Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Articulate violence: thoughts on comic-book superheroes

Captain America #24, drawn by Steve Epting, 2007.
Regular readers will remember my recent Sydney Morning Herald column on Wonder Woman, arguing for the importance of female role models like the Amazon superhero. I also wrote, last year, a short column on comics for the Canberra Times.

This month in Meanjin magazine (available here or in bookshops) I've a much longer essay, 'Illustrating Ethical Dilemmas', which looks at conflict in superhero comics.

More specifically, I'm identifying the ways in which superheroes express deeper struggles -- existential, political, ethical -- physically. What looks like dumb fighting can actually be something more sophisticated.

Importantly, this articulate violence is often as visual as it is textual: the story is told, not only with words, but also with bold colours and drawn lines of force.

The essay's is not (yet) online, but here's a sample:
A blond, square-jawed man is splayed on the stone steps of the New York Federal Courthouse. Blood runs from his mouth. The white star on his chest is spattered. He is muscular but limp. 
Two figures crouch over him: a man in black leather jacket, sunglasses and baseball cap, and a woman in a black and white paramilitary uniform. The first swears. The second cradles the downed man’s head, screaming “no” and whispering “Oh God, Steve.” 
There is no divine miracle for Steve Rogers. He dies of gunshot wounds, still in handcuffs. Placards are littered nearby: “FREE CAPTAIN AMERICA” and “CAP TRAITOR”. 
Captain America is arrested by his own government, and assassinated outside an iconic house of law.

It is testament to the power of contemporary superhero comics that this scene, in Ed Brubaker’s Captain America #25, actually moved me. I was surprised at myself. To me, Captain America’s name and uniform had always suggested a blithe nationalism: a superpower patting itself on the back, and selling this conceit to children. In this, I was one of Aristotle’s doctrinaire thinkers, “whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of the facts… too ready to dogmatise on the basis of a few observations.” 
Of course there were good reasons for my scepticism. During the Second World War, the superhero in the stars and stripes was indeed a morale booster for the United States. The cover of Captain America #1, published in December 1940, had the Captain punching Adolf Hitler in the mouth. Tellingly, America was not yet in the war. 
The comic was a hit, selling over a million copies—more than Time magazine. The story itself, told over the issues, was quintessentially American: a good-hearted but scrawny poor boy from Brooklyn, transformed into a goliath by modern science—the science of a German defector, no less. A few griped, but Captain America successfully portrayed America’s ideals of freedom, muscular courage and technological supremacy. A great state, with enviable pectorals and enriched uranium. 
After the war, Captain America’s popularity faded. It was not until the ‘sixties, as the United States sent more troops to Vietnam, that the superhero came into his own: a conflicted patriot in a less idealistic age. With the usual tricks of fantasy—suspended animation, a souped-up genetic code, good luck and a powerful will—Captain America was discovered literally on ice, and brought back to life in a new America, no longer united by the threat of the Axis. 
As Sean Howe notes in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Marvel was itself conflicted during these decades: between artistic independence and the corporate bottom line; between “master fence-sitter” Stan Lee and his more politically committed junior colleagues. National and professional faultlines appeared as thin cracks in the superhero's psyche. “This is the day of the anti-hero—the age of the rebel—and the dissenter,” the Captain broods in Stan Lee’s Captain America #122, published amidst social unrest in 1970. “It isn’t hip—to defend the establishment!—only to tear it down!” 
Part of Captain America's new persona is classic ‘fish out of water’ guff: witness the curmudgeonly Captain, in The Ultimates, grumbling about belly button rings and “potty mouth stuff” in films, or looking baffled by taken-for-granted popular culture (“Who’s Bruce Lee?”). 
But more importantly, the superhero has become a symbol, not of dim nationalism, but of the tensions within America itself. “In a world rife with injustice, greed, and endless war… who’s to say the rebels are wrong?” asks a disaffected Captain in Captain America #122. “I’ve spent a lifetime defending the flag and the law. Perhaps I should have battled less and questioned more.” 
For some, Captain America stands for flag and constitution; for others, personal code and ardent individualism. For example, as part of Mark Millar’s gritty Ultimates team, the Captain is sent overseas to pre-emptively invade and disarm sovereign countries. He is a blunt tool of the government, and is attacked as an amoral stooge by Thor, the Norse god and Norwegian anti-capitalist leader. “The son of Odin,” says Thor in the first volume of The Ultimates, “is not interested in working for a military industrial complex who engineers wars and murders innocents.” Not your average superhero banter. 
But in Millar’s Civil War storyline, Captain America is one of the “rebels” he sympathised with in the ‘seventies, fighting—literally and figuratively—against his own government. He refuses to work for the White House, voicing concerns about their values and ideals. In one typically blunt exchange, he tells government agent Maria Hill that superheroes need autonomy, not political directives. “Don’t play politics with me, Hill. Super heroes need to stay above that stuff,” Captain America seethes, “or Washington starts telling us who the super-villains are.” This conflict is what culminates in the Captain’s arrest and assassination. 
Both series, Civil War and The Ultimates, were written during the Bush years, and the politics of the day are straightforwardly part of the drama. Captain America, as a symbol of the nation, contains multitudes. “What I found is that all the really hard-core left-wing fans want Cap to be... giving speeches on the streetcorner against the Bush administration,” said Captain America #25 writer Ed Brubaker, “and all the really right-wing want him to be over in the streets of Baghdad, punching out Saddam.” Captain America's vilification and capture are because of classical political debates: liberty versus loyalty to the state, conscience versus patriotism, privacy versus national security. He is a traitor to some, a hero to others. And within the Marvel universe, many on both sides are happy to kill the Captain, or have him kill, to avow their vision of the United States. 
Yes, Steve Rogers was something of a glib conservative icon—and still is, at times. Witness Cap in Ultimate Captain America #4, fighting the Vietnam-era Captain America Frank Simpson, spouting nationalistic platitudes while he knocks Simpson’s teeth out with a steel chain: “Peace and security don’t come easy…and wars are never pretty, no matter what era,” says Cap. “But we do what we can, for the greater good.” Yet even in this story, doubt remains. It ends with the Captain reading the Bible to a hospitalised Simpson, right after his partner Hawkeye asks if the Ultimates are doing the devil’s work, rather than God’s. 
In amongst the ricocheting shields and sledgehammer blows, Captain America offers a recognisable portrait of strife: ethical, political, existential.
The essay also features unique drawings by Daniel Keating, who so brilliantly illustrated the Australian editions of Distraction and Philosophy in the Garden.

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