Friday, June 17, 2011
Everyone knows Donald Duck, right? Three feet tall, orange bill, sailor suit and cap? This guy?
Donald needs no introduction. He's three years older than Superman, having first appeared in 1934's The Wise Little Hen, from back when every Disney cartoon was a "Silly Symphony." Gaining in popularity steadily throughout the 30s and into the 40s, Donald soon threatened to eclipse Mickey Mouse as Disney's most popular character - much to Walt's chagrin, if the stories are true.
But the Donald we know from the cartoons and even from his appearances in Ted Osborne and Al Taliaferro's Donald Duck newspaper strip, is not the same Donald with whom comics readers are most familiar. As you probably know, the person most closely associated with Donald and his family in comics is a man named Carl Barks.
I don't know - I can't recall - if anyone has ever pointed this out before, but Barks' Donald is not the same character as the cartoon Donald.
Go back up to the top of the post and watch a minute of that Donald cartoon. What's the first thing you notice about Donald? What's the one thing everyone knows about Donald? He talks funny. He talks like a duck. His inability to communicate properly became a trademark, much like Porky Pig's famous stammer. The Ducktales cartoon even specifically referred to it as a "speech impediment," I want to say, in order to explain the fact that literally every other duck in the world could talk normal except for Donald.
Funny voices are just not something comics can do very well. Accents are notoriously difficult, and rightly so: almost every attempt to convey a regional dialect in comics comes across as awful.
Given these limitations, it's probably a blessing that no serious attempts were ever made to replicate Clarence Nash's distinctive quack on the comics page. But in the absence of his recognizable voice, Donald slowly evolved into an entirely different character from the one in cartoons. By 1947 ("The Waltz King") this is what Donald "sounded" like in Barks' comics:
I've always suspected (perhaps its been verified elsewhere) that Barks was fully aware of the discrepancy between the way his Donald spoke and the way the cartoon Donald sounded. The comic Donald is a fast-talker, glib and confident, and that's significantly different from the way Donald was ever portrayed in the cartoons. There's a reason for this: it's impossible to imagine Barks' dialogue for Donald coming from Nash's mouth.
The nerve of that chick! Tellin' ME that I might not be able to waltz well enough to be her partner! I, who invented pressurized tails for zoot suits!These tongue-twisters would be gibberish in duck-speak.
This is one of my favorite Donald bits, from that same year's "The Masters of Melody":
Three years earlier, the issue of Donald's voice was specifically addressed in the story "Kite Weather."
Donald puts on a show in drag by assuming a different voice altogether, including an exaggerated lisp. It's only after Donald gets popped by the boys' slingshot that he drops the act - "Oh! Oh! I know that voice!" the boys scream.
Barks' interpretation of Donald became the standard interpretation for subsequent generations of Duck artists. In 1987 Don Rosa made his entry into the field with a style that very consciously recalled Barks. His Donald was, just like Barks', an extremely verbal, even loquacious character.
But the Donald we know in the comics could never properly translate to film. When Barks' Duck stories were adapted into the widely successful Ducktales series, Donald was notably absent. He appeared in the first episode and rarely thereafter, leaving his nephews with his Uncle Scrooge to accept a new commission in the Navy.
In Barks' classic Scrooge stories, the dynamic between the flinty, uptight Scrooge and the lackadaisical Donald was central to many plots. Writing Donald out of Ducktales required significant alteration, and so the character of Launchpad McQuack was introduced as a kind of surrogate Donald. McQuack was similar enough in conception that the substitution was relatively painless. Most importantly, however, the character had no speech impediment. His dialogue would not slow down or unnecessarily complicate the expository mechanics of a fast-paced weekday-afternoon cartoon plot. I don't know exactly why Donald was written out of the series, but I can't imagine that the difficulty of understanding Donald's (instantly recognizable and thereby inalterable) voice over the course of a 22 minute cartoon was not a factor. Perhaps someone out there in readerland knows more.
What does "our" Donald sound like? Of course comic book characters exist in a silent medium, but all of us in our heads carry around some idea of what these people must sound like. From a very young age I had no trouble whatsoever discriminating between the two Donalds. I understood that the comic Donald had to have his own voice. He didn't have a noticeable speech impediment. And because I grew up with Carl Barks' stories I always felt that this Donald was the true Donald, and that the cartoon version was a bowdlerized doppelganger. In my mind Donald has always sounded just a bit like Spencer Tracy.
Friday, June 10, 2011
One of the bigger mistakes (among many) that the people at DC have made in the last few years has been to almost completely disregard Clark Kent. One of the very best things to come out of Byrne's Man Of Steel revamp was his reconceptualization of Clark Kent as more than just a mask for Superman. The idea of Superman as someone fully in touch with his Kryptonian heritage and slightly removed from the run of humanity ran its course in the years leading up to the original Crisis. Introducing a Superman who never even heard the word "Krypton" until (I believe) his late teens meant giving us a Superman who believed himself to be fully, completely human in every way that mattered.
This might seem like picking nits - after all, Superman is Superman, right? - but it goes back to the compassion at the heart of Superman's character. Despite his great powers Superman really does not - cannot - believe that there is any meaningful difference between him and any other other person on the planet. He truly believe that the only thing separating himself from the run of humanity is that he has been given by accident of birth the opportunity to act on his compassion. And therefore it is necessary for him to believe himself human, to believe that as much as he is Superman he is also a man named Clark Kent who uses the means available to him in order to fight for the same ideals that Superman holds.
The biggest mistake any writer can make is to portray Superman as naive. Superman is an optimist, yes, and an idealist. He honestly and genuinely wants to see the best in every person he meets. But Clark Kent is a journalist. As a journalist he is necessarily well-acquainted with the absolute worst humanity has to offer. Different creators are inconsistent as to exactly what kind of journalist Kent is - specifics don't really matter so much. Journalism is essentially a good plot device to enable Kent to be put into a number of different situations. But whether he's walking the political beat, doing crime or business or war or even sports, Clark Kent is constantly being pulled into close contact with bad people doing worse things. Whatever kinds of corruption and cruelty might miss his eye as Superman, he sees as Kent. He's a trained investigator with a super-brain, able to sift through massive amounts of data in the blink of an eye, and probably about as shrewd and clever as he wants to be depending on his circumstances. His limitations as Kent are that his reporting is obviously limited to what he can verify as Kent with the cognitive faculties and resources of a normal human at his disposal. (It strikes me that there is a great deal of story potential to be found in the discrepancies between what Superman can know and what Clark Kent can prove.)
So it's probably fairly hard to surprise Superman. He's seen it all, either as a super hero or a journalist. And that is one very important reason why Clark Kent is so necessary to Superman: without Kent, it's easy to lose sight of how smart Superman is. He is very smart. He may not have the same instincts and specific detective experience as Batman, but he's usually able to suss things out just fine on his own. It's important to Superman not to be seen as particularly calculating or cynical - because he's neither of these things, not really. But he can be these things, and being Kent is necessary because it allows the reader to see that the character understands shrewdness and cynicism just fine. Most of the time Superman can't afford the luxury of being cynical: he has to be perceived as eternally optimistic, because that's where his power lies. He is eternally optimistic, but it's not because he's ignorant of the "facts" regarding things like recidivism rates and political corruption and ethnic cleansing. It's in spite of these things that he carries on in the face of the worst the world has to offer.
If you wanted to make the comparison to Batman, this is where the two characters differ. It's Clark Kent's job to acknowledge the hard facts and expose malfeasance, to be suspicious and to act on those suspicions. Superman presents another option: an alternative based on forgiveness and an ideal of mutual responsibility. Bruce Wayne, as a public philanthropist and not-so-public captain of industry, uses his great resources to work on the larger scale for hopeful outcomes, helping ex-cons get back on their feet and funding educational initiatives to lift the working poor out of the desperation that begets crime. But as Batman he deals with the failures of the social welfare system and is forced into close contact with the scum of humanity. Superman and Batman are both essentially two people working for the same goal, but the genius of their dual identities is such that they are each able to become their own compliment, should the need arise. It's moot since (in most incarnations) Batman and Superman always know each other's identities, but it's conceivable that a Clark Kent / Batman team up - two investigators using their minds to expose corruption - might be almost as interesting as the traditional light / dark dichotomy of the World's Finest team.
Garth Ennis is rightfully praised for Hitman #34, featuring Tommy Monaghan's first unlikely encounter with Superman. Rarely discussed is the follow-up, 2007's JLA / Hitman, a direct sequel from the first story picking up the thread of how exactly Superman would react once he knew that the man with whom he had shared such a powerful moment was, in fact, a hired assassin. Everyone in the JLA reacts to Monaghan with the same identical abhorrence - he's a killer, a mercenary, a murderer. But Superman . . . Superman can't forgive Tommy for what he's done and what he does, but by the same token he can't bring himself to condemn anyone - even a hired killer with hundreds of lives on his hands. It's not moral cowardice that compels him to great benevolence even towards his enemies, rather, it's his limitless compassion that enables him to perceive the best in even the worst specimens of humanity.
There was a truly great moment in the otherwise underwhelming conclusion of Paul Cornell's recent "Black Ring" arc in Action Comics. At the climax of the story, after chasing a serious of MacGuffins halfway across the universe and coming into contact with some of the most terrible villains in the universe (as well as Death), Lex Luthor has achieved his lifelong goal of godlike power. He has the ability to do anything - to remake the universe in his image, to create lasting prosperity, eternal peace and harmony. He even wants to do these things - but there's one thing he wants to do first and more than anything else. That's right: kill Superman. The only problem is, because of how the power works, it will only obey him if his actions are completely benevolent.
It shouldn't require any kind of spoiler warning to tell you that, of course, Lex is unable to overcome his animus against Superman, even at the highest cost imaginable. But what's Superman's first instinct, when face to face with a godlike incarnation of his single greatest enemy? Forget me, forget everything about me, he says, I'm not important, I'm every bad thing you've always said I am. Just put me aside and do something good.
Because that's what Superman is all about: everyone, even Lex Luthor, is as capable of doing good as anyone else. We all possess within us the potential to perform great acts of kindness, because simply by being human we have been given the ability to choose good over evil. Even if he's 99% certain that a person will do the wrong thing, he has to believe that, if given the chance, anyone will be able to rise up and better themselves, to be that 1% that bucks the odds and makes the world a better place. If he didn't believe that with every fiber of his being, he wouldn't be Superman.
Wednesday, June 08, 2011
Superman's greatest power is his compassion. Throughout every successful iteration of the character that one virtue remains constant: he is an extremely powerful and endlessly resourceful man motivated by bottomless reservoirs of compassion to help people in whatever way he can.
This isn't a new observation, and it comes fairly close to what I think most people consider to be Superman's most basic core principles. But I don't think very many stories really take this idea as far as it could go. Certainly, Morrison's All-Star Superman is justifiably celebrated for being the best Superman story of at least the last decade, but its important to remember that the book succeeded not because it was in any way revisionist or "deconstructionist" (in the informal sense) but because it amplified the character's most central attributes to the point of bare iconography. It was in many respects the "purest" Superman story ever told, in that every story element was expressly dedicated to reflecting some facet of Superman's core thema. It is not the type of Superman story one can imagine coming across very often, because the tone is so unabashedly sincere that it would probably seem merely bathetic in the hands of an inferior creative team. Despite whatever qualms I may possess in regards to latter-day Morrison, there's no doubt that All-Star Superman is a towering work in the field.
But it wasn't All-Star Superman that inspired me to muse on this subject, it was a far less celebrated spin-off limited series from the mid-90s called The Doomsday Wars. If you don't remember it, don't worry, it's been largely forgotten for a number of reasons - the first of which being it is deeply mediocre, and the second of which being it served as a prelude to another in a long line of subpar Brainiac revamps that stretched from the immediate aftermath of the Crisis and on through very recently. I reread the series recently on a whim, looking for a light read and vaguely remembering the series (along with its predecessor, the actually-pretty-decent Hunter / Prey) being a good popcorn read. Sure enough, the actual plot was not particularly memorable, but there were a few bits that did stick in my mind. There's a subplot involving Superman remembering a story from his youth - mid-teenage years - wherein, during a fierce blizzard, he was unable to reach a herd of cattle stranded on a far field, and they died because he crashed the truck into a snowbank while trying to reach them. (Keep in mind this was still the post-Crisis period when Superman's powers did not even begin to emerge until late adolescence.) The flashback echoes the contemporary story, with Superman trying to carry Lana Lang and Pete Ross' newborn son from Kansas to a state-of-the-art neonatal care ward in Atlanta, but being waylaid by Doomsday in the process. (Don't worry, he saves the kid, but not before getting the snot beat out of him a few times. It doesn't end on a downer.)
The point of the story is an important one, despite the rather gruesome imagery of a young Clark Kent being traumatized by dozens of dead cows buried in shoulder-deep snow. Every now and again someone does a story that follows the general idea, "Superman can't save everyone." It's a downer, yes, and there are certainly many examples of the trope done poorly - but it's necessary to do the story every now and again for the simple reason that it underscores what might be the character's single most crucial character trait, the one virtue that enables everything else he does: humility. He is (for all intents and purposes, Captain Marvel notwithstanding) the most powerful man on earth. And yet he must be constantly aware of his own limitations, always conscious of exactly what he can and cannot accomplish with his powers. He knows that there are many, many things that he simply can't do even with all the power in the world, and although it might prove frustrating time and time again - and provide fodder for countless stories - at the end of the day he is Superman because he accepts these limitations and moves forward to do the best that he can.
He has to be able to forgive himself for not being able to be everywhere and do everything, and so by necessity he also has to be forgiving of others as well. Few writers have spent time articulating just how differently the world would seem to someone like Superman. His senses would give him an unenviable vantage point from which to observe humanity. Even if he never used his hearing or his sight to invade privacy - which would probably be fairly difficult to do in absolute terms - he would still be privy to more of the panoply of human behavior than anyone other being in history. He could see cause and effect, the roots of poverty and wealth, the consequences of charity and compassion. Elliot S. Maggin's averred that Superman would have to be a vegetarian, because his enhanced senses, extending to the infrared spectrum, would enable him to "see" the heat auras of living creatures, and register their emotions in much the same way as Daredevil does. He couldn't eat meat because - having grown up on a farm - he would be intimately aware of just how much pain an animal suffers as it dies, would be able to feel, see, smell and hear the process so viscerally that it would be overwhelming.
I think if you extrapolate that idea outwards, it's not hard to see that Superman's compassion is completely reflexive and therefore completely inextricable from the character. It's easy to do an "evil Superman" - just give us the same basic person with the same powers only without the compassion. Without that bedrock human decency, it's hard to see why all that power would not corrupt - but if you believe that "super empathy" is as much a part of Superman's powers as super strength and hearing, it's easy to see why the character would remain so steadfast throughout decades (and, in many alternate versions, centuries and even millennia) of the "Never Ending Battle."
To the best of my knowledge Neil Gaiman has only written one Superman story (not counting cameo appearances), the Green Lantern team-up Legend of the Green Flame. Originally written to run in Action Comics Weekly (that was a long time ago), it was dusted off and finally published in 2000. It's not that memorable of a story, but there's one bit that's always stuck with me. The gist of the story is that, thanks to a mystical MacGuffin (something to do with the Golden Age Green Lantern's lantern, considering that this story was supposedly set during the period when the original Justice Society had been exiled to fight an eternal Ragnarok inside a pocket universe [an odd Roy Thomas plot that was also mentioned during Season of Mists]), Superman and Hal Jordan are killed within the first few pages, and spend the rest of the story wandering the afterlife trying to find out how to return to life. There's an absolutely great bit with Superman and Hal in Hell - the real Hell - and Superman is rendered almost completely insensate. His can see and hear everything, and it's impossible for him to look away from the limitless catalog of torture and suffering in the inferno. He just stares, eyes wide open, unable to do anything but float rigidly above the lake of fire. When faced with the apogee of human suffering, suffering which he is definitively incapable of alleviating, then and only then when hope is obliterated can Superman be completely defeated.
Thursday, June 02, 2011
Fear Itself #3
We were somewhere around Seventh Avenue on the edge of TGI Fridays when the drugs began to take hold. I think there was supposed to be a Flashdancers Gentlemen's Club somewhere on the block, maybe in the same building as the place we were looking for, the greasy armpit of American pop culture detritus headquartered in the heart of the capitol of American business. Right off the Great White Way. Somewhere up and down these savage hallways and corridors there lurked a man, a Superman, shorn of his underwear and given a sharp v-neck turtleneck, as if the year were 1989 and Star Trek was still making nighttime sexy for Patrick Stewart fans everywhere. There's something indefinably rancid in the stew, some kind of mad brew of noxious chemicals piped in from across the channel in Jersey where all the goombas and grisly morons drain their tanning lotion down the sinks and shower drains of a thousand underwater tract homes. We're getting high on failure, the drugs are cheap and plentiful as long as you don't mind the rattle of bones.
There's no money left, no money left anywhere, we're all in debt up to our eysockets and hoping against hope that the credit card companies and the collection agencies deputized to act in their stead don't figure out the new number for at least six months. I don't even use the land line anymore except to call out because the line is always busy, always busy, Unidentified numbers calling in from unfamiliar area codes somewhere near Barstow, one of those punk ass burgs filled with unlicensed backyard wrestling of the kind that puts kids in crutches with sutures across their bulging collarbone. Fat and yet malnourished with an XXL Ke$ha T-shirt, you know the type. I just spent eight dollar American on fifteen minutes worth of reading material, smeary pages on cheap paper, but not cheap enough to make it cost less than lunch. I don't think toilet paper would be cheap enough to pay the rent without lopping off at least a small finger's worth of flesh. They demanded a pound and by gosh they took a pound, and they don't give a flying fuck that the blood is pouring everywhere in rivulets and dried dollops like the skin off a British pudding. That's what two pounds sterling for our friends across the pond? Not that they have any more money than we do, they're rioting in the streets to keep the library doors from swinging shut.
Two cheap floppy pamphlets filled with gibberish, so easy to drop them down a manhole cover somewhere between here and Central Park, it's not exactly art so it's not exactly littering. Let the rats fight it out. But I spent so much money on these things that I am loath to part. Too much money and heart and soul invested in these little bastards, one of which suffers from a lack of soul the other from a lack of heart. I'll leave it to you to decide which is which. Does it even matter?
The overwhelming sensation is sheer desperation: something bad is happening and the folks in charge of minding the lighthouse lost the oil on the stairs, there was a big bottle of lamp oil and it took a plunge somewhere on the fifth floor staircase. They're on their hands and knees trying to sweep up enough oil into their cupped hands in order to keep that lamp burning bright for as long as it takes for - what, to make sure the ship gets safely to shore? Is that even something we can be sure we want? Wouldn't it be easier just to let the whole damn thing crash on the reef and let the cargo holds fill with salt water, drowning the ballast, drowning these books and abjuring any power left in the tainted sigils of our distant childhoods? That's what's going on, only it's not lamp oil, it's shit, it's liquid diarrhea and it keeps dribbling through your fingers in chunky bits. It's what you think you want because you've been doing it for so long that you don't have any other way of making things go forward, but really it all boils down to sticking your hand up against the cow's anus and expecting something besides grassy, oily shit to flop into your hands. It's like maybe one of these days it won't actually be shit, it'll be caramel soft serve or something equally delicious. But until that day you'll keep eating it anyway because real food loses its flavor when you've spent thirty years eating shit.
But let's step back a moment, because that's an awfully stupid thing to say. It's not shit, it only looks like shit on certain occasions, say, every alternate Tuesday when you're feeling peculiarly phlegmatic. Because really it's just too easy and too condescending to talk down to superhero comics like they're some sort of blight on the cultural landscape. Let's take a minute and breathe this city air, see if we can get the balance right here right now: somewhere in this city there is a great and terrible beast slouching towards some modern-day Bethlehem waiting to be born, but it's nothing in Los Angeles, sorry Joan, and sorry Hunter, this great virus has infected itself in the heart of American capitalism. It's bigger than that, but there's your artificial dichotomy: here's your approved cultural product and your disapproved cultural product, they all cost the same and they all leave you feeling similarly empty. Emma Goldman's Living My Life costs $16.99 American, and you bet your ass the good folks at Penguin have no interest in examining the irony of that proposition. The truth is that it's all terrible, every single bit of it, every shred of escapism dedicated to distraction and contentment. Crying out low art and high art distinctions doesn't impress anyone anymore, I say to my friend as we slouch across the city street, still keeping our eyes open for the supermen, the true guardians of this loveless isle of Manhattan. I've got a copy of Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word in my jacket pocket and I'm feeling twitchy, so I pull it and see if I can find something interesting in these snot-stained pages:
But wasn't there something just the least bit incestuous about this tendency of contemporary art to use previous styles of art as its point of reference? Early Modernism was a comment on academic realism, and Abstract Expressionism was a comment on early Modernism, and now Pop Art was a comment on Abstract Expressionism - wasn't there something slightly narrow, clubby, ingrown about it?Then there's some bit about Clement Greenberg asserting that art is about art, which I guess makes sense inasmuch as it's something of a tautological assertion of value without basis. More or less the definition of petit bourgeois bullshit, but there was a point there. Something sitting right past the edge of my nose, daring me to pick it up, pluck it out of thin air like a will 'o' the wisp . . .
No, not that jackass.
So these comics, what are they about? I've got both issues wadded in my hand like soiled tissues, leafing through the creased pages . . . all possible criticisms are either cheap or easy. Mouthbreathing morons in their basements, etc etc. You can fill in the same circle-jerk elitist shit you've been sniffing for decades. It's not that criticism of these things on the basis of their idiocy isn't valid, it's that there's really no point in making that argument because it's moot. These aren't really collectibles or pieces of art or anything, they're just stories, bad stories, but on some level an honest attempt on the part of someone to communicate some kind of idea. Cultural product is product yes but the people in the sausage factory can usually be counted on to convince themselves that the sausage they're making is good to eat. Personally, I like sausage, even if I know that most industrially-produced sausage probably contains trace amounts of human and animal fecal matter. It's the price we pay to do business in this man's world, don't you know.
Narrow, clubby, ingrown - this are the watchwords we mutter under our breath. With the industry on a respirator what do we do, what can we do but double down on what we got? I look on the calender and see two giant event comics hitting store shelves the same day, the exact same moment on retailer shelves across the nation, and what I smell is two large sewer rats, giant fuckers plucked out of the sewers under Seventh Avenue and starved for the better part of a week before being locked in a cage with one and the other. It's a struggle to the death, is what it is, the two largest media conglomerates in the world waking up from their long stuporous haze and realizing that they have their very own Southeast Asian country in which to wage their proxy battle for domination of the Twenty-First Century mediascape.
So let's see what we see when we pull the cock out of the condom:
Now that is what I call a goddamn comic book cover.
Let's be frank, now is not the time to mince words, there is no more point in complaining about the scabrous content of American superhero comic books because kids don't read them. They don't. Pointing this out at such a late date is simply an insult to everyone with a pair of functioning eyes. but if you put a dude on the cover getting shocked by an electric chair, what you're really saying is, yeah, this isn't for kids, but really, it is totally for kids, because who the hell else is gonna be turned on by seeing the Flash get fried (and there's a pun too obvious for me, ladies and gentlemen) but a little kid? They've gone from being obviously for kids to being for grown-ups in such a way as to primarily appeal to kids. It would almost be brilliant if it seemed intentional, but I doubt this was the intention. Kids loved and still love gangsta rap because it was dirty and violent in all the ways that they weren't supposed to like, but they loved it anyway and sat around their friend's basements listening to Too $hort rapping about "Blow Job Betty" like it was Little Orphan Annie's secret code phrase waiting to be deciphered. That's something that a lot of people don't seem to get: the best way to appeal to kids is to make it as stupid, violent and inappropriately sexy as possible. In this instance, I have a hard time believing that DC could be doing a better job than having one of their most recognizable superheroes be electrocuted by a demoniacal Batman on the cover of their big crossover. Not that it'll help, of course.
How many middle-aged management types are going to start downloading DC comics to read on their Kindles and iPads on those long flights from Topeka to Seattle? Judging from the type of shit that gets sold in airport kiosks under the names "Brad K. Thor" and "Robert Patterson," I'd say it's a good bet that they might just be able to sell some of these shitty pamphlets to the salarymen, if the advertising works the way it should.
But in the here and now the fleshbags responsible for making these stories are charged with the solemn responsibility of making these business decisions somehow translate into four-color stories. As far as these things go, it could be worse: nerds love alternate-reality stories because then they get to play put the puzzle together only some of the pieces are missing or colored differently or mad rapists or whatever. It's hard to fuck one of these up, but by the same token it's kind of easy. I'm certain the people who made this book had a good time making it because, yeah, it's kind of fun. But cheap all the same. Which is not to say it's not worth doing, but don't say we didn't warn you when you're bending over with the tiny comb trying to find all the little crablouses in your crotch. There's a reason she's got a t-shirt with bicycle handlebars where her tits go.
But enough about your sister.
I'm sick of inhaling truck fumes but there's not a lot else to get high on in New York City here and now. Oh, I'm sure there's real drugs somewhere but I lost my case in security and my friend - my associate - my business partner - my platonic lover - he's not that picky. He'll take just about anything, really. Things are getting desperate in these parts. He's a sexy man with a sexy plan, and it doesn't necessarily include reading these silly little comic books, but that doesn't mean he's not open to the possibility. He speaks in grunts and riddles, spends his spare time down at the Brozone jacking off the Shake Weight because that's the only way he can get off these days. I pass the copy of Fear Itself under his nose and he snorts like an animal who just smelled one of its own dead and upwind. He lets slip a mournful moan, because in the moment he smells that sucker he can see his tribemate dead on the side of the road, a large black bulk hit by a car and dead before the body hit the ground. What is this? It's dead, it's inert. It's got Nazis attacking the American capitol in giant robot suits with machine guns, and wow that's pretty much the laziest kind of nightmare we can imagine in the year 2011, isn't it just?
If comic books had a Daily Recommended Minimum, it would be Fear Itself. It represents starvation rations from a group of men so emaciated of imagination that even their most fantastic daydreams appear to be cribbed from unproduced Law & Order spec scripts. Here's the one where Briscoe finds the ancient Norse warhammer and turns into a giant monster in downtown Manhattan. Of course this is a problem because he starts making mistakes and crooks start walking on technicalities and then Sam Waterston looks grim and resolved, or is it pensive and angry, I can't tell because seriously the man has one single facial expression with which to express the enormous range of human emotion. Seriously, these fuckers are so damaged they can't even imagine what a fantasy story looks like that does not in some fashion involve paramilitary law enforcement people sitting around a room with giant television screens and deliberating their course of action. This is what all these stupid stories are about: who gets to sit in the control room telling heroes what to do. This is such a massively boring and inescapable preoccupation on the part of men entrusted with our societal dreaming that it amounts to nothing less than a complete dereliction of duty. If you sit down and read fifty issues of The Avengers and think that what it most needs is to resemble a police procedural, then you're just bleeding frothy pink shit out of your ears.
(A digression on the matter of fecal metaphors: people use shit because it's an effective way of expressing disgust in an appropriately transgressive manner without resorting to the kind of crude sexual imagery that brings immediate censure. For instance, I could say that Fear Itself resembled nothing so much as getting raped in the mouth by an eight-hundred pound gorilla, but then someone would raise their hand in the back row and say, "I . . . I was raped by a circus gorilla. His name was Bobo and he was not a gentle lover. It took me years before I could leave the house without checking the bushes outside my doorway for banana peels . . . >choke< . . . how dare you?" while fighting back hot tears of rage. So, that's why we go back to shit so often. We're not Tyler, the Creator, people.)
My friend points to one strange bit of serendipity: both issues end with a central character at or near death, broken and burned across his body. (SPOILER!) How interesting that both comics did the same thing on the same day. It's almost like they're really in cahoots, sitting in a freezer box at the base of the Triboro Bridge with red spray paint coating their lips like glam strawberry jelly as they pass the paper bag back and forth. With the cars whizzing by and my friend mooning disconsolate against the red afternoon sun I realize with a sudden flash of clarity that it's all over, every single bit of it, it's all done and gone, we're just now hearing the echoes from the last fading sonic boom of fading glasnost. The Cold War is over, things are boiling hot, the rockets have flown, these are the End Times, everything is over except the screaming. There's nothing left but to crack the glass on the bell jar and see if maybe, just maybe, Sylvia Plath will crawl out of the seam and help us all put our heads in the oven.