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Tag Archives: Alan Moore

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“I don’t think there’s any need to use language.”

That’s my favorite line from one of my favorite comics, Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz’s 1990 Big Numbers No. 1. The sentence appears on page 9, breaking a 57-panel sequence of wordless narration. Actually the shout, “AAA! Shit!” breaks the silence, after a rock breaks a window on a moving train. The shattering glass receives its own one-panel page, but Sienkiewicz doesn’t draw and presumably Moore didn’t script any sound bubble BOOM! or CRASH! over the image. It doesn’t need it. We get the picture.

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The speaker is an old man upset by the main character’s profanity, but Moore is talking to us. This is two years after he and David Lloyd completed their V for Vendetta. When they started the project in the early 80s, Lloyd told Moore he didn’t want any thought bubbles. This was a radical idea at the time, and possibly the biggest moment in Moore’s growth as a writer, because he went further and cut captions too. If no one was speaking, the panel would be wordless.

I think at the time, the record for longest silent sequence was still held by Jim Steranko, for the opening three pages of the 1968 Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.E.I.L.D. No. 1, for which, Steranko claims, Marvel didn’t want to pay his writing fee because he didn’t “write” anything.

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Moore took Steranko’s experiment and turned it into his M.O. The first Watchmen script he gave Dave Gibbons included a four-page, 31-panel sequence, wordless but for Rorschach’s inarticulate grunts. Flipping through my copy of From Hell, I see Eddie Campbell draws as many as 7 consecutive pages of word-free narration. It’s a paradoxical approach for Moore, since his scripts are some of the most verbose imaginable—almost literalizing the a-picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words exchange rate.

So when I started talking with my friend Carolyn Capps—a painter and former next door neighbor—about collaborating on a comic book, I had Moore in mind. Is his old man right? Is there any need to use language? I recently finished revising a 71,338-word novel and drafting a 93,935-word non-fiction book, so I may be suffering from some of Moore’s perversity. But I just don’t like words in my comic books.

I’d suspected this for a while, but I proved it to myself when I looked at Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martín’s webcomic, The Private Eye. The publisher, PanelSyndicate.com, offers previews, three pages of each 32-page issue. I opened the first and was struck by the absence of words. No captions, no thought bubbles, no dialogue balloons. Just unimpeded visual storytelling. I loved it. I strained over an occasional panel, uncertain what exact information was being implied, but the story was all there, its effect all the more visceral by the effort required to follow it, the bursts of action followed by extended moments of minimal movement made more evocative by their lingering silence.

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And then I purchased the first issue.

Turns out PanelSyndicate deletes talk bubbles for previews. When I purchased and “read” the same pages again, I was annoyed by the redundancies. Yes, I gained lots of new information, but none of it was worth the trade-off. Following the words from panel to panel means I was no longer primarily focused on the panels themselves. The images were serving the language. (Though, for the record, The Private Eye is still quite a good comic—it’s the industry’s words-first norms I’m annoyed about.)

When Carolyn and I started exchanging brainstorming emails, and then preliminary sketches and sample treatments, I wanted our story to evolve visually. Instead of her illustrating my script, I wanted her images to dictate the characters, situation, and plot. Carolyn’s first drawings were unsequenced, each a separate experiment, a testing of style and content. So I started experimenting too, testing out the rhythms of visual logic, the what-does-it-mean-if-this-goes-here grammar of panel language.

The results were pleasantly chaotic at times, the intended meanings subservient to the connotations of the actual images. Without explanatory captions or guiding dialogue, the pictures were the sole source of meaning, their tonal nuances more important than the scaffolding of the original script. No language also makes the reader a more active participant. Below is a six-panel sequence I cut and pasted from some of Carolyn’s earliest sketches. I knew what I wanted them to mean, but when I dragged my wife and daughter over to my laptop screen, they read them in their own ways.

Now you can decide what they say too:

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Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985. The first issue of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen was published in 1986. Despite that closeness, they’re not two novels that are routinely paired. Which is why I was pleased when a pair of students in my Late 20th Century Fiction course decided to combine them as examples of dystopias. And, even more fun, my students disagree about the definition of “dystopia.”

So here’s round one of their literary match-up.

 

Dystopia: Good or Evil?

Guest blogger, Jennifer Heibig

 

Beginning with Thomas Moore’s Utopia, a tradition of idealized societies has existed both in the imaginations of great thinkers and writers as well as in the literary canons of virtually every culture. Yet frequently in these perfect utopian universes, a dark underbelly emerges, characterized by abuses of power, totalitarian regimes, and control of every minutia of a citizens’ lives, usually as an excuse for their protection in the beginning. These types of dystopian universes create environments of fear and isolation, with an evil government and good and innocent citizens. However, what happens in dystopias in which there is no clear oppressor, no direct dichotomy of good and evil? Instead, subtle powers are at work that do not allow for a clear ability to point a finger at the ‘good’ or ‘evil’ power responsible for ‘light’ oppression. In their novels The Handmaid’s Tale and Watchmen, Margaret Atwood and Alan Moore grapple with this question of good and evil and create two dystopian worlds that either reinforce the Manichean dichotomy or blur the line between good and evil.  Where The Handmaid’s Tale utilizes total dystopian control of its people to further confine and separate them, creating a Manichean dichotomy between good and evil, Watchmen uses subtle manipulation in order to unite the entire world, blurring the line between good and evil. In showing two radically different uses of dystopia, these authors call into question the assumption that absolute control in a dystopia is necessarily evil.

To formulate my argument, I will begin by exploring two definitions of dystopia. I will then examine how The Handmaid’s Tale fulfills Ketterer’s definition of dystopia. Contrastingly, I will delve into the world of Watchmen, and explore the ways that it fits into Greene’s definition of dystopia. Finally, I will examine the good versus evil dichotomies in each of these novels and their relationship to dystopian literature.

Utopia and dystopia are frequently sides of the same coin, representing idealized societies that are either perfect or move too far in the direction of creating a perfect world.  Greene establishes a simple yet effective definition of utopia as “an ideal society” (Greene 2). Unfortunately, these utopias are rarely idealistic and perfect places in practice, even if their ideals are, in theory. In one of the earliest examples of utopian literature, “Thomas More, in his Utopia (1516), conjures an isolated island to describe a better world but one that in hindsight sounds fascist” (2). By blurring the lines between these two genres, Greene demonstrates that utopia and dystopia are on a continuum and lend themselves to blurring the lines of Manichean dichotomies of good and evil.

Dystopian literature is characterized by a multitude of individual genre characteristics, but is pervaded by a sense of oppression via governmental and totalitarian powers. The opposite of a perfect society, a literary dystopia is an “imaginary society that differs from the author’s own, first, by being significantly worse in important respects, and, second, by being worse because it attempts to reify some utopian ideal” (Beauchamp 11). By Beauchamp’s definition, dystopia perverts positive ideals and the world of the author in order to create a plausible society in which there is no freedom from the government. In order to classify novels and stories as dystopian, Ketterer provides a clear framework of the types of features included in the genre: “lack of freedom, the constant surveillance, the routine, the failed escape attempt” (211). In a different vein, Greene claims that dystopian universes are characterized by a distinct “suffocation of independent thought” (2). Greene’s definition of dystopia may include some of Ketterer’s elements, but focuses its attentions on the atmosphere of control and stifling of non-institutionalized thought amongst its citizens. These two definitions, though not always mutually exclusive, serve as useful categorizations for The Handmaid’s Tale and Watchmen.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale’s government of Gilead contains every element of Ketterer’s definition of dystopia. Though there are some elements of stifling of independent thought, its most salient dystopian features belong to Ketterer’s definition and classify it solidly in the dystopian genre through four specific features.

Firstly, Gilead eliminates freedom from the lives of its citizens. When the Gilead government began, “newspapers were censored, and some were closed down, for security reasons they said. The roadblocks began to appear, the Identipasses. Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn’t be too careful” (Atwood 174). The government closed down the freedoms of its citizens one by one, slowly taking every semblance of freedom they had in a subtle way, at first. Ultimately, Gilead obliterates freedom by creating roles relating to fertility, and women’s “real name[s have] been erased in favor of the form of ‘Of’ plus the first name, possibly abbreviated, of her Commander” (Ketterer 210). As Offred herself states, “my name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter. I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up”(Atwood 84). This removal of names dehumanizes women and forces them to become their proscribed roles, as Handmaids, or “two-legged wombs” (136), Aunts, Marthas, Wives, Unwomen, or prostitutes. By removing agency and proscribing roles, Gilead destroys freedom.

Routines similarly are present in Gilead, from a daily morning walk for the Handmaids, to the Ceremony. The most salient routine of the society is the Ceremony, a brutal moment when the Commander tries to impregnate his Handmaid.  Offred does not describe this scene as rape, however, instead calling it “nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose” (94). Through this brutal routine and near sacred ritual, Atwood creates the only alternative a young fertile woman could choose, aside from the oblivion of Unwomanhood. This monthly routine of impregnation, in parallel with other more innocuous routines and rituals, demonstrates the ways that Gilead governs through strict control of its citizens’ freedoms, particularly by organizing their daily lives.

Gilead constantly spies and watches its citizens, as is proven by the many golden eyes found in public places and privates ones, such as the doctor’s office (60), Offred’s room, or on the Soul Scrolls (167). In front of the Soul Scrolls store, Greene’s rules of no independent thought are broken, and readers see the surveillance in place in Gilead. Ofglen, Offred’s walking partner, leans over to Offred and says, “’Do you think God listens,’ she says, ‘to these machines?’ […] In the past this would have been a trivial enough remark, a kind of scholarly speculation. Right now it’s treason,” (168) remarks Offred. Thought and spoken original thought is not longer taken for granted. It is stifled and discouraged through constant surveillance and fear of being taken by the Eyes. To think is treason in Gilead; to birth children is of the highest importance. This government fulfills Ketterer’s category of constant surveillance, and uses it to engage in thought suppression, though that is not necessarily its ultimate goal. Surveillance in Gilead is used to incite fear, not to prevent independent thought.

Finally, The Handmaid’s Tale contains varied escape attempts, including the ending of the novel.  There are minor ‘escapes’ found throughout the novel, during which the women of Gilead attempt to communicate with one another while escaping detection. For instance, in the Center where the Handmaids are trained, “in the paint of the washroom cubicle someone unknown had scratched: Aunt Lydia sucks” (222). These clandestine messages, though not directly escape attempts, create distinct groups in Gilead of good and evil. These two categories are even further proven in an actual escape attempt at the end of the novel, when the Eyes come to take Offred. Nick assures her, “It’s all right. It’s Mayday. Go with them” (293). Mayday, signifying a day of rebellion for Gilead, shows the final escape attempt. She must choose to trust the only male in the story not in a position of possession over her and go with the Eyes, not knowing whether or not she should believe Nick. This final attempt, in conjunction with smaller escape attempts found throughout the novel fulfill Ketterer’s definition of dystopia, as people want to leave the evil power regime created by Gilead.

Conversely, Watchmen’s universe contains almost no direct elements of Ketterer’s dystopia, and instead only falls into the category of Greene’s definition of dystopia as preventing independent thought. Instead of creating a directly oppressive and tyrannical government, Moore instead forms a world in which corporations and powerful individuals subtly exert control and manipulate the masses in order to gain power and influence. In Watchmen’s “realistic world, governed by power politics” (Paik 27), the most important elements of control are eerily similar to those of the American present: the media. Thus, thought is controlled by advertising and other media and independent thought is stifled, fulfilling Greene’s definition.

Adrian Veidt, the evil mastermind behind the ultimate destruction of the world of Watchmen in order to create a new world order, controls the entirety of the novel and the world inside of it through media influences. Before Moore reveals that Veidt is at the center of the conspiracy to destroy half of New York in order to unite the world, Veidt’s commercial empire permeates almost every page of the graphic novel. Before the attack on New York, Veidt’s ad campaign for his perfume, Nostalgia, is seen in the background of dozens of panels.  It is found over boutiques (Moore 3:7), diners (4: 24), on torn posters on walls (5:18). These nostalgic campaigns reflect back to a time when there were superheroes and no threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction: a utopia. By bombarding the citizens of Watchmen’s world with imagery relating to the past, Veidt controls their thoughts and emotions, forcing them to feel anxious about the threat of the Cold War. After resolving these fears he created in the public through the Nostalgia ad campaign by killing millions of people in New York and ending the Cold War because of a new perceived alien common enemy, Veidt continues to exercise influence over the public through his new “Millennium” campaign, that shows figures facing toward the now bright future(12:31). Veidt even talks about the way that he influences the public through advertisement and media in Chapter 10 on page 8, saying that because of the trends of pre-war times, he is going to invest differently “into the major erotic video companies. That’s short term. Also, we should negotiate controlling shares in selected baby food and maternity goods and manufacturers”(10:8), because of the baby boom he predicts. Veidt’s control is subtle, yet absolute, giving Watchmen the qualities of intellectual control instead of direct oppression as in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Finally, Veidt literally destroys independent thought when he threatens to destroy the world. The superheroes of the novel all agree to follow Veidt’s lead because it is the only way to unite the world, and the deed had already been done (11:27). Yet Rorschach, the one dissenter who wishes to return to America and tell the world that Veidt is behind the destruction is obliterated. Because the rest of the superheroes “must protect Veidt’s new utopia, one more body amongst the foundations makes little difference” (12:24). Rorschach is destroyed because of his refusal to follow what Veidt wants him to believe, and so Veidt continues to exercise influence over thought and independent thinking by literally destroying his enemy and Rorschach’s dissenting opinion. Clearly, Watchmen fits perfectly into Greene’s category of dystopia as being a government that stifles any kind of oppressive thought and serves instead to manipulate thought and control its citizens’ minds.

Not only do The Handmaid’s Tale and Watchmen fulfill two differing definitions of dystopia, but they also represent two different dichotomies between good and evil.  The Handmaid’s Tale, which clearly fulfills every feature of Ketterer’s dystopia definition, creates a distinct Manichean dichotomy of good versus evil. Conversely, Watchmen only fulfills Greene’s definition of dystopia, and blurs the lines between good and evil. Though The Handmaid’s Tale contains elements of thought suppression, it is not the most salient dystopian feature of the novel. Instead, Watchmen is distinctly characterized by the repression of independent thinking and in doing so creates a world in which good and evil are on a spectrum and characters and corporations cannot necessarily be placed on one end.

The Handmaid’s Tale grapples with evil in distinct dichotomies that are perceived by not only the reader but also by the citizens of Gilead. This novel’s “Historical Notes” present a perspective from hundreds of years after the Gilead Empire, denouncing the atrocities that were in place at the time. The black and white nature of good and evil is one that is clear because the dystopia was overthrown; it must have been so oppressive and miserable for its citizens because they were controlled by routine, roles, and removal of freedom, that they tried to escape and overthrow the government. The Historical Notes present The Handmaid’s Tale as a true story that was “unearthed on the site of what was once the city of Bangor” (Atwood 301) as “thirty tapes in the collection altogether” (301) having been spoken by the same narrator. Because of this conclusion that the tapes came from someone who escape the Gilead regime, The Handmaid’s Tale’s world is one in which the evil of the Gilead government was overthrown. The novel’s easily identifiable evil characters, such as the Aunts, the Commanders, and some unnamed powers who run the government, create a target that readers are invited to view as evil in nature. Because the novel was told in first person and identifies these characters as evil, readers even further view the women and men forced into their proscribed roles as being good, while those who did the forcing are represented as evil. By fulfilling the necessary components of Ketterer’s dystopia and entrenching herself in the genre, Atwood formulates a world in which the reader’s beliefs about dystopia are reinforced. There is an evil overlord and government who presides over a good citizenry. In order to restore the balance of good over evil, the government must be overthrown. These citizens of the future are able to claim that, “Gileadean society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily more free” (302), because of the overthrow of this evil government, further imposing strict categorizations of good and evil.

Watchmen, on the other hand, presents a much grayer view of good and evil, particularly in the form of Adrian Veidt. Veidt reaches the height of his control over the world when he chooses to employ dystopian means in order to attempt to create a utopia. Sending an ‘alien’ monster he created through genetic engineering to New York, Veidt causes a cataclysmic neurological disaster, killing millions, with the intention of uniting the world against a common enemy. Moore places the destruction of Times Square on six full pages at the beginning of Chapter 12, ensuring that the reader must take in the entirety of the carnage. Placed amongst the the bodies, Moore places discarded newspapers that read “WAR?” in large typeface (Moore 12:3-6), indicating that the society was on the brink of destruction before this terrorist event, along with a discarded pamphlet for The Veidt Training Method. This pamphlet falls to the ground amongst the destruction, reading “I Will Give You Bodies Beyond Your Wildest Imaginings” (12:6). This darkly almost comical insertion of Veidt’s presence into the scene demonstrates not only his responsibility for the event, but also signifies that perhaps Veidt could truly have meant two things in what he was communicating; he wanted to help the people of the world by literally helping them to perfect their bodies, yet gives the world dead bodies in order to unite them.  Though he has murdered countless people, “we are invited to read this extended scene of death and destruction as the signifiers for the near-miraculous founding of a new and peaceful order, a golden age of international cooperation and solidarity” (Paik 35). Instead of viewing Veidt as an inherently evil character, the reader is asked to instead see that perhaps his evil actions serve a higher and ‘good’ purpose.

Moore confuses the question of good and evil further through his characters Rorschach, who represents an idea of justice and the vindication of good and evil, and The Comedian, who seems amoral but in fact sometimes stands for good. After the heroes find out that Veidt has committed this attack, they almost universally agree to cover up his involvement for the betterment of society. Yet Rorschach disagrees, and leaves to return to America because “evil must be punished” (Moore 12:22). As seen earlier in this examination, however, Doctor Manhattan chooses to kill a crying Rorschach instead of allowing him to reveal what Rorschach believes is Veidt’s evil nature. Though in this moment Rorschach represents good, he is imprisoned as a violent criminal earlier in the novel. Similarly, the Comedian is evil in his love of senseless violence, yet says that “Somebody has to save the world” (2:10), even though this perhaps inspired Veidt’s evil deeds. The Comedian is even killed because he uncovers and opposes Veidt’s plot: “He knew my plan would succeed, though its scale terrified him” (11:25). The Comedian is seen murdering his pregnant Vietnamese girlfriend (2:14), yet in some situations clearly takes a moral standpoint. These two characters muddy the waters between good and evil and cause the reader to seriously question the morality of not only the world of Watchmen, but of dystopias and powerful governments as a whole.

Finally, though Veidt commits an evil action of mass murder, he is perhaps good in his attempts to create a true utopia resulting from a common enemy, but Moore complicates this issue further with the final frames of the novel. On page 32 of Chapter 12, a lowly assistant at a newspaper is seen reaching for Rorschach’s journal that reveals every part of Veidt’s plan, as the symbol of the Comedian’s badge lies on his shirt. Though the story ends here, there is an epigraph on the last page, on which is written “Who watches the watchmen?” (12:33). Here, the reader sees that only two confusingly amoral at times and moral at times characters, Rorschach and the Comedian, are the watchers of the world. They selectively condemn evil, and in others moments perpetrate evil, yet they are both silenced because they condemn Veidt’s actions despite the moral gray area they reside in. Their ideas of certain acts as being concretely good or concretely evil demonstrate just how confused the notions of good and evil are in Watchmen. By stifling their voices, Moore indicates that Greene’s definition of a dystopia is one that creates a more realistic world, in which there is never a true dominance of good over evil in the end.

Through their varying uses of dystopia and dystopian features, Atwood and Moore bring to light a hidden feature of each type of dystopia. In fulfilling each of Ketterer’s strict features of dystopia, Atwood reveals that this definition of dystopia creates a world with strict separation between good and evil. In only fulfilling Greene’s definition of dystopia as destroying independent thought, Moore reveals that these sorts of dystopias, that are much less extreme in their manifestations, create a world in which good and evil are not clearly defined. By calling morality into question or creating a hyper-strict definition of good versus evil, Moore and Atwood grapple with questions of the nature of power in dystopia, and challenge readers to question their understandings of this genre. Power is not always inherently evil, and neither is dystopia.

 

Works Cited

Beauchamp, Gorman. “The Politics of The Handmaid’s Tale.” The Midwest Quarterly 51.1 (2009): 11–25. Print.

Greene, Vivien. “Utopia/Dystopia.” American Art 25.2 (2011): 2–7. JSTOR. Web.

Ketterer, David. “Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: A Contextual Dystopia (‘La Servante écarlate’ de Margaret Atwood: Une Dystopie Contextuelle).” Science Fiction Studies 16.2 (1989): 209–217. Print.

Paik, Peter. “Utopia Achieved: The Case of Watchmen.” From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. 23–69. Print.

 

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“What if an American comic book company were to ring me up (not that it was going to happen) and they offered me my first U.S. assignment, only it was the most obscure, uninteresting character I could imagine? So let’s, out of the blue, pick the most obscure American comics character I could think of and just see if I could reinterpret him and make him interesting.”

That’s Alan Moore describing himself, just before an American comic book company really did ring him up. It was DC editor Len Wein offering him a shot at Swamp Thing.

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Weirdly, the “most obscure American comics character” Moore had practiced on was The Heap—the 1940s character Wein had knocked-off to create Swamp Thing in 1971.

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The character type was oddly popular in the early 70s. Roy Thomas had been a Heap fan as a kid, and so when he got a staff writer job at Marvel, he created the Heap-like Glob for The Incredible Hulk #121 in 1969.

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A year and a half later, Skywald comics resurrected the original Heap.

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Thomas had told his pal, former Marvel employer and Skywald co-founder Sol Brodsky, it was a good band wagon to jump on since Marvel had its own Heap knock-off, Man-Thing. Stan Lee dreamt up that name, but apparently the Glob was all the regurgitated Heap Thomas could swallow, so he handed the assignment to scripter Gerry Conway. Gray Morrow’s drawings even include a visual homage to the Heap’s vine-like nose in Savage Tales #1 (May 1971).

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Thomas tossed the next Man-Thing assignment to Len Wein and Neal Adams who worked up a second episode, but Marvel cancelled Savage Tales after the first issue. Wein also freelanced at DC where he created Swamp Thing with artist Bernie Wrightson for House of Secrets #92 (June–July 1971). It took another year, but the Wein-Adams Man-Thing eventually surfaced in Astonishing Tales #12 (June 1972), just a few months before Wein and Wrightson updated their House of Secrets Swamp Thing for DC’s Swamp Thing #1 (October–November 1972).

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That’s a murky swamp of overlapping characters and creators to sift through. Worse, Wein and Conway were sharing an apartment at the time, and yet Wein swore Swamp Thing had nothing to do with Man-Thing—even though Man-Thing’s premiere is dated a month before Swamp Thing’s.

Thomas’s timetable doesn’t add up either: Skywald’s Heap premiered in Psycho #2 March 1971, three months before Man-Thing in Savage Tales #1. Add in the unknowable differences in production time, and the quagmire keeps deepening.

Neither Marvel nor DC tried to sue the other for copyright infringement, since both their characters were infringing on the Heap that Harry Stein and Mort Leav created for Hillman Periodicals’ Air Fighters Comics #3 in 1942. But Stein and Leav don’t get original credit either, since the Heap looks a lot like Theodore Sturgeon’s short story “It,” published two years earlier in Street and Smith’s Unknown.

Wein says he conceived Swamp Thing in December 1970, but

“Why I decided to make the protagonist some sort of swamp monster . . . I can no longer recall. . . . Coincidentally, Joe [Orlando, then-editor of THE HOUSE OF MYSTERY and THE HOUSE OF SECRETS] had been thinking of doing a story along the lines of Theodore Sturgeon’s classic fantasy tale ‘It’ . . . a story I had actually never read.”

And the swamp goes full circle when Roy Thomas scripted Marvel’s “It” adaptation for Supernatural Thrillers #1 (December 1972).

Sturgeon was invited to the 1975 San Diego Comic Convention so Ray Bradbury could hand him a Golden Ink Pot award. “I learned,” wrote Sturgeon, “for the very first time that my story ‘It’ is seminal; that it is the great granddaddy of The Swamp Thing, The Hulk, The Man Thing, and I don’t know how many celebrated graphics.”

The comic book swamp, however, was already draining, since Man-Thing was cancelled in 1975, and Swamp Thing the year after. It’s hard to explain the initial rise, though it probably has something to do with the 1971 change in the Comics Code:

“Vampires, ghouls and werewolves shall be permitted to be used when handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high calibre literary works written by Edgar Allen Poe, Saki, Conan Doyle and other respected authors whose works are read in schools around the world.”

The Heap, after all, is a reanimated corpse. Though the cause of that reanimation is as murky as Swamp Thing’s creative origins. Is “the unearthly transformation” because World War I German pilot Baron Emmelmann’s “will to live” is such a “powerful force” that it merges his body with the slime and vegetation of the Polish swamp where his plane crashed, causing him to rise two decades later as “a fantastic heap that is neither man nor animal”? If so, why does the Heap “die” two issues later, only to be reanimated by a nefarious zoologist’s “serum”? And what does that mysterious serum have to do with “Ceres, Goddess of Soil,” who in 1947 is retconned (by an uncredited writer) into the origin, raising the dead pilot as an agent of peace in defiance of the god Ares?

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Alan Moore did an even deeper retcon to Swamp Thing. Instead of a man transformed into a plant, the 1984 Swamp Thing is a plant transformed into a man.

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The 2005 Man-Thing movie (it apparently was intended to be theatrical release before demoted to the Syfy channel) goes for supernatural agency, though the Lee-Thomas-Conway-Morrow original was pure scifi: the inventor of a super-soldier serum injects himself and crashes his car into a swamp to keep the serum from the bad guys. The “formula”—updating Captain America’s premise for the Vietnam-era—is apparently napalm-based (a newspaper headline reads “NAPALM BOMB” as the inventor laments: “It’s bad enough the chemical will be used for more killing”), and so Man-Thing’s touch burns. Or it did until the second episode, when Wein decided it only burns those who feel fear because . . . that’s how napalm works? Steve Gerber ran with that non-scifi premise, mixing more supernatural agency into his revised swamp, which, it turns out, is really a doorway to multiple dimensions.

Although Man-Thing hasn’t been lying completely dormant for the last few decades, I’d say he’s still a descent contender for the current “most obscure, uninteresting comic book character” category. Or at least a mindless, shuffling heap of muck that reflexively burns people who are afraid isn’t a superhero high on Marvel Entertainment’s film and TV project list. Like Thomas for the Heap though, I have a squishy spot in my heart for him. So let me take on Alan Moore’s thought experiment, and see if I can “reinterpret him and make him interesting.” Or maybe the problem is Man-Thing is already too interesting? So my assignment is to cover his range of weirdness while sticking to a single, scifi-only premise.

I’m placing my swamp near New Orleans and staffing it with weapon designers. Instead of napalm and super-soldiers, it’s a burning black plasma that swirls and geysers when in contact with a remote control beacon, incinerating everything else it touches. But to be practical in the field, you’d need a live soldier to operate it. So the new design is a hazmat body suit with direct neural interface. The head gear includes two large red “eyes” and tubes down the nose and sides. Things are going great until the suit-tester starts getting nervous. As his vitals rise, the plasma hits new levels of heat and mobility. It starts burning through the suit, and before they can shut it down, it incinerates him, leaving only a blackened skeleton and gas mask. But since the plasma is encoded with the last neural input, it’s now moving on its own, splashing and lurching around the complex with its puppet of a charred corpse. When it breaks outside, it vanishes into the swamp, where the plasma merges with the muck and bonds around the skeleton. What emerges isn’t sentient. It’s not even alive. It just roams randomly or sits dormant until its eyes glow red with internal heat when it senses human fear—which it then extinguishes with its burning touch.

The original Conway script includes a scantily-clad female spy who betrays the inventor and then later gets her face burnt off by Man-Thing—so let’s please avoid that double dose of misogyny. Maybe the inventor is the woman this time, and the guy testing the suit is the spy who’s seduced her to steal the tech. His vitals spike because she’s about to find him out—so it’s not just fear but his guilt too. To his own surprise, he really does love her, and it’s only his bursting into flame that prevents the discovery of his betrayal, giving his transformation a redemptive edge. Turning into a monster stops him from being a monster. And I’m betting at the end she’s the only one who can face him without fear, an act of forgiveness that also allows the plasma to finally shut down and Man-Thing to collapse into a puddle of mud and bones.

Okay, so maybe not the light PG-13 tone of the current Marvel movie universe, but what do you expect from a mindless, fear-burning swamp beast? I suggest Marvel use the character for a multi-episode subplot during season three of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, not unlike how they used Deathlok (another early 70s super-soldier monstrosity) in season one.

Now let’s see if anyone rings me up.

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(Meanwhile, instead of sitting by his own phone, Swamp Thing is headed to Reykjavik, Iceland, for the International Popular Culture Association Conference at the end of July. Nathaniel Goldberg, a colleague from the Washington and Lee University Philosophy department, and I are presenting our paper, “Donald Davidson and the Mind of Swamp Thing.”)

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Is Marvel Entertainment evil?

I compiled commentary from twelve experts, and the results are not good for superhero fans.

“I’m not going to head off and do a Marvel film,” director Peter Jackson said on the eve of his Hobbit 3 release. “I don’t really like the Hollywood blockbuster bandwagon that exists right now. The industry and the advent of all the technology, has kind of lost its way. It’s become very franchise driven and superhero driven.”

Since Jackson’s Lord of the Rings marked that technology advent, and since Jackson made all six of the Tolkien franchise films, that leaves superheroes as his only objection. He doesn’t like them. Or at least he doesn’t like Marvel—which, despite Warner Bros’ best efforts, is the same thing.

Even Marvel’s own Iron Man Robert Downey, Jr. is sees the rust: “Honestly, the whole thing is just showing the beginning signs of fraying around the edges. It’s a little bit old. Last summer there were five or seven different ones out.”

Actually, there were only four superhero movies last summer, and though Marvel Entertainment produced only two (Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy), the Marvel logo appeared at the start of the last X-Men and Spider-Man installments too. But you can’t blame Downey’s miscount. New York Times film critic A. O. Scott expressed a similar opinion after seeing Downey in The Avengers two year earlier: “the genre, though it is still in a period of commercial ascendancy, has also entered a phase of imaginative decadence.”

Alan Moore’s review was even more apocalyptic: “I think it’s a rather alarming sign if we’ve got audiences of adults going to see the Avengers movie and delighting in concepts and characters meant to entertain the 12-year-old boys of the 1950s.” Even The Avengers own director Joss Whedon acknowledges that audiences are tired of at least some aspects of the formula: “People have made it very clear that they are fed up with movies where entire cities are destroyed, and then we celebrate.”

And yet when a director attempts to shake-up the formula, Marvel fires them. Marvel’s Ant-Man went into production only because of Edgar Wright’s involvement, but when Marvel wasn’t happy with his last script, they rewrote it without his input, followed by a joint announcement that Wright was leaving “due to differences in their visions of the film.” Wright joined axed Marvel directors Kenneth Branaugh, Joe Johnston, and Patty Jenkins (as well as axed actors Edward Norton and Terrance Howard), all victims of similar differences in vision.

Is this the same risk-taking Marvel that hired Ang Lee to make his idiosyncratic Hulk? Is this the same Marvel that hired drug-addict Robert Downey, Jr. after Downey couldn’t stay clean long enough to complete a season of Alley McBeal? Is this the same Marvel that hired the iconoclastic Joss Whedon after his Buffy empire expired, his Firefly franchise flopped, and his Wonder Woman script never even made it into Development Hell?

Actually, it’s not.

Kim Masters and Borys Kit of The Hollywood Reporter explain:  “Marvel and Wright were different entities when they began their relationship. Marvel was an upstart, independent and feisty as it began building the Marvel Studios brand.”

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The Marvel I grew up reading, Marvel Comics Group, hasn’t been around since 1986, when its parent company, Marvel Entertainment Group, was sold to New World Entertainment. Technically, Marvel Comics (AKA Atlas Comics, AKA Timely Comics) ceased to exist in 1968 when owner Martin Goodman sold his company to Perfect Film and Chemical Corporation. The corporate juggling is hard to follow, but that next Marvel was sold to MacAndrews Group in 1989, and then, as part of a bankruptcy deal, to Toy Biz in 1997, where it became Marvel Enterprises, before changing its name to Marvel Entertainment in 2005 when it created Marvel Studios, before sold to Disney in 2009.

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The real question is: at what point did Hydra infiltrate it?

I would like to report that the nefarious forces of evil have seized only Marvel’s movie-making branches, leaving its financially infinitesimal world of comic books to wallow in benign neglect. But that’s not the case.

Marvel comics writer Chris Claremont, renown for his 16-year run on The Uncanny X-Men, is currently hampered in his Nightcrawler scripting because he and everyone else writing X-Men titles are forbidden to create new characters.  “Well,” he asked, “who owns them?” Fox does. Which means any new character Claremont creates becomes the film property of a Marvel Entertainment rival. “There will be no X-Men merchandising for the foreseeable future because, why promote Fox material?”

That’s also why Marvel cancelled The Fantastic Four. Those film rights are owned by Fox too, with a reboot out next August. Why should the parent company allow one of its micro-branches to promote another studio’s movie? Well, for one, The Fantastic Four was the title that launched the Marvel superhero pantheon and its subsequent comics empire in 1961.  Surely even a profits-blinded mega-corporation can recognize the historical significance?

Like I said: Hydra.

This is what drove former Marvel creator Paul Jenkins to the independent Boom! Studios: “It bugs me that the creators were a primary focus when the mainstream publishers needed them, and now that the corporations are driving the boat, creative decisions are being made once again by shareholders.” Former Marvel editor-in-chief Roy Thomas agrees: “There is a sense of loss because the tail is now wagging the dog.”

Compare that to Fantagraphics editor Garry Groth: “I think it’s a publisher’s obligation to take risks; I could probably publish safe, respectable ‘literary’ comics or solid, ‘good,’ uncontroversial comics for the rest of my life. I think it’s important, personally and professionally, to occasionally get outside your comfort zone.”

Marvel Entertainment is all about comfort zones. Even for its actors. “It’s all set up now so that you’re weirdly kind of safe,” says former Batman star Michael Keaton. “Once you get in those suits, they really know what to do with you. It was hard then; it ain’t that hard now.” New York Times’ Alex Pappademas is “old enough to remember when Warner Brothers entrusted the 1989 Batman and its sequel to Tim Burton, and how bizarre that decision seemed at the time, and how Burton ended up making one deeply and fascinatingly Tim Burton-ish movie that happened to be about Batman (played by the equally unlikely Michael Keaton, still the only screen Bruce Wayne who seemed like a guy with a dark secret).”

That’s the same Michael Keaton that just rode Birdman to the Oscars. How soon till Marvel’s Agents of H.Y.D.R.A. overwhelm that corner of Hollywood?

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As Jack Black sang at the Oscars ceremony: “Opening with lots of zeroes, all we get are superheroes: Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Jediman, Sequelman, Prequelman – formulaic scripts!”

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Jerry Siegel stole Superman’s 1938 tagline “champion of the oppressed” from Douglas Fairbanks. The silent film star’s 1920 The Mark of Zorro opens with the intertitle: “Oppression—by its very nature—creates the power that crushes it. A champion arises—a champion of the oppressed—whether it be a Cromwell or someone unrecorded, he will be there. He is born.”

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You can quibble with the superheroic logic (is oppression always self-defeating?), but the word that made me pause (literally, I thumbed PAUSE on my remote) is “Cromwell.” As in Oliver Cromwell, the man who chopped off King Charles’ head in 1649 to become Lord Protector of England until his own, kidney-related death a decade later (after which Charles’ restored son dug up his body and chopped off his head too). All perfectly interesting, but what, you may ask, does that have to do with Zorro?

Johnston McCulley doesn’t mention Cromwell in The Curse of Capistrano, the All-Story pulp serial Fairbanks adapted. Some American Fairbanks trace their name back to the Puritan Fayerbankes, proud followers of Cromwell since the 1630s, so maybe Douglas was just carrying on family tradition. Except The Mark of Zorro isn’t the first Cromwell mention in superhero lore.

George Bernard Shaw lauds him in “The Revolutionist’s Handbook,” an appendix to his 1903 Man and Superman, the play that first gave us the English ubermensch. Shaw (or his alter ego John Tanner, the Handbook’s fictional author) declares Cromwell “one of those chance attempts at the Superman which occur from time to time in spite of the interference of Man’s blundering institutions.” A devout eugenicist, Shaw/Tanner longed for a nation of supermen, “an England in which every man is a Cromwell.”

By the time Siegel was copying Fairbanks’ intertitles in the 30s, “Cromwell” and “Superman” were synonyms. Biographer John Buchan (better known for his Hitchcock adapted Thirty-Nine Steps) called him “the one Superman in England who ruled and reigned without a crown.” P. W. Wilson extended the comparison to modern times, ranking England’s Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin “among the supermen,” and likening his overseeing of Edward VIII’s abdication to Cromwell’s regicide.

Alan Moore

Alan Moore extends the superhero connection even further. In a 2007 interview, Moore (like Shaw’s John Tanner) identifies himself as an anarchist (“the only political standpoint that I could possibly adhere to would be an anarchist one”) and so longs for a society with “no leaders” (he’s literally anti “archons”). He traces his inspiration to 17th England when underground religious movements were espousing the heretical view that all men could be priests, “a nation of saints.” And, Moore explains, “it was during the 17th century that, partly fueled by similar ideas, Oliver Cromwell rose up and commenced the British civil war, which eventually led to the beheading of Charles I.”

Guy Fawkes (inspiration for Moore’s V for Vendetta) had tried to kill Charles’ father, King James, a half century earlier, but Guy was no Oliver. Moore revels in the thought of headless monarchs, but Buchan celebrates the executioner, “an iron man of action” with “no parallel in history.” Cromwell ignored his own council of commanders during the civil war and, after making England a republic, he ignored Parliament too. “It was too risky to trust the people,” writes Buchan, “he must trust himself.”

That’s the ubermensch Shaw adores. Not a champion of the oppressed, but a champion of the self. And it’s a quality still central to every superhero, all those iron men of action who trust only themselves, ignoring and sometimes defying law enforcement to maintain their own sense order.  Zorro opposed the colonial regime of a corrupt California governor. Cromwell fought for religious freedom against a tyrant who persecuted anyone who did not conform to the Church of England.

But what happens after oppression is crushed? Fairbanks’ Zorro retires into happy matrimony. McCulley rebooted his Zorro for more oppression-opposing adventures—inspired by Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel, an iron man of action dedicated to rescuing noble necks from the kind of execution blade Cromwell wielded. Once enthroned, the Lord Protector imposed his own, literally Puritanical order on England. He closed taverns, chopped down maypoles, outlawed make-up, fined profanity, and, as a real life Burgermeister Meisterburger, cancelled Christmas.

When Alan Brennert wrote his 1991 graphic novel, Batman: Holy Terror, he kept Cromwell on the throne another decade, creating an alternate universe in which the U.S. is an English commonwealth run by a corrupt theocracy. It seems Supermen in charge are not such a good thing for the common man. Look at Garth Ennis’ The Boys (2006), or Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come (1996), or Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme (1986), or, best yet, Alan Moore’s Marvelman (AKA, Miracleman, but let’s not go into that right now). I bought No. 16 from my college comic shop in 1989, a year after I graduated college. It’s the last issue before Neil Gaiman took over and I stopped reading the series. Gaiman is great, but the story was over. Marvelman has rid the world of nuclear warheads, money, global warming, crime, childbirth pain, and, in some cases, death. He’s not king of the world. He’s its totalitarian god.

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Marvel Comics is re-releasing and completing the series in 2014, and, what the hell, I’ll probably pick up where I left off. But my worship of Moore is long over. I considered him the reigning writer of the multiverse for decades, but his rule grew increasingly idiosyncratic and, less forgivable, dull. His last Miracleman, “Olympus,” is a tour of the distopic future. From Hell offers similar tours, literally horse-drawn, which, while aggressively non-dramatic in structure, basically work. But my heart sunk when the third volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman devolved into a balloon ride over yet more of Moore’s meticulously researched esotoria. Yes, the dream-like Blazing World is ripe with 3-D nudity, but this is no way to conclude a plot. When Promethea, my favorite of all Moore creations, plunged down the same rabbit hole, I couldn’t make myself keep reading. Moore was running his own imprint at this point, America’s Best Comics, with no Parliament or War Council left to ignore, and no corrupt tyrant to oppose.

Heroes need oppression. Even Fairbanks’ son, Douglas Jr., knew that. After his father’s death, he wrote, produced, and starred in The Exile, a 1947 swashbuckler about Charles II, the son of the king Cromwell beheaded. He hides out on a Holland farm and falls in love with a flower monger while battling Cromwell’s assassins before Parliament calls him back to his throne. It’s a happy ending made happier by the fact that Fairbanks didn’t follow it with a sequel. After Charles started waging wars and suspending their laws, Parliament regretted their invitation.

Every Cromwell—by his very nature—creates the Cromwell that crushes him.

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That’s what Alan Moore told a recent interviewer. “I don’t think the superhero stands for anything good,” he said. “They were originally in the hands of writers who would actively expand the imagination of their nine-to-13-year-old audience.” But since all they do nowadays is entertain 30-60-year-old “emotionally subnormal” men, Moore considers superheroes “abominations” and their continuing dominance “culturally catastrophic.”

This from a self-professed anarchist who considers the shooting of government leaders a “lovely thought.” Little wonder his first superhero was a terrorist.

V-Comic-Cover

Moore and artist David Lloyd started V for Vendetta in 1981 for England’s since defunct Warrior magazine. I started reading it when the series moved to DC in 1988. I was 22, Moore’s age when he first conceived a story about “a freakish terrorist” who “waged war upon a Totalitarian State.” But it was Lloyd who transformed Moore’s freak into “a resurrected Guy Fawkes, complete with one of those paper mâché masks in a cape and conical hat.”

Their plan was to create “something uniquely British,” and, sure enough, the Fawkes reference meant absolutely nothing to this Pittsburgh-born college senior. When I’d read The Handmaid’s Tale the year before, I though Margaret Atwood was forecasting an original future: “when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress . . . The entire government, gone like that.” But Fawkes beat her by almost four centuries.

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I didn’t read up on the Gunpowder Plot till I was a student teacher prepping Macbeth for a class of tenth graders. Shakespeare staged his tragedy of a regicidal anti-hero after Catholic terrorists tried to blow-up King James during the 1605 opening of Parliament. They’d rented a storage space under the House of Lords and crammed in three dozen barrels of gunpowder. Fawkes was arrested before he could light the fuse, tortured into betraying his dozen co-conspirators, tried, hanged, and his body displayed in pieces as a warning to sympathizers. He was still in prison when London lit bonfires in celebration of the King’s survival, and Parliament later declared the anniversary an official holiday, complete with fireworks and newspaper-stuffed “guys” set ablaze.

But hatred is a funny thing. Somewhere along the line the point of all those celebrations got hazy. Guy Fawkes Night lost its official standing in the 19th century—around when penny dreadful writers were converting England’s most abominable traitor into a romantic hero, a conspiracy Lloyd happily joined. “We shouldn’t burn the chap every Nov. 5,” he told Moore, “but celebrate his attempt to blow up Parliament!”

I want to say the American equivalent would be championing John Wilkes Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald, but Fawkes’ rehabilitation might be possible only because his assassinations failed. Benedict Arnold could be closer—except no one remembers what treason he was planning (and if even you do, surrendering West Point to the British just doesn’t have the same audacious charm).

So Lloyd wanted to “give Guy Fawkes the image he’s deserved”—but I’m not sure Moore was fully committed to the plot. Despite his anarchist rhetoric, he doesn’t “believe that a violent revolution is ever going to work,” and he doesn’t hide his freakish terrorist’s violence under POW! and BAM! bubbles either. It was Lloyd who banned the sound effects (along with thought balloons—probably the most important moment in Moore’s development as a writer), but Moore’s dialogue complicates the violence Lloyd renders otherwise bloodless:

“I’ve seen worse, Dominic, physically speaking. Like I say, it’s the mental side that bothers me . . . his attitude to killing. Think about it. He killed them ruthlessly, efficiently, and with a minimum of fuss. Whatever their faults, those were two human beings . . . and he slaughtered them like cattle!”

The terrorist also enters quoting Macbeth, the monstrous anti-hero Shakespeare’s audiences (including King James for whom it was commissioned) would have linked to Fawkes. Moore’s Chapter One title, “The Villain,” is a bit of a clue too. V goes on to murder and maim his way through some thirty more chapters, but the part that troubled me most at the time was the psychological torture he inflicts on Evey. Yes, he rescues the damsel from a back alley rape in standard Batman fashion, but then he dupes her into believing she’s been imprisoned by the fascist government, shaves her head, starves and waterboards her, all in the name of . . . what exactly? By the end Evey is a good little Robin, taking on her mentor’s mission, but there’s more than a whiff of Stockholm syndrome between the panels.

“The central question is,” Moore says, “is this guy right? Or is he mad? I didn’t want to tell people what to think, I just wanted to tell people to think and consider some of these admittedly extreme little elements.”

Which, by the way, is a pretty good example of using a superhero to actively expand an audience’s imagination.

Britain Anonymous Protest

Meanwhile, Guy Fawkes keeps adventuring. The “hacktivist” network Anonymous adopted Lloyd’s Fawkes mask for their 2008 Scientology protest—which they then carried over to Occupy Wall Street and, most recently, a worldwide Million Mask March held on Guy Fawkes Day to protest government austerity programs. The group’s anti-corporate message, however, gets a bit hazy once you know Time Warner owns the copyright on the mask (via DC I assume) which are manufactured in South American sweatshops and earn the company a killing on Amazon.

Something to think about, Moore might say.

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Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

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!”

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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.

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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.

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