On Friday I was back behind the Golden EIB Microphone on America's Number One radio show. (You can find a few moments from my guest-hosting stint here.) We were preoccupied, as apparently we will be well past Thanksgiving, by the third Broward County hand count of the fifth Palm Beach machine count, or whatever rubbish we're up to now. But I also mentioned, towards the end of the show, my ambivalent feelings about Stan Lee, the phenomenally successful Marvel Comics impresario who died a few days ago at the age of 95. Meeting him was one of the great moments of my life. He looked dapper and tanned, fabulous and ageless, as he always did, and it was a delightful and unexpected encounter ...save that I was wandering through the 2000 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles.
"You're a Democrat!" I said, aghast.
"Are you kidding?" he beamed.
I should have known. Stan's comic books (The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Mighty Thor) were "inclusive" and "diverse" and "multicultural" long before the terms ever occurred to any politicians. The X-Men were especially ahead of the game: they were mutants, evolutionary quirks who found themselves persecuted because they were "different". Stan had been working at what became Marvel Comics since 1939 but it wasn't till the Sixties that he started creating superheroes tailored for the sensibility of the age.
It took Hollywood awhile to catch up. Comic books are, as Jules Feiffer once said, "movies on paper": both forms are "motion pictures", defining character and telling stories through movement. And yet there were virtually no really good comic-book movies until film technology advanced to the point where it could capture the muscle-rippling, frame-bursting vitality of the form - "Ka-Pow!!!!"
And so Stan Lee's stable of mid-twentieth-century superheroes became the multi-billion-dollar franchises of the twenty-first century, making a fortune for Lee and his new Hollywood associates and rather less for the talented fellows who'd cranked them out every month way back when. With the exception of Spider-Man, almost all of Lee's household-name heroes were drawn by a fellow called Jack Kirby, who never enjoyed the star cameos Stan did in the Marvel movies. Kirby lived modestly in Irvine, California, and spent his days sat on "an old, straightback kitchen chair parked in front of the crummiest old drawing table you ever saw". He ought to have died the wealthiest guy in Irvine. Instead, his widow had to beseech Marvel for a modest pension sufficient to cover her mortgage, groceries and medical bills.
That's just the way it was in the comic business. The superheroes had superpowers, super costumes, super cars, super spaceships, super secret headquarters, super biceps, super chest muscles, super thighs and super calves, but they were created by guys on highly non-super pay scales - and that was true even for the fellow who was the signature look of the entire form. Until the movies CGI-ed these guys, when you pictured Captain America pounding through the streets in red-white-and-blue long underwear, or Ice Man riding a roller coaster of ice through the skies, or the guy in the pork-pie hat pointing upwards at the unseen monster about to start rampaging down Main Street, or the coed in the romance comic sitting alone in the booth when the big man on campus wanders in with the new blonde, or the Two-Gun Kid or Sgt Fury and his Howlin' Commandos, when you pictured superheroes or sci-fi, creatures or cuties, war or westerns in comic-book form, you were picturing Jack Kirby. He's the look of an entire industry. At Marvel Comics in the sixties, they gave Spider-Man to Steve Ditko, who, in contrast to Kirby's bodice-busting heroes, drew Peter Parker as an undernourished nebbish and gave the series its distinctive character. But the house rule was simple: Stan Lee wanted Kirby to draw like Kirby, Ditko to draw like Ditko, and everybody else to draw like Kirby. For a good couple of decades, everybody else did. He's what Roy Liechtenstein was appropriating when he took Kirby's style and turned it into "pop art," though Liechtenstein made more dough out of "WHAAM!" (now on display at the Tate in London) than Kirby ever made out of "WOW!" (now in a crate of junk under an antimacassar in your mom's attic).
For every superhero, there's a supervillain, and the best ones are usually the loyal ally who turns out to be playing a double-game. To Kirby's fans, the bad guy is a kid who showed up in the office of Timely Comics in the late thirties, the nephew of the company's business manager. He was a gofer and they let him do some copywriting, and, if Kirby was Captain America, the kid was kind of a Bucky, the boy sidekick. By the time Kirby returned to the company in the fifties, the kid was editor-in-chief: Stan Lee. They were a team: as the Marvel credits put it, "Smilin' Stan Lee and Jolly Jack Kirby." But Jack wasn't that jolly by the late sixties, and Stan was smilin' to the end, on all those gazillion-dollar-a-year retainers for "consulting" and cameos. As Kirby's wife Roz put it, "Tell Jack that after he finishes saving the universe again, he has to take out the trash in the kitchen."
Before Stan Lee mastered the transfer of the big WHAM! to CGI, superheroes were a specialty genre. When I was a lad, boys who were into war stories valued verisimilitude, which made it hard to get past the capes and tights on Green Arrow or Ant-Man. So, even among the male youth demographic, the superhero catered to a niche market—and a parochial one at that. One can certainly detect, as scholars do, a long cultural inheritance of Übermensch mythology underpinning the Marvel and DC universes, but putting the Übermensch in Sharpie-colored fully accessorized costumes is very American. Wolverine may have been born in northern Alberta and may have spent many years struggling, somewhat improbably, to escape the sinister clutches of his masters at the Canadian Defence Ministry, but, to the best of my knowledge, he has never been spotted flying down Yonge Street fighting for truth, justice and the Canadian way as he battles Islamophoboman, the deranged right-wing columnist whose evil powers grow stronger with every human rights complaint against him. Canada is just a place Wolverine happens to come from, not something he embodies. Back in the Seventies, Marvel introduced Captain Britain, with, first, a Britannic lion on his chest and, later, a modified Union Jack, a conscious hommage to Captain America's star-spangled pectorals. It never really worked, in part because it seems an alien cultural vernacular: the Union Jack is fine on Austin Powers' Y-fronts or Ginger Spice's knickers, but looks very foreign on the rippling chest of a superhero.
So the conventions of the genre seemed quintessentially American in their expansive confidence. Or so I thought. Now, as last summer's superheroics are succeeded by this summer's, I'm not so sure. A couple of years back, in Reason magazine, Jesse Walker mocked me for claiming to have detected Bush Doctrine subtexts in the first Spider-Man movie while entirely missing the masturbatory metaphor. Well, I saw Spidey in 2002, the day after visiting the World Trade Center site on what was the last chance to see it "as is," before the authorities closed it for redevelopment (if that's the right word for a decade of bureaucratic sclerosis). So perhaps my emotional compass was pointing elsewhere. I thought Spidey's big-screen debut made a case for Bush-style pre-emption in that "the men who killed his Uncle Ben were small-time crooks Peter could have stopped earlier but chose not to." On the other hand, apropos his uncle's famous advice to Peter Parker—"With great power comes great responsibility"—I seem to recall my National Post colleague Paul Wells defending then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's 9/11 anniversary plea for the Americans to "be nice" to foreigners as simply a Shawinigan variation on Uncle Ben: "Wid da great power come da great responsibility."
Who's right? Me? Wells? Both? Neither? Well, it's sixteen years on, and I can't remember a thing about the movie except Kirsten Dunst's clinging shirt in one rain-sodden scene. Mr Walker is right that too many of us went looking for messages in the superheroics, and seized too eagerly on the slim pickings. As he says, the superhero genre has a "philosophical flexibility." Spider-Man himself compared biceps with Don Rumsfeld on stage as part of some Pentagon war promotion. But by January 2009 he was trading fist bumps with Barack Obama in a presidential inaugural special. Boy sidekick to Rummy, arachnid ivory to Obamessiah ebony: which is the real Spider-Man?
Er, well, there isn't a real Spider-Man, is there? And indeed in the movies, with his endless "reboots", he seems even less real than in Stan Lee's speech balloons. As I mentioned on Rush yesterday, when the superheroes got super-budgets something got lost. I think the last summer blockbuster my kids dragged me to was Avengers 7 or possibly X-Men 12. Anyway, it felt kind of weird to be watching a movie where the good guys have to figure out how to save America from the most advanced, evolved, giant-sized, invincible supervillains ever devised, and then leave the theater and return to a world where, in Afghanistan, the good guys are losing to the least super villains ever concocted - goatherds with fertilizer.
Look, I know several comrades of mine were very taken by Michael Caine's speech as Alfred the butler to Master Bruce a couple of movies back —"Some men just want to watch the world burn "—hailing it as an incisive analysis of al-Qaeda et al. But I don't think so. Marching town to town across Iraq decapitating their enemies as they go, Isis enjoyed the body count, yet, unlike the Joker, they do have an end rather than just means. The notion that they merely "want to watch the world burn" is more readily applied to your average Hollywood studio. For over a decade, the summer blockbusters have avoided saying anything about terrorism, Islam, 9/11, Bali, Beslan or Benghazi, but boy, do they like to "watch the world burn." And so they opt for explosions and fireballs and shattering glass and screaming civilians unmoored from any recognizable reality. Hence, the Age of the Superhero: the Sharpie-bright spandex boys helped the movies off an awkward hook.
Some studio vice-presidents just want to watch the world burn. So we have movies about nothing. You can discern subplot if you wish, but in the end what 99 per cent of moviegoers notice is the stuff that's not sub-: He has webbing shooting out of his fingers! He can shrink to the seize of an ant! Whoa, did you see the way he just ripped a hole in the space-time continuum? You can debate allegory and metaphor, but once upon a time you didn't have to—even with superheroes. The very first issue of Captain America showed our hero punching Hitler in the kisser right on the front cover—and look at the date: March 1941, months before the U.S. even entered the war.
As I mentioned in my introduction to The Prisoner of Zenda, my old New Criterion colleague James Bowman thinks the big-screen superheroes help to "isolate and quarantine heroism in fantasy-land." "Heroism" is what people who've been bitten by radioactive spiders do. Until that happens to you, best to steer clear. And so a world of superheroes leads remorselessly to a world without heroes. Gone now are the amateur adventurers of 19th- and 20th-century fiction, chaps who'd find themselves caught up in something, and decide to give it a go, initially because it's a ripping wheeze but also because, in some too-stiff-upper-lipped-to-say way, they understood honor required it. Now the conventional romantic hero is all but extinct, and as giants patrol the skies those of us on the ground are perforce smaller. In The Incredibles, there's a famous line aimed at the feel-good fatuities of contemporary education: when everyone's special, nobody is. The failure of storytelling in today's Hollywood teaches a different lesson: when everyone's super, no one's a hero.
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