Monday, October 15, 2007

Chandler Bennett: Emerson, Captain America, Miracleman

[Let's welcome our third guest-blogger, Chandler Bennett. He read my essay on Emerson, X-Men and Gnosticism -- which you can get to by clicking the link in the toolbar on the right -- and sent me this email, which I thought would make a good blog post. It has been edited by me to look like a post and not a letter.]

[I have quoted the Emerson passage he cites on this blog earlier, though I think it was a commonplace book entry and I did not say much about it; it is a favorite. I still think the Emerson passage I cited in the essay means primarily what I said that it meant, but Bennett is dead right about the passage he likes better].

X-Men, Emerson, Gnosticim triggered an admittedly wordy grab-bag of responses: it made me want to talk about another passage from the Emerson essay "Experience" that I think proves your point a little better, then to review a couple particularly good examples of the Captain America send-ups which abounded in '80s comics, and finally to look at Alan Moore's Miracleman.

I know you chose the passage about Emerson's son to link him explicitly with Professor Xavier, but I actually think that what Xavier is describing - his "monstrous" condescension toward a son he perceived as a lower species - is a little different from Emerson's lament that even the deepest human griefs attenuate over time. A beautiful passage more clearly reflecting Emerson's Gnostic condescension toward everyday domestic life is this one in the closing paragraph of the "Experience" essay:

We must be very suspicious of the deceptions of the element of time.It takes a good deal of time to eat or to sleep, or to earn a hundred dollars, and a very little time to entertain a hope and an insight which becomes the light of our life. We dress our garden, eat our dinners, discuss the household with our wives, and these things make no impression, are forgotten next week; but, in the solitude to which every man is always returning, he has a sanity and revelations which in his passage into new worlds he will carry with him.

I think that phrase "to earn a hundred dollars" is very good because it makes you think two things about worldly affairs: 100 dollars was a grand sum (even now it can buy at least 5 nice trades), and yet the phrase makes it sound arbitrary, crude, finite – not so grand after all. The rest of the passage speaks for itself. Emerson's attitude toward his wife, whom he associates with the ephemeral pastimes of life under the sun (as opposed to the solitary thoughts which put a man in touch with the eternal) is very like the attitude you observe in Xavier's talk about his family (I saw the journal quote you pulled in your Emerson citation, and that is also strong evidence in your case).

Your discussion of the whole line of Weapon Plus creations which Morrison envisions made me want to bring up a couple more examples of imaginative riffs on Captain America. One I think you explicitly refer to is Nuke, from the Miller-Mazzucchelli Daredevil story Born Again. Nuke is even more blatantly than Alan Moore's Comedian the Vietnam-era Captain America, a pill-popping psychotic American experiment who can only be subdued through the combined efforts of DD and Captain America, in concert with heavy artillery. Morrison actually has Miller to thank, in part, for the concept of a succession of super-soldiers, as Miller explicitly states that Captain America is Nuke's predecessor in the program.

Around the same time, but from the independent comics world, there was Dan Clowes' "Battlin' American" (who appeared in Clowes' pre- Eightball series The Adventures of Lloyd Llewellyn).The first story with this character is a good example of Clowes' Mad Magazine-like knack for taking an idea that starts out simply as parody (What if Captain America lived in the American city of today? He'd be a junkie withered by the very steroids he takes to be a hero!) and following it into more creepy and sobering territory. The story ends with the Battlin' American busting into the hideout of some teenagers who stole his supply of strength serum, and are now sick and deranged from withdrawals. One of them is dead, and another bashes the "Battlin' American's" head into the wall, demanding, "HOW DO YOU…STOP…THE PAIN!?"

One of the earliest bizarro versions of Captain America is Big Ben, a British super soldier essentially mind-controlled by patriotic comic-book fantasy (Miller must have been thinking of this character with Nuke) in Alan Moore's Miracleman. This brings up a question I have for you: when are you going to write about Miracleman? I know you've said that the scarcity of Miracleman issues makes it less useful than the readily-available and universally-known Watchmen, but it just seems like too perfect (and self-conscious, even) an example of your argument about later writers revising the continuity in which their characters function. In Miracleman, Moore appropriates the history of his character even more radically and aggressively than he went on to do in Swamp Thing, recasting the entire original run of Miracleman adventures as dreams fed into the drugged minds of government test subjects, fantasies meant to flatter and pacify them, and to keep them from perceiving the monstrous truth that they've been gene-spliced with aliens by government conspirators who mean to deploy them in the arms race. This is an idea that questions the whole nature of our involvement with superhero-comics, and which continues to resonate today: for the Alan Moore of Miracleman, the concept of super beings fighting a clear-cut good-versus-evil battle in a Manichean universe is a form of mind control promulgated by behind-the-scenes villains who are very much of this world.

Incidentally, I did not know at first that the informational chapters at the end of the first Eclipse issues aren't a Watchmen-like fabrication of continuity, that there was a "historical" Miracleman (actually called "Marvelman," but renamed in the reprints due to pressure from Marvel Comics). This makes Moore's comic much more powerful. The panels showing the Miracleman family hooked up to the mad scientist's equipment and kept occupied by superhero fantasies are deeply chilling, even if you have no previous involvement with the character, but they gain greatly in resonance when you learn that the entire history of an actual character is being "shown" to be a malicious illusion to which even the original readers of the comic were victim. It is one of the most artful, daring, and devastating examples of ret-conning I have ever seen.

[If you have not gotten Miracleman it is worth the absurd price it probably costs on EBay. Just for fun -- how many people have read it? If enough people have I can at least consider writing about it in more detail. It just seems mean to leave so many people out of the loop by talking in detail about an expensive and hard to find comic book run when there is so much to talk about that is easily available.]


Jason Powell said...

I've read "Miracleman." Are the comics really that expensive? I have the first two trades and then the last six issues (which the third trade comprises), none of which were that expensive. Hmm -- maybe this was before all the crazy McFarlane/Gaiman lawsuit stuff.

In any case, count me as someone who has read all the Alan Moore "Miracleman" material. It is great, and you should post about it, Geoff.

Your writing is enjoyable enough that one doesn't have to have read the comics you're discussing to get into it. I read and enjoyed every single post you made about Morrison's New X-Men without ever having read a complete issue from that run, so I know whereof I speak.

troy wilson said...

Read and loved all of Moore's Miracleman. Post away!

pla said...

Also read the whole run of Miracleman and would more than happy to read some spoiler-filled posts. It really is one of the major achievements of Moore's career and certainly deserves more discussion than it gets.

Magro said...

Yes please. I've read it all and would like very much to read a series of posts about the series. (And being a brazilian citizen that must count something to the "do the people actually read it?" question.)

Streebo said...

I loved the Miracleman stories by Moore and later Neil Gaiman. I was lucky enough to pick up the trades in the early Nineties before they disappeared from the shelves forever.

*Insert rant about Todd McFarlane here*

Please write about MM, Geoff.

Paul C said...

Have a legit copy of the Gaiman run, and not-so-legit copies of the Moore run. Easily one of the most interesting comics I've ever read, and much deserving of attention from the readers of this site. However I agree that a lot of people won't get what's being discussed due to the scarcity question - on the other hand, would we hesitate to discuss a film that wasn't currently available on DVD? I think not!

Matthew J. Brady said...

I haven't read Miracleman, but I have all the issues on my computer, having acquired them via illicit means. I've never gotten around to reading them, but your writing about them would be a good incentive.