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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Avengers

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“There’s only one Hamlet (and most children don’t read it), whereas comic books come by the millions.”

That’s what Frederic Wertham told readers of National Parent-Teacher in 1949, his second of three reasons why comics are bad for kids. Six years later in Seduction of the Innocent, he quoted a publisher using the same Shakespeare play as an excuse for comic-book content:

“Sure there is violence in comics. It’s all over English literature, too. Look at Hamlet.”

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Wertham roundly mocked the comment, but the publisher had a point, and not just about violence. Lone heir of an aristocratic family avenges his murdered father in a society ruled by corruption. Sound familiar? Hamlet is the boiler plate for Batman and other vengeance-motivated vigilantes across the multiverse.

So while it’s true most children don’t read Hamlet, Hamlet knock-offs come by the millions. But if you don’t think Batman is a Tragedy, take another look inside Shakespeare.

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Bruce Wayne, haunted by the unjust death of his parents, dedicates himself to a noble war on criminals. Does that make Bruce a tragic hero? Depends on your definition. Hamlet is a tragic hero in the sense that he is the hero of a tragedy. Macbeth is also the hero of a self-titled tragedy, but the two characters are polar opposites. Macbeth overthrows the peaceful order of Scotland by murdering the king and stealing the throne. In Hamlet, that’s Claudius, the guy who murdered Hamlet’s dad and set his ghost wandering the ramparts. It takes the not-of-woman-born Macduff to defeat the usurper Macbeth and restore order. In Denmark, that’s Hamlet’s vigilante mission.

The ur-Tragedy Oedipus Rex combines the roles of Macbeth and Hamlet into one character. Oedipus is the supervillain who killed his own father, stole his father’s wife and throne, and sunk the city of Thebes into supernatural plague. But he’s also the hero who solves the mystery and restores order by punishing the criminal—which means gouging his own eyes out. If you define “tragic hero” as that sort of a self-punishing criminal, neither Hamlet nor Macbeth make the list.

But Hamlet, like Batman, is an avenger. He didn’t make Denmark rotten. That was Claudius, and if Claudius self-punished like Oedipus, Claudius would be a tragic hero too. But Claudius is just a garden-variety villain, and so Denmark needs a hero to set things right. Enter Hamlet. He’s “tragic” only in the sense that he dies, and since he dies after completing his heroic mission, he dies triumphant. But unlike the deaths of Claudius, Oedipus, and Macbeth, his death isn’t necessary to restore order. It’s just an epilogue.

Unlike tragic heroes who start out unjust and so corrupt their kingdoms before eventually punishing themselves, an avenger is aligned with justice from the start. Hamlet is “tragic” only because he ends in what Northrop Frye calls social isolation. The most extreme version is death—six feet under is pretty isolated—but social isolation comes in a range, and avengers embody it all. John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett in The Myth of the American Superhero identify the standard type: “lonely, selfless, sexless beings” each of whom “never practices citizenship.”

Your traditional gunfighter doesn’t settle down after restoring order. He moves on. Which implies the role of avenger is socially subversive in itself. Because the avenger is a response to injustice, the avenger reflects and embodies that injustice. Once the criminal is punished and justice restored, the avenger also has to conform to tragedy’s ABA structure. His own pre-hero state has to be restored too.  It’s a mini-version of society’s former golden age, an age free of crime and so also free of crime-fighters. A full restoration of justice ends the role of the justice-seeking avenger, and so the avenger has to vanish with the villain.

To end in social integration instead, an avenger has to give up the avenger role. That means hanging up the costume and getting married—how early proto-superheroes Zorro, the Gray Seal, and Spring-Heeled Jack all ended their crime-fighting adventures. Serial heroes like Batman remain avengers by prolonging the B phase of the tragedy plot structure, that quixotic war on criminals that by definition can never end. If Bruce just needed to hunt down his parents’ killer, he could have retired a long time ago and married Julie. Remember Julie? Probably not. She was Bruce’s original fiancé, but, like Ophelia, Julie called it quits long before the end of the action.

Other avengers at least pretend to be on a simultaneous quest for personal restoration. Superheroes often figure their fantastical abilities as blessings for society, but curses to themselves, and so their ongoing serials project a desire to give up their powers and live a normal life. Alan Moore mocked this idea when he took over Swamp Thing, callingthe premise of a monster trying to regain his humanity” flawed because

“if that were to happen, the series is over. The dimmest reader realizes that isn’t going to happen, meaning the character is going to spend the remainder of the series on the run, moping about what was not happening. So Swamp Thing ends like Hamlet or just a Silver Surfer covered in snot.”

Hamlet, grandfather of monstrously moping superheroes, is a prototype of the isolated avenger whose identity is too defined by the avenging mission to give it up. Once he has completed the mission assigned to him by his father’s ghost and restored justice to Denmark by punishing his mother and usurper uncle, Hamlet’s death eliminates the last traces of Claudius’s corruption.

Hamlet could instead “regain his humanity” and reenter society by marrying, but Ophelia dies  because her boyfriend can’t stop being a hero—the same way Spider-Man would never willingly cure himself of his power-bestowing mutation. Marrying Ophelia before completing his mission would turn Hamlet into a failed hero or, worse, a villain, just another guy willing to be a citizen of a corrupt town. Like Batman, Hamlet can’t settle down till he’s scraped the rot out of Denmark. Lamont Cranston tells his fiancé the same thing: he can’t marry until he has completed his avenger mission as The Shadow, making Margo Lane an Ophelia who avoids death by accepting endless delay through a serial form’s never-ending B structure.

Which is a long way of saying: No, Frederic, there’s more than one Hamlet, and millions of fans do read them.

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My wife and I have been discussing the proper disposal of bad guys lately.

Used to be a hero could just kill them. You didn’t even have to call it “homicide.” Unless you’re the 1930s Spider or his 21st century descendant, Dexter. Sometimes stories just have a convenient way of doing in the villain. The hero even gets to keep his moral high ground, as his enemy refuses to grasp his outstretched hand before plunging into the abyss (see Loki in the 2011 Thor).

Batman racked up a list of kills before DC instated the first code of comic book ethics and, more importantly, recognized the joy of a reoccurring nemesis. That’s why the Joker’s first appearance ends in jail bars instead of flames (Batman #1). When Superman’s original archenemy (the now deservedly obscure Ultra-Humanite) mysteriously vanishes from his plane wreckage, Superman muses: “Well, that finishes his plan to control the earth—OR DOES IT?”(Action Comics #13).

But the disappearing body trick gets old fast. And so if you can’t kill or lock up the guy, all you’re left with is banishment. Take Magneto. Even that all-plastic prison in X-Men 2 didn’t hold him for long. The first time the Avengers thwarted his plans for world domination, they sealed him in a magic bubble and dropped him to the earth’s core (Avengers #110).

It’s a nifty trick, but did they really think through the consequences? They were saving the earth, but did they consider the below-the-crust population? What about the mole men? Here they are, minding their own subterranean business, when suddenly, BAM!, world’s mightiest mutant plops into the heart of their community. Sure, he’s been de-fanged, no magnetic power waves pulsing from his battle helmet. But it’s still him. Same hulking physique. Same pompously flapping cape. Imagine having to face schlepping to work every day, never knowing when you’re going to find him slouching at the office copy machine, an unrepentant grimace scarring his face.

Because that’s the problem. He doesn’t know he’s a bad guy. In fact, as my ex-department chair’s husband’s brother says, Magneto is the best supervillain because he actually thinks he’s the hero.

But he’s not alone in that category. Only a few Bronze Age readers out there might remember the ex-Avenger Moondragon and her mission to bring peace to the world by establishing herself as its all-powerful goddess. Her rule wasn’t exactly a golden age for human morale, but she didn’t mean any harm. The Avengers had to thwart her too, but instead of allowing her to conveniently die or vanish, Thor’s dad demoted her with a power-absorbing headband and then forced her to join the Defenders for safe keeping (Defenders #124).

Great news for the world. Kinda shitty for the Defenders.

At least when Wonder Woman topples would-be world-conquers, she ships them to Transformation Island where they wear Venus Girdles and learn to submit to loving authority (Wonder Woman #28). But a guy like Magneto never changes. So when his next evil plan went horribly awry, he was demoted all the way down to the baby room. The leader of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants ends Defenders #16 as a bawling infant.

Again, great for humanity. But what about the x-babies at mutant daycare?

Imagine plopping your diapered butt down for storytime and who’s hogging the bean bag chair but the kid who just the day before was trying to remake your world in his own fickle image. It’s not fair. Mutant daycare was one of the best run departments in the multiverse, and now they have to babysit a dethroned ubervillain? The Defenders are a top-notch team of world-savers, and now they have to share a water cooler with a mind control goddess still pining for omnipotence?

When the Hulk went on a berserker rampage after losing the balancing presence of Bruce Banner, Dr. Strange banished him to an endless crossroads of alternate universes, ones where his green muscles could do no harm (The Incredible Hulk #300). It was a kindness to the poor brute because he got to choose where he would live, while still removing him from the world where he caused so much chaos. Sort of like job searching during an imposed sabbatical far far away.

Is that so much to ask?

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