Looking for a hero
BONUS POST: Thanks to Larry Lade and his April pledge at the Doctor Xaos Patreon! Lockdown first: I’m restricting this conversation to the first six-issue series Marshal Law (collected as Fear and Loathing), because both further development of the line and fandom have defiled it, frag them. I bought it issue by issue in 1987-1988, delighted and stunned.
“The quintessential dark 80s comic title,” is the superficial and misleading interpretation. I can see why, though. It’s darker and edgier, check; near-porn sex and what’s now clumsily called “not vanilla,” check; satires of popular comics characters to the point of contempt, check; explicit rape scene, check; ruthless, hate-driven hero, check; shock violence, check … That’s all you need to know, right? Bad-ass, kewl, awesome, right?
No. As usual, Marvel, in this case the Epic line, did what DC gets the credit for and did it for real. And by real, I don’t mean “really excessive,” “really bad-ass,” or “really dark, man.” I mean authenticity about something else outside the fiction.
I’ll explain the real deal: way #1, if you’re gonna be dark and edgy, then don’t play at it, do it, and that means diving into the motives and crises of villainy, not heroism; way #2, if you’re gonna write heroism in the face of unspeakable adversity, then do it, and that means real-world problems, not the familiar ones “ripped from the headlines,” but the uncomfortable ones, the ones nice people don’t discuss. And here’s the thing: in hitting both ways absolutely in the center, the story purely and straightforwardly holds forward the Marvel ideal.
One little post isn’t enough; there’s going to have to be a Marshal Law posting series, I think. This time, I want to talk about men and heroes, and what Marvel at its best did with them – both in the 60s heyday of the long-term linear titles (Lee-Kirby, Lee-Ditko) and in my favored period of the weird editor-free rebels, 1971 or so through 1975 (Englehart, McGregor, Starlin, Gerber).
This post is gendered, because I’m talking about men stuff and men heroes. I don’t care whether these “meanings” are extrinsic or intrinsic or how they relate to you personally. Also, as I see it, talking this way isn’t zero-sum – sure enough, various women-oriented or deconstruct-gender posts are coming as well, and nothing about posting this one diminishes those.
So, men and heroes, 1960s Marvel, early 1970s Marvel. Do I mean neurotic, conflicted characters? No, not really. They might be, given the relevant hassles, or they might not. Do I mean a shared-world universe? No, not really. That allows for great free-for-all inspiration, but not much else. I mean understandable human problems exaggerated by the superhero/villain context, or a current political crisis (similarly exaggerated) which forces one to discover a personal morality, or both. The Marvel hero – at least the kind I’m talking about – doesn’t think of himself as a hero (I say “him” because female heroes’ history is its own topic), or is resigned to saying, “well, there isn’t one, but I guess I’m here though” – instead, he thinks of himself as a person, whose primary problem is whether he is a good man. The question is whether this person’s responses and actions – regarding that very problem – are heroic to us, reading the book. The bigger question is what a good man really is or even could be.
Manhood was up for grabs in the 1960s-1970s United States, and it hinged directly on conscription and the Vietnam War. Quite a few men gritted their teeth and endured the vilification it required to declare conscientious objection to the war, considering it more manly to be declared unmanly. Quite a few people (men and women) considered it more manly to resist the draft actively – a prison offense – rather than to accept conscription or to enlist. You might not know that the overt political organization for both C. O. status and direct resistance was led by Vietnam veterans. John Wayne’s role in The Green Berets and its overt pro-Vietnam War position was considered a despicable psyop to lure men to enlist because they feared being called pussies.
The larger professional and social details of manhood shifted every year. Even the look of being an American man underwent its first major transformation since the 1910s.
Pay attention to this part: the modern zero-sum mutual deathgrab between women’s vs. men’s movements, in emotional and life-style terms, did not exist. nstead, the viewpoint was consistent with Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, in which she cites bad faith and ruinous values in both sexes as the shared problem. Specifically, Herb Goldberg’s The Hazards of Being Male was not perceived as an anti-feminist book even as it sharply challenged the idea that male privilege was actually privileged; instead, quite rightly, it was seen as male house-cleaning, necessary not only to keep men from being chauvinist and oppressive, but also for men to discover some way not to go insane under unspoken demands no one can bear.
In the 1980s, American comics writers were mostly comfortably ensconced in the cartoonish themes of Reagan’s election campaigning, now established as the New Normal and reinforced with stunning intensity across every detail of life. Shooter’s Bullpen was a different culture from Thomas’, perhaps a nicer bunch personally, but with less brutal life-experience. It was easy for them and the whole spectrum of American liberalism to decry the low-hanging fruit of Christian fundamentalist intolerance while overlooking and eventually endorsing the entire rollback and re-mythologizing of American exceptionalism, most especially about manhood. Even the original Dirty Harry story, deeply critical of manhood and authority’s claim to virtue, had been retooled and falsely remembered as a celebration of macho vigilantism and its inherent fear of urban life. In 1978, it seemed likely that Robert Crumb’s Whiteman from Zap Comix #1 (1968) had at last been relegated to the past, but in 1985, it had become the experienced reality again, this time entirely devoid of reflection.
However, both American superhero companies’ franchise-embedded, movies-subordinated values conformity was subverted by the arrival of Thatcher-hatin’ Brits, and soon, Irishmen (uh oh), landing feet-first. And by feet-first, I mean, not wedged into ten-page throwaway work in Marvel Spotlight (the 1972 situation), but with great big book titles and shiny new imprints. Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill were already long-time comics partners from 2000 A.D., including Nemesis the Warlock, and utterly fearless. I have the sneaky idea that not a single exec at Marvel or DC really knew what they were getting into, as high-octane political rage coupled with insane talent hadn’t blazed this brightly since Starlin’s Warlock. Mills and O’Neill resurrected the 1970s quest for manhood’s identity with a vengeance.
Before you read the following comics page from issue #6, consider that the Public Spirit had shrugged off the Marshal’s moral accusations and already nailed him psychologically regarding his negative influence on the Spirit’s rapist-murderer son, making the Marshal break down and cry. Yes, you read that right – maybe you forgot about that part. This is the climax of the story, when every plot thread comes together in their fight-dialogue, and Marshal Law got his feelings hurt and bawled like a baby. The Spirit then proceeded to beat the stuffing out of him, calling him a wimp, a fairy fighter, and a faggot. Nor did the Marshal rally behind rage and righteousness like a good 80s hero (baring his teeth, screaming “Lynnnne!”), either, but by owning his feelings. Then he chemically forces the Public Spirit to face the exact same thing.
The Public Spirit’s response, however …
“It’s impossible! No one can be a super man! No one!” In noodling around the internet, I’m seeing this misquoted a lot as “Superman” and “superman,” which completely misses the point. He’s not talking about a comics character, but about real things which comics characters are about. And as I see it, he’s echoing not only Whiteman, but also precisely what Lee, Kirby, and Ditko were writing and illustrating with The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. What was said was, I’ve got yer “super man” right here, because that whole thing is a self-destructive distraction from being a man. Much ink and webspace has been spilled to highlight the differences among these three men, but I think their work held this point, at least, in complete accord.
[Quick note: I’m not talking about Jerry Siegel’s original Superman at all, but what the franchise had become in the intervening decades.]
The question is not who is tougher, but who can find – choose – a moral direction when confronted with his own genuine weaknesses and with the intensity of his own feelings. That was Goldberg’s point, that a super man can never take on that question and thus can never be a real man. Instead, he must “maintain this rigid position, or all is lost!”
Mills and O’Neil lost no time in ramping this exact content about manhood, patriotism, and war into current politics and into the most extreme savagery that the superhero genre had ever seen (here I speak with Trashman in mind). They asked, in Reagan’s America, does this content still work? It does. In doing so, Marshal Law is a complete takedown not of superhero comics overall, but of the specific comics of its own day. Wow, we have Superman back! this comic squints and says, “And?” Wow, we have dark and gritty Batman now! this comics squints and says, “And?” Because they didn’t see a hero. Their story cleanly executes that takedown by upholding the goddamn genre. This isn’t deconstruction of the Marvel superhero: it’s proof of the worthiness of its construction.
Other topics for Marshal Law posting (stay tuned):
- The 80s revisionary narrative regarding Vietnam veterans, in tandem with the Reagan administration’s involvement with the Sandinistas in El Salvador and the contras in Nicaragua
- Rape as crime, rape as story device, rape-revenge as story cycle (and for whom), and rape as marketable spectacle in 1980s comics
- Villainy: institutional, origins thereof, psychological, thematic, and plot-relevant
- Women as heroes, women as objects, women with agency, women as humans right or wrong
Others saw the qualities I’m talking about, for instance in the Champions game run by Ken Wood, including Mike and Tim, chronicled in The Clobberin’ Times. Their supergroup was called The Firm, effectively a bunch of sociopaths who were willy-nilly turned into sympathetic protagonists because their federal agency employers were so much more dreadful. I’m still diggin’ up those old issues from my stored stuff, so you can look forward to a more detailed post about them some day.
The most under-rated book in comics, Work shy fop, One Marshal Law book is really my limit
Next: The river
Posted on April 14, 2015, in Clobberin' callback, Heroics, Politics dammit, The 80s me and tagged Champions RPG, contras, Herb Goldberg, Jerry SIegel, John Wayne, Ken Wood, Kevin O'Neill, Margaret Thatcher, Marshal Law, Marvel Epic, Mike O'Connell, Pat Mills, Public Spirit, Robert Crumb, Sandinistas, Simone de Beauvoir, super man, Superman, The Clobberin' Times, The Firm, The Green Berets, The Hazards of Being Male, The Second Sex, Tim Watts, Whiteman, Zap Comix. Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.
Ron, I think you’ve found an interesting lens. Historically, the issue has certainly been gendered, though I’m not sure that’s a logical inevitability. A few additional points:
Maybe the best expression of Whiteman in Marvel’s earliest days was the original run of The Incredible Hulk: “Is He Man or Monster–or is he BOTH?!?” You’ve got Bruce Banner, alpha-dog nerd at a time when being a physicist bomb-maker was considered a pretty glamorous and impressive career path–Science, Militarism, Progress, and Apple Pie were all in bed together. And when Banner realizes that his bomb will kill children, he discovers that by being the man society asked him to be, he had in fact become a monster. (I have no idea if anyone in 1962 was denouncing Hiroshima as a war crime, but boy, that had to be a major influence on this origin story.) There’s a particularly chilling sequence in Incredible Hulk #1 where it’s pretty strongly implied that the Hulk attempts to rape Betty. And of course he’s opposed by the superego father figure Thunderbolt Ross, whose name recalls Zeus and the summit of power. Banner, and sometimes Rick Jones, are constantly running around in defiance of the U.S. Army and basically civilization itself.
Equally: in 1964-65, when Captain America is revived for the Silver Age, the dude is plainly, unambiguously bonkers. He’s an emotional wreck, he has hallucinations, he’s got some sick Vertigo-style obsession with Rick Jones. and at is best delivers these joyless, bullying speeches that feel weirdly out of place. And nobody in-fiction notices how unhinged he is, except Rick. The concept of society’s greatest hero, whose cries for help can’t be heard over the applause, is a great one, though obviously you can’t do that forever.
On the matter of substance:
I think much of this comes down, not to the fictional character, but to his or her fictional context–just like with real people. It’s easy to be a good person when you’re not under stress and everything is going well: this is the case for Superman in 1962 Metropolis. It’s a totally different matter to be a good person (or figure out what “good” even means) in 1974 New York City. As you noted, even Superman was a hellraiser during the pre-war years. I think most of the “deconstruction” of the super hero during the 1980’s was likewise a recognition that the real world was a lot different, and much more horrifying, than anything seen in super hero comics, and “heroism” was pretty hard to define.
With that said, I think it’s beyond question that Watchmen positions Dreiberg (and maybe Juspeczyk) as genuinely good, and yet also the most classically super-hero-ish, or rather, the least willing to let the changing social context radically alter their ideals. Likewise, in Dark Knight Returns, Wayne puts the cape back on because he realizes the city’s distress despite years of repression; eventually stomps Superman’s utopian promises by channeling Gotham City’s misery; and, after that catharsis, is actually able to move forward with his life and grow as a person.
But I definitely want to read Marshall Law now.
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You nailed it re: the Hulk and Cap! What you wrote is the primo, absolutely necessary starting point for any understanding of their further political development (? not right word … usage? representation?).
Lots more about Watchmen & Dark Knight will come later., and I don’t want to go into my thoughts on them now. As a teaser, I think that both are highly compromised and incoherent works compared to Marshal Law.
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I just read Ron’s reply about postponing talks about Watchmen, so this will be like a signpost, saying “i want to talk about this when the time is right), but i think that the only real Superhero that Moore depicts in Watchmen, the only one who acts, thinks, live and look like a superhero, is Ozymandas.
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Wow, I LOVED these Marshall Law comics in the ’80s, and it’s a crime that they were practically forgotten in a lot of “histories” of American comics in the 80s. (like a lot of other Epic series)
The Firm was hysterical. All our characters were very phallic. Monument. Ramrod. We were too young to properly understand that we were participating in satire. Good times.
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Are you suuuurre? I recall one of the comics you and Tim did from the game, or inspired by it … remember the department store owner proclaiming his entitlement as a real American, as evidenced by his enforced drug-testing for every counter-girl? There was a lot of evident satire of that kind in there, as I recall.
“I bought it issue by issue in 1987-1988, delighted and stunned.” That was pretty much my reaction as well. I was at once fascinated and repelled by the nature of the story. I recall viewing the protagonist and the narrative somewhat differently from you, but it’s been at *least* twenty years since I read those comics so my memory could easily be playing tricks on me. 😉
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