Monthly Archives: July 2013
So my wife and I are streaming Skyfall—which, to our mutual surprise, was her idea not mine–and M is explaining to her jury of clueless politicos why they shouldn’t gut her antiquated, Cold War, killer spy agency. Why, in other words, does the 21st century still needs good ole 007? I’m no Judi Dench (or Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, or John Logan, the screenwriters), but the argument goes something like this:
Shadows are bad.
Shadows are everywhere.
Only a man of the shadows can fight the shadows.
So this is a job for Bond, James Bond.
And I thought: Haven’t I heard this before? Not in defense of the CIA—which, British accented or not, that’s all 007 is. No, it’s an older argument, older than the Cold War. This is gunslinger logic.
Let me call Westerns scholar Richard Slotkin to the microphone. He knows a few things about shadows too:
“Through this transgression of the borders, through combat with the dark elements on the other side, the heroes reveal the meaning of the frontier line (that is, the distinctions of value it symbolizes) even as they break it down. In the process they evoke the elements in themselves (or in their society) that correspond to the ‘dark’; and by destroying the dark elements and colonizing the border, they purge darkness from themselves and the world.”
Yep. James is a cowboy. He packs a Walther PPK instead of a revolver, and rides a Bentley, not a stallion, but even in Daniel Craig’s metrosexually tight suit and tie, he’s the same as any badass sheriff policing his corner of oblivion.
The weird thing though—London’s not exactly a frontier burgh. In terms of imperial domains, it’s the flat dab middle. Not Dodge, but the Metropole. What Superman fans call Metropolis.
So what’s all this shadowy borderland talk? How can James, or any contemporary urban hero, draw superpowers from a mythically wild West?
I recently stumbled onto an answer in Peter Turchin’s Historical Dynamics. (Which I checked out of my library after tracking down a citation in Alex Mesoudi’s Cultural Evolution, the tome one of the economists in my book club has us reading. I wanted Colson Whitehead’s literary zombie novel but got vetoed. Maybe next month.) Turchin is an historian and ecologist, which doesn’t really explain all of his mathematical formulas and wave charts, but I think I pretty much follow the gist of his “Metaethnic Frontier Theory.”
My ridiculously simplistic version: empires need frontiers. It’s where group solidarity comes from. Why, as Turchin shows, do empires consistently rise from frontier regions, and very rarely from non-frontiers? Because Metropolis is a den of in-fighting, a spreadsheet of special interest groups vying for attention. Border towns don’t have such luxury. They’ve got all those swarthy aliens swarming right outside their fort gates. The shadows keep everyone in line.
“Internally divisive issues,” explains Turchin, “will eventually destroy the asabiya”—that’s academic speak for ‘collective action’—“of the large group, unless it is ‘disciplined’ by an external threat.”
Thus Ms. Dench’s shadows-are-everywhere speech. If you want your group to stay a group, you have to scare them. That’s easy when they’re camped at the edge of the abyss, but for these big city types, you got to drag the shadows right up to their condo doorsteps.
That’s how you keep an agency funded or, for Hollywood, your franchise breathing. 007 is an obsolete Cold Warrior, but product name recognition trumps the collapse of Soviet communism. Superman shouldn’t have made it past Dresden, let alone Hiroshima. He sold comics because he embodied the collectivism of a nation scared shitless by the Axis threat. Like any gunslinger or shadow-fighting shadow man, his powers are alien, a product of a scifi frontier. Remove the threat and he’s just some guy in tights and a cape.
When Ian Fleming published his first Bond novel in 1953, comic book superheroes were all but extinct. When Sean Connery debuted in the first Bond film in 1962, superheroes were back and atomic-powered. Although gunslingers seem extinct at the moment, shadow Men of Steel are still flying, and homicide-licensed agents keep sipping their dark martinis.
I would never accuse the U.S. entertainment industry of anything but dividend-driven capitalism, but they’re still producing a form of red, white and blue propaganda. They want our money, and the best way to get it is to keep reinventing not our heroes but the threats that keep our heroes kicking. Hollywood’s main products are bite-sized shadows imported from our psychological borderlands. Our heroes have to scare us before they can soothe us.
But there’s a another byproduct too. Turchin’s group cohesion. Stream Skyfall or skim this month’s Action Comics, and you’re going to feel just a tiny bit more, well, American. Empires collapse when their centers splinter. That’s bad for business. In a nation of special interests, buying movie tickets is one of our few collective actions. For good and bad, James and Clark keep the metrosexual masses not just entertained but disciplined.
The past is a work-in-progress.
Look at dinosaurs. When I was kid, brontosaurus was a lethargic lizard so obese it wallowed in swamps to support its weight. Read Lost World—Conan Doyle’s, not Michael Crichton’s—and T Rex is an enormous bullfrog. Nowadays sauropods are lithe warm-bloods with whip-action tails, and the former King of the Dinosaurs is a queen of scavengers.
It’s sad to see the old guys go, but a revisable history is a good thing. It’s evolution in action. Old paradigms die out as newer, fitter interpretations replace them. And no one knows that better than the comic book industry. Back in the early 80s, DC was so bogged down in lost worlds—Earth 2, Earth 32, Earth 387, Earths A, B, C and C-, Earth Prime, Earth X, Earth Quality—their writers couldn’t move under the weight of the multiverse. Something had to give.
Enter Crisis on Infinite Earth, king of all scavengers. The 1985-6 maxi-series chomped through decades of DC history, swallowing the Golden, Silver, and Bronze Ages and spitting them back out as one shiny new Earth called, well, New Earth.
It was more than just a reboot. DC had already done that in the late 50s, evolving its old guys into new costumes and origins. But their new New Earth arrived with a whole history. Literally. I bought a copy from my college comics shop. Suddenly I was being told that characters I’d never heard of—the Question, Captain Atom, Peacemaker, Blue Beetle—had always been around, paling with the usual Justice Leaguers.
I thought: Captain who?
The answer was simple. He and his friends were the scavenged imports from Charlton Comics, DC’s latest business acquisition. But instead of setting the new roster up on their own multiverse planet—Earth Charlton—they wove them in post-Crisis. And readers just had to swallow them.
And keep swallowing. Because Crisis was just a gateway drug. Soon DC was rewriting its past every decade or so, constantly reimagining character histories with forward-looking updates to satisfy new fans. But to get the old high—that euphoric sales boost—the dose kept climbing. So for their 2012 re-write, the newest of the New Earths restarted its titles on the rock bottom foundation of “No.1.” But not its history. That’s still a shifting swamp.
Maybe it’s the influence of comic books on larger culture trends, or maybe comics make explicit a process that might otherwise go less noticed, but superhero history is not the only history in crisis.
After a landslide election in Japan last December, New York Times commentator Paul Krugman wrote: “In Japan governments come and governments go, but nothing ever seems to change — indeed, Shinzo Abe, the new prime minister, has had the job before, and his party’s victory was widely seen as the return of the ‘dinosaurs’ who misruled the country for decades.” The Economist has since featured Abe as Super Yen Man:
The flying dinosaur king has also returned with a revisionist pen. Prime Minister Abe wants to replace Japan’s 1995 apology for the suffering it caused in Asia during World War II with a “forward-looking statement that is appropriate for the 21st century.”
That’s the assignment DC gave Mark Waid in 2002: “reimagining Superman for the 21st century.” But the secret mission behind Superman: Birthright was to align DC’s comic book continuity with the popular TV show Smallville. The same way Abe wants to align his nation’s apology—issued by a Socialist Party Prime Minster—with his newly repopularized brand of hawkish conservativism.
When Abe was Prime Minster in 2006, he revised an education law to “restore patriotism” in schools. That’s the same year China started writing Mao out of their own school texts. The Marxist template that dominated Chinese history since the 50s had grown too obese to support—and, frankly, a little embarrassing. Like Superman’s pet super-monkey from the 50s. Better if he’d never been there in the first place. Mao who?
U.S. textbooks are no different. Look at Texas. In 2009, their state board approved a science curriculum championed by a chair who said “evolution is hooey.” Their 2010 Social Studies guidelines were guided by a board-appointed consultant who opposed income taxes because they violate Scriptures. Every state in the country fights some version of these battles, with every subject in perpetual flux. Curricula keep evolving. They always have. Go back to the 30s, and most Biology and Social Studies textbooks preached eugenics, a fact conveniently missing from, say, my kids’ middle school and high school history books.
And, what the hell, Scriptures are revisable too. Last spring, the Mormon Church issued a new and improved edition of its book of Doctrine and Covenants. Turns out the ban on black priests wasn’t the will of God but a human misstep. Ditto for multiple wives, since monogamy is now God’s standard for marriage. It’s not exactly a reboot (Brigham who?), but certainly a refresh. The Mormon Church, like DC, is aligning itself with the 21st century. You could say it’s just another business decision, a way of grounding a fan base, but I wish the Catholic Church would revise a few scriptures too. Polygamy and racism aren’t the only dinosaurs that need to die out.
“What we’re seeing with these changes,” according to religion professor Terryl Givens, “is the privileging of history over theology. It’s a kind of acknowledgement that the Mormon Church is rooted in a past that is replete with historical claims.”
That means multiple and contradictory claims, a bog of them. Comic books are rooted in the same muck, but since all those histories are overtly make-believe, only fans feel it when the foundation shifts. But that’s useful training. Out here on the non-spandex-wearing Earth, we have pastquakes all the time. Our multiverse is pocked with lost worlds.
If we’re going to keep rebooting, we should be as upfront about it as DC and the Mormon Church. Change what you like, but don’t pretend you’re getting away with anything. And don’t forget the next breed of writers is waiting behind you, their whip-action pens uncapped.
1. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a homicidal monster who deserves the death penalty for the Boston Marathon bombing. (True/False)
2. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a sweet-natured adolescent who fell victim to the corrupting influence of his terrorist older brother. (True/False)
If you circle “True” for either one and “False” for the other, then you are probably living a happy life in a world free of ambiguity and cognitive dissonance. A comic book world. Superheroes and supervillains slice the universe into unambiguous halves, absolute good and absolute evil. No overlap, no gradations, no headache-inducing Venn diagrams, just the world reduced to black and white.
It’s also the world Tsarnaev lives in. “The U.S. Government is killing our innocent civilians,” he said before his arrest. “I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished.” Tsarnaev was arraigned in Boston last Thursday, and though Massachusetts hasn’t executed anyone since the Golden Age of comics, Attorney General Eric Holder may still try for the death penalty. It’s what all supervillains deserve.
Except are comics really that simple?
“It all started long ago!!” shouts Moleman in Fantastic Four #1, “Because the people of the surface world mocked me!”
That’s the improbably sympathetic motivation of Marvel Comics’ first supervillain. Stan Lee’s caption labels him an “evil antagonist,” but by the end of the issue, Reed scoops him up the way I used to grab my tantrumming son when he was a toddler. Reed even lets the little guy escape, reasoning that “It’s better that way! There was no place for him in our world . . . perhaps he’ll find peace down there . . . I hope so!”
Issue two and Reed is letting more supervillains go free. It turns out those nasty shapeshifting aliens just want to live a “contented” and “peaceful existence”: “We hate being Skrulls! We’d rather be anything else!” So he tells them to turn into cows and hypnotizes them to forget their race’s earth-conquering ambitions. Problem empathetically solved.
But is this how comic books are supposed to work? Aren’t supervillains the cultural standard for one-dimensional evil? Of course this is only 1961; the Silver Age had barely launched. Maybe Lee and Kirby were just warming up. FF issues 4 and 5 we get the real villains. The return of the Gold Age Sub-Mariner and the birth of that ultimate arch-nemesis Dr. Doom!
Except, wait, Sub-Mariner is a poor amnesiac stranded in a Bowery flophouse until the Human Torch dunks him in the harbor. Then he swims back to Atlantis to find “It’s all destroyed! That glow in the water—it’s radioactivity!!The humans did it, unthinkably, with their accursed atomic tests!” His vow to destroy the human race is revenge for the loss of “My family—my friends! My undersea kingdom!” It doesn’t make him a nice guy, but evil? (Would the last survivor of Krypton have responded differently if Earth had A-bombed his home?)
Even Dr. Doom isn’t innately bad, just “badly disfigured.” He was once a “brilliant science student” before his “forbidden experiments” literally exploded in his face. Lee introduces him as an “evil genius,” but later reveals that those tragic experiments were an attempt to contact his beloved mother in the nether world. Next thing he’s a persecuted gypsy seeking revenge on the baron who killed his father. When What If tackled him in 1980, the writers averted that disfiguring accident all together and, what do you know, Doom becomes a superhero.
Before Stan Lee inherited the world of costumed do-gooders from his Golden Age forebears, supervillains were villainous, pure and simple. Luthor wanted to conquer the world for the same unexamined reasons that Superman wanted to protect it: Plot requirements. Forget psychological motivation. It was World War II. Readers needed good guys who were all good, and those good guys needed bad guys who were all bad. But 1961 was a different world. As much as America hated Commies, they were no replacement for purebred Nazis. Comics were ready to reflect the cultural shift.
Lee did not invent the figure of the sympathetic villain. Look at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein creature or Milton’s Satan. Or, for more immediate influences, Tolkien’s Gollum and Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, both published in 1955, a year before Silver Age superheroes started their return to newsstands. When Moleman swallowed his first atomic plant, Alfred Hitchcock was already famous for replacing the dog-kicking moustache-twirler of early motion pictures with his own brand of monster, “an ordinary human being with failings.” Moleman is only a few months and a few ticks past Norman Bates’ mother-loving Psycho. A decade later the motif had grown so culturally rampant that when The Who’s Pete Townsend was writing his second (and, alas, never finished) rock opera, he composed the quintessential sympathetic bad guy theme song, “Behind Blue Eyes.”
But Stan Lee did more than ride the zeitgeist. His villains changed only because his heroes changed too. He kept the two yoked, with the universal constants of good and evil flowing up and down their moral seesaw. The victimized Moleman is possible because the Thing is such a jerk. Every time Ben badmouths Johnny or throws a punch at Reed, one cosmic unit of sympathy rolls to the villains’ half of the universe.
Only comic books maintain that equilibrium. Ms. Highsmith’s diabolically talented Mr. Ripley is a lone (and lonely) figure; because his murders are investigated by irrelevant lawmen who soak up little narrative attention, our horror and admiration pivots only on Ripley. Even when sympathetic villains are coupled with worthwhile protagonists, our emotions operate separate pulleys. We can, for instance, feel pity for Gollum (the poor guy started out as the hobbit-like Smeagol before the Ring deformed him) without Frodo losing any of his own hobbity (if rather homoerotic) goodness.
King Kong, HAL, Tony Soprano, they all have their fuzzy side, but none demand a corresponding give-and-grab from an orc-mannered protagonist. Comic books are different. Once Stan Lee recalibrated the universe from its Golden Age settings, other writers obeyed his narrative logic as if obeying laws of physics: When superheroes are assholes, supervillains have to be the nice guys.
Look at Dr. Impossible in Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible. His quest for world domination is just his way to make superhero bullies respect him. Especially that obnoxious jock CoreFire, the biggest jerk in his middle school of a multiverse. Joss Whedon’s Captain Hammer is worse. Dr. Horrible of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is a tender-hearted sweetheart. Sure, he wants to rule the world, but, unlike Hammer, he would never steal another guy’s gal and fake his way into her bed.
Alan Moore revolutionized comics in the 80s by pushing Lee’s laws of conservation to their ultimate end. The homicidal Rorschach skids so far down the moral seesaw, there’s nowhere for his nemesis Moloch to go but into retirement. He’s just some old guy (albeit pointy-eared) terrified of superheroes jumping out of his refrigerator. Rorschach’s own teammate gives Moloch cancer and then a bullet in the brain. Moloch is purely sympathetic. Why? Because the villainy of those Watchmen tips the scales over. There’s no room for supervillains in Moore’s lopsided universe. The so-called heroes hog all the traits, both good and bad.
When Bob Kane and his writing team dealt out the Joker in 1940, he was an unabashed lunatic. His nominal motive was theft, but he took way more demonic glee in his murders. Why? No reason. Not till Alan Moore gave one in his 1988 The Killing Joke. Turns out the Joker was a sweet young newlywed before grabbed by some thugs and set up as their red-hooded fall guy. Next thing Batman’s knocking him into a vat of chemicals, and what crawls out is now tragic by contrast. Moore’s supervillain rewrite was only possible after Frank Miller’s 1986 Dark Knight Returns. Miller emphasized the Dark over the Knight, catapulting Batman into the old Joker’s half of their ying-yang universe.
By the time Mark Waid and Alex Ross put out Kingdome Come in 1996, there was no longer any difference between the new generation of supervillains and superheroes. Right now I’m reading Gladstone’s School for World Conquerors. The students are all “adorable” middle school Molemen in the making. I bought it for my son because his favorite novels are about misunderstood supervillains or misunderstood sons of misunderstood supervillains. Catherine Jinks’ Evil Genius, Eoin Colfer‘s Artemis Fowl series. More evidence of seismic flattening.
Gladstone creators Mark Andrew Smith and Armand Villavert uphold Lee’s principles of cosmic proportion too. Good and evil have completely leveled out. Superheroes and supervillains are pals, staging fake battles in order to prevent a “return to the draconian days of old.” One retired villain does volunteer garden work at the school: “It’s relaxing and peaceful for me.” The same quiet fate Reed gave those shapeshifting cows from outer space.
Or, as one Skrull declares in the final frame: “Mooo!!”
If I could, I’d transform and hypnotize Dzhokhar Tsarnaev too. Yes, he’s a terrorist monster (3 dead, 260 wounded). And, yes, he’s also a nineteen-year-old scholarship student who people considered “a sweet guy” with a “heart of gold,” “a lovely, lovely kid,” “so grateful to be here in school and to be accepted, ” “a model of good sportsmanship,” “never in trouble,” “not the kind of guy who would hurt anyone,” someone who “believed in people,” “one of ‘us.’”
His twenty-six-year-old and conveniently dead brother, Tamerlan, is uglier, a competitive boxer arrested for assaulting his girlfriend. His YouTube account includes a playlist of terrorism videos. He bragged, “I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them.”
We don’t understand you either, Tamerlan. Which is the heart of our mutual problem. It’s easy to call you a monster and go back to our unexamined lives. Who doesn’t want to live in an old school comic book? They call it the Golden Age for a reason.
If you’re wondering why Johnny Depp has a dead bird on his head in the new Lone Ranger, look at Kirby Sattler’s “I Am Crow.” The painting is to Tonto as Keith Richards is to Captain Jack Sparrow. It also has as much to do with Native America as the Rolling Stones have with the 1700s Caribbean.
According to Sattler’s website, his “paintings are interpretations based upon the nomadic tribes of the 19th century American Plains.”If you think that means the model for or at least the subject matter of “I Am Crow” is a Crow Indian, think again. “I,” explains Sattler, “purposely do not denote a specific tribal affiliation to my paintings, allowing the personal sensibilities and knowledge of the viewer to create their own stories.”(Mr. Depp’s personal sensibilities, for instance, tell him the dead bird on his head likes peanuts.) Sattler’s website also notes that the sixty-three-year-old painter is of “non-native blood” and that he’s neither a “historian” or “ethnologist.” And yet his “distinctive style of realism” avoids being “presumptuous” by giving his work “an authentic appearance” but “without the constraints of having to adhere to historical accuracy.”
That makes Sattler a perfect source for Johnny Depp’s equally imperfect Indian fantasy. The actor may have a Cherokee or possibly Creek grandmother (how else to explain those cheek bones?), and he told Rolling Stone that hopes his portrayal of Tonto will “maybe give some hope to kids on the reservations.” He also had a Tonto-esque sidekick named “Nobody” in Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 Dead Man (a film I really really tried to like), which apparently prompted Depp to direct himself in The Brave two years later. The film wasn’t released in the U.S., not even on video, so I’ll have to trust the IMBd summary:
“An unemployed alcoholic Native American Indian lives on a trailer park with his wife and two children. Convinced that he has nothing to offer this world, he agrees to be tortured to death by a gang of rednecks in return for $50,000.”
If you replace “gang of rednecks” with “American pop culture,” that’s a decent allegory for Tonto.
Depp’s performance is also based on Jay Silverheels, who played Tonto in the 50s TV show. He was born Harold Smith on a Canadian Mohawk reservation, but for some reason went with “Silverheels” when he moved to Hollywood. His performance in turn was based on John Todd, who voiced Tonto in the 30s radio show. Todd was 77 and the last original cast member when the show went off the air in 1954. He was also Irish, but was happy enough to play dress-up for publicity shots. The network replaced him for public appearances, and briefly on air too, but, the story goes, the college-educated Native actor refused to read Tonto’s ungrammatical lines, so Todd got the job back.
Tonto was originally Potawatomi, so he and his Michigan tribe (the program aired from Detroit) were a bit lost in the Southwest. Someone changed it to Apache, but Camp Camp Kee Mo Sah Bee, the summer camp the director visited as a kid, is a better designation. Tonto means “stupid” or “silly” in Spanish, but that might be coincidence. The writer just needed someone for the Long Ranger to talk to.
The same creative team gave the Green Hornet a chauffeur for the same reason. The Lone Ranger may look like someone grabbed a superhero, slapped a cowboy hat on his head, and dropped him in a Western, but the lines of influence run the other direction. The Lone Ranger premiered in 1933, five years before Superman hit newsstands. It was a hit, so when the radio station demanded another show like it, they just updated the formula. The 1936 Green Hornet is an urban Lone Ranger. His horse “Silver” morphed into the limo “Black Beauty.” His Indian sidekick transformed into an oriental sidekick (Kato’s ethnic designations make less sense than Tonto’s). The Hornet’s even a blood relative. His alter ego, Britt Reid, is the Lone Ranger’s great nephew. Britt’s father, the Ranger’s nephew, is Dan. John Todd voiced him too. The Shakespearean actor dropped Tonto’s broken English to record the elderly Mr. Reid into the same microphone.
But now the superhero influence really is reversed. Seth Rogen’s Green Hornet beat Armie Hammer’s Lone Ranger to theaters by two years, both fueled by the killing Marvel and Warner Brothers are making on their assorted Avengers and Justice Leaguers. Even Kirby Sattler’s interest in “the Indian” has more to do more with pop culture than “Indigenous Peoples of the Earth.” The crow Johnny plopped on his head is, according to Sattler, a source of power:
“Any object- a stone, a plait of sweet grass, a part of an animal, the wing of a bird- could contain the essence of the metaphysical qualities identified to the objects and desired by the Native American. This acquisition of ‘Medicine’, or spiritual power, . . . provided the conduit to the unseen forces of the universe which predominated their lives. . . when combined with the proper ritual or prayer there would be a transference of identity. . . .More than just aesthetic adornment, it was an outward manifestation of their identity.”
And that, Kirby, is what we folks of non-native blood call a superhero:
Any object—a lantern, a ring, a bat, even an initial—contains the symbolic essence of the superpowers identified with the object and desired by the alter ego. Once acquired, unseen forces of the multiverse predominate the lives of the wearer. When combined with the proper ritual or prayer (“Shazam!”), there is a transference of identity (“Hulk smash!”). More than adornment, the superhero’s costume is an outward manifestation of his identity.
I could quote some juicy bits from Michael Chabon’s “Secret Skin: an essay in unitard theory,” but you get the idea.
None of this is to say The Lone Ranger is a stupid movie. It’s more entertainingly silly than the black and white reruns I watched as a kid. I also attended “Indian Guides,” in which fathers and sons of my Pittsburgh suburb assembled plastic tomahawks and heard legends of “Falling Rock,” the mysterious brave whom yellow road signs warned drivers to beware. So my “personal sensibilities and knowledge” of things Indian is right up there with Sattler and Depp. (My novel School for Tricksters is about two fakes pretending to be Indians too, but we’re talking Lone Ranger right now.)
I do give director Gore Verbinski credit for framing the tale as a 1933 Wild West exhibit, a style of realism even less constrained than Mr. Sattler’s. Tonto, “A Noble Savage in His Natural Habitat,” is a magically talking mannequin. That almost but not quite makes up for the self-annihilating Comanche (Tonto’s latest tribe) who aid Manifest Destiny by declaring themselves ghosts and charging into the spray of Gatling guns. (Can you feel the hope surging through those reservation kids?) Tonto at least gets an upgrade from racially laconic sidekick to racially madcap mentor. He and Grasshopper Ranger romp across a cinematic West that owes less to John Ford than Wile E. Coyote. You’ll be amazed by how many CGI-ed train stunts Verbinski can cram into two and a half hours (longer if your theater’s projector overheats as ours did).
Verbinski also includes several werewolf-esque bunny rabbits, so there’s far far more whimsy in Lone Ranger than in the masked mayhem Warner Brothers or even Marvel Entertainment have been putting out. Superheroes are naturally Goofy Creatures best exhibited in a Habitat of Whimsy, so I applaud the Verbinki bunnies (they have fangs!). I would just tweak the latest Tonto by revealing him for what he’s always been. A crazy white guy pretending to be an Indian. Surely Gore and Johnny could mine some comic silver from that premise.
According to World War Z, two things can trigger a zombie apocalypse: 1) stay-at-home dads, and 2) kindness to Muslims. It is nice, however, to see an American blockbuster starring Brad Pitt as that most un-American of creatures, a U.N. Investigator.
My book club recently spun off a zombie club of college professors, two in Economics and one in English, me (a Philosopher may be joining us soon too). I presented a conference paper on The Walking Dead last winter, but my knowledge base is dwarfed by the guy who makes guac on movie nights. So far we’ve only watched The Night of the Living Dead. We’d schedule Dawn of the Dead (the remake for some reason), but postponed when a wife (also an Economics professor) got called to Abu Dhabi on a family emergency.
George Romero, director zero in the genre contagion, gave his ghouls a clear cause: radiation from a returning Venus space probe. Brad spends most of WWZ’s 116 minutes and $190 million dollars searching for clues. Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman doesn’t care. But in terms of theme and discourse, the answer is always scene one.
Every zombie story (and, arguably, every story of every genre) begins with something rotten in the state of Denmark. It takes less than ten minutes (including the insufferably slow credits sequence) for that creepy old man to lurch at Barbra in the cemetery, but Night of the Living Dead has already provided a horde of apocalypse-triggering conflicts spawning across issues of religion, nation, capitalism, and family:
Johnnie’s stopped going to church and jokes about being damned. Romero shoots the American flag flapping backwards from a veteran’s grave. Is the exploitive funeral industry stealing the wreath off the grave and selling it back to them every year? The family unit is shattered in multiple directions: parents vs. children, brother vs. sister, grandparent vs. grandson. The kids discuss digging up the only vaguely remembered dad so they don’t have to drive hours out of town on their mother’s orders. Time itself is upturned. The first line of the film is a complaint about daylight savings.
World War Z is simpler. The pre-zombie preamble is an ode to the domesticated male. Brad Pitt is the perfect stay-at-home dad. His blissfully happy daughters joke that all he does since quitting his job is make breakfast, but his pancakes are better than Michael Keaton’s in Mr. Mom. Brad doesn’t mind scolding everyone to put their dishes in the sink, but in thematic terms, this is an apocalyptic inversion of stability. His bread-winning wife doesn’t even help with the plates.
When things heat up during the morning commute (Brad is chauffeuring everyone to school and work), his wife takes the wheel while he assumes the traditionally maternal duty of comforting the asthmatically panicked daughter. If you were hoping for a 21st century vision of shared gender roles, the formal plot doesn’t start till the wife is safely tucked away with the children. Her only job now is being a mom. Dad, meanwhile, reveals the secret depth of his professional prowess, including the power to call rescue helicopters down from the sky. In fact, he may be the only man left with a shot at saving the world. Sure, he only takes the job to safeguard his family, but at that moment the world has already been righted. Zombie plague restores domestic order.
Kirkman plays a similar game in Walking Dead. The comic book is a paean to traditional gender—though kudos to the TV team for trying to shake that up a bit. The zombie ur-heroine Barbra is significantly worse, a knock-off of Hitchcock’s Melanie in The Birds. When the going gets tough, the gals collapse into semi-catatonic dementia. Fortunately, Barbra retreats to a farmhouse first, which Ben (he wasn’t black until Duane Jones showed up for the casting call) boards up. This is where economic theory comes in. How do external threats alter group behavior? Which is the more profitable strategy: staying mobile or hunkering down?
World War Z is explicit about both. Director Marc Forster literally spells it out in subtitles: “Movement is life.” Not that those very nice but ultimately very stupid Spanish parents listen to Brad. And look who gets eaten in the next scene. Meanwhile, Israel boards up their whole country. But they also let in Muslim refugees, figuring a grateful live Muslim is better than an angry dead Muslim. Cooperation skyrockets as Israeli soldiers nod and smile and even hand over the PA system for group singing. I’ve never seen an airport customs line half as chummy.
But as every zombie fan knows, hunkering never works for long. Images of Middle East peace last two, maybe three minutes. Romero boarded up the Monroeville Mall (about two miles from my childhood home) for his first sequel, Dawn of the Dead, but its collapse is nothing to the geysers of Palestinian zombies flooding into the last nation on Earth. CGI turns Romero’s lurching latex-painted extras into blood cells gushing through urban arteries. Israel dies from its own kindness—a political allegory a lot of right wingers can probably live with.
That’s where Romero would have left things, with Brad ascending from the Tel Aviv airport into the ambiguous but not particularly hopeful unknown. WWZ is a 1950s scifi. When Don Siegel tried to end Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a chillingly open-ended “They’re coming!”Hollywood sent him back to the editing booth to tack on their contractual, world-is-saved last scene. Forster uses the same one. It turns out zombies dissolve in water! Or something like that. Which is also why at its surprisingly non-gory heart, WWZ isn’t a zombie movie.
Yes, these zombies are sprinters. And, no, they don’t eat the flesh off our bones—just a nibble and it’s welcome to the team. But their real genre faux paus is their willingness to bow to the deus ex machina of the human spirit. That’s the formula and American self-image Romero so thoroughly gutted in 1968. In Night of the Living Dead, the center doesn’t hold. Daughter eats mother, brother eats sister, and a posse of deputized rednecks gun down the last rugged individual. In fact, there never was a center. Government, family, God, those are just boards we nail around ourselves while waiting for oblivion to splinter through.
Not true of WWZ. Sure, the American experiment fails (our cops are just more lawless looters), but the world government holds. Instead of retreating to upstate Maine to wait out the vampire plague of I Am Legend (Romero’s literary influence), Brad’s patriarchal family reunites in Nova Scotia. Yeah, that’s right. Canada and the U.N. save humanity. Talk about a horror story!