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Tag Archives: Margaret Atwood

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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Golem-film

I’ve been assembling an ur-team of Avengers for my book On the Origin of Superheroes, and my first-ever superhero award goes to the Golem. He’s super-strong, impervious to pain, and, when made from clay, can even shapeshift a bit. On the downside, he’s dumb in both senses and so requires close supervision. Sorcerers and programmers beware.

“There is nothing more uncanny than something that is almost human,” says Margaret Atwood. “All our stories about robotics are stories like that. It’s what we have always worried about. It’s the sorcerer’s apprentice story: He learns how to do the charm; he doesn’t know how to turn it off. It’s the Golem story: You make the Golem, you activate it, it’s supposed to do your work for you, and then it runs amok.”

Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy features a genetically engineered species of designer humans, but they’re too mellow to cause the survivors of her apocalypse much trouble. When it comes to magic brooms and water buckets running amok, I picture Mickey Mouse, but Goethe published his poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” while Napoleon was still waging France’s Revolutionary Wars.

Apparently Goethe cribbed the tale from Lucian’s Philopseudes, c. 150 CE, though the word “golem” is even older. It means “shapeless mass” in Hebrew, which is the description of Ben Grimm that Stan Lee typed up for Jack Kirby in 1960: “He’s sort of shapeless—he’s become a THING.” Kirby drew a giant bumpy rock monster that turned orange at the printer’s. I don’t know if either had the Golem in mind, but Fantastic Four writer Karl Kesel did when he decided forty years later that Ben’s full name was Benjamin Jacob Grimm.

thing jewish

Benjamin grew up going to synagogue as a kid and could still recite Torah passages from memory, so he probably knows that “golem” first appears in Psalms 139:16 (“my substance, yet being unperfect”) when David praises God for creating him. The Talmud (c. 200 CE) uses the term to describe Adam’s creation too: “In the first hour, his dust was gathered; in the second, it was kneaded into a shapeless mass.” But jump forward another couple hundred years, and a passage mentions the first living golem: “Rabbah created a man, and sent him to Rabbi Zera. Rabbi Zera spoke to him, but received no answer. Thereupon he said unto him: ‘Thou art a creature of the magicians. Return to thy dust.’”

Apparently they weren’t all that hard to manufacture. All Pygmalion had to do was pray to Venus to bring his ivory statue Galatea to life. Daedalus soldered his golem Talos from bronze. If you’re up on your Kabbalistic techniques, Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Formation) gives a how-to, but Aryeh Kaplan warns apprentices not to attempt it alone. Virgin dirt is also key. Marvel was still printing on pulp paper in 1974, which is why their Strange Tales Golem only ran three issues. Writer Len Wein gave the legend his best superheroic spin:

“In centuries agon, they had called him a myth, a creature formed of stone and clay and the blood of a people’s oppression—a moving monolith who rose before the yoke of  tyranny—shattered it in his monumental fists—then vanished into the sands of time—there to be almost forgotten—until today! Now once more he rises—summoned from his eons-long sleep to protect those he loves.”

marvel golem

Marvel tries not to take sides in the Palestine-Israeli conflict, declaring it

“a war of territory, of ideologies—fought with great fervor but with little gain—fought with loaned weaponry wielded by men—men charged with love of country and the courage of their convictions, but men nonetheless—aye, as in all wars before this, fought by men—imperfect, all-too-human men.”

But those the Golem loves are the family of Jewish archeologists who dig him up, while General Omar leads an army of marauding rapists who pillage the archeological camp and machinegun the grandfather. Uncle Abraham’s dying tear reanimates the creature. “Eyes of a camel!” shouts one of the keffiyeh-wearing soldiers. “The statue—it lives!”

Michael Chabon’s golem surfaces for far less dramatic adventures. His amazing Kavalier and Clay find its coffin filled

“to a depth of about seven inches, with a fine powder, pigeon-gray and opalescent, that Joe recognized at once from boyhood excursions as the silty bed of the Moldau . . . . The speculations of those who feared that the Golem, removed from the shores of the river that mothered it, might degrade had been proved correct.”

My wife and I sat along the banks of the Moldau (AKA Vltava) sipping Budvar in a Prague café in 1996. The ground was too paved to be termed virginal, but the city has a legion of statues and tourist shop figurines already prepped for animation. Prague is to Golem as Metropolis is to Superman. The tales proliferated there like magic brooms in the 1800s. One named Josef protected Jews from a supervillainous Emperor with the additional superpower of invisibility—so basically half of the Fantastic Four. Benjamin Kuras, author of As Golems Go, explains why Golem still adventures in the Czech Republic:

“After living through the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Nazism and decades of communism, the Czechs are drawn to a character with supernatural powers that will help liberate them from oppression.”

rur

The Golem is also the original “robot,” a Czech word for “laborer” or “slave.” Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (AKA “Rossum’s Universal Robots”) unleashed them on the world, resulting in the extinction of the human race in 1920. Despite the nuts-and-bolts contraptions in promo shots, Čapek’s robots are the flesh-and-blood variety, more like clones or Philip Dick’s sheep-dreaming replicants. Carl Burgos had the same idea when he drew the Human Torch for Marvel Comics No. 1 in 1939. The flames were one of those unintended “run amok” side effects, but rather than burning Brooklyn to the ground, the almost human Torch gets his superpower under control (bringing our Fantastic Four tally to 75%) and vows to help humanity even though humanity tried to seal him in a steel and concrete cage.

marvel comics 1

The Human Torch fizzled in the forties and wandered out to the desert to die—the same fate Wein copied for his Golem. The evil robot Ultron rebuilt the Torch’s burnt-out corpse in 1968, and he was reborn as my favorite childhood superhero, the Vision. But then the original Torch erupted from a secret grave in the 80s, so the Vision was never really the Torch but a copy soldered from spare parts. Only, no wait, that’s not it either, because next it turns out the Vision and the Torch are in fact the same synthoid split in two when a time-traveling supervillain manipulated the timeline. Except then the Vision half was ripped apart by She-Hulk, and his identity may or may not inhabit the sentient armor of the time-traveler’s teen-age self, while his soul returned in a team of Dead Avengers before Tony Stark reassembled his body. And don’t even get me started whether that body is the kind with buzzing wires and clanking pistons or the kind with synthetic organs that gurgle and fart.

vision_gallery_02

Human animation is simpler. My wife returned from Prague pregnant with our daughter. King David praises God for “cover[ing] me in my mother’s womb,” but we followed a very different nuts and bolts process. Though nothing like the Thing, my daughter has been running amok for eighteen years now. She looks a lot more like the clay statue Hippolyte sculpted and, with the help of her gods William Marston and Harry G. Peter, brought to life in 1941—making Wonder Woman the original comic book Golem. Sadly, she’s not available for my team of First Avengers.

wonder woman made of clay

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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.

a3599i0_fawkes-185

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.

guy fawkes masks in sweatshop

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Classes start today.

I don’t teach my Superheroes seminar again till spring, but winter is just as good. My New North American Fiction is subtitled Thrilling Tales after the issue of McSweeney’s that Michael Chabon edited back in 2002.

Chabon’s editorial premise was simple: a lot of great fiction falls under the lowbrow category “genre.” That includes science fiction, horror, mystery, what folks called “pulp fiction” back in the thirties. “Pulp” because of the grade of paper the magazines were printed on, the cheapest possible, made from wood pulp.

I admit some of those stories were no better than their medium. A writer could hack out a 40,000 word novella in less than two weeks. Formula was everything. Thus “formula writing,” anything following the conventions of a genre, was no longer considered “literary.”

But no formula automatically produces bad writing. No formula automatically produces good writing either. Knowing a poem is a sonnet tells you it’s fourteen lines and (probably) rhymed. It tells you nothing about its quality. Believe me, there are a lot of horrific sonnets out there.

So why not literary pulp?

I’d say Kurt Vonnegut launched it with science fiction back in the fifties. Samuel R. Delany and Ursula K. Le Guin weren’t far behind him, casting their own literary spells on the realm of swords and sorcery. Margaret Atwood rewrote the future of speculative history with The Handmaid’s Tale. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, one of if not the most esteemed novel of the twentieth century, is about a haunted house.

But the pulp chips didn’t really start flying till Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay grabbed the Pulitzer in 2000. In the decade that followed, I count at least two dozen literary works firmly planted in genre soil originally deforested by pulp fiction nearly a century ago. All by authors of high literary pruning. In addition to the perennial Atwood and Chabon, add Philip Roth, Michael Cunningham, Isabel Allende, Sherman Alexie, Jane Smiley, Jonathan Lethem, Tom De Haven, Cormac McCarthy, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Mitchell, Kevin Brockmeier, and Caryl Churchill.

Last year alone, we had Colson Whitehead writing about zombies, Glen Duncan about werewolves,Tom Perrotta about the end of the world,  and Stephen King (would you believe he’s “literary” now?) earning a place on the New York Times’ ten best books of 2011 with a time-travel tale.

My biggest challenge for Thrilling Tales is not overcrowding the syllabus. I pared it down to nine:


McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales
, Ed. Michael Chabon
Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
Zorro, Isabel Allende
The Final Solution, Michael Chabon
Flight, Sherman Alexie
Fledgling, Octavia Butler
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
Soon I Will Be Invincible, Austin Grossman

I’ll let you know what my students think.

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