Saturday, 30 April 2011

"What Is Pop?"

Move on, move on, the blogger's just letting off steam, making indefensible generalisations, expressing a personal opinion as if it were fact, ranting about imaginary issues as if they had any substance in the context of the real world;

       
There's no better place to go to begin to try to explain why so many modern-day superhero comic books seem so pallid, so tame, so uninvolving, than Richard Hamilton's famous 1957 definition of Pop Art, wherein he tried to define those elements which made so many of the mass-produced commercial products of the modern era so exciting and, counter-intuitively to the cultural gatekeepers of the time, vibrantly meaningful. Too often described as an art movement which "turned the commonplace into icons", Pop Art actually reflected the fact that many of the images and products of consumerist society actually already were icons to a great mass of the people, if not to the cultural elites who conspired to quite miss the romance and kineticism of the world they lived in, scorning the commonplaces of populism and commercialism in favour of cultural property which they could largely regulate and thereby control. Beethoven rather than The Beatles, as the appalling Peter Hitchens so famously and fatuously argued, as if it were an intellectual and moral distinction rather than a matter of taste to opt for one or another, as if they couldn't both be considered excellent and life-affirming, as if the primary function of great art was to serve as a marker distinguishing the better sort from the hoi polloi.  


       
In discussing his 1956 "This Is Tomorrow" exhibition with Tate Magazine, for example, Hamilton explained that;

"... there were certain things that were new in our visual environment, such as cinema, the jukebox, Marilyn Monroe and comics. All these images from popular culture contrasted with the way we saw things that could be informed by straight-forward optical experience."

The modern age, and indeed the post-modern era, can't be understood and celebrated through literal, unimaginative thinking informed by the world-views of the past. An era of Pop is a time of often tawdry and yet magnificent spectacle, of repetition and constant stimulation, of the money-grabbing fused quite ludicrously and often brilliantly with the transcendental. And for all that Pop is self-evidently a lie, the grubbiest of hard-sells, it also functions, like any other code of images and meaning, as its own critique, as a means to undermine and fundamentally destabilise  the very worst of itself. More than anything else, Pop was and is, regardless of how Pop Art as a movement and its principles are now regarded as ill-considered, flawed and passe, concerned with the moment, with the reflection of the passion and anxiety of this second right now. Framed in a playful fashion, and yet open to the infiltration of the serious-minded, Pop is the most incandescent and yet purposefully ephemeral of all cultural experiences. (This is something which Grant Morrison and his once close collaborator Mark Millar both grasp better than perhaps anyone else in contemporary comics, regards of what I may or may not think of  one's "Batman" and the other's - oh, that sounds rude - "Clint") That some elements of Pop prove to be saturated with meaning for generations after their creation is, and always should be, irrelevant to those who are producing Pop in the first place. Pop isn't created to last, and "Revolver", for example, wasn't fashioned for the ages, but created for the "now". The fact that it's so obviously one of the treasures of 20th century Western culture is nothing more than the accidental by-product of the craft, naivety and ambition, commercial and artistic, that fuelled its making.

         
The Lee/Ditko Spider-Man stories were Pop too, of course, although the decision by Stan Lee to label them as such rather undercut their innocent power by showing off what's better left for an audience to define, or not. Yet we know that Mr Lee never imagined that there'd be a comics industry with him in it even a few years beyond the moment at which he and his collaborators launched Marvel Comics, and the work is all the better for it. Popular entertainers in any field who, rather like the Martin Amis's of this world, worry about how their work will be perceived in 5, 10 and a 100 years from the now have already started to cut themselves loose from their reason to be. The Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four was Pop, as was the Frank Miller Daredevils and Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, and they still exist as much in the context of the moment in which they were created as they do in the context of timeless classic comics. They've proven to be important because the market and not their creators decided that they are so. Moore's politics in ST are so of the British left in the early-Eighties, Miller's kung-fu ninjas are as Seventies a distillation of the decade's disposable culture as might be found. Land-locked as these creators were in a despised medium propagating a sub-genre held in contempt by all but its largely-youthful audience, they responded by devising monthly comic books which were almost toxic in their intensity, which were as nakedly populist as they were informed by a broad mass of elements far less transitory in themselves than at first might have appeared. These creators may have quite literally churned out the product, and yet the results were so exciting and well-crafted and smart and largely unpretentious, and they were not at all concerned about tomorrow. There were no graphic novels, there was no hardcore adult audience so habitualised and relatively affluent that it could practically keep a dying industry on its feet by itself, there were no Hollywood studios pumping out 3-D movies and supporting the companies which generate their costumed high concepts. All there was was this month's new-stand, and those at the most three or four months down the line.

            
And just picking up any one of those comics mentioned above remains a rush, carries a sense of immediacy, of incredible ambition and joy and frustration against the perceived limitations of the medium and its commercial niches. All the bemoaning of falling page counts in recent months has often quite missed the point that most of the very best of the superhero sub-genre was produced in monthly installments of very few pages indeed by creators such as those we've mentioned above. The Claremont/Byrne X-Men delivered, month-in and out, one of the most complete and engrossing, if soap-operatic and balefully influential, packages ever in a mere 17 pages. The Lee/Romita Spider-Man tales were often no more than 20 pages long themselves. Pop is rarely about a heavy weight of product, about the director's cut or the extra CD of demos and live tracks, but rather about colour and incident, about this very second and certainly not the next. Pop is cheap and quick and at its best it's unusually intelligent too, and it rarely manifests itself if it's expected to carefully fill out 120 pages of trade paperback collection or occupy a space in a year-long company schedule bridging one line-wide crossover with another, over and over and over again.

Just as the most obviously vital and vitalising form of pop music was the single, so the monthly comic book has always been the most Pop of superhero forms, and it remains the most potentially exhilarating of all the possible packages which the superhero tale can be designed for. It's a form which has, for all its endless disadvantages, produced little miracles of excellence. The intensely crowded monthly marketplace of past days produced a pressure of competition which creators once had to rise to, and that might still be so, if today's competition wasn't diluted by the presence of profit-generating crossovers, book collections, and media-deals. The tendency of the marketplace to inspire excellence, to inspire Pop, can't function in the current climate, where it's influence is moderated by so many other factors. Monthly sales are vital for the industry, but the Big Two don't have to respond to them beyond culling the lowest-selling books and replacing them with franchise titles. Low sales hurt, but they don't of themselves cause bankruptcy, because there's a significant degree of profit being generated elsewhere. Such economic security simply won't of itself stimulate excellence. All it'll do is encourage the companies to continue to pander to an existing and declining audience, because the incentive, the necessity, to change is constantly being moderated.

                        
If only the industry was facing the prospect of catastrophe. Things might start to change, some greater measure of invention and daring might emerge. It's certainly hard not to believe that the emergence of the trade paperback collection has proved as catastrophic for the sub-genre as it's been profitable for publishers and creators alike, because its very nature is anti-Pop. When art and commerce collide, commerce nearly always wins, but what if commerce then fails following such a victory? For to write for the trade can be the very opposite of creating for the moment, and it often, if not always, creates work which feels staid and manipulative. The events of one of today's structured-for-collecting comics can mostly be predicted even down to the details of each issue's beats and pacing simply by noting which chapter out of 4 or 6 parts it is. The grand conflicts will be loaded into later issues, the major reversals usually placed at the end of the penultimate chapters, the first forty to sixty pages saturated with the longueurs of set-up and exposition. And since the very minutiae of structure has become so utterly predictable, so too has the reading experience. Yet decades ago, for example, the first Galactus saga ended after just 11 pages of its third installment, because Lee and Kirby were so eager to move on that they didn't think of padding out their own achievements in order to fill up FF issue 51. In the absence of the collected edition, the very mind-set of the creator was so different that sub-genre transforming accidents could happen simply because there were so few rules and conventions to break with. As such, the Sixties and the first half of the Seventies now appear to have been a time of unimaginable creative affluence, years when talent and drive and aspiration and creative freedom was so much of a commonplace that every book was a statement of immediacy and excitement. Of course, the truth is that much of the product was poor, and the marketplace was collapsing even as the superhero genre rose to dominate it. But there was a greater opportunity for Pop during that period, because the mind-set which doesn't recognise, and which therefore can't recognise, Pop as an option hadn't yet developed.

            
Let's just for a second on this spring Saturday morning stop and ask ourselves a simple question; how much of the product of the Big Two today is Pop? How much of it is even enthralling at the moment it's consumed, regardless of how prospectively fascinating it might be when bound and experienced at some indeterminate future point? It seems to be that we almost take it for granted now that the monthly comic has to be both thin and lacking any measure of completeness, and that that's the way that things must be. To dispute such  assumptions is to be seen as re-heating old and tired arguments, or, far worse, to be a dinosaur-representative of the Luddite tendency, which tiresomely longs to bring the worst of the sub-genre's past back into today's comics, who want to doom us all with childishness and continuity and destroy the medium itself.  But longing for Pop isn't the same as wanting the past returned, because that's surely the complete opposite of what Pop is! Yet, because Pop has won the culture wars, because elite disapproval has been beaten back and our lives now saturated with what was once disdained and forbidden, the need for Pop seems to have disappeared. We've grown up now, we've moved beyond the undignified brashness of snakeoil modernity, or so so many seem to believe. We're adult, as if to be adult is to be strangely less rather than more concerned with emotion and wonder. Better to be complient and sober seems to be the message. How terrible it is that Pop overwhelled the opposition of our betters, because now the very idea of Pop feels so unnecessary and old-hat that the need for it is made almost invisible. Indeed, we can assume we're being  incandescently Pop simply because there's hardly anyone left to care to disapprove of our strange complacency and lack of ambition. Beethoven is now a taste, a market, a demographic, a lifestyle choice, a compliment to the Beatles and, to make a point, Cee-Lo rather than an alternative, and comic books have little but their own shortcomings to push against anymore. They exist not in opposition to the mainstream, and yet they're certainly not as a part of it either, or at least they're not on the printed page. Instead, it's as if the superhero book has won the cultural right to exist without too much scorn, but the absence of conflict that's brought has in part resulted in comics which often smell far more of business than imagination. And how can the sub-genre recognise its own shortcomings if there's no debate which carries any force, if the market is largely ignorable, if the superhero now occupies such a secure cultural niche that there's no immediate need for those well-rewarded creators and editors to engage with anyone but themselves? Why then Pop? How then Pop?

         
Perhaps Pop's victory explains something of the diminution of intensity and the prevailing sense of ennui about so much of the superhero sub-genre today. Ambition almost inevitably declines when resentment no longer fuels it, though levels of basic craft and competency may stay high and even increase regardless. Thor is in the cinemas, every book store, it seems, has a graphic novel section, everyone knows who Hal Jordan and Tony Stark are. Isn't this what victory is, haven't we got the mainstream books that we always dreamed of? And it's undeniable that there are fine books out there which can almost support a claim that the industry is in rude health; I've written about a great number of them on this very blog. But as a general principle; there is very little Pop! If we may apply a grossly over-simplified take on Hamilton's categories, themselves later debated, refined and nullified by so many theorists that the original definition seems almost heretical to itself, what do we find of today's books? (*1) The comic book itself, as considered as a separate object from its spin-offs of Summer popcorn 3-D extravaganzas and hyper-active video-games, is certainly no longer particularly popular. It's rarely written entirely for the transient joy of the moment, and such an expensive product is hardly expendable. It's not low cost, and though it's mass produced, it's for a niche audience. It would certainly be hard to describe most of today's books as young, or even young at heart. And how many of 2011's product might we honestly define as witty and sexy and glamorous, especially given the tawdry sexism and the absence of well-observed human relations so prevalent in so many of them? Indeed, of all of the components of Hamilton's definition, all that I can identify as being particularly relevant to today are the categories of "gimmicky" and "big business". (Perhaps we add to the list the quality of "sincerity" which Hamilton mentions in his letter to the Smithsons. Creators today are rarely, it appears and to their credit, insincere and their work reflects this. The shame is what that sincerity actually relates to where so many of them are concerned.) And even though I'm sure we'd agree that elements of Hamilton's ideal type aren't essential for great Pop - glamorous is hardly a given, sexy can be a impossible thing to define indeed - I strongly believe that the general sense of his first definition is extremely useful as an opening gambit in an argument.

         
Comics today are produced by more generally competent professionals, at least where the creative side of things are concerned, than ever. The average degree of adequacy in most every area of craft bar editorship, for all that there are estimable exceptions to the rule, is higher than ever, but the soul of the sub-genre is so often missing, and ironically, it's missing in part because so much of the immediate demands of the marketplace have been removed from creators. Pop is as much a creature of the need to generate cash-flow in the now, or at the very least the near future, as it is a creative endeavour, and the Big Two operate economically in a far less intensely short-term basis now. The superhero is now a hugely profitable business, even as the superhero comic isn't, and though creators have to work extremely hard to keep second and third-tier books going, the bulk of Marvel and DC's cost and profit isn't reliant as it once was upon the monthly book anymore. Given that the moment is no longer so economically central to the superhero book, for all that it's still vital, there's no surprise that a culture which looks at aspects other than right now has developed. Delayed gratification matched with moments of the meaninglessly spectacular is now the name of the game in the superhero business, and how can the constant deferring of satisfaction be Pop, or inspire it?(*2)

        
I read far too few individual issues which carry any sense that their creators were driven by a fearsome desire to be absolutely brilliant matched with a rabid determination to maintain and increase a foothold in the marketplace. Competency and caution is the name of the game in 2011, with occasional brilliant exceptions and pathetic collapses of craft serving to make the sub-genre at times seem more dynamic than it is. Mostly, I read unambitiously well-structured and utterly predictable stories written for the trade. Often this means that I'm paying for complacent rubbish churned out by folks who surely should know better, but who apparently don't, although they do produce a story in the requisite number of pages. I read stories written by folks with no apparent concept of the genre's long history and the skills developed by generation upon generation of comic book professionals, but who know how to tell a four issue arc perfectly adequately, as if creating comics was a mechanical rather than a creative endeavour.  I experience page after page of shoddily designed and executed storytelling, packed with money-shots of be-muscled costumes and porn-actress "super-heroines" parading as if their function is as masturbationary aids for young prospective metrosexuals prevented by their parents from using a search engine and the "start private browsing" button on the family computer. I see not Pop, but aspects of exploitation and complacency which could be fascinating if they were part of a brilliant creation rather than lazy unquestioned examples of shallow thinking and practise.

This isn't Pop, this is far too often Dad-Rock.

            
I read comic after comic with no apparent concern for or understanding of issues of social justice, as if the real world and the superhero world should not be equated, as if the obvious excesses of "relevancy" in the late Sixties and early Seventies provides a perfect excuse for not caring. Pop was once a tool for changing consciousness, even if it didn't of itself change the world, but you'd never guess that that was so by reading 99% of today's books, where the social agenda is so regressive that issues of race, disability, ethnicity and sexuality are dealt with hardly at all, with the most notable of exceptions. Debate and difference can be transgressive and Pop in themselves, they can create conflict and therefore light and heat and distraction and interest. For all that a comic-book social agenda can produce pathetically thin arguments, it can also inspire while doing so entertainingly too. 

          
The key question is, I believe, this; how many professionals set out to write the very best, the most Pop, comic ever, and aspire fiercely to do so every time? An impossible aspiration, of course, but how many folks approach their work with such single-mindedness? Well, of course, all of them, but the problem isn't the good and honourable intentions and work, but rather what the definition of a fine comic book now so often seems to be. How many creators want their work to matter as well as entertain, how many aspire not to be good professionals, but good professionals who are quite brilliant too? Again, all of them, quite obviously, but if we're not thinking Pop, then the work isn't going to consistently reflect the best that the sub-genre can acheive.. By this I mean that the measure of ambition and achievement shouldn't be the production of the very best script and art possible for this particular chapter in this cycle's five part epic. Setting up the most competent delivery of vital informing detail at one moment in a company's schedule in order to set up an upcoming crossover shouldn't be a source of satisfaction for anyone unless the story itself is excellent too. Neatly tying up the b and c plots just before the conclusion of a story matters not a jot if the tale isn't inspiring in itself. We need Pop comic books which are, issue by issue, month by month, energetically packed with craft and excellence and off-the-wall ambition, which are so dense with ideas and emotions, so packed with events, so passionately informed, that flashbulb memories are created while experiencing them. That's just not possible as a rule, of course, but it must be the ambition, and either damn the pacing of the collected edition or master the art of being Pop in such a way as the TPB shines regardless of its fiercely individual chapters. How many professionals can, hand-on-heart, look at their script or their art for chapter two of their latest trade-in-progress and believe, really believe, that this is going to be a considerable number of reader's favourite issue ever? Is it politely fit for purpose, or is it Pop?

I know many do strive so, and achieve their ends too. In fact, I can think of several folks I've exchanged words with who undoubtedly do drive themselves that hard and who dare to fail harder every time. But I wonder how many don't, and I wonder how much of that is because they don't think to do so, because it's just not how the culture encourages folks to go about the business of producing their work.

          
This sub-genre seems to me to have lost much of its ambition, its heart, its joy. It's produced by often able and highly competent and caring individuals. Some of the folks producing work today rank with many of the best of the sub-genres's past, and again, back pieces on this blog will show the reader who perceives this piece to be a blanket assault on contemporary creators per se that that's not what I'm arguing. But after more of 80 years of this medium, the time has surely come to both learn from the past and to be inspired in order to match it exceed it.

Am I so very wrong? Have I missed the wall of Pop before my eyes? Are the books that we're being given the equivalent of a fantastic 2.05 minute, 7-inch single, with no more than 12 bars of guitar solo and a groove-locked rhythm section all playing in the same room at the same time, with unexpectedly smart/dumb and knowingly unpretentious lyrics? Has the flab all been cut from the product, is every page and every panel being made to count? Will the next book change somebody's life rather than competently matching up with the progress of this line-leading crossover and that prospective collection, and if not, why not? There's a quote

        
from Pasternak which, for all it's concerned with far, far weightier matters, seems to me to be relevant here, to the effect that people are born to live life, and not to prepare for the living of it. Now,  I bought a small pile of superhero books this month and nearly all of them are setting up something else rather than existing as discrete and individual experiences in themselves. This has been true for years, but that doesn't mean that those who bemoan the fact are stubbornly running against the tide of history. Perhaps the folks who weary of such thin and openly exploitative fare being offered up with very little Pop compensation are resistant not to change, but to the prevalence of mediocrity. If the audience for superhero books is at best not growing, and in truth slowly diminishing, then it's surely in part the result of a slow and suicidally stupid act of self-abuse on the industry's part. Just like folks who under-exercise and over-eat and drink because they're used to it and because the alternative seems unthinkable, so the producers of the comic book mainstream product are addicted to the short-term grand crossover, to the immersive universe and the ubiquitous collected edition. They'll tell us it's not their fault, that they have to do it, that the short-term pain of changing can't possibly be compensated for by the possibility of medium and long-term gains from doing so, that they audience won't put up with anything else, that there are still great books being produced, that the overall quality is very good indeed. They are, after all, the folks who know.

But, whatever the facts and their interpretation, it isn't an industry that's very Pop, is it? There's been more than enough comic books created to keep me reading for the rest of my life, but I shouldn't even be considering living off the past. It's not a thought that I'm comfortable with at all. For although the world doesn't need more comics, let alone more superhero books, it always needs more excellence, more brilliance, more Pop, and where better to produce Pop than in a sub-genre that was developed to deliver nothing but?

Don't you love Pop? Yes, most of anything that can be labelled Pop is undoubtedly rubbish, because most of everything is, but the excellence of craft matched with the artistic and economic ambition found in the very best of Pop produces wonders. Is the mainstream comic book which you last held in your hands, or even the one you've just written, drawn or edited, the greatest superhero book that there's ever been, and if not, why not?

For it's not the comic books themselves that worry me so. Rather, it's what appears to be the mind-set that informs so many aspects of their creation that scares and frustrates me.



Tomorrow, Sam Cooke, Bobby Womack, the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson and comic books too. Oh, yes! You can't tell me anything of Pop, especially where 1947 and 1959 are concerned!

*1 A grossly over-simplified take on Hamilton's definition to fuel an argument about superhero comic books? Is that a reflection of Pop or its very opposite? I suspect the latter, and so I shame myself.
*2:- Of course, at the same time, the superhero comic can also be an endless parade of meaningless spectacular moments too, with the Wasp being eaten over here and Arsenal and that damn cat thrashing around over there. But even with those high-intensity moments, there's always a sense that the audience is being strung along until a belated climax eventually arrives, and that that conclusion is merely the set-up yet another epic, for which satisfied must be deferred again.
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Friday, 29 April 2011

Eric Powell's "The Goon", Mr Harold Garfinkel & That Poor Horse Emma: These Panels Can Make Me Laugh Out loud (Part 3 of 3)

In which the blogger concludes the past two days worth of pieces on taboos and chuckling with a word or two about some far more considerable taboos indeed. You have been warned, and, yes, there will be one particular spoiler for the ninth tpb of the splendid "The Goon";

            
6.

Just after the mid-point of the Sixties, Dr Harold Garfinkel conducted an experiment upon a small number of undergraduate students, who were told that they would be participating in the training of a new counsellor who was pioneering a fresh method of helping those seeking assistance. The subjects were asked to frame a series of questions which could only be answered with a yes or a no about any one personal problem of theirs.

What the students weren't aware of as they exposed their private concerns in this experiment was that Dr Garfinkel was randomly generating his answers rather than offering up the slightest measure of reasoned response to his subjects questions. This process could result in students receiving both of the possible answers to a particular question if it were repeated or rephrased during the supposed consultation, and the process inevitably provided the undergraduates with answers which suggested contradictory approaches to the issues at hand. Faced with responses which often simply didn't make sense, and which regularly delivered quite utterly contrary advice, the students struggled to make sense of the information that they were being given.

               
Though some of them were confused, frustrated and angry, all of the subjects persevered to the end of the experiment, and in doing so managed to convince themselves that the answers they'd received were both relevant and useful where their individual problems were concerned. In essence, Garfinkel concluded, human beings spend much of their lives unconsciously assuming that they understand what's happening to them regardless of whether events actually do make sense or not. Faced with a scenario such as that provided in the experiment, which made no sense at all, homo homo sapiens draw off their commonsense assumptions about everyday life and adapt them in order to make the unfamiliar and the nonsensical appear normal and meaningful. In Garfinkel's fake counsellor procedure, the students invented explanations for why a question which initially prompted one particular answer later drew its opposite, and assumed, for example, that the "trainee" had deduced some informing information about them between the first and second time they'd asked  a specific query.

           
In essence, and avoiding an entire and necessary world of jargon and detail, the student subjects weren't able to process the idea that they were the victims of a deception. Everything about the situation, from the status of the person they were told they'd be talking with to the fact that they'd been asked to discuss a personal problem, meant that they felt that they were in a situation consistent with their everyday expectations. After all, society would fall quite apart if we had to always work consciously and constantly to figure out whether the world is lying to us or not. We all carry our fictions about how our life operates with us, and we make sense of the world in terms of them rather than in a direct response to what's actually happening around us.

Of course, Dr Harold Garfinkel had his own taken-for-granted fictions about how life functioned. For example, in his own bubble of everyday assumptions as a social theorist, he presumed that it was perfectly acceptable to ask trusting young students to share questions of their private concerns while responding to them with amoral gibberish.

In such a way do we accept the perfidy of politicians, the gobbledygook of oracles, and, to a far more pleasant and cheering effect, the presence of The Goon in the role apparently marked "heroic protagonist" in his thankfully many and estimable adventures. 

            
7.

Part of the joy of The Goon is how it constantly subverts the reader's expectations of how popular comic book fiction works. Consider the two panels above, for example, where The Goon has been clearly placed in the space in the narrative normally reserved for the indomitable hero. Even The Goon seems to believe, in this sequence, that he deserves to play out such a heroic role, given that he's presenting himself as a man of a rough but fundamental decency, facing down a small troop of obviously bad guys who he clearly regards as morally inferior to himself. After all, they're the ones who like "to gun down defenceless people in the streets!", they're the cowards, and we know that the polar opposites of cowards are always, or nearly always, heroes. In such a way does creator Eric Powell ensure that his reader's gain the pleasures that they expect from genre fiction while constantly subverting their expectations. For The Goon does defend the streets of "the town on the edge of Horse-Eater's Wood", as we'd of course expect a hero to do, but he does so largely because it's his town, because he's a brute of a gang-boss, and because incursions into the status quo of his life aren't about the threat of disorder to order, but rather about  challenges to his power and profit. Standing against the Goon are all number of occult antagonists, Zombie Priests and Chug Heads and - Gawd bless Mr Powell - the Communist Airbourne Mollask Militia, but despite all the commonsense assumptions generated by our lifetime of experiencing the heroes journey narrative in any number of mediums, the simple presence of vile enemies doesn't make the man facing them down a hero in himself. The Goon is not a hero, or a prospective hero on  the path to redemption, or even a vaguely half-virtuous individual. He's actually something, if not a very great deal, of a monster.

        


This story is heading eventually for The Goon's salvation, our experiences tell us, the man is a protagonist belatedly discovering his tarnished but gallant destiny, and perhaps he is. But for almost a dozen trade paperback collections of his misadventures, The Goon has been at best a better sort of vicious crimelord, and in being so has done one terrible thing after another.

It's been such fun.
8.

Bound as we are are by our sympathies and expectations, it takes a degree of effort to remind ourselves again and again of the real Goon, of the brute, the murderer, the thief, the extortionist. And the force that it takes to ensure that there's a slither of irony separating us and our affection for him can collapse even when The Goon's behaving in quite breathtakingly audacious and shocking ways. So it is in the first chapter of "Calamity Of Conscience", where the Goon accuses one of his town's small-scale entrepreneurs of paying protection money to his rival Lambrazio. As such, Mr Powell presents us with one of the tropes of a straight-forward gangster tale, with The Goon playing the role of the beleaguered crime-boss reasserting his authority over the locals with an accusation, a threat and the promise of an exceedingly extreme painful beating. And, as such tropes run, the criminal that the Goon is threatening is far more of an odious character than he is, meaning that we take the Goon's side when perhaps ethically we shouldn't care for anyone in these panels at all.

At first the scene is so typical and undemonstrative that the reader can't quite come to grips with the information that its first panel, at 1.17.1, is delivering. (See below.) Then doubt and double-takes kick in as the mind scabs over itself and works overtime to try to speedily re-write what it's experiencing in order to eliminate not just the surprise of it, but the sheer banality of that panel's obscenely disturbing content. For Cloyd, the local tradesman, is there-in shamelessly engaged in the pimping of his horse Emma, and not to other cartoon horses. "Don't you want to look nice for the gentlemen callers?!" asks the scowling Cloyd just before he threatens to take his strong "pimp hand" to Emma, and the mind, which now accepts something of what's being suggested, struggles not to think too deeply about what's being evoked here.

       
Yet the narrative rolls on without paying the slightest censorious attention to Cloyd's callousness, or even to his self-proclaimed profession of horse pimp. It's as if Mr Powell regarded the sequence as being of no greater or lesser degree of objectionability than any other that he'd created. And so, the impression given is that the Goon and his town are obviously quite used to the very idea of the grisly purpose that Emma's being put to. No-one really notices because it all seems rather everyday and typical, and so, no-one cares. It's just what happens round that neck of the woods meaning that when The Goon, as he notices Cloyd, isn't concerned with any ethical issue at all, but rather with the eminently practical question of who the pimp's currently paying tribute too.


In truth, there are two quite separate narratives unspoiling across and down this page, one that we think is happening because that's what we're used to, and one which Mr Powell is hiding so masterfully in plain sight before us. What the reader believes they're seeing is a showdown between our man, the grubby-handed but hard-punching man of the streets, and that horse-abusing, pervert-exploiting Cloyd. As such, Cloyd's angry denial of having made any payments to The Goon's opponent Labrazio comes exactly as expected. Well, of course Cloyd will deny any culpability, and of course he'll do so in an annoyingly disrespectful fashion, because that will move That Goon, as we expect, into a situation where he'll have to entertainingly reassert his self-assumed sovereignty over Cloyd with an audience-cheering display of violence. But the second narrative, the real narrative, is actually there before us on the page all the time, and it's got nothing to do with bad men, horse-meddling or not, and better men who'll teach them a moral lesson of sorts, no matter how we anticipate being witness to any such event as we turn the page.

All of this is possible because Mr Powell has completely fooled us about what kind of story it is that we're reading. In essence,  he's relied upon on most of us naively reading his quite transparent narrative in a sunny, optimistic fashion even as he's preparing to subvert some of our most unthinkingly sacred presumptions. For the reader has been led to expect that The Goon will be (1) appalled by Emma the horse's treatment and (2) infuriated by Cloyd's discourtesy. Surely, our preconceptions tell us, The Goon's going to seriously hurt Cloyd, and they tell us this because we've unconsciously noted that several vengeance-triggering plot-points have been passed, meaning that we're steeling ourselves for the atavistic joy of seeing one mean little specimen of a horse pimp getting his, and probably more than once too.
         
               
And in doing so, we quite forget, once again, that The Goon isn't a superhero, or a hero, or even very much of a human being either. He's a gangster, and gangsters in the stories of crime bosses and their underlings are just as likely, we surely know, to punish a pimp by despicably disfiguring "his" livelihood, "his" prostitute, as they are to physically assault the likes of Cloyd.

But all the same, who could possibly have expected that The Goon would then be shown, in a double-page spread, as above, pummelling that sweet little abused Emma so savagely rather than assaulting her reprehensible pimp? "Pow!" declaims the sound-affect, in a tone suggesting a wooden mallet slamming into a slab of untenderised meat, and then there's no doubt that the incredibly unfortunate Emma is taking a solid and disturbingly Kirby-esque left hook straight to her face, The Goon's arm is shown stabbing past the dismayed Cloyd, who seems to have expected to be beaten as much as we did, and there, The Goon's undoubtedly shattered the poor horse's cheek. It's an appalling business, the capillaries in Emma's bulging eyes breaking and criss-crossing her scleras with broken red traces, her left nostril collapsing, the entire structure of her muzzle being thrown away from the bindings of her musculature by the impact of The Goon's assault.

          
And then, unbelievably, the beating doesn't end there. "Not in the face, Goon! She'll never be an earner again!!" pleads Cloyd, but nothing's going to stop The Goon extracting his revenge and, presumably, blowing off just a little steam at the same time. Turn the page and now he's got Emma is in a headlock, he's landing jabs with his right fist, he's making his point about who's boss here with a quite literally unimaginable degree of deliberately-conceived violence.

It's one of the most appalling and yet also the most impossibly funny things that I've ever read. If I at first laughed less than my memory tells me that I surely must have done, then that could only have been so because a man can't laugh that loud when he's forgotten in surprise and consternation to inhale. Or exhale. Or indeed move to any significant degree at all.


Thursday, 28 April 2011

The Badger & The Punisher Walk Into A Bar, & That I'd Pay To See: These Panels Can Make Me Laugh Outloud (Part 2)

continued from yesterday's piece on chuckling and somewhat-mild taboos;

            
3.

So familiar and comfortingly absurd are the conventions of the superhero narrative that creators who wish to poke fun at them have to be careful not to stray into the realms of the absolutely obvious. For in many ways, and even to some of its most fervent admirers, the superhero has long been, by dint of its profoundly conservative form and its cultural ubiquity, something of a parody of itself anyway. This may disturb the more literal minded of its fans, who often appear to want to regard the superhero as a sub-genre not of fantasy but of realism, and perhaps, for them, yet another take on the undeniable wonders of  Kurtzman and Wood's "Superduperman" may prove enlightening and instructive, even some 61 years after the original's first publication. But to those of us who can, for example, enjoy the suffering doled out to Wile E Coyote without ever needing to believe that such a wonderfully foolish creature actually exists, and who can happily dip into Saturday nights with Dr Who without worrying about the laws of physics being contravened therein, a very conscious and willing suspension of disbelief is all part and parcel of the revelling in the premise that a man could fly, even though he can't. Well, of course he can't, for that's as obviously ludicrous a premise as the idea that a huge number of people given god-like powers would behave, on the whole and as a class, utterly unselfishly. Yes, the

         
audience mostly knows that there are underpants being pulled over tights. They know a great deal about the sexism, the power fantasies, the ridiculous premises, the continuity re-wipes; it's something of a waste of effort to try to forcibly remind the reader of those very things which they have to knowingly compensate for every time they pick a superhero book up. For just as we have to work to ignore the sentimentality and prudery in British Victorian fiction, or the happy-ever-after endings for the central couple in rom-coms, superhero books require a degree of an effort of will to enjoy in the first place. The problem with the superhero sub-genre isn't that folks aren't aware of many if not most of its unfortunate aspects, but rather that creators and audience often simply shrug and accept the staples of the sub-genre as givens, as if the very business of producing cape'n'spandex epics inevitably involves worrying issues of social representation and dodgy attitudes towards violence and law. It's as if a great deal of the community associated with the production and consumption of the adventures of Superman and his many costumed children just takes it for granted that there will be sexism, racism, disturbing attitudes to constitutionality, and so on, while regarding those who bemoan such things as killjoys and idealogues, or, more insidiously, as humourless folks who just don't get the joke.

Or to put it another way; it's not that we don't know, but rather that we don't, on the whole, really care, even when we thoroughly disapprove on occasion of what we're reading.

         
It's for this reason that directly mocking the worst aspects of the cape'n'chest-insignia brigade rarely amuses, because the satirist runs the risk of being so crassly obvious in their observations and objections that they inspire not laughter, but ennui in their audience and a shrug-shouldered dismissal for their work. To engage with issues such as the body fascism and gender inequality inherent in so much of the Big Two's output, for example, requires something other than the presentation of barely-clad, porn model-esque hyper-heroines pouting as they worry about breaking their nails while fighting crime and knocking off their counterparts of various genders. Frankly, since it would

        
be hard, for example, to produce work that's more ingrained in its sexism than that in some of last year's X-Books, which I've been reading this past week, the effort to mock sexism with an even-greater measure of it would be as unsuccessful as it is pointless. (*1) Even the most corrosively amusing of strips assaulting the very idea of the superhero, such as Rick Veitsch's "Brat Pack", the Mills/O'Neill "Marshal Law", and Garth Ennis's "The Boys" (*2), often seem so close to the very thing that's being mocked, albeit with a few extra twists of sex and degeneracy thrown in, that the entire and estimable enterprise can on occasion feel quite futile. In many ways, the superhero, just like reality TV and the gambling lords of Wall Street, can be remarkably resistant to being satirised, so close is its form and conventions to anything that might be produced in an attempt to undermine it. After all, if the Arsenal mini-series showing an implausibly drugged out and hallucinating master-archer side-kick beating up drugs addicts with a dead cat can pass with editorial sanction in a mainstream 2010 DC book, then satire attacking the superhero in its broadest sense is quite dead. (*3)

*1:-Only some X-Books, I hasten to add. I even read one last week which, pleasingly, made me enthusiastic about returning next month for more. I'm sure folks would be unsurprised by its identity.
*2:-I often love the bile and the passion and the invention invested in these books, as well as the regularly brilliant storytelling. I'm just unconvinced about the satire, because it's neither particularly surprising or daring. A satire of those who produce and buy superheroes, however, bloggers included, might hit closer to the target, if again it can avoid the stereotypical.
*3:- Is it possible that I dreamed this? Surely it can't ever have happened?

             
4.

As a consequence, one of the more effective ways to poke fun at the superhero is to do so in an apparently straight fashion with a supposedly respectful tone, to present what seems to be an utterly conventional narrative while challenging it with the intrusion of complacency-derailing barbs which stray only a touch or two beyond that of the sub-genre's normal and often absurd practise. In constantly inciting the audience to engage with the superhero with as much irony as unquestioning involvement, the audience is being trusted to think for itself, as it surely should be, while its choice of entertainment is respected and delivered without snobbery or dismissiveness. Rather than being alienated by a creator's apparent scorn for the superhero, the audience is rather given the ammunition to catch themselves indulging in the worst excesses of the sub-genre. The trick, of course, is to avoid making the critique so explicit and hectoring that its meaning hits the reader before the pleasure of the conventional superhero narrative does. For that reason, much of the best satire of the superhero sub-genre appears not as an obvious and extreme expression of apparent loathing, but as a remarkably standard-issue form of the product, almost indistinguishable from the material it's deconstructing. Such encourages the reader who's already largely if not entirely aware of the ridiculous nature of the entertainment before them to laugh at being outsmarted and made to think twice, rather than their being cruelly, albeit at times entertainingly, mocked.

       
One admirable example of this is to be found in Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's "Welcome Back Frank", in which The Punisher's return to NYC inspires a sub-culture of repellent and yet strangely familiar urban vigilantes to develop. Its a B-plot which works with and not against the reader, gently and joshingly reminding them that its their job to police the morality of the material they choose to consume. As ludicrous a business as the violent actions and psychotic ambitions of the Vigilante Squad are, they never violate the tone of the black comedy of The Punisher # 1 to 12, but, rather, thoroughly compliment it. In doing so, the reader, who's simultaneously being given both a respectful MU adventure story and a playful deconstruction of it, never feels preached at or scorned. Given that most of the only audience who'd care to read about the values of the spandex-and-face-mask crew being satirised are self-evidently superhero fans in the first place, the rest of world caring not a jot, it surely makes sense not to alienate the bulk of them with lashings of self-aggrandising genre-loathing. After all, the ambition for most critical-minded creators is surely not to destroy the superhero, but to make the sub-genre smarter, its content less well-worn and morally slap-shod. (*4)

*4:-There are of course notable and laudable exception. It's hard not to conclude that Pat Mills would happily destroy rather than deconstruct the superhero.

5.                  

My favourite example of such playful satire, and the second of the three laugh-outloud scenes which I want to discuss, is to be found in Mike Baron and Jeffrey Butler's "The Badger" # 5, from May of 1985. It's the second event on the frameless introductory page re-capping The Bager's previous adventures, following the collapse of Capitol Comics and the book's "transfer" to First. As was the case with the Spider-Man panel we looked at yesterday, the humour here is created through the juxtaposition of an apparently typical superhero brawl with a word balloon which reveals a different context to the familiar scene than was at first apparent. Because, of course, the eye tends to read the visual aspects of the panel before processing the text, the frequent consumer of superhero books will inevitably at first interpret the scene as being one of a superhero thwarting a robbery in a supermarket. In this, Jeffrey Butler's energetic and yet obviously somewhat awkward style, as yet strongly influenced far more by the contents of other comic books rather than real life, serves to carry the message of "superheroic business as usual", so similar is it to the second-division mainstream Marvel books of the time. Yet the dialogue is so contrary to expectations that it immediately provokes at the very least a smile and a sense of complicity on the part of the reader. "Next time, fill out the goddam check before you get in line!" spits The Badger, and we're left amused at (a) the unexpected break with costumed convention, and (b) the fact that we can't help but recognise some of our own everyday anger and impatience in the Badger's actions.


For Mike Baron's scripts on The Badger at their best fed off the truth that most of us have on occasion wished for the ability to impose ourselves upon the world not to right great social ills or rescue utter strangers, but just to be able to go about our everyday lives without running into folks who don't behave in the way that we expect and want them too. In declaring war on teenagers who torture ducks, on men who garden late at night, as well as absent-minded shoppers, The Badger as a character serves as a litmus test for our own civility. As a consequence, the laugh that follows the unexpected word balloon is immediately chased off by one inspired by an awareness that we too have been infuriated beyond measure in a thousand minor social situations, by drivers not indicating on a roundabout, by folks who use several cash cards in a row when there's a queue for the bank machine behind them, by people working on their cars during summer afternoons with their blaring radios making the air shimmer even more than the heat does. To laugh at the Badger is to own up to the very worst instincts informing the superhero fantasy, by the desire for the power to impose our will quickly and completely upon anyone who transgresses against our normative expectations without reference to the individual circumstances of each incident.

        
Essential to the meaning of the panel is the cashier who recoils from the violence in what's obviously shock, who reminds the reader of what the precise point of that beating is. For this frame from "The Badger", like all successful satire, takes pleasure in being both the thing that's despised and the criticism of it. After we've taken a measure of prurient pleasure at the brutal beating of what's at worst no more than a self-involved customer at a checkout, we surely do need a not-too-obvious but still explicit statement of what violence actually is and how it disfigures all of us. In "Welcome Back Frank", that contextualising component is the fate of Maria Lopez, an innocent cleaner murdered by The Vigilante Squad during one of their self-proclaimed heroic rampages against crime. In The Badger, it's the cashier, through whose shaken and frightened eyes we see the Badger's behaviour again. It is a shame that Mr Butler placed her so far back into the background of the action, and that the colourist chose to obliterate her in purple, bu then, if she'd been made too prominent in the reader's gaze, the whole conceit would collapse immediately, the brutality of the insane Badger being made explicit far too quickly for the purpose of the brief scene to work. 

     
As a series, "The Badger" juggled a mass of influences and components which rarely entirely gelled, being a typical Mike Baron book of the period, saturated with interesting ideas and an informing energy, but missing the sense that the scripts had been wrestled through a solid third and fourth draft. Druids, insane superheroes, multiple personality disorder and, of course where Mr Baron was concerned, lashings of martial arts, all sat uncomfortably together in an entertaining and yet unintergrated and often lumpy mess. (*5) Perhaps the tag-lines for the series - "Why would anyone put on a costume and fight crime? They'd have to be crazy!" -  revealed a concept too thin to be endlessly played out without a great deal more content being loaded into narrative too. Yet I recall several people becoming fans of The Badger simply because of the single panel discussed above, and no matter how later issues, despite their eminent virtues, disappointed, those readers and I still kept buying the book, in the hope of receiving a hit from its pages as substantial and enjoyable as that first contained in that one single scene on the first page of "The Badger" # 5.

This single event made me laugh first at its unexpectedness, and then for its inappropriateness, and then, finally, because it so effectively exposed how lazy and self-regarding my own thinking had been. The superhero comic, Mr Baron seemed to be saying, needs to be as much about the person being punched as the wish fulfilment figure applying the debate-closing pummelling. In that, he deftly established the point that it's not the superhero sub-genre which is of itself inevitably dumb, so much as the willingness to leave unchallenged some rather dubious taken-for-granted assumptions concerning it on the part of both creators and readers.

*4:- If memory serves, Mr Baron even had his version of the Wally West Flash learn something of the martial arts while bearing a 'death touch', which would seem to be a case of gilding the lily.


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Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Taboos, Laughter, And The Lee/Ditko Amazing Spider-Man: These Panels Can Make Me Laugh Outloud (No 1)

1.

There are, to my memory, only three comicbook panels which have ever made me laugh outloud and uncontrollably. Though I do tend to spend a great deal of my reading time feeling amused to a greater or lesser degree, I really can count the number of tea-spat-across-the-room incidents on less than the fingers of a single hand.

On reflection, it seems to me that all of these panels share a single factor in common, namely that they were all taboo breakers at different points in my life. In these three individual frames, actions and attitudes which were utterly inconceivable to me in the context of their time was made to seem perfectly logical and indeed reasonable. In the moment between the shock of the event registering and the arrival of the super-ego's disapproval lay the explosion of a considerable guffaw, and then, in at least two of these examples, a mild degree of concern and a touch of reflection too.

2.

It might be thought today that there aren't a great deal of taboos likely to be being broken in the pages of  "The Return Of The Vulture" from 1963's "The Amazing Spider-Man" # 7. It could also be presumed that even if there were, they'd be so mild and inconspicuous that the force of any slight transgression would have been considerably diluted by the late January of 1973, when Mr Lee and Mr Ditko's tale was reprinted in the British weekly title, "The Mighty World Of Marvel". But that's not how my 10 year old self perceived the story, for what shocked him about it was the fact that the teenage Spider-Man was there-in obviously intent not just on defeating an adult super-villain, but upon beating up a disagreeable old man. (The Vulture was, after all, self-evidently past the point at which reduced fees on public transport could be claimed.) Given that I was just over a decade old, and that I imagined that Peter Parker was at this stage of his career no more than 15, meant that I was looking at the unimaginable business of a boy not yet having taken his O-Levels setting out to thoroughly assault a pensioner. After all, Spider-Man wasn't just threatening the Vulture with being caught, with jail or a public shaming or whatever polite fate school-boys tended to imagine deviant over-65's most deserved. Instead, Spider-Man was clearly intimidating and menacing the Vulture, no matter how flippantly, with the prospect of death!

Vulture: "Guns aren't my style anyway! What does the mighty Vulture need a weapon for! I've got my wings!"

Spider-Man: "You'll have a harp too, by the time I get through with you!"

Even now, there's still a pleasing sense of utter contempt and profound irritation in Spider-Man's statement, and arriving as it did placed between two kinetic and speedily-processable panels, I was laughing before I could grasp anything of what was I chortling about.

It wasn't the fact of Peter Parker's battling with the elderly, if still physically robust, Vulture which first threw me and then amused me so. Rather, it was Spider-Man's taken-for-granted assumption that he had every right to mock and assault the elderly criminal, and that the agencies typically trusted to deal with such confrontations were by their very nature not up to the task.He was taking charge at an age when he ought to have been doing was he was told, occasionally, I imagined, arguing with his aunt about a late Friday night or the radio playing too loud. Instead, this Spider-Man was quite content to be playfully threatening his aged opponent with a premature death, and for all that was so obviously a wisecrack rather than a declaration of purpose, it was still so deliciously and effortlessly disrespectful.

              
The second panel in this sequence merely confirmed to me of how far outside my normal expectations of correct behaviour this Spider-Man operated. In it, the Vulture has grabbed J. Jonah Jameson and is using him as a shield against Spider-Man, but Peter Parker doesn't express the slightest concern for the editor of "The Daily Bugle", in speech bubble, thought balloon or narrative caption. Instead, he simply regrets the fact that with Jameson held there, Parker "can't let go with a good punch". I was astonished! Wasn't Spider-Man's first concern to protect any vulnerable bystanders, regardless of who they were or the harm that it caused him? But Spider-Man was utterly unconcerned about Jameson's safety beyond not wanting to actively punch him in such a public forum, and instead was thinking only of landing a solid right hook onto the pointed chin of the thoroughly arrogant and unpleasant Toomes. It was as if  his sometimes paymaster simply wasn't someone that Parker cared enough about to immediately worry for, as if Peter Parker, aged 15, was absolutely up for belting old super-villains while being in that moment quite unconcerned for the plight of a relatively helpless and yet still identifiably adult newspaper editor.

          
"Aw, go slide down a barbed-wire fence." spits Spider-Man at Jameson on the following page, and it takes a moment now to see through our communal adoration of Peter Parker the adorable victim of ill fate to note how rude, how incredibly and wonderfully offensive, he could be when in costume. He didn't just aim the occasionally sarcastic remark at those who were either obviously unpleasant or profoundly evil. Instead, Spider-Man habitually went for the throat from the off, he mocked when he was fighting, he insulted after he'd won, he was constantly cussing and knocking around characters who seemed to metaphorically stand for uncaring parents, irresponsible teachers, complacent officials, bullying fellow students and unpleasant neighbours. In truth, Peter Parker in his Spider-Man costume was in so many ways a one-boy assault upon the hypocrisy of adult society.

At 10, this was to me the world being turned upside down. It wasn't, of course, that I'd suddenly been corrupted so as to take pleasure at the beating of the aged, and it didn't feel like wish-fulfillment, because I couldn't recognise the degree of resentment and fear and befuddlement that my dealings with so many of my supposed betters and elders had generated.But something in me was capable of noting that Spider-Man was not only doing that which he shouldn't have been, but that he was also thinking and feeling with a freedom and intensity of purpose quite alien to me, that he'd claimed at least for certain moments while in costume the liberty to be himself. He wasn't even particularly angry as he leapt over desks and their protruding typewriters in order to subdue the Vulture, and he certainly wasn't fighting back as a frightened child would, driven into a tearful rage and a spasm of get-away-from-me flailing. Instead, he was acting as he was because that's what he choose to do, because that's what he'd decided was for the best.

           
And what of all those endless and overlapping stratas of adult power and authority? Well, in that moment, Peter Parker couldn't give a damn. Too often today we really do think of Spider-Man as a relatively innocuous loser-cum-joker, as an unlucky bent-shouldered and yet still quipping symbol of the grimmest of adolescent and post-adolescent unhappiness. But perhaps it should be remembered that, in the context of 1962, and even 1973, Mr Lee and Mr Ditko's Spider-Man was a considerably more radical and inspiring force in the eyes of at least a few amazed young boys, who saw a partial freedom from fear and a disregard for cant in his adventures that was rarely if ever portrayed in the relatively polite and generally deferent comic books of the time

The audacity of it still makes me laugh, still reveals an anger and a desire for some vague and absolute freedom that I should have entirely worked through, I know, a very long time ago. But then, to add Ibsen to Lee and Ditko, the world is run by a terrible majority of fools.


To be concluded ...


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Tuesday, 26 April 2011

This Panel Can Make Me Cry (No 1); The Broons, 31-12-1944 by Dudley D. Watkins

In which the blogger makes a case for what the superhero narrative might learn from a 67 year old Scottish comic strip telling the comic adventures of a working class family during the last year of the Send World War;

      
Superhero comics tend to have a debilitating problem where the creation of a convincing sense of jeopardy is concerned, because the actions of superheroes rarely lead to serious and lasting consequences. Put simply, nothing really matters. The dead will rise again, lost limbs and wounded organs will be regrown or replaced with superior alternatives, and soon-to-be forgotten slaughtered love ones will be replaced over time with a new generation of prospective offerings to the gods of angst and vengeance.

        
It's surely not a problem which can be solved by constantly inflating the scale and the stakes of each new conflict, though decades of creators have chosen to attempt to do this. The mind and heart soon weary of yet another universe-threatening menace in which thousands of costumed hyperpeople slug it out with each other all over again. But perhaps something of a solution might be found in the work of creators which stand far outside of the superhero sub-genre. For example, the panel above comes from "The Broons" strip written and drawn by Dudley D. Watkins and published in The Sunday Post of the 31st December, 1944. It's the final frame in a page concerned with the Broons and their New Year's Eve, and it shows the unexpected return on leave to the family flat of two of their enlisted sons. It's a scene which can move me to tears, and which has quite chocked me up even as I write this. For what Mr Watkins succeeded in capturing here, as he so often did, is the sense of how precious human relations are, and of how terrible it is that they're ever threatened by factors beyond the individual's control. Mr Watkin's strip has no part, of course, in overly sentimentalising the unforeseen first-footing of Hen and Joe Broon, for that wasn't the way of the Scots. Instead, the sorrow implicit in the brother's absence, and the fear of what may yet happen to them, is transmitted through the obvious communal joy inspired by their return. If this, the panel tells us, is how wonderful a few hours can be made through the return of these men, then how inconsolable would this family and community be if the brothers were never able to come home again.



The world of the Broons was a vision of working class Glasgow tidied up and made entirely respectable for an audience of decent minded newspaper readers. (*1) In its own way, it was in this as fantastic a strip as many a superhero comic is. For nothing of Glasgow's social problems intruded into the Broon's life beyond a few of the privations of war, and even then, these were presented with an uncomplaining and good-hearted agenda. Poverty, violence, sectarianism, sexism, the lack of state health service, alcoholism; none of these aspects of everyday life, both for Glasgow and for all the cities across the United Kingdom, intruded upon the Broon's everyday reality. Yet Mr Watkins's work captured the sense of a community of distinct individuals who the reader could imagine might well be capable of a great deal that's more morally nuanced and compromised when their creator wasn't looking. To re-read the Broons strips from this period is to feel liberated by the representation of people of all ages and genders, by an absence of stereotypical body-types and by the presence of individual and informing personal characteristics. There's a sense that Mr Watkins, for all that he was showing us the very best and most decent aspects of what life at the time had to offer for such a hard-working and yet not entirely well-off family, was presenting us with an accurate abstraction of reality. Take away the worst of the harshness of everyday life and mute the capriciousness of fate and there, in the space created by Mr Watkins, stand the Broons.


But real life did interject into The Broons at times, and no more so than during the years of the Second World War, when it would have been impossible not to show Hen and Joe joining the armed forces and doing their patriotic bit. (I've no doubt that Mr Watkins never wanted to show anything other than his Broon lads signing up.) It's this clash of the potentially tragic with the eternally reassuringly domestic that makes this particular strip and its final panel so affecting. Because the very fact that Hen and Joe have been absent threatens the comfortable consolations typically offered by the strip. It's not that there's any discussion of the fact that the lads are missing prior to their return, and it's never touched upon that they may soon have to cross the Channel or, even worse, take the slow ships out to the Far East. But that wouldn't have been in keeping with a culture that preferred not to express its own private sadnesses, particularly at the moment of such a public celebration as Hogmanay. Yet the reader only has to take a moment to study the panel showing the reunion of the family to grasp how intensely worried Maw Broon has been by the absence of his boys.


Today she might be thought restrained and relaxed, but then our gaze catches sight of the handkerchief she holds in one hand, and of her other hand resting on that of Hen. I recall how, in the Sixties, when I grew up in a small town on the outskirts of Edinburgh, that this often was how mothers and grandmothers transmitted those overwhelming and yet disciplined emotions of love and concern. In leaning forward and just laying her hand on that of her son, Maw Broon is transmitting more raw emotion than all the teeth-gritting and muscle-tensing poses in the world could ever evoke.


Perhaps it's not the level of jeopardy that the superhero genre needs to focus upon, but rather, a greater sense of how its many characters care for each other represented in terms which are more redolent of everyday life rather than of soap opera. Emotions in the capes'n'chest-insignia worlds tend to be excessive, extreme, adolescent, and even then largely absent for most of what occurs on the page. Scenes of teams of superheroes gathered on rooftops and in space stations often seem to exist in a vacuum of emotion, with the details of the intimacies of how characters relate to each other, for good and bad, pictured only in the most broad of senses. Where emotions are investigated, it's often on an individual rather than a group scale, meaning that we rarely gain a sense of a community from what we're reading. That there are a significant number of creators whose work stands in contradiction to these generalisations doesn't, I'd content, undercut the overall truth of the contention. If only we were encouraged to know more of the truth of how be-costumed individuals related both to each other and to the powerless citizens beyond their class, if only the subtleties and intimacies of simply being human might be better emphasised, then it might just be possible to care more for the characters that we're incited to feel such excesses of anxiety and concern for.


The fact that this strip presents us with a polite but recognisable historical situation, and carries with it the truth that Hen and Joe might be on their way to the Western Front in Europe on the very next day, helps to increase the pathos which it stirs in us. Through observing so closely and presenting so carefully the intimacies of human interaction in the way he did, Mr Watkins made something quietly and yet fundamentally touching rather than sentimental and mawkish out of this tableau. And so, if we might perhaps imagine that Hen and Joe Broon were, if you'll forgive the absurd leap of imagination, agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. rather than soldiers in a Highland regiment, and if we pretend that the war against the Axis was actually a campaign against the satellite headquarters of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, then the same basic scenario as Mr Watkins showed us on New Years Eve of 1944 could, if adjusted for changing social norms, still be presented to us and could yet make us care. Because death and loss really doesn't often matter in the superhero universes, but the feelings that its characters have for each other still retain their power to involve us and move us, regardless of all the sentient super-diseases and all the inter-dimensional hoo-hah.

The taken-for-granted shorthand excesses of the soap opera function no more effectively for the superhero than does the Sturm und Drang of the be-costumed mass end-of-everything punch-up. We need not greater and greater degrees of the "super" in the superhuman narrative, but, rather, considerably more of the human.



This one is, if I might be forgiven the audacity, for Jamie, a sincere admirer of the work of Mr Watkins, and quite rightly so.

*1:- I've left in my mistake in stating the Broons lived in Glasgow. Of course, they came from the imaginary town of Auchentogle or Auchenshoogle. I think it stands as an example of how intimately the strip is tied up with my own emotions and my belief that elements of my family lived in Glasgow during the period. 
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