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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Richard Slotkin


“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.


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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So my wife and I are streaming Skyfall—which, to our mutual surprise, was her idea not mine–and M is explaining to her jury of clueless politicos why they shouldn’t gut her antiquated, Cold War, killer spy agency. Why, in other words, does the 21st century still needs good ole 007? I’m no Judi Dench (or Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, or John Logan, the screenwriters), but the argument goes something like this:

Shadows are bad.

Shadows are everywhere.

Only a man of the shadows can fight the shadows.

So this is a job for Bond, James Bond.

And I thought: Haven’t I heard this before? Not in defense of the CIA—which, British accented or not, that’s all 007 is. No, it’s an older argument, older than the Cold War. This is gunslinger logic.

Let me call Westerns scholar Richard Slotkin to the microphone. He knows a few things about shadows too:

“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.”

Yep. James is a cowboy. He packs a Walther PPK instead of a revolver, and rides a Bentley, not a stallion, but even in Daniel Craig’s metrosexually tight suit and tie, he’s the same as any badass sheriff policing his corner of oblivion.

The weird thing though—London’s not exactly a frontier burgh. In terms of imperial domains, it’s the flat dab middle. Not Dodge, but the Metropole. What Superman fans call Metropolis.

So what’s all this shadowy borderland talk? How can James, or any contemporary urban hero, draw superpowers from a mythically wild West?

I recently stumbled onto an answer in Peter Turchin’s Historical Dynamics. (Which I checked out of my library after tracking down a citation in Alex Mesoudi’s Cultural Evolution, the tome one of the economists in my book club has us reading. I wanted Colson Whitehead’s literary zombie novel but got vetoed. Maybe next month.)  Turchin is an historian and ecologist, which doesn’t really explain all of his mathematical formulas and wave charts, but I think I pretty much follow the gist of his “Metaethnic Frontier Theory.”

My ridiculously simplistic version: empires need frontiers. It’s where group solidarity comes from. Why, as Turchin shows, do empires consistently rise from frontier regions, and very rarely from non-frontiers? Because Metropolis is a den of in-fighting, a spreadsheet of special interest groups vying for attention. Border towns don’t have such luxury. They’ve got all those swarthy aliens swarming right outside their fort gates. The shadows keep everyone in line.

“Internally divisive issues,” explains Turchin, “will eventually destroy the asabiya”—that’s academic speak for ‘collective action’—“of the large group, unless it is ‘disciplined’ by an external threat.”

Thus Ms. Dench’s shadows-are-everywhere speech. If you want your group to stay a group, you have to scare them. That’s easy when they’re camped at the edge of the abyss, but for these big city types, you got to drag the shadows right up to their condo doorsteps.

That’s how you keep an agency funded or, for Hollywood, your franchise breathing.  007 is an obsolete Cold Warrior, but product name recognition trumps the collapse of Soviet communism. Superman shouldn’t have made it past Dresden, let alone Hiroshima. He sold comics because he embodied the collectivism of a nation scared shitless by the Axis threat. Like any gunslinger or shadow-fighting shadow man, his powers are alien, a product of a scifi frontier. Remove the threat and he’s just some guy in tights and a cape.

When Ian Fleming published his first Bond novel in 1953, comic book superheroes were all but extinct. When Sean Connery debuted in the first Bond film in 1962, superheroes were back and atomic-powered. Although gunslingers seem extinct at the moment, shadow Men of Steel are still flying, and homicide-licensed agents keep sipping their dark martinis.

I would never accuse the U.S. entertainment industry of anything but dividend-driven capitalism, but they’re still producing a form of red, white and blue propaganda. They want our money, and the best way to get it is to keep reinventing not our heroes but the threats that keep our heroes kicking. Hollywood’s main products are bite-sized shadows imported from our psychological borderlands. Our heroes have to scare us before they can soothe us.

But there’s a another byproduct too. Turchin’s group cohesion. Stream Skyfall or skim this month’s Action Comics, and you’re going to feel just a tiny bit more, well, American. Empires collapse when their centers splinter. That’s bad for business. In a nation of special interests, buying movie tickets is one of our few collective actions. For good and bad, James and Clark keep the metrosexual masses not just entertained but disciplined.

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Picture American culture as an enormous sleeping brain. Movies, TV shows, comic books, those are the dreams and nightmares playing in its 24/7 unconscious. Like any sleeper, it wants to stay asleep. Which means inventing stories when outside noises—slamming doors, gunfire, the Rape of Nanking—try to disturb it.

When it feels threatened, the stories the great sleeping brain of America likes to tell itself often star a gun-toting cowboy or a caped crusader. Powerful heroes who use their powers to protect a vulnerable nation. I’ve been reading Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation lately, and I’m noticing how the paths of these two breeds of very American heroes weave in and out of our country’s 20th century anxieties.

When a fascist war loomed in Europe, comic books dreamed up Superman. The ultimate fascist-fighter, the Man of Tomorrow was a bit of a fascist himself, discarding due process for a vigilante’s dictatorial self-assurance. Hollywood responded with its own vigilante. The gunfighter, marooned in B movies during the Depression, leapt to feature films the same year Germany invaded Poland. America snoozed more soundly to the sound of superheroes Ka-Powing Nazis across newsstands and the thunder of cavalry hooves riding to matinee rescues.

The gunslingers usually hung out on America’s mythical frontier, that quasi-historical realm writers reinvented as soon as historians noticed the real thing had vanished. That may be why the cowboy had to bow out as soon as the U.S. started slinging real bullets. After Pearl Harbor, the gunfighter and the costumed crime-fighter parted ways. Hollywood’s western frontier gave way to frontline combat movies. But Superman and his superpowered platoon had always been about the here and now. Switching to active duty was easy.

Which might be why switching back was so hard. When the Axis started to fall, so did their overly authoritarian comic book kin. What had once calmed America’s slumber now disturbed it. Once a fascist always a fascist. Superheroes had to go. But not to worry, those sidelined cowboys were ready to tag back in. After Hiroshima, the frontier was once again the perfect escape destination. Just as the Golden Age of Comic Books petered, the Golden Age of the Western took off.

Superheroes tried to battle back in the 50s, but their Commie smashing violence was too direct, too like waking life to lull America’s dozing brain back to sleep. But that changed in the 60s. When Cold War fears turned MAD, the superhero returned. Mutually Assured Destruction was scarier than any enemy. War itself was now the monster, and Silver Age comics offered up a radioactive heap of ambivalent hero-monsters to reflect the mutating times. The Thing, the Hulk, Marvel’s entire radioactive pantheon literally embodies the national fear of nuclear fallout.

Superhero and cowboy battled side by side through the Vietnam War.  But after the My Lai massacre, old school American heroism collapsed. When that war ended, so did the western and its 25 year Hollywood reign. Superheroes survived, but they were changed. Further mutated. Comic books grew darker in the 70s. The Age was no longer Silver but Bronze.

I would have expected the cowboy to have battled back—maybe with the end of the Cold War when the whole comic book industry was in freefall—but that dream is apparently over. Marvel nearly ended in the early 90s too, their fate nearly tied to the vanquished Soviet Union, but they and their superheroes struggled through.

Now the superhero is more a figure of corporate enterprise than cultural soothing. America did not dream in comic book colors when the twin towers fell. Cowboys were not called back from their increasingly sidelined frontier to corral Afghanistan and Iraq.

We are currently living in the Golden Age of the Hollywood Superhero, though I’m not certain what that dream says about us. Like everyone else around me, I’m trapped inside America’s sleeping brain too. I can’t hear our national fears—of economic decline? of international irrelevance?—under the roar of all the flapping capes.

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