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Archive for the ‘Comics waffle’ Category

When Siegel and Schuster published the first Superman story in 1938, it was of course a landmark event for many reasons, but one of the less commented-upon is the fact that this was probably the very last time anyone ever published a comic-strip superhero story without claims of plagiarism being made and someone somewhere reaching for their lawyer.

The rights holders to Superman (lest we forget: super-strong, super-fast, super-tough flying man in a cape) spent a lot of their time in the 40s and 50s suing the publishers of other, supposedly entirely different super-strong, super-fast, super-tough flying men in capes. These days the only one anybody remembers is the character formerly known as Captain Marvel (these days trading as ‘Shazam’), partly because he appreciably outsold Superman for an extended period and partly because Supes’ own publishers at DC Comics (these days the DC appears to stand for Dumb Choice) bought the rights to the character and folded him into their own fictional universe.

However, when Captain Marvel ceased American publication in the early 50s, the outfit responsible for UK reprints did not feel inclined to go gentle into that good night, and hit upon the wheeze of making the tiniest possible cosmetic changes to the character and continuing to do their own stories. Thus Captain Marvel – in reality young Billy Batson, who says a magic word to become a super-strong, super-fast, super-tough flying man in a cape – was boldly reinvented as Marvelman – in reality young Mickey Moran, who says a secret formula to become a super-strong, super-fast, super-tough flying man, although crucially one without a cape. Marvelman’s own career in British comics lasted until the early 60s, which was probably just as well as by that point the word ‘Marvel’ was just beginning to acquire the cachet it has retained ever since, and the company has accordingly worked tirelessly to prevent anyone else from using it on a superhero title (cf. the original Captain Marvel’s irksome current rebranding as Shazam).

So, just as the original Green Lantern struggled to cope with any threat made of wood, and Superman has well-documented issues with kryptonite, so Marvelman’s fundamental flaw is his terrible vulnerability to lawsuits on all manner of grounds. This is why Marvelman is a character most people have never even heard of these days: he has long since been rebranded as Miracleman. And even in this form he has experienced terrible difficulties, which is why his remarkable 1980s revival has only been intermittently available to buy and enjoy.

You would have thought that, as a Captain Marvel knock-off, that character’s rightsholders at DC would have first dibs on Miracleman, but no: apparently the Marvel connection is more telling, which is why Miracleman belongs to Marvel Entertainment these days. (He’s still called Miracleman though.) At least the good news to come out of all this is that they are finally reprinting the 80s version of Miracleman, which originally appeared in the anthology magazine Warrior over thirty years ago.

miracleman

Here we hit a snag, as the original writer of the revival has opted to take his name off the reprints as a matter of personal principle, having long ago fallen out with Marvel. I feel sort of obliged to respect this, and in any case it’s not exactly hard to work out who we’re talking about: a brilliant British comics scribe, much prone to acrimonious fallings-out with major publishers, writing a post-modern deconstruction of a classic superhero, with themes including the terror and awe real superhumans would evoke, the psychosexual fallibilities of such characters, their impact on the real world, and so on. If you can’t work it out from those clues you probably wouldn’t know the guy’s name if I told it to you.

This is an early work, but Miracleman still burns up the pages with its energy and invention: taken hostage at the opening of a new nuclear plant, morose and troubled forty-something journalist Mike Moran stumbles upon the word he’s been dreaming about for decades: Kimota, the magic word which transforms him into the godlike Miracleman (a super-strong, super-tough… oh, never mind). He remembers years of adventures as Miracleman in the 50s and 60s, including a disastrous final mission, but there is no record of them: Moran’s wife laughs at the absurdity of his memories.

Miracleman is almost an absurd figure, living in a world in which superhumans are unknown, but he is also powerful enough to terrify the authorities, who have their own reasons for wanting him out of the way. A brief clash with his corrupted former-sidekick Kid Miracleman excepted, most of this first volume concerns Miracleman coming to terms with his own existence and learning the truth of his origins.

There’s a sense in which you can read Miracleman as the writer taking his first swing at the various themes he would go on to explore through the remainder of his career in mainstream superhero comics, but those themes hit the page here fully-formed and clearly articulated. As usual, he seems largely disinterested in the details of superheroic slugging matches: your attention is always drawn to the character elements, the poetry of the narrative voice, the legendarium of it all. Either this is superhero comics coming of age, or it’s everyone taking a very juvenile story much too seriously with rather distasteful results (or possibly both).

I tend towards option A. Even today, this first volume of Miracleman is an extraordinary book, combining a great superhero story with very traditional dystopian British SF. The brevity of the episodes (thanks to the anthology format), coupled to the restless creativity of the writing, means that if anything it’s almost too inventive – the writer comes up with a new motif or stylistic conceit every half-dozen pages or so, and the cumulative effect is somewhat exhausting.

The only real problem with this volume of Miracleman is that you can polish it off in a very brief session. There is some additional material, mostly dealing with supporting characters, but in terms of the actual Miracleman storyline there’s only about a hundred pages, which doesn’t feel like nearly enough. However, we are promised that at least one further volume – presumably containing the notorious Controversial Material relating to the return of Kid Miracleman – will be forthcoming before the end of the year. I can’t wait: this is an essential purchase for anyone interested in British comics or the history of superhero stories in general.

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Not long ago I picked up a second-hand copy of Michel Houellebecq’s H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. I would say I’m interested in Lovecraft more than an actual fan of his work – while the so-called Great Texts are brilliant achievements (though in quite what field I’m not entirely sure), also owning the recent releases of Necronomicon and Eldritch Tales means I am aware that a lot of HPL’s output is repetitive, peculiar and arguably quite wearisome.

Anyway, the Houellebecq book is interesting, though I would just say this should you also come across a copy – it looks substantial enough, but once you take out Stephen King’s rather lovely introduction and the reprints of two classic HPL tales, you’re left with an essay rather less than a hundred pages long. If you were a complete HPL newbie then I can’t imagine this being much of an issue, given you get two of the Great Texts in the same volume: I, on the other hand, am now the owner of four different copies of The Call of Cthulhu in different collections and formats, and three of The Whisperer in Darkness (not even a particular favourite of mine, it has to be said).

Houellebecq writes cogently and interestingly about HPL’s style and preoccupations, suggesting that the lack of certain subject matter in his work (basically, there’s no sex) is not necessarily as psychologically illuminating as people often assume, but perhaps instead the result of a conscious choice. I’m not sure I necessarily agree with this, but it is at least thought-provoking.

Most interesting is a section on Lovecraft’s soujourn in New York City in 1924, which is actually quite touching as it depicts his inability to engage with the modern world and opens up the intriguing possibility of how his life might have gone differently had he managed to find a job, preserve his marriage, and so on. Never to be, I suspect, and it’s only after this traumatic period that the Great Texts were written (Houellebecq throws up the engaging notion that the blasphemous city of R’lyeh, along with all the other nightmarish metropolii which crop up in his later work, are in fact depictions of New York as HPL perceived it).

Houellebecq also touches upon the issue of HPL’s racism and does so with a commendable lack of squeamishness. Even a cursory skim through HPL reveals some very nasty stuff going on – blacks explicitly likened to chimpanzees, the demonisation of anyone who isn’t Caucasian in The Call of Cthulhu itself – but to read extracts of HPL’s own letters on this topic is to take it to another level. The delirious, hyperbolic, almost glossolalic outpouring of words which characterises HPL’s most characteristic moments is put to the service of some appalling notions, such as when he describes New York’s immigrant population:

The organic things – Italo-Semitic-Mongoloid – inhabiting that awful cesspool could not by any stretch of the imagination be call’d human. They were monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguely moulded from some stinking viscous slime of earth’s corruption, and slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets or in and out of windows and doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep sea unnamabilities.

Damn it, Howard, don’t mince words – tell us what you really think! Of course, here we’re touching upon one of the age-old issues, as to how much one should let the nature of the artist influence one’s opinion of the art – the same thing applies to a lesser or greater degree to everyone from Wagner to Damon Albarn, not forgetting Charlton Heston along the way. With HPL it’s possibly slightly different in that his prejudices are so clearly fundamental to his work. Houellebecq doesn’t attempt to excuse them, but instead attempts to put them in context and explain their origin (maybe this in itself constitutes an apologia of sorts).

HPL’s racism is one of things that makes reading his work a slightly awkward experience sometimes, but Houellebecq is also very clear about why it is his work has endured and thrived – it is unique in style, and in its startling effect upon the receptive reader.

I nibble around the edges of HPL’s works quite often, not often having the time and energy to tackle the longer, lesser stories, but I think about him and influence relatively frequently, quite simply because he seems to me to be the single most influential figure in the horror genre as we understand it today.

I’ve said this before but I think it bears repeating – HPL was writing in the early years of the 20th century, when our whole conception of the world was shifting onto a new basis following various developments in the sciences. Influential, largely mechanistic philosophies were entering the mass consciousness for the first time, and there was a transition in process between a spiritual age and a materialistic one. And this transition, to me, is what drives HPL’s best writing.

The Great Texts, and many of the other stories, seem to me to be the products of a writer appalled by the philosophical basis of the new age and seeking to articulate this revulsion in any way he can. With the old Judaeo-Christian anthropocentric worldview looking increasingly archaic, the materialistic Darwinian one replacing it offered rather less comfort. I use the word Darwinian intentionally, because HPL clearly seems to have found the notion of evolution as repulsive as any fundamentalist Christian today. And this disgust finds its way into the stories – the central horror of Arthur Jermyn is of a man discovering he is descended from apes, while that of The Shadow Over Innsmouth is of another character discovering his ultimately marine ancestry.

HPL’s rejection of the modern scientific worldview also finds an expression in his praise of ignorance and rejection of the quest for knowledge in several stories. The famous opening sentence of The Call of Cthulhu expresses relief at human inability to make sense of the contents of our own heads, while At the Mountains of Madness features the narrator desperately hoping his account will dissuade anyone from following in his footsteps and acquiring more sanity-blasting knowledge. This is the intellectual and moral equivalent of sticking your head under the duvet and refusing to acknowledge uncomfortable truths even exist, a rejection of reason and curiosity at a fundamental level.

Perhaps this explains some of HPL’s appeal, but then there is also his unique (and that’s putting it mildly) prose style. It is customary to point out that HPL’s plotting is usually somewhat pedestrian, his characters thin and interchangeable, and his dialogue frequently rather embarrassing (his fondness for meticulously-rendered dialect speech particularly so). Was HPL even bothered about these things? How much of his style is the result of conscious decisions?

Hard to say. But show any reader savvy with SFF literature a paragraph rattling on breathlessly and stuffed with words like Cyclopean, paleogean, chromaticism and unnameable and they will instantly identify the author. Restrained and subtle HPL is not, but he is still a notable stylist, especially since all this overwrought prose at the same time manages to be usefully vague about most of what he’s writing about.

Again, this can be controversial – Michael Moorcock, in Starship Stormtroopers, describes HPL’s writing as ‘offensively awful’ with a ‘resultant inability to describe his own horrors’ (‘leaving us to do the work – the secret of his success – we’re all better writers than he is!’). Given the rather forensic descriptions occurring in several places in the HPL canon, I think this is a bit unfair – and, in any case, suggested horror is more to my personal taste than the no-holds-barred explicit kind.

Which brings me to another HPL-themed book I looked at recently, a collected edition of Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Neonomicon. Now, this isn’t a book I can properly review or write about in great detail, but even the fairly cursory glance I gave it has left it lodged in my head ever since (I think I may partly be writing this piece in an attempt to exorcise it).

Some people have suggested that Neonomicon is an oblique rant by Moore against the state of the current comics industry and the style of storytelling in widespread use within it. Well, maybe, but Moore himself has said in an interview that one of the notions motivating this story was (I paraphrase) to dig into the texture of the Mythos and actually explore what it is that HPL was writing about so obscurely – to take the unnameable and unspeakable, and to name it and talk about it.

The result is a book which, to be honest, I am surprised is on sale in high street bookshops – certainly without a sealed wrapper, anyway. On one level the plot is quite straightforward, concerning FBI agents investigating what appears to be a cult of Lovecraft-influenced fetishists, but – this being Alan Moore – there is inevitably a level of metatextuality going on here. The story is set in a world where Lovecraft was a penurious writer, and the Mythos stories are cult fiction, and this allows Moore to slip in various jokes and observations along the way. But then someone notices that the fetish cult has been in existence since before HPL wrote his stories, which means they can’t be copying him – could he in fact have been writing about something he really encountered?

All this is clever enough, but really by the by: the core of the story concerns an attempt by the main characters to infiltrate the cult and what happens afterwards. All goes well to begin with, but then they are discovered: the male agent is killed and his female partner is gang raped at considerable length as part of a ceremony to summon a Deep One (which duly shows up at the end of the second issue). The rape is depicted over many pages and in great detail, and – to my mind at least – it’s utterly vile and repulsive. If the same images were shown in a movie, that film would only be on sale in specialist adult shops.

The next issue is arguably just as bad, concerning the female agent being locked in a cellar with the Deep One, who proceeds to violate her repeatedly over a period of days. Again, nothing is left to the imagination and it is really quite appalling. I can see why some are suggesting that Moore is making a point here about the mindset of a certain kind of comics reader, and the way female characters are routinely treated, but – Jesus. This stuff is really horrible, surely much more than was required to make the point and easily enough to alienate and disgust people who would agree with Moore on this issue.

The final issue is a bit more palatable and has an interesting new take on certain aspects of the Mythos, but it’s hard to escape the notion that for the writer this book is primarily about the graphic sex and sexual violence that comprise most of the middle two chapters.

Lovecraft himself would surely have execrated Neonomicon as gutter filth of the lowest kind, for all that it is clearly an intelligent piece of work, thoughtfully-produced, and written by someone very familiar with the HPL canon. Is Moore in fact challenging readers of HPL’s prose in this book, as if to say ‘This is what really powers these stories – these are the unspeakable rites you’re so used to reading about’? If so, then Neonomicon is a typically brilliant piece of work from Moore, delivering a typically incisive and plausible critique of HPL and the Mythos while simultaneously being a credible addition to the Mythos itself.

That said, HPL’s words, at their best, leave me with a nebulous sense of wonderment and an equally vague kind of existential dread. Moore and Burrows’ pictures, on the other hand, just overwhelm me with a visceral disgust. Which of these is the more honest and realistic response to HPL’s ideas is surely debateable, but I think it would be wrong to suggest that Neonomicon is what Lovecraft’s work is ‘really’ about. There may be an element of truth there, but to reduce the Great Texts to being nothing more than camouflage for such squalid and limited obsessions is to do both them and their creator a great disservice.

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Yes, I know, regular readers are probably just used to me coming here and writing about films; and yes, I know, I should really be revising for the final exam of my diploma course. As far as the latter goes, thank you for your concern; and as far as the former goes – well, there should end up being a good deal more new non-movie material on here soon, so consider this an attempt to ease you into this gently, because I’ve been moved to write about something different tonight.

Normally I wouldn’t bother, but there are so many angles on this story I feel I’m going to need some space to address them all, to do with social attitudes and the nature of comic-book storytelling and the way they (often clumsily) intersect. As surely everyone is aware at the moment, the issue of sexual orientation is a bit of a live topic in the US currently, most prominently with Mr O coming out in favour of same-sex marriage. I don’t pay much attention to American social politics but it seems to me that Obama’s declaration seems to have raised a standard of sorts, which progressive media types are hustling to gather round.

That this movement had reached the comic book industry was indicated when it was announced that so-incredibly-obscure-he’s-never-been-in-a-movie gay member of the X-Men Northstar was to marry his boyfriend. I’m not really going to talk about this, except to say that if you’re going to use comics characters to comment on serious real-world issues, then a) you might want to think about using characters the average person has actually heard of, b) the whole ‘serious real world issue’ thing is kind of undercut when the character involved has previously come back from the dead at least once, and c) Northstar always seems to me to be an example of the worst kind of token character, required to personify the whole of the gay experience at the expense of depth and credibility (back in the 1980s, when AIDS was widely-perceived as the major gay-related issue, plans were afoot to have Northstar die of the condition – now that same-sex marriage is the hot topic, who else but the same guy should come racing forward at Mach 10 (oh yes, I’ve done my research) to help the publisher generate some topical publicity?).

Anyway, where Marvel lead, DC inevitably follow, and whispers have been doing the rounds for a bit that one of DC’s big-name capes was about to be retconned as secretly gay (I choose to use the word retconned rather than outed to reflect the rather cheap and shallow nature of this exercise in treating characters like playdough, to be mashed about and remoulded on a whim).

I feel obliged to point out, even though it should ideally go without saying, that I am not against diversity amongst superheroes (or indeed any other group of fictional characters), whether we’re talking gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, or whatever. I think the treatment of sexuality going on here has a lot in common with the handling of race in the 1980s, for reasons I will expand upon in a bit.

No one seriously expected it to be Superman, but there was a surprising, and arguably quite naive, belief in some quarters that it was going to turn out to be Batman. Personally I thought Steel might fit the bill rather well. But no: recently the word came out: DC’s gay superhero was going to be… Green Lantern!

Except it isn’t, quite. Well, it is and it isn’t. DC’s fictional world is not what you’d call metaphysically simple and contains a number of parallel realities. In the main one of these, where Clark Kent is Superman and Bruce Wayne is Batman in the present day (at least I assume they still are, I haven’t checked this week and DC does enjoy fiddling with these things), the Green Lantern is Hal Jordan and still pretty enthusiastically hetero, so far as I can make out. In one of DC’s alternate worlds, the Green Lantern is a guy called Alan Scott, and it’s this version of the character who’s been retconned.

There have been several major Green Lanterns in the character’s 70+ year history, and Alan Scott was the original, created by Bill Finger and Martin Nodell. He’s not an absolute favourite of mine, but he was always a likable, solid character, despite the hoops writers seemed intent on putting him through in the 90s and early 2000s. This is a character with a long and respectable history.

Except… the Alan Scott who’s gay isn’t strictly speaking the same one. The original Alan Scott fought in the second world war, was heroically active for well over half a century due to various kinds of magical intervention, had a wife and a couple of kids who were minor heroes in their own right. The Alan Scott in the news has a sort of vague similarity to this guy in all sorts of ways, but it’s clearly not actually the same character in any meaningful way: he’s a reboot in the same way the version of Captain Kirk in the most recent Star Trek movie, or Professor X in X-Men – First Class, were not the same people as the originals.

So, for ‘one of DC’s big-name characters is going to be revealed as gay’, read ‘an alternate version of one of DC’s big-name characters, who’s actually an essentially brand new reimagining of that character, is gay’. Not quite the bold step it’s being advertised as.

Then again, in terms of DC’s major characters, who were they going to choose? If they’d chosen a really big name character like Batman or Wonder Woman, that would have a serious impact on potential media uses of that character in future – you couldn’t have Batman gay in the comics and straight in the movies without drawing an absolute hurricane of flak from people rightly seeing the character’s sexual orientation in any given medium being dictated by commercial concerns. And, to be perfectly honest – and putting aside issues of continuity with the character’s previous relationships and behaviour – I think it would just be a tacky and insulting thing to do anyway – it would imply that sexuality somehow exists in its own compartment, the contents of which can be swapped out at any time with no impact on the rest of someone’s personality. Batman’s straight! Oh, look – now he’s gay! Don’t worry, it doesn’t make any difference to who he is! What, none whatsoever?

If only life were so simple. Well, it probably is if you’re written with the depth of some comic-book characters, but once again we’re talking about serious real-world issues here which deserve a little more contemplation.

As I said, I’m reminded of how racial equality was handled in comics in the 1980s. The big companies gradually became aware that their non-white readership was not as well-served for characters as it might be, and the result was to – ever so subtly – make some superheroes a bit more black. Dubious as it is to reveal a character has been gay, astounding revelations that a character is not of the ethnic group everyone believed are a complete non-starter, and so the preferred route was to create a new black character and palm an existing superhero role off on them. So, for Marvel, we had James Rhodes’ stint as Iron Man, while for DC it was once again Green Lantern’s role to fill diversity quotas – the existing character of John Stewart had his role in the book considerably bumped up. (There was also a black, female version of Captain Marvel in the Avengers for a bit.)

The 1980s exercise in tokenism seems to me to have primarily been driven by the profit motive, and I wonder if the same is true of its present day equivalent. One might wonder why they’re bothering at all, except perhaps on commendable ideological grounds, or if not that, then why they don’t just create some brand-new gay characters to show their solidarity with the cause. Well, think about it this way – which of the following press releases is going to get the most attention – Green Lantern is Gay or Brandnewcharacterman is Gay?

And the fact remains that the most recently-created comics hero to achieve any kind of traction and recognition-value with the general public as an individual is Wolverine, dating back to late 1974. Most new characters of any kind fail to make much impression even with the comics-buying audience – anyone else remember Xero, Aztek, or the Sovereign Seven? Brand new characters come and go like mayflies: the industry is dependent firstly on big names like Green Lantern, as they’re the only books that consistently sell, and secondly on profile-raising stunts like announcing a venerable and much-loved character is gay, because there is no bad publicity. DC’s support for equality may very well be commendable – but both this and the form it takes are both very firmly motivated by solid commercial reasons.

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