Bootin’ the pooch
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Let’s say that you’re a comics creator or line editor, and probably due to simple absence or neglect of infrastructure, something gets written in that comic for real. Specifically, your villain character has a point. His or her grievance is valid. His or her rebellion is justified. His or her determination is admirable.
Lee’s famous quote: [I] did not think of Magneto as a bad guy. He was just trying to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist. He was trying to defend mutants, and because society was not treating them fairly, he decided to teach society a lesson. He was a danger of course, but I never thought of him as a villain.
I’ll grant that Lee/Kirby did not quite succeed in conveying this point in their X-Men run, but they were kind of busy with other things, and I also grant that Thomas’ Magneto was a barking bigot. I do think the important conundrum presented by Magneto was potentially there from the beginning. So work with me here, because I don’t really care when the issue came to the fore, only that it’s present in the concept.
The question is, what do you do when your mighty ultravillain starts making too much sense? When your nominal heroes really are turning out to uphold a consensus or mainstream view which upon reflection, looks more and more superficial and stupid? When getting militant and putting some non-negotiable smackdown into the situation is maybe what the marginalized part of the conversation ought to be doing?
Well! You gotta put a stop to this shit, fast! (Warning: TVtropes jargon included, yeah I know, I know, but it works this time, so deal.)
The quick fix is to hand him the idiot ball, special subset villain ball – which is to say, he becomes inexplicably insane and does something monstrously stupid which permits him to be defeated.
This doesn’t work well for our exact problem, though, not with a genuinely interesting and provocative opponent, because the issue’s integrity isn’t getting covered up enough. If you do this, readers are surprisingly bright enough to protest, even to focus on the character’s valid points when they otherwise might not have.
Or, you could use the divert-and-forget tactic.
Oooh, OK, then how much vengeance does he exact? Precisely none. I still can’t tell why; I’ve read God Loves, Man Kills at least a hundred times, and at the climax he falls down once and can’t get back up. All I can figure is that whenever he’s off-panel, he’s frozen in place, so Kitty can deliver a speech. I’m gonna call that tactic a clean miss too. (Quick aside, since I just dipped into a Claremont story: Magneto’s post-1981 back-story, the specification to Jewish history and the Holocaust, and the relevant 1970s political origins and content, are not relevant to my point here – that’s another post to be sure. I’m talking about Magneto and the general marginalized-minority issue, itself as an example of any genuinely trenchant social-policy crisis, period.) (Similarly, the in-context discussion of the original Magneto to civil rights in the early 1960s is a post for another day, because this post is about how that keeps getting elided. Magneto is the gift that keeps on giving.)
What else, then? Go for the moral event horizon. Maybe get catastrophic? Give him some genocidal or otherwise incredibly reprehensible plan, taking the collateral damage context up to a city-wide or global level. That’s what goes on in the 2000 film.
The trouble with this is, if it’s entirely gratuitous, then it’s just the idiot ball again, and if the big plan can’t work without it, then you have a well-intentioned extremist and prompt the very “that’s interesting, let’s talk about it” discussion you’re trying to get rid of. No, upping the ante on destruction and atrocity won’t do it.
Enough of this! Time for my point, that the real solution is an out-and-out masterstroke: get the intellectual stuff outta there and go for the guts, and kick a dog. Smunching a minion isn’t enough (insert fifty images of Magneto slapping the Toad around), because no one like those guys anyway. To kick a dog properly, you need someone powerless, innocent of wrongdoing, and goodhearted, and to do something genuinely mean to them, usually for no apparent reason. A backhand or literal kick, perhaps, but even better, inflict psychological torment, withhold a chance at happiness, or injure or kill them in some personal way.
It works! Count me as one of the many viewers who hates Introducing Spot because the “dog” gets a boot. I doubt anyone processed a bit of information following the 20-30 second mark. If the developers had provided the ‘bot with a canine-omorphic head, or jointed its hind legs like a real dog’s, or obviously both, then that guy couldn’t have left his house the next day without getting set upon by a mob.
This reminds me of a friend of mine who attended a university in southern Illinois in the early 1970s. He was an anti-draft longhair. In some situation, another guy with very different politics kicked his dog (the other’s guy’s own dog, not my friend’s), and when my friend objected, the guy said, “That didn’t hurt him.” My friend was a martial arts person and kicked the guy – like, really kicked him, as in, the dogshit out of – and said, “Did that hurt?” This turned into a campus-wide issue, my present point being that social support for one side or the other of this incident not only solidified instantly, but also instantly split down the middle independently of the Vietnam issue. Kicking dogs is its own special thing, and that seems like just the ticket. In the case of our too-sensible villain, his ideology’s essentially sound features get drowned out of the situation, or are “revealed” to be flawed somehow, “too extreme,” because how else would someone who espouses them do such a thing.
That’s what we’re looking for, right? To silence the situation’s political content. Now as I understand you young people, that’s good, you think “politics” is stupid, and we should all just focus on dog-kicking. The idea is that if no one ever kicks dogs, then right-and-wrong are completely solved at the ground level, and thus every policy question simply melts away into obvious solutions. Don’t be a dick, mean people suck, all that stuff, and I’ll happily agree it’s perfectly valid as individual ethics.
But when it comes to policy, then bluntly and very rudely-put, that idea is the stupidest thing ever. It’s the finest triumph ever exerted onto a nominally-free populace in history. Two, going on three whole generations of Americans who feel deeply ethically engaged while literally divorcing themselves from the problems of policy – i.e., powerless. It’s especially handy for muzzling popular support for oppressed and even mass-murdered people, because people in that situation are understandably prone to hitting back as hard as they can, and thus can be pilloried as the “mean” ones.
If Magneto kicks a dog, does that mean his militant protest of discrimination is wrong? Why look, that’s most of the 60s and 70s Magneto. If he doesn’t kick a dog, does that mean he should stand down his militant protest as unnecessary? Why look, that’s the post-mid-80s, post-Byrne Claremont Magneto. Distraction complete! Now you can write stories forever, spinning three independent dials:
- not-kicking to full-out kicking
- being angst-ridden about it to vile sadism
- the full range of variations in the dog’s own moral background
The whole discourse gets to be argumentative, nuanced, complex, debated, excited … over nothing.
I’m saying instead, try it without the dog at all. Imagine a Magneto story without any dogs either to kick or, crucially, to refrain from kicking. Now, it necessarily becomes a policy story, about (and possibly targeting) institutions and groups, and if you think Magneto is right or wrong about his issues at that level, then – writer or reader – you have to fucking well own that view under direct challenge. The story engaged with you, and you engaged with it, in a moment of lived history.
I think some of Roy Thomas’ and Neal Adams’ X-Men stories came close to this, with the original Sentinels and Magneto in his Creator guise.
Franz Fanon wrote about the lumpenproletariat becoming transformed from class-war liability into the revolutionary new hope. Marvel Comics occasionally managed to do that: Junk culture cum unmonitored creative outlet cum dissenting appropriation cum widespread discourse.
Or as Kirby said, the same thing: You fellas think of comics in terms of comic books, but you’re wrong. I think you fellas should think of comics in terms of drugs, in terms of war, in terms of journalism, in terms of selling, in terms of business. And if you have a viewpoint on war, or if you have a viewpoint on the economy, I think you can tell it more effectively in comics than you can in words. I think nobody is doing it. Comics is journalism. But now it’s restricted to soap opera.
Comics as dissent. Comics as journalism. Comics which would really show us Magneto’s point and put it out there for consideration. And no one wants that. C’mere, Spot! One, two!
Next (back to the regular schedule): My Doom
Posted on March 24, 2015, in Politics dammit, Storytalk, The great ultravillains and tagged Chris Claremont, Franz Fanon, God Loves Man Kills, idiot ball, Introducing Spot, Jack Kirby, kick the dog, lumpenproletariat, Magneto, moral event horizon, Neal Adams, Roy Thomas, Stan Lee, Vietnam War, villain ball, X-Men 2000 film. Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.
FWIW… i don’t mind when a _standalone miniseries_ take a specific stance on whatever political topic is hot today, but i feel that long-running series, in particular those with multiple writers over time, have no place for such reality. e.g. “V for Vendetta” was a one-shot with a political statement to make. Fine. Conan, X-Men, Batman, and other long-running series need to keep politics of all sorts out of it. One might argue that the introduction of a gay character (as some series have done) addresses a modern market need, and okay, i can agree to not being bothered by that, but generally speaking if a comic even makes a reference to a real-life political scene (e.g. a certain hot-button topic or specific real-life, in-office (or recent) politician), it upsets me to no end by pulling me out of my entertainment media and back into the mud-slinging hotbed of opinion-jockeying which is modern politics. (They can refer to Nixon all they want because he’s long gone, but anyone more recent than Ronald Reagan is off-limits as far as comic-book politics go.)
And yes, whoever kicks the dog is immediately the Villain, regardless of whether he was bathed too hot (or similarly misused) as a child.
I take Ron’s point to be that even if people are really trying to keep politics out, they’ll usually fail, especially in the face of (in this case) understandable supervilian motivations. And the only way they can succeed destroys the integrity/value/point of the whole endeavor. Which seems pretty accurate to me.That he also considers avoiding politics to be in general undesirable is in addition to that point, and I guess it’s more debatable. FWIW, I tend to agree with Ron here. In theory, I could get behind the idea of some works generally avoiding _partisan_ politics, but in a world where the winning move is frequently “make everything about partisan politics,” I don’t see that as productive.
Maybe this is more connected to some future post, but to what degree does the “they get away with it because they’re just comics” effect kick in? Any “Star Trek got away with the first interracial kiss” analogues at this time? I mean, avoiding over-simplification – ST knew what they were doing, and did encounter resistance, so no real “trivialization” intended. Would you characterize anything in the comics as similar? Obviously this post develops a far more sophisticated understanding of the political-awareness in comics, so apologies (and ignore me) if I’m essentially asking for a dumbed-down version of what you’re already writing.
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I think it’s abundantly clear that whatever solid – even startling – political content or context got into American comics during this time, it was for the same reason that utterly terrible shit showed up in them too: no one, but no one, was minding the store. “Getting away with it because they’re just comics” seems to me to be the pervasive situation throughout that whole period. The Code was in fully automatic literalism mode, like all censors become, just scanning for vampire fangs or titties or whatever, but even that’s trivial compared to the general control most paper products were under, by their owners.
I think it’s way, way more true for these kinds of comics than for Star Trek … although not to open a can of worms here, it’s relevant that Star Trek was in its third season for the moment of which you speak, and that season barely managed to exist in the first place, it had no budget or even functioning studio any more, everyone knew the show was never going to be renewed, and for sure, that in two years no one would even remember it existed.
I also want to stress a point I’m trying to make on this blog, that this sort of political content is notably accurate and provocative, too – it’s not merely “ripping from the headlines,” it’s presenting things in ways which weren’t being said in the headlines. I think Kirby really meant it about journalism. I think Lee read news and commentary carefully and was better-informed than most people. I think their work together shows it exponentially better and clearer than either would do with others, or in Kirby’s case, alone. In comparison, the Star Trek moment was a mere stunt. An important and timely stunt, yes, but that’s what it was.
Ron – Makes sense. “Because they’re just comics” is just a contributing factor, and there’s not a lot to say about it – especially compared to all the other factors. I was pretty vague on why/how separating it out might be interesting, anyway.
And Star Trek – stunt, sure, and not only “just SciFi TV”, but failing TV, too.
I liked this one a lot, and not the least because it’s got Magneto in it. (X-Men was always much, much bigger in Finland than e.g. the Fantastic Four or the Avengers, neither of which got their own regular magazine here. Magneto is therefore my culturally mandated favourite Marvel supervillain.) He’s not nearly as political as Doom, generally speaking, and the conceptual range of his ploys is rather narrow (hiring freaks of nature and employing “magnetism”, that’s basically it), but there’s a certain grandeur to a man who just decides to take an arbitrary superpower and, by some ill-defined personal virtue sell himself as a hypervillain. Moses Magnum has everything Magneto has in real terms, but it’s still rather obvious who’s the lesser villain there.
Regarding Markku’s name, it might be easier to write if you think of it as the Latinate “Marcus”, meaning “man of Mars”, often written in English and northern Europe in general as “Mark” (as in, “Mark the Evangelist). So you take “Mark”, add an arbitrary vowel to make it bisyllabic as Finnish all but requires, which gives you “Marku” in this case. Then you double the consonant according to Finnish morphologic to get “Markku”. Point being, it makes no sense to double the ‘r’ because it’s not at a syllable boundary (I mean, good luck with pronouncing “rku” as a syllable), and Finnish doesn’t have double consonants except at syllabic boundary.
Thinking more of Magneto, he always struck me as something of a missed bet in actual literary execution, and the reason was exactly the one you express here: the writing could never go into the actually serious places, and the moral center of any character would always be a secondary fact next to the petty concerns of universal continuity and the soap opera plot to d’jour. In case of Magneto this makes him whiplash between arbitrarily crazy, politically credible and plain mean in a way that disappoints regularly. This overall impression was only confirmed when I read through the entire run of the classic era X-Men a few years back.
Magneto gives a rather grand showing in combat; one of my fond childhood memories regards the story originally published in X-Men #112 (the one with the secret volcano base, where Magneto beats the new X-Men team single-handedly before going for some high-tech bondage just because he could), which perhaps shows Magneto at the height of his character insofar as is possible for the type of comic X-Men was in the 20th century: menacing, dangerous, imperious, a mutant master of his abilities manifesting everything humanity fears, with a violent political agenda clear to himself, but left mercifully vague to the readership. Later attempts at delving deeper are poisoned for me as a reader by the regular whiplash: maybe Magneto reconciles with Xavier for a while, or starts an actual political movement in society, for example, but inevitably it won’t take long for the show wrestling logic to drag him back to cackling supervillainy, making mockery of anything he does in the meantime. I’d love to think of Magneto as e.g. a person who could actually care for the well-being and raising of teenager mutants (even if he has to betray his charges due to political exigency), but that’s made rather difficult by the mood-swings and thoughtless, light way he dons the villain boots whenever a writer feels like it 😀
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I fixed the name spelling.
My first contact with Marvel characters happened on the pages of the Italian translation, that were published in a peculiar time-shifted way that caused some confusion with continuity (these days it would be unthinkable, with so many cross-overs). Daredevil stated much earlier than the Fantastic Four or Avengers, for example, so there were around 25-30 issues more of Daredevil than the FF at any single time (in the USA it was the other way around, so the two series were time-shifted around 4 years between them). So I saw the Vision and Black Panther in a crossover without knowing anything about them, for example.
Some villains benefited from this: for example I saw Doctor Doom for the first time as he appeared in Daredevil, an already established (and mysterious to me) arch-villain. Some others… not.
Magneto was probably the most damaged: his introduction in the X-Men was published very late, much later than his appearances as a rambling buffoon in Thor, and when the X-Men stories appeared, they seemed crude and childish compared to the late 60s stories by Barry Smith or Steranko that were published in other magazines at the same time. His “evil villain in 1963” behaviors were too old-fashioned compared to the evil villain of 1968-1969. He never did seems very menacing to me in these old stories. (the first time he did seems more than a two-bit villain in the stories than I read was in the Roy Thomas stories in Avengers and X-Men, much later)
I get the impression that the writers had no idea about what to do with him, either. They kept changing his power level (in one story he could control minds, in another he had to use a gun to use his powers. And this from the same writer), his speech, his appearance, etc. And his mono-dimensional status was accentuated by the way he was depicted always with is helm (something that Roy Thomas, who probably pass old comics with a magnifying glass to find details to use in his stories, used in the Savage Land stories, showing Magneto for pages and pages without anybody recognizing him – not the reader, not Angel – because nobody has ever seen him without his mask)
So I don’t believe that Stan Lee quote. It smell of after-Claremont ret-con. His Magneto…
1) Had much more accentuated horns in his helmet (see image above)
2) had a “evil” army of “evil” mutants, that he treated…evilly.
3) had an habit of trying to “tempt” other characters to “evil” (Sub-mariner, the Stranger, etc)
I think that the model Stan Lee had in mind for Magneto at the beginning was Satan. And not even the proud Milton-Satan, but the Mephistopheles variety.
And he didn’t really know how to use him as a villain either. He was practically the default adversary in the first dozen X-Men stories, but these issues didn’t sell a lot so Stan Lee got rid of him for years (kidnapped by the Stranger) replacing him with other forgettable menaces as Factor Three. It was Roy Thomas that got him back on Earth and in the Marvel Universe, if I recall well (but I am not sure).
Thomas used him a lot for a while, but it quickly become again a two-bit villain again. Giving him mind-controlling powers seems to me a desperate tentative of making him menacing again (but always in a small-minded way, as when he makes a mind-controlled Scarlet Witch dance for him – years before he was retconned has her father, of course). So they got rid of him, AGAIN, for years, turning him into an infant, until Claremont and Byrne rescued him (in more than one sense) totally changing his characterization (the change was even addressed in-fiction, saying that he was literally “born again” from the infant state, and later, that Dr Taggard had tampered with his mind)
The fact is: I don’t remember ever seeing him depicted as a real, honest “champion of mutantkind” until Claremont. So, Ron, your opinion about him changed in the Claremont years, too, or there were elements even before that make you think of him in that way?
P.S.: did you ever read the three pages written by Alan Moore about Magneto in “Heroes for hope”?
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My interest for this post is more about the concept, in the most general sense of its potential, rather than the specifics of any single writer or period. I latched onto that potential in my childhood reading of the original story in Son of Origin of Marvel Comics, and as it happens, I had no access to the comics containing the various dubious applications you’re talking about. So my impression of the character, as a young reader, was far less archival than yours, but perhaps more in tune with the untapped content than the explicit depictions kept missing.
I’ll save my Claremont Magneto discussion for the relevant post. In the meantime, don’t drop references like that with no link.
Oh man, Heroes for Hope! I had completely forgotten that! Here’s a page from the Moore-Corben sequence:http://x-aspirations.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Heroes4Hope_MooreCorben.jpg … let’s see, a couple panels from one of the other pages: http://www.progressiveruin.com/2008/12/03/okay-heres-a-little-bit-about-heroes-for-hope/ … and that’s all I get from a brief search.
Tying this comment with another one a few days ago about shame of comics… did you know that Marvel had problem in finding a organization willing to receive their donation from “Heroes for Hope”? (at least, according to Shooter). It’s not clear if they objected to the specific comic book or to comics in general, but it was really “dirty money” that they didn’t want (and it was a check for 500.000 dollars, according to wikipedia)
Oh, this time I found the link to Jim Shooter’s post about it:
There are a lot of pages from the story, but sadly none from the three-pages “Magneto’s dream” Moore scripted
But anyway, here’s another entire page, poste by Bendis some months ago:
Hi Ron! Do you read spanish? Here’s the entire sequence… translated in spanish:
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Thanks Moreno! I do read Spanish. I’m amazed I had forgotten about this event entirely. So … back on topic then …
Damn it, I’m late to the discussion because of gainful employment. Setting aside a LOT of geek-talk about Lee/Kirby Magneto vs. Thomas/Buscema Magneto vs. Claremont/Byrne Magneto vs. Claremont/Romita Magneto…
Ron, everything you say here is true, but as you note, the structure of the story conspires against a villainous antagonist. Like Lucy offering up the football for Charlie Brown, the readers are tempted by a villain’s understandable motives until . . . the villain does something truly villainous.
Which, as you point out, muddles any policy discussion, because it reduces the argument to an ad hominem.
You get more freedom with a well-orchestrated hero vs. anti-hero conflict. Looking specifically at Marvel Comics in the 1980’s, I recall many stories in which a street-level hero like Spider-Man or Daredevil had to confront the Punisher. (For anyone who’s not a comics geek, the Punisher originally was a villain, and gradually got cast as more and more of a flawed hero throughout the 1980’s, not coincidentally as America’s crime policies became more and more right-wing.) Other examples would involve Batman versus Superman in Dark Knight Returns.
In these types of stories, typically nobody wins, exactly, but we get an airing of the two perspectives, and even a somewhat charitable reading of the other side.
The problem is that most hero vs. hero conflicts are as contrived as any other aspect of super hero comics–“Uh, we have to fight because it shows us fighting on the cover!” But when it’s done well, and the themes surrounding each character really do make a conflict inevitable, it’s really rewarding.
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Oh, and let me say as a matter of record: there have been a couple attempts at solo Magneto stories, with him as the protagonist, including one being published now (or, sort of now, since my digital reader thing is delayed a couple months).
In my view these are mostly failures, because Magneto Without Dogs isn’t fun to watch: he’s just another hard-hearted realist. Which has (a) been done to death, and (b) ain’t any kind of MAGNETO MASTER OF MAGNETISM.
By 2015 we all know Magneto’s correct on the allegorical issues. We also know he’s extremely powerful, maybe the most powerful dude on the planet. If he’s also not a raging asshole, there goes your drama: he becomes Mary Sue Magneto, who is morally correct, unstoppable, and a cool guy.
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