Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Comics, Gun Violence and the Hunger for Narrative

In May, thanks to the good graces of Christina Angel, I was able to present at the Rocky Mountain Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels. Our topic was depictions of violence and healing in comics and there were a great many brilliant people there presenting extraordinary work.

And then there was me. This is my presentation. It's called "Drinking the Sand: Comics, Gun Violence, and the Hunger for Narrative"

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

V for Vendetta and Alan Moore's Oeuvre

This, too, is the fault of Hannah Menzies. Hannah is working on a much-anticipated (by me, at least) book on Alan Moore the magus and as we sat in a panel a couple weeks ago in lovely Denver, she leaned back and casually asked, in that way of hers, "How do you think V fits into Moore's body of work?" I rattled off some top-of-my-head answer, but the truth is I have not been able to stop thinking about that question. I think it's a really good one.

Because if you think about it for half a minute, you could probably list a dozen ways in which V for Vendetta is unlike everything else Moore has written. Most obviously, it is an aggressively political work. At least on the surface, it seems to argue for a pretty specific agenda of armed revolution. This is one of the reasons students eventually get into it (once they get past the large cast of characters and Lloyd's art style), and it's one of the things emphasized in the big-screen Hollywood adaptation. Is there anything else in Moore's work which is as polemic as V for Vendetta? And the book's glamorization of the charismatic Great Man leader-hero is so much at odds with the rest of Moore's work that it kind of boggles the mind if you think about it. Even the little bits are tremendously out of character; one of my favorite bits from V is the short story called "Vincent," but it is hard to imagine the infamously-verbose Alan writing another story without any text at all.

I want to acknowledge from the get-go that this is an extremely problematic text, to use the academic slang. And by this, I mean to say this book is pretty fucked up. Imagine a scene, before this movie came out. Imagine a grad student trying to explain to his seminar how V kidnaps Evey, interrogates and tortures her, and when it is all over, she thanks him for it. Imagine the weird looks on everyone's face. Yeah. That was me, trying to explain the most problematic scene in V, back in about 2002.

It will never cease to be a mystery to me that the filmmakers kept that deeply troubling and problematic sequence for the film and then cut everything else, material which was not nearly as offensive, and replaced it with pap. In the film, Evey goes from being an aspiring prostitute working at a match factory (a match factory!) to a cog in a network media machine who is just out after curfew visiting her gay friend. And this is just one obvious example of the way V has been sanitized for a popular audience. But they kept the craziest scene, the scene that must have drawn them to the book in the first place, because it is just so grossly offensive.

But I maintain that the book does have a conscience, and that you can see that conscience at the end, when V enlists Finch to help him perform assisted suicide. V is a wicked man. He's doing some good things, but he remains a wicked man. And according to his own code of behavior, a man must be responsible for his own actions. And that means that the wicked must be punished, and V must die. He knows this. He has judged himself and found himself culpable, and he does not "die" at the end so much as "allow himself to be executed" -- by Finch, the good man who has done wicked things, by the real hero of the story who is V's mirror opposite. But Evey, who has rejected that way of life, deserves to live. And so live she does.

Some have argued that David Lloyd had far more influence over the book than Moore's other creative partners, and I recognize that Lloyd came up with things like the Guy Fawkes connection and so on, but I am not entirely convinced that we should just throw our hands up and blame Lloyd. Moore's collaborative process has had more light shed on it than many other creators and while he does seem to be the only person who writes his scripts, he's not been shy about giving credit to creators on Watchmen or elsewhere.

Let's try to get specific with the question: What does V have in common with Alan's other work?

It's Literate: V is a highly literate text and character. Indeed, at some points in the narrative, V for Vendetta seems to be about Art itself, if not about literature. This begins with V's opening speech from MacBeth, it continues through physical props like the Shadow Gallery and V's frequent quotes from culture high and low, to the theater, Valerie, and "Vaudeville," and finally to the Viking funeral. Perhaps it is better to say that, at times, V is about Artifice more than Art: it is about masks and drama, but that's not what I'm getting at here. What I'm trying to zero in on is the way Moore invokes everything from Shakespeare to the Stones as muses, as badges of honor. But it comes too early in Moore's life to have much (any?) reference to Blake, as From Hell, Promethea, and Angel Passage all do.

In the End, It's Optimistic: Readers don't usually associate this with Moore, but most of his work is affirmative and positive in its estimate of human nature, though it often requires us to work through a lot of crap to get there. Watchmen feels like a post-modern ode to deconstruction until suddenly, at the end, Dr. Manhattan comes to understand that every human being is a kind of miracle, that life is worth living, and that it takes us to strange places and makes us do crazy things. Reading From Hell feels like living in a claustrophobic meat locker, but by the time we reach the end, there's William Gull wheeling around as a confused and impotent ghost while Mary Kelly gives him the finger. A lot of the people in League are tortured and in pain, but ultimately the book is a celebration of creativity, of Art and imagination, of powers so potent and immortal that they outlast even their creators. And V has some really ugly, grubby, awful people in it. Sometimes it seems like there's no one in this book worth cheering for. But when Evey says, "Let it grow," she breaks out of that crappy world to become the best person in this book, and when she accepts the role of V, we at least know the nation is in good hands -- even if the charismatic hero-leader is an anomaly in Moore's book, and one we instinctively mistrust.

It's On Drugs: Seriously, Moore's experiences with LSD are public record and drug use informs multiple texts in his oeuvre, including Swamp Thing and virtually everything he wrote after he became a practicing magician, because hallucinogenic drugs are required for that trade (unless you are William Blake or, like him, see angels sitting on haybales without chemical assistance). The drug use in V is pretty self-contained and it enables a revelatory experience, Finch's epiphany, mirroring V's own and that which V inflicts on Evey. It is a very short jump from this to plant-sex with Swamp Thing.

It's Got Rape: As others (Grant Morrison is only the most notable) have noted long before me, Moore writes a lot about rape. Indeed, it can be a challenge to find one of his texts that does not have rape in it. Now, you can phrase this as, "Moore is obsessed with rape," or you can phrase it as, "The topic of rape is important to Moore," depending on how much of a pejorative you want this trait to be, but no matter how you say it, we have to acknowledge it's there, and V is no exception. The book starts with attempted rape and prostitution (another Moore theme, especially since he became a magus), acts no less central to the plot than the rape of Silk Spectre I or Janni Dakkar.

Personally, I find V for Vendetta a very teachable text. It works well in the classroom because it provokes discussion. There are inevitably some government-hating students in the class who get into it without thinking about it very much, the interrogation of Evey gives us a lot to think and talk about (including Aristotelean notions of catharsis, pity and fear), and the literacy of the entire book rewards close readers, who find additional meaning. YouTube videos of the song's musical numbers bring some great diversity to the classroom space. It uses symbolism and metaphor in some pretty rock solid ways. roses/Rose being only the neatest example. And it comes without a lot of the Cold War baggage that Watchmen brings. If I ever get the chance to teach a single author Alan Moore course, I am not sure I would include it. His early phase is perhaps better represented by something like Ballad of Halo Jones, and the completion of V for Vendetta was contemporaneous with Watchmen, which would presumably be on the syllabus. But when I only have time to teach one Moore comic, it's not a bad choice. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Religion and Superheroes


I spent last week at the Rocky Mountain Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels and the subsequent Denver Comic Con. It was an enormously fun and profitable time. I got to spend the first two days learning from some very smart people working on comics across the spectrum, and then I got to spend a couple days geeking out (not like I don't do that anyway) and visiting with friends like Mike Lafferty and my sister Suzanne, her husband Chris, and my nephew Jake. Long live Arrowman!

I think it was on Thursday when Hannah Menzies and Doug Singsen began talking about religion and superheroes, and Doug graciously suggested I might have something to contribute on this topic. Not that anyone has ever been able to get me to shut up in the first place, but it was kind of him to invite me.

The first thing we should acknowledge on this topic is that no one is better qualified to opine on it than A. David Lewis, who has been writing comics on, and studying superheroes with, religious themes for years. And A. Dave, as he is known in these here parts, besides having a Ph.D. in Religion and Literature and being an accomplished scholar, blogger, and comics creator, has a skill at self-marketing which I am openly envious of, so the fact that I am plugging him here is just demonstrating how well he has cornered this particular field.

There are also several books on the topic, most of which I have not gotten around to reading yet. One that I have read is The Gospel According to Superheroes, but I don't especially recommend it, because while some of its arguments are interesting, it typifies the biggest problem with books of the "Comics And ..." variety, and that is that while the "And..." part is always well researched and documented, backed up by theory and criticism, the "Comics" part is not. The only book or article about comics referenced in The Gospel According to Superheroes is McCloud's Understanding Comics, and as those of us in the field know, that is the beginning of the conversation, not the end. I have, however, heard rave reviews of Do The Gods Wear Capes, including from Kent Worcester, who is no slouch in this department, and I look forward to reading it. We should also acknowledge Reynolds' Superheroes: A Modern Mythology, which I think most of us can agree was published ahead of its time, and which has stood up surprisingly well over the years. It's also very approachable by students, and that is no small thing.

With the necessary preamble out of the way, we can get back to the question, which I believe goes something like: "So: Superheroes, Religion; Discuss."

It seems to me that religion intersects with superheroes in the same way that most things intersect with superheroes, and that is in the world of metaphor and allegory. Some people -- like Tom the Dancing Bug and his God-Man strip -- have had a lot of fun suggesting that superheroes are filling the role of God or gods to us these day, but I think this is a bit of a deceptive trap. The superhero is an American invention and Americans do not pray to or worship Superman or Captain America. Mentally healthy individuals do not believe Superman or Captain America exist in the same way they might believe God exists, even when they do decorate their bodies with indelible Superman symbols.

But what superheroes are really good at is telling stories in shorthand; using symbols we all recognize in order to tell a powerful and resonating story with great economy in six, or eight, or twenty-two pages. So, for example, when we see Superman's father send his only son to Earth, we get it. When that infant from one world is rescued by parents of another world, where he is raised in ignorance of his true heritage, only for it to be revealed later in a moment that forces him to choose which of his pasts he is going to embrace, we get it. When Superman sacrifices himself for others and then falls back down to Earth with his arms extended, we get it. And the reason we get these stories, the reason we feel them in our gut, is because they are using the vocabulary of religion as a kind of shorthand for some very complicated ideas. When Clark finds out that he was born on another planet, that the parents that raised him all his life are not the ones who gave him life, and he is forced to choose, a good writer can tap into Moses's personal dilemma and can even play with it. So when, in some stories, Clark embraces his Kryptonian heritage, he's more like Moses, who embraces the fact that he is a Jew and becomes a champion of the Jewish people. But when Clark says no, no, I might be biologically Kryptonian, but in my head and in my heart I'm an American, it's almost like a reverse-Moses. Superman becomes Bizarro-Moses, the Moses who chooses to be Egyptian after all.

Let's take the New Gods for example. If ever there were superhero characters who seem to be about religion, it would be the New Gods. I mean, it's right there in the title. And yet, Highfather and his kind are never worshipped. When worship happens in the New Gods, it is always directed towards Darkseid and is always portrayed as a deeply awful and compromising thing. Orion, Mr. Miracle, Lightray, Metron and the other characters are deeply symbolic, but they are no more gods than Paul Bunyan is a god. What they do is allow us to talk about God in a new, fresh, way. When it is revealed that Highfather does not call the shots on the planet of New Genesis, but in fact answers to a parliament of children, we are reminded that the meek shall inherit the Earth, that the powerful should always answer to the needs of the lowest among us. When Mr. Miracle escapes from yet another enemy without ever throwing a punch, when he is "surely killed" only to rise again in a daily miracle, we are reminded that peace and non-violence are the heart of Christian teachings. The New Gods are, in fact, not the ultimate power in their own setting; there is a disembodied hand which writes on a wall, and that hand belongs to the Uni-Friend, a symbol so obvious that Kirby didn't have to say anything more about it. Ultimately, the New Gods aren't gods at all. They're people of faith, who revere something more powerful than they, something without form but all-loving and all-knowing, something they struggle to understand and live up to. They're us, basically.

Faith is an important part of American culture and I don't see that changing any time soon. It seems to be perfectly appropriate then for superhero comics to use the symbols and language of faith in their stories, because these are symbols and language that most Americans recognize. Which means those scenes work, and will continue to work, for a long time. But in superhero comics, faith has generally been a secondary topic. When it is directly addressed, such as in Frank Miller's Daredevil or Claremont's Nightcrawler stories in X-Men, it was usually an eye-opener, because these sorts of stories were so unusual. Stories like Starlin's Infinity Crusade, Denny O'Neill's Question, or Starlin and O'Neill's Batman story The Cult, were considered "edgy" at the time, because they used the language of Christian religion in morally ambiguous ways.

But filmmakers have been much less hesitant to use religion in superhero films. Personally, I blame the crucifixion pose for this. That damn pose is easy to do, common in films from Superman to Alien: Resurrection, and directors have gone to it so often and so repetitively that I'm always surprised to see a falling action star who does not adopt it. And because these films have made a huge commercial impact on the superhero business, the frequency with which Christian religious symbols have been used in films has bled over into superhero comics, so that now Nightcrawler has, in the comics, become a priest.

I'll leave with one last observation, and that is that some of the best writers working in superhero comics have used their names and reputations to tell stories which give intensely personal stories about faith. In this bucket, I place Morrison's All-Star Superman as well as his non-superhero book The Invisibles, and also Alan Moore's Promethea. All-Star and Promethea are not books which could have been published when their creators were young. Morrison and Moore had to attain a certain invulnerability in the marketplace first. In All-Star, Luthor is converted to good when he sees the face of God. He acquires Superman's powers and, in this state, physically perceives a single intelligence which organizes the universe. We don't see it. But Luthor does and, by necessity then, Superman has. And this explains much about Superman's faith that "there's always a way," in his unshakeable confidence in the innate goodness of all human beings, because he knows there's a God, and God would not allow the world to be a fucked up and unjust disaster. Superman is not at all a being of faith, because he doesn't need faith. He can see God!

And I could unpack Promethea here too, but honestly, you won't read it anyway. Which is a real shame, because it's an amazing book. But when the protagonist goes on a metaphysical tour of the universe in which the Kaballah is represented by subway stations (that's just one issue) and she meets Jesus, God, and the Devil (that's another issue), and has Solomon decide whether or not she gets to keep her powers or cut them in half (a different issue), well, let's just say it's a book about religion and leave it at that.