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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Macbeth

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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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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.

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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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