Reed Tucker – Slugfest (Da Capo, 2017)
Marvel and DC Comics have had a rivalry that goes back over half a decade. DC ruled the industry in the late 1950s, but in the early 1960s Marvel gave Stan Lee a break with Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four, who made their debut in 1960. DC was slow to see what was coming. At that point, Marvel operated from a tiny premises, DC from an uptown space.
DC could not understand who would read dialogues between Spider Man‘s alter ego Peter Parker and his grandma, and in this they dismissed Marvel as a threat, but in doing so they also missed the way in which the rites of passage of teenagers were and still are being articulated via masked heroes. In this sense, the whole teenage revolution, the cultural swelling of the baby boomers, was beyond them. Sales began to fall.
Of course, for many, this story will be read backwards, back down through the 1990s and late 1980s, via Frank Miller, through Alan Moore’s simultaneous revival and reinvention – this time via DC – of the masked hero as ordinary, flawed, and sometimes a bit kinky, which was something of a challenge to the Comics Code in America, a Mary Whitehouse-esque quango for more Christian values, which in fact the dissenters served much more effectively than The Crusaders. This story is also told well.
Reed Tucker’s book is engagingly written and focusses on the sales, adaptations and shifts in the narratives of the two superpowers of the superheroes, Marvel and DC.
However, all the way through it tipped me into considering the cultural aspects of the work of these two publishing titans, a consideration that is well beyond the brief of the book, but those aspects occasionally glow through its Kryptonite framework.
But here, my review of Reed Tucker’s rewarding book effectively ends.
When I interviewed Alan Moore in 1996 he recounted a meeting with a DC bigwig: ‘Alan you’re the worst mistake I ever made’ he said to him. Moore chuckled, explaining that people spoke their own prophecies, ventriloquised their own future. He even cited Brian Jones shortly before his death, saying ‘I can’t really see much of a future…’ Of course Alan really was the biggest mistake he ever made, changing the game for ever and being totally uncontrollable, certainly by such earthly concerns as money and power.
We suddenly felt as though we were caught in an outtake from Nic Roeg’s Performance. It is no coincidence that Alan is a kind of occult mythologer, and that some of these heroes, for instance The Mighty Thor and his nemesis the evil trickster hero Loki are from Icelandic myths and other world stories. DC seemed to miss the more fully primal functions of this derided genre in the 1980s and 1990s too.
Some examples are perhaps needed. If we take the origin myth of The Mandarin, invented under the Marvel logo, we see an oriental peasant stumbling on extra-terrestrial technology, in the form of a UFO, before taking it away. You may remember there are 10 ‘rings of power’ in Lord of the Rings. They are also present here in the form of 10 rings of energy. They include a black light ring. The Emperor Ming character in Flash Gordon closely resembles the Mandarin, and he also sports a controlling ring. So Wagner is also at play here, a subtext, as that’s where Tolkien took the rings of power from.
Break out the Adorno, you know where it leads…
The origin myth is a regular organ of both the Marvel and DC Universes, but we can track the Mandarin back even further, as a kind of cultural quotation, to Fu Manchu, and then forwards to Chairman Mao, then Warhol’s Mao, already a cartoon on one level, drained of its historical significance and then re-filled, by Warhol, with surplus-value.
Warhol blurs the idea of nation in his Mao portrait, but these Marvel cartoons are the direct opposite, being encrypted with chest-beating nationalist ideologies. In ‘Mandarin’s Revenge’ – episode 1 of the animated series – Iron Man’s alter ego, Tony Stark, is not only an industrialist, but an arms manufacturer, who has regular dealings with the Pentagon.
The Mandarin steals Western, American, cutting-edge technology ‘for himself’, or rather China, in the form of Tony Stark’s missiles for the US government. The internal monologues often take the form of patriotic, personal reflections which are all united by their form as confessional testimonials to ‘right’, Iron Man proclaims:
‘If this is to be my finish, I’ll show that nothing can shatter the faith of a man who fights for freedom…’
At one point the Mandarin appears, three times his natural size, ‘I don’t know how you did it mister, but size doesn’t impress me’, Iron Man exclaims. The Chinese are usually smaller than westerners. The multiple Mandarin is next, identical foes. This section is inherently racist, representing the Chinese as ‘looking the same’, but it goes further, they are cast as the ugly crowd, the threatening, unknown and unknowable masses, with their ‘other’ ideologies. The Mandarin’s morphing identities turn out to be a trick of mirrors, only one among many other techniques of illusion.
In the fictions of the Victorian era, ‘the Chinaman is treacherous’, something Alan Moore plays upon in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The trickster figure is also present here, as in other anti-heroes, for instance Loki and The Joker. Loki though, was traditionally a kind of ‘trickster-hero’. Again, Loki can be tracked back to Medieval Iceland, then forwards, through Victorian engravings, and on into the ‘modern’ era.
What I love is being able to read trashy comics and watch cartoons and ponder the decline of industrialism and the state of the west as China rises globally – all at the same time. We can see similar dimensions by examining The Thing. Now we have a description of the rivalries between the two main ‘temples’ in this book to add to it all, although it is only fair to say that next to nothing of what I have written here can be found in the book.
To put it bluntly, race, class and gender are not strong points. Another example. The Thing was one of The Fantastic Four. The story of The Thing’s origins have altered over the years, across different versions of the tale – like gods, really – but the first myth is a classed one. Before he became The Thing, Ben Grimm was brought up poor on Yancy Street and started out as a professional wrestler, moving into this from life as a tough Jewish street kid, running gangs. White working class American narratives ghost the story of The Thing, which is modelled on Jack Kirby’s upbringing on Delancey Street, New York. The story comes on like a kind of graphic, hyper-imaginative Studs Terkel. Grimm wins a scholarship to high school – through football of course – and meets the man who becomes Dr Doom, among others, who is a kind of evil scientist and corporate player.
There is lots to write on Dr Doom and the way he signifies, but that’s for another piece.
With The Thing, the territorial raw power and rage of the lower classes is always either fully present or lurking, the excessive musculature is associated with manual labour, boxing and wrestling, but it is an implicitly white working class story. Various romantic interests also map class stigma back onto The Thing, he is never ‘good enough’, his lack of self worth is given tangible form in his aesthetic ugliness, reflected back at him from society every day, in screams of terror.
‘The Thing’ isn’t ambiguous as a name, it suggests the monstrous unknown, and again a fear of one from the ‘ugly crowd’. Eileen Yeo and E.P. Thompson’s 1971 re-examination of Mayhew’s writing reveals that privilege-guilt and fear of the masses were unconscious drives operating in the nineteenth century ‘philanthropist’ psyche. This is underscored by the work of Freud as the twentieth century unfolded. Disgust, and more subtle forms of class stigmatisation, can also be found in the writings of Charles Booth and Beatrice Webb.
This nineteenth century reading isn’t tenuous at all, both The Thing and The Incredible Hulk follow Jekyll and Hyde as split personalities, a latency which is forced to fully emerge in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s creation of a very Thing-like Jekyll and Hyde for their League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which was even further exaggerated in the film version.
Again, Moore treats these things no differently to gods from classical mythology, they are language, they are cultural, the gods, says Moore – or at least he said this to us in 1996 – ‘inarguably exist in the mind’, and they morph into one another and broadcast across eras, beyond the lives of their mortal creators. Moore also writes in a love interest with Mina Harker, a posh Victorian girl, which underlines the class discourse. Harker has migrated from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and is equally double sided, her vampire story standing in for repressed sexual drives.
The Jekyll and Hyde comparison also shores up the class reading, particularly the spatial–urban aspects. The classic Victorian clean and ‘respectable’ house frontage, which conceals poverty, crime and darkness, at the rear, is readable in Jekyll and Hyde, something Engels picked up in Manchester, which has been seen as a proto-Chicago School city model.
Of course, this maps back on to Jekyll and Hyde, The Hulk and The Thing, in that they are all utterly split, like the Victorian city was split, and these things may or may not be possible without Freud’s reading of the splitting of the psychic functions into different layers and compartments and Marx and Marxism’s understanding of money’s side-effect, its symptom of dividing social relations by reducing them to a cash payment:
‘Just as Hyde is the disreputable element masked by Jekyll’s respectable exterior, so too does Hyde’s home in Soho itself become the hidden site of squalid degeneracy amidst the wealth and privilege of London’s West End […] Jekyll’s house mirrors the layout of the city in which poverty existed in tandem with wealth but remained carefully concealed from view.’*
Much later, The Thing/Ben Grimm goes back to Yancy Street to build a community centre, entering into conflict with the Yancy Street gang over their graffiti writing, updating the spatial-urban reading. If these are our gods or heroes, then they are the gods of modernity, delivering the modern myths of the urban spaces the modern human subject inhabits.
Again, none of this is in the book under review. Just as Jim Carrey in The Mask wore zoot suits and thus became a metaphor for a kind of racialized, performative, urban otherness, these myths are created, in late capitalism, as ‘entertainments’, sold for profit and Tucker tells that side of the story.
The way the ideas are sometimes latent before they physically manifest is also interesting. The Thing was transformed into the shape you see via a rocket trip to the moon, before any manned space flights had taken place. His transformation occurs, like many superheroes, through one of the high magics of our age, atomic radiation. His new form is barren, like a dried out desert, the inverse of fertile, often a term associated with femininity. His skin looks like a difficult to survive on surface, teasing out the stamina required by his circumstances.
He is a nationalist trope, as most superheroes are. In earlier comics he went to spy on the Russians. In a more recent Fantastic Four film he saves motorists on a bridge from certain death and is applauded by firemen, shortly after 9/11, who are effectively applauding themselves. Its function is inevitably patriotic, operating through the masculine, heroicized and classed cultural quotation of The Thing ‘saving the day’.
Yet there is also an inversion in casting The Thing’s brute strength as a force of destruction for the good, rather than a force of provision and creation. There is a kind of unconscious giving with one hand and taking away with the other at play. The bridge and wider landscape in this scene also signify, Lewis Hine’s portraits of workers on the Empire State come to mind, yet the use of firemen re-directs us to workers as the rough-but-good technicians of disaster, which the firemen are, and The Thing is, rather than the working classes as the builders of America.
Of course there is an implied foreign enemy in all of this too, then Al-Quaeda, now Isis, but The Fanatastic Four film usefully blurs this with Dr Doom’s scientific-corporate machinations.
Some of this ghosted knowledge is intentional, as signification is made, put in by the script writers, designers, the director, the cinematographer, but some of it operates unconsciously. Fredric Jameson’s project, particularly in what he calls the ‘political unconscious’, is to unmask that where it operates. Of course, this lays him open to accusations of reading-into, rather than analysis, but I don’t think that holds. When Jameson reads, for instance, Ursula Le Guin, he maps it onto contemporary work cultures, because that’s where it’s ‘taken from’, as he sees it. It isn’t about some futurescape, it’s about now, and that’s what makes it so exciting. When he reads fear of ‘the masses’ of the third world in Le Guin, these things are sort of there and not there, at the surface of the text.
All of which is a very long winded way of saying that Reed Tucker’s book is great, but for me, the fecund life of the mind that comic books give me has to be filled in on that mindscape. I similarly suspect, through Reed Tucker’s book, that many of the subtler dimensions of these works of literature were created under the noses of the managers rather than in front of them, if not semi-consciously by the writers and artists.
Ultimately though, whatever nuanced alternatives you bring, The Thing is a hero because he has sustained an image of total masculinity for over fifty years, in nothing but a pair of powder blue underpants. It is almost as amazing to find that these delicate webs of meaning were produced by men who might otherwise have been insurance executives.
– Steve Hanson
* Coverley (2005) London Writing. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials