata took her cue from this move to expound upon the peculiar position of these texts in mid-1960s culture:

Have you ever considered the close ideological connection between your Spider-man and the Dadaist-Pop Art movement? The socially and psychologically conscious Spider-Man, albeit still somewhat adolescently naïve, who worries about alienation and questions his role as a superhero, who has financial and emotional problems, who knows and feels his own limitations, and who allows himself subjective thoughts and reactions to the world around him…what better way to advance the message of Dadaism and Pop Art than through this mock-serious commentary on modern American values and current new breed of Freud-inspired adventure fantasy indulged in by every young person in the country… Whether you realize it or not, your Spider-Man has become the “hipper man’s Playboy Magazine.” While Hefner has capitalized on the boyhood dreams of many men to consider themselves suave and sophisticated, Spider-Man calls up a different, much more subtle kind of sophistication; it caters to the young thinking man’s need to consider himself also a man of action… [ASM #32, January 1966]

Alongside this existentialist commitment to political consciousness/action devoid of any explicit political content (i.e. the FF lettercols gleefully printed readers’ interpretations of the “Galactus Trilogy” in #48-50 as, alternately, an allegory of Communist and American neo-Imperialism) came a deeply ironic declaration of equanimity in the “high/low” culture war:

On the surface, this may seem to be a super-hero action thriller. But, if you probe down deep, if you analyze each subtle nuance, if you dissect each philosophical phrase, if you study each non-existentialistic panel. You’ll discover that it actually is…a super-hero action thriller! (ASM #29, 1, October 1965)

This deceptively simple passing of the interpretive buck to the reader (the “credits box” of Avengers #18—July 1965—lists “you” as a part of the production team) is open to any number of constructions—not the least of which is the possibility that the Marvel “super-hero action thriller” was “always already” a philosophical tract.

Conclusion

      The only certainty, by 1966, is that the new (implied) “you” constructed by Marvel Comics was a far cry from the youth who rejoiced merely to find his name inscribed into the lettercol on the splash page of FF #10. From the mid-sixties onward, letters from college students and GIs dominated the fan pages, and the Marvel Universe became a textual stand-in for the symbolic battlefield of America itself. Each of the participants in this conflict (which bore many similarities to the Gramscian struggle for “hegemony”) sought to establish whom the “villains” ought to be. The stage was set for an “organic intellectual” to emerge from the ranks of “Marveldom” to reshape the ideological terrain. 

Works Cited and Consulted

Adorno, Theodor (1994). The fStars Down to Earth and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture. Stephen Crook, ed. London: Routledge.

—-, and Max Horkheimer (2002). The Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Stanford: Stanford UP.

Alexander, Alison and Cheryl Harris (eds) (1998). Theorizing Fandom: Fans, Subculture and Identity. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Beaty, Bart (1999). All Our Innocences: Frederick Wertheim, Mass Culture, and the Rise of the Media Effects Paradigm, 1940-1972 (dissertation). McGill University Graduate Communications Program.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Brooker, Will and Deborah Jermyn (2003). The Audience Studies Reader. London: Routledge.

Carter, Paul A (1977). The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction. New York: Columbia UP.

Chen, Kuan-Hsing and David Morley (eds) (1996). Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. London: Routledge.

Fish, Stanley (1980). Is There a Text in This Class? Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Gelder, Ken and Sarah Thornton (Eds). (1997). The Subcultures Reader. New York: Routledge.

Grossberg, Lawrence (1992). We Gotta Get Outta This Place: Popular Conservatism and Postmodern Culture. New York: Routledge.

Hall, Stuart (1980). “Encoding/decoding” in S. Hall, D. Hobson, A. Lowe, & P. Willis (eds.), Culture, Media, Language (128-138). London: Hutchison.

Hebdige, Dick (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd..

Hirshkop, Ken (1999). Mikhail Bakhtin: An Aesthetic For Democracy. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Lee, Stan, and Jack Kirby (1961-1967). Fantastic Four #1-60 (FF), New York: Marvel Comics.

Lee, Stan, Steve Ditko, and John Romita (1962-1967). Amazing Spider-Man #1-50 (ASM), New York: Marvel Comics.

Lee, Stan, Jack Kirby, Roy Thomas, Werner Roth, et al. (1963-1967). X-Men #1-35, New York: Marvel Comics.

McAllister, Mathew, Edward H. Sewell, and Ian Gordon (Eds.) (2001). Comics and Ideology. New York: Peter Lang.

Moskowitz, Sam (1954). The Immortal Storm: A History of Science Fiction Fandom. Westport, CT: Hyperion Press.

Pustz, Matthew J. (1999). Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers. Jackson, Mississippi: University of Mississippi Press.

Schelly, Bill (Ed.) (1995). The Golden Age of Comic Book Fandom. Seattle: Hamster Press.

Schelly, Bill. (Ed.) (2002). Comic Fandom Reader. Seattle: Hamster Press.

Schulz, Michael (2005). Caped Commodities and Masked Memories: The American Comic Book Industry, Collective Memory, and the Superhero (M.A. thesis). Concordia University: Communications Department.

Spurgeon, Tom and Jordan Raphael (2003). Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

Tymn, Marshall B and Mike Ashley (Eds.) (1985) Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Weird Fiction Magazines. London: greenwood Press.

Warner, Harry Jr. (1969). All Our Yesterdays: An Informal History of Science Fiction Fandom in the Forties. Chicago: Advent Publishers.

Williams, Raymond (1980). Problems in Materialism and Culture: Selected Essays. London: Verso.

Wright, Bradford (2001). Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP.

 

 

“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.
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Good Afternoon friends!

Dave