Monday, May 05, 2008

Scott on JLI part 4

[Guest-blogger Scott continues his look at the JLI; for more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]

How Blue Beetle Copes With Inadequacy and Why Russians Are People Too

Towards the beginning of the third issue, Beetle is growing a bit restless of the team’s stakeout of the Champions of Angor. This results in the following exchange:

Blue Beetle: You have any idea how long we’ve been hovering here […]?
Batman: Nine point two hours.
BB: Thank you Mr. Spock.
Batman: Pardon Me?
BB: Just a little joke, Bats.
Batman: Spare us the humor, Beetle. This is serious Business.
BB: Isn’t it always? Just once I’d like to rush off to save the world and have it be a gay, madcap escapade.
Batman: I Don’t like your attitude, Mister.

Beetle is quickly shaping up to be the team wiseacre. Remember, at this point in the series he did not yet have Booster Gold to pal around with. So why all the jokes? All the terrible, terrible jokes? It’s psychology 101: he’s attempting to mask his own feelings of insecurity. More often than not, in these early issues, Beetle finds himself on the sidelines pushing buttons or piloting the Bug; he’s rarely in the thick of the action. This isn’t surprising when you consider that he’s pretty much the least powerful member of the team and, as obnoxious as Gardner is, at least he has a power ring. The only other non-powered member here is Batman and, let’s face it, it’s pretty hard to measure up to that (in all fairness, Batman doesn’t get much action either but at least he gets to give the orders). I think it’s safe to say that Beetle feels that he is in a bit over his head; as a result, he makes with the funny (it’s worth noting that Beetle was created by Steve Ditko… who also co-created another wisecracking acrobatic hero you may have heard of).

In most of ‘80s pop culture, the Russians are the bad guys; seriously, they are THE bad guys. They are typically portrayed, as Guy Gardener would put it later in this story "[…] stinkin’ pinko, Trotskyite, Godless, Satan-spawned dictatorial […]" monsters who want nothing more than to take over the world. Giffen and Dematteis are probably a bit more accurate in their depiction here of a proud, yet troubled nation (the Chernobyl disaster, mentioned in this story, would have only happened about a year earlier). With the Rocket Reds, they show us that they are a people with much too be proud of who can, like us, be a little blind to their own faults:

Rocket Red 1 (Dimitri): (Overlooking a Russian Mountain Range) Beautiful is it not, Alexei?
Rocket Red 5 (Alexei): Yes, Dimitri—Beautiful—but too quiet. We are on Patrol. We should be finding things.
RR 1: What kind of things?
RR 5: Oh, I do not know! Foreign Spies! Alien Invaders! Super-Villians! Why should the American Superheroes have all the fun?
RR 1: Let them have their ‘fun’, Alexei…. and their drugs and their violence and their rampant crime. Russia is quiet. Peaceful. Free of the diseases that have infected the west.

Dimitri’s speech is cut short as he is alerted to the League’s transgression into Russian airspace and he and his comrades rush off to protect the land that they love… but not without Dematteis poking a little fun at institutionalized atheism:

RR 1: And God help whoever gets in our way!
RR 5: Dimitri?
RR 1: Yes, Alexei?
RR 5: We’re not supposed to believe in God?
RR 1: Oh. That’s right.

This seemingly throw away line is actually quite revealing; it deconstructs the stereotype that Russians don’t believe in God. It’s a very human moment that one simply wasn’t going to get from your typical Russian antagonist in an action movie of this period.

Back on the Bug, Beetle and Canary show a bit a bit of their own admiration for the beauty and culture of Russia:

Black Canary: Nice View, huh? I’ve never been in the Soviet Union Before.
Blue Beetle: I’ve always had a thing for Russia. Russian literature. Russian composers. Ever read The Brothers Karmazov?
BC: Twice.
BB: Three times for me! Man, what a book! I think that Dostoyevsky was the greatest writer who—

Beetle is cut off by a squadron of Rocket Reds who have arrived to, "[…] punch their heads in—just like they do in the U.S.A." This is another, seemingly, disposable scene that is actually quite brilliant. One wasn’t very likely to see Stallone or Ah-nuld appreciating the art of the Russkies before taking out a squadron of spies; Dematteis is showing us that, maybe, if we could find the things that we liked about one another rather than emphasizing our differences that we might just all get along a little better. [On a biographical note; Dematteis was, in fact, an admirer of Russian literature and drew inspiration from Dostoyevsky for his classic Spider-man tale Kraven’s Last Hunt.] Of course, The Rocket Reds are unaware of this discussion and, unfortunately, their first exposure to the new League doesn’t involve Beetle or Canary but someone all too familiar them:

Nyet! Nyet! I was hoping for a challenge—Superman… Batman… one of the other Americans… but not him! Not him again!

The subject of their revulsion is, of course, none other than the League’s own personal patriot: Guy Gardner (who, in a Green Lantern story a few months earlier, had already nearly sparked an international incident on a previous visit to Russia). When the Rocket Reds assaulted the Bug, Gardner couldn’t have been more delighted. Ignoring Batman’s orders, he gleefully rushes into battle and begins knocking Russia’s own personal super-force around like bowling pins… all the while singing "God Bless America." The scene is a perfect example of what this series did best: it’s not just funny but it’s also a pretty compelling action scene that creates conflict and moves the story along.

Gardner’s jingoism in this scene reminds me of a moment from the issue 9 of All Star Batman and Robin where Miller’s Batman ponders what he would do if he had a power ring:

Put that ring on my finger and, just as a warm up, I’d send a few tidal waves in the right directions. Knock out a few enemy fleets. Then get started on bringing some real firepower to a nasty ground war or two. Then maybe I’d spank Superman’s butt back to what’s left of Krypton. Just for laughs.

That’s right—Gardner is Miller’s Batman with a power ring. Fortunately, unlike Miller’s Batman, he’s also not very bright so, rather than a would-be conqueror, he’s just an ass.

Back to the battle, the disturbingly naïve Captain Marvel has joined the fray where he manages to arrive at an all too simple solution to the problem:

We need to let them know that we’re their friends… we need to do something nice. Hey, has anyone tried talking to these guys?

His revelation is made all the more funny by the fact that, as he’s arriving at it, he’s busily punching one of the Reds across the panel. However, he’s not alone in his contention that diplomacy might be the best solution. In the very next panel, we see Mister Miracle attempting to establish a dialogue… In his foe’s native Russian no less!

Mister Miracle: I’m telling you we’re here to help!
Rocket Red: Of course… Guy Gardner is Russia’s greatest friend!

His opponent unwilling to listen, Miracle frees himself and dispatches the stubborn Rocket Red with a small explosive only to run headlong into a group of three more of the armored Russians.

Mister Miracle: Afternoon fellas! You may not believe this… but I don’t want to fight with you and I really don’t want the three of you fighting with me!

This is another example of a funny sequence that’s actually doing something more than just being funny. It’s also giving us some insight into the role that Mister Miracle is taking in the group. Anyone who had been paying attention to the series thus far would not have been surprised that it would be Miracle to attempt the diplomatic solution to the problem. As I’ve mentioned before, Miracle was the most logical choice out of the new recruits and Giffen and Dematteis make it clear that it is not just because he is powerful; so powerful in fact that he is the only new member that Batman seems to respect (later in this issue when Miracle would attempt to rush into a nuclear reactor Batman would halt him saying "Scott, No! Not even you could make it out of there alive!" This sort of exchange between the two would almost become a running gag in the series), but he is also the most experienced and accomplished hero of the bunch. He quickly establishes himself as a capable, level-headed team member. Unlike Beetle, Miracle doesn’t feel out of place; on some level, he probably even feels he is quite deserving of his membership. For him, this is kind of like a big job promotion: he worked hard to get it and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to honor the confidence that his teammates have placed in him in order to maintain that position.

The Rocket Red team receives word that the League are to be allowed to help with the impending attack by the Champions of Angor on a Russian Nuclear power plant and a hasty truce is established. At the power plant, a rather poignant exchange takes place between the Silver Sorceress and the leader of the Rocket Reds:

Silver Sorceress: If all the super-beings on this planet banded together. We could save this world in a day.
RR: If you believe that—then you must really be from another world.

This concept would be explored again and again in comics of this era. If there are really all these super-beings floating around… why don’t they just fix everything? In his reply, the Rocket Red displays that he knows the answer; he realizes that there is more to ‘saving’ the planet that destroying weapons, you must also change the will of the people and that is something that takes more than Super-powers.
With the plant nearing meltdown, Wandjina breaks through the Rocket Red brigade and manages to bring it to a halt—possibly at the cost of his own life. With the crisis averted the League’s "intervention permits have been rescinded" and they are ordered to immediately leave Russian airspace. With their first major adventure under their belt, they return to their base to encounter the two men that would forever change this team’s destiny: Maxwell Lord and Booster Gold.

1 comment:

Manolis Vamvounis said...

great blog! I'm a big fan of the JLI, and you give a lot of interesting insight into the characterisation that a lot of people just shrug off as slapstick. can't wait to read the next parts of your guest-stint here :)