Monday, September 24, 2018

Amazing Spider-Man #34

The Thrill of the Hunt

Kraven the Hunter

Supporting Cast:
Betty Brant, Anna Watson, Gwen Stacy, Harry Osborn, J. Jonah Jameson, Frederick Foswell, J.J.J's new Secretary (un-named)

The action takes place over about a week: 

Day 1 (Night): Peter Parker starts studying again. (page 4) 
Day 2: "The next day" Peter Parker visits Aunt May in hospital (p4) and goes back to college (p5). That evening he hears the report that Spider-Man has attacked JJJ (p6)
Day 3 -6: "In the days that follow" the false Spider-Man makes more attacks.  
Day 7: "Finally" Spider-Man decides to take action. 

Since the cuts and bruises on Peter Parker's face have healed, a few days must have elapsed since the end of The Final Chapter. If issue #33 took place in the early hours of Sunday, 29 August 1965, The Thrill of the Hunt probably takes place between 1st September and 8th September. 

The fight between Spidey and Kraven takes place after dark; Aunt May and Mrs Watson are having tea and think Peter is at the cinema. Aunt May thanks him for coming home early. 

6PM: Mrs Watson comes round for tea; Peter sets out
7PM  Fight between Spider-Man and Kraven
9PM  Foswell reports capture of Kraven to Bugle
10PM Peter gets home.

Note that Jameson's new secretary is still in the office at 9PM: he's expecting her to work a 12 hour shift, while protesting that he isn't running a sweat shop. 

Peter Parker's finances
Peter doesn't bother selling any pictures of Kraven to J.J.J: he has not spent the thousand dollars that he got at the end of last issue.

p6: "It's the Chameleon's last hideout..the one he used when the two of us teamed up...I've got to trap Spider-Man before I myself am discovered...for I have been sentenced never to return to these shores."
In Amazing Spider-Man #15, the Chameleon brought Kraven to New York  to defeat Spider-Man. They were both deported at the end of the episode. Kraven was last seen in a prison cell with the rest of the Sinister Six, but was presumably put back on a boat immediately thereafter. (The Chameleon is currently concentrating on helping the Leader defeat the Hulk.)

p8 "The world's most amazing super-hero, contentedly munching a mcintosh apple..."
It is unclear why Stan Lee bothers to specify the brand of apple. Mcintosh were a popular red-coloured fruit grown near New York. Steve Jobs named a famous brand of computer after them.

p13 "It's him!"
"Tsk, tsk. You mean "It is he"! Nothing infuriates me as much as bad grammar!"
One would not say "Him is climbing the wall" (unless one were referring to Adam Warlock) so logically one should not say "It is him who is climbing the wall" and therefore not "It is him". Similarly, you wouldn't say "Me is climbing the wall" (unless you had been raised by Kala the she-ape.) But in practice, everyone says "It is him" and "It is me."(Germans say "Ich ben is!" but the French say "C'est moi!".) Most grammar experts recommend that one follows common usage in all but the most formal situations.

The follow-up to the Very Famous Master Planner Trilogy is not irredeemably bad: it is just a bit meh. The Scorpion story, which came straight after the End of Spider-Man triptych was also a bit meh. So it was possible to read this story and hope that Ditko and Lee were merely pausing for breath before embarking on their next epic.

Kraven the Hunter decides that it is time to have another go at killing Spidey. On page #1, he is treating it as a personal challenge ("the greatest prize of all is still denied me") but by page #7 he is thinking in terms of a personal feud ("it is worth the risk to destroy the one I loath most of all in all the world"). He brews up one of his jungle potions which gives him the power to stick to walls, puts on a Spider-Man suit, and threatens J. Jonah Jameson. Jameson redoubles his newspaper campaign against our hero.

Last time a baddie dressed up as Spider-Man, Peter Parker assumed that he had become a  somnambulant split personality and went running to a psychiatrist. This time, more reasonably, he thinks "Someone is impersonating me!'' As soon as he ventures out, he encounters the fake Spider-Man who reveals himself to be Kraven. They chase each other around an old building for a bit, and when Kraven catches up with him, they have a fight. Spider-Man wins, Kraven admits the ruse ("Whatever else I may be...I am a man of honour!") and Jameson is left feeling pretty stupid. Again.

There is a very small wrinkle. An angry mob follows Spider-Man into the building where he and Kraven are sparring. Not very much comes of this: Spidey ties up half of them in webbing and punches the other lot out. The script quite definitely says that the mob are criminals with a grudge against Spider-Man ("most of the nails Hogan gang") But I wonder if Ditko intended them to be a mob of angry citizens?  Page 9 panel 5 shows the General Public being whipped up into a state of mild annoyance by one of J.J.J's editorials ("someone should put that masked wall crawler out of circulation once and for all") and on page 11 we see three mean looking guys deciding to "get rid of him once and for all". (They look very mean indeed: some of them have picked up sticks and several of them do not seem to be able to afford shirts.) So isn't it more likely that Ditko intended them to be ordinary members of the public, fired up to take the law into their own hands by Jameson's incendiary writing? Without this, it is hard to see much point to the "fake Spider-Man" plot thread. On the other hand, Spider-Man is shown quite happily punching the mob, which is hard to credit if he thinks they are just angry proles.

And that is pretty much all that happens. Aunt May is all smiles after her silly old operation; by the end of the issue she is sitting down to a good old fashioned chat with Mrs Watson over tea and cookies. Betty Brant decides to leave town for good. Jonah gets a new secretary. And Peter Parker continues to sabotage his own social life. He tries to be nice to his fellow students who not unnaturally tell him to get lost, since he's been blanking them since the first day of term. Peter could easily have explained what happened. Flash may be a bastard, but Gwen and (as we will find out in a few issues) Harry are basically fair-minded people who would have given him the benefit of the doubt. Instead he blames a situation which he himself created on a malignant supernatural force -- "the old Parker luck" -- and slinks away to catch up on his lab work. "I guess I can't blame them for thinking I'm the prize crumb of the year!" he explains to a bell jar "But I sure don't intend to beg them for a chance to explain." 

Oh. Peter. Parker. Stop. Being. Such. A. Dick.

There is, however, one point of interest in the issue. It is only a clue to a road not taken but it is an interesting road and an interesting clue.

After seeing Aunt May and finishing school, Peter Parker hears police sirens. He is just about to jump into action as Spider-Man, but then he thinks "Aww, come to think of it, why bother?" He doesn't need the photo-money because of the rather generous fee he took from J.J.J. last issue; and he would rather visit Aunt May and study.

"Aww, come to think of it, why bother?" As slogans go, it's not quite up there with "With great power comes great responsibility."

You might expect that this would lead to some tragic conclusion or moral lesson: that something would teach him that he can never say "why bother?" when Spider-Man could be helping out. But nothing comes of it at all. He decides to let the world turn without him for one night, and it does.

Peter Parker really did cast of his albatross and exorcise the ghost of Uncle Ben last month. He no longer feels that his great power gives him responsibility for the whole of the rest of the world. He turns his back on a crime and looks happier than we have ever seen him in months. Maybe it has taken Ditko 34 issues to finally refute the ending of Amazing Fantasy #15. Peter Parker is going to pass by on the other side when he could have helped someone. And that's okay.

That was the message that Ditko tried to give us in The End of Spider-Man. If it comes to a straight choice between being Peter Parker and being Spider-Man, Peter Parker is much happier just being himself.

Of course, it doesn't come out like that. The fake Spider-Man forces him to go into action (perhaps that, in narrative terms, was the point of it) and the issue ends with him telling a passing tree that "Spider-Man I've always been...and shall always long as I live."

But perhaps this was where Ditko wanted to take the story. Freed from his liberal guilt, Peter Parker no longer has to play the hero: from now on he's just a crime photographer making an honest living.

the amazing spider-epilogue

turns out that there are things to say about Spider-Man #34-#38 after all

amazingly, it turns out that it takes a lot longer to explain why a terrible story doesn't work than to explain what is so great about a classic

and i couldn't really work out any way of talking properly about #39 & #40 (the big green goblin story) without talking about the issues which lead up to it.

so, here come my last six or seven spider-essays and then i really am done

thanks for staying on board

spread the word on sociable meejah and drop some money into patreon if you haven't already

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Rhetroical Strategies of Sensible Conservative Commentators

In the increasingly out-of-control comments on my harmless little article about an old TV show, one of our regular commentators wrote the following:

Andrew Stevens said...
Eh. I grew up poor. There were a lot of problems - crime, drugs, growing up fatherless, etc. But we were relatively quite poor in the U.S. We were far wealthier than virtually every human being who had ever walked the planet prior to 100 years before. Sure, my mother had to avail herself of our church's food pantry, used food stamps, and free school lunches to feed us, but we didn't actually lack for food. My clothes may have been hand-me-downs, but I was clothed.

I realize that most people think poverty causes crime, drugs, etc., but I think that's just a slander on poor people. My grandparents grew up even poorer than I did and did not become alcoholics, drug addicts, or criminals. So I am strongly of the opinion that the arrow of causation goes the other way. Obviously, I am also strongly of the opinion that not all poor people are criminals, alcoholics, drug addicts, etc. Many people are poor from bad luck or because they have been denied opportunities due to race. And obviously poor children are always poor due to bad luck.

As I said earlier in this thread, I am for a Universal Basic Income. I far prefer just giving poor people cash instead of our current inefficient paternalistic bureaucratic methods. And I think it would be enough to lift many people out of poverty though the primary benefit of that would be to allow them to relocate out of poorer neighborhoods. I think that it would still not cure poverty. It seems obvious to me that there are people who, if you just give them money, would simply waste that money to live indolent, drug-besotted, miserable lives. Take the Kennedys, for example.

My thoughts wouldn't fit into the comments box, so I am starting a new posting. I am not charging anyone for this, but if you find it interesting then the decent socialist thing to do would be to redistribute some of your wealth to me via Patreon. The decent conservative thing to do would be to give me an honest days pay for an honest days work in the expectation that someone else might do so for you, again, via Patreon. 

The core of Andrew Stevens argument appears to be: 

1: Some poor people do not become criminals.

2: Therefore, poverty is not a cause of criminality.

3: However, the majority of criminals are poor.

4: Therefore criminality must cause poverty.

I am not for the moment interested in whether or not this argument is logically valid. (NOTE: It isn't.) What interests me is the rhetorical clothing Andrew chooses to present it in. 

"I grew up poor...My grandparents grew up poorer than I did and did not become alcoholics, drug addicts and criminals."

The writer begins with a proverbially bad argument, one that is frequently deployed to characterize a certain sort of muddle-headed, blimpish thinking. It is classically stated as "My Uncle Louis smoked a hundred cigarettes a day and lived to be eighty three" or "I was regularly caned at school and it never did me any harm." He must be flag signalling that he rejects normal forms of reasoning and wishes to argue from gut feeling instead. 

c.f "You can prove anything you like with statistics" and "This country has heard quite enough from experts."

"We were far wealthier than virtually every human being who had ever walked the planet prior to 100 years before. Sure, my mother had to avail herself of our church's food pantry, used food stamps, and free school lunches to feed us, but we didn't actually lack for food. My clothes may have been hand-me-downs, but I was clothed"

The next move is to deliberately blur definitions; in ways that do not advance the argument but do introduce a certain amount of fog. Certainly, we can define poverty as "dying from malnutrition" and "actually having to go to school naked"; equally clearly we can define poverty as being "significantly poorer than those around you." Andrew appears to be claiming that relative poverty cannot statistically be a cause of criminality because it is distinct from absolute poverty which is at best a non sequitur and at worst nonsense. I suspect it is introduced into the argument to smuggle in the idea that the poor people nowadays (as opposed to when I were a lad) are whingers who complain too much.

"I realize that most people think poverty causes crime, drugs, etc., but I think that's just a slander on poor people."

Next, we go for some false indignation, and an attempt to shift the burden of proof. Note that this could have been done either way. Andrew says "How dare you say poverty causes crime! That insults poor people!". but he could equally have said "How dare you say poverty causes crime! That insults the victims of crime! Poverty is no excuse!"

The idea is to create a false dichotomy between complete autonomy on the one hand and complete determinism on the other: so if something has a social cause then individuals are absolved from blame; but if individuals have personal responsibility there cannot be a social cause. At a more fundamental level, the idea is to say "liberals are amoral: they don't believe in personal responsibility."

Either fat people are fat because they choose to be fat and could instantly become thin tomorrow by simply choosing to eat less; or else they are string puppets forced to be fat by forces over which they have no control. The idea that social environment can make it easier to make bad choices or hard to make good ones is rejected out of hand.

Many people are poor from bad luck.... And obviously poor children are always poor due to bad luck.

Another idea comes in under the radar. Class and wealth are part of a game -- a game which has winners and losers, but which is essentially fair. To complain is to be a unsportsmanlike. You are poor because the neutral dealer dealt you a poor hand; you are poor because you rolled a double one on a pair of fair dice.

Andrew does not make the argument that this is true: he just takes it for granted. And he does not consider the alternative point of view: poor people are not poor due to "bad luck" but because society is run in such a way as to keep them poor (apart from Mr and Mrs Exception.)  

The question of whether the poor are poor because of bad luck or because the rich won't increase their wages is, in fact, not relevant to the argument in hand. It might be that poverty results from honest bad luck, and that people who are dealt a bad hand are much more likely to become criminals. It might be that the house is crooked, all the dice are loaded, but poor people carry on as best they can and don't turn to crime to improve their circumstances.

"So I am strongly of the opinion that the arrow of causation goes the other way."

The claim here appears to be that while in a few exceptional cases people are relatively poor because an arbitrary supernatural force called "luck" has made them so; the majority of them started out wealthy, made a free choice to spend all their money on alcohol and drugs, or to take up criminal activities, and as a result ended up on welfare. This is the contentious claim on which the whole argument rests: and no argument or evidence is provided -- we are just informed that the writer has a strong intuition that this so. 

c.f I just happened to feel that going to war with Iraq was the right thing to do. 

Andrew correctly says that moving people out of poor areas or giving them free money would not abolish poverty. He concludes that poverty is an intractable problem because there are a certain number of people who will waste whatever resources they have. Again, this is a narrowly focused false dichotomy "If poverty were soluble, it would be solved by handouts; since some people will waste even these handouts, poverty is not soluble." There may be a buried thought that if a problem is not completely solvable, there is no point in trying to ameliorate it. There is no point in vaccinations because some people will still get sick; there is no point in laws about health safety because reckless people will ignore than. (There may also be a hint that Socialists are silly enough to think that they do know the solution to poverty.)

The alternative position: that poverty exists because of the way we choose to organize society; that simple justice requires that the rich pay more for goods and services so that the wages of the poor can be increased; and that this is most likely to be achieved by trades unions making demands -- does not come into the writer's consciousness. Naturally, as a conservative he doesn't want too much power given to trade unions and fears the results of paying people enough to live on. (I suppose he believes that if the rich are allowed to get as rich as they like they will suddenly decide to pay the poor better wages out of the goodness of their extremely well fed hearts. That is what all conservatives believe, isn't it?) But that point of view isn't reflected in this piece of writing, even as a false opinion to be shot down.

Andrew is happy to have a certain amount of hand-outs to the poor, but skeptical about what he called " inefficient paternalistic bureaucratic methods". When arguing that no-one in the United States is truly poor he says that when he was growing up his family had to rely on "food stamps, and free school lunches" (and also charity from religious organisations.) I am going to hazard a guess that he attended school, and that he took books out of the library, played sport in a park, swam at a municipal swimming pool, and other examples which I have possibly forgotten. That is to say he was protected from the worst evils of even relative poverty because the State redistributed money from the moderately wealthy and used it to pay for things which the poor could use. These are socialist principles; from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. "The left" and the "the right" may well disagree about the extent or degree to which the state should play Robin Hood. (I do not particularly want to take from the rich and give to the poor. I want to take from the moderately well off and use it to buy things which everyone can share.) But however much they may talk of the evils of Communism, it seems that most Conservatives are a little bit Socialist, and doubtless most Socialists are a little bit Conservative.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Continuing to Dangle

With reference to my essay on the non-resolution of the Betty Brant sub-plot in Spider-Man, JHW asked: 

For fans, do these sub-plots to nowhere in particular enrich or detract from the overall experience of being a fan? They seem pretty unsatisfying when considered in terms of the individual stories, but do they make the "comic book world" as a whole seem more real, with their roads not traveled?

I think the following almost entirely fails to answer that question.

Yes: I am reading Knausgaard at the moment. Why do you ask? 

Girls didn't read comics so much as Boys. Girls read Magazines.

Girls' magazines were almost entirely about Boys. Boys' comics barely acknowledged that such things as Girls existed. Girls' magazines presented Boys as fascinating aliens that you might pass on the way to school. Boys' adventure comics were set on football pitches and army barracks and other places where Girls weren't allowed. Girls with names like Minnie and Beryl were sometimes allowed into the funny comics, but they were pretty much the same as Boys, only with skirts. 

There were Girls comics too, about witches and ballet dancers and poor but honest Girls being locked in cupboards for giving too much gruel to the orphans, but the Girls in our sample didn't read them. The Girls in our sample read Disney comics with names like "Donald and Also Mickey", "Goofy and Also Pluto" and subsequently "Donald and Mickey And Also Goofy." The Boys in our sample sometimes sneaked into the bedrooms of the Girls in our sample and read them when the Girls in our sample weren't looking, but the Boys in our sample can't remember if they included any of the classic Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge strips.

While British Boys' comics were unashamedly for little Boys (or at any rate for big Boys who didn't mind admitting that they were little Boys on the inside); the Girls' magazines were for little Girls who wanted to be big Girls. They had names like "Just Seventeen" and "Sixteen Plus" although actual teenagers wouldn't have been seen dead with them. (They read "Smash Hits".) They were constructed to look a little like the Women's Magazines that Mum and Granny still read. Both the Girls' magazines and the Grown Up Lady magazines had recipes and sewing projects in them, although the Grown Up magazines never really went in for photo-strips. But what the Girls' magazines were mostly about was meeting Boys. 

The Girls liked to pretend that they were quite sophisticated and grown-up because they were reading publications that were meant for teenagers. They were no more likely to go out with Boys in real life than Boys were to score the winning goal at Wembley and defeat the Luftwaffe. They were probably more interested in ponies.

I don't know if any of this is true, but it sounds as if it should be. 

What is definitely true is that 100% of the Boys in my survey discovered Spider-Man way before they discovered Girls or dating or s*x. Before, indeed, they had any clear and distinct idea of how human reproduction worked, which was a closely guarded secret until 1978. Our parents' generation learned about s*x by observing farm animals and pets; ours learned about it by reverse-engineering Jimmy Tarbuck punchlines. (The Girls learned about it from the problem pages in Girls' magazines which were far dirtier than anything the Lady's magazines would have tolerated.) I suppose the current generation relies on pornographic YouTube videos which I think is on the whole an improvement. 

Spider-Man grew out of a comic called Amazing Adult Fantasy, although the fantasies it contained weren't adult in that sense. When Jack Kirby and Joe Simon arguably created the genre of "romance" comics in the 1950s, they claimed they were "designed for the more ADULT readers of comics." There was no sex, nor any suggestion of sex, but there were grown ups having relationships. (I recall one which turned on a middle class lady deciding to break off her relationship with a very decent church goin' fella because she has a criminal record for shoplifting. It turns out he knew from the beginning and didn't hold it against her. Awww...)

The adults in my survey all agreed that Spider-Man Comics Weekly was rather too old for the Boys in my survey. (It remained too old for them right up until they turned Twelve, when it became much too babyish.) I suspect that Stan Lee knew exactly what he was doing. Spider-Man was a comic for kids that was superficially designed to look like a comic for adults; just like the dating magazines were aimed at little Girls but designed to look as if they were for teenagers. The target audience for Spider-Man was people a little too young to read Spider-Man. Peter Parker was an eight-year-old's idea of a seventeen year old. He worries endlessly about a thing called "study" but there is no real sense of what he does at school or who his teachers are -- it's all just one mysterious grown up thing called Science. He worries about Gals but there are no clues as to why a superhero would want to spend time with one of these strange beings who stick life sized posters of David Cassidy on their doors and sit down to go to the toilet. Peter and Betty never actually go on a date. (He does on one occasion help Liz with her homework, and in fairness, that happens behind closed doors.) There is no sense of anyone being attracted to anyone else: literally not so much as a kiss. When Ned comes home and takes Betty for coffee, we realize it is all over. Coffee is about as close as we come to consummating a relationship. I suppose that is why the Coffee Bean Bar becomes important once Peter leaves High School. Girls mainly cause misery and complication. Boys fight for the ownership of particular females; females storm off in huffs if "their" guy so much as returns a lost handbag to another Woman. 

We can blame the Comics Code for some of this. There is a persistent oral tradition that the morality clause was so strict that writers were reluctant even to show married couples: if  there was a Mummy and a Daddy then it was hard to avoid the fact that there might also be a Bed. Peter Parker and Mary-Jane are both raised by their Aunts; Harry Osborn and Gwen Stacey were brought up by widowers; Johnny Storm was raised by his big sister. But even if the Comics Code was the proximate cause, the result was a comic that the Boys in our sample could easily make sense of: a pre-pubescent idea of what being grown up must be like. 

In 1974, a twenty page comic was incredibly long; and a seven day wait between episodes was an almost unimaginably long time. (Mary Whitehouse was kind of right about this: a little Boy's imagination can do a lot with the image of a drowning Tom Baker in a week.) This made it relatively easy to accept Stan Lee's confused approach to time and his fluctuating depiction of history. If Peter said "I have been longing for months for Betty to return" we were not inclined to say "Hang on, two issues ago you said you were over her." When you are eight, the week before last is somewhere in the last century, and for every twenty pages in the comic there are a hundred thousand pages in your mind. 

And anyway, if Spider-Man was in the category of grown-up things, I didn't expect to fully understand it. If there was a continuity error or an unresolved plot thread, I ignored it, or made up an explanation on the spot, or thought "I am sure all the Big Boys understand what happened there, and I had better pretend that I do as well or else the Big Boys will realize I am not one of them." Between the ages of eight and sixteen I believed that the word "albatross" simply meant "guilt", and rather suspected it of being a Stan Lee coinage. I was very confused when Monty Python based a whole sketch around people shouting the word for no reason. If anything, I was disappointed when I finally read the Ancient Mariner. I accepted without question that Marvel Comics were the highest form of literature. When Daddy said I could say up past my bedtime to watch The BBC Television Shakespeare (provided I was quiet) I was excited because Stan Lee said that if Shakespeare were alive today he would be writing Marvel Comics. So if Peter Parker's relationship with Betty Brant came to an end without any resolution, well, that was an example of how realistic and serious Marvel Comics were compared with those childish duck comics my sister read and especially compared with the TV Batman which I didn't watch, or if I did, only to remind myself of how much better Marvel was. 

"I think I am missing something here: I will probably understand when I am older" is by no means a bad way of approaching books.

(Church comes into it as well. Church was full of questions which the grown ups simply wouldn't answer.)

I wanted, very badly, for Peter and Betty to live happily ever after; and I wanted, very badly, for Gwen to stop being awful. I wanted equally badly for Dr Blake and Nurse Foster to get it together, because it was obviously what the nice doctor wanted. Yet Betty Brant is a fully realized character, and her relationship with Peter Parker has ups and downs, or at any rate, downs and ups. Jane Foster is not much more than a Barbie doll, a place holder for the love interest Stan Lee can't be bothered to write, a McGuffin for Thor to fall out with big daddy Odin over. Don Blake is barely a character either. But I honestly don't think that, in 1974, I could see the difference. Either I was missing something because I wasn't old enough or else I was filling in the gaps, or both. 

(And Star Wars, of course. Star Wars above all.)

So: in Spider-Man #40 we cut away from Spider-Man's big and long awaited confrontation with the Green Goblin, and listen in on Betty Brant, talking to herself on a railway station. How did that strike me in 1974? Was it a digression; a boring bit of chat which interrupted the Origin of the Green Goblin. But come to that, was the Green Goblin's long, and completely uninformative monologue just something that you had to plough through to get to the fight?

I have a memory of a memory of reading those pages for the first time. I can hear the incidental music that was playing in the background while Betty waited for her train. (I cannot possibly have been aware of Brief Encounter?) I do not know that I was consciously aware that a new artist had taken over Spider-Man, but I do think that I was aware that Betty looked different -- more glamorous, more posed, more like a lady in a film and less like a character in a comic. But overwhelmingly I remember feeling that these scenes referred to something that I had missed, or forgotten; oh yes, there has been a storyline about Betty's travels, how could I have forgotten that, I don't suppose all the Big Boys forgot about it. And almost immediately the issues which I read Long, Long Ago last month shuffled around in my head and it became that they had contained pages and pages about Betty's travels; so that when I came back to the post-Master-Planner issues recently I was surprised, shocked even. Was there really so little of Betty Brant? Did those few frames "stand in" for the whole period when she was travelling round America on a train, like a screen-memory? 

Yes, I did find those parts boring. No, I didn't always understand them. Yes, I liked the fact that my comic had boring Grown Up bits about love and pay cheques and graduation and science because it showed it was superior to those Other comics that had nothing to them but bombing raids and football matches and slipperings. 

And yes, when I say "it was superior" I do of course mean "I was superior". You don't actually have to be Jewish or a Mutant to understand that you are one of the Chosen People and the rest of the world can't really be expected to understand you. We may come onto the Tomorrow People next year.

So. That is what I thought about the Betty Brant subplot when I was a little Boy. But what do I think about the subplot now I am, arguably, a grown-up? 

I think that the treatment of Betty Brant is quite a serious problem. Steve Ditko thinks he is writing a soap opera; but Stan Lee hankers for the endless status-quo of conventional comics. Stan loves melodrama; he loves dramatic break ups, Peter running off, Betty banging on the door, the orchestra swelling as they break into a torch song. But he really wants to put everything back in its place for the next issue, so we can go through the whole thing all over again. He certainly doesn't have any sense of the chronology of his own titles. In #41, Peter and Betty have a tongue tied-cup of coffee. If Stan Lee remembers that this is the first time they have spoken in eight issues (and that they last time they met, they had a shouting row) he doesn't let on. 

Betty could have been written out of the story after the death of Bennet in issue #11. The story tied up all her plot-threads, and it nixed any chance of her and Peter living happily ever after. (I sometimes like to imagine that "beehive haircut Betty" and "brown bob haircut Betty" are two different people.) But then, she could also have been written out after the big symbolic ending of issue #30, when Spider-Man's ghost pushes the lovers apart. And certainly she could have been written out after the big row at the very end of Spider-Man #33. Indeed, I wonder if Ditko had intended #34 to be her last ever appearance? He was writing the stories and drawing the pictures, but Stan Lee was still adding the words. In Stan's dialogue she denies that Peter could possibly be Spider-Man, and decides to leave town for a bit. But what if she had woken up from her nightmare and said "Oh no...oh no... It's true! It must be true! Peter is Spider-Man... It all makes sense now! I must leave New York forever. And I will return Peter's picture so he understands..." Certainly, Ditko didn't ever draw Betty again: and once Ditko has left, almost the first thing that Lee does is re-introduce her to the story. 

The problem is not that subplots are left dangling. The problem is that under Stan Lee's stewardship, Spider-Man increasingly becomes the kind of comic where subplots can't be resolved -- where Peter and Gwen are always on the brink of breaking up; where Flash is always on the brink of realizing that Peter is not the weak sister he always took him for; where Aunt May has an infinite series of almost, but not quite, fatal heart attacks. 

Umberto Eco's great essay The Myth of Superman correctly identifies this kind of narrative stasis as an intrinsic part of the aesthetic of Superman -- of what we would now call the Silver Age, Earth-1, Pre-Crisis Superman. Lois Lane discovers Clark Kent's true identity on a monthly basis; but by the end of each issue, everything has returned to the starting point. It often feels as if the characters have their memories wiped on the final page of each episode. We meet Superman as an adult, who never ages: stories about Superman when he was a college student and a schoolboy and a baby are retrospectively added to the narrative as flashbacks and prequels. Spider-Man, on the other hand, starts out as a school boy of maybe 15 and grows into a college student more or less in real time.

But after #33, his life pretty much just freezes: for a hundred issues at least, nothing happens. Until the Very Bad Thing On The Bridge, Peter will be caught in a love triangle with Gwen and Mary-Jane; he will just barely achieve a balance between college and crime-fighting and Aunt May will have so many heart attacks we won't know what to do with them all. 

But Superman is never presented as anything other than a fairy tale or a sequence of children's stories: of course all the toys are put back in their proper places when we have finished playing with them. Spider-Man exists in a world of contemporary slang, where hippies go on non-specific demonstrations, and Flash Thompson is drafted to Vietnam. Time ought to move forward: but Stan Lee needs Spider-Man to remain a constant brand.

The endless un-resolvable cycle of Peter and Betty's break-up is an early symptom of this disease. 

From the late 70s into the mid 90s, Chris Claremont's X-Men was by far the most popular and beloved Marvel Comic. It was unashamedly a soap opera: stuff happened, but nothing happened; there was change -- characters, good guys even, died -- but it was still definitely the X-Men. One month the huge nothing-will ever-be-the-same-again plot development would be that Evil Magneto realizes the error of his ways, turns himself in, and ends up helping Prof X run the school. We are just barely given long enough to accept this as a status quo before we are told that in the most amazing and shocking nothing-will-ever-be-the-same-again plot development of all time, Magneto is going to become a villain. 

And so on, forever. 

Len Wein who created the New X-Men said that fans do not want change. Fans only want the illusion of change. And I am not saying that he is wrong.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Actually, It's About Ethics in Doctor Who Journalism.

Why I am no longer talking to Doctor Who fans about race

Not racist. John Bennett as Li H'sen Chang
Tom Baker is my favourite Doctor; Philip Hinchcliffe is my favourite producer; Talons of Weng-Chiang my favourite story. That would have been my position this time last week; and it would be hypocritical to pretend it has changed. It's not a controversial stance. A fortnight ago it would have been about as edgy as saying that Sgt. Pepper was my favourite album or Citizen Kane my favourite movie.

Not racist. John Bennett as Li H'sen Chang
Talons of Weng-Chiang was the final story of the fourteenth season of Doctor Who, first shown in 1977. It's a pastiche of Victorian pulp horror, weaving elements of Frankenstein, Dracula, Jack the Ripper, Phantom of the Opera and Sherlock Holmes into a single story. Tom Baker forgoes his floppy hat in favour of a deerstalker: even the giant rat of Sumatra puts in an appearance.

The BBC are very good at historical costume drama, and Robert Holmes is the best script writer that Doctor Who ever had. The story is full of beautiful little period moments. We all remember when Litefoot the police doctor tried to explain the niceties of English tea to Leela:

-- Oh no, only one lump for ladies!
-- Then why ask me how many I wanted?

And the scene in which he and the theater owner try to remain stiff upper lipped in the face of certain death is so good it very nearly spawned a spin-off series.

--I'm not so bally brave when it comes to it.
--When it comes to it I don't suppose anybody is.

At the exact center of the story is a stage magician called Le H'sen Chang, who is the pawn of the evil Chinese god Weng Chaing, who (as is the way with these things) turns out to be a war criminal with a time machine. Chang's appearance and demeanor is based obviously and unapologetically on Fu Manchu, and the story draws heavily on pulp cliches about sinister Limehouse Chinamen. Naturally, Chang is played by a white British actor in yellow make up. 

Not racist. Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu
Doctor Who Magazine has, for a number of years, carried a feature called Time Team in which a group of younger fans give their first impressions of older episodes. The original feature ran for over a decade, and reviewed every episode of the classic series from Unearthly Child to Survival. The magazine recently relaunched the column with a panel of twelve viewers under the age of 22: people who grew up with the post-2005 version of the show. In the new feature, the panel comment on a selection of thematically linked episodes from different eras. In the most recent issue, they looked at three pseudo-historical stories: The Time Warrior (Jon Pertwee in medieval England), Thin Ice (Peter Capaldi in 19th century London) and the first episode of Talons of Weng-Chiang.

Time Team isn't about in-depth criticism: it's about first reactions. "OMG Linx looks like a potato!" and all that that entails. But it's intelligent and nuanced: they are neither saying "har-har wasn't old days TV awful" nor are they annotating sacred texts. When they look at the Time Warrior, they really like the character of Sarah-Jane but feel she is reduced too quickly to a damsel in distress. Some of them feel that the Third Doctor is sexist towards her, but some of them feel that he doesn't really mean it.

Their response to the first episode of Talons of Weng-Chiang is about as uncontroversial as anything can possibly be. They think that it is a really good story, but that it is ever so slightly incredibly racist. They say things like: "I was really engaged. It felt exciting like a detective story. It's just the racist stuff that's like, no." and "The music, the atmosphere, every shot is just beautiful" and  "...It portrays a race of people from the real world as villains...based on derogatory stereotypes... Yeah, not good."

So. Millennials watch Old Who and come to pretty much the same conclusion that Grumpy Old Fans reached decades ago. Great story, shame about the racism. Nothing more to say.

But Marcus Hearn, editor of Doctor Who Magazine has a great deal more to say. He uses his editorial to set the young folks straight. This strikes me as a curious editorial procedure—hiring a young, diverse panel to offer a fresh take on Doctor Who and then warning the readers not to pay too much attention to them. But it's none of my business how Hearn runs his magazine.

Hearn thinks that the panelists were wrong to find a TV show in which a white man yellows up to play Fu Manchu a teeny weeny bit racist.

His reasons are as follows:

1: Talons of Weng-Chiang is not racist because it was made a long time ago.

2: Talons of Weng-Chiang is not racist because it was not intended to be racist.

3: Talons of Weng-Chiang is not racist because the director, producer and writer were not racists.

4: Talons of Weng-Chiang was not racist because it was a pastiche of the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu Movies.

5: Talons of Weng-Chiang was not racist because it was made a long time ago. Again.

Not racist. Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu

Is Talons of Weng-Chiang racist?

This is the wrong question to be asking. Of course Talons of Weng-Chiang is racist: any idiot can see that. You might as well ask "Was the Aztecs filmed in black and white?" or "Did Nicholas Parsons appear in the Curse of Fenric."

The right question to be asking is "Was racism the only thing about it? Does racism obliterate everything else in the story? Is there anything to talk about apart from the most obvious thing?"

I have watched Talons of Weng-Chiang five times at the very least, and enjoyed it every time. I remember watching it (many years ago now) with a college science fiction society, and overhearing people who were not fans saying that they could hardly believe just how good it was...much too good to be a Doctor Who story. (And also the rat.)

What was going on? I can only think of three possibilities.

1: We enjoyed Talons of Weng-Chiang because it was racist. We were like the man who claims to like fine art but really goes to galleries because it gives him a pretext to look at ladies boobies. We may have said "Ha-ha what a tellingly droll piece of dialogue" but what we were really thinking was "Hurrah! At last we can all get together and have a jolly good laugh at the Chinks!"

2: We enjoyed it despite its being racist. We were prepared to forgive or overlook the racist caricatures because the story was so overwhelmingly fun and well made. In some jurisdictions "redeeming artistic importance" can be a defense against a criminal charge of indecency.

3: We didn't notice that it was racist. We just took it for granted that melodramas contain evil men with yellow faces and long mustaches who can't say their Rs, in much the same way that we took it for granted that space operas included mad scientists with Russio/German accents who say "Nuzzink in ze vurld can stop me now!"

We liked it because it was racist; we liked it despite it being racist; and we didn't notice it was racist. There are, logically, no other options.

And all three positions are, quite obviously, racist. It is racist to not care that something racist is racist; and it is certainly racist to not notice that something racist is racist. If anything, option 3 "It didn't occur to us that there was anything racist about it" is rather less forgivable than "Hooray! We get to dis the Ching-Chongs".  

There is a fourth position, which probably no-one reading this blog would take but which people have taken with me in the past: that Weng-Chiang belongs to a special category of art that has to be experienced in a state of mystical passivity.  You must not think about it and you certainly must not articulate your thoughts. You must merely let it wash over you. "Get over yourself, Andrew. This is just a TV programme, a bit of popular entertainment. Stop analyzing it." The more fanatical a Doctor Who fan a person is the more likely they are to invoke the "this is just a bit of ephemeral rubbish" defense.

Obviously not racist at all. 

Yes, as a matter of fact, I did have a Golly-Wog when I was a child.

And two things are true. I loved my Golly, and I never particularly associated him with the black children in my class, of whom there weren't any. I never gave him de funny Camp Town races doo dah voice when I role played with him. Well, hardly ever. My parents were card carrying liberal Guardian reading CND badge wearing lefties. They would have been mortified if anyone had suggested that buying a Golly-Wog for their little boy was in the least bit racist.

And there is the whole problem. 

We are too willing to limit the definition of "racism" to "being personally bigoted", "being directly horrible to individual people of colour." I have struggled with this myself, particularly over gender issues. I have been far too willing to say "It's true he doesn't think you should be allowed to get married, but he himself is not homophobic."

The least bigoted family you can imagine go to the least bigoted toy shop you can imagine and buy a doll that their child plays with in an entirely non bigoted way. No-one sees themselves as being racist. 

No-one is being racist.

And yet the doll is a fucking grinning blackface caricature.

I loved my Golly. I still have him somewhere.

Obviously not racist when you know the context.

Let us have a look at the Editor's Defense of the Indefensible.

"If you were making Talons of Weng-Chiang today you'd certainly do it differently."

If you were making Marco Polo today, you'd certainly do it differently. You wouldn't cast an English actor (Martin Miller) as Kubla Kahn, and you certainly wouldn't use elastoplast to give him slitty eyes. But there is nothing particularly wrong with the portrayal of Kahn: it's the whole idea of casting white actors in Asian roles we have trouble with. Fix that and you've fixed the story.

If you were making Tomb of the Cybermen today you'd certainly do it differently. You wouldn't make Toberman such a dreadful stereotype. There is really no need for the person who nobly lays down his life in the final episode to be a strong, loyal mute. And even if there is, he could just as well have been a strong, loyal, Caucasian mute.

If you were making Talons of Weng-Chiang today, you'd certainly cast a Chinese actor as Le H'sen Chang. But if the yellow face make-up was the only problem, we wouldn't be having this conversation. We could all just say "Yes, I know! It was a theatrical convention in those days!! What ever were we thinking!!!" and move on.  

But it isn't just the make-up. The sinophobia -- Limehouse opium dens, martial arts, the Tong, sinister laundries, kidnapped white women, funny voices, exotic temples -- run through the story like the word "racist" through a stick of racist rock. It is a major part of the aesthetic. It is -- whisper it softly -- one of the things we like about the story. The cod Chinese aesthetic is one of the things we are talking about when we talk about how superlatively well done it all is. And that isn't something that can be fixed. No one imagines we could say "Oh, let's remake Weng-Chiang, but this time make him, I don't know, Swiss."  In Marco Polo and Tomb of the Cybermen, the racism is a bug. In Weng-Chiang it is very much a feature.

"1976, when this serial began production, was a very long time ago."

This is the only thing in the editorial which I wholeheartedly agree with.

"And you can't judge the past by the standards of the present."

Yes you can.

Really, you can.  

Watch me.

"In 1952, Alan Turing was tried in a criminal court and given libido suppressing drugs as a punishment for being gay. This was wrong."

"In 1900 in the UK, women were not allowed to vote in elections. This was wrong."

"Until 1954 black children were not allowed to go to the same schools as white children in some parts of America. This was wrong."

That wasn't so difficult, was it?

Image result for anthony hopkins as othello
Anthony Hopkins as Othello. It can't be racist it's high culture

"I'm sure that nobody involved with the production of Talons intended to cause offence to any viewers or the ethnic minority represented by the characters in the serial. And the intention behind the work is to me a crucial factor."

Talking about the "intention" of a work is incredibly problematic. It locates the work's meaning outside of the text, in the subjectivity of a person called "the author" who may not even be alive. Talons of Weng-Chiang is a thing; it exists; anyone who can be bothered to put a DVD in the toaster can watch it; and anyone who has watched it may have an opinion about it. The "intentions" of the writer and the producer are a matter of conjecture.

Marcus Hearne is sure that Robert Holmes, Philip Hinchcliffe and David Maloney were not racists. I am sure he is right.  But in 1977 they consciously and freely decided to make a Fu Manchu pastiche.

The poisonous content of the story doesn't magically go away because "some of my best friends are Chinese". The poisonous content of the story doesn't magically go away because Robert Holmes sat at his typewriter in 1976 and intended really really hard for his story not to offend anyone. If you don't think the content is poisonous, then by all means show us how we are mistaken. Show us that you've looked at the episode more carefully than we have and spotted stuff that we've missed. Be the better critic. But don't appeal to some nebulous idea about what may or may not have been in a dead writer's mind forty years ago.

Not racist: Kubla Kahn from the Season 1 story Marco Polo.
"In many key respects Talons was inspired by the penny-dreadful booklets that caused a sensation in Victorian England. The spirit of these lurid stories endured in Sax Rohmer's Dr Fu Manchu and elsewhere. Robert Holmes would almost certainly have been familiar with the films based on that criminal master-mind... He was banking on the fact that his audience were too... Quite understandably, many of these films have been locked in a section of the archive marked 'problematic' making it harder for a young, modern audience to appreciate what Holmes pastiche was attempting to subvert..."

This, on the other hand, is an actual concrete argument. Let's not worry about the scare quotes around "problematic" or ask whether Sax Rohmer's pulps really had anything to do with the penny dreadfuls of fifty years earlier. Let's see if the argument stands up.  If it does, then I am wrong, the time team are wrong, Elisabeth Sandifer is wrong and we can all watch our favourite story with a clear conscience.  

Here is Talons of Weng-Chiang, the Case for the Defence

1: Robert Holmes based the sinophobic tropes in Talons of Weng-Chiang on the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu movies.

2: The BBC had shown The Vengeance of Fu Manchu, The Face of Fu Manchu and the Brides of Fu Manchu (in that order) over three consecutive Wednesdays in 1975.

3: The audience who watched Talons of Weng-Chiang in 1977 can therefore be assumed to have recognized the source of Holmes' tropes.

4: Modern audiences are unlikely to have seen the Fu Manchu movies, so they can be assumed to be unfamiliar with these tropes.

5: You have to be familiar with the Fu Manchu tropes in order to access the true meaning of Talons of Weng-Chiang. 

6: Therefore modern audiences cannot access the original meaning of the story.

7: Those with knowledge of the Fu Manchu movies would have been able to perceive that Robert Holmes was subverting racist tropes, rather than presenting them uncritically. Those without that knowledge are unable to perceive that element of subversion.  

I agree that context makes a difference. I agree that lack of context can lead to misunderstanding. I remember seeing An Unearthly Child for the very first time at Panopticon 2 in 1978 and being Totally Blown Away by it. Jeremy Bentham introduced it, asking us to pretend that we had no idea who Susan Foreman was or why her grandfather was so reclusive, and that Police Boxes were so common that we walked past one every day without noticing it. And that's a perfectly useful piece of context-setting. As useful as your GCSE teacher gently explaining that, yes, when Pygmalion was written "bloody" was regarded as a really dirty word. If someone were stupid enough to say "An Unearthly Child is a waste of space because everyone knows the mysterious Police Box is really a TARDIS from the planet Gallifrey" I would certainly write an editorial in my magazine setting them straight.

On the other hand, the original context is never recoverable. You can't watch An Unearthly Child in ignorance of the fact that the Police Box is bigger-on-the-inside; and you do, in fact know whose daddy Darth Vader is. I myself have said that modern audiences can't possibly understand the impact that Star Wars had when it first came out -- how strange and different it was -- and that's true. But if the only authentic experience is that of the first night audience, then the true meaning of most books and movies and TV shows is lost forever and there is no point talking about them.

I suppose that when you say that a movie is racist, or sexist or dirty it is fair to compare it with the background levels of racism, sexism and smut in the culture around it. The original Star Trek is much more racist than the background levels of racism in our present day culture and certainly today's TV. There is only one black character, and all she does is answer the phone! But as we all know, the original Star Trek was much less racist then the background levels of racism in the 1960s: most TV shows didn't have any people of colour in them at all.  

But is that really the best we can do? Talons is more racist than anything which would be shown on TV today but it was less racist than the background levels of racism on TV in the 1970s? (The Fu Manchu films continued to be shown until 1983; and notoriously the BBC only dropped it's black-face minstrel show in 1978) The Young People are wrong to say "Whoah! A white dude playing an incredibly racist caricature of a Chinese guy! Not cool!" What they ought to have said was "Gosh! A white chappie playing an incredibly racist caricature of a Chinese fellow! But it's obviously based on those movies I watched on BBC 2 last year! And the white chappie in those films played an even more incredibly racist caricature of a Chinese fellow! So that's all right then!"

I am not convinced. Are you convinced?

This leaves us with one more possibility. The people who knew the mystical code-tropes would have understood that Robert Holmes was not merely copying the racist imagery from the Christopher Lee movies. He was subverting it.

Fine word, "subverting". Taking an idea and turning it on its head. Making a film where the Sheriff of Nottingham was an honest policeman and Robin Hood was a terrorist; producing a panto where Cinderella leaves the prince and runs away with Dandini. Trying to read Hamlet on the assumption that the prince is really bonkers and the ghost only exists in his head.

So there is the defense, and its a good one. Talons of Weng-Chiang subverts the racist cliches of Fu Manchu. We start out with racist ideas about devil doctors who kidnap white women, but only in order to show how silly those ideas are. It turns out that everyone has been very silly and unfair and jumped to the wrong conclusions about the Chinese community and everyone comes to a better understanding of the difference between European and Asian culture and sits down to fish and chips and chop suey together....

Er... No. It is perfectly true that Chang becomes slightly less two dimensional as the story moves on; and that he is allowed a sympathetic death scene. (Did I mention that Robert Holmes is a very good writer?) But the whole cod-Chinese aesthetic of the story is never remotely challenged or repudiated and sympathetic characters say some pretty racist stuff without the Doctor challenging them. (This is all covered in great and good-natured detail in Kate Orman's essay.) One villain turns out not to be quite so villainous after all -- you don't need any esoteric knowledge of  old Christopher Lee movies to understand that. But one repentant bad guy doesn't wipe out a story full of anti-Chinese cliches.

Not racist, but quite well drawn.
I was going to conclude with a brief survey of the twitter storm which has blown up around this issue, but I don't really have the heart. It was utterly, utterly predictable. Abuse towards the Time Team panel for being young; accusations of insincerity -- oh, they didn't really care about race or diversity but were just virtue signalling. All the usual whataboutery, oh, but if only yellow people can play yellow roles then we'll have to censure the Time Warrior because Kevin Lindsay isn't really a Sontaran. People who experience the claim "this is racist" as a personal attack on them and jolly well swear to go away and watch some Charlie Chan films just to show us. And unbelievably nasty, attacks on people who defended the original article and took exception to the editorial. Actually, I think that Elisabeth Sandifer possibly maybe sort of overstepped the mark in saying that Marcus Hearn should resign or be fired. But nothing justifies the kind of abuse she was subjected to. Fandom is an all or nothing world. Once someone is on the wrong side of a particular issue, they are sad, failing writers who have never done or said anything worth while in their lives. (It's a very Trumpian tactic.) It wasn't orchestrated; it was people blurting because they felt that a TV show they once liked was being taken away from them. We are still several months from a DoctorWhoGate. But it has the same effect. It drives people off social media. I don't know how I would write a review of Season 11 in the present climate. I wouldn't be talking about whether I liked a TV show or not. I'd be aligning myself with one or other side in a surrogate culture war. And I'd be at risk of people shouting at me. Which ever side I took. It's not fun any more.

Image result for laurence olivier othello
Sir Laurence Olivier as Othello. Dear god in heaven. 
Talons of Weng-Chiang is incredibly racist. Talons of Weng-Chiang is my favourite Doctor Who story. I loved my Gollywog. Why are we still even talking about this?