The true stalwart

countgeigerThis one’s about more prose versions of superheroes, specifically Michael Bishop’s novel, Count Geiger’s Blues.

It features one Xavier Thaxton, highbrow arts guy at the newspaper, who wouldn’t use a comic to wrap fish in let alone read one, but who (you can see this coming) gets super powers. Through a series of plot moments he becomes identified as a fictional superhero named Count Geiger and takes on that role for real. In the novel, such characters are called, after the in-setting comics title, “stalwarts.” Although Bishop’s writing, partly due to Xavier’s point of view, implies that comics standards and culture are nigh-bizarre and occasionally contemptible, the discerning reader will note that his stalwarts, i.e., the fictional comics characters within the novel, are mighty familiar-looking, as if the writer were, you know, really familiar with them.

Xavier’s concept is pretty tightly done, more so than most comics heroes. He turns out to have a Need, which must be fed to keep himself healthy – maximum infusions of junk food and junk culture. So not only does he embody the kind of pop superficiality he so hates, but he has to experience it. With a bit of help from his slacker nephew (who introduces him to the awesomely-named band Smite Them Hip and Thigh) and bemused girlfriend (whose fashion designs cross the junk/highbrow culture line), he even manages to embrace his new life. For a while, it’s an exhilarating high for everyone as Count Geiger turns out to be a damn good real-life stalwart. He muses over his situation often, turning the corner with this bit:

Much of a stalwart’s effectiveness, Xavier reasoned, came from the reputation – maybe even the celebrity – of that character. The angel one knows is a more accessible public resource than is an anonymous angel with no known home address and no verifiable track record as a crime fighter. The problem here, Xavier reasoned, was finding a way to trumpet Count Geiger’s achievements and potential without (1) turning him into a gaudy media freakshow and (2) wholly disrupting his own private life as Xavier Thaxton.

This is the money-shot paragraph of the book, just past halfway through. Although the in-fiction reputation or celebrity of a character may not be the single most defining feature of a superhero character, it’s extremely important, and if you get a tad meta and think of the in-fiction version to be a reflection or assumption based on the public/consumer appreciation, it’s indeed crucial. This is a statement not merely about a superhero’s fictional situation, but about the superhero medium as experienced by its real-life commercial production. The fictional character cannot be effective unless the non-fictional audience is willing to see him or her as effective, and wants to do so as an ongoing reading experience.

To get a little gaudy about it, I’ll go so far as to say that Xavier is struggling to preserve his role as Count Geiger from being trash even though it is indubitably born from trash.

Despite its stunning accuracy, there’s also a glaring problem with it: it’s finishing where we came in. That’s not a climactic insight, it’s a given. The question is what do you do with it? Superman elides or transcends the problem depending on your point of view, whereas Spider-Man grapples directly with it (see Who I am). I get that Xavier is figuring it out for the first time – the quintessential case of the snob who discovers the value in what he thought was tinsel – but for the whole point of the book to be that the reader is to “see it” for the first time … I confess I’m sitting here and replying, “Is that all you’ve got? I coulda handed you Spider-Man #90-100 a while ago.”

As for what happens story-wise, both his success as a stalwart and Xavier himself unfortunately deteriorate. He accomplishes one or two more things, gets into a complex situation with victims of the same radiation that gave him his powers, and the story unravels. It doesn’t manage to bring in anything else which either trashifies or validates superheroics – no villain, in the first place, and no context for his activities beyond the unfortunate reliance on coincidence that by the 1980s had become entirely ridiculous. In all this, it’s hard to tell whether Xavier’s a protagonist or a foil for his nephew.

I have never been satisfied by a prose version of superheroics (close: see Aces high; for supervillainy, yes, rarely, see Right there in the title), but I don’t think it has anything to do with the medium as such. The classic view tells us that comics are kid stuff which rely on distracting visual spectacle and toy tie-ins, and their content wouldn’t stand up two seconds if it were played straight in prose form. Which is nothing more than the bullshit leveled at movies, or any other medium before it outlives a given generation.

Prose superheroes badly tend toward being about themselves as idiom rather than being effective at the idiom, and by “effective” I do not mean “faithful” or “makes comics fans squee.” Count Geiger’s Blues is good at explaining it to you and good at showcasing the tension between “the world as we know it” and the world a superhero needs to be in. However, as a story it struggles between discoursing about its subject, so that neither one winds up all that coherent.

I’m still waiting for the one that gets it.

Next: What was the question again?

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on January 17, 2016, in Heroics, Storytalk and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. “Prose superheroes badly tend toward being about themselves as idiom rather than being effective at the idiom.”

    What’s so weird about that is that, as everyone knows, comic book super heroes lie at the intersection of Pulp Detective + Sci-Fi/Eerie Mysticism. We’ve been doing that in written fiction since Doc Savage, at least; I think the Shadow was originally written, too, before becoming highly successful radio plays.

    Comic book super heroes as we know them today rely on conventions born out of the historical period of the 1930’s. Organized crime is a very real and serious threat to good government (and thus good police work), such that a vigilante is a useful guy to have around but it’s best if nobody knows who he is. The damsel in distress, threatened by the mind-boggling dangers of Black Magic or Lectroids from the Eighth Dimension, and this damsel eventually gets enough screen time that part of the comic is devoted to ‘shipping. There may (or may not) be a kid sidekick as a tool to appeal to very young readers. There’s a colorful costume, based on that of the circus strongman (in an age where there are no longer circuses or strongmen, so the metaphor gets lost), that partly captures comics’ ability to vividly depict an idealized human form.

    My first problem with all of this is that reconstructing this stuff from first principles alone–like cooking strictly from a recipe–is not a very satisfying experience. (I like Alan Moore, I like Chris Sprouse, but while I very much wanted to love “Tom Strong” it felt too much like a formula exercise.)

    My second problem with all of this is a variation on the political content that’s been on this blog already. If written for adult readers, being a “super hero” presumably should entail more engagement with the world than punching out time-displaced Nazi’s and saving damsels. Reed Richards, for example, should cure cancer at the very least. God knows what political commitments Thor, or Nick Fury, or Wonder Woman, or whoever else, may have.

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    • I’m not surprised that roughly in 1983-85, when the U.S. culture and body politic re-adopted the useful notion that “gangs of savages roam our streets,” that’s precisely when “comics finally grow up!!” became the rallying cry of comics marketing and fandom. To your list of punching out time-displaced Nazis and saving damsels, add “maiming muggers.” I hope to dissect this further down the course of my series of posts with Steve.

      Re: your final paragraph, my thought for a long time is that well-done versions of Namor, Doom, and T’Challa – all in full political force re: their respective high-tech nations – simply demand that the U.N. Security Council be composed of fully-rotating seats, i.e., no permanent members and specifically no vetos. When the U.S. objects then you see the historical Third Way of the early 1960s get some headway at last … very visibly.

      I also need to review just when it was, meaning when it appeared explicitly in the comics, that the Avengers became part of the national security apparatus. Surely Shooter’s Gyrich was not the first mention …?

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      • Ahhhh, the 1980’s comic book NYC mugger. As a kid at the time, I just assumed everyone in New York got mugged, like, once a year.

        God damn but that’s a lazy device. So: what you want to do in the very early pages of your comic is establish via a nifty action sequence (1) who your main character is, (2) show that he (rarely she) has super human fighting abilities, (3) which he uses to protect innocent folks [from Those People but let’s be nice]. So, yeah: tons of muggings, typically in between the super hero moping about his personal problems. In the 1970’s Spider-Man foils a bank robbery every other issue; in the 1980’s is muggings, and yeah there’s a social reason for it.

        But for goodness sake, I don’t know, how about a really bad traffic accident on the West Side Highway with explosive materials? Or someone accidentally takes the wrong medication and has a seizure? Or . . . I dunno.

        “my thought for a long time is that well-done versions of Namor, Doom, and T’Challa – all in full political force re: their respective high-tech nations”

        These guys are fucking weird. I mean, really really weird.

        So, one of the major tropes in the Pulp Detective genre is that the city isn’t just a city but The City, right? No Marlowe without Los Angeles, etc. Same deal with super heroes. The City is basically post-Bronze Age political structure, post-Industrial Revolution technology, and it represents status quo “civilization.” A kind of dream logic is operating here.

        Then you get Atlantis, Latveria, and Wakanda, set up not as legitimate nations in their own right, but as counter-points / foils / commentaries on The City. Which is why Namor invades New York all the goddamn time instead of, say, Washington, Philadelphia, or Boston.

        “simply demand that the U.N. Security Council be composed of fully-rotating seats, i.e., no permanent members and specifically no vetos. When the U.S. objects”

        I’m pretty sure the U.S. would have four fellow objectors.

        As to the Avengers reference: somewhere in the 320’s (maybe 1990 or so) the Avengers are explicitly set up as a U.N. thing, but I agree there had to be an earlier precedent, though I can’t remember if Gyrich was U.N. or United States–his insistence on the Falcon as an affirmative action hire makes it seem like that would have been a U.S. thing.

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        • My recollection is that the late 70s or early 80s Gyrich was hard-core U.S. national security all the way.

          But back to the point of the post, and how this whole “gangs o’muggers” thing applies: it’s one of the least strong moments of Count Geiger’s Blues when Xavier takes down a gang of muggers in a subway (the train platform, not the sandwich placer). The story’s nice if light realistic location in the fictional city of Salonika in the fictional U.S. southern state of Oconee suddenly becomes Golan Globus from Hell as black thugs appear from the shadows as if from the pages of Shadowrun. I guess I’d merely be putting in the same old tape to go on about how superheroes work when the corresponding villains are independently present and significant. That’s what the book genuinely needs.

          This said in full knowledge that people get mugged, or more thoroughly stated, terrified, humiliated, abused, robbed, and beaten.

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  2. Ah, I misread you: I thought you were talking about the Avengers as having some kind of UN clearance.

    You’re right that Gyrich is NSC, and takes the security clearance away in Avengers #168 (early in the Korvac Saga) and restores it in #181.

    The question then becomes, “When did the Avengers get it the first time?” The answer appears to be, “Sometime around 1965 in real time.” Because MY MAN RICK JONES has an Avengers ID card and is like, “Dudes, I’m with the Avengers, I demand to speak to LBJ in order to save the Hulk’s life.” And everyone acts like, “Yeah, I mean, kid’s card says he’s an Avenger, of course he can see the President.”

    (Awesomely, this is the same month that Rick has quit the Avengers because Captain America is a dickface, meaning that his Avengers card probably should have been revoked.)

    (I really wish they had kept this version of Rick Jones: harebrained mega-ballsy juvenile delinquent caught up in a game of gods, time-travelers, and military intelligence. Do you remember the climax of the movie “E.T.,” where a bunch of SoCal teenagers stay just barely one step ahead of The Man? THAT should have been Rick Jones’s life, instead of whatever the hell Roy Thomas did to him. But I digress.)

    Anyway, special government privileges are clearly in effect circa 1965, and revoked in 1978. Whether those privileges were lost and regained in the meantime, I don’t know.

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  3. Aside: Ron have you read this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soon_I_Will_Be_Invincible

    It was mentioned on the comments on one of your earlier posts, “Right there in the title.” Just curious.

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