Archive for the 'Gamble A Stamp' Category


Gamble A Stamp 04: Why Didn’t They Stop My Mum and Dad Fighting?

November 24th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

I want to talk about this, from what’s probably the best single chapter of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman (#6, “A Funeral In Smallville”):

(Words by Grant Morrison, art by Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant)

But I need to talk about this before I come back around to it:

(Morrison/Quitely/Tom McCraw)

I may get lost along the way, because this is probably actually about a lot of things I’ve been working through over the past few months that I still don’t have a handle on, but follow along and maybe we’ll get there together and in one piece.

I’ve read Flex Mentallo a ton of times. Dozens, even. Every time I do one of these posts, I end up flicking through the series as a whole two or three times while writing. This panel (and a caption in the panel before it that reads, “Why didn’t the superheroes save us from the fucking bomb? I feel so sick.”) kept sticking in my head every time I ran through the book. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it.

The rest of Flex is pretty clear and easy to understand. It’s easy to figure out how the idea of superheroes intersects with and brushes up against real life. Most of the questions posed in the book, like the point of comics about broken heroes or the soft and mutable nature of comics in the Silver Age, are answered explicitly or implicitly in the text itself.

“Why didn’t they stop my mum and dad fighting?”, though. There are no captions or glimpses of superheroic life to give it a deeper context. There’s just a guy dying in an alley, wondering why love doesn’t last forever. For my money, it’s the saddest scene in the book. If you want cape comics with gritty realism, you don’t need rape backstories and heroes moping on rooftops. All you need is something basic going wrong with no easy answers to be found.

The word choice stuck with me, too. It’s not “Why couldn’t they stop my mum and dad fighting?” It’s not “Why wouldn’t they?” It’s “Why didn’t they stop my mum and dad fighting?” The superheroes had the will and the way, but they didn’t do it. That implies a choice, maybe even a conscious one, to let the fighting happen.

Try as I might, I couldn’t find an answer in Flex. There’s not even a hint, near as I can tell. It’s just dropped into the narrative, this drop of real-life despair in the middle of the fantastic, and then left there.

I had a few guesses about what it meant. None of them were very good. It could have been tough love. It could have been not wanting to interfere in the lives of humans too too much, like in JLA: New World Order (by far my worst guess, considering the rest of the book). Maybe they just simply couldn’t interfere due to… something something.

All-Star Superman 6 put it into better focus, though. I was rereading the series in prep for a different post (maybe GAS05) and the solution leapt out at me. ASS 6 is about failure and what superheroes cannot do. It features Superboy, rather than Superman, and is a flashback/time travel episode.

One more digression. Way back when DC let John Byrne revamp Superman, he did a story where Superman killed General Zod and the Phantom Zone criminals and cried a little bit. The purpose of this story, according to an interview I read forever ago and now cannot find, was to show exactly why Superman doesn’t kill. So, to show why Superman doesn’t kill, Byrne had him slowly kill three people.

Get it?

Byrne got it wrong, but when Morrison went to show Superman’s first failure, and thereby introduce a certain limit to the character, things turned out much better. Superboy chose to do the right thing without even thinking, against great odds, and in doing so, lost his chance to save his father. Three minutes of his life were taken, and in those three minutes, his father died. Superboy’s scream that he “can save everybody” speaks to a certain youthful invincibility, but also to what Superman will one day become. His scream of defiance as a child becomes a foreshadowing of his modus operandi years later, as he does his level best to save everybody.

But what’s important here is what Superboy did not do, which is save his own father. One of the other Supermen in the story explains that “his heart just ran out of beats.” He goes on to say that if Jon Kent hadn’t died, Clark Kent might have stayed in Smallville, “and none of us would ever have been born.” Put differently: “This had to happen.”

A few pages earlier is another key scene. While walking and talking with the Unknown Superman, who is actually the modern day Clark Kent in disguise, Jon Kent asks, “He’ll be okay, won’t he? The boy.” referring to his son. Kent clearly knows both that the Unknown Superman is not who he says he is and that his time is up. He wants to be sure that his son ends up okay, considering the amount of power he has. Superman’s response is “It all comes out right in the end.”

There’s a vein of fatalism there, isn’t there? In other hands, it would be “it is what it is.” Here, it’s an admission that even though this is a hiccup, that this will not work out like Superboy wants it to, things will work out in the end. This is just something he needs to learn before he can grow.

So, there are two answers here to consider. One is that Kent’s heart “just ran out of beats.” The other is that everything “comes out right in the end.” What that puts me in mind of is inevitability. You can’t fight certain things.

I think Byrne’s logic was atrocious (I haven’t killed anyone and don’t currently plan to, and I didn’t need to kill anyone to come to that conclusion) and his execution worse, but he was at least cognizant of the fact that there have to be limits. By forcing the hero to make a choice, though, Byrne shot himself in the foot. Morrison’s method, where the hero is forced to confront a shortcoming, seems much cleaner.

If superheroes can do anything, then you don’t have a story. There have to be things that superheroes cannot or will not do. Sometimes these limits are there to preserve the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Other times, it’s to maintain a profitable brand. Batman can’t kill the Joker and Superman can’t use his technology to make the world a better place. Flash can’t just end every fight in half a second.

These limits often tend to line up along real world lines, too. Tony Stark can never eliminate poverty and Superman can never battle racism. Those two things will just make the readers aware that they’re reading a comic book and that, hey, life still sucks.

I’m beginning to think that “Why didn’t they stop my mum and dad fighting?” is the one spot in Flex Mentallo that’s a rejection of the “Clap your hands if you believe in superheroes!”/”They will show us the way to a better life” philosophy that makes Flex such a strong and vital work. The rest of the book is about the glory of superheroes, the way we can become them, and how comic books are just a reflection of the cultural (un)consciousness.

Real life is the only inescapable hole in the philosophy. Yes, you can use superheroes as a model for life, and yes, in a certain way, we did create them to save us from ourselves, but they only go so far. They’re still fictional. They can’t stop your mum and dad fighting, they can’t stop the bomb, and they won’t actually save your life. Superheroes cannot stop real life–they can only delay it. Even Regan, the girl who Superman stopped from committing suicide, is going to die one day, and Superman can’t stop that.

There’s a Kanye West line I’m fond of from the 808s and Heartbreak era. It’s from Young Jeezy’s “Put On,” a song that banged before Kanye came in with some emotion. “I feel like these butt niggas don’t know he’s stressed/ I lost the only girl in the world that know me best/ I got the money and the fame and that don’t mean shit/ I got the Jesus on the chain, man, that don’t mean shit.” Since the death of his mother, all the stuff that brought him happiness and gave him peace, the money and fame and fancy necklaces, are worthless. Real life struck and they hit their limit. Kanye was at a point where they couldn’t serve their purpose.

Pulling back again. “Why didn’t they stop my mum and dad fighting?” makes sense to me now. It’s speaking to the fact that superheroes are wonderful, wonderful things, but even then, there are some things they can’t do. Taken alone, it’s a question without an answer. In concert with All-Star Superman, though, it makes much more sense.

When a little boy asks “Mommy, why don’t I have a daddy?” Superman can’t swoop in and give a little speech or solve that problem. That’s stupid. It doesn’t work. It’s pushing the idea of a superhero too far, and at that point, the idea breaks.

It’s interesting to me that it took All-Star Superman for that one line to click. It’s like if expanding upon it in Flex would’ve broken the story, but freed of the restraints of proselytizing the superhero, Morrison is much more free to demonstrate where capes fall short.

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Gamble a Stamp 03: Superhero Comics Are Dead

October 24th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

The story goes that Dark Knight Returns was born when Frank Miller realized that Bruce Wayne was younger than he was. This character that he’d looked up to, or at least enjoyed, since he was a kid in Vermont was suddenly younger than he was. Miller was getting old, and part of getting old is looking at the things you loved as a child stay young. The aspirational aspect of superheroes, the “Gamble a stamp!” element that makes the genre so fascinating, is a little tougher to swallow when you’re finding wrinkles in new places and Bruce Wayne is still 29 years old.

So, Miller added twenty years to the character and in doing so, plowed fresh ground. Batman became someone Miller could look up to again, with his universe and methods updated accordingly. Superstitious and cowardly criminals were replaced with a threat birthed from societal collapse and the apathy of good men. Batman turned pointedly political, and Miller took on Reagan and pop psychology over the course of DKR. He created Carrie Kelly and made her the new Robin, both updating and critiquing the Robin concept.

Getting older killed the superhero for Miller. He couldn’t relate as he once did, and he took steps to make superheroes cool one last time. Dark Knight Returns is a blaze of glory for the superhero, that last, brilliant blast of light before death. It says that these dusty old characters are still just as vibrant as they once were, but not in the same ways. People grow old and change, and their interests change with them. At the end of DKR, Batman isn’t a soldier in the war against crime like he once was, and like he is now. He was a general, as his severe turtleneck and demeanor suggests. He’s leading the war, not fighting it. He grew up.

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen came from Moore wanting to write a superhero story with weight, something like Moby Dick in particular. He wanted to write a superhero for adults, and chose hard-edged pessimism to get the job done. Its rigid structure shows a world that has no use for acrobatics or melodrama. It has no place for many of the staples of cape comics, whether you prefer Jack Kirby-style action or classic stylings of Curt Swan.

Watchmen, then, is an autopsy. By the end of it, all of the secrets of the superhero are laid bare. You see the paunches and watch their muscles sag. You get a front row seat to Nite Owl’s impotence and the way superhero costumes function as fetish objects. Rorshach is revealed as being not that much better than the villains he fights. An old man gets his brains beaten out, the only true superhero is so alien as to be inhuman, and in the end, the villain wins and saves the world. The heroes? They compromised because to actually defeat the villain would have resulted in the destruction of world peace. Rorshach refuses to compromise and is killed for it.

All of your illusions and ideas of the superhero are deconstructed and proved false by Watchmen. They’re normal people, rather than superheroes, and act accordingly. There’s no magic, no aspirational aspects, and nary a wink from Superman. Just hard edges and gritty realism.

DKR is the blaze of glory. It’s a revitalization before death. Watchmen is the autopsy. At the end, there are no secrets. What’s Flex Mentallo? It’s a wake, that time when everyone gets together, gets drunk, and talks about the deceased.

Wally Sage is overdosing on painkillers in Flex, but that’s not all he’s taken. He’s had a bottle of vodka, a couple e pills, a quarter ounce of hash, and he’s tripping on acid, too. As he’s dying, he’s talking about all the amazing comics he read. He’s talking about the good, the bad, and the irrelevant. He’s painting a picture.

The picture he’s painting is of the full spectrum of comics, or at least the full spectrum of the comics he read as a child. He talks about how exciting they were, how sexy, and how scary. He talks about how superheroes couldn’t stop his parents from fighting or save us from the bomb. Flex is about how fiction is real, and the way that the two rub up against each other and interact at certain points.

Flex Mentallo is a hopeful book. At the end, the superheroes return to save us all. They are revealed as us, or at least a significant part of us. Flex saves the day. The magic of reading superheroes as a kid is adapted to the real world. The glow of the lamp that Wally read comics by as a child serves as a blatant metaphor for the brilliance of superheroes. At the end of the book, the light is restored to Wally’s sight.

Flex is a celebration of the superhero. All of it, from good to bad, from perfections to imperfections, is important. The sexualization of superheroes serves a purpose, either as masturbation material or as an outlet for the creator’s desires. The Silver Age zaniness provided a look into other worlds, whether unsettling or fantastic. The escapism provided a look into a better world. The Starlin acid trips, the fear of the superhero, the edginess, the pointlessness, all of it matters. All of it fits together. It’s all part of the same picture. All of it is wonderful, in one way or another. It’s a puzzle with a million parts that still manages to stay in sync.

And in one of the last scenes, the point of Flex is laid bare. “Look at you! A half-naked muscleman in trunks! What’s that supposed to signify? What are you? Do you know what you are?” asks a teenaged Wally Sage. Flex shrugs and says, “Sure. I’m a superhero. Being clever’s a fine thing, but sometimes a boy just needs to get out of the house and meet some girls.”

Implicit in Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and Flex Mentallo is a critique of the superhero. DKR teaches that the superhero is broken and it must be made cool again. Watchmen teaches that the superhero is broken, and here is how it is broken. Flex teaches that superheroes are broken, but that brokenness is just as natural as the parts which aren’t broken. Blaze of glory, autopsy, wake.

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Gamble A Stamp 02: Fredric Wertham Was Right

October 14th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

NSFW images after the jump. Let’s talk about sex, baby. Let’s talk about you and me.
Read the rest of this entry �

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Gamble A Stamp 01: It’s Only Like Heaven

September 29th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

I think that if you are a fan of superhero comics, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s Flex Mentallo should be your holy book. It caused a seismic shift in my enjoyment and understanding of superheroes after I read it, simultaneously deepening my enjoyment of the good stuff and my willingness to ignore the terrible. It’s a story, it’s comics journalism, it’s a history lesson, it’s evergreen, and it is auto-critique in pamphlet form. It’s about comics, you see, and if you haven’t read it, you should. This is part of a series of posts relating to the book.

At one point in the book, Sage says, “Because listen! When it all comes down to it, how could you love ANYBODY the way you loved THUNDERGIRL? You try and it’s like Heaven. But it’s only LIKE Heaven. It’s NOT Heaven, is it?” It’s one of those points that stuck with me after reading, kind of like “Sometimes her cigarette smoke smells like flowers” from Brandon Graham’s King City carved out a space in my skull.

A teen in the throes of puberty and wishing for a Mary Jane Watson of his very own isn’t wishing for a real girlfriend. He’s looking for someone who resembles the stories and beliefs that he has built up around Mary Jane. Maybe she likes his favorite kind of music, has a certain cup size, or will do all those nasty things in bed that he’s been curious about.

What can compare to that? The only possible end point of that is disappointment. No matter how much you love someone, no matter how heads over heels they are–they’ll never be Mary Jane Watson, tiger. You can’t build a lover out of ideas. And yes, on the very next page: “What’s like Heaven? Shit. Oh shit. They fuck you up, those comics. They really fuck you up…”

Just like romance movies, fairy tales, sitcoms, and every other thing that tells us how life is before we get to experience it ourselves, superheroes sell us a reality that only works with archetypes. Every romance is an atom bomb of passion or strife. Lovers embrace against all odds and damn the consequences. No one gets to settle for someone they didn’t want or to be content with somebody who is just okay. Love triangles aren’t a ball of stress and drama so much as an entertaining diversion. No one comes home, hugs their wife, and goes to bed early. Everything is larger than life. Superheroes go hard or go home. There is no in-between.

At the same time, this is the strength of superheroes. Superheroes exist as archetypes that have been drawn from the same collective unconscious that has been creating stories about heroes for thousands of years. They represent abstract or unquantifiable values–responsibility, vengeance, altruism, guilt–and work out our insecurities and fears on the comics page. Spider-Man insists on a world where people take responsibility according to their ability, no matter how marginal. Batman is about emerging from darkness, away from your baser instincts, and into the light. Superman is a father figure, there to protect us from all possible harm and guide us on our way.

One of the points of Flex Mentallo is that superheroes exist to save us from ourselves. They provide an example for us to follow and embody the best aspects of human nature. They represent the hole that’s present in reality, the thing that’s missing that resulted in the world being in the shape it’s in. They’re the memory of a better time.

Flex provides a reason for comics to traffic in the stories that they do. The superheroes exist outside of the comic books, having escaped from their doomed reality by becoming fictional in ours, and live in our imagination. The comics are an attempt by the superheroes to show us what things could be like, if only we tried a little harder.

Sage’s feeling about Thundergirl and love–it’s not just about love. It’s deeper than that. It’s about archetypes, period. Your father may make you angry and let you down. Your friends may betray you. But, when you get down to it, Spider-Man will fight to the death to save you. Superman will always be there with a kind word when you need it. His stories and his reasons for being don’t change.

This is the power of superheroes. They touch on something deep inside us, whether as adults or children, and show us something we need to see. This is one of several messages in Flex Mentallo, and it’s one that places superheroes on a direct level with every other story. They represent something bigger than themselves and better than us.

How could you trust anybody the way you trust Superman?

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