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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: E. M. Forster

That’s E. M. Forster’s 1927 example about the difference between plot and story. Story, according to Forster, is just events in sequence (“Then king died and then the queen died”), but plot requires causation (“of grief”) to connect those events. His point is good, though his terminology is out of date, since I think plot and story are synonymous here, and “events in sequence” doesn’t really have a term.

The example also intrigues me because of its application to comics theory. Comics are juxtaposed images. That juxtaposition alone is often conventionally enough to signify “and then,” the left-to-right movement between panels triggering temporal closure, the inference that the story content of the second image occurs after the story content of the first:

The causality, the “of grief,” is a kind of inference too, what I’ve elsewhere termed causal closure: some drawn element in the second image is understood to be the result of some undrawn action that took place during the “and then” moment of the gutter. That’s not quite the same causality that Forster had in mind, but it’s related. I suspect his “of grief” is already implied by my image content, and so still an example of causal closure:

This illustration of narrative theory is part of a larger comics story (though not necessarily plot?) I’ve been working on this semester. Now that Microsoft Paint has been discontinued and so is officially obsolete and not just horrifyingly out-of-date, I keep thinking I’ll force myself to upgrade to something more 21st century. Instead I find myself digging in deeper, finding more idiosyncratic ways to use ancient tech to my creative advantage. Creativity apparently loves limitations, so making comics in Word Paint is like playing tennis with many many many nets.

If you’re curious, here’s my process for the two-panel Forster comic. I bought a pen-shaped stylus over Christmas, but I find myself forgetting to use it, so this is all mouse-drawn, either free-hand or using the straight-line function by clicking start and end points. I also started with a photo for a visual reference:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“They had dug coal together as young men and then lost touch over the years. Now it looked like they’d be meeting again, this time as lawman and felon, Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder.”

That’s the first paragraph of Elmore Leonard’s “Fire in the Hole” and the premise of FX’s Justified, which has entered its sixth and final season. The New York Times calls the show a “crime drama,” but the cowboy hat on Timothy Olyphant’s head says Western to me—that and the fact the actor had recently finished playing sheriff on HBO’s Deadwood when he took up the role.

Olyphant’s U.S. Marshall is named Raylan, but he borrows his DNA from another Leonard short story, “How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl and Became a Famous Oklahoma Lawman.” Michael Chabon included it in the Thrilling Tales issue of McSweeney’s he edited in 2003, infusing a much needed dose of pulp into the quite realms of literary fiction. I assigned Leonard’s and a half dozen other Thrilling Tales to my advanced creative writing class this semester. The Justified writing team must have a copy too.  Olyphant voiced Carl’s dialogue on the pilot: “I want to be clear about this so you understand. If I pull my weapon I’ll shoot to kill. In other words, the only time Carl Webster draws his gun it’s to shoot somebody dead.”

Which Rayland Givens does too.  Many many times in the past five years. It’s his character’s most charming superpower, that good-natured indifference to moral quandaries. Raylan never hesitates before shooting and he never second guesses himself afterwards. The cocky smile never changes either. As Marshall Webster’s father says: “My Lord, but this boy has a hard bark on him.”

That’s standard gunslinger M.O., a cold-blooded willingness to step over the line and do whatever needs doing to keep the good folks of his community safe and sound. Or, as Richard Slotkin in Gunfighter Nation says of frontiersmen:

“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.”

So Raylan’s job is darkness-purger for the crime-swamped frontier of modern Kentucky. And he was doing a pretty good job in season one, and even better season two (one of my all-time favorite 14-episode arcs of any TV show). But then things started to shift. Not his smile, not his pistol grip, those are unflinching as ever—which, oddly, creates a kind of change in his character: the inability to change.

When E. M. Forster read Moby Dick, he saw “a battle against evil conducted too long or in the wrong way.” Captain Ahab—a once-valiant knight sailing in the service of good—devolves into the evil he thought he was fighting. That’s Raylan’s problem too. A hero can only spend so long in that darkness before he sinks in too far. Instead of purging the darkness, Raylan is wallowing in it.

His first two season, he at least theoretically was trying to complete his Ahab mission and retire into domestic bliss of marriage and fatherhood. But then he watched his true love stroll off camera while he battled the next round of Kentucky gangsters. He picked up some more girlfriends, but his unflappable indifference applied to them too. After three more seasons of random acts of love and violence, Raylan’s emotional range never inched off the glib meter. Instead of a man with a well-armored moral center, all that manly bark looks like a facade papered over an abyss.

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Boyd Crowder, however, has aged much better.  Sure, actor Walton Goggins’ receding hairline is undermining the character’s crazy hair look, but otherwise Boyd is as paradoxically loveable as ever. I would call him an anti-hero, but he’s more a heroic villain, a guy of deep but unpredictable passions in struggle with his inner darkness. Unlike Raylan, he doesn’t know himself, and so each season has been a chaotic and inevitably corpse-ridden quest for self-discovery.

Frank Miller, the villain that provides Marshall Webster his origin story and plot closure, is as two-dimensional as his Batman-writing namesake (comics artist Howard Chaykin, even more coincidentally, illustrates the tale). The Boyd Crowder of “Fire in the Hole” is just an oddball Nazi thug there to give his Marshall Givens a character-revealing moral dilemma: can you put down a man you once dug coal beside? The answer is, of course, yes, and so the story has its ending. Justified, however, has been stringing out that last paragraph for five years, only now in the final season promising to complete the stand-off.

Both characters are caricatures of American masculinity, sharing the absurd ur-trait of psychopathic violence, but they spin that violence in opposite directions. Boyd’s search for meaning is almost proof enough that such meaning is possible. A universe of destructive hope pumps just under his skin. Raylan is nihilism personified. Peel back the bark, and the black hole of his heart would suck the world dry.

These aren’t the characters Elmore Leonard created. I’m not sure the writers of Justified created them either. This is just what happens when you drop short story characters into an open-ended serial form, extending their timelines far beyond the closure points they were designed to inhabit. As Forster says of Ahab, they get “warped by constant pursuit.”

 Walton Goggins and Timothy Olyphant in Justified

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Bill Seinkeiwicz, Captain Ahab

Imagine if George W. Bush had been forced to stay in office till he had personally gunned down Osama Bin Laden. Or if Obama can’t leave till he bags his own arch-nemesis, Edward Snowden. What would that sort of megalomaniacal mission do to a guy?

It turns him into Batman.

“The spiritual theme of Batman,” writes E. M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel, “is a battle against evil conducted too long or in the wrong way. Criminals are evil, and Batman is warped by constant pursuit until the knight-errantry turns into revenge.”

Okay, I’m lying. Forster wrote that about Meville’s Moby Dick. But swapping Batman for Captain Ahab (or Bin Laden for that big fat whale) shows how bizarrely time works in comic books. Or doesn’t work. Superhero time is both frozen and endlessly moving.

Batman’s parents were gunned down “some fifteen years ago.” That origin fact was first printed in 1939, so that meant 1924. Today it means 1998. Because Batman’s parents were always gunned down some fifteen years ago. That point in time is constantly shifting. Unlike U.S. Presidents (who, according to medical researcher Michael Roizen, age twice as fast while in office), Batman can’t age.

If his “war on criminals” were roped to real time, his character would become as monstrous as Melville’s obsessed whale-hunter. Batman is already carrying an unhealthy dose of the Captain in his utility belt, but without a time frame defining just how warped his mission might be, he skirts to just this side of self-annihilating megalomania. (Plus, according to E. Paul Zehr, he would only last three years—less than a Presidential term, but the same as an NFL running back. The human body can only take so much punishment.)

Superman lives in the same continuous present. In his 1962 essay “The Myth of Superman,” semiotician Umberto Eco analyzes that “temporal paradox.” (I’m not lying this time; Eco really does analyze a comic book.) Superman is mythic in the timeless, archetypal sense, while also adventuring in our “everyday world of time,” and so the “very structure of time falls apart.”

That requires some fancy story-telling. Eco particularly admires how DC created a dream-like climate in which the reader “loses the notion of temporal progression.” We keep looping back into Superman’s personal timeline to hear previously untold tales. When Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel was hired back to DC in 1969, his first assignment was a six-page script explaining how Clark Kent got hired at The Daily Planet. Siegel covered that in two panels back in 1938. The newspaper had been called The Daily Star then. No one minds the change, or even notices. It’s just part of the continuous dream.

At Timely (Marvel’s old name), superheroes refused to loop backwards. When the Human Torch reignited in 1954, it was 1954 for him too. He’d fought Nazis in the forties, and now he was fighting Commies in the fifties. We even got an explanation for his period of absence (he went supernova in the desert), and an explanation for his return (hydrogen bomb testing reawakened him). Timely time always marched forward.

Over at DC, superheroes only battled pretend villains, ones that bore little or no relationship to current events. Pick up an issue of Action Comics during World War II, and except for a patriotic cover endorsing government bonds, you wouldn’t have known there was a war on. Ditto for the Cold War. The Man of Steel never faced the Iron Curtain. It would have pinned him to real time.

Superheroes would have continued happily to inhabit their private, timeless planet, until Stan Lee came along and screwed things up. Like their Commie-bashing forebears, Marvel’s Silver Age heroes were cold warriors. They were literally timely. Rather than avoiding chronological progression, Stan Lee highlighted it. His captions even recapped past issues to nudge forgetful readers. No more continuous dream. Naptime is over.

And that created new problems. If tethered to our world, superhero time eventually falls out of sync. Batman’s “some fifteen years ago” is very different from the Fantastic Four’s origin-producing rocket launch. Parents can get gunned down in any decade. The Waynes weren’t scrambling to beat the Commies. The Space Race isn’t a mobile pocket in time. That’s 1961. That will always be 1961.

That’s also one of many many reasons why the 2005 Fantastic Four film didn’t work—and why I’m less than hopeful about the reboot now in production. No Space Race, no reason for Reed Richards’ botched radiation shields. The guy’s supposed to be a genius, but his girlfriend is shouting: “We’ve got to take that chance, unless we want the Commies to beat us to it! I – I never thought that you would be a coward!” The historical context is everything.

DC held out as long as they could. But by 1968 they ended their isolationist policy and introduced Red Star, their first Soviet superhero. California Governor Ronald Reagan made his first comic book appearance the same year. (Marvel wouldn’t notice him till he made it to the White House.) Because of Timely, superheroes had to stop reliving the same Daily Planet headlines. The planet was revolving daily whether they liked it or not.

I was on the other side of the planet, in Australia, when I read the Herald Sun headline: “Osama bin Laden is dead, US President Barack Obama confirms.” That was May 2011, so the U.S. government’s knight-errantry lasted just under a decade. The photo showed flag-waving college students cheering outside the White House lawn. Some of them would have been reading comic books when the World Trade Center came down. Bin Laden was their Hitler, their Lex Luthor, the monster breathing under their bed every night.

Imagine if we hadn’t caught him. Imagine America if that decade had drifted on some fifteen years. Or if September 11, 2001 weren’t a fixed point, but a whale-sized weight dragged forward by every new, time-warped President. Imagine a battle against evil conducted too long or in the wrong way. What happens to a country under a never-ending Patriot Act? To a government locked in a constant pursuit of surveillance? The national psyche can only take so much punishment.

A word of comic book advice to President Obama regarding whistle-blower Edward Snowden:

Time to move on.

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