Monday, August 30, 2010

Cut Till it Hurts

I'm in the process of revising Superhero Comics and the Literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance with an eye towards removing images I can live without. This will make my editor happy, which is a good thing, and might make it easier to get permissions, which is also a good thing. What's tough about this is that comics are about text and image, and my natural instinct whenever I am talking about a page is to show it to you, so I can just point and say, "See? See!" I wrote the Shakespeare/ Moore/ Claremont/ David chapter with knowledge of my image requirements in mind, and used far fewer than I otherwise would have, but when I was writing for my dissertation committee I didn't see any reason to hold back. Now I pay for that by making painful cuts. Every one of them makes the end result a less perfect book, but you just do what you can and hold your nose.

But as I am working my way through the manuscript, I came across Jack Kirby's scathing commentary on the modern evangelical movement. Kirby understood first that there is a dark side to every one of us. Remember that great scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy, the quintessential "beer hero", is getting himself plastered in the wake of Marion Ravenwood's death, and Belloq, the "champagne villain", confronts him?
It would take only a nudge to make you like me. To push you out of the light.
To which, of course, Indy growls, "Now you're gettin' nasty." Because he knows that Belloq is right. And Kirby knew that too. That's why, when Glorious Godfrey appears in the pages of The Forever People, he's soon got average Americans just like you and me eating out of his hand, their eyes blanked out like Little Orphan Annie as they recite slogans of hate.

But Kirby also understood that if people are sometimes weak and afraid, and they are prone to give in to their own worst side, they slide down that slippery slope much faster when someone is pushing them. It's not the ordinary folk who make up these groups who are ultimately to blame, it's the knowing puppeteers who are pulling their strings and getting rich and powerful in the process. To watch Glen Beck on television is to watch a painful clown act; when he wants to look like a don for his self-created and self-titled Glen Beck University, he puts on his glasses and adopts his best professorial tone. When he wants to convince his audience of his sincerity, he cries and fills his voice with the earnest pleading of a man who is just concerned for his country. And when he wants to plant the seeds of doubt, he accuses the President of being a "Liberation Theologian" and not a Christian because, let's face it, the vast majority of the American population doesn't know what the hell Liberation Theology is. If they did, they might realize that this would make the President a Christian who reads the Gospel and believes that when Jesus said poor people were more likely to get into Heaven, he might not have been, you know, pulling that shit out of his ass.

It was while looking through these pages that I realized that Kirby had prophesied Mr. Beck in the person of Glorious Godfrey. No modern evangelical figure has captured the popular imagination in quite the way Beck has. He can take his hats on and off with amazing alacrity, insisting we need to return America to its values without ever naming what any of those values are. (Because if he did, it would be clear he means Republican values, and he could no longer claim his project was "not political".) He can call on the country to return to God, as if the United States wasn't already the most religious Western nation in the world. As if a President who didn't go to church could be elected in this country. As if ordinary people who go to church are somehow persecuted or terrorized. (Because, when he says the country needs to return to God, he can in this way imply that the President and the country are Godless.) He can insist that his activities are not political, then go on Fox News -- which breezily donated one million dollars to elect Republican governors, putting the money where it's mouth has long been.

I'm pretty astounded by someone who can lie to that many people, lie right to their faces, and get them to applaud while he's picking their pockets, while he's sending round the collection plate. It's not as if he hasn't been caught; there are dozens of reliable investigations into Mr. Beck's various scams and long cons. But the people he's talking to, they want to believe him. He's pushed them "out of the light." No amount of evidence shown to them will convince them that they are at the mercy of a hate-monger, a man who wants them to be afraid because it is only when they live their lives in fear that he can continue to steal from them and ride a tidal wave of populist anger all the way to ... well ... wherever it is that evangelical masters go. A sex scandal, I suppose, though none of that would ever kick Mr. Beck out of the super-rich plutocracy to which he has managed to ingratiate himself, walking on the backs of folks who ought to know better, but who have fallen for the patter -- for a painfully transparent salesman routine. In so doing, they turn their anger and fear towards an "other" whose only crime is that they aren't like us, and so they're easy to pick on, and when we pick on them, we have a vent for all our pent-up frustration and disappointment over a world that's just too damn complicated for comfort.

Monday, August 23, 2010

7 Minutes to Midnight

The book deadline looms; there is no way that I will finish everything and have the project ready to be mailed by the 1st of September, but if I am fortunate I will have all the text written, and will only need to complete a few final steps, including:
  • Going through the text for a final pass to remove any un-necessary illustrations, in order to make getting permissions easier.
  • Working through Pete Coogan's Institute for Comic Studies to get my art permissions easily and quickly.
  • Making a final pass through the notes and bibliography, to make sure everything has been included and cited.
This project began the transition from dissertation to book as a 65,000 word manuscript that needed to be 75,000. It's now 85,000 and the new chapter I have written is the longest in the book. On the topic of Shakespeare, especially interpretations of Tempest, in comics, it is now literally central, being chapter 3 of 5 and filling the middle of the text. I probably should have not bitten off as large a topic as I did, and perhaps I could have cut one of the four sub-sections that make up this increasingly large chapter, but I think the end result is worth it and what I like about it is that it touches on characters and writers I didn't get a chance to deal with elsewhere in the book, such as Claremont, David, and Moore, the Hulk and the X-Men, perhaps making the book useful to people who otherwise would not have had much reason for it.

Along the way, I have essentially created three conference papers, which I suppose will get me rolling through PCA, next year's Comic Arts Conference, and any additional conference I can get myself invited to.

The road has not been without disappointments. I have been surprised at every turn by how comic writers -- usually a pretty verbose bunch who are happy to answer emails and questions -- don't seem interested in talking to me. Peter David, who is very active online, left me hanging weeks ago. Claremont never answered my emails. Moore turned down my request for an interview. This has, at times, been demoralizing and I admit to becoming increasingly jaded. It is tough to admit that a book like this simply may not be useful or important, no matter how much hard work it is. Editors have quotas and holes in their schedules which need filling; they'll sell a dozen copies to libraries here and there, and no one will ever see this book again. And yet, this is part of what we do to get position and tenure, and while we're doing it we take pride to make it as good as we can possibly make it. You have to find a sort of zen place when working on an academic project like this -- you have to be proud of it for what it is, because you're certainly not going to get rich nor famous, and with the way some great comic scholars have been savaged by critics in the academic press over the last few years, it's increasingly unlikely that one will earn the respect of one's peers.

But while you're on the journey, while you're making, it is fun and engaging and you have those moments where you look at what you are writing and admit to yourself that, man, that's not bad.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Claremont's "Tempest": X-Men 147-150

[ This is quite long. But what the hell. ]

As we search for superhero comics that appropriate, re-enact, manipulate or comment on Shakespeare, it’s easy to restrict ourselves to those in which Shakespeare is actually quoted. “Tempest Fugit” throws us a lifeline of another sort; by making the title of the story into a pun on The Tempest, David sends up a signal that says, “Here there be Shakespeare.” (In case we did not yet notice, he also does quote the play’s most famous lines in a couple of places.) Similarly, characters are sometimes named after Shakespearean characters. When Aquaman’s former sidekick, Aqualad, grew up and became a wizard with magical control over the elements, he renamed himself Tempest. But the most famous use of Shakespeare in this sense is probably the sympathetic monster Caliban, created by Chris Claremont as part of his unforgettable seventeen year run writing
The Uncanny X-Men. Although Caliban would remain a member of the X-Men mythos for decades, his first appearance in Uncanny X-Men #148 (August 1981) is the earliest stage of Claremont’s larger riff on “The Tempest”, which would last through issue #150.

It is difficult to overstate Chris Claremont’s influence on modern superhero comics, especially through the 1980s when the X-Men were the best-selling characters on the stands. An American born in England and educated at Bard College, Claremont came to the X-Men after the book had been cancelled due to poor sales and only recently re-launched with a new, more international and ethnically diverse, cast. As we have seen in other books, this gave Claremont considerable leeway when it came to finding a new direction for the X-Men, since expectations based on previous sales were low. The X-Men, of course, are “mutants”, which is to say they are born with special powers which usually surface during puberty, and these powers make them hated and feared by ordinary people. Claremont’s genius was to make “mutant” a metaphor for almost any discriminated group, so that any reader who felt he had been outcast by society could instantly identify with the heroic, noble, but long-suffering X-Men. By 1991, however, Claremont’s verbose and melodramatic writing style had been upstaged by more popular action-oriented artists, and conflict with Marvel’s editorial team prompted him to leave the X-Men and Marvel Comics.

“Rogue Storm”, issue #147, finds the former leader of the X-Men, the superhero known as Cyclops, working on the fishing trawler Arcadia, captained by the beautiful Alytys “Lee” Forester. A freak storm comes out of nowhere and washes both Cyclops and Lee overboard. “Two score ships were lost the night they were swept overboard,” we later learn. “It’s a miracle their trawler, Arcadia, made it back to port at all. We had freak squalls, sea quakes, islands being raised, or sunk.” This is the source of the mysterious island in Claremont’s vision: rather than being the home of a witch and her fishy son, the island is itself raised from the bottom of the sea by its master. It takes only a few pages for these events to be related, and most of the book is given over to a larger plot in which a member of the X-Men, Storm, loses control of her powers, but in the 1980s it was not uncommon for stories to take a long time to mature and develop. Today’s comic book market is aimed at stories like “Tempest Fugit”, which begin suddenly, last five to eight issues, and then end firmly, so that they can be collected into a single volume, wrapped with a cover, and sold on Amazon or from the shelves of brick-and-mortar bookstores. But in the days when Claremont wrote on The Uncanny X-Men, the audience was being lured back to specialty comic book shops every month by the promise of slowly-unfolding plots and subplots, in a way not unlike today’s serial television epics such as Lost.

The following issue begins with Cyclops and his companion, Lee, washing ashore on a mysterious island which, the redoubtable Captain Forester assures us, “wasn’t here” only a day ago. “It didn’t exist!” Cyclops and Lee explore the fantastic ruined city located on the island, a city made of green stone and decorated with squid-motifs that evoke H.P. Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu” and its sunken island of R’lyeh. In the final pages of the book, Cyclops and Lee Forester discover the island’s terrible secret: its master is none other than Magneto, the X-Men’s “oldest, deadliest foe.” So we can see, already, the basic skeleton of Shakespeare’s plot: a nearly-omnipotent mastermind has lured his enemies to a fantastic island, where he intends to carry out his vengeance. But throughout this issue Cyclops and Lee are still firmly in the subplot position, and most of the comic is taken up with a self-contained story which would seem to have nothing at all to do with The Tempest, were it for the fact that the protagonist of this story is a monster named Caliban.

In the same issue where Cyclops and Lee are exploring Magneto’s island, an all-female cast of X-Men and their amazing friends encounter the monstrous Caliban. While these characters include the spin-off heroine Spider-Woman, a disco-inspired superhero named Dazzler, and the X-Men’s strong African-American character, the woman named Storm, the focus is on Kitty Pryde, who is the center of Caliban’s attention. Kitty’s role in the X-Men is that of the ingénue; she is perpetually fourteen years old, fresh-faced and naïve, curious about the brave new world of superheroics to which she has been introduced. She is, in other words, the Miranda of the X-Men. But, as we saw with “Tempest Fugit”, it is not enough to be Miranda, because Miranda has no superhuman powers and would not be able to keep up with the high-flying X-Men. Instead, Chris Claremont and his collaborators drew both from Miranda and from Ariel, so that Kitty’s superhuman power is the ability to become like a spirit and thus walk through solid objects or even walk on air. When Kitty first earned the right to her own superhero code-name (in X-Men #139), her mentor Professor Xavier explicitly suggested the name “Ariel” to her, wearing Claremont’s Shakespearean influence on his sleeve as it were. But for Claremont, a name based on classic literature isn’t necessarily a name a fourteen year old girl would like, and the need to write consistent and realistic personalities trumps any desire to wave the banner of high culture. Thus, the name “Ariel’ may have literary pedigree, but Kitty reacts to it with “Yuck.” Instead, she chooses the more “childish” name of “Sprite”, a word that still appears in Shakespeare, though not in The Tempest. But regardless of her official code-name – and she would move through Sprite, Ariel, and more in her long career – Kitty was usually addressed as Kitty. It was by this name that she was introduced to the X-Men and to fans, and it was by this name that she would continue to be remembered.

Claremont’s Caliban is a “hulking, rag-clad manform” in a cloak and wide-brim hat who lives in the sewers beneath Manhattan and refers to himself in the third person. His name is expressly a reference to Shakespeare’s play, as we learn when Caliban tells us, “His father named him for a monster!” Presumably, Caliban’s father read the Bard, and it is easy to imagine Claremont’s reference here sending legions of teenage readers to the nearest encyclopedia to look up what “monster” Caliban might be referring to. In any case, Caliban is a mutant, a person born with a superhuman power, though he has spent his entire life in the sewers and seems to know nothing about human society. His unusual talent is that he can sense the presence of other mutants, though because Caliban is so isolated, he does not know that word, referring to mutants as people “like Caliban”, in contrast to “humans” who are not like Caliban. Claremont’s representation of Caliban is, as we might expect from the writer of the X-Men, a sympathetic take on the social outcast. Caliban is motivated by loneliness and fear. He can sense Kitty Pryde and the other X-Men nearby, and is drawn to them out of a desire to find his own kind, but his certainty that he will be chased by any human beings who happen to spot him is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Caliban has another mutant ability which makes his sojourn out of the sewers more problematic: negative emotions such as fear cause him extreme pain while also granting him superhuman strength. When he emerges from the sewer and is confronted by policemen, the fear they feel due to Caliban’s menacing appearance causes the “monster” to lash out in pain. This becomes an elaborate justification for superheroic action, so that Caliban’s violence can be waved away as self-defense, an understandable reaction to being misunderstood by people he does not wish to hurt. Like the Hulk, he wants only to be left alone, but lashes out at those who pursue and harry him.

Kitty re-enacts the role of Miranda to Claremont’s Caliban, though he calls her “Sprite-child”. In the play, Caliban’s lust for Miranda is an instrument of revenge against Prospero; he would populate the island with Calibans as a way of regaining control of his inheritance. But Claremont’s Caliban sees Kitty as a kindred spirit. “You are like Caliban!” he proclaims. “You will come with him, stay with him, be his friend!” The last thing Shakespeare’s Caliban wants is Miranda’s friendship. There, Miranda is protected by her powerful father, but Kitty has no father figure in this story. Instead, her surrogate mother, Storm, comes to her rescue. Ever the sympathetic Beast to Kitty’s Beauty, Caliban knows that what he is doing is wrong, but he cannot help himself. “If Caliban leaves the Sprite-child,” he admits, “perhaps they will not follow. Will not try to hurt Caliban anymore.” But he is at the mercy of his loneliness, revealed as he follows this line of thought to its conclusion: “But then Caliban will be alone again, as he has always been alone. It would be better to die.” Confronted by Caliban, Kitty passes out, collapsing into a convenient and sudden slumber that would do Miranda proud. But before Caliban can whisk her back into the sewers, Storm and the other women of the book rescue her and realize Caliban is not an enemy so much as a lost soul. Beneath his rags, Caliban is white-skinned and hairless, not at all “fishy” but, rather, a kind of Morlock with bulging lidless eyes and albino features. Hated by his own father due to his appearance, Caliban thought he was the only one of his kind, but was forced to follow his urges when he sensed other mutants in the city above.

On the surface, Chris Claremont’s Caliban seems to have little to do with Shakespeare’s. One is a kind but tormented Morlock, living underground and lonely for company, the other is a mean-spirited and fish-like drunkard who would like nothing so much as to be left alone on his island for all time. Claremont’s vision is certainly a rehabilitation of the character, an unapologetic attempt to cast this “monster” in a new light, a more obviously enlightened and sympathetic light in which Caliban’s antisocial behavior (threats of rape or kidnapping) are blamed at least somewhat on his strange appearance and the way in which ordinary society has exiled him. Claremont says, by implication, that if Caliban had been embraced by Prospero or by his father then he would not have become the creature he became. Of course, Prospero claims that he has done just this, that he welcomed Caliban into his home and treated him with kindness until Caliban betrayed that trust; it is not Prospero who calls Caliban a “monster”. But in Claremont’s story, it is. Or, rather, it is Caliban’s mysterious off-stage father who christened him with both name and monstrous description. Claremont suggests that Prospero’s insistence he treated Caliban fairly is a pretense, a ruse which denies Prospero’s own culpability as new master of an island which already had a native occupant. The wizard doth protest too much, and he ignores his own role in Caliban’s vengeance.

This self-contained story ends as a very simple, yet poignant, morality play, for Caliban is far from the only unusual-looking member of the X-Men’s cast. Kitty comes to see how her fear of Caliban is very much like her fear of one of her own teammates, the demonic Nightcrawler, who has been unfailingly kind to her but from whom she continues to recoil in fear even after years of acquaintance. Claremont shows us that if we do not fear Caliban, then he will not lash out at us in pain. From Caliban’s confession, Kitty realizes that appearance should not matter and that fear and hatred only cause further fear and hatred. She resolves to be kinder and more accepting of Nightcrawler, just as we, the readers, are thus encouraged to be more accepting of those who are least like us, who are most “fishy”. Although Claremont’s play on The Tempest will continue through the next two issues, Caliban’s story goes on a long hiatus after this single appearance only to reappear and climax two years later in a marriage-plot where Kitty resumes her role as Beauty to Caliban’s Beast. Eventually Caliban releases her from her vow of marriage when he comes to understand that she does not really want to live forever with him in the sewers, but is only doing so out of a sense of duty and obligation. But that story is a re-enactment of a fairy tale, and has less to do with our current examination.

Having completed his rehabilitation of Caliban, Claremont elevates his Tempest re-enactment to center stage in the issues that follow. From a story angle, issue #149 is largely concerned with getting the rest of the X-Men to the same place where their leader, Cyclops, is already stranded: Magneto’s mysterious island. The character of Magneto has been one of the most enduring antagonists in superhero literature, and he was designed by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for the first issue of The X-Men when they debuted in 1963. While Magneto was a mutant like Professor Xavier and the X-Men, he had no desire to cohabitate peacefully with human beings. Rather, he saw his mutant nature as the mark of a superior being, and while the X-Men felt morally obliged to protect a humanity which hated and feared them, Magneto sought world conquest and rule over a society in which mutants were a new aristocracy. But in Claremont’s hands, and even in the issue that concerns us, Magneto’s character would be deepened to make him a far more sympathetic character, a man who, like Prospero, has no small cause for what he does. The difference between Prospero and Magneto, we will see, comes largely in the capacity for repentance and forgiveness.

Magneto’s island is protected by special devices which not only augment his already-considerable superhuman powers – so that he can create volcanoes anywhere in the world – but also strip Cyclops and any other mutant of their powers, leaving Magneto the only superhuman individual on the island. It is this sophisticated defense system which finally brings the X-Men to his island when, in Uncanny X-Men #150, they happen to be flying nearby and their jet crashes. Magneto’s island is in the Bermudas, and it was a fortunate coincidence for Claremont that these islands, mentioned in The Tempest, are now associated with missing aircraft and other unexplained phenomena, so that placing Prospero’s island in the Bermuda Triangle is a perfect alignment of myth and literature. And like the potent weapons of the Krell race in Forbidden Planet, it is Magneto’s science fiction hardware which fills the role of Ariel, bringing Magneto/Prospero’s enemies to his island and keeping them under his power. So long as the machines obey Magneto’s will, the X-Men are deprived of their abilities and trapped. There is one key difference in Claremont’s story: the X-Men’s crash on the island goes unnoticed by the island’s master, so that they have the opportunity to thwart Magneto’s latest attempt at world domination if they can only succeed in destroying his machines without the use of their vaunted powers.

Considering the rehabilitation which Claremont has already performed on Caliban, it comes as no surprise to see Magneto reformed in a similar way in the pages that follow, making him a sympathetic character more in line with our intellectual Duke of Milan. Magneto’s plan to blackmail the nations of the world with his volcano-machine turns out to be all for good of mankind. He explains himself to Lee Forrester after issuing his demands:
“The nations of the world spend over a trillion dollars a year on armaments. I intend to deny them that indulgence. The money and energy devoted now to war will be turned instead to the eradication of hunger, disease, poverty. I offer a Golden Age, the like of which humanity has never imagined!”
“What about freedom?”
“Freedom, Ms. Forrester? There are more people starving today than there are those who can truly call themselves free. I offer peace and a good life … or a swift and terrible death. The choice is theirs.”
Reading these stories today, when the United States is embroiled in two foreign wars and a simultaneous “Great Recession”, it is remarkably easy to see the logic in Magneto’s goals, if not his melodramatic means, and Claremont goes further when he establishes the reason for Magneto’s personal commitment to this seemingly impossible goal: he is himself a member of a repressed minority. Not just a mutant, Magneto is a Holocaust survivor. In words which could have come from Prospero himself, as he laments his exile from Milan, he tells Cyclops, “Search throughout my homeland, you will find none who bear my name. Mine was a large family, and it was slaughtered – without mercy, without remorse. So speak to me not of grief, boy. You know not the meaning of the word!” This is not the first mention Magneto will make of grief, a theme which the King of Naples and his wandering son often invoke as they each mourn the other, seemingly lost forever.

The bulk of Uncanny X-Men #150 is taken up with the X-Men’s heroic but fatally doomed effort to thwart Magneto’s scheme. As in Shakespeare’s play, they are split up into small groups who wander the island. Storm has a wonderful moment in which, echoing Caliban’s plot, she finds Magneto asleep and contemplates assassinating him with a steak knife. But while in The Tempest Caliban’s scheme is thwarted by his foolish co-conspirators, who would rather play-act as noblemen than get down to bloody business, Storm’s hesitation is more noble and more in character for her: as an X-Man she has sworn a vow never to take the life of another. Briefly she debates whether it is right to kill one man to save thousands, but before she can put her newfound resolution to the test Magneto awakens and hurls her out the window, much as Prospero arrives and punishes those who dared attempt his life.

The climax to the tale comes a few pages later. If Magneto’s machines are fulfilling the role of Ariel – the supernatural enabler which allows Magneto’s vengeance to be enacted – then it is fitting that Kitty Pryde, the X-Men’s Ariel and Miranda figure, be the agent which puts that enabler out of work. Kitty shuts down the machines while Magneto is distracted by the other X-Men, and in so doing she throws the mastermind into a rage. He confronts her alone and, furious, wounds her so grievously that he believes her dead. But now, cradling the dead girl in his arms, Magneto is stunned back to his senses, and he suddenly reveals another link to Prospero: like Shakespeare’s character, he had a wife and a daughter:
She – she is a child! What have I done?! Why did you resist? Why did you not understand?! Magda – my beloved wife – did not understand. When she saw me use my powers, she ran from me in terror. It did not matter that I was defending her…. That I was avenging our murdered daughter. I swore then that I would not rest ‘til I had created a world where my kind – mutants – could live free and safe and unafraid. Where such as you, little one, could be happy. Instead, I have slain you.
This is Magneto’s great soliloquy moment, when he confesses to Kitty’s dead body that he has become a monster, the very thing he has all his life most hated. He laments his exile from his homeland, the death of his family, and how the need for revenge has burned in him since that day, in a way that Shakespeare’s Prospero eventually outgrew through a desire for reconciliation, happiness, and peace.
I remember my own childhood – the gas chambers at Auschwitz, the guards joking as they herded my family to their death. As our lives were nothing to them, so human lives became nothing to me. … I believed so much in my own destiny, in my own personal vision, that I was prepared to pay any price, make any sacrifice to achieve it. But I forgot the innocents who would suffer in the process. … In my zeal to remake the world, I have become much like those I have always hated and despised.
This is, perhaps, Prospero as he might have been: not a man released by the forgiving heart of an audience after three hours of play, but instead a man whose “ending is despair,” bound by the conventions of his genre and the expectations of audience. Magneto cannot be freed because then the X-Men would lose their antagonist and the story would end. Periodically over the years writers have experimented with making Magneto turn himself in, be tried for his crimes, even join the X-Men or occasionally die; such moves are always ephemeral and temporary. Comics must be printed, writers and artists must be employed, t-shirts and video games must be sold, Hollywood blockbusters must be produced, millions of dollars must be made, and so the audience, while they may applaud, grant not freedom but further imprisonment, an endlessly extended sentence.

“We are such things,” Prospero assures us, “as dreams are made on,” and Magneto agrees, at one point assuring Cyclops and Captain Forrester that, “I am tired of seeing things as they are and asking why, of dreaming of things that never were and asking why not. I have the power to make my dreams reality. And that I shall do.” It is, fittingly, Storm herself who interrupts Magneto’s speech; when she sees his honest repentance, she proves herself a better man than Hamlet and extends forgiveness of her own. “The dream was good. Is good,” she clarifies, in a way that speaks to the whole of Claremont’s Tempest as much as to Magneto’s goal. “Only the dreamer has become corrupted.” In Uncanny X-Men, Chris Claremont presents a vision of The Tempest in which the dream of Prospero’s peaceful reconciliation between two long standing enemies has been corrupted by the antagonistic role which Magneto is forced to play within the confines of his rival’s monthly serial. He can see the evil in his actions, but he cannot change. “It is too late to change, Ororo. I am too old. I have lived too long with my hatred.” Prospero’s dream has become Magneto’s nightmare, a hellish life in which he knows he is a morally bankrupt and ironic doppleganger of the same Nazis whose ideas of racial purity destroyed his family. But there is no way out of this nightmare for Magneto; repentance is impossible, and he will continue to be the thing he is until, one day, his tortured life is at last rounded by a sleep.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Claremont's X-Men

This week I am in the Eaton Collection reading a bunch of classic X-Men books from the Claremont/Cockrum era, and I know it has been often commented on before but man is it a bit startling to read comics with actual dialogue again. Comics these days are so art-dependent, the writers seem to pride themselves on using as few words as possible. I'm all for the occasional silent panel, one of my favorite panels in Camelot 3000 is completely wordless, but Claremont is so brazenly unafraid to talk your ear off.

And it's not Stan Lee-era narration of the action, either. Where Thing says, "Darn, I missed!" when he, you know, misses. It's commentary, exposition, and characters just, you know, taalking and thinking in character. It appeals to the roleplayer in me, who can spend an entire scene just talking in character without any actual plot happening. Though there's plenty of plot in Claremont's X-Men too.

The real object of my quest has been to find out the moment in which Kitty Pryde actually used the "Ariel" codename, which Xavier proposes to her but she rejects way back in #139. All the sources say she switched to Ariel in #171, but I have read every page in that comic three times this week and nowhere does Ariel appear. In #169 she says she doesn't like "Sprite" any longer, because it is "a kid's name," but she doesn't use Ariel anywhere in Uncanny until she leaves the team post-Secret Wars and has her miniseries with Wolverine, which is of course when she switched to Shadowcat.

I still maintain that Claremont lost me as a regular X-Man reader when Storm went punk. The whole conversion and change Storm went through was a big non-starter for me, I was totally on Kitty's side during that whole series, and I'm actually kind of surprised that I could read the book when Cyclops -- whom I have always liked -- was getting pooped on and treated like garbage, but when they turned the weather goddess into an ad for Love & Rockets, I quit. Reading the books again today, I still felt exactly the same way.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Peter David's "Tempest Fugit", Incredible Hulk 77-81

I finally got my hands on the trade collection of Peter David's return to the character of the Hulk, his "Tempest Fugit" storyline which was published as Incredible Hulk #77-81. I come to this story with a particular interest in David's use of Shakespeare's play The Tempest, which is where the title comes from, but you can't just talk about one part of a story like this, you have to wade on in.

There's perilously little plot in this story, which is something it has in common with The Tempest. The Hulk walks up onto a mysterious island before devolving into Banner, whereupon he is rescued from a monster by Gwen and Ripley, two other castaways who seem to be entertainers hired to sing on a pleasure cruise before the yacht exploded and the two washed ashore. Somewhere Ripley acquired a flame thrower and, more worthy of comment, he has apparently gone blind. There's no real reason as to why Gwen, who can see and seems to be in perfectly good shape, and who has something of a snarky attitude to boot, lets the blind guy carry the flame thrower.

The three are attacked by more monsters, including Fin Fang Foom and a three-headed dog which may or may not be Cerberus, before General Ross appears to give the first explanation for what is going on: this island is a place where scientists have developed a weapon which makes your imagination into reality (ala Forbidden Planet, a famous Tempest riff), said project has gone out of control and the imagined monsters are now killing everyone. The trio are separated; Hull fights Foom, Wolverine, Kang the Conqueror and Mephisto, Ripley gets drugged to sleep by a "Professor Yarish", and Ripley is seemingly drowned by Ross, but then wakes up. This leads to the denoument, a few pages at the end of a 5-book story which finally tells us what was going on. "Ross", Kang, and Mephisto were really Nightmare. Gwen is really Nightmare's daughter, "Daydream," stripped of her self-knowledge and thrown to live among mortals. Ripley appears to really be Gwen's boyfriend, and Nightmare has been messing with Hulk's reality and memory for years now, as revenge for various insults and slights which the Hulk has inflicted upon him over the years. We never get a pin in "Professor Yarish," who might be a creation of Nightmare or a Silent One playing the role.

This sounds really complicated, but it's not really, because as I say it is all suddenly revealed at the end of the story in the manner of a man pulling back the curtain on things you never could have really known or figured out for yourself, so to a very great degree the entire plot is a pretense for various cameos by antagonists the Hulk gets to beat up on which, we are forced to admit, describes the vast majority of Hulk stories anyway.

Parallel to this main plot is a subplot, a flashback sequence in which Bruce Banner, the skinny new guy in high school, tries to get involved in a lunchroom spat only to get beat up and unappreciated by the pretty young thing he was trying to rescue. During this sequence, the Hulk is portrayed as Bruce's "imaginary friend," a kind of split personality which Bruce has nurtured since the departure of his father for a psychiatric ward. Hulk is constantly pushing Bruce to "smash" everyone at school who puts the diss on him, culminating in a "Dark Side" moment in which Bruce wakes up to discover that, while he was asleep, Hulk used his body to plant a bomb -- which Bruce had built in his basement -- in the school. Bruce reaches the school in time to defuse the bomb, but he is still caught and found culpable for putting the bomb there in the first place, leading to more violence wrought upon him by students, his expulsion, and a move out of the city by he and his caretaker aunt. After all this, a young Thunderbolt Ross shows up to offer Bruce a job as a weapons designer since, after all, he is a teenager who built his own bomb.

There's more plot in this subplot than in the Hulk's actual wanderings in the island. David is pulling on a number of threads here, and only one of them is Shakespeare. To get that part out of the way first: Nightmare is Prospero, the magical mastermind who has lured his enemy to a magic island for revenge. Daydream is his daughter, Miranda, but also his magic-wielding servant, Ariel. Ripley is Ferdinand, the guy Miranda falls in love with and leaves to marry at the end of the play. Hulk is Anotnio -- Prospero's brother and hated enemy. I'm not sure if any of the monsters on the island count as Caliban; we could give the nod to Foom or to Wolverine, or even to Hulk himself, since Caliban is consistently described as fish-like and Hulk spends the first several pages of this book walking on the bottom of the ocean, killing sharks and giant squids, before revealing that he apparently has a gland in his body that creates oxygen-filled liquid, just like that pink stuff in the Abyss, which is where David clearly got the idea.

And this reveals one of the most important things about this book: Peter David's number one priority does not seem to be telling a good story so much as it is redefining, yet again, the Hulk and how he works. David has to put his stamp on the Hulk one more time, and the number of retcons in this story is pretty crazy. First off, there is the big one about Nightmare being responsible for most of the Hulk's woes over the past few years, a reveal almost as cheezy as the Crossing, in which Kang took responsibility for Tony Stark's alcoholism. In fact, now that I think about it, I think that might be why Kang shows up in this book, of all the crazy individuals David might have thrown in. Kang smells a heavy-handed retcon and he's snuck over to reminisce.

But there's plenty more, starting with that opening sequence in which we learn that the Hulk did not, after all, have to hold his breath while underwater because, apparently for years, maybe since his creation, he's had a gland in his body that creates oxygenated fluid in his lungs, thus balancing out the pressure in his body and making him immune to the bends. This, apparently, was really bugging David. So much that he had to clue us in. Then there's the sudden reappearance of Betty at the end of the story, an un-telling of David's famous decision to kill the gal off in the first place, all those years ago. To these retcons, add Bruce's decision to bomb his own high school, and Ross's subsequent involvement in Bruce's life, presumably establishing that this is when Bruce got put on the road to eventually building the Gamma Bomb.

So on one hand, David is writing a Tempest riff. On the other hand, his priority is the retcon. His third story is to say something about 9/11, terrorism, and school violence along the lines of Columbine. Nightmare reveals that he now has power in the mortal world because of the fear and terror which 9/11 caused; everyone looked at the smoking towers and said, "Let this be a bad dream." Invoked by an entire nation, Nightmare created his new island and began experimenting upon human beings with his powers, with the Hulk as a primary test case. But Bruce's high school plot also ties into this thread, making him an instigator of school violence. It's hard to get too sympathetic over Bruce either, since while getting beaten up regularly is certainly bad, and being humiliated by a girl is also pretty terrible, the Karate Kid certainly did not need a bomb under the school to get even. David seems to be saying that Bruce's youthful history of violence and psychological problems also contributed to that atmosphere of fear which 9/11 is a part of, so that Bruce, too, becomes somewhat culpable for Nightmare's newfound power and freedom. After all, plenty of people are afraid of the Hulk. All of this compounds to make Bruce Banner even more guilty for all the awful things he has done, which I am not sure was really necessary, considering how much guilt he's already got.

The cleverest bit of this entire story -- and really it is quite well done -- is the bit about Nightmare being invoked on 9/11. I mean, sure, I can totally see that day as America's Nightmare moment. And it makes perfect sense for that to be the high water mark for Nightmare himself, who surfed that wave all the way from the Dream Dimension to the real world. The trouble with "Tempest Fugit" is that there just aren't enough other clever moments in this story to give this one jewel any decent competition. Hulk's one liners are just cynical and jaded (see what I did there), the island itself has no real story, and the flashback story paints Bruce as so psychologically disturbed that I would lose all empathy with him were I to acknowledge David's version of the character instead of my own.

You have to work pretty hard to make a nerdy kid who got kicked around in school no longer identify with Bruce Banner.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

One Down, Three to Go

I've been working on the last chapter in "Superhero Comics and the Literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance" this week. This chapter, which will become Chapter 3 of 5, and thus be the "central" chapter if the designation means anything, is on Shakespeare and comics. I don't want to do another survey; there's a few of those already and they do great work. But I already did something of a survey for Chapter 4 (on Arthurian comics) and honestly, in these days when anyone can log on to Wikipedia, I don't really see why academics bother with surveys anyway. There are plenty of idle amateur scholars with time on their hands who can assemble long lists of "Shakespeare in Comics" and put that list on the internet for all the world to see. What we need is analysis.

The first thing I had to do, of course, was read everything I could find on Shakespeare and Comics, and my bibliography for that is still visible several entries down. Basically it broke down into three categories:
  1. Surveys of adaptations of Shakespeare's plays in comics, ie Classics Illustrated.
  2. Analyses of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman and the three issues in which Shakespeare appears there.
  3. Everything else.
Of these three categories, #2 was by far the largest, being about twice the size of #1, which was in turn twice the size of #3. There were seven or eight worthwhile essays on Sandman, and the best stuff dealt with Gaiman's use of him as a "me character," some discussion on the source of Shakespeare's talent (personal tragedy and sacrifice vs. hard work and humanism), and some very evocative though harder to use observations on the magical power of poetry and Gaiman's broader discussion of imagination and its dangers.

The surveys told me what adaptations might be worth finding and reading and which I could live without, but I'm not that interested in adaptations, really. At least, not obvious ones. What I really want to see are subtle adaptations, probably better called "re-enactments" as Michael Torregrossa does, but which I also call "silent collaborations" in my Arthurian discussions.

By the way, for those looking for other appearances of Shakespeare in comics, the only ones which have really been written about are:
  • Flaming Carrot's adventure into the past, when we learn that Buddy Hacket wrote Shakespeare's plays.
  • The Cowboy Wally Show, where a version of Hamlet is performed in prison as a star vehicle for Wally.
  • The Badger #46, in which "Larry," a telephone repairman with fond memories of his high school acting days, saves the world from demonic invasion by quoting Shakespeare.
  • Three issues of Justice League Europe in which "Deconstructo" does exactly that to the JLE, with both sides misquoting Shakespeare and just about everyone else.
I got to read that Badger comic and it's great, by the way. Most of Badger kind of left me cold, but I've grown into this story.

Today I finished my discussion of Shakespeare and Comics criticism, which is the first part of four which make up Chapter #3. The remaining three parts will be much more fun. They will focus on:
  • Tempest in the X-Men: Caliban, Ariel, and the mysterious island which is home to the powerful mastermind.
  • Peter David's 5-part "Tempest Fugit" story: more mysterious islands, magical masterminds, and monsters.
  • Alan Moore's Black Dossier: The "lost Shakespeare play" Faerie's Fortune's Founded and Prospero's appearance in the final pages of the book.
In other words, I have all the fun stuff remaining, and all the boring stuff behind. Which is good.