Variety magazine recently announced the next project by former Marvel supremo Stan Lee: a cable TV drama about the travails of a gay superhero. As yet untitled, the hour-long programme is based on the novel Hero by Perry Moore, in which a novice crime fighter must contend with parental expectations, serial killers and his own sexual identity. Bearing in mind Lee’s previous efforts include the hypnotically awful reality show Who Wants to Be a Superhero?, expectations are no doubt high.
Homosexuality as a comic book plot device is hardly new, of course. Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, published in 2000, incorporated gay themes and symbolism, and, in September 2002, DC’s Green Lantern series swapped the familiar space opera for unrequited lust and a case of earthbound queer bashing. Given the superhero’s universe has always been populated by dashing young men with improbable physiques and vacuum-tight costumes, one might consider such storylines a little overdue. What seems surprising isn’t the exploration of homosexuality as a prominent narrative, but the fact that such stories took so long to surface in a mainstream comic. Although comic book creators have on the whole remained silent on the subject, the fetishisticsymbolism of the costumed hero has long been registered elsewhere.
In 1954, New York psychiatrist Dr Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, an apocalyptic assertion that comic books were morally corrosive to impressionable young minds and the primary cause of juvenile delinquency. Hysterical in tone and often bizarre, the book claimed comic publishers were using the medium to teach children how to steal, enabling them to buy more comics. Wertham famously suggested that Batman and Robin were obviously having a homosexual relationship and were therefore in need of “readjustment therapy”. Wertham also developed elaborate theories regarding Wonder Woman and her equally obvious leanings toward bondage and lesbianism. At the time, few people thought to comment on the good doctor’s apparent conviction that comic book heroes were somehow not only real, but also having paranormal sex lives beyond the printed page.
Zack Snyder recently announced that he’ll “feel he’s done his job” if his forthcoming film adaptation is a “three-hour advertisement” for the Watchmen graphic novel. While few will doubt Snyder’s visual fidelity, demonstrated in the first trailer, cinema-goers may be hoping for more than just a nine-figure advert, or a moving imitation of an “unfilmable” comic book. However, it seems Snyder has already done one part of his job months before the film is released, with the New York Timesreporting:
The film trailer for Watchmen is proving to be a considerable boost to sales of the graphic novel the movie is based on. “As far as we can tell from our conversations with the book industry people, there has never been a trailer that did this,” said Paul Levitz, the president and publisher of DC Comics, which has printed 900,000 additional paperback copies of the novel since the trailer began running in mid-July. The book, about a conspiracy to discredit and murder a group of superheroes, was written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, and has been on the best-seller lists of Amazon.com, USA Today and The Washington Post. Mr. Levitz said Watchmen would have a print run of more than a million copies this year. Last year it sold about 100,000.
Moore is famously disenchanted with Hollywood adaptations of his comics, and not without cause, but he now has about a million reasons not to mind too much.
I wasn’t going to comment on Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which I saw over the weekend, but the level of cooing and gushing among reviewers has been so extraordinary a note of dissent seems in order. Having been led to expect a work of profound genius and “one of the year’s most haunting cinematic experiences,” I was puzzled to find a serviceable popcorn movie, albeit one with pretensions and a serious lack of focus. There are, of course, some great set pieces, most notably one involving cables, improbable physics and a somersaulting truck. And the scene with Heath Ledger’s Joker dressed as a nurse is, for several seconds, positively surreal. In fact, taken individually, there are plenty of fine components. But the overall impression is of Nolan shovelling in as many plots and themes as possible in the hope that some of them would resonate, by chance, apparently.
There’s the rise of Gotham’s shining prosecutor, Harvey Dent, whose subsequent moral corruption and reinvention as Two-Face is erratic and unbelievable even on its own terms, based as it is on the demise of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s underwritten love interest (about whom we scarcely care) and the implausible misplacing of blame. There are several subplots involving the mob’s money, ferryboats and bombs, high-tech surveillance, copycat vigilantes and the attempted blackmail of Bruce Wayne, though none of these asides amounts to very much. A third deranged villain, the Scarecrow, makes a brief appearance for no discernible reason, and then inexplicably vanishes from the plot. There are some nods to contemporary terrorism, rendition and torture, and the age-old question of how to fight evil without becoming a monster. But a refusal to follow through with most of these ideas leads to a glib ambiguity. Nolan seems determined to have it all ways, while committing to none in particular. Batman is supposedly a creature of great purpose, but his moral logic is often unclear and confused, as when he’s repeatedly told that by “provoking” terrorists he’s responsible for the deaths of innocents – a lie which he apparently believes. Thus, for much of the film, we have something close to a Guardian-reading Batman, which is hardly the stuff of heroism, or indeed gripping cinema.
That said, The Dark Knight is nothing if not busy, though it’s not always clear why. Even the repetitive fight scenes are framed so tightly and cut so quickly it’s difficult to tell who’s doing what to whom. There’s just lots of stuff… happening. And, after the first ninety minutes or so, the whole thing begins to lose focus badly and buckle under the weight of undeveloped ideas. With so much to plough through, there’s little room to establish the assumed poignancy on which the final act depends, which leaves the closing scenes oddly flat and undramatic. At the screening I attended, the last hour took its toll and glancing furtively at watches became an audience pastime. In an attempt to overwhelm the audience with sheer volume of characters and material (and a two-and-a-half-hour running time), Nolan fumbles the final payoff. Several reviewers have hailed the film as “primeval and exhilarating,” “the most intelligent blockbuster movie ever made,” and a dark epic that “leaves you wanting more.” But, for me, great films are the ones I want to see again. And I don’t want to see The Dark Knight again.
See Iron Man instead. Seriously. It’s funnier, better paced, and, mercifully, much shorter.
Zack Snyder’s forthcoming film adaptation of the graphic novel Watchmen is, by any measure, a long shot. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ comic book yarn remains one of the most densely plotted and satisfying examples of the form. The book is artful in its telling, at times ingenious, and rewards repeated reading. And this, for Synder, is part of the problem. The pleasures of Watchmen are very much about how the story is told, i.e., as a comic. The plot often hinges on tiny visual details; graffiti, partly-obscured adverts, a pocketful of sugar cubes – all of which become significant as the story unfolds. Skipping back and forth through the pages and revisiting these details is hard to avoid, and indeed is intended. How this might translate to film isn’t clear.
Moore described the book as “unfilmable,” not least because of its narrative structure, with flashbacks, supplementary “research” and a comic-within-a-comic that serves to counterpoint events. In an interview with Amazon, Moore recounted his reaction to Terry Gilliam’s abortive 1989 attempt to turn “the War and Peace of graphic novels” into a film: “I had to tell [Gilliam] that I didn’t think it was filmable. I didn’t design it to show off the similarities between cinema and comics, which there are, but in my opinion are fairly unremarkable. It was designed to show off the things that comics could do that literature and cinema couldn’t.” In The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, David Hughes quotes Gibbons making much the same point: “With a comic book the reader can back-track; you can reach page twenty and say, ‘Hey, that’s what that was all about on page three,’ and then nip back and have a look. We wanted to take advantage of that difference… We wanted to make a comic book that read as a straightforward story, but gradually you became aware that it had a symmetrical structure.”
Those unfamiliar with the comic’s plot can find a summary here. Essentially, Watchmen is a detective story set in an alternative 1980s in which Woodward and Bernstein were assassinated and Nixon is still president. The comic’s twelve chapters mark a countdown to armageddon as one by one a group of retired and questionable heroes are eliminated and the world teeters on the brink of thermonuclear war. Investigating the death of a former masked colleague, a disheveled vigilante named Rorschach uncovers a plot of unspeakable proportions and uncertain intent. The looming showdown of military superpowers could in theory be prevented by the one character with super-powers of his own, the casually miraculous Dr Manhattan. Freakishly disembodied by a laboratory mishap, Manhattan is, quite literally, a self-resurrected man. All but omnipotent, this blue transfigured being is assumed to be America’s deliverance and the ultimate deterrent. However, the doctor’s godlike perceptions are proving incompatible with human imperatives: “A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there’s no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?”
Via a reader, JuliaM, here’s a footnote to yesterday’s adventure with Amanda Marcotte and the Hysterical Sisterhood. Faced with the aforementioned disapproval, Ms Marcotte’s publishers, Seal Press, distinguish themselves with this:
We do not believe it is appropriate for a book about feminism, albeit a book of humor, to have any images or illustrations that are offensive to anyone… As an organisation, we need to look seriously at the effects of white privilege. We will be looking for anti-racist trainings [sic] offered here in the Bay Area.
In the meantime, please know that all involved in the publishing of It’s a Jungle Out There, from editorial to production were not trying to send a message to anyone about our feelings regarding race. If taken seriously as a representation of our intentions, these images are also not very feminist. By putting the big blonde in the skimpy bathing suit with the big breasts, the tiny waist, and the weapon on our cover, we are also not asserting that she is any kind of standard that anyone should aspire to. This 1950s Marvel comic is not an accurate reflection of our beauty standards, our beliefs regarding one’s right to bear arms, nor our perspectives on race relations, foreign policy, or environmental policy.
Beauty standards, gun laws, race relations, foreign policy, the environment… Heavens. That covers everything, surely?
Please note that, upon reflection, we realise that the second to the last paragraph of this post doesn’t do a good job of conveying our intended meaning… We apologise that this paragraph undermines our apology. We acknowledge that the images are racist and not okay under any circumstances. We are wholeheartedly sincere in our apology, and the actions we’ve laid out above will be acted upon immediately.
As I mentioned in the comments yesterday, there’s a farcical through-the-looking-glass quality to outpourings of this kind. But it strikes me as more than just absurdity. It’s disabling too, and more than a little malign. One of the surest ways to erode a person’s probity is to make them repeat in public, among their peers, things that are unrealistic and absurd; things they know, or suspect, to be untrue. The more incoherent and ridiculous the claim - or apology - and the greater the mismatch with reality, the larger the effect. Bad medicine.
The mighty Cath Elliott, a Guardian regular whose devotion to identity politics and hand-wringing has previously entertained us, now turns her attention to matters of a more mundane kind, with a piece titled, How Do You Keep a Sock on a Dog? Sadly, this rambling and incongruous article about a pet’s plastic surgical collar offers precious little scope for Ms Elliott’s usual agonising, though, of course, the urge hasn’t entirely been frustrated.
I’m feeling guilty because it seems so cruel making him wear it.
Thankfully, others take their guilt very seriously indeed and reach almost operatic levels of indignation and remorse. Among them is Amanda Marcotte, whose Pandagon website provides a safe and hegemony-free environment in which devotees can rend their garments and gnaw at their own wrists. The latest drama, discovered via Protein Wisdom, concerns the inadvertently scandalous imagery chosen to illustrate Ms Marcotte’s new book, It’s a Jungle Out There: the Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments. The illustrationsinquestion, which parody 1950s comic books - themselves very often parodies - have injured feelings on a truly devastating scale:
I feel so nauseous and sleepless about this whole thing that I felt the need to weigh in as well.
In the history of this country, there has always been one broad and well-lit path for oppressed classes of people to “better themselves” — side with the oppressors against someone else. That is exactly what these images are depicting: women gaining power through helping men against savage, violent brown people.
There ensues a long and emotionally fraught debate about whether to withdraw the offending publication, or boycott it, or reprint the book denuded of its connotations of “white privilege”.
I’m not going to pretend any of this is easy. Of course it’s hard to figure out what to say when you are under attack, when you feel defensive, when you feel like throwing up your hands and saying “Fuck it.”
However, while much of the feminist blogosphere still trembles with shock and umbrage, the greatest expression of feeling is found at Ms Marcotte’s own site, where the suitably chastened host offers an apology.
I can understand why anyone would choose to boycott a book with these images, and I respect that choice. Hopefully, once they are removed, people will reconsider supporting the book if they like the content. I, for one, will be ripping the pages out of my copy but keeping them as a reminder to be alert.
Not to be outdone, hundreds of Pandagon readers begin a chorus of wailing and righteous theorising.
Like I said in the thread at Feministe, that’s not a kitschy and ironic use of racist imagery. If that were actually the point, the purpose of the images, OMG, that would NOT make it okay. The use of images of scary black native men to convey a sense of danger is a blatantly RACIST use of racist imagery, wherein the racist message is the point. Offensive. Very, very offensive.
It isn’t long before a phantom subtext is discovered, and combed over in great detail.
Although one can still make the argument that using colonialism/expansionism as the underpinning for a metaphor to describe the ‘battles’ of feminism is inherently problematic. But racistly depicted indigenous peoples? This clearly crosses the line. It suggests that what feminists need to conquer is dark people.
I really, really didn’t see the racism ‘til it was pointed out to me. THEN I saw it, oh boy did I see it! And I was so ashamed of my blindness.
And, a personal favourite,
White privilege is deeply rooted. It takes concerted effort to sensitise oneself (if one is white, that is) to recognise it, both in oneself and in the world around one. Hell, my husband and son are Asian, and sometimes I forget they’re not white like me.
If you’ve a stomach for high drama and competitive pseudo-grief, the Pandagon comments may entertain as a kind of identity politics pantomime. There is, I think, something quite compelling about watching people elevate paranoidself-loathing to the level of both piety and art form. A more realistic, and quite funny, discussion can be found at Protein Wisdom.