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.)
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.