Archive for July, 2005|Monthly archive page

SPOILERS ABOUND: a weekly digest of reviews, notes, and rants (UPDATED!)

In Uncategorized on July 31, 2005 at 7:50 am

Vol. 1, No. 4
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In this issue:
reviews of GØDLAND #1 and JLA: Classified #10 /
notes on religious motifs in Rags’s cover to JLA #115, five sure-fire relaunch schemes for Batman and the Outsiders, and awesome, brilliant people with impeccable taste / rants about my own bloody shortsightedness

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GØDLAND #1 (Image)
Joe Casey (Writer) / Tom Scioli (Artist) / Bill Crabtree (Colorist) / Comicraft/Rob Steen (Letterer) / Richard Starkings (Designer)

Kirby purists will snort, but I think GØDLAND’s nifty.

In an insightful interview with Matt Fraction at CBR, Joe Casey describes the series as “Grand Kirby Spectacle mixed with the particular bent I happen to get my rocks off writing.” That, True Disbeliever, is a pretty fair summary of what we get in GØDLAND #1, a book that runs 1960s Marvel dialogue through a metafictional time warp while keeping the King’s pulse-pounding layouts and trademark energy dots front and centre.

The story concerns some big (BIG!) doings: former American astronaut Adam Archer has acquired the power cosmic after surviving a mind-bending close encounter on Mars and, at the beginning of this issue, is called into action to investigate a mysterious meteor that has crashed into the Great Wall of China. Casey give us big battles, big mysteries, and big villains. Launching another salvo in the war on “decompression,” Casey also gives us big subplots concerning, among other things, Adam’s sisterly trinity (straight arrow Neela, anti-establishment brat Angie, and acerbic den mother Stella), purple-armored alien scientists and their vats of reptilian wardogs, some costumed fellow named Crashman, and the paternity of sadistic superdom Discordia.

As much fun as Casey’s tongue-in-cheek tweaking of superhero conventions provides, and as much of an intellectual punch it promises to pack in the future (see below), the main attraction of the series at this point is the lightening-bolt-to-your-cranium sublimity of Tom Scioli’s stunning artwork: an eerie channeling of Kirby, brought gorgeously to life by Bill Crabtree’s award-worthy coloring. Casey’s cosmos-spanning story gives Scioli an abundance of weird scenes and exotic settings to draw, and Scioli’s high-powered renderings are transformed by Crabtree into pages so vibrant that I defy even those who would cry “pastiche!” to affect indifference. Don’t be fooled by the bland cover design: this is one beautiful book.

The quality of Crabtree’s work deserves special mention here, for his coloring provides a subliminal but potent emotional score for the issue, becoming an integral component of the book’s affective power. His technique is to treat each multi-paneled page like a single painting–a painting that is often connected to adjacent pages in subtle, complicated ways.

For instance, in an extraordinary two-page flashback of Adam triggering an ancient alien machine in a Martian cave (done almost entirely in greys and greens), Crabtree makes the facing pages perfect chromatic inversions of each other to reinforce Adam’s through-the-looking-glass experience of being overwhelmed by sinister spectral versions of himself.

A later two-page sequence depicting Discordia’s ice fortress in the Arctic Circle is even more impressive. In this instance, Crabtree uses a cold blue palette on the upper quadrants and a warm orange palette on the lower ones to divide the two pages horizontally. In this way, the coloring complements the action depicted in the panels: the blue-over-orange conveys the impression of an icy crust over a blistering inferno that is a visual metaphor for scarlet-clad ice-queen Discordia’s salacious torturing of Crashman inside her fortress dungeon.

(Intriguingly, the scene shifts to another battle in the lower quadrant of the second page of this spread, but the continuity of the orange palette suggests that these scenes might be more closely related than they appear. This detail is a further sign of the care with which the coloring has been executed, for the oranges of this two page-spread pick up the color scheme of this other fight sequence that has been ongoing throughout the issue.)

The obvious stumbling block for a series like this will be the perception that GØDLAND is just a lame Kirby rip-off or another tedious “homage.” That Scioli sees imitation as the sincerest form of flattery is undeniable. But for many reasons, this should not be cause for scorn. Postmodern art is almost by definition non-original and hyperreal, so unless one subscribes to the prescriptive view that postmodernism is necessarily shallow and pernicious (in which case “postmodernism” becomes an evaluative rather than a descriptive category), there’s no call for a rush to judgment. Based on the evidence of the first issue, moreover, I think we should take Casey at his word when he says, “if the series was just a pastiche, it wouldn’t be worth doing for me,” and also when he tells us that “the Kirby art riffs are a storytelling tool in the same way that captions and thought balloons are storytelling tools.” If we take Casey seriously here, and obviously I’m so inclined, then the question GØDLAND poses is not “do we need another Kirby tribute, no matter how pretty it might be?” but rather, “what kind of postmodernism is this, and what kind of conversation is it having with Kirby?”

It’s too soon to tell how interesting this conversation will be, or exactly what form it will take, but there are already a number of promising signs in the script that make me want to find out how Casey, Scioli, and Crabtree will develop it. The promise of the series for me is crystallized by the title, which plays not simply on the gods-among-us theme common to the Kirby oeuvre, but also on Kirby’s own deified status. In both cases, the negated O in “GØD” announces Casey’s iconoclastic intent, but in a way that suggests something more complex than either homage or parody. GØDLAND promises to put Kirby “under erasure”–that is, to make him paradoxically present and absent simultaneously, crossing him out in such a way that requires us to see both the original and the line that bars it. This is what Casey means, I think, when he refers to the Kirby art riffs as storytelling tools. We will see them, but they will no longer mean precisely what we expect them to.

What might they mean? Earlier this week, I wrote about another group of creators who paid tribute to Kirby by locating him in a mythic past, by casting him as founding father and presiding spirit of the Marvel bullpen. GØDLAND’s Kirby appears to be something quite different. For Casey and Scioli’s hyperrealist retooling of classic Marvel suggests that they view Kirby not merely as a creative luminary from the past, but also, in sense, as our contemporary. This is neither pastiche nor nostalgia, in other words, because Kirby (like Casey’s other creative crush, Kafka) was a postmodernist before the fact. His weirdly contorted “Futurist” machines and surreal, nightmarish visions may have been products of the trippy sixties, but they speak directly to our science-fiction present in the increasingly bizarre here and now of postmodernity.

Whether or not GØDLAND will end up moving beyond the amusing metafictional hijinks of its premier issue to explore this territory fully and prove the Kirby purists wrong remains to be seen–but the smart money’s on Casey.

JLA: Classsified #10 (DC Comics)
Warren Ellis (Writer) / Butch Guice (Artist) / David Baron (Colorist) / Phil Balsman (Letterer)

Lexcorp employees are killing themselves in droves and Lois and Clark are on the case. Meanwhile, Batman investigates the murder of a Defense Industry Contractor, and Wonder Woman gets a very nasty surprise. So begins the Ellis/Guice JLA arc, “New Maps of Hell,” and it’s well worth your nickel. In fact, it’s probably the best “big three” DC book on the stands this week, despite riveting installments of trinity-shattering goodness in Wonder Woman #219 and The Omac Project #4.

The cover tells us that “it begins with the Batman,” but don’t believe it. It begins with Ellis’s wonderful take on Lois and Clark who banter here like a real married couple and behave like genuine reporters. The scenes between them and Perry in the Daily Planet offices are the most fun I’ve had with these characters in a very long time.

What really makes the issue, though, is Butch Guice’s sumptuous art. I’ve been a huge fan of his work since Crossgen’s late, lamented Ruse, and if possible, he’s gotten even better since then. His establishing shots of Metropolis, Gotham, and Themyscira are stunning, and his detailed backgrounds give each city an incredible sense of concreteness and depth. As one might expect, he draws Clark, Bruce, and Diana expertly, but I especially love his Lois Lane.

There’s a wordless three panel sequence of Lois alone in her office, working out the mystery of the twenty Lexcorp suicides that is truly memorable.

This one’s a gem.


Allusion Watch: Rags’s Assumption of Batman

I finally put my finger on why I’m so enamored of Rags’s cover for JLA #115 from a couple of months ago: he’s depicted DC’s god-like pantheon with the grandeur, power, and feeling of religious art. I don’t know enough art history to say if this cover is based on a specific painting, but the style of its composition seems closest to that of Renaissance or Baroque painting.

In works depicting religious scenes like Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin (1516-18) (above), Rubens’s Descent from the Cross (1611-12) (right), or Pietro da Cortona’s Glorification of the Reign of Urban VIII (1633-39) (below), figures are naturally arranged along a vertical plane to convey the hierarchy of human and divine.

The divine focal point of the paintings is clearly appropriated (and complicated) by Batman’s ambiguous position on the cover (is it an ascent or a descent? are we witnessing the ascension of a human or the fall of a god?). Likewise, the awed, upturned faces of the figures near the bottom of the paintings, as well as the expressive, ecstatic poses of those closest to the divine figures are captured in Rags’s cover by Zatanna and Martian Manhunter respectively.

Also noteworthy is the use of space in both the cover and the paintings, all of which present the viewer with elaborate frames of human bodies around an empty gap at the centre of the image. The significance of this gap in the religious art should be obvious enough (especially in da Cortona’s painting, where it is given a luminous glow). In Rags’s work, however, it brilliantly suggests the hollowness at the core of the Justice League that Batman appears to be either escaping from or falling into in this incredible scene. DC: please sign Rags to a cushy contract…for life.

A new BATO monthly? Try Five. Relaunch in 5… 4… 3… 2… 1…

Okay, so the old-school hijacking of Winick’s Outsiders this week isn’t exactly a masterpiece, but the art by Will Conrad and Sean Parsons is moody and attractive, and Peter J. Tomasi’s story (something about a telepathic madman who detonates human bombs) is serviceable, despite the corny dialogue. What really matters here is that someone at DC (Tomasi?) was willing to pull a few of the old guard out of mothballs and thrust them momentarily into the spotlight at a time when fans have genuine cause to be optimistic that their neglected favorites from the ’eighties will finally be revived as decent, sometimes even spectacular, ongoing series.

Don’t toy with us, DC. You know that there’s a legion of nostalgia hounds (okay, six, counting me) who are dying to see a well-conceived relaunch of the classic BATO team in 2006. Black Lightening, Katana, Geo-Force, the real Metamorpho, some version of Halo perhaps, a new and better Looker (what say you just give plain old Emily Briggs Looker’s powers but let her keep her own body?), and of course, Batman. Given the current unraveling of the JLA, the stage is set for Bruce Wayne to reconnect with the team he forged when he quit the League in disgust way back in BATO #1. Even if the rumors about Batman are true, this hardly nixes the possibility of a rekindled relationship between Bruce and his former colleagues.

Do we really need to revisit BATO, you ask? Let me put it this way: yes! There’s so much untapped story potential here, particularly in a DCU that’s turned its rich history of obscure and half-forgotten characters into one of its strongest assets. If I may be permitted to fantasize for a moment, here are five creative teams that could work wonders with Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo’s colorful group of misfits:

Batman and the Outsiders
by Grant Morrison and Val Semeiks

At the end of the day, Barr and Aparo’s series was simultaneously dark, weird, and quirky—a strange mixture that stemmed from the oddball pairing of the Dark Knight Detective with a brightly clad collection of troubled souls who all had hearts of gold. Morrison will of course be too busy designing sentient universes to step up to the plate here, but who better to write Metamorpho, to make Looker into a new Emma Frost, or to exploit the cosmic oddity of the Aurikles than the architect of New X-Men or Doom Patrol? Besides, who doesn’t want to see Grant Morrison’s New Wave? Semeiks is an underrated artist whose energetic layouts would be perfect for a book like this, and he and Morrison have worked well together before.

Batman and the Outsiders
by Geoff Johns and Leonard Kirk

Again, no hope in hell, but a man can dream. Johns and Kirk were my favorite writer/artist pairing on JSA, and their magnificent “Savage Times” arc even featured Ahk-Ton, a villainous ancient Egyptian version of Metamorpho who first appeared in BATO #17-18. Johns is the obvious choice for a nostalgia project like this and he seems to know his BATO history; he also has a sentimental streak that would not be out of place with these characters. In fact, there are many compelling reasons why Johns’s BATO would soar: his skill at making ridiculous villains menacing (no shortage of these in BATO!), his ability to make new versions of old characters feel simultaneously fresh and familiar (I’d love to see him reinvent both Halo and Looker), and his knack for subtle characterization generally (BATO was always a character-driven book and I’d love to see what kind of depth he’d bring to Pierce, Brion, Tatsu, and Rex). He could probably even devise an interesting way to bring back Dr. Jace after she was so disgracefully dispatched during the Millennium crossover nonsense when the series fizzled out. Come on Geoff: six series a month, would it really kill ya? Leonard Kirk’s beautiful pencils speak for themselves.

Huntress and the Outsiders
by Gail Simone and Chris Batista

Batista’s doing a great job with straight-ahead superhero stuff on JLA right now and Simone’s Villains United is one of the most entertaining anti-team books on the stands. If anyone could make Katana the “it” character she deserves to be, it’s Simone. I have no defensible reason for proposing that Huntress lead the team besides the fact that I’ve always liked her, she has vague Bat-connections, plus the fact that Simone writes the heck out of her over on (guilty pleasure) Birds of Prey.

Red Hood and the Outsiders
by Judd Winick and Will Conrad

If there’s any team book suffering from an “identity crisis” these days, its Winick’s Outsiders, a book that has been uneven from the get-go, partly because it’s been played as a low-rent Titans and partly because few if any of the new characters have been crowd pleasers. His Batman, however, is firing on all cylinders, so why not combine the best of both worlds? Winick’s already played this game with us once, but having Jason Todd (mis)lead the team under the cowl of his former mentor or even as Red Hood might be interesting. Perhaps the current Outsiders series can still be salvaged, but my vote is that DC scrap the whole mess and start again with a retooled version of the classic team and one or two new ingredients. Winick’s taken a lot of shit for his writing on Outsiders, and I’m sorry to be adding to it here, but given the strength of his Batman I’m confident that he could make RHATO into a snappy noir adventure book.

Batman and the Outsiders
by Keith Giffen

And finally, an oddball choice for an oddball book. The very dark, very adult Legion vol. 4, which Keith Giffen worked on with Tom Bierbaum, Mary Bierbaum, and Al Gordon back in the late 80s and early 90s remains one of my all time favorite DC series, and his and DeMatteis’s zany Justice League continues to charm. The amorphous sensibility Giffen displays in these two very different projects is why he would be a perfect choice to helm a new BATO book. I can’t quite imagine what Giffen would do with this bunch, but it would undoubtedly be bold, funny, grim, and challenging, especially if he handled the art as well. If this happened, I would weep with joy.

Awesome, Brilliant Folks With Impeccable Taste

If you haven’t done so already, I’d urge you to check out Mark Fossen’s awesome, brilliant blog of comics criticism, Focused Totality. I say criticism rather than reviews because even though he sticks to the review format, what he’s really producing are lucid, engaging, literate analyses of contemporary comics. His post on Desolation Jones #2 has justly received a lot of attention, but his most accomplished piece, I think, is his extensive reflection on music and magic realism in Scott Pilgrim, Vols. 1 and 2. He’s also a really nice guy with impeccable taste.

And speaking of really nice guys with impeccable taste, you should also be reading Greg Burgas’s terrific, politically astute comics and culture blog, Delenda Est Carthago. Greg has been kind enough to include me not once but twice in his encyclopedic (and hilariously annotated) Sunday link lists where he trolls the web so you don’t have to, dredging forth more buried treasures than you can shake a stick at. Greg says he wants to rule the world. I say we let him.

Finally, some more brilliant awesome types:

Between the huge reveals of Wonder Woman and Flash, announcements about next year’s 52*, and the Infinite Crisis preview in Wizard, it was a big week for DC. Over at The Great Curve, Tom Bondurant has a really thought-provoking piece on Wonder Woman, violence, and sexism. Meanwhile, at the indisputably named Comics Should Be Good, Bill Reed raises some pertinent questions about the pitfalls that lay in store for the weekly 52* series next year.

Anyone who has somehow managed to miss Nielalien’s director’s commentary on Black Jack #1 should rectify that problem immediately.

I’ve also spent some time this week catching up on the posts at two really great sites: Kurt’s Return to Comics and Zilla and the Comics Junkies. The reviews at Zilla’s are thorough and top notch, and Kurt’s thoughtful four-part account of his time away from comics as well as his gradual return to the fold makes for fascinating reading, providing not just a personal history but a snapshot of the major shifts in the comic book landscape over the past 20-some years.

Finally, over at Nobody Laughs at Mister Fish, Disintegrating Clone poses the question that will be on everyone’s lips once Rob Lefield begins his two-issue stint on Teen Titans next month. His answer rings true.


I am an Idiot

I don’t know what I was thinking: I decided to wait for the trades. And as a result, I’m missing out on Morrison’s Seven Soldiers in the format that is probably most congenial to the whole experience. The horrible irony here is that, with the exception of Seaguy and WE3, I’ve always bought Morrison’s comics as single issues. Fuck.

“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” (Part 4): What is the Impossible Man?, or Mighty Marvel Metafiction in Fantastic Four #176

In Uncategorized on July 29, 2005 at 6:05 pm

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the pleasures and perils of comic book metafiction. Why some of it works for me and why some of it falls flat. After picking on Bendis for the ending of New Avengers #7, I concluded that I like my metafiction and my adventure stories the same way I like my steak and my mashed potatoes: segregated, on separate ends of the plate, preferably with a sturdy wall of green beans between them.

Naturally, there are exceptions, and I glanced at some of them in my rant about the Purple Man at the end of last week’s Spoilers Abound. What I concluded there was that the metafictionalizing of an otherwise unselfconscious title or character (the sudden appearance of a comic book creator as “god” in the story itself, say, or She-Hulk literally smashing through the fourth wall to address us directly) was only welcome when the story in question could implicitly be separated, meat and potatoes-like, from the superhero series or universe to which it ostensibly belonged. This was only possible, I speculated, if the reader was sufficiently forewarned, either by other elements either within the story or by the identity of the writer/artist himself. (Grant Morrison can always be counted on to do something weird, for instance, and John Byrne announces his project on the cover of She-Hulk #1: caveat lector.) In other words, the enjoyment of superhero metafiction, for me at least, seemed dependant on the management of readerly expectations. If its appearance is too much of a non sequitur, the breaking of the illusion is no longer interesting; it’s just cheap.

So how to account for Fantastic Four #176, “Improbable as it May Seem–the Impossible Man is Back in Town”? This issue by the team of Roy Thomas, George Perez, and Joe Sinnott, is a stellar example of successful comic book metafiction; it is yet another illustration of why Marvel of the late 1970s could truly brag of being “The House of Ideas”; and it is confirmation that Fantastic Four really was, at times, “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.” It also seems to stomp on every one of my over-precious aesthetic sensibilities concerning the strict division of metafiction and straightforward superhero adventure books. What gives?

The story, in brief, is that the FF are returning to earth from a cosmos-spanning adventure, with the shapeshifting, egg-headed Impossible Man in tow. Having saved the world from Galactus, they crash their spaceship in Central Park and make their way to the Baxter Building, on foot, by cab, and eventually by green and purple triple-decked surfboard. Impeding this parochial quest is the Impossible Man himself, who wanders into the Marvel Comics offices, confronts Stan Lee, and demands his own Marvel Comics series. Stan’s dismissive response (he’s still smarting over negative fan reaction to the Impossible Man’s “silly” first appearance in FF #11) precipitates bullpen chaos as Impy Imps-out, attacking the assembled Marvel staffers (including current writer/artist team, Roy Thomas and George Perez, as well as a visiting Jack Kirby, on loan from DC). In a winning parody of comic book slugfests, the staff dive for cover as the Impossible Man apes the abilities and weapons of various Marvel superheroes, blowing the Marvel offices to smithereens with Poppupian versions of Cap’s shield, Iron Man’s repulsor ray, Cyclops’s optic blasts, and Thor’s hammer, among others. As the office is getting trashed, the FF show up and Reed resolves the battle by strong-arming a promise out of Stan to feature the annoying Poppupian in one special issue of the FF comic book–presumably the very comic we readers now hold in our hands.

At one level, this story is a simple wish-fulfillment for Thomas and Perez. As Perez confesses in an interview in Wizard #165, this was his favorite issue from his run on the FF: “The fun part was drawing myself and [writer] Roy Thomas–boy, did I look good in those days!–and having my comic book self talking to Jack Kirby whom I had never met and wouldn’t meet for the first time until 1985.” Of course, this thrill of being inscribed into the four color world of the comic book page is the central theme of the issue: this is exactly what the Impossible Man wants too. In this way Thomas crafts a story that is at least partly about the desires and satisfactions of comic book creators. The story is both an extended in-joke and a fun reversal: the comic book’s creators (new and old) not only get to write themselves into the universe they created and interact with their characters, Lee himself gets to save the world (albeit reluctantly!) from the “silly” but potentially devastating threat of the Impossible Man. No wonder Perez cited this issue as his favorite or that Thomas wrote in his wonderful letter-column Afterword: “Every once in a while, a story comes along that, like it or don’t, you just feel you want to do–no, have to do. Once conceived, this issue of The Fantastic Four was one of those stories for me.” At this level, the Impossible Man is Perez and Thomas, gleefully seeking admittance to world they bring to life every month at the tips of their pens.

If this were all there was to it, the story would be a pleasant, slightly self-indulgent trifle. What makes this issue a classic is that, ultimately, Thomas and Perez’s fondness for this story is not rooted in the vanity such a wish-fulfillment might imply (in fact, they are mercilessly self mocking throughout the tale). As both Thomas and Perez suggest, and as central as Stan Lee might be to the resolution of the plot, the story, at its core, is a love letter to Jack Kirby–and to the comic book medium itself. It is, in other words, a story that is at once an exploration of the unique creative process that underlies the art of comics and a brilliant metafictional analysis of the language of that art form–an analysis, one might add, that anticipated Scott McCloud’s own seminal study by a number of years.

At the centre of this comic book analysis of comic book form is the weird, anarchic figure of the Impossible Man.

From the moment Impy inflates himself into a balloon and floats into the Marvel Comics offices, it’s clear that this shape-changing alien has begun to symbolize the very conventions of comic book storytelling through which he is represented. The panel in which Perez juxtaposes Impy’s floating balloon-head with a word balloon announcing the address of “the best comic-books in the world” and a thought balloon in which Impy thinks simply, “comic-books,” provides a taste of how this issue blurs the distinction between conventional signs (word balloons, which our reading habits “erase” from the visual plane) and concrete signs (the images we interpret as literally “there”). This panel invites us, in short, to read the Impossible Man as a protean embodiment of the invisible language of comic books.

This is confirmed–spectacularly, and in several ways–by the fight scene itself. Here, Impy’s malleability makes him a kind of degree zero of character construction as he assumes the distinguishing features of both male and female Marvel heroes (Black Bolt’s crepe-paper gliders, the Wasp’s wings, Namor’s ankle feathers). Because these transformations are literally taking place within Marvel’s offices, the impression one gets is not that he is imitating, but rather that he is generating the raw material of Marvel’s super-powered characters. Moreover, Impy is also “bigger” than any of the characters he generates, since he never completely becomes them, but simply sprouts wings or a hand in the shape of mjolnir. And he always, of course, remains purple and green, whatever new form he takes. The Impossible Man’s multiplicity in this regard hints at the mixed or hybrid nature of the comic book medium itself. As a medium that appears at the intersection of word and image (an intersection suggested by the word balloon device itself, an “image” that is all about words) the comic book, like Impy, is a protean, hybrid creature–hybrid not only in its form (words and pictures) but in the collaborative nature of its production (writer, penciler, inker, colorist, letterer, editor, cover artist, etc.).

Indeed, it would not be impossible to regard Impy as a emblem of both the visual and the verbal aspects of comic book narrative itself. For not only does his potential to infinitely assume new shapes make him a master-signifier of visual art; his infinite capacity for boredom and his consequent appetite for conflict also make him emblematic of narrative itself. In the opening scenes of the issue, the Impossible Man yawns and complains that he’s “already bored” as the High Evolutionary’s spacecraft hurtles earthward, threatening, as the Thing puts it, to splatter the FF “from the zoo to Morningside Heights!” Only when the ship actually crash lands in the lake in the middle of Central Park is Impy momentarily reassured that things aren’t going to be “as boring as [he] feared.” His literal desire as well as his narrative purpose in this tale is to avoid boredom by complicating the plot. A task at which he is doubly successful: his destruction of the Marvel studio is the climax of the action in the comic book we read (the conflict that makes the narrative “fun”), and its metafictional significance is underlined by the fact that the fight is the consequence of his desire to be represented in an exciting narrative form–the comic book! Thus, between his powers and his temperament, the Impossible Man embodies the hybrid union of pictures and narrative that Scott McCloud fittingly dubs, “sequential art.” Impy is comics.

This is evident in other ways as well–perhaps most importantly in the way that Impy’s control over his own bodily transformations suggests that he is not simply the raw material from which anything can be made, but is also the shaper of that very material. In short, Impy is both sides of the creative process represented within a single being: he is maker and matter, will and imagination, artist and clay, all at once.

The artist/clay metaphor is, I think, a particularly appropriate description of creation and creativity within a medium like superhero comics that relies heavily on genre conventions and in which stories are not created ex nihilo, but are part of a dialogic process between a “creator” at any given moment in time and the “clay” (the rules of the superhero genre, the accretion of stories and images of the characters he or she is working with, etc.).

Fantastic Four #176 represents this dialogue between artist and clay, present and past, through an encounter between the FF’s current creative team (Roy and George) and its original creative team (Stan and Jack), all of whom are hanging out in the Marvel bullpen. As if to underline the creative dependency of the present upon the past, Thomas exploits the clever conceit (established in FF #10-11) whereby the Marvel Comics produced “within” the Marvel universe are a sort of non-fictional, semi-journalistic infotainment. This fictionalized “Marvel Comics” produces an “authorized F.F. Comic Mag” that details the FF’s “real” adventures, so when the team goes off on an interstellar trek, the boys in the bullpen are left in the lurch. As “George” outlines the dilemma to “Stan”: “We’ve been trying to reach the Fantastic Four all week! Their answering service says they’re out of town.” Only Jack Kirby is accorded the role of genuine creator, for of the writers and artists present, only “Jack” makes the audacious suggestion that the current “creative” team “just make up some stories about the F.F.” “What? Make up stories–?” Roy gasps. “–instead of just drawing what really happened?” an astonished George finishes his sentence. (A lovely detail, since as artist, George literally does “finish Roy’s sentences”!) Stan (in what I take to be a wry nod to his role in creating a “realistic” superhero universe; heroes with real problems, etc.) rejects the route of complete invention, saying, “Nice try, Jack… But it just isn’t done…. No, we’d better come up with a more realistic plan before it’s too–” And at this precise moment, Impy, the madcap embodiment of the medium’s creative energy, pops in and says admiringly of the comic book covers on display: “My, my! How very imaginative!”

Ultimately, Roy and George are inspired by and keen to take up Kirby’s challenge to imagine, and it’s obvious that we are to understand this exchange as a tribute to Kirby’s visionary creative genius. (Impy is the spirit of Kirby made flesh here in all his joyful, green and purple glory.) The conceit of writing an “authorized” tabloid version of the “real” FF’s exploits thus becomes, in Thomas’s script, the basis for a profound compliment to Kirby in which Thomas humbly suggests that a comparison of his and Perez’s own creative efforts with those of the “King” can only be understood in terms of the difference between fiction and non-fiction, creativity and imitation. Over the course of this scene, however, imitation (of the “real” FF) is transformed into inspiration (by Kirby), and the creative relation between present and past, artist and clay, is thus also brought squarely into view.

Kirby becomes, in Thomas’s appreciation, the exception that proves the rule of Marvel superhero comic book artistry: that creativity is always already intertextual and dialogic. Kirby himself becomes the paradoxically original “ground” upon which this truism of non-original creativity is staked, and Impy comes to signify the collaborative spirit of this marvelous new alchemy. What is the Impossible Man? A better question might be, who? On Kirby’s magnificent cover at least, he is a peculiar kind of self-portrait. Stepping nimbly over a table strewn with pages of comic book art, the hybrid Impossible Man dominates the scene with the ever-changing organic powers that, like Kirby’s, are literally at the tips of his fingers. The Impossible Man is, at this level, the “King” of Marvel Comics. As the nick-name “Impy” implies, however, he is also an “imp,” a mischievous, Puckish genius loci that extends beyond Kirby to “inspire” (en-spirit) the entire place, keeping the new generation of artists and writers in permanent touch with both the accretions of history (all the issues of the FF that precede theirs) and with the protean spirit of creative energy itself.

By the happiest of accidents, the complex hybrid creativity of comic book storytelling that the Impossible Man and the scenes in the Marvel bullpen represent is inherent in the creative genesis of this very story. As Thomas recounts in the special edition of the FF letter column, then called “Baxter Building Bulletins,” Kirby’s role in the issue far exceeded the simple job of cover artist:

[Production Manager] John Verpoorten and [John] Romita informed me that if I wanted Jack “King” Kirby to pencil the cover for F.F. #176, I’d better give him a coast-to-coast phone-call right away and describe the cover scene to him.

And did I ever want Jack to do it! After all, he and Smilin’ Stan Lee created the character, a decade and a half ago in one-and-one-only story which, while it did not lead to fabulous sales or such-like, had become a cultish favorite among certain F.F. lovers (myself included, but definitely, since the night in late 1962 I first laid eyes on F.F. #11).

So I called Jack. Yes, he said, he vaguely remembered the Impossible Man. The thin green guy with the pinhead, right? I said right. And here’s the important part: I asked Jack to have Impy, on the cover, using some of the gimmicks George and I had planned for the interior, such as hosing the Human Torch and hammering the Thing….

A few days later, I got this strange penciled cover in the mail which was just what I’d asked, except that Impy was blasting the F.F. with hands shaped like Iron-Man’s glove and Thor’s magic hammer! And there was even a note suggesting he could have shaped a fist like Captain America’s shield! Immediately I saw Jack’s reasoning: this was the Marvel Comics office, right? So why not have him using Marvel-type gimmicks?

Ten minutes later I was on the phone describing the cover to George, and we instantly decided (since George was just beginning to draw the first half of the book) to utilize Jack’s ideas.

Given the nature of Marvel scripting (which typically happened after the finished art had been produced), it’s safe to say that Kirby’s influence on this landmark issue was on more than just the art choices Perez would make in the second half of the story. It no doubt provided an added layer to Thomas’s script as he was forced to reckon with the catalyzing force of Kirby’s creative input. (Was Kirby even in the original plot? I wonder.) Most importantly, Kirby’s idea of “using Marvel-type gimmicks” suggests that he saw something even more profound than Thomas had about the relationship between the Impossible Man and the comic book form–something that Thomas and Perez’s final product ultimately captures and something I have been trying to articulate here under the rubric of “metafiction.” That it should flow from the conjunction of past and present, from a genealogy whose components are still in vital contact, is one of those extraordinary instances of planetary alignment that happen only once in a lifetime.

My reading of this phenomenal metafictional issue has been moving outwards from the centre, into increasing degrees of abstraction. I’d like to take it one further degree: from the hybrid nature of comic book form, to the hybrid nature of comic book storytelling and creativity, to the hybrid, paradoxical nature of art as such. As always, the Impossible Man is glue that holds it all together.

As I noted above, the battle in the bullpen concludes when Mr. Fantastic persuades Stan to give the Impossible Man a special issue (the very issue we are reading), thus having the esteemed EIC save the day, a conclusion which acknowledges his power as a creator–a power that is equal and complementary to Jack’s. This complementarity is hinted at again in the epilogue to the bullpen story where Stan revokes his promise to placate the Impossible Man on the grounds that “Marvel Comics hasn’t time to waste on silly-looking characters.” Meanwhile, a poster of Howard the Duck smiles on the wall behind him! Serious Stan’s refusal of “silly” things like the Impossible Man is obviously ironized by the image of Howard, and of course, even more fully by the very “silly” issue we hold in our hands. Moreover, this silliness that Stan pretends to repudiate in the name of “realism” is none other than the “silliness” of raw creativity itself, represented earlier by Jack’s wild idea that the current writer just “make up some stories.” What this suggests to me, at least, is that the opposition between the “Stan” and “Jack” in this issue is really not an opposition but a dialectic: the dialectic of art, and specifically of the Marvel comic book, in which of which the thesis of realism and the antithesis of silliness meet in the impossible synthesis of the Impossible Man himself.

Like the Impossible Man, comic books (and especially Marvel superhero comic books of the 1970s) were inescapably realistic and silly all at once. Their “silliness” in fact seemed realistic, because it was naturalized through conventions. (To my mother, adults with powers running around in capes and tights was “silly”; to me, it made perfect sense.) As an embodiment of the comic book medium and a synthesis of its creative processes, the Impossible Man is true to his name. For the implied paradox of possible impossibility–of something that must be impossible, and yet manifestly is–is the paradox of all art and all representation: that strange absent presence that transports us elsewhere, without ever, for a moment, being “real.”

To return, very briefly, to my original question as to why this metafictional issue of the FF is so genuinely fantastic despite its violation of my personal (and no doubt idiosyncratic) rule against interrupting a serious superhero saga with a garish burst of self-consciousness, one could propose various answers: Its metafictional plot is not only contained within a single issue, it is also totally superfluous to the book’s ongoing storyline. It is, for all intents and purposes, an imaginary story. (A smaller version of Bryne’s She-Hulk or David Mack’s Daredevil: Echo). It may take place within the numeration of the regular FF comic, and we may understand it to literally have happened, but we are not required to integrate it into the overarching narrative of the FF comic book. Its metafictionality is also tempered by “realism” within the context of the Marvel universe’s “real world” focus and within the specifically New York flavor of the FF comic. Moreover, it had been established long before that Stan Lee and the Marvel bullpen were already part of the Marvel Universe. Besides, Lee’s face was well-known to readers of the Bullpen Bulletins page that appeared in the monthly comics (where he was drawn in semi-realist caricature), as was his persona, which receives an amusing satirical treatment here.

Ultimately, however, The Impossible Man is a metafictional treat because Thomas and Perez give his rampage through the bullpen in FF #176 real emotional depth and genuine explanatory weight. This brilliant “off-beat” issue is not just a clever bit of self-reference, not a “gimmick,” not even simply a tribute to a legendary creative mentor. It is a subtle object lesson on the sequential art of comic books, and school has never been this much fun.

SPOILERS ABOUND: a weekly digest of reviews, notes, and rants

In Uncategorized on July 24, 2005 at 5:48 am

Vol. 1, No. 3
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

In this issue:
reviews of Wrath of the Spectre (TPB) and Day of Vengeance #4 / notes on allusions to Hamlet in Astonishing X-Men, the lost art of promo art, and remembering Jim Aparo / rants about the Purple Man and comic book metafiction

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –


Wrath of the Spectre (TPB) (DC Comics)
Michael Fleisher (Writer) / Jim Aparo, Ernie Chua, Frank Thorne, Mike DeCarlo, and Pablo Marcos (Artists) / Jim Aparo, John Costanza, and Augustin Mas (Letterers) / Adrienne Roy (Colorist)

The best comic I bought this week was DC’s collected edition of Michael Fleisher and Jim Aparo’s The Wrath of the Spectre, released earlier this year. David Fiore’s appreciation of Aparo’s work on these issues last week got me to pick it up, and I’m sure delighted that I did. What a read!

Most of the stories follow a simple pattern of crime and retribution in which the Spectre metes out ghastly forms of poetic justice to evil men and the occasional evil woman. But don’t let the simplicity or (apparent) repetitiveness of the plots fool you. These stories are simultaneously deeply satisfying as well as deeply unsettling, and the peculiar form of elemental pleasure/horror they evoke springs from their amplification of a contradiction that is already inherent in the concept of the revenge ghost upon which the Spectre is based.

Revenge ghosts are a staple of horror in every iteration of the genre, but the type of affect these ghosts generate is not adequately described by the term “horror.” As the cover to this issue of Beware from 1953 illustrates, the revenge ghost mixes horror with the idea of just deserts (in fact the latter ostensibly “justifies” the former, albeit not enough for Frederic Wertham). The result of this mixture is a bifurcated plot structure that complicates our reading experience by splitting our identification between the innocent victim/revenge ghost on the one hand (the justice plot) and the murderer/victim of the revenge ghost on the other (the horror plot). Thus, in a typical story of this type, we don’t care much about the original victim–they’re barely on stage before they’re dispatched, their sole function being to motivate (and embody) the action of supernatural revenge. The meat of the story is the haunting and grisly destruction of the murderer with whom we must sufficiently identify in order for the story to produce the desired effect of horror. Hence the contraction of the motivating murder (the murder of the innocent) and the expansion of the revenge murder (the murder of the guilty), a murder we “experience” more intensely through the story’s use of time and point of view (extensive scenes of flight and fear are usually given to the guilty victims, not the innocent ones). This double-plot ensures that our relation to the murderer is ambivalent: we are horrified by his torment at the hands of a genuinely frightening supernatural agency, and yet we also enjoy his inevitably horrific fate as form of justice, sadistically identifying with the revenge ghost itself, no matter how horrifying it appears. It is thus no contradiction for Uncle Creepy to entreat us: “Feast your bloodshot eyeballs on comics guaranteed to leave you senseless with delight!”

Fleishman and Aparo’s Spectre stories follow this double-structure, but with a very significant difference. In a typical EC story of this sort, one feels that, despite this structurally mandated ambivalence, the balance still ultimately tilts in the direction of horror. We might to some extent be invited to identify with the ghost, but it is very hard to reconcile the ghost’s manifestly “evil” appearance with the moral order it ostensibly embodies. In fact, the very monstrosity of the retribution (the thing that we find most horrifying) fatally undermines the story’s putative “moral” alibi. (Really, Mr. Wertham, these stories teach lessons!)

With the Spectre, however, the possibilities for identifying with the revenge ghost change substantially. Now the revenge ghost’s function is embodied in a single character who acts as sort of meta-phantom from which all revenge ghosts spring. (In other words, he embodies a structural feature of all revenge-ghost stories that normally remains implicit: the convention of the revenge ghost itself.)

This unique premise has many fascinating consequences, the most pertinent of which is that our increased ability to identify with the revenge ghost (now the story’s protagonist) thoroughly complicates the effect of these stories. The “horror” of 1950s horror comics is now supplemented by a much stronger “moral” component. But this does not mean that these stories are more reassuring. In fact, they are less so because what the expanded emphasis on the justice plot now makes visible is the possibility that horror resides within the actions of the “just” law itself.

Despite the protests of certain stories in this collection which anxiously address this very question, the supernatural punishment of the criminal always feels excessive, no matter how evil a crime he has committed (and Fleisher pulls no punches here: these criminals are bad guys). Moreover, this excess is attributed not to a satanic-looking corpse whose ambiguous brand of “justice” is easy to dismiss, but to a superhero-ghost whose mission is implicitly divine. Thus, just as the Spectre’s embodiment of the revenge ghost’s function increases our identification with him, it also increases the extraordinary ambiguity of our response to his actions, and invites us to look critically at the notion of justice itself. This wonderfully subversive aspect of these stories (which has implications for a critique of capital punishment, among other things) is abetted by the fact that with the Spectre’s embodiment of the revenge ghost concept comes the possibility of self-consciousness, memory, learning, and change. We are no longer stuck in the endless cycle of repetition that was inevitable with stories featuring individual revenge ghosts who were all driven by the same abstract principle and who simply disappeared when their task was discharged.

Later writers like Doug Moench and John Ostrander would go on to explore the ethical possibilities of the Spectre’s self-consciousness in considerable depth. But such an exploration is already developing in the Fleishman/Aparo stories where it takes the form of an external questioning of the Spectre’s methods via the character of Earl Crawford, a magazine freelancer who tracks the Spectre and articulates a more liberal point of view about the rights of the criminal.

It is also implicit in the star-crossed relationship between would-be lovers Jim Corrigan and Gwendolyn Sterling, a relationship that ultimately leads Jim to ask “The Voice” to release him from his bondage to the vengeance-driven Spectre.

I am even tempted to see this critical exploration of justice reflected in a disturbingly topical tale entitled, “The Human Bombs and…the Spectre” in which a criminal scientist brainwashes people into becoming suicide bombers with a “stroboscopic hypno-wheel” of his own invention.

This “hypno-wheel” bears a suggestive visual similarity to later stories’ representation of “The Voice” as a set of bright lights that produce a similarly “hypnotic” effect on the helpless soul of Jim Corrigan to transform him in to the instrument of divine vengeance.

Is the mad scientist’s hypno-wheel any different from the voice of god and the unyielding version of justice it sanctions in these tales? Are the Spectre’s divine acts of vengeance any less perverse than the mad scientist’s creation of human bombs? Beyond the genuinely visceral pleasures it unquestionably provides, the enduring strength of Fleisher and Aparo’s legendary work on the Spectre is that it does not allow us to answer any of these questions simply.

Given the philosophical weightiness of Fleisher and Aparo’s Spectre, catching up with this character in the present day DCU is a journey from the sublime…

Day of Vengeance #4 (DC Comics)
Bill Willingham (Writer) / Justiano (Penciller) / Walden Wong (Inker) / Pat Brosseau (Letterer) / Chris Chuckay (Colorist)

…to the ridiculous. But not in a bad way.

Unleashing Bill Willingham on the magic pocket of the mainstream DCU was a very, very good idea. Day of Vengeance is flat-out fun. I’m enjoying all five Countdown minis probably more than is actually defensible, but this one has been the big surprise. I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with magic-oriented books, but Willingham has sucked me in by focusing on character rather than plot (which is paper thin at best; someone on a message board described it as a giant slugfest, which is about right). The dust up between Captain Marvel and the Spectre (hardly recognizable as the same character that Fleisher and Aparo worked on) is deftly confined to the background, serving only as a pretense for generating amusing interactions among the loveable weirdos of DC’s magical Z-list.

Detective Chimp, Nightshade, Enchantress, Ragman, Shining Knight, Blue Devil: I feel like I know these people. (And in one particular case, I’m worried that I am one of these people). Besides, I’m a sucker for “assembling the super-team” stories (probably why I adored issues #1-6 of Bendis’s New Avengers), and here, the assembly of a team of supermagicians hybridizes the magical characters with superheroes in a way that makes them extra-palatable to an unreconstructed superhero geek like myself.

Granted, a few of the jokes are a bit broad. But I laughed out loud at least four times when reading this issue, and I laughed the second and third times I read it too. (Pathetically, I’m still giggling over the third-last page of issue two from two months ago.) For this, Justiano and Wong’s phenomenal, nutty artwork deserves as much credit as Willingham’s script. The scenes of Detective Chimp’s memories on page two, and the panel of Chimp and Nightshade’s awkward coffee klatch with Mr. Zechlin on page four are hilarious even without the dialogue. What’s more, the cartoony flare of the art perfectly bridges the potentially jarring gap between the essentially comic content of the story and the larger, more portentous, Crisis-story frame.

I do have one teensy gripe, and here I must echo Johanna Draper Carlson’s complaint about the characterization of Blue Devil; his personality (what I recall of it) seems to have been filched by Ragman. Perhaps all those years of bouncing drunken magicians hardened him. In any event, I look forward to learning all of the details when the Shadowpact ongoing by the same creative team premiers later this year. Um…right?


Allusion Watch: Alas, Poor Yorick!

Meaningful or not? The visual citation of one of the most famous and frequently reproduced and parodied scenes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet in this week’s Astonishing X-Men has me wondering…

In Shakespeare’s play, the troubled, indecisive avenger, Prince Hamlet, treats us to a grimly ironic soliloquy on the inevitability of death when he is confronted with the skull of his beloved childhood Jester, Yorick:

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?
Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let
her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must
come; make her laugh at that.

(Shakespeare, Hamlet, act V, scene i)

Here in Astonishing, Professor X ruminates about his special relationship with Jean Grey when he confronts the head of his homicidal “daughter,” Danger, which he has just severed with an axe.

They seem pretty unrelated, but there’s more of a basis for comparison than one might think. Both versions of the scene are confrontations with dead (or almost “dead”) characters who are not exactly blood relatives, but are indeed very nearly relations, and are in both cases, extremely intimate ones: the childhood jester that Hamlet loved and the non-human “child” Xavier’s mind. Moreover, both scenes are on some level confrontations with death. And both have the key player making an allusion to a dead, absent woman. Hamlet refers to “my lady” (presumably his girlfriend Ophelia), pointing out that even if she applies makeup to make herself look younger, she’ll end up just as dead as poor Yorick (which turns out to be ironic since, unbeknownst to him, Ophelia is already dead–her funeral procession wanders through the graveyard a few lines later); similarly, Charles refers to Jean, who is also both absent and dead (or at least as dead as Jean gets).

Because the scene in Astonishing culminates in Charles’s casual chucking away of his “daughter’s” head (reinforcing his preference for his real “daughter” Jean), the allusion is parodic and its purpose appears to be simply to provide a convenient contrast between the mental fragility of famously indecisive Hamlet and the iron will of Prof. X, who, unlike Hamlet, is stoically unphased by his symbolic close encounter with death and guilt. (Hamlet, you will recall, ends up falling to bits and flinging himself about in Ophelia’s grave with fellow hysteric, Laertes.) Well done, Mr. Whedon!

Moreover, we’ve seen this scene cited in the X-Men before–and in Genosha, no less. The second issue of Grant Morrison’s “E is for Extinction” arc had Beast quoting the Bard once again, at least implicitly, to comment on the nature of mortality in the context of genocide. Is Whedon quoting this scene too? Are there more pulse-pounding layers of allusion to peel back? Stay tuned!

The Lost Art of Promo Art

Remember when companies commissioned original art to promote their books?’s Nostalgia Zone has the complete issue of DC Sampler #2 from 1984 in all its splendor (my own copy of this issue suffered what was probably a common fate: being disassembled and cut up to make posters for the bedroom walls…).

Among the fantastic promotional art it contained were two-page spreads for The New Teen Titans, Atari Force, Blue Devil, Legion of Superheroes, Swamp Thing, Vigilante, Warlord, Jemm Son of Saturn, Batman and the Outsiders, Infinity Inc., Justice League of America, Thriller, Star Trek, Amethyst, and DC Blue Ribbon Digests. Ah, memories.

Remembering Jim Aparo

In addition to the great set of links compiled by Tegan, here are a couple of other really nice posts from last week from Ramblings and Left of the Dial.

Um, er, gosh…

I had a number of really nice suprises this week. Ian Brill of Brill Building said some very kind things about the site–thanks Ian! You really made my day. Thanks also to David from Clandestine Critic, Conductor from Hatful of Hollow, and John from Sore Eyes for the links and props. I feel all, um, er, gosh… Thank you one and all!


The Metafiction Police

I’m sorry, but I’m just not enjoying the Purple Man. His appearance in New Avengers was fine, but his role in New Thunderbolts is hobbling the relaunch of this once-great title.

Last week, I groused about the Paul Jenkins cameo in New Avengers; in that instance, I was irked by the sudden shattering of the horizon of expectation that the series had established up until that point. Successful metafiction, in my view, tends to be systemic. That is, metafiction works for me when self-consciousness is built into the structure of the story as a founding presupposition, rather than providing a jarring “surprise!” cliffhanger. Systemic metafiction is very difficult to achieve in mainstream superhero books because the horizon of expectations for most superhero fantasy on books that have gone on for 400+ issues is incredibly entrenched, and the genre itself is generally hostile to metafiction, its entire point being to free us from self-consciousness.

There are exceptions, of course. But they tend to follow a pattern. Grant Morrison on Animal Man, David Mack on Daredevil, John Byrne on She-Hulk: all these examples of successful superhero metafiction are the work of comic book “auteurs” whose tenure on a series announces a recognizable break in the usual horizon of expectations and whose very name often indicates a raising of the “literary” or philosophical stakes. (Case in point: DC’s ad campaign for Seven Soldiers actually features a photograph of Morrison and announces that the series is “From the mind of…” Morrison’s genius has become a brand–an irony that would not be lost on Morrison himself.) Moreover, what all three of these examples of comic book metafiction have in common is an interest in either the nature of the comic book medium and its conventions as such, the relationship between representation and reality, or both. They are, in other words, primarily concerned with exploring metafictional questions using the superhero as a point of entry; the breaking of the fourth wall in their work is not incidental, it isn’t just a neat twist or an cheap in-joke, and it certainly isn’t introduced as a way of solving continuity problems in the context of a superhero universe. The only reason that Morrison, Mack, and Byrne are able to get away with exploring metafictional questions within a regular superhero universe is that their metafictional stories do not seem to actually take place within that universe because the stories themselves violate the conventions of that regular fantasy universe so drastically. The problem with the Paul Jenkins appearance in New Avengers #7 is that it seems to want to have it both ways–to sustain the conventional universe in the presence of metafiction–and the result, for me at least, is an irreconcilable narrative split.

My problem with the Purple Man in New Thunderbolts is basically the same as this, even though it takes a different form. Here we don’t have the unwelcome parachuting of a real comic book writer into the pages of our new favorite action/adventure book, we have his fictional proxy: the seemingly omnipotent supervillain who styles himself as a “writer.” Like all writers he wants to write a good story and good stories require conflict. Fortunately, his powers allow him to manipulate his “characters” in any way that suits the generation of his “plot.” Etc. The metaphor is too obvious, and that’s the problem. We are made all too painfully aware of the parallels between the machinations of the Purple Man and those of real series writer Fabian Nicieza, since both appear to have identical aims: torturing the characters, producing unfathomably Byzantine conspiracies, generating twists and surprises to keep things interesting. The result is a reading experience that is almost impossible to get into because disbelief is never adequately suspended.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of torturing the characters and entangling them within an absurdly vast and indecipherable conspiracy. That’s why I’m reading Thunderbolts and why I was so pleased that Marvel decided to give the series another shot. In its heyday, the first run was one of the best guilty pleasures on the stands. But thematizing the premise of the series (jaw-dropping twists! unbelievable betrayals! mystery characters!) and embodying the process of the story’s composition drains all the life out of it. If the point of the twists and turns is simply to satisfy the whims of a sadistic villain, we’re denied the fun of trying to fathom the meaning of the twists. Sadism is boring, and even if there is some deeper conspiracy at play here beyond the Purple Man’s puerile rape fantasies (and I hope there is!), so far, I don’t even care enough to speculate about what it might be. I’m skimming along the surface of a book that was once a treat to dive into. I thought that Fabian did a fantastic job of following up Kurt Busiek’s defining run on the series the first time around. In fact, Fabian got me hooked: I only jumped on board the series after he had taken over, and then went back and read the series from the beginning. Here’s hoping that the best is yet come.

This is all to say that I prefer my comic book metafiction in one pile and my superhero fantasy in another. (I say this in the interests of the full critical disclosure that Harvey Jerkwater sagely called for over at Filing Cabinet of the Damned last week!) And yet, there are still some exceptions, beyond those of Morrison, Mack, and Byrne accounted for above. Next week, if all goes according to plan, I will try to account for one of these–the “incredible” Fantastic Four #176. In the meantime, if you care to pass on any other examples of good comic book metafiction, I’d love to hear them. (If anyone can suggest a better, more accurate term than “comic book metafiction,” I’d be grateful to hear that too!)

In Memoriam: What Jim Aparo Meant to Me

In Uncategorized on July 20, 2005 at 3:08 am

The sad news about Jim Aparo’s death hit me surprisingly hard this afternoon. Like most fans, I didn’t know him personally, but his bold, expressive style imprinted itself upon my memory at a time when I was first beginning to appreciate the real artistry of comic book art. Many readers, especially older ones, will no doubt remember Jim as one of the all time great Batman artists. But for me his name will always be synonymous with the work of his later career, and with the characters of his and Mike W. Barr’s superlative anti-Justice League, in particular: Halo, Katana, Black Lightening, Geo-Force, and Metamorpho.

I was eleven years old in 1983 when Batman and the Outsiders premiered. I had been officially “collecting” comics for one full year and was looking for something that would compare favorably with Wolfman and Perez’s The New Teen Titans, the comic which had turned me from a sporadic enthusiast into a full time obsessive some twelve months earlier. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Perez was a kind of god to me back then. I was genuinely enthralled by his work. I pored over it for hours, I tried to copy it, and I compared the art in every comic on the stands to the benchmark of his meticulously detailed pencils and complex, impossibly dense layouts. Few were in his league and most didn’t compare at all. I was snob, even back then, which partly accounted for the extremely limited and yet utterly obsessive nature of my devotions.

Among this handful of devotions was Barr and Aparo’s Batman and the Outsiders. I fell in love with this comic instantly, in large part because of the extraordinary dynamism and emotional expressiveness of Aparo’s art. Compared to the carefully wrought beauty of Perez’s storytelling, Aparo’s synthesis of moody realism and “cartoonish” intensity held an almost primitive vitality to me. I still find its arresting blend of angularity, realism, movement, and grace difficult to describe with any degree of precision. But I loved it.

The best I can say is that its appearance in my little world at this moment in 1983 felt like a blast of fresh air into a beautifully furnished but slightly stuffy apartment. It provided, in my own very private history of images, a sort of welcome jolt. And I imagine that the feeling was not entirely unlike the one produced on a much broader scale by the sudden appearance of a work like Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893) to a nineteenth-century audience that was used to a certain degree of polite decorum in their art.

With no disrespect to the genius of Perez, my discovery of Jim Aparo was a turning point in the maturation of my aesthetic tastes because it changed my understanding of the expressive range and potential of comic book art. Before this point, only the creep-inducing weirdness of Gene Colan’s work on Night Force had given me a hint of this potential, but Colan’s work (which is in reality much closer to Munch’s expressionism than Aparo’s) was too grotesque and challenging for me to fully appreciate at age eleven; although I was attracted to it, it was “ugly” in a way that I wasn’t quite ready for back then. Aparo’s art, though, occupied a sort of middle ground between Perez’s “realistic” dynamism and Colan’s more extreme expressionism, and it was for me the point of entry into later passions like the work of Colan or of the Hernandez Bros. (especially Gilbert) whose human figures, strange as it sounds, still remind me in certain ways of Aparo’s.

More than any other artist at that time, Aparo’s art made me feel the raw emotion of the characters. There is an incredible joy that permeates his work on BATO, most obviously in his luminous drawings of Halo. Aparo could draw happiness that you believed, and current artists could learn a lot from the grin he occasionally bestowed on Batman.

In many ways, however, he seemed most at home as an artist of tragedy. The bent, crouching bodies of his mourning figures were unlike any depiction of suffering I had ever seen; they seemed nearly to melt into the page, as if their anguish was literally wrenching them apart. His tortured Metamorpho, for instance, or Katana, when she encounters the ghost of her dead husband. Only Perez had moved me with suffering this grandly, and not even his work conveyed these particular tones of grief. There was certainly no better artist with which to entrust the depiction of Jason Todd’s death many years later.

Beyond the sheer expressiveness of his figures, Aparo was also a superb draftsman, and this was particularly evident in his covers. Over the next few years, I became fixated on Aparo’s BATO and Outsiders covers, and I would routinely spread my copies of these titles over my bedroom floor to pick out my ever changing favorites.

Among the covers I liked best were invariably the ones that were the least conventional, and of these there were a great many to choose from. Aparo clearly reveled in the creative control he enjoyed on BATO and its later Batman-free “Baxter” version, and he produced a number of covers that challenged the conventions of superhero cover art in exciting ways. The painted “hieroglyphic” image of Metamorpho battling the team in Egypt from BATO #17, or the image of Rex as Pharaoh being traced in sand that adorns the subsequent issue, were the work of an artist at the peak of his creative powers. To my parents’ enormous consternation, I liked to hang bagged and boarded comics from nails on my bedroom walls just like in the comic store. Not surprisingly, these Aparo covers were perennial favorites.

What Jim Aparo meant to me is quite personal, and something that is difficult to put into words without sounding maudlin or self-dramatizing. It’s hard to separate his work in my mind from Perez’s because The New Teen Titans and Batman and the Outsiders were my comics. The first two titles that I poured myself into completely, disappearing until there was nothing left but vectors of color, motion, and affect.

Like George Perez, he was an artist whose work I love and admire. But he is a belated artist, an artist who appeared (for me) after my tastes had already to some extent crystallized. For this reason, his work is simultaneously both stranger and more profound than Perez’s. It is associated in my mind with increased maturity, with the unruliness of emotion, with real joy and real agony. I love the innocence of his work on the Outsiders. I love the joy that permeates the “cartoonishness” of his work and punctures the solid base of realism that subtends it and with which it competes.

But I love his anguished figures most of all. These tragic figures temper the euphoria of his comedy, and there’s a raw honesty about them, an unforgiving truthfulness about the absolute finality of loss. These images make the joy that animates his style all the more astonishing and wonderful in its affirmation. For this reason, I don’t think it would be out of place to call Jim Aparo a Nietzschean artist, an artist of “joyful wisdom.” That, at least, is how I will think of him.

Related Links

  • Review Jim Aparo’s wonderful covers for Batman and the Outsiders and The Outsiders at the cover galleries of Mike’s Amazing World of DC Comics.
  • SPOILERS ABOUND: a weekly digest of reviews, notes, and rants

    In Uncategorized on July 17, 2005 at 6:12 am

    Vol. 1, No. 2
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    In this issue:
    reviews of The New Avengers #7 and All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder #1 / notes on serial killers in New Avengers, Teen Titans alums Blackfire and Omen, Johns and Heinberg’s JLA, and more / rants about Ben Mulroney and the joy of hate

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –


    The New Avengers #7 Brian Michael Bendis (Writer) / Steve McNiven (Penciller) / Mark Morales (Inker)

    Those who are still reading Bendis’s enjoyable rebuilding of the Avengers (after he took a crude but much-needed wrecking ball to the creaky series last year) are buzzing about issue seven’s metafictional cliffhanger. Frankly, this “twist” gave me the sinking feeling that Bendis-bashers are about to be vindicated. The hallmark of Bendis’s writing is a kind of jaunty, knowing banter that is undeniably gratifying for fanboy readers like yours truly. But nothing ruins a good adventure/mystery story like the jarring introduction of self-consciousness into the plotting itself, which drops from the sky here like an anvil. Many comic books (including superhero books) have done ingenious, very amusing things with metafiction in the past–in fact the medium itself is so profoundly interactive and self-conscious that the term metafiction almost seems redundant. Still, Bendis has spent six issues crafting a wonderfully fresh take on the team that manages to feel realistic and over-the-top all at once, and it’s a shame to burst the bubble of this fantasy so soon (or indeed, at all). There’s a difference between dialogue that winks at the audience and plotting that punches them in the face; I hope that Bendis is going to make me look like a doubting Thomas and surprise all the naysayers by keeping this daring re-invention of Marvel’s best team book on the rails.

    Grade: reserving judgment…

    All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder #1 Frank Miller (Writer) / Jim Lee (Penciller) / Scott Williams (Inker)

    Hmm… The funny thing about this comic is that even though it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, it’s still a good read. Miller crafts an engaging, well-paced story with a terrific climax, and Lee’s art is suitably dynamic and atmospheric. The splash page of Dick Grayson surprising the circus crowd with his grappling hook trick is particularly nice, and both covers are outstanding (as are the superb trade dress and logo designed by Chip Kidd). It’s always fun to see what Miller will do next with Batman, so in that sense this series is off to a swinging start. And yet, a couple of things about this issue bugged me.

    First of all, I have to confess to finding Miller’s women just laughably awful, and Vicki Vale is no exception. Pages 3-7, in which Vicki prowls around her penthouse in pink lingerie, delivering a man-eating monologue only to be reduced to a giddy school-girl at the prospect of a date with Bruce Wayne (“How cool is THAT?” she squeals) are vintage Miller and they are not good. If Vicki’s maternal instincts (her concern for traumatized twelve-year-old Dick Grayson) that are displayed later in the issue are any indication, her role here is to embody the mother/whore dichotomy of which Miller is so fond. No doubt Vicki’s character will be tested and will deepen over the course of the series, show unexpected pluck, a core of steel, and so on. But the question is: is the depiction of Vicki Vale in this issue just a case of Miller going through the motions? Is it Miller letting his partner Jim Lee cut loose and draw beautiful babes, as some have suggested? Or does Vicki Vale’s whore/mother routine actually serve some specific narrative function?

    The interesting thing about All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder #1 is how insistently it juxtaposes an initially wide-eyed, pre-pubescent Dick Grayson with a street-wise, hyper-sexualized Vicki Vale. (And lest there be any doubt, it does this literally and schematically on pages 2-3.) Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne appears briefly and Batman is hardly there at all, except for the arresting last panel where he grips his new protégé by the scruff of the neck and utters the nifty series-defining tag-line: “You’ve just been drafted. Into a war.” What’s going on here, exactly? What kind of story is this?

    It’s too early to guess exactly where all this is headed, and I’m looking forward to finding out, but what I found distracting about this issue was its obsession with reassuring us that Bruce Wayne isn’t, y’know, into little boys. Vicki Vale’s arched eyebrow on page 12 when she inquires “So why’ve you had your eye on him?” points to this very anxiety, and it is this anxiety that drives the entire issue and largely dictates Vicki’s role in it.

    The problem is that Miller faces a contradiction. He delights in the perversity of his underworld settings (which are inevitably populated by creepy low-lifes with unsavory desires), and he wants a hard-boiled Batman with a mission to clean up the trash. At the same time he wants to provide a compelling explanation for why a grown man would have a young boy for a partner. There is, of course, a readily available explanation that would dovetail quite neatly with the perverse sensibility of Miller’s Gotham; but Miller, quite understandably, wants no part of that one for his hero. Consequently, Miller gives us an anxiety-ridden issue that raises a hint of impropriety (Vicki’s eyebrow) in order to stamp it out as vociferously as possible.

    The militaristic closing line of the comic insists that the relationship between Batman and Robin is all business, but the structural complementarity of the Bruce-Vicki relationship on the one hand and the murder of Dick’s father and mother on the other also suggests that the relationship of Batman to Robin will be that of father to son. Miller confirms this dual interpretation in the interview at Newsarama when he says he wants to “play Batman a bit more of the archetype and the stern father, and Robin as the young warrior, learning his way.” This mentor/patriarch approach is intended, quite plainly I think, to nix the perennial sexual subtext that haunts this superhero partnership. The presence of “sex pot” Vicki Vale serves a similar function: it affirms Wayne’s heterosexuality literally by providing him with a female partner, but also affirms it symbolically by having Vale act as a sort of hard-boiled mother figure for newly orphaned Dick Grayson. By the end of this issue, Miller has thus cleverly replaced the squeaky clean Graysons with this scruffy new nuclear family for young Robin-to-be. The feared pedophilic subtext, meanwhile, has been handily offloaded onto figures of corrupt paternal authority–the Gotham P.D.–whom Batman will ultimately fight. (“Yeah,” Vicki spits, “I’ve seen what you cops do with your hands. What girl in Gotham hasn’t? And who knows what you do to little boys?”) Within this context, Miller’s preoccupation with Dick Grayson’s age (“He’s only 12 years old,” Miller says. “I tell you he’s 12 in almost every third caption, so there’s no doubt.”) might also be read as a way of purging the Batman-Robin relationship of its infamous “campiness.”

    Well, mission accomplished, I guess. Now that Miller has established his premise, I’m looking forward to the next few issues which I hope will be a little less neurotic…

    Grade: B- [Update: after rereading my own review, I could no longer remember what possessed me to give this mag a B+ rating. B- is closer to the mark, methinks.]


    Who is Ed Gross?

    My cranky review of New Avengers #7 notwithstanding, I was really intrigued by Ed Gross’s villain-costume fetish and am anxious to learn more. McNiven/Morales’s rendering of the trophy cases is stunning (and hauntingly colored by Morry Hollowell). My favorite pages of the issue.

    Who is Ed Gross? My knowledge of the Marvel Universe isn’t encyclopedic enough to know if we’ve ever seen this character before, and I’m terrible at guessing, so I won’t. But the private costume museum and daughter Gross’s revelation that daddy “Puts them on and–acts out ‘events’” suggest that Bendis’s inspiration here might be Ed Gein, the infamous American serial killer who acted out his own gruesome Oedipal “events” by wearing costumes sewn from the flayed skins of his female victims. (His story was, of course, the inspiration behind Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silence of the Lambs.)

    If there is a connection here, Bendis’s rewriting of Gein’s perversely “embodied” form Oedipal fetishism as a super-villain costume fetish promises to be very interesting indeed. (Am I seeing things, or is Scorpion’s “tail” not rather prominently displayed at the center of this two-page spread? And of course: Dirk just wants his “crowbar” back!) Looks promising. In the meantime, these Wikipedia articles on fetishism, sexual fetishism, and spandex fetishism make suggestive background reading for this issue’s teaser. (Just don’t tell your mom I sent you.)

    Double-Take of the Week

    Is Ivan Reis just having a cheeky bit of fun here in Rann-Thanagar War #3, or is this one of the cleverest bits of foreshadowing I’ve ever seen? In either case, it’s aces. A descendant of pulp barbarian queens like H. Rider Haggard’s She (“who must be obeyed!”), Komand’r is one of the DCU’s most sumptuously Machiavellian femmes fatales. Since the very essence of a femme fatale is duplicity (she seduces with her beauty in order to kill you; she literally embodies betrayal), the decision to have a moment of would-be alliance building reflected and fractured in Komand’r’s, uh…breastplate, is a brilliant embellishment. I’d love to see Gibbons’s script notes for this panel. Ivan, I am c-o-u-n-t-i-n-g the days until you take over the art chores on Teen Titans.

    Omen Returns

    The following claim loses something now that the news been formally confirmed, but: “I knew it!” Let’s hope Johns and Co. bring back the Lilith look and dump the god-awful Raven/Phantasm redux shroud that Dan Jurgens stuck her with.

    Scripting of the Week

    What a treat to have Geoff Johns and Allan Heinberg collaborating on the Identity Crisis fallout story in JLA right now. I’m routinely blown away by the complexity and foresight of their plotting, but this panel, from JLA #116 epitomizes why I love these guys: perfect characterization and razor sharp dialogue. Chris Bastita and Mark Farmer are doing a bang-up job on the art for this arc too.

    The Love

    I promise not to be a giant wuss like this too often, but I’d like to say a very sincere thank you to David Fiore of Motime Like the Present, Rose at Peiratikos, Chris Tamarri of Crisis/Boring Change, Mike Sterling from Progressive Ruin, David Golding at Pah!, J. Donelson of The Pickytarian, Marc Singer of I Am NOT the Beastmaster, and the gang at Poor Mojo Newswire for stopping by, posting links, and saying such generous, encouraging things about the site. As a new kid on the block who’s still finding his way around, your feedback has meant a lot to me; you guys are awesome!


    Fantastic Four Lays Rotten Easter Egg for Canadian Audiences

    Considering that I quite enjoyed it, I’ve already abused Fantastic Four enough for one week, but I simply couldn’t let this one go. Any other Canadians notice the shudder-inducing cameo by celebrity son and “Most Irritating Canadian” finalist Ben Mulroney during the media-scrum outside the hospital where Johnny hams it up for the cameras? You might have blinked and missed it, but he appeared in the middle-ground (twice!), trying to jam his microphone past Terry David Mulligan and that VJ contest-winner from Much Music. If this is price of having American films shot in Toronto, perhaps we need to reconsider. (Note to Ben: I’m sure you’re a very nice person; it’s really your father that we can’t stand. Stop reminding us of him!)

    The Joy of Hate

    A bit of tepid ire for poor Ben Mulroney was the best I could manage today, so here’s a link you’ve probably already clicked to a rant from the past week that made me laugh out loud at the sheer giddy genius of its invective. To read David Campbell wipe the floor with Thor #499 in a masterful two-part display of keen-eyed reading and geek wit visit Dave’s Long Box here and here. You will revel in the pure infantile joy of hate…or is that love? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

    The Doctor Doom Effect: Tim Story’s Fantastic Four (2005) and Four Super-Franchise Dilemmas

    In Uncategorized on July 15, 2005 at 2:20 am

    Tim Story’s Fantastic Four is not an A-level superhero movie like X-, Spider-, or Bat-films of the last few years, but it’s better than the reviews at Rotten Tomatoes would have you believe.

    The principals–Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, and Michael Chikliss–are the heart of the film, and all are well cast–not because they embody some “essence” of the comic book originals (whose personalities have been incredibly malleable over the years anyway), but because each creates an appealing, distinctive character, and because, as a group, they have a sort of scrappy, amiable chemistry that feels genuine. Even as a long-time reader of the FF who’s played the fanboy game of fantasy-casting the film more times than I care to admit, these actors won me over. Evans’s flip, pyro-kinetic Johnny is the obvious standout. Chikliss somehow manages to emote from beneath the bad-but-better-than-CGI Thing suit, playing his best scenes against the Torch’s needling. And I don’t care what anyone says about so-called “weak links” Gruffudd and Alba. The powers that be decided to skew young, and given this premise, Gruffudd’s tongue-tied science nerd Reed and Alba’s surprisingly commanding geek-fantasy Sue are easy to root for and fun to watch. Bottom line: I liked these characters and am looking forward to seeing them again in Fantastic Four 2, a film that will almost inevitably be better than its precursor and will certainly have a better villain.

    If Fantastic Four’s main strength is its core characters, its most obvious weakness is its lack of a credibly menacing antagonist. As I argued in my review of Batman Begins, villains in superhero movies must be genuinely scary. That is, they must scare us, and not just become the pretense for the hero’s performance of bravery. This is obviously true for broody, take-me-seriously superhero franchises like Batman or X-Men, but it is no less important for deliberately lighter fare like Fantastic Four where the only thing that keeps the film’s levity from sailing off into inanity or farce is a black hole of menace at the centre, acting as a gravitational anchor for the entire picture.

    Unfortunately for viewers of Marvel’s most recent offering, Julian McMahon’s Doctor Doom cannot provide such an anchor for several interrelated reasons, and this is why Fantastic Four misses the A-list, despite its potential to have been the first really great seriocomic A-level superhero picture. What’s wrong with Doctor Doom, exactly? Why isn’t he an adequate villain?

    I want to approach this question circuitously, because even though Doom is the most obvious problem, his weakness as an antagonist is symptomatic of the film’s failure to overcome a larger set of challenges that face every superhero movie that is intended as either a stand alone feature or the first in a series. For this reason, rather than simply bemoaning this lame-duck Doctor Doom, it might be more appropriate to speak of a “Doctor Doom effect”: the seemingly inexplicable appearance of a B- or even C-level villain who acts as a drag on a film that has the potential to be much greater. This “effect,” I want to suggest, arises not simply from laziness or poor judgment on the part of the filmmakers (though these no doubt play a role), but from a specific configuration of narrative challenges and formal constraints affecting the translation of comic book superhero properties to film that, while not in theory unsurpassable, are extremely difficult to address adequately in a mainstream movie, particularly in the eyes of audience members who are also comic book readers. (My wife, who has never read a Fantastic Four comic, loved the film and had no complaints at all about Doctor Doom. I’m speaking here, as usual, from the position of rampaging fanboy.)

    To begin, then, what are the specific constraints and problems faced by the maker of the first installment in a superhero movie “franchise”?

    There are at least four that have immediate relevance for a discussion of Fantastic Four, and they could be summarized as: (1) the constraint of mainstream plausibility; (2) the problem of closure; (3) the temporal constraints of the medium; and (4) the problem of visualizing the villain. That is, comic book movies are potentially hamstrung by the real need to tell origin stories and the perceived need to have tidy endings, by the material limits of the medium (which require them to deliver plot points economically), and by the difficulty of visually translating super-villains from comic book image to live action.

    If the artistic achievements of X2, Spider-Man 2, and Batman Begins (arguably the three best live action superhero films of the last decade, if not ever) offer any lesson at all, it is that the skill with which a superhero film addresses and/or overcomes these constraints and potential pitfalls is often an index of its aesthetic accomplishment from the point of view of a comic book reading audience. Despite its genial cast, passable special effects, and a script that dares to actually have fun, Fantastic Four still falters on nearly all four points. Did it have to? Probably not, but some of these constraints were more difficult to deal with than others given the nature of the FF concept and its relatively low Q-rating with the general public. Here’s how it stacks up against (and what it could learn from) previous franchise-launchers: Batman (1989), Batman Begins (2005), X-Men (2000), and Spider-Man (2002).

    (1) The Constraint of Mainstream Plausibility

    First installments of superhero film franchises are often origin stories, and even if they aren’t, they almost always deal with origins in some way. The omnipresence of origin stories in superhero films isn’t surprising, since this type of story solves a genuine (and well-known) problem that arises when translating a concept like Spider-Man or Batman from a subgenre with a small, exceptionally knowledgeable audience to a mainstream medium like film whose much wider audience might recognize icons like Batman or Superman, but doesn’t know much about the characters or their world and is presumed to be impatient with (or simply baffled by) the unspoken premises of comic book logic and the unruly heterogeneity of superhero universes.

    This is the problem of “mainstream plausibility,” and it goes well beyond simply wanting to know why Bruce Wayne plays dress-up or how the Fantastic Four got their powers, though it certainly includes these things. Ultimately, it is a problem with the plausibility (for mainstream audiences) of the superhero premise as such, and it is the reason that superhero films are often painfully pedantic about explaining the origins of heroes and villains alike. The most obvious function to the origin story is to effect a compromise; it is the (chrono)logical starting point for a superhero film franchise because it is the only available point of contact between these two extremely different but equally important audiences. Just as importantly, though, origin stories are performances of coherence that address the problem of mainstream plausibility, even when they don’t make sense. They symbolize homogeneity and logic, even when they don’t actually provide it.

    The decision to shoehorn Doctor Doom into the origin of the Fantastic Four by making him the fifth passenger on the space station that is bombarded with cosmic rays is a particularly vivid example of this process at work, providing as it does an excessively simple, clear, coherent pseudo-scientific explanation for the presence of all the film’s super-powered characters. To a comic book reader, there would be nothing unusual or implausible about providing a “scientific” origin for the FF and a more convoluted scientific/mystical origin for Doctor Doom. When setting up a superhero “world” for a film audience, however, even this relatively minor complication of the universe’s rules becomes problematic. Mainstream plausibility may not always demand a single mechanism of transformation, common to hero and villain alike, but it does appear to require a consistent logic that would preclude the co-existence of, say, magic and science as causal agents within a single set of origin stories. The film’s uninspired rewriting of the FF’s comic book origin to create a “Fantastic Five” with one rogue member who will become an arch-nemesis is an emblematic solution to the implicit demands of mainstream plausibility.

    I suspect that this constraint applies more to live-action superhero films than to cartoons. This difference likely has to do with the way in which “realistic” live-action films using human actors create heightened audience expectations about plausibility versus the relatively low level of plausibility expected by mainstream adult audiences for cartoons–a genre which, despite its ever-growing (and one could say long-standing!) narrative sophistication, is still understood as providing primarily libidinal satisfactions and continues to signify the diminished coherence of a childhood universe to the average adult viewer.

    In any event, the focus on origins as a solution to this problem doesn’t mean that origin stories cannot be told in compelling ways. Batman Begins and the flawless first half of Spider-Man are cases in point. In both of these films, the origin story is the main attraction and the films succeed precisely because (and to the extent that) they expand the origin story to the point where it transcends its function as a purely mechanical solution to the problem of “mainstream plausibility.” These are superb examples of making a virtue of necessity, and it is noteworthy that Spider-Man only falters with the introduction of a clunky super-villain plot involving the Green Goblin in the second half.

    An alternative to this strategy is provided by X-Men, the beauty of which is that its mutant premise negates the need for an origin story altogether (the origin is literally provided in Patrick Stewart’s 15-second voice over about mutation that opens the film). This allows Singer to dwell on the psychological motivations of characters like Magneto and Xavier and to advance the action far more rapidly, throwing us almost immediately into a dynamic that is closer to that of a superhero “sequel” than to that of a first installment.

    The mutant short-cut is obviously unavailable to the Fantastic Four, and given the relative obscurity of the characters to a mainstream crowd, an origin story is inevitable. Could it have been better than it was? Perhaps, but there’s a real problem here that isn’t easy to solve. Marvel is clearly attempting to diversify the tone of its various franchises (Spider-Man takes place in a kind of melancholy twilight, punctuated by redemptive bursts of light and color; the X-films are magisterial Shakespearean fables; Daredevil is a grittier take on Batman–only not, etc.), and since Fantastic Four is evidently intended to leaven this rather somber collection with its straight-ahead blockbuster, crowd-pleasing sensibility, the thoughtful examination of origins exemplified by Spider-Man (or Batman Begins) is not really an available option.

    The scenes of Ben’s angst (which come closest to this kind of introspection) form a sort of movie-within-a-movie, a Spider-Man writ small, and it’s telling that even these moments contain little real pathos. Ben’s misery is underscored (and at the same time undercut) by pigeon droppings or by the inability of his huge mitts to grasp the discarded engagement ring on the crowded bridge. Both of these ostensibly tragic scenes elicited laughter from the audience, and they were meant to. Tim Story doesn’t want a tragic Fantastic Four–not even momentarily–which is why the film’s treatment of Ben Grimm feels so shallow and why his “big choice” at the end falls flat. It’s no accident that Ben’s best scenes are the comic ones played against Chris Evans’s Human Torch. For the heart of the movie is really entrusted to Johnny Storm, the pleasure-seeking id who can’t stop grinning: “Isn’t this cool?!?”

    There’s nothing inherently wrong with such a premise. In fact, I’m kind of charmed by it. But what it means is that the movie is saddled with the unenviable task of providing an origin story that is merely perfunctory, that will not really take the implications of metamorphosis seriously. The result, as critics have been only too happy to point out, is a film that violates plausibility in a completely different, and apparently less forgivable way. As Roger Ebert complains about the FF, for instance, “Are these people complete idiots? The entire nature of their existence has radically changed, and they’re about as excited as if they got a makeover on ‘Oprah.’” In attempting to make a light-hearted film out of a little-known concept, Fantastic Four gets caught in the double-bind of mainstream plausibility. The origin story is at once necessary and yet impossible to treat with any degree of “realism.” In the infinite scope of the comic book’s serial format, there was time to tell different kinds of stories; time to take the monstrosity of the FF’s origin seriously and time to have a little fun. In the limited space of a two hour movie, however, the simultaneous presentation of the origin and evasion of its implications is jarring and ultimately undermines our suspension of disbelief.

    One solution might have been for Marvel to take a long-view on branding the tone of this franchise and to have begun with a more subtle and involving origin story that made more of the pathos and let the laughs be bittersweet, saving the high-octane giddiness for episode two once the team’s demons had been dealt with. Alternatively, they could have made a film that largely bypassed or merely alluded to the origin story and thrown us head first into a rip-roaring adventure, minus the half-baked angst. In today’s world of superhero filmmaking, this would have been an audacious move because it would have rejected the popular wisdom in Hollywood that origin stories are the only feasible way to manage the problem of mainstream plausibility–a problem that, in the end, may be a self-fulfilling prophecy anyway. In any case, either of these symmetrical choices would have resulted in a better film. Instead, Marvel aimed for the middle…and missed.

    (2) The Problem of Closure

    Mainstream film audiences generally expect their adventure pictures to have narrative closure, and only in exceptional cases are studios prepared to risk frustrating that expectation by creating open-ended adventures. Only sequels to properties that have already proven themselves to be sure-things like the Star Wars or Matrix films (or, are larger cultural phenoms like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings) can afford the luxury and the aesthetic rewards of this multimillion dollar gamble.

    No doubt, there is much to be said for aesthetic coherence, and many of the best superhero films scrupulously strive for both visual and thematic unity–Batman Begins being probably the most impressive recent example. For comic book readers, however–many of whom derive enormous pleasure precisely from the serial medium’s built-in resistance to complete narrative closure–the transition of a favorite character or concept to film (even in a very good film) can often be vaguely disappointing, precisely because something essential about the comic book medium is lost in the shift from a serial to a stand-alone format.

    What’s lost, of course, is that feeling of suspense created by the monthly cliffhanger and also by the many dangling subplots that develop over a much longer span of time. And this pleasure of incompletion is clearly not limited to comic books, but is inherent in all serial forms, from soap operas to the old movie serials themselves. It’s telling, I think, that the Empire Strikes Back is widely regarded as the best of the Star Wars films (of those that are watchable, it is after all the truest to Lucas’s adventure serial-inspiration), and that X2 and Spider-Man 2 are also fan-favorites. There are many reasons for the popularity of these latter two, of course, but one of the reasons must surely be that both aspire to capture the open-endedness of serial publication by leaving us with a tantalizing glimpse of what might be coming next. The Phoenix in the waves and Harry Osborne’s discovery are teasers rather than genuine cliff-hangers (especially since the allusion to the Phoenix is primarily intelligible to only one of the film’s two audiences), but the effect is satisfying enough that even the opening installments of optimistic franchise hopefuls like Fantastic Four or Batman Begins follow suit by throwing in a slow coffin ride to Latveria or a leering playing card in their final frames.* (Even in a mediocre film, this cheap trick is very effective. Doctor Doom’s sea cruise is ironically one of his character’s best moments.) By the same token, it’s interesting that movie “trilogies” that feel more like serial comic books (like Star Wars or the Matrix films) often end with a whimper rather than a bang. Almost as if the imposition of closure upon what are essentially adventure-serials can only produce a depressing fizzle.

    If the approximation of seriality in X2, Spider-Man 2, Batman Begins, and even the Fantastic Four is one satisfying way of dealing with the problem of closure, the two Spider-Man films suggest another even more ingenious solution. Rather than simply gesturing at what’s to come, the films produce seriality through splitting. What Sam Raimi gives us is not two two-hour movies but four distinct episodes of roughly one hour each. Episode 1 is an origin story, episode 2 is a mettle-testing adventure with the Green Goblin (that probably sets up episode 5 or 6), episode 3 is “Spiderman No More!”, and episode four is the resolution of that two-parter, which restores the status quo while advancing the romantic sub-plot that’s been ongoing since episode 1. When you go back and watch them, the relative coherence of each of these episodes is astonishing–watching them is the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing the episodic nature of comic book storytelling on screen, and it’s really quite wonderful. Fantastic Four seems to be striving for something akin to this “splitting,” but can’t quite carry it off, in part I suspect because it simply has too many characters, too much to do, and too little time to do any of it adequately. Perhaps only the austerity of a single protagonist like Peter Parker could support such a narrative technique. And in any case, the origin story/battle with super-villain split of the first Spider-Man film is the least effective of the two movies, for reasons I will explore in more detail below. No wonder it is unsuccessful in the busier, overcrowded Fantastic Four.

    (3) External Constraints

    Another aspect of the comic book medium’s seriality that does not survive the transition to film is the infinite expandability of story length that seriality makes possible. The comparatively condensed two hour framework of the average movie is a real limitation for comic book properties, particularly for first installments, which already face a cumbersome set of narrative demands stemming from the hurdle of mainstream plausibility. In first pictures that recount the compulsory origin story, the temporal constraint of this two hour limit is often felt most acutely in the underdevelopment of the antagonist. As I suggested earlier, truly effective super-villains frighten. They must at the very least be possible to take seriously. And among successful villains, the most iconic and memorable fall into two principal classes: (1) those who are psychologically complex characters with compelling motivation (Magneto, Ra’s al Ghul, Doctor Octopus), and (2) those who embody some primal characteristic or mythic archetype (Scarecrow or Darth Vader). Julian McMahon’s silly, preening, megalomaniacal Doom falls into neither of these categories, for he does not scare nor does he command serious attention, not even for a moment. He is a refugee from the garish Bat-films of the ’nineties, and one of the most fundamental reasons for his vacuity is that the film literally does not have time to develop him.

    The movie’s focus is necessarily on providing an origin story and then introducing the four core characters, their powers, and their relationships. This leaves little time to flesh out Doom’s character, much less introduce the far more complex and interesting Doom of the comic book. (Ebert notes, very aptly, that the movie is “all setup and demonstration, and naming and discussing and demonstrating,” so much so that “it never digests the complications of the Fantastic Four and gets on to telling a compelling story.” He also remarks, revealingly, after listing off the codenames and powers of the FF, that he “almost forgot the villain, Victor Von Doom.” Indeed!) I initially discussed the awkward insertion of Doom into the FF’s origin as a way of managing the problem of mainstream plausibility. But it is also symptomatic of the temporal constraints of the picture more generally. Economy becomes the rule in an overcrowded canvas like this one, and a shared origin is the most economical choice of all, even if it inevitably reinforces the problem of closure by tying the defeat of Doom at the end back into the birth of the team at the beginning.**

    The claustrophobic effect of this narrative move is no more satisfying here than it was in Tim Burton’s Batman, where Batman and the Joker are mutually implicated in each other’s origins by the filmmakers’ predictable decision to make Jack Napier/Joker (rather than Joe Chill) the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents. This closed circuit exemplifies what it feels like to be trapped in what Dave Fiore calls an “eternal past” instead of living in the “eternal present” of “dynamic stasis.” In a terrifically apt critique of the often deadening effect of origin stories, Dave explains that:

    the reason that Batman is my least favourite superhero is that he is, basically, all origin…. The Batman story is too airtight (and there’s nothing I hate more than a tidy story)–the unreasoning fear of bats + the murder of the Waynes always adds up to the same thing–and once Bruce dons that costume, all he lacks are the foes/confederates (and they’re not hard to find) that will enable him to reenact his origin story until the end of time. Spider-man’s origin, on the other hand, provides a crucial break with the character’s past that serves as a foundation (rather than a narratological morass) for the story proper. “Dynamic stasis” cannot be consubstantial with the origin–it sets in later, emerging out of the conflict generated by the encounter between (always-)already empowered characters and the world. Otherwise, what you get is a “person” that is incapable of recognizing the world at all (i.e. “stasis, hold the dynamism”)…

    This is a powerful argument in favor of what Dave calls superhero stories that travel “the middle passage” where closure is perpetually deferred and otherness (“the world”) is genuinely encountered. As I’ve been arguing here, it is very difficult for comic book movies to achieve “dynamic stasis” precisely because they are formally predisposed, to a much greater degree than comic books, to endlessly reproduce not only origin stories, but also closure and aesthetic coherence.

    It is noteworthy, for instance, that even Raimi’s wonderful first Spider-Man film nearly falls into the trap of stasis without dynamism by drawing Spider-Man’s first villain from Peter Parker’s immediate circle and ill-advisedly introducing a father/mentor relationship between Peter and Norman Osborne that makes the whole Green Goblin plot feel too insular and incestuous. If Dave Fiore is correct that the strength of Spiderman’s origin is a break with the past that provides a foundation for encountering novelty and otherness, then the Oedipal plot of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man can only be read as a regression–a Batmanizing of Spider-Man that pulls the character back into the paranoid, claustrophobic world of the Oedipal family and the castrating father just when the hero seems poised to make a genuinely dizzying plunge off the rooftops of Manhattan. No wonder the Green Goblin exerts such a depressing drag on what was, until that moment a luminous, perfect film, even if (as is the case) there are fascinating and perfectly defensible thematic reasons for making Goblin an Oedipal villain.

    (4) The Problem of Visualizing Villains

    There’s no question that the translation of superheroes from illustration to live-action is difficult to achieve with any degree of dignity. Flowing, flapping, ballooning capes look great in comics, but are hard to pull off on film where they are more likely to hang flaccidly than flare dramatically. Storm’s cape in X-Men, for instance, is appalling. It’s chintzy, limp, and impractical. (Again, plausibility problems arise here as the visual conventions of comic books encounter the unyielding gaze of the camera–and gravity. This problem continues to plague Batman Begins and has no doubt been a hurdle for the makers of the forthcoming Superman). Moreover, even the most toned and sculpted Hollywood physiques often seem all too human when clad in a colored leotard or a rubber body suit. It’s difficult to move from a medium where the human body is defined by stylization and perfection to one of real human forms, no matter how idealized and “perfected” the performers’ bodies might be.

    And yet, despite all this, superhero films have become pretty good at visualizing costumed heroes. (Let us ignore, for the time being, the eccentric case of Catwoman, which is there to remind of the dangers of complacency.) The ideal for the superhero picture would be to achieve what the visual conventions of comic books already do: that is, to make the visual appearance of the hero “conventional” or second nature, so that, in effect, it becomes tacitly accepted, part of the language, and thus, in a sense, “invisible.” The costuming of the heroes in the X-Men films illustrates how such a solution to the problem of visual translation can be achieved: namely, by replacing distinctive costumes with mildly differentiated uniforms–preferably black, preferably leather (not speaking as a fetishist here, honest!)–in order to make our visual awareness of the “outfit” fade into the background of consciousness. When the garb of everyone on screen looks basically the same, the distinct faces of the actors themselves assume the full burden differentiation that, in comic books, falls primarily on the costume. (The underlying reason that Storm’s costume is so “bad” is that it draws too much attention to itself as a costume.)***

    The coolest looking characters are always those that either do not wear costumes (Professor X, often Wolverine–though his haircut is a costume) or who wear only the most basic uniforms (Jean Grey, Cyclops, and again Wolverine, though he’d be better off ditching the leather). Those characters who walk a fine line between uniform and costume such as Storm, Rogue (with her green hood and ridiculous gloves) and ragged “Vincent”-reject Sabertooth careen into cheesiness. These semi-costumed characters are aesthetically-speaking “too much” for a filmic medium that is already “in your face” and where the differentiation of heroes by costume is made redundant by the extreme recognizability of movie actors themselves. (This is very different from comics where, with a few notable exceptions like George Perez or Rags Morales, artists do not render character faces sufficiently distinct to make characters recognizable without clear additional markers like goatees, hair color, context, dialogue, and costumes.) Cyclops’s in-jokey response to Wolverine’s complaint about leather jumpsuits in the first X-Men film, when he asks if Wolverine would prefer “yellow spandex,” is a telling indicator of the degree to which superhero filmmakers are constantly trying—and yet not fully able—to make the problem of superhero costuming just disappear.

    (The notable exception to this “rule” is Spiderman. Here, there is no way out of reproducing Marvel’s most iconic costume, and it is a measure of the genius of the way the costumed portions of the film are shot that the film pulls this visualization off as well as it does. Part of the solution here appears to be keeping Spiderman and the camera itself in almost perpetual motion, while resorting to CGI for the city-swinging scenes in order to provide an added sense of speed and kineticism that bring the costume to life and transform Spiderman from an ordinary human being into something quite different. Not even these tactics, however, quite account for the almost magical success of this visualization, which I am hard pressed to completely explain.)

    In the case of the Fantastic Four, the naturalization of the superhero costume is considerably less difficult since the FF have always worn uniforms rather than costumes. (As I’ve noted elsewhere, the rejection of costumes was in fact a crucial feature of their original look.) The blue jumpsuits are niftily introduced as part of the astronauts’ gear, and between the voyeuristic pleasure we are invited to take in Sue’s “uniform” and Johnny’s enthusiasm for his own body sheath, one can almost believe that they are as cool as the film claims.

    Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Doctor Doom, whose costume is one of the shabbiest in recent memory, despite the faithfully sculpted iron mask. (Did they have to make it an award statuette!?) Given the constraints that I’ve already discussed, the only thing that could really have saved Doctor Doom (and at least modulated the film’s “Doctor Doom Effect”), would have been a different conception and visualization of the character. If time constraints meant that Doom had to be broadly sketched, then he could at least have been given a little more gravity and he certainly could have looked more menacing. This is the area where no apology can really be offered for the film’s mistakes, because even with the current script (whose Doom is abysmal), a great deal could still have been done with costuming and makeup to get us to take the character more seriously.

    Super-villains tend to receive less screen time than superheroes (especially when their presence in the film must compete with that of the origin story), and it is for this reason that they must make a strong impression when they do appear. The error of Fantastic Four, and also of Spider-Man, is to suppose that the route to a villain’s “strong impression” is to abandon the principles that inform the costuming of the heroes themselves–namely: austerity, plainness, and restraint. If anything should change at all in the costuming of the villain, it is not that these principles should be swept aside, but that they should be adhered to even more stringently, with forms of differentiation becoming even more painstakingly subtle and selective. Some time ago, Jack Nicholson and the makeup team from Batman showed us how not to approach the translation of the comic book villain to film, but people were so dazzled by Nicholson’s bizarre, scenery-chewing performance that they mistook a warning for a model, and subjected us to a decade’s worth of diminishing returns. Spider-Man’s Green Goblin is another nearly film-wrecking example of bad costuming that obeys the same lurid premise as Nicholson’s Joker.

    The problem with the visualizations of Nicholson’s Joker, Dafoe’s Green Goblin, and McMahon’s Doctor Doom, is that all three costumes rip us out of the world of the film by trying to adhere too closely to the brash, colorful visualizations of the comic book. The costumes look silly, they defy flesh-and-blood plausibility, and they terminally undermine the possibility of taking the villain seriously enough to be frightened by him. Of the three, the Joker’s look is perhaps the most plausible and comes closest to being scary (though there are other problems that I’ve discussed before). Green Goblin’s mask is preposterous, despite the wonderful justifications Raimi provides in the form of Norman Osborne’s “primitive” mask collection. And Doctor Doom is the saddest example of all, for his donning of the tired cape and iron mask (award statuette!) is not adequately motivated, except by a vanity that is pathetic rather than chilling.

    Among recent films, the most effective screen villains are either minimally or austerely “costumed” (Magneto, William Stryker, Lady Deathstrike) or else they wear “costumes” that reference an entirely filmic set of frightening images. The best examples of this latter group are Scarecrow (who references horror film conventions in Batman Begins) and Doctor Octopus (whose “arms” reference the fluid cybernetic chills of apocalyptic science fiction films like T2 in Spider-Man 2). Batman Begins’s Ra’s al Ghul is also noteworthy as an example of a villain who succeeds because we take him seriously, even if we do not find him frightening as such. Costuming plays a crucial role here too, this time by referencing the relaxed yet deadly sensibility of martial arts films attire that the Matrix films exploited so effectively. In all of the cases, the villains’ costumes subtly symbolize their characters without drawing too much attention to themselves: the clean fascist lines of Magneto’s suit and cape which underscore the ironies that drive his character is the masterpiece here (in part because Ian McKellen is likely the only living actor who can pull off a cape and a goofy helmet), but the cold grey military gear of William Stryker, and the King-Lear-like rags of Doctor Octopus are also exemplary.

    As these examples testify, comic-geek directors do seem to be convincing Hollywood to get over its allergy to unflashy super-villains, though not without a few missteps. Imagine how much better Spider-Man would have been, for instance, if Willem Dafoe had donned a softer, Scream-like Goblin mask. At the very least, this might have established a smoother transition and a greater continuity between the incredible (and genuinely scary) scenes where Dafoe’s own face is “transformed” by madness as he stalks through the mirrored rooms of his mansion. (One hopes they make better use of the great Dylan Baker as Doctor Curt Connors in a future film.) What’s so frustrating about Fantastic Four’s Doctor Doom is that the comic book actually provides the movie with a simple way of rendering the villain frightening in a visual language that transcends the specificity of comic book imagery: Victor von Doom dons the iron mask in the comic book precisely because his relentless pursuit of power disfigures his face beyond recognition. This disfigurement would translate so seamlessly to film and produce the effect of horror so perfectly, that one can only conclude that the filmmakers were more concerned with audience demographics (don’t scare the five year olds!) than with making an aesthetically satisfying film. This isn’t surprising, of course, but given Marvel’s impressive recent track record in this area, one might be forgiven for having hoped for something a little better.

    The good news is that, now that the origin story has been told, and barring incompetence, there’s reason to be optimistic that Fantastic Four 2 will outshine the original, just as Spiderman 2 exceeded Spider-Man and X2 surpassed X-Men. The only difference is that Spider-Man and X-Men were already superb superhero films with only minor flaws, which meant that their superior “sequels” (entirely the wrong word for the second installment in a comic book film series) could actually become comic book film masterpieces, which, by most standards, both unquestionably are. Whether or not FF2 can surprise everyone and leap from B to A+ quality in a single bound remains to be seen, but such a scenario isn’t impossible if the will is there. Are you listening, Marvel?


    * As I have argued elsewhere, unresolved cliffhangers can in fact be real endings. Would Empire Strikes Back not in some ways be an even better picture if Return of the Jedi had not been made? Even if plans for X3 were suddenly scuttled, would that make the ending of X2 any less thrilling?

    ** The Latverian cargo ship clip provides some relief, but it is still too perfunctory to really re-open things here. It doesn’t help that it doesn’t even appear within the movie proper but as a blip after the credits begin to roll, as if the film skipped. I watched it between the heads and shoulders of departing patrons.

    *** Another reason why the blankness of the uniform is preferable to the distinctiveness of the costume is that, at a very basic level, superheroes are objects of fantasy, and our relationship to them characteristically involves a play of difference and identification that requires some point of “entry” into the fantasy. The uniforms of teams like the X-Men or the Fantastic Four become neutral mediators between the viewer and the fantasy persona on screen, a mechanism whereby, libidinally speaking, we gain entry into the world of the film, like a sort of pinprick on the screen through which we travel. More individuated costumes, like those of Spiderman or even Batman are more likely to repel our desiring gaze, even though identification can be recouped in other ways–in Spider-Man it is through the film’s astonishing language of speed and movement; an identification with Batman is, I suspect, less universal.


  • For more on Dave Fiore’s discussion of “dynamic stasis” see these articles from his culture blog, Motime Like the Present, here and here.
  • Read Roger Ebert’s review of Fantastic Four at Chicago Sun-Times, as well as many others at Rotten Tomatoes.
  • SPOILERS ABOUND: a weekly digest of reviews, notes, and rants

    In Uncategorized on July 10, 2005 at 4:47 am

    Vol. 1, No. 1
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    In this issue:
    reviews of JSA #75 and DC Special: The Return of Donna Troy #2 / notes on comics and terror, Alex Ross’s JSA covers, and trades worth waiting for / rants about House of M and Doctor Doom’s one-liners

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –


    JSA #75 Geoff Johns (Writer) / Don Kramer, Leonard Kirk, Stephen Sadowski (Pencillers) / Keith Champagne, Michael Bair (Inkers)

    Geoff Johns has been steadily building the story of Albert Rothstein brick by brick for 69 issues, craftily intertwining it with the lives of Courtney Whitmore and Black Adam, and the result in this issue is a huge emotional payoff that doesn’t shut things down, but opens up an entirely new range of tantalizing possibilities. The scene on pages 26-27 is one of the high points of the series, adding yet another layer to what can only be described as one of the most surprising and intriguing love-triangles in mainstream comic books. The only thing that unnerves me about this issue is the sadistic treatment of Jean Loring, which seems gratuitous and somewhat mars the creepy fun of her grotesque turn as Eclipso. Still, the dialogue crackles and the reunion of the series’ all-star art team is a nice bonus.

    Grade: A-

    DC Special: The Return of Donna Troy #2 Phil Jimenez (Writer) / Jose Luis Garcia Lopez (Penciller) / George Perez (Inker)

    It had a rocky start last month, but issue two delivers. Jimenez is still finding his feet as a plotter, but he writes these characters like he’s channeling the Wolfman/Perez synergy of the book’s classic run. 100% pure heart. This book “feels” like it could actually be part of that run from the mid-eighties, shortly after the Baxter series came out. The Titans look and behave like adults here, and Jimenez seems to be taking advantage of the fact that the Outsiders book has actually allowed the original New Teen Titans to age (that is, to recapture the maturity they were given by Wolfman, Perez, and later, Barreto and Grummett). Reading this issue feels rather like entering an alternate DC timeline in which the disappointing Titans series between “Titans Hunt” and the Geoff Johns era simply never happened. These are the characters I remember; and yet Jimenez has no trouble integrating them with younger members like Cassie and Bart.

    Also, after the strange blip in Winick’s Outsiders last month, when Dick inexplicably reprimanded Kory for “holding back like always” (!), it’s great to see her written so perfectly here. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that she’s being drawn perfectly either.

    Though it sounds like blasphemy, I’m almost be tempted to say that the Jose Luis Garcia Lopez-penciled/George Perez-inked Koriand’r looks even better than Perez’s original.

    As big a Perez fan as I am, Garcia Lopez’s figures and layouts have a kind of dynamism that often seems even more expressive and lifelike than Perez’s. At the same time, Perez’s finishes add a gorgeous delicacy to Garcia Lopez’s lush, bold work. This image of Donna, for instance. Perez would never have drawn Donna’s reaction this “big,” but I ask you, could the art team be better or more complementary?

    At any rate, with images and dialogue like this:

    the issue might just as well be called, “The Return of Starfire.”

    Grade: A


    Comics and Terror

    The bombings in London this week shook everyone, and the usual message board chatter took on a different tone as many on this side of the Atlantic posted supportive notes to Londoners and their families. And yet, how different it seems this time around. In the immediate wake of 9/11, one was unlikely to read posts like the following ones from “Impulse” on the Geoff Johns message boards:

    “What really worries me now is that the events of yesterday give ammunition to the racist scum, the degenerate filth like the ‘National Front’ or the ‘BNP’, who’ll try to twist people’s anger & fear into racism, directed at the Muslim community in the UK.”

    “One of the parts I like best about living in the UK (despite the exorbitant sales tax & incoming road tariffs, ID cards & other assorted governmental idiocy) is how multicultural a society we are. In the space of a day, I can get an Italian coffee & panini for breakfast, Indian tiffin for lunch, Thai cuisine for dinner & good old beans on toast for supper. One of the friendliest parts of the city I’ve lived in is Moseley, a largely Muslim, Hindu & Sikh community – in fact, I was one of only four white people living on the street. I never once felt out of place. My closest friends – actually the closest I’ve ever known to family – are white father, Chinese mother & their two children.

    “It heartens me to see so many people pulling together in the wake of Thursday’s events. Thankfully, the vast majority of people are intelligent & reasoned enough to know that the explosions are down to madmen, not Muslims. Even the tabloids, glaring examples of sensationalism over journalism, are full of messages of solidarity. The bastards responsible for the attacks and anyone who’d twist the tragedy to fuel racism can rot in hell before my opinions towards anyone change based on their skin colour or religion. The United Kingdom will not be cowed into fear and intolerance.”

    A heartening response. Read the full discussion here.

    What does this have to do with comics? Not much, perhaps, but not nothing either. The standard line on superhero comics is that they are simplistic parables about good and evil. While there is an element of truth to this generalization, the best comics are anything but simplistic in their treatment of moral categories, and at their very best, they situate the discussion of morality within a larger political framework that asks us to consider the relationship between individual actions and complex (usually long-term) historical and political “causes.”

    Consider the architects of Dan Didio’s shiny new DCU. Grant Morrison’s wild, brilliant conspiracy books challenge us to be better, more critical thinkers about ethics, politics, power, and difference. They teach us to think in complex ways about personal and group identity, as well as about historical causality and the political violence that underlies a cancerous phenomenon like terrorism. They certainly force us to ask more difficult questions about the relationship between “great power” and “great responsibility” than Spiderman ever did.

    Geoff Johns’s take on morality may assume a more conventional, nostalgic form than the polymorphous perversity of Morrison’s riotous global visions, but it is no less challenging or important. Johns’s arresting presentation of the Black Adam/Atom Smasher relationship and the heartbreakingly subtle “Kahndaq” stories in JSA exemplify the great potential of the medium to comment intelligently on current events and, like Morrison’s work, challenge us to be better readers of our own world.

    Covering the JSA

    Someone needs to give Alex Ross and the DC Art Department some kind of award. I’m usually of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school, but the new JSA logo is utterly stunning, and Ross’s superheroes have never looked more like they were about to burst right through the page into my living room. The classiest covers on the stands, bar none.

    Lost Causes Department

    When will DC issue a TPB collecting the entire run of the original Marv Wolfman/Gene Colan Night Force series? It’s just on the horizon…right? Uh…guys? Okay…what about John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad? Between Day of Vengeance and Villains United, these two old classics deserve a dusting off.


    House of Zzz…

    What’s the deal with House of M? We’re three issues in and it feels like I’m still waiting for it to start. There are some fun bits here, but the decompression is irritating. Also, what’s with those covers? Esad Ribic is a talented artist, but the subdued beauty of his watercolors doesn’t convey the “internet cracking” excitement that the series aspires to generate…

    Doctor Doom’s One-Liners

    Against all odds, I had a great time at the Fantastic Four movie this weekend. The script was stronger than expected and the casting of the main players was bang-on–even the unfairly-maligned Jessica Alba as Sue Storm. But for Pete’s sake, which Jean-Claude Van Damme movie did the good Doctor get his zingers from? “I think I’ll get a second opinion”? Me too! “Susan, you’re fired”? Ack! Enough already!

    “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” (Part 3): The Guilt of “A Small Loss” in Fantastic Four #267

    In Uncategorized on July 9, 2005 at 6:23 am

    This is arguably the best and certainly the most genuinely moving issue of John Byrne’s legendary run on the Fantastic Four in the mid-eighties.

    The story is simple and devastating. Sue has been hospitalized because of complications with her second pregnancy–complications brought on by the team’s exposure to radiation during an adventure in the Negative Zone. On the advice of several notable super-powered scientists (Dr. Michael Morbius, Dr. Walter Langkowski, and Dr. Bruce Banner), Reed seeks out radiation expert Dr. Otto Octavius (the villainous Doctor Octopus) in the hopes that he can help cure Sue and save their unborn child. The problem, of course, it that Octavius is a dangerous psychotic. The altruistic side of his personality has long been suppressed by the madness that overtook him following the radiation accident that psionically fused his robotic “octopus” arms to his brain. Reed visits Octavius in the psychiatric institution where he has been locked up, and after apparently curing him and securing his release, attempts to bring him to the hospital to examine Sue.

    En route, however, Octavius suffers a relapse and is reunited with his robotic arms, which seem to be following the dictates of Octavius’s deranged unconscious, breaking out of a maximum security vault across town when a billboard reminds him of his pathological hatred for Spiderman. What follows is a spectacular battle over the rooftops of Manhattan in which the elastic, amorphous body of Mr. Fantastic and the thrashing, serpentine arms of Doctor Octopus coil and intertwine in a deadly struggle for mastery. Ultimately, Reed shuts down his opponent’s metal tentacles and succeeds in convincing him to help Susan by admitting the superiority of Octopus’s knowledge in the area of radiation. The pair arrive at the hospital, but it is too late. The presiding physician informs Reed that Sue is alright, but the baby died just over thirty minutes ago.

    What makes this issue so powerful is that Byrne tells the story from Reed’s point of view, not Susan’s, using the brilliantly conceived battle between Reed and Octavius as a discrete but potent visual metaphor for suggesting what the story itself does not show: the tragically understated “small loss” that gives the story its title. It would have been both inappropriate and emotionally less effective, I think, to actually represent Sue’s miscarriage directly. The loss of a child is too personal and too unnamable a grief to bear direct representation—any attempt at which risks trivializing or distorting the experience. It is a loss that is best conveyed indirectly, through absence, silence, and suggestion. The sickeningly effective understatement of the title; the awful chaos of Doctor Octopus’s arms which smash everything in their path, writhing and convulsing uncontrollably; the thick black border of the final panel that bears down on Reed as he is told, threatening to swallow him up, to swallow up everything, including representation itself. These are the signs of that unrepresentable event. That loss. That abjection.

    This comic repays rereading. For knowledge of the ending transforms our understanding of that awful, gut-wrenching battle over Manhattan. As Reed and Octopus fight, Sue is losing her baby. And as Reed struggles to subdue the rampaging arms (which are significantly separated from Octavius’s body at the beginning of the fight), it is now possible to see that what he is struggling to subdue is another chaotic, uncontrollable event that is taking place at that very moment in a small room in a hospital across town. Reed’s successful deactivation of Octavius’s robot arms by plugging up all the holes in his foe’s chest plate with his elasticized fingers retrospectively takes on the quality of a wish-fulfillment–a fantasy of an agency that Reed ultimately lacks in the real story that is going on somewhere else.

    But the battle between Reed and Octopus is not simply a metaphor for Sue’s miscarriage or for Reed’s struggle to prevent it. It is also a metaphor for the sense of guilt Reed feels for having failed to achieve this end, and for being absent at the very moment that Susan needed him the most. That such guilt is “irrational” and unwarranted makes little difference to him who is tortured by it. The crucial clue comes when Reed, wrapped in and around the coils of the metal arms, observes, “I’ve never had to deal with an unliving analogue to my powers”–in other words, he is waging a symbolic struggle less against an external foe than against a double or “analogue” of himself. The deadly metal tentacles that pound, stretch, and pinion Reed’s formless body is as good a visual representation of an individual’s struggle with such inner torment as has ever been put down on paper.

    Byrne has become a polarizing figure in recent years, but whatever one thinks of the man and his work, “A Small Loss” is a genuine and lasting aesthetic achievement. It shows unequivocally the symbolic potential of the conventional superhero medium to represent fundamental human experiences in dignified and deeply moving ways. More specifically, it shows how superhero tropes like elastic bodies and metal arms can be “stretched” into potent metaphors for the heroic power of the ordinary individual when faced with the all too human tragedies of loss, grief, and guilt. Ultimately, what Byrne has given us is a story about the fundamental powerlessness that haunts every human being: the brute unyielding fact of the body and its limits. It’s an important story, and one we are fortunate to have.

    “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” (Part 2): Making Superheroes Dis/appear in Fantastic Four #1

    In Uncategorized on July 8, 2005 at 7:46 am

    How do you make a superteam appear?

    If it’s 1961 and you’re Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, acting at the urging of then-Marvel publisher Martin Goodman to create a superteam that would rival the success of National/DC’s Justice League of America, you do so with a combination of calculation and cunning. With a stage-magician’s sleight-of-hand, you conjure them by making them seem to disappear.

    As Sean Kleefeld recounts in a fascinating article on the industry origins of the FF comic book, Goodman was constrained by a conflict of interest with his distributor, National, to avoid directly copying the format of National/DC’s newly revived superteam concept. As a result, he had Lee and Kirby design a family of non-costumed super-adventurers that would draw heavily on Marvel’s then-current reputation as a publisher of horror and monster comics–a strategy evident not only in the character designs for the Torch and the Thing, but also in the menaces of the first several issues of what Lee modestly dubbed, “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.” As Kleefeld notes, even the appearance of the FF’s team uniforms in issue #3 (a result of reader demand) represented a careful compromise on the part of the creators: “every member was given essentially the same costume and Goodman could claim they were uniformed heroes, not costumed ones like the Justice League.”

    Given the deliberateness of this careful balancing act–a balancing act that tries to make the superteam concept disappear at the very moment that it announces the appearance of a new superteam–it is perhaps not surprising to find that the first issue of Fantastic Four is replete with motifs of appearance and disappearance. In fact, these motifs are integral to the characters themselves.

    Susan Storm, the Invisible Girl, is in this sense an embodiment of the book’s conceptual dilemma: making its superheroes “visible” to readers, but “invisible” to its distributor. The first of the fantastic foursome to answer Reed’s smoke-signal summons and the first member of the four to display her superpower in the pages of the book, Sue is introduced as a “ghost” who is simultaneously present and absent, tangible yet unseen. Her ghostliness is first suggested by the opening scene where she is shown having tea with a “society friend.” Dolled-up in full pink “ladies who lunch” regalia, the lady vanishes while her companion isn’t looking and walks out the front door, looking more like one of the beautiful specters from Marvel’s Mystery Tales or Strange Stories of Suspense than a superheroine on her way to save the world. Two subsequent episodes, in which Sue frightens pedestrians into thinking that a ghost has rushed past them on a crowded sidewalk and terrorizes a cabbie by sneaking unseen into his cab and then trying to pay with a “floating” dollar bill, both evoke the comic book ghost-story tradition.

    This introduction of the superteam through the presentation of Sue as material phantom is doubly significant. In the first place, the ghost motif itself establishes the horror comic context, providing Lee and Kirby’s superheroes with a plausible alibi for superheroics. Secondly, the visual ambiguity of Sue’s power (she looks like a ghost, but isn’t one), is a metaphor for Lee and Kirby’s “now you see them, now you don’t” superheroes themselves. Like the cab driver Sue spooks, a reader looking for superheroes might well cry: “I–I’m hearin’ things! Seein’ things! Or-or not seein’ them!!”

    The counterbalance to Sue’s becoming-invisible is the Thing’s becoming-visible. And one is tempted to say that it is no coincidence that Sue’s disappearing act is immediately followed in the opening pages of FF #1 by an exchange between a heavily disguised, trench coat-clad Ben Grimm and a befuddled tailor who has nothing big enough “for a man your size.” As soon as Ben is made aware of Reed’s signal in the sky outside, he immediately throws off his trench coat disguise, revealing the rocky orange behemoth beneath.

    Significantly, as with Sue’s invisible trip through the city, the Thing’s rampage is characterized in terms that would have been familiar to a 1960s Marvel audience. To one onlooker he is “a monster”; to the police he is an “it”; and to another fleeing bystander he is “a Martian.” Indeed, the Invisible Girl and the Thing are perfectly complementary figures in these opening set pieces, embodying figures from Marvel’s horror and monster publications respectively.

    What is particularly striking about their complementarity, however, is that whereas Sue is constantly disappearing, Ben is constantly making himself appear by ripping off the trench coat that provides his monstrous shape with a momentary invisibility. Ben tears out of his trench coat three times over the course of the first issue, and the third time is clearly for effect only as he has preposterously put the coat back on between saving Sue from a rock-monster and launching an attack on the Mole Man to rescue Reed and Johnny a few moments later! The scenes of the Thing crashing through a wall and up through the street in the earlier “answering the summons” section of the story are simply concrete repetitions of this becoming-visible motif that doubles and balances the disappearing act of Susan Storm.

    The other character who relates to this motif of appearance and disappearance is the issue’s villain, the Mole Man. As the FF’s first villain, the Mole Man occupies a privileged place in the team’s mythology, and given the degree to which visibility and invisibility inform the dynamics of the characters themselves, it is perhaps not surprising that the team’s first villain turns out to be an uncanny combination of the Thing and the Invisible Girl! Consider his origin (which he conveniently supplies in monologue):

    “It all started years ago!! Because the people of the surface world mocked me! Finally, I could stand it no longer! I decided to strike out alone…to search for a legendary new world…the legendary land at the centre of the earth! A world where I could be king! My travels took me all over the globe… And then, just when I almost abandoned hope, when my little skiff had been washed ashore here on Monster Isle, I found it! [A strange cavern.] I soon saw where it led… It led to the land of my dreams: ‘Down there…below—I’ve found it!! It’s the earth’s center!’ But in the dread silence of that huge cavern, the sudden shock of my loud voice caused a violent avalanche, and when it was over, I had somehow miraculously survived the fall… But due to the impact of the crash, I had lost most of my sight! Yes, I had found the center of the earth—but I was stranded here…like a human mole!! That was to be the last of my misfortunes! My luck began to turn in my favor! I mastered the creatures down here—made them do my bidding—and with their help, I carved out an underground empire!… Now, before I slay you all, behold my master plan! See this map of my underground empire! Each tunnel leads to a major city! As soon as I have wrecked every atomic plant, every source of earthly power, my mighty mole creatures will attack and destroy everything that lives about the surface!”

    The Mole Man is clearly a poster-boy for ressentiment, and his obsession with getting back at the world that mocked his ugly appearance is a rather transparent moral counterpoint to the dilemma of the Thing, who suffers the same prejudicial slings and arrows, without succumbing to the Mole Man’s desire for revenge. Significantly, though, Mole Man embodies the dialectic of appearance/disappearance filtered through monstrosity and spectrality that is represented separately in the grotesque Thing and the ghostly Invisible Girl. The Mole Man begins as a repellant Thing; then, like the Invisible Girl, he disappears—traveling alone, Frankenstein-like, across the ice-fields, and vanishing into a cave that plunges him into “the earth’s center.” His resulting blindness also recalls Sue’s invisibility, and his temporary blinding of Reed and Johnny with the glare from his (never explained!) “Valley of Diamonds” is a symbolic appropriation of Sue’s power (i.e. invisibility as the equivalent of blinding people to her presence). Finally, the Mole Man’s plans for revenge that will take the form of a sudden eruption of monsters onto the surface world would repeat Ben’s eruption through the street from the sewer system below in the opening scenes of the comic (an eruption, as I noted earlier, that is itself a version of Ben’s constant emergence from inside the trench coat throughout the story).

    Whatever one might say about this strange synthesis of appearance and disappearance in the Mole Man himself, it’s clear that these twin motifs were never far from Lee and Kirby’s minds during the conceptualization and production of this issue. Moreover, in light of the backstory to the origin of the Fantastic Four provided by Sean Kleefeld, the conclusion to the FF’s first encounter with the Mole Man and the denizens of Monster Isle is filled with marvelous ironies that highlight and reinforce the comic’s mixed-message of a superteam that must appear and disappear, be present and absent simultaneously.

    The issue ends with the Mole Man frantically summoning his “under-earth horde” to defeat the Fantastic Four. But no sooner does his “army of underground gargoyles” appear, than they are walled off by the Human Torch who creates a rockslide with his heat powers. The FF escape in their airplane as Monster Isle blows up, and Reed is confident that “[The Mole Man’s] sealed himself below–forever!” What I find so tantalizing about this dramatic conclusion is that it seems almost to have a self-conscious dimension, for the incarceration of the Mole man beneath the earth and the destruction of Monster Isle is, metaphorically-speaking, precisely what Lee and Kirby’s new group of superheroes is doing to the Monster and Horror comics of the 1950s that will soon be eclipsed by the prominence of the superhero genre. A revolution of spandex over scales, corpses, and protoplasm that the FF themselves will be instrumental in bringing about.

    The final panel of FF #1 is thus, appropriately, an image of the Fantastic Four in their plane, flying straight towards the reader, with Reed eulogizing the Mole Man and (one likes to imagine) the comic book era his monsters represent. “It’s best that way,” Reed says, speaking of the Mole Man’s disappearance. “There was no place for him in our world…perhaps he’ll find peace down there…I hope so!” Talk about burying the past! And yet, there is an uncertainty here too, as there is in the issue as a whole, with whether or not this disappearance is final or decisive. “I hope we have seen the last of him!” says the ever-ambiguous Invisible Girl skeptically. And the narrator shares her uncertainty: “But whether we’ve seen the last of the Mole Man or not, we will see much more of the most amazing quartet in history in the next great issue of–the Fantastic Four!! Don’t miss it!!”

    Appearance, disappearance. Visibility, invisibility. Monstrous superheroes, superheroic monsters. The superteam that’s there, but isn’t there. At least, not fully. Not yet…


  • Sean Kleefeld’s contains a wealth of information on the FF, including an excellent selection of articles on FF history and lore.
  • “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” (Part 1): Perverse and Diabolical Families in Fantastic Four #186

    In Uncategorized on July 7, 2005 at 12:19 am

    It’s Fantastic Four week here at Double Articulation. Tim Story’s Fantastic Four movie opens this Friday, and in the spirit of mustering up some enthusiasm for a film that is being greeted with trepidation by many fans, I’ll be posting some pieces on great FF stories of the past 44 years, dealing with different aspects of the FF mythos, and speculating on what makes the FF “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.” Today, an old personal favorite…

    There are three issues of the Fantastic Four from Len Wein and George Perez’s magnificent run in the late 1970s that occupy a privileged place in my personal archaeology: #184 (“Aftermath: The Eliminator!,” which I wrote about here), #187 (“Trouble Times Two,” featuring Klaw and Molecule Man’s ambush of the FF in the Baxter Building, which I’ll write about in a future column), and a story that falls between them: #186 (“Enter: Salem’s Seven”), which is my focus today.

    I picked that comic off the magazine rack back in 1977 because of the Perez cover, which brilliantly showcases the FF’s frightening antagonists by framing them between the cover title and the carefully positioned bodies of the surprised members of the Fantastic Four, whose point of view we share. At age five, I already knew that I liked the FF, but as the cover shows, this issue was all about a group called Salem’s Seven–and they were the scariest, weirdest, neatest group of super-villains I had ever seen. They combined monstrosity, magic, and spandex in a way that reminded me of my favorite witchcraft-oriented super-villain, the Green Goblin, from the 1967 Spiderman cartoon that I watched religiously in re-runs. Not to mention that their sheer grotesque diversity contrasted enticingly with the relative “uniformity” of the FF’s own blue-clad family unit.

    But as I look at it now, some twenty-eight years after the fact, I wonder, what sort of confrontation is actually taking place on this cover? Who are “Salem’s Seven” to the Fantastic Four? And why, even all these years later, does the image still seem to capture something elemental about the nature of the Fantastic Four, both as a team and a comic book?

    In a perceptive chapter of his recent book on superheroes, Danny Fingeroth supplies some suggestive clues…

    In Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society, Fingeroth identifies three types of “thermonuclear families” (i.e. superhero teams) in comics. The first type is a meritocracy, epitomized by the exclusivity and prestige of the big guns of the JLA. The second type is a “forced together” “family of freaks,” whose paradigm is the persecuted team of mutant outsiders, the X-Men. The third type is a superhero team for whom “family” is not just a metaphor, but a reality—and a reality realistically presented at that. The archetype of this team is, of course, the Fantastic Four: “Neither as aloof and regal in bearing as the Justice League, nor as ragtag and extreme as the X-Men…[they] are the family down the block, neither perfect enough to be role models, nor extreme enough in their neuroses to be romantically tragic but, nonetheless, all too human in their super-humanity” (117).

    If Fingeroth is correct that the Fantastic Four are “perhaps the most realistic fantasy family unit,” that they are a superfamily distinguished by the normalcy* of their interactions with each other, then their most archetypal villains are arguably the disturbing doubles of this realistic (yet still highly idealized) fantasy family that reflect its relatively harmonious normalcy “through a glass darkly.” The Wizard’s “Frightful Four,” a criminal (and unstable) thug-family that travesties the FF’s alliterating name, is perhaps the most obvious of such inversions. But “Salem’s Seven”–whose alliterative name recalls the FF’s without directly repeating it–is in many ways a superior example of the type of demonic counter-family that has symptomatically plagued the FF throughout the years.

    Salem’s Seven were explicitly and self-consciously designed as diabolical doubles of the Fantastic Four’s “thermonuclear” family, for they are a team whose very existence and composition are predicated on the Fantastic Four and their powers.

    When the FF first encounter them after breaking out of a cell in New Salem, where they had been imprisoned by head warlock Nicholas Scratch, Salem’s Seven are simply a group of human beings, clad in matching green tunics, looking very much like extras from what a 1970s version of Eyes Wide Shut might have looked like. Immediately, however, Johnny’s observation that “They’re not even armed!” is belied by the group’s transformation. As the man who will become “Hydron” warns, “One does not require weapons of the flesh…when one possesses weapons of the soul!!” And the man who is now “Vakume” helpfully informs them: “We have become a supernatural squadron, created solely to defy your own inhuman powers.”

    What follows is an enjoyable fight sequence in which each member of the FF fends off a series of amusing, sexually symbolic threats: Johnny is wrapped in the seductive coils of serpentine femme fatale, “Reptilla”; Sue must deflect exploding missiles launched from the body of “Thornn” with her invisible force shield (note: she is only partially successful in this!); she also helps Reed extricate himself from an attack by the high-kicking “Gazelle,” a sort of deadly Rockette; the Thing, meanwhile, is taken for a spin by the dignified, quietly powerful “Vertigo,” an African-American beauty whose ability to destroy her foes’ “equilibrium” is a suggestive sexual, but also political metaphor to say the least! (In a different world, she’d be the lead in her own comic book, and a hero rather than a villain. Still, this is a start.)

    The sexual threats to the FF that are deftly avoided in this fight sequence emphasize the symbolic stakes of the battle: this is a war between the FF as a family and the forces that threaten to tear that family apart. What is at stake, moreover, are two different versions of the family: one that is “normal” and one that is “monstrous.” But what exactly is the difference between them? Is the “monstrous” family unequivocally “bad,” and is the “normal” family (our heroes) unequivocally “good”? The answer turns out to be surprisingly complicated, and quite unexpected.

    What complicates the relation between the two teams–the ostensibly heroic and demonic families–is that “Salem’s Seven” are not, strictly speaking, super-villains at all. They are at best glorified, magically-powered security guards, whose explicit orders are not to harm the FF, but merely to “prevent [their] escape.” (Moreover, the witches of New Salem as a whole turn out to be a rather reasonable bunch by the end of the story where they are persuaded by Reed to turn on their malevolent leader, Nicholas Scratch.) This built-in limit to the violence of the two teams’ conflict softens the opposition between the two “families,” and it is not the only or even the most important thing that does so.

    Also important is the fact that the transformation spell that gives Salem’s Seven powers (and by extension appearances) that are designed specifically to counter those of the FF also links them to the FF in an inseparable way. Although they appear to be monstrous “opposites” of the FF, the strange interconnection of the two teams–the dependence of Salem’s Seven on the FF for the very shape of their “monstrosity”–ironically and significantly points to the monstrosity of the FF themselves. The most obvious parallel is the one between Brutacus and the Thing. Not only are Brutacus’s powers a straightforward duplication of Ben’s strength (albeit in reduced form), Brutacus himself is a bulky orange brute! More subtly, perhaps, the two other most monstrous members of Salem’s Seven–the amphibious-looking fire hose Hydron and vampy snake-woman Reptilla–both embody very drastic (and elemental) transformations of the human body akin to Johnny’s ability to radically transform his body into a “human torch,” and of course both are designed as antagonists for Johnny specifically.

    It is this element of monstrosity within the FF that Fingeroth sees as “foreshadowing” the more extreme valorization of (so-called) monstrosity within the X-Men–a team book that has an ideologically progressive vision precisely because the X-men themselves are a metaphor for all minority groups and outsiders (defined by the dominant social order as “freaks”). What the FF are confronting in issue 186 is, in a certain sense, the monstrosity within themselves and a potentially “monstrous” development of their family unit. Or, to put it another way, they are confronting an archetypal version of the X-Men, the type of freak-family they anticipate, but do not fully embody because they remain at least partially anchored to the more conservative nuclear family model of the 1950s.

    In other words, Salem’s Seven are true “doubles” of the FF, and not simply opposites or antagonists, for they embody something that is partially obscured or repressed within the FF themselves, within the “normalcy” that appears to define them.

    For this reason, the real diabolical family on FF 186 is not Salem’s Seven, but Nicholas Scratch and his mother, the persecuted witch/nanny Agatha Harkness. In the deranged Norman Bates-like warlock, Nicholas Scratch, one glimpses the true perversion of the FF’s nuclear family values: not the superficial monstrosity of Salem’s Seven, but a son whose desire is turned dangerously inward, who will not let his mother go, and seeks to keep her bound permanently within the strange closed community of New Salem over which he presides. Nicholas Scratch’s invisible city of New Salem is a “Satanic” space of private fantasy (he presides over it adorned with a purple, horned crown!), a sort of Freudian nightmare in which a perverse Oedipus positions himself as a punishing patriarch, displacing his desire for mother into matricide, punishing her for the “transgression” of revealing the existence of this “secret” family of witches.**

    Of course, Agatha Harkness is guilty of no transgression whatsoever, not even “transgression” as it is defined by the paranoid standards of New Salem. As Reed Richards reveals at the climax of the issue, it is Scratch himself who has “transgressed,” having revealed the secret of the coven’s existence by kidnapping young Franklin Richards. This “transgression,” one suspects, is itself a comic-book displacement of the psychosexual dynamics that Hitchcock explored so memorably in Psycho. The “trial” of the mother, Agatha Harkness, like all witch trials, is thus a sham and a fraud designed to protect a precarious patriarchal authority that is fraying at the edges and about to go up in flames itself. Nicholas Scratch is one of the most astute Freudian characterizations in comic books: his fatal commingling of Oedipal desire, disavowal, and displacement is a real “witch’s brew” that illustrates very precisely how the perverse family–the family in which desire is inwardly focused because it cannot find an object beyond its borders–becomes not only destructive but implosive.

    To put the matter all too crudely, the Fantastic Four’s journey to New Salem is “about” the family’s confrontation with incestuous desire, even though nothing could seem farther from the manifest content of the story. It is very intriguing, to say the least, that what leads them to New Salem in the first place, is the abduction of Reed and Sue’s own young son Franklin, the centre of that Oedipal story who is a sort of absent centre in this story–motivating the entire action, and yet never really present, always disappearing…like a ghost. Is there another displacement here, I wonder…? Nicholas Scratch and Franklin Richards, the boys who are always crying for mother…

    Let us bracket these speculations and simply propose that the perverse family of Nicholas Scratch and Agatha Harkness is the real distorted opposite (or nightmare version) of the nuclear family of the Fantastic Four. It is the excessively insular, implicitly incestuous family that the Fantastic Four successfully wards off and represses. And it is here that the crucial presence of “Uncle Ben” within the team is perhaps the most plainly evident. For Ben Grimm’s “Thing”–the good “monster” of the team, the “family friend” who earns the designation “uncle”–is precisely what saves the FF from being a claustrophobically insular collection of blood relations. Ben’s “monstrosity” is literally and figuratively the FF family’s greatest “strength” because it is a monstrosity that signifies the difference that Ben (as neither a Richards nor a Storm) brings to the potentially insular family unit. Ben’s “difference” is the difference of the outsider, the difference from outside that Nicholas Scratch tries at all costs to prevent from “tainting” the isolationism of New Salem, a despotic Neverland where he is free to follow the dictates of his own unpoliced desire.

    Significantly, this welcome symbolic “difference” that Ben introduces into the Richards-Storm family is also the decisive factor in the FF’s defeat of Salem’s Seven. I mentioned earlier that the relation between Salem’s Seven and the FF is ambiguous. I began by arguing that Salem’s Seven are doubles of the FF in the sense that they are the latter’s antagonistic, demonic opposites. Then I argued that the relationship was more complicated than it seemed because Salem’s Seven could be seen as embodying a certain kind of productive monstrosity within the FF itself, a kind of monstrosity embodied in Ben Grimm, and reinforced by the strong similarities between the teams and by the fact that Salem’s Seven turn out not to be straightforward villains in the end at all. I’d like to give this interpretation of Salem’s Seven one final twist by arguing that, to the extent that they initially do represent a simple demonic opposite of the FF (in other words, throughout the duration of their battle), their defeat is accomplished by the sudden revelation of difference within the FF’s family unit.

    This revelation happens when Brutacus is surprised by the unexpected shattering of Reed’s prosthetic arms, devices Reed constructed because he has temporarily lost his stretching powers. With the shattering of the arms and Brutacus’s cry, “His arms—they’re artificial!,” the “spell” transforming the witches into Salem’s Seven is abruptly broken, and the seven who had referred to their own powers as “weapons of the soul” revert to their human forms to face the Thing’s inevitable announcement that it’s now Clobberin’ Time! As a now human member of the seven explains, “The spell that transformed us could work solely against the natural powers of the Fantastic Four. By utilizing artificial means against us, you have returned us to what we were!” This defeat of “weapons of the soul” (dependent upon the FF’s use of “natural” powers) by Reed’s “artificial” arms establishes a suggestive new opposition between the two types of family that are engaged in battle until this point.

    For what we have in the resolution of this conflict is the defeat of a “natural,” “metaphysical” version of the family by an “artificial,” “unnatural” one. And it is the Fantastic Four who are now unexpectedly revealed as embodying the latter. In short, suddenly, all the terms of the previous argument seem to have been reversed. The “monstrous” family of Salem’s Seven turns out to be bound by some conception of “nature,” and the ostensibly “natural” or “normal” family of the FF has become disarmingly “artificial,” even “monstrous.” How appropriate that it is Brutacus–the obvious orange double of Ben Grimm–who shatters the family patriarch’s limbs and breaks the spell, shattering the twin illusions of patriarchal authority and the “natural” nuclear family in the process, presaging Ben’s own symbolic (and welcome) “clobbering” of the would-be “natural,” “normative” family unit. The FF may not quite be the X-Men yet, but this could, with some justice, be called an “immanent” critique of the nuclear family.

    As we might expect, this intensely psychological pop-examination of the family, where everything we normally assume to be stable seems suddenly ambiguous, confusing, and haunted by its own repressions, takes place within a non-space–a city that appears on no map and seems to exist both outside of time and place. And the story’s ending reinforces the sense that all of the story’s revelations must, in a sense, remain outside the realm of the everyday world. Ultimately, Nicholas Scratch is in effect executed by the New Salemites, who cast upon him a “spell of eternal banishment,” making him suffer the fate he had intended for his mother. Once the FF are reunited with Franklin and Agatha Harkness, and safely aboard their Pogo Plane flying away from the city, they see a glow on the horizon and watch the city disappear. “If you listen carefully over the Pogo plane’s whine,” the narrator intones, “perhaps you might hear the doleful chanting and thus know that those of New Salem have considered how much they might contribute to the world of mortal men… And considered too what mortal men might offer them in turn… And they have at last decided that there is no place for them in a world such as this!” At this moment, Agatha Harkness reveals the crucial piece of information that has been withheld throughout the story (but not this article)–namely, that Nicholas Scratch is her son.

    When I was five, I felt the sting of this disclosure very powerfully: a mother forced to endure the evil intentions of her own son, and then left to mourn him as he receives the blow he intended for her. This was Marvel melodrama at its best.

    Today, I see it somewhat differently. What strikes me now is not so much the personal story of Agatha Harkness’s suffering and stoicism, but the disappearance of the New Salemites and their conviction that there is “no place for them in a world such as this.” This rings true, psychologically. What this ending shows is not the “choice” of a groups of witches, but a parable about the “truth” of the unconscious. What we watch, as the glow of the vanishing city fades from the mountaintop, is the “eternal banishment” of Oedipus, the necessary repression of antisocial desires that is necessary to living in “a world such as this.”

    And yet, there is something even more melancholy about this ending. For another way of understanding what disappears with New Salem, is a certain archetype of the family. A more gloriously monstrous and polymorphous archetype of family. I have tried to show, following Fingeroth’s wise example, that the Fantastic Four are not as “square” or even as symmetrical as they seem. They may be rooted in the nuclear family model of the early 1960s, but, with the presence of “uncle Ben,” they strain towards the radical diversification of definitions of the family that animate the present: the blended family, the racially diverse family, the gay family, the single parent family, the ragtag mutant family, the family of misfits, family of one… They strain towards this, but do not go all the way–at least, not yet. And as the Pogo plane streaks back towards Manhattan, towards the Baxter Building, I catch myself feeling nostalgic…for Salem’s Seven.


    * Clearly there are many problems with seeing the WASPy Richards clan as embodying any sort of “norm” of the family—although perhaps not as many as one might initially suspect. They may not be “the family down the block” for every reader, but as Fingeroth points out, the emphasis on the monstrosity of the family’s powers (especially in the original Lee/Kirby run) and the way in which “uncle” Ben’s presence complicates the nuclear family model are two important ways in which the FF “foreshadowed” or “paved the way” for more self-consciously subversive ad hoc “families” of outcasts and freaks like the X-Men (see Fingeroth 115-17).

    ** These are really intelligent scripts. Throughout his run as writer, Len Wein had a clear interest in probing the psychical essentials of the Fantastic Four concept—something that is evident in his run’s intense thematization of the family as a location of pleasure, conflict, repression, and identification—particularly through the motif of doubling and duplication, which is a hallmark of these stories. (Reed and Ben are constantly confronted by sinister doubles of themselves in these tales.) His legacy to the FF is a subtle and revealing examination of the family. And he was certainly not alone in bringing a high level of sophistication and perceptiveness to the scripts of “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.” Roy Thomas’s brilliant metafictional issue #176 dealing with the Impossible Man’s visit to the Marvel Comics bullpen is of the same calibre. I’ll review this issue in a future column. (Thanks to Dave Fiore of Motime Like the Present for the save!)