Sunday, July 21, 2013

My last post on Superior. I promise.

Mark Millar tends to write a lot about political issues, and even includes actual, real-life politicians within his comics (President George W. Bush and members of his cabinet appeared in both The Ultimates and Civil War, for example, President Barack Obama appears in Superior), and war often plays a big role in those comics. But, based on the comics he writes, I have a hard time discerning what sorts of politics Millar himself might hold, aside from being very pro-Millar and very pro-capitalism, particularly in that it can help enrich Millar.

Take Civil War, for example, which was discussed and even, to some extent, sold as a timely dramatization of the post-9/11 security vs. liberty debate as seen through the lens of Iron Man and Captain America punching each other.

Millar cast the security side of the debate as the bad guys, clearly aligned with the Bush administration, the first issue ending with a scene of a trio of Marvel's science dickheads—Iron Man, Hank Pym and Mr. Fantastic (who had just recently been outted in someone else's dumb comic as pro-Joe McCarthy)—promising to capture Captain America and force him and all the other recalcitrant superheroes to sacrifice their liberty in the name of security. They immediately start abusing the constitution, killing someone for resisting an unlawful arrest and even building a superhero version of Guantanamo Bay to indefinitely defer the likes of lawyer-by-day, superhero-by-night Daredevil.

So they're the bad guys, right? But in the last issue, the heroes of 9/11—a sort of Village People version of first responders—tackle Captain America and make him realize that he's the real villain, so he gives up, and Iron Man makes a smug speech about how extra-constitutional power is okay in this instance, because he's a smart guy who will do the right thing with it, so no one should worry.

In the security vs. liberty debate the book was supposedly about, all I could definitely tell about Millar was that he was in favor of Captain America surfing on jet fighters, Goliath getting killed by a robot clone monster and selling as many comics as possible by weird, random, almost-immediately reversed stunt plot points like Peter Parker revealing his secret identity to the world and the dead-from-cancer Captain Marvel appearing out of nowhere all of a sudden for some reason.

The politics of Superior aren't very clear, either, although it's not as concerned with politics as Civil War or any of Millar's Ultimates works have been.

There's just this one scene that sort of sticks out, like a rough edge from an early draft Millar forgot to smoothe out.

Superior, the Superman-analogue who was once a 12-year-old boy with multiple sclerosis named Simon who wished himself into Superman when a little talking monkey in a astronaut's uniform appeared and offered to grant him any wish, is talking to Chris, his only confidant:
Simon's mom was always praying that "America would get fixed again too." Simon/Superior thinks perhaps America really "needed" a superhero at that moment in time.

It's weird because those statements aren't really based on anything we see within the context of what has come before, nor are they really touched on later in the story, after he tells Chris he wants to start doing more to really change people's lives for the better.

Now, at almost any point in American history it's easy to imagine a person, especially a grown-up adult, saying that America needs to be put back like it used to be. It's an essentially conservative position, just by definition of the word conservative, but Simon/Superior never elaborates on what his mom thinks specifically needs fixed again: The economy? The war? Eroding social services and the safety net they provide for the poor? The loss of civil liberties to President Bush and Iron Man? Too much liberties for gays? Too easy access to birth control and abortions? A black guy being president?

No clue.

Prior to that statement, the only things Superior really does to help America are prevent accidents, usually in rather dramatic fashion—he catches a falling space station, he stops a speeding train with his bare hands (although it woulda been easier to just move the dude off the tracks before the train could hit him), he drags a lost Russian submarine to land, he carried off a nuclear power plant reactor as it was melting down, he threatened the bullies that picked on him and Chris and, we're told, he prevented every single accident and crime in New York City for three years.

Perhaps that was what was wrong with America, in his mom's view? Too many accidents and urban crime...?

After Superior meets with Obama to talk to him "about winning the war in Afghanistan," Superior goes ahead and does it solo in a single night's work (one suspects Millar doesn't have the greatest grasp of what the "war" in "Afghanistan" actually entails; here it is basically just a bunch of easily identifiable by X-Ray and telescopic vision Taliban members who can be easily captured and arrested by a Superman). The rest of his super-deeds take place in a two-page montage, in which he helps other countries, like preventing a earth quake in China and a flood of the coast of Australia, and brings "more food and volunteers in a single afternoon than citizens expected to meet in a lifetime..."

So perhaps that was what was needed in America? America needed to be the world's policeman, the world's fireman, the world's aid worker, but it needed to do so infinitely better than it had been doing...?

I don't know. I don't suspect Millar does either. It was just a few errant lines of dialogue setting up a tease about the nature of Ormon. But it's a strange reference that asks a question and then never provides an answer.


Dean said...

I kind of want to see a Science Dickheads title from Marvel now.

Anonymous said...

I think you are spending more time thinking about Millar comics than Millar himself does. The man ain't Alan Moore. He's not layering in deep philosophical content or making complex statements about the human condition. He's making punchy "edgey" pop comics with no actual meaning or depth. He's comic's Michael Bay, not that there isn't room for that in the industry but trying to find deeper meaning in his works is a pointless exercise.

Marc said...

I could not disagree more with the above comment that "trying to find deeper meaning in [Millar's] works is a pointless exercise." Comics (like films, novels, etc.) transcode the discourses of social life into narratives, and those narratives in turn play a major role in constructing social reality. Neither the author's intentions nor the perceived "quality" of the work play a direct role in this process.

To use a very basic example, public anxieties over the "War on Terror" might lead a writer to craft a representation of the war in a comic book; that representation, in combination with those constructed in other narratives across various media, in turn shapes the reality of how the war is understood and therefore addressed. Zero Dark Thirty, for example, is a film that not only reflects America's fascination with the death of Osama bin Laden, but also reconstructs history in such a way as to condone the continued use of torture and Guantanomo-style imprisonment without trial.

It is important for us to try to understand the arguments at the heart of mass entertainment narratives, perhaps especially so when those arguments seem to be unclear even to their authors. In other words, unless we aspire to fall victim to the same ignorance and prejudices as the Mark Millars and Michael Bays of this world, we would do well to look closely at the arguments their works make not just explicitly, but implicitly and subliminally as well. To overlook works like these because they appear to lack "philosophical content" or literary "complexity" is missing the point of what makes narrative art important.

Anonymous said...

That's an interesting comment and I will give it further thought, honestly. At the moment, though, I still can't see how a thing like Millar's writing system of taking nostalgic property archetypes, adding curse words, extra violence, "bigger budget" action pieces and a puddle deep inference to current events says anything even subliminally other than lack of respect for the intelligence of readers but I will absolutely consider what you said. I guess the major disconnect I have with the idea is that I see the intent of the artist to be almost more important than the final creation and maybe that is the wrong way to analyze art. And I do realize that, yes, all art is subjective and for some people a Millar comic may be like seeing Kirby dynamics for the first time.

Marc said...

Authorial intent isn't entirely insignificant -- it can help give us frameworks, or shortcuts, to understanding a new entry in an author's body of work. Understanding the earlier works of David Finch as inherently misogynistic, for example, gives us an explanation when his latest Batman comics feature a villain who is basically, as one blogger has put it, a "walking ass shot."

But while intent may sometimes (but certainly not always) explain the why of a work's construction, it doesn't explain the how -- that is, how the work functions in the real world, of which it is now inextricably a part. At this point, it doesn't matter if the author feels his/her work should be destroyed or that it be compared favorably to Hamlet. What the work actually does in the world, it is the job of critics and scholars, not the author, to figure out.

An example: say the Transformers movies were exactly as they are, but had been directed by someone other than Michael Bay. That would not change what they contribute (I use the word loosely) to society, which, as far as I can tell, is a favorable view of brazen technological militarism. The Transformers movies don't shape social reality alone, but in conjunction with other works that espouse similar themes, they shape reality to the extent that the idea of waging technological warfare against "the bad guys" (another social concept constructed and reinforced by fictional narratives) becomes a more widely accepted idea.

I think you make a good point in the final sentence of your last comment, insofar as the majority of people are unable to distinguish craftsmanship from "quality." It strikes me as improbable, for example, that the average person could describe what makes The Godfather "better" than Gangster Squad; if anything, they might respond with the answer "Coppola is a great director." But that is a statement about the author and it tells us little about the work itself. Society bombards them with the idea that one film is better, though, and so that idea is internalized without much critical thought.

It's no great leap to suggest that the majority of people similarly do not discern the implicit messages to which they are exposed by the narratives they consume, whether that is because they are unable or simply unwilling to do so ("don't think about it too hard, it's just entertainment"). The latter mentality strikes me as particularly dangerous in a world where the most popularly consumed narratives contain messages -- explicitly, implicitly, and often unconsciously, on the part of their authors -- which reach, and thus have the potential to influence, so many people.

matthew. said...

Marc, I just wanted to applaud you for your eloquence and your ideas. You pretty much summarized most of my academic work (ideology influences culture which influences ideology) in a couple paragraphs. Kudos and keep on keepin' on

Marc said...

Thanks, Matthew. I just visited your blog and left you a comment there as well.