Thursday, January 27, 2005

The Superhero In The Age of Genocide:
The Adventures of Marshall Law - Part Two

Nobody better lay a finger on his Butterfinger!

(The first half of this essay can be found here.)

Despite the persistent and mostly deserved acclaim attached to books such as Watchman, The Dark Knight Returns and (to a lesser but still significant extent) Squadron Supreme and Animal Man, the actual influence of these books was nowhere near as pervasive as their positive press would indicate. Certainly, there were any number of books which could be said to have been superficially influenced by the all of the above, but the creative accomplishments of these books were soon overshadowed by (in at least the first two cases), their overwhelming commercial success.

So, the lesson to be learned from The Dark Knight Returns was not necessarily the fact that if you give top-shelf creators carte blanche they could create work of lasting importance, but that if you wrap a Batman comic book in a $4 "Prestige Format" cardstock cover, the kids will buy it. The reasons why that particular Batman comic was so enduringly popular have probably never been adequately calculated by DC management. Likewise, the lessons learned from Watchmen were not that the comics medium contains the potential for great stylistic and structural innovation, and that perhaps the superhero itself was becoming an exhausted genre. Instead, Watchmen proved that comic book fans would happily accept a coarsening of their medium commensurate with that seen in other mediums during the 1980s and 90s - and that morally reprehensible psychopaths were the hot trend. In a very unfortunate way, the comics industry of the early 90s was very much the logical outcome of these well-intentioned works.

(This is not to say that Rorschach was a morally reprehensible psychopath - that is definitely open to interpretation - but the common interpretation holds Rorschach to be merely a "hard-core" version of the Punished or Wolverine or any of the "grim & gritty" vanguard.)

A lot was made at the time - and not without reason - of that fact that so many of the early Image books were unimaginative ciphers of Marvel concepts. W.I.L.D.Cats and Youngblood were riffs on X-Men and X-Force (respectively), whose memberships were filled with blatant rips of various Marvel and DC superfolk. Both W.I.L.D.Cats and Cyberforce actually featured prominent characters with metal claws coming out of their hands, for God's sake. The Savage Dragon was the only truly interesting concept in the bunch, if you accept the fact that Spawn actually started out with an interesting (if hardly original) premise, but very soon devolved into the crap it remains today. Sure enough, how many of the original Image books are still being published on even a semi-monthly basis?

The lack of creative spark - the void - which animated the zombie-like perambulations of these early Image books was fueled by nothing so sinister as a genuine desire to succeed through mimicry. Nothing succeeds like success, and there's no arguing with the unquestionable success they experienced. In most cases, however, the ideological underpinnings of their creations was as bankrupt as their creators were wealthy, with the most nihilistic characters experiencing the most unalloyed success.

The missing link that connects the "Class of '86" with the Image "Revolution" is Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill's Marshall Law. It is obviously not necessary for art to be prophetic for it to be interesting, but it is uncanny how much of the supposedly dystopian future imagery in Marshall Law came to pass in the pages of American comic books just a few years later.

Superhero comics have, at their root, an idealization of the physical form which often belies the individual characters' recurring and inescapable neuroses. The idea of a physically perfect specimen devoted to the cause of truth and justice - including protection for the weak and the persecuted - was conceived in part as counterpoint to the racial ideals of the Third Reich during World War II. The crucial distinction on which American superhero mythology has always hinged is the conception of overwhelming power yoked to the service of overarching moral authority.

For so long as comics remained a primarily juvenile medium, the moral equation behind the characters' motivations could never be questioned. Even when implications of darker moral depths began to emerge in the 60s and 70s, the characters remained staunchly committed to their Manichean worldviews. The choice presented to superhero characters was rarely one of two opposing and equally valid alternatives, but the rather transparent conflict between inaction that will allow evil to flourish and proactivity that will serve as a bulwark against said evil at great personal cost.

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

So the books took a subtle shift from the juvenile power fantasy with safe and relatively well-defined moral boundaries, to the adolescent power fantasy, with the loose, arbitrary and shifting moral compass that adolescence implies. Considering the audience shift precipitated by the rise of Marvel comics in the 60s and solidified during the 70s, the target audience for most comics had risen a few years on average. Whereas the majority of comics in the 50s and early 60s had been targeted firmly at young children, the relative maturation in subject matter which Stan Lee instigated caused the audience to age, to the point where younger children would probably find most Marvel comics - suspended as they were in a perpetual state of existential adolescent ennui that would seem ineffably foreign to tots - baffling and boring. Why can't they be like Batman, happy to fight the colorful crooks all day? Nice work if you can get it.

So the stage was set in the 1980s for a full-scale reappraisal of the moral standards by which the mainstream superhero industry had come to define itself. The problem is the fact that these developments were never dictated by organic creative concerns - they were dictated by editorial mandates and corporate edicts.

So when Alan Moore and Frank Miller and Mark Gruenwald set out to introduce a new dialectic into the mainstream discourse, they were met with baffled shrugs of indifference. Wisely, Moore soon realized that the superhero mainstream, dominated as it was by corporate interests and self-serving fanboy mentalities, was incapable of sustaining the kind of thematic dialogue works like Watchmen demanded, and soon left for greener pastures. Similarly, Miller soon decided that he was more interesting in developing his own ideas, ideas involving neither spandex or stilted moral discussion, while still leaving room for the occasional holiday in the superhero universes (stuff like Elektra Lives Again). Mark Gruenwald seemed to be happy just to be allowed to write Captain America for what would be the rest of his natural life.

Marshall Law is the ultimate counterpoint to these relatively utopian conceptions of superhero morality. Despite whatever dystopian scenarios they depicted, Watchmen, Dark Knight and Squadron Supreme all end with the heroes chastened but relatively unscathed, and fully recommitted to the cause of heroism. On the contrary, Marshall Law begins at the exact point where heroism is rendered obsolete - there will be no great moral epiphanies, no triumphant battles against the forces of darkness. The forces of darkness, represented by nihilistic genocidal destruction, have already won.

If the superhero was at least partially conceived as a bulwark against European fascism, it must still be acknowledged that the genre's idealized foundations are sometimes uncomfortably similar to those of Nazism. This is an uncomfortable idea which was recently explored in the excellent Truth: Red, White & Black limited series. By seeking to subvert and stymie the Axis menace, Jewish kids chose to create strikingly Aryan models of the physical ideal.

The creation of physical perfection through artificial means was explored extensively by the Nazis, taking the idea of eugenics and selected breeding which was woefully championed by Gage, and following in the footsteps of other Western countries - among them the United States - in the implementation of their selective breeding and sterilization programs. Ultimately, its not hard to draw a direct connection between the rise of the industrial mindset in the 19th and early 20th centuries and the application of industrial techniques to humanity.

If God is "dead", and the moral prohibitions which once guided the race have fallen away, then it naturally follows that the human body would become just another province for science to conquer. Therefore, the human body would become just another assortment of parts, to be changed and altered and disposed of as the scientists saw fit.

And of course, the free exchange of these attitudes and ideas led to the most massive tragedy in the history of the human race.

In Marshall Law, the once-implicit connection between morality and the exercise of power has long since ceased to carry any currency. The gangs of murderous super-heroes who roam the streets of San Futuro are products of wholesale Government experiments, genetic and biological aberrations designed for the express purpose of fighting secret wars in Central America. There bodies are grossly misshapen and hideously exaggerated with enormous, muscular torsos, massive biceps and tiny, almost delicate legs. Their faces are pulled into perpetual grimaces, their thoughts insane and incoherent. They have been created by the government, in the government's image, for the sole purpose of wielding power indiscriminately.

There is no moral equivocacy here: the super-heroes in Marshall Law are conceived as soldiers. Soldiers, like superheroes, possess inordinate power over their fellow man (i.e., the license and encouragement to kill other people in certain situations), but none of the moral angst, because the ideal soldier is merely a physical vessel for the will of his commanders. Let loose from the military hierarchy, a soldier can easily become a dangerous empty vessel - the ultimate expression of nihilism.

Watchmen and Dark Knight took away what had previously been the automatic implication of the easy moral equivocacy in superhero comics. But in the absence of any great overarching dialogue, this new conceptual territory was merely exploited in the service of commerce. When the Image founders breathed life into their endless rampaging hoards of post-apocalyptic para-military cyborg warriors, the absence of even the most inadequate moral definition was, by definition, the epitome of nihilism. Strange monsters fighting other strange monsters for vague and indeterminate reasons - a whole lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing much at all. A pile of empty vessels crashing into another pile of empty vessels, only with nicer printing.

Kevin O'Neill's distended and distorted anatomy was meant to convey a willful corruption of the natural world - an amplification and subversion of the superhero's traditional physicality, and by extension the implication that his moral compass has inextricably dissolved. The evocations of Nazi biological engineering and the quest for a fascist ideal are unmistakable. However, just a few years after the first Marshall Law series was published, Rob Liefeld was pencilling X-Force and then publishing Youngblood - offering what had been O'Neill's deadpan satire as sincere escapism.

On the count of three - jazz hands!

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