Sunday, July 30, 2023


 Everyman, Bristol

And everywhere else in the entire universe.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Stan stans Stan

Stan Lee


In the 60s, Marvel Comics was known as the House of Ideas.

It's a telling phrase. Not the house of writers or the house of artists or the house of editors. The House of Ideas.

That's what made the decade from 1961-1972 so seminal. Not the pictures; not the dialogue; not even the plots. The ideas. And the source of those ideas was the son of a pair of Jewish Romanian depression-era immigrants: Stanley Martin Leiber.

"I have always thought I was the creator of Spider-Man because I am the guy who said 'I have an idea for a strip called Spider-Man an so forth'...." explained Lee. "You dream it up and then you give it to anyone to draw it."

Walt Disney's Life of Stan is not as bad as I expected it to be. It ends with the voices of Kevin Feige (director of the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and Roy Thomas (Stan Lee's anointed successor at Marvel.) Both of them distance themselves from the doctrine of Stan Sola.

"I often think of the 1960s and the famous Marvel bullpen" says Fiege "and think about the characters that came out of the imaginations of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and all of their co-creators, it's incredible. I often find myself thinking 'boy if we could just tap into just five per cent of that crucible of imagination' ".

"The seeds of all that stuff are all set back in what Stan did with Jack and Steve" says Thomas. "You know, you could always trace anything that they do now. It all kind of flows from that fountain that was unleashed when Stan and Jack and Ditko, you know, got together and suddenly became this wonderful triumvirate, creating a whole universe, and neither of them could have really you know done it without the other."

This represents one hell of a climbdown: Lee himself acknowledged Ditko as co-creator only with the utmost reluctance. ("I'm willing to say so".) I wonder if there is an element of arse-covering going on: a last-ditch attempt to shore up what remains of the myth? Stan Lee was not the sole auteur of Marvel Comics. No-one who has studied the evidence thinks that he was. Very many people would be prepared to argue that Ditko and Kirby could very well have created Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four without input from Lee. There are even some who think that they did. But talking about a triumvirate allows us to keep hold of Uncle Stan. He may not have done everything, but he still did something.

The choice of metaphor is interesting. Thomas talks about seeds. The Blessed Trinity didn't create the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but everything that came afterwards was implicit in their primal creative act. He talks about fountains. Whatever we mean by Marvel Comics already existed; the Founding Fathers merely channeled and released it. Fiege talks about a crucible. I prefer that as a metaphor: Lee, Kirby and Ditko as three radically different metals that were superheated into a single alloy.

Fiege and Thomas are careful to talk about creators in the plural. But their summing up is bookended by the singular Stan Lee, enjoying the glamour of the Marvel movies and looking back on his long career. 

"In the days I was writing those books..." 

"That's a camera-wrap on the creator of Iron Man, Mr. Stan Lee" 

"The fact that I'm working with characters I've created..." 

"You can only do your best work if you are doing what you want to do, if you are doing it the way you think it should be done" 

"If you can look at it and say 'I did that and I think it's pretty damn good, that's a great feeling."

I, me, my...

The documentary is very well put together. Lee ceased to be an active comic book creator in 1972: for the last fifty years of his life, talking about himself was basically what he did for a living. There must be a thousand hours of recordings of his voice. Director David Gelb has, with some ingenuity, collated a tiny fraction of this material into a fairly cohesive first person narrative: Stan on Stan. Not such a monumental undertaking as Peter Jackson's Get Back, but a substantial editorial task. A computer may have been involved to make the sound consistent, but it's all based on actual recordings. We are not told the provenance of the voice-over, so a remark made in 1960 and a remark made in 2020 might well be placed side by side. We also get film clips of Lee on chat shows and conventions and personal appearances, where the context is much clearer.

Stan Lee was a professional raconteur. He created a persona on the pages of his comics and then adopted it in real life. Self-deprecating and egoistical in the same moment; never more arch than when he's being sincere, never more light-hearted than when giving a straight answer. We hear the voice of Joe Simon complaining that the Very Early Stan Lee used to incessantly play the piccolo in the office. We don't otherwise hear of an interest in music: he must have been inhabiting a persona even back then. I don't know if there is really a unique New York Jewish style of humour, but one can't help thinking of the later Groucho Marx when Stan speaks. Later on he dropped the flute and affected a cigar. If you fell in love with Marvel in the 60s, then Stan's voice is what you fell in love with. This is a strength and a weakness in any documentary. It is great fun to spend time in Stan's company: the ninety minutes shoots by. But we are drawn in. We want to believe the yarns he is spinning. It feels mean to interrupt and say "But wait a minute....?" and "Says who...?"

Jack Kirby and Joe Simon pointedly refer to him as Stanley. Stan Lee is a made-up character.

Lee's reminiscences are illustrated by static figurines in elaborate tableaux. (I don't know who made them, and if they are physical models or clever CGI, but they are terribly well done.) So as Lee talks about reading the pulps in his parent's tenement while his dad desperately looked for work; we see the scene enacted by the little plastic figures who normally populate model railway stations.

It's a clever stunt. Stan tells us. The pictures show us. But the artificiality of the pictures gently whisper "it ain't necessarily so".

We see a Steve Ditko figurine, hunched over a model writing desk, pencilling a comic book. To one side is a Stan Lee figurine, adopting a Spider-Man pose, demonstrating how he imagines a particular scene. The comic that toy-Ditko is working on is quite clearly Amazing Fantasy #15; the last page of the first section, when Peter invents his web-shooters. At his side are pencils, a protractor...and a typewritten script, several pages long. It's clearly based on the sample from Stan's 1948 Writers Digest Essay, There's Money in Comics, which envisaged a comic book script as a movie screenplay, with panel descriptions down one side and dialogue down the other. ("Panel 1: Louise in office, clearing her desk. Louise: (Thought.) He never notices me!") Elsewhere in the big open-plan Marvel office, there are four or five other artists, similarly hunched over drawing boards.

We would love it to be true. What Kevin Feige calls "the famous Marvel Bullpen" was such a big part of what made Marvel Comics so special -- a men's clubhouse that us little kids were allowed to peek into. But it never existed: during the Marvel decade the artists were freelancers working from home. Stan Lee didn't provide Ditko or Kirby with screenplays to work from: he provided them with short summaries or single line ideas. According to Flo Steinburg (Stan Lee's very own Betty Brant) Lee did sometimes stand on tables and mime scenes to artists. But there is something pernicious in the idea that Steve Ditko was drawing Spider-Man in poses that Stan Lee had first demonstrated to him. The one thing which characterised Steve Ditko's Spidey -- a flexible body perpetually twisted into unlikely shapes -- is implied to have originated in the Mind of Stan. Note that Lee has his third and forth fingers in the palms of his hands, in the classic "web-shooter" position: the idea that Lee suggested those kinds of details corresponds to nothing that we know about the pair's working practices. 

Ditko really did have the word THINK pinned to his drawing board, but that was in his home studio, not the Marvel office.

We hear a big chunk of the Merry Marvel Marching Society record, in which Stan Lee pokes heavy handed fun at the other creatives. This doesn't pretend to be anything other than a skit. At one point Steve Ditko, who characteristically refused to participate, is said to leap out of the window, to the sound of breaking glass. ("Maybe he is Spider-Man!") But the scene is lovingly recreated with the little Lego men. Perhaps that's a signal that the vignette of Lee and Ditko should be seen as part of the same, mythical, Bullpen play-world. 

But it's a vivid ideogram; visually conveying the idea that Ditko's job was to transmute Lee's thought into pictures. Which is. Just. Not. True.

"My mother said I would read the labels on ketchup bottles if there was nothing else around" says Stan. I am sure she did.

"I got a job as an office boy at the second largest trouser manufacturer in New York." I have no reason whatsoever to doubt this.

"When I graduated High School, I had an uncle, and he worked for a publisher, and he told me they were looking for an assistant, and I figured 'Gee, I'm going to apply', so I went up there, and I found out they also published comic books, they had an outfit called Timely comics, and they hired me to run errands, to proof read, fill the inkwell, whatever had to be done." By all accounts, this is perfectly correct. Stan's Uncle Robbie (Robert Solomon) worked for Martin Goodman, who published Timely Comics. 

What Lee fails to mention is that Goodman's sister (Sylvia Solomon) was Robert's wife. That makes Lee the boss's nephew-in-law. And rather confusingly, Goodman's own wife, Jean, was Stan Lee's cousin. Making him the boss's cousin-in-law as well. There is nothing sinister about this. It's how second generation immigrants found work during the depression. Once Lee is ensconced as a gopher, sharpening Jack Kirby's pencils and bringing him cups of coffee, he slips into the royal plural. "We had the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner and the Patriot and the Angel and the Destroyer, but the main character we had was Captain America."

But hey. It's a good story. Office boy to world-wide icon. Isn't that exactly what we mean by the Great American Dream?

Stan Lee was definitely given the role of "Playwright" by the US Army during World War II: we are shown his discharge papers with the job title on them. He was writing instruction manuals and training-film scripts while Jack Kirby was actually getting shot at by Nazis. (Another "playwright" was one Theodor Geisel, who would later do quite well for himself writing children's books.) But is it really true that adding light-hearted cartoon characters into accountancy training books shortened the training period for army finance officers from six-months to six weeks? This is, of course, spun as a eureka moment; indeed, as an origin story:

"It was then I realised that comic books can have a tremendous impact; you can convey a story or information faster, more clearly and more enjoyably than any other way short of motion pictures."

With great power comes great responsibility. Thus were born the Fantastic Four and the world will never be the same again. 

Abraham Riesman mentions in her biography that Lee's most widely distributed army work was actually a poster with the punchy slogan "V.D? Not me!" No-one doubts Stan Lee had a way with words.

In Origins of Marvel Comics, written in 1974, Lee tells the story of how his wife, sometime in 1960, pointed out that he'd been writing comics for twenty years and still treated it as a temporary occupation. (Significantly, he was still pitching screenplays and novel ideas; equally significantly, none of them got picked up.) Why, asked Jean, didn't he fully commit to the industry he was actually in? The result was the Fantastic Four. 

It is sweet that Stan wants to say that he owes it all to his wife; but it strikes me as the sort of conversation two people might actually have. Half a century later, in a BBC interview, the story had evolved. Now, Lee had actively decided to quit comics and his lovely wife suggested that if he was going to do that anyway, he should "do one book the way he wanted" before he finished. The result was Spider-Man. 

Corollary: Stan Lee always had Spider-Man "in" him; but he had spent many years doing comics in the way he thought his publisher wanted. (*)

In the present documentary, we get the story from Jean Lee's own mouth. (I hadn't realised that she had such a wonderful cut-glass English accent!) And the choice of words is very telling:

"Why don't you create characters who you like?"

In the beginning was the idea. The Fantastic Four differed from the characters who came before because Stan Lee liked them. Because they were his personal vision.

On this timeline, Stan goes to Jack and says "Jack, wouldn't it be nice if you had good guys who occasionally make mistakes, who occasionally trip at the last minute and let the bad guys get away?" This is presented as the key moment: when the seed was planted, the fountain unleashed and the crucible heated. It is illustrated with a panel from the 1947 Secrets of the Comics strip about how Martin Goodman created Captain America in a single eureka moment.

"That was really the start of everything" says Stan.

So: that was the Big Idea. Not the idea that there should be a team consisting of a stuffy scientist, a beautiful lady, a cool, hot-headed younger kid and strong, bad-tempered older kid, and that together they should fight monsters. Not even the idea -- that Lee is inordinately proud of -- that the Scientist and the Lady were already engaged when the story started. The light bulb moment was when Stan Lee went to the guy he used to run errands for and told him that the Fantastic Four would be realistic and fallible

In fairness, we do get to hear Lee talking extensively about the Marvel Method; and acknowledging Ditko's primary input into the majority of Spider-Man's adventures. This is spun in Lee's favour: because he didn't know what was going to be in the comic until Ditko handed him the art, Spider-Man took twice as long "to write" than any of the other books. Lee says that Marvel Method was introduced as an emergency measure -- introduced because Marvel were putting out more books than he could personally keep track of. The chronology of the documentary implies that this happened after the post-Fantastic Four superhero explosion: but Lee has said elsewhere that he was already feeding Kirby and Ditko single-line story ideas (for monster comics and twist-ending horror titles) from the middle-fifties at least. The provenance of Stan's outline for Fantastic Four #1 is contested: but it's definitely a synopsis, not a script.

We hear Lee's side of the Jonathan Ross interview; which acknowledges that Ditko believed himself to be the co-creator of Spider-Man. We hear the infamous moment when Stan and Jack nearly come to verbal blows about "who did what" on live radio. Lee accuses Kirby of never reading the finished comics, which Kirby does not deny. Kirby honestly believed he was the sole creator of the Fantastic Four because he genuinely didn't know what Lee was bringing to the table.

The trailer for the 1978 Christopher Reeve movie strongly implied that Superman's appearances in comic books, on radio, and on TV had been a preliminary, gestational period from which Superman-The Movie had finally emerged. Similarly, the 2018 Double Fantasy exhibition presented John Lennon as a peace campaigner, guru and avant garde artist who had served an apprenticeship in a British pop group. And clearly, it suits Walt Disney to present Stan Lee's story as a single creative decade, followed by forty years of obscurity, and universal adulation as an octogenarian. The documentary skips the years between 1972, when Lee ceased to be a regular writer, and 2008, when he started to cement his mainstream fame with a series of Hitchcockian cameos in the Marvel Universe Movies. We hear nothing of the decades of pitching ideas for characters and movies -- none of which get made -- and certainly nothing of the failed Stan Lee Media or POW Entertainment. 

Marvel Comics was the egg from which the Marvel Cinematic Universe hatched.

"In the days I was writing those books I was hoping they'd sell, so that I wouldn't lose my job, that I could keep paying the rent. All of a sudden, these characters have become world famous; they're the subject of blockbuster movies, and I'm lucky enough to get little cameos in them..."

"It's certainly nice to see the world catch up with what Stan Lee did" adds Roy "Even if it took movies and TV shows to do it. The world has to kind of admit now, maybe there is something to some of this stuff."

The final moments of the film juxtapose images from the movies with images of the same characters from 60s Marvel. But this only underlines how little the comic book characters have in common with the figures in the movies. The evil mutant with the silly red tiara unrecognisable as the tragically crazed witch from Wandavision. The lumbering cold-warrior in gun-metal armour has hardly anything to do with Robert Downey Jnr's sleek cyberpunk hero. The Hulk who Stan Lee dreamed up wasn't powered by anger and wasn't green. One of these things is not like the other one, but we are asked to suppose they have a unique essence which makes them kind of the same. Stan Lee's theory of Ideas which fall fully formed like mana from heaven is a necessary component of that essentialism. 

Jack Kirby created Captain America as a wartime hero; Stan Lee brought him forward to the 60s and killed off his annoying kid side kick; Ed Brubaker brought Bucky back from the dead as a psychotic brainwashed assassin. Gene Colon created the Falcon, and Steve Englehart made him Cap's partner and Rich Remender made him Cap's replacement. The very fine 1941 Captain America comic and the very fine 2021 Falcon and the Winter Soldier TV show are only instantiations of the same idea in the way that Trigger's broom (which has had fourteen new heads and seventeen new handles) is still the same broom he bought twenty years ago.

There's a political dimension to all this. The belief that there is a one true Spider-Man, who appeared in a snap-your fingers lightbulb moment feeds into the mentality which sets fire to action figures if a once-light-skinned character is played by a dark-sinned actor.

There is a really very touching epilogue in which Stan, now in a wheel chair, gets an ecstatic standing ovation from a college graduation cohort. His closing address turns the story-of-the-idea into a morality play, like one of those picture books about how Mother Theresa was a little girl who followed her dreams but doesn't mention that she was a Roman Catholic. 

"If you have an idea that you genuinely think is good, don't let some idiot talk you out of it. That doesn't mean that every wild notion you come up with is gonna be genius, but if there is something that you feel is good, something you want to do, something that means something to you, try to do it. Because you can only do your best work, if your doing what you want to do, and if you're doing it the way you think it should be done."

And that's the message. Where the whole trajectory of Stan's career is collaboration, pragmatism, following trends, selling a product, the final message is individualism. Spider-Man was great because Lee had a singular vision and he stuck to it. Bull. Shit

And the pity of it is this: if anyone reads to the end of this essay, they will call me a Ditko hater and a Stan Lee shill. Because I do believe that Stan Lee was a creative genius. I do believe that Kirby and Ditko did better work with Lee than they ever did solo or with different collaborators. I do believe that Marvel Comics from 1962ish to 1972ish reads as a single text, adverts and letters pages and all, and the soul of that text comes from Stan Lee. Stan Lee's voice formed the soundtrack to my childhood, if not my whole life. Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four are great because of Stan Lee's ironic meta-textual self-insertion. The endless peddling of the myth of the auteur who never actually auteured anything is insulting to Ditko and Kirby. And it does no favours to the very talented man whose name is on the tin.

Stan Lee was a copywriter. Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were draftsmen. What they produced was not ideas, but texts.     

(*) It also follows that he was not "doing" the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, or Thor in "the way he wanted" and that he became disillusioned with comics when he had already "created" Doctor Doom and reintroduced the Submariner.

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Monday, July 03, 2023

Micronauts #11 (continued)

There is a 1960s Batman TV episode involving a cowboy-themed bad-guy named Shame. ("Shame on you, Shame!") Robin wants to know why Batman is looking for Shame in his old hide-out. Since Shame knows that Batman knows where it is, he would be a fool to go back there.

Batman agrees. "However, knowing that, he'd think that we'd think he would not return there, therefore, he did and so will we."

But, on this occasion, the world's greatest detective is out-thunk. Shame guessed that Batman would return to the old hide-out, and laid an ambush for him there.

"I knew he'd think I'd think he'd think I'd think he'd come back here", he explains in an impeccable John Wayne accent.

Of course, generals sometimes make decoy attacks and chess-players sometimes double bluff each other. But too much second-guessing can undermine a story. I have always though that the single weak link in George Lucas's impeccable plot is Princess Leia's speech before the final act of Star Wars. "He let us go" she says "It's the only explanation for the ease of our escape." The entire middle-section of the movie is thereby wiped out: the Stormtroopers were never really trying to recapture our heroes (which may explain why they are such poor shots) and the TIE Fighters were never really trying to shoot them down. Vader let our heroes escape so he could trail them back to the rebel base; our heroes let him trail them so they can have a shot at destroying the Death Star. We can forgive it, perhaps, because it sets up such a perfect climax, and because Star Wars, in 1977, was more about spectacle than about world building. But it strikes a false note. It feels too much like an author manipulating the heroes towards a pre-determined end point.

Micronauts has, from the beginning, turned on some fairly clunky plot devices. Right back in issue #1 we were told that Karza -- like Vader -- allowed Rann to escape from the arena and -- like Vader -- tracked his spaceship because he thought that letting him go would give him the chance to reveal his secret. But in issue #11, we discover that this was a triple bluff. Karza knew that Rann didn't know the secret of the Enigma Force; but he pretended to hunt him; in order to give Slug and Argon the opportunity to start their revolution, so that he would know the extent of their rebellion and be able to put it down. Everything that has transpired has done so according to his design.

And also, he just thought watching the rebels rebel was fun.

"Then it was all a game?" says Argon "You manipulated us all like puppets?"

"An apt metaphor" replies the Dark Lord.

Game. Puppets. Did I mention that this was a comic book about a series of toys?

It is possible to imagine a purely naturalistic story which is driven entirely by a cast of characters doing what those characters would do under those circumstances. Chekov, I suppose, comes quite close to this Platonic ideal. But even the best writers use ghosts, witches, lost handkerchiefs, mistaken identity, misdirected letters, impenetrable disguises and love potions to manipulate their characters into situations which would never in a million years happen in real life. The universes of Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo are governed by the power of coincidence: obviously the very first pocket that little Oliver picks belongs to someone connected with his long lost mother; naturally, the woman Marius falls in love with at first sight was raised in the inn belonging to his father's mysterious benefactor who he has spent his whole life searching for.

This isn't a flaw, necessarily: it's how stories work. There is something to be said for Sam Gamgee's theory, that unlikely things happen in songs because you only write songs about people who unlikely things happen to. Dr Watson says much the same thing: Holmes always solves the mystery because he doesn't bother to write up all those cases which Holmes can't solve. (He also skips the boring ones that Holmes solves easily.)

Shakespeare, Hugo and Dickens all believed in God: they might very well have said Providence is controlling their characters; and perhaps allowing us to see how It controls our own. But science fiction and fantasy writers are apt to make the contrivance and the co-incidence part of the story: to make Divine Providence explicitly part of the characters' world. Most readers understand that good guys don't get killed off; that however bad things get, Indiana Jones will survive; that the young farm boy we meet on page 1 is going to be the person who defeats the bad guy on page 550. Smart-arse kids sometimes say that there is no point in reading a first person narrative (an "I" book) because you know in advance that the hero is going to survive to tell the story. But you could equally say that the cliffhanger on page 50 isn't very exciting because you know that you are reading a 300 page story. Identifying the orphan living under the stairs as The Chosen One merely makes that contract explicit: Harry is going to defeat Voldemort because Harry is the hero of the story. (But he isn't going to defeat him until the last chapter of the last book.) Heroes of medieval romances are prone to encounter wizards, monks and dwarves who explicitly tell them where they have to go to complete their quests and (very often) what will happen to them when they do so. Gandalf himself blames the central implausibility in Lord of the Rings on God -- who is an actual character in the story. "Bilbo was meant to find the Ring; in which case you were meant to have it." 

It has long been understood that Star Wars only makes sense when you know that The Force is Lucas's in-universe stand-in for Providence, Contrivance, Co-Incidence -- in short, The Plot. The game of substituting the word Plot for the word Force is never not informative. The Plot can exert a strong influence over the weak-minded. The Plot awakens. Rey and Kylo form a Dyad in the Plot. Anakin is destined to bring balance to the Plot. 

Mantlo's Enigma Force is a particularly shameless in-universe representation of the authorial hand. Almost from the beginning, we are told that Rann had contact with the Enigma Force during his voyage; that he is the chosen one who will defeat Karza; and that Karza fears him because he carries the secret of the Enigma Force in his mind. In issue #7 it was revealed that Rann had passed through the Space Wall and encountered the Time Travellers on the other side. Issue #10 ended with the Time Travellers addressing the readers directly.

"Thus the players play their parts,
thus the final drama runs its course
calling all and sundry to their end
final meeting with the Enigma Force."

Tellingly, the rhyme would scan better if you dropped the word "Enigma".

There is no attempt to rationalise or ameliorate this. The Time Travellers aren't speaking to anyone inside the story. They are looking out of the comic and talking to Andrew Rilstone. In subsequent issues, they will increasingly be presented as story-tellers and narrators, rather like the Crypt Keeper in a 1950s horror comic. 

It couldn't be much more explicit. Karza believes that he's in charge of the story; but Rann has encountered the Story itself. Karza thinks he knows how the story is going to end; but Rann carries the ending of the Story in his mind. The Space Wall isn't just the membrane between the Microverse and the rest of Marvel Continuity; it's the Fourth Wall between reality and fiction which the Time Travellers breach on the final page of the penultimate issue. Karza thinks that he is manipulating the other characters like puppets: Time Traveller thinks of them in terms of actors in a play which they are writing.

Actors, play, drama.

Did I mention that the Micronauts is based on a series of toys?

Luke Skywalker asks Obi-Wan if a Jedi's actions are controlled by the Plot. Ben replies that they are, up to a point, but that the Plot will also obey a Jedi's commands. And that's not a bad definition of the writing process. Characters are sometimes pushed into particular situations because the Plot requires it; but the Plot can also develop in particular ways because of what the Characters do. Everything in Lord of the Rings appears to build up to the moment when Gollum cuts the Ring from Frodo's finger: evil contains the seeds of its own destruction. But Tolkien maintained that he had not foreseen the ending until he came to write it. What happened was what seemed to him to be psychologically plausible given the characters he had created. Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star because the Plot ensures that the proton torpedo finds its target. But Luke isn't a passive puppet of the Plot. The ending of Star Wars is also a character moment. Luke consciously decides to switch off his targeting computer: a huge act of faith, but plausible based on what we've seen of his relationship with Ben. But then again, the whole point of the Plot has been to set up the situation in which the fate of the galaxy depends on one choice by one character. (See also: Quidditch.)

The Enigma Force acts much more directly on the Microverse. It manifests as a deus ex machina freeing Mari from prison, giving Rann crucial information, and allowing Slug and Argon to escape from the Dog Soldiers. It brings Argon's sub-plot to an end, informing him where he has to go to complete the story; and before his battle with Karza, it tells him that "the order of this day has long been written". Time Traveller takes such an active role in the story that me might legitimately wonder what the other characters are there for. Rann doesn't really have to do anything: he saves the universe simply by being Rann. (The Time Travellers seem to require Rann to act as a physical host; but his contribution to the denouement is to recklessly hurl himself at Karza and wait for his rendezvous with the Ending.) It's very dramatic that the final battle should occur on a floating energy platform above the Body Banks, but there's no reason for it to happen there, except that the Time Travellers have decided that that is where it should happen. Captain Universe felt like a supercharged Ray Coffin; but Rann's story and personality is overwritten by the Time Traveller.

Except for one thing: one elegant, jaw-dropping twist. Rann didn't encounter the Enigma Force. He wasn't chosen by the Enigma Force. Rann literally is the Enigma Force. The Hero didn't break through the Fourth Wall and learn about the Plot. The Hero wins the day because he is the Story and the Story is what he is.

Jack Kirby's New Gods saga began where every other saga ends: with Asgard in flames and the Old Gods slaughtering each other. It may be that he consciously intended his New Genesis to arise from the ashes of Marvel's Asgard -- sending a message that these new characters were going to surpass the ones he'd created with Stan Lee. It may just be that that was the kind of thing he enjoyed drawing. Bill Mantlo disavowed Star Wars as a direct influence on Micronauts, but happily admitted to having written it under the influence of the Fourth World.

Micronauts #9 and #10 unashamedly invoke Kirby's imagery. The Acroyears are unmistakably Space Vikings, and their home planet Spartak is located somewhere between Asgard and Apokalips. The battle scenes are crowded, epic, over-the-top, straddling the frontier between science fiction and mythology. In a word: Kirbyesque.

But in comic book terms, it's just a little bit impersonal. In Kirby's universe, the old, Norse pantheon was replaced by a super-heroic dynasty, and the new war would be resolved by Darkseid and Orion fighting one-to-one in the flame pits. Hoards of space-vikings, stormtroopers and toy spaceships playing at War can only ever be the prelude to the main story. If Rann is the good guy and Karza is the bad guy, then everything has to come down to a pistol duel on Main Street at High Noon. Helms Deep is where we swash our buckles; but the real story happens on Mount Doom. 

But this demand -- this need for a fight -- is really at odds with the way Mantlo has set up the Micronauts universe. Karza is a tyrant, a mad scientist, and a Mephistopheles figure. He created hyper-hyper-drive and conquered the universe while everyone else was crawling about at light speed. He offered immortality in return for blind obedience. So how does killing Karza end his empire? Doesn't he have a bureaucracy and a chain of command who can take over the day-to-day business of oppressing people? Doesn't he have Evil Minions who would keep the Body Banks ticking over in his absence? Are we supposed to think that the longevity technology depends on science known only to Karza and never shared with anyone else? Or are we perhaps meant to think that the Dog Soldiers and his other subordinates have been subjected to a "mindwash" which will terminate with the Dark Lord's death? (Sauron's will seems to have dominated the Orcs to the extent that his armies rout as soon as he is destroyed.) 

So. The Plot mutates. Marvel heroes and villains generally talk to each other during fight-scenes. They not infrequently provide a running commentary on their attacks and defences. "I bet you didn't expect me to use my Spider-Agility" "You have forgotten that I have the power of every kind of reptile". Rann and Karza dialogue redefines the universe; they retell the story in the act of ending it.

At first, we are talking about Who Is The Stronger. Rann is "power incarnate" who after a few panels has learned how to "harness" his power. Karza blasts him with red power rays, which Rann deflects with the palms of his hands; Karza is surprised that Rann can "breach his personal force field". But we are also, at some level, talking about a philosophical difference: Karza says that his "super science" will defeat Rann's "outmoded mysticism". There is no particular sense of technology taking on magic, although it might have been cool if there had been. The main difference between the antagonists is that Rann is surrounded by Enigma Force fireflies, where Karza is enveloped by black dots. 

Fans affectionately describe black dots as Kirby Krackle after the King's penchant for the device, so we might say that two comic book iconographies are in conflict. But then again, we might not.

But it suddenly turns out that they are wielding entirely different kinds of power.

Karza: As you derive power from the Enigma Force, so are my energies fed by the fiery core of Homeworld, through the great pit over which we battle suspended.

Rann: A pit you gouged into the heart of Homeworld to power your fiendish body banks, Baron, a gaping wound into which you've hurled the noblest of our citizenry for the last ten centuries.

The word "power" tends to have a double meaning in comic books. We say that Spider-Man has the "power" of sticking to walls and sensing danger; where Ant-Man's "powers" include talking to insects and shrinking really, really, small. We say that Namor has the "powers" of every fish in the sea, meaning that he can bite like a shark and change colour like an octopus. But we also use "power" in a more conventional sense -- political or physical power -- in which case it is usually a Bad Thing. ("Power" laments Captain America "How many crimes have been committed in your name.") The Body Banks are certainly the source of Karza's Power: he rules the universe and everyone obeys him because he can extend their lives. But they suddenly seem also to be the source of his super-villain power: they are what make him strong and hard to beat in a fight. 

Metaphorical power has become literal power. It's rather as if we were telling a story in which Arthur Scargill was able to move a mountain with his bare hands because there ss Power in a union. (Which would, come to think of it, be awesome.)

And finally, Rann explains narrative principles of to Karza. "Didn't your encounter with Captain Universe give you an inkling of how the Plot Enigma Force works?" he asks. It seems that Captain Universe was "the embodiment of all that was best on his world" (although a minute ago he was merely "a very courageous human") whereas the Enigma Force is "the spirit and the power of all the prayers and dreams of the Microverse for the past 1,000 years" (although a minute ago it was Rann's infinitely expanded consciousness.)

"We represent everything you hate, Karza...We are the light you sought to banish to eternal darkness."

Represent. Embody.

All superheroes are symbols. But most superheroes don't know that they are symbols. Superman best represents truth, justice and the American Way when he is merely a very strong journalist saving a little girl's kitten. Captain America best represents the Dream when he's a cop or GI going about his duty; or when he's telling hurting New Yorkers that they mustn't take their grief out on their Muslim neighbours. There is been an unfortunate tendency in recent years for Spider-Man to be consciously aware that he is a role-model for the children of New York; and indeed, for Doctor Who to go on and on about what it means to be Doctor Who.

Captain Universe beat Karza because he stands for America, fatherhood, the planet earth, Apple Pie. That's the kind of thing you'd expect a corny old super-dude to say. But it turns out that it's literally his superpower. And Rann has the same superpower to the thousandth degree. He represents "the hope of Dallan Rann....the love of Ray Coffin...the nobility of Princess Mari...the comradeship of Commander Rann..." He doesn't win the fight because he's really, really, hopeful and really, really loving: representing those things somehow enables him to chuck more and more powerful wavy lines and golden glow worms at this enemy. 

I did wonder if "the hope of Dallan Rann and the love of Ray Coffin" would spell out a terribly rude word, in the way that the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules and the power of Achilles spell out SHAZAM. But sadly not.

Goodies win because they are goodies and baddies lose because they are baddies. That's how stories work. And the Plot Enigma Force's job is to make sure the story comes out the way it's supposed to. Karza is fighting The Story; and in Stories, Light always defeats Darkness.

There is a final ending which pulls all the threads together. Rann is inclined to spare Karza -- bind him, rather than destroy him. But Karza, knowing that he has lost, announces his intention to break all his toys. He suddenly invents a new power. He is going to "summons forth" (whatever that means) the power of the great pit and use it to "unleash a massive mindshock" (whatever that means), which will destroy the whole planet. But before he can do this, he is literally struck dead by a bolt of lightning.

Of course, it is the World Mind, manifesting as a gigantic purple face in the heavens. The Micronauts saga began with Argon and Mari running away from the Acroyears. It ends with Slug crying "Look to the skies. The Acroyears have arrived! (The Eagles are coming! The Eagles are coming!) The Acroyears and the rebels wipe out Karza's supporter in two frames. Of course they do.

PEDANTIC POINT: On page 17, Rann is drawn in his familiar blue uniform. But on page 18, he is still in his Enigma Force form: Time Traveller leaves him on the first panel of page 19. And the art on page 17 reverts to a more cartoony style, very different from the rest of the issue. Is it possible that, once again, some pages have been moved around: or that there was an earlier version of the story in which the Acroyears and the Rebels overcame Karza by military force alone? Is it possible that, as a matter of actual fact, the Enigma Force altered the plot?
When Biotron believed commander Rann was dead, he wondered out loud if there was any point in this endless conflict. When Acroyear merged with the World Mind, he started to wish that his people's endless wars would come to an end. This foreshadows the final words of the story, spoken by Mari. She doesn't proclaim a victory. "The war is over" she says "There will be peace at last."

I don't know what Bill Mantlo's religious affiliation was. We know that his family celebrated Christmas. But religious imagery and language is never far away from Micronauts. Dallan and Sepsis are literally the gods of Homeworld, and Rann is literally their son. (When he lands his first punch on Karza, it's his parent's faces, not those of Mari or Argon who seem to be looking on approvingly.) The Shadow Priests described him as a "champion" in issue #8 and Slug directly calls him "Homeworld's Saviour" this time around. 

He appears on page 10 with his arms stiffly out-stretched; not flying with his fists forward, like Superman, but floating with his feet pointing down. On page 12, surrounded by a spider-like penumbra of the yellow force, he hangs with his arms above his body, in a Y shape, the light seeming to expose his rib-cage. And on the main cover he takes a cruciform position with one Time Traveller on his left and another on his right. The imagery is unmistakable.

Karza thinks he is in charge. He thinks he is manipulating the other characters: like puppets. He is doing it for his own entertainment: it's just a game. But Karza doesn't realise that he's a puppet as well: the story is being told by Time Traveller. And Rann, the hero of the story, created the Time Traveller; so really, he's been telling the story all along. 

But Space Glider himself -- and Acroyear and the Galactic Warrior and Biotron and Microtron and Force Commander and Baron Karza, enemy of the Micronauts -- are all toys. And the person who is really manipulating them is a little boy. 

On Christmas Day.

That concludes my unnecessarily deep dive into the Micronauts saga. I've been wanting to do it for several years, and I hope I said most of what I wanted to say. Maybe we will come back to the later issues when Marvel republishes the comics next year.

As ever: I am trying to make part of my living writing niche stuff which interests me, and if you think it is worth reading, it would be incredibly cool if you either subscribed to my Patreon (pledging $1 per short article) or bought me a metaphorical cup of coffee on Ko-Fi.

With the effective demise of Twitter, it's increasingly difficult for micro-journalists to promote their work, so if you have found this, or any of my other material, in anyway interesting, please do mention it to your online communities. 

Thank you, and may the Plot be with you.

Sunday, July 02, 2023

Micronauts #11

Micronauts #11: The Enigma Force

Mari and Rann have been captured. Bug is assumed dead. Acroyear has merged with the sentient core of his home planet. As one does. Back on Homeworld, Prince Argon has a mighty battle with Karza, but Karza defeats him. All seems lost. But then the green cowls fall from the Shadow Priests, and glowing golden forms are revealed underneath. 

The Shadow Priests! They were the Time Travellers all the time! And our Hero, Commander Arcturus Rann, changes his form as well. He becomes one of the Time Travellers. The Enigma Force grew out of his consciousness while he was in suspended animation. Wielding the Enigma Force, he fights Karza. The result is a forgone conclusion. He is minded to spare his arch-foes life, but at the last moment, Acroyear arrives and destroys Karza with the power of the World Mind.

The final image is of Karza's empty armour. "Saga's End" it says on the cover.

Comic book fans sometimes describe particular episodes as Cosmic, or (out of respect to Jack Kirby) Kosmic. "Kosmic" doesn't just means "science fictional" or "set in space". It refers to a moment when comic books acquire some level of theological abstraction; scenes where the characters become symbols and the imagery becomes surreal. Captain Marvel retrieving the Cube when Thanos drops it may count as Kosmic. So might Dormamu hurling himself into Eternity, and Phoenix binding the N-Galaxy together and perceiving the universe as a song. The Fantastic Four scaring off Galactus, or the Avengers defeating a Skrull invasion, not so much.

The most Kosmic writer of the 70s was Jim Starlin. His Warlock series also appeared in the back pages of Star Wars weekly. Time Traveller doesn't look unlike Warlock. It may be that Kosmic simply means Starlinesque.

In less than a year, Bill Mantlo has taken the Micronauts through a sequence of genres -- space-opera, superhero, horror, high fantasy, science fiction.

For the Saga's End he produces a definitive, unimprovable, Kosmic text.

Page 7

Prince Argon -- Force Commander -- fights Baron Karza.

From the first issue, Karza has been shown shifting from humanoid to horse shape sometimes in consecutive panels, but this is the first time it has been directly referenced in dialogue or caption. We're told that he has "transformed into his Centurian form" but there is still no particular explanation as to why he does so. It seems to be a source of power; or at least, physical strength. Argon seems to say that because he's also been transformed into a Centaur he's now Karza's equal. This doesn't seem to follow from anything. We were previously told that forcibly combining Argon with his horse, Oberon, was simply a cruel experiment.

Three issues ago, Karza was fighting a superhero and planning to conquer the earth single-handed. Now it seems that an armoured half-prince half-horse can stand up to him for several pages. 

Possibly Argon has been powered-up by the Time Travellers? Possibly Force Commander is a microversion of Captain Universe? We're in the realm of pure imagery. The leader of the baddies is a black armoured Centaur, so of course the leader of the goodies is a white armoured Centaur. And of course everything comes down to a fight between them. 

The sequence has heavy Arthurian energy: we think of Lancelot and Tristran, fighting for a whole day, knee deep in earth other's blood. Mantlo says that Karza fights Argon for "hours or days". The lightsaber duel between Darth Vader and Ben Kenobi also had chivalric overtones -- they were both knights and Vader is distinctly dark -- but it doesn't particularly look like a medieval joust. Mantlo wears his allusions on his sleeve. These are figures in suits of armour straight out of Excalibur. (This was before Excalibur.) It's less subtle and therefore more exhaustible than Lucas; but by the same token more immediate and more awe-inspiring. Roy Thomas told us that Vader and Obi-Wan were "two powerful warriors who stand motionless like titans out of some lost time". Mantlo seems to echo this. "Time seems to stand still as the two titans clash again and again".

Titans. It's a word out of greek mythology, but it was also what Stan Lee loved to call his superheroes. Every third Marvel Comic was called When Titans Clash. There was a British superhero anthology a few years before Star Wars which was called simply The Titans.

But this is a mere hors d'oeuvre. A pre-credit sequence before the main event. Force Commander is John the Baptist, and he knows it. 

"In the sacred armour of Dallan Rann he has become our Force Commander -- holy herald of Homeworld's saviour." 

"Saviour." Did I mention that this was a funny book based on children's toys?

Deaths are sufficiently rare in comic books that they often count as Selling Points. But advertising in advance that such-and-such a character is going to be killed off rather spoils the effect. When George Stacey died in Spider-Man #90, the cover depicted Spider-Man holding a dead body; but the face of the corpse was concealed in shadow. (Regular readers cannot have been all that surprised: if ever there was a character who was introduced in order to be killed off, it was Daddy Gwen.) Issue #120 sported an abstract cover in which Spider-Man announced to the world that someone close to him was about to die. ("But who...who?") There was no title on the splash page: writer Gerry Conway only revealed once the story was over that it was called The Night Gwen Stacey Died. A good stunt. Giving the episode that title underlines the fact that Spider-Man's one true love had really and truly been deaded: but only revealing the title on the final page maintains the sense of surprise and tension. It is a sufficient violation of the normal comic book structure that it makes the issue seem that much more significant.

Micronauts #11 is entitled The Enigma Force. Or possibly We Are The Enigma Force. The title appears on page 10 -- more than half way through the comic. The placement of the title makes a virtue of the comic's unusual structure. Page 1 - 8 -- the fight between Karza and Argon -- is essentially a preamble; and the delayed title reduces it almost to a pre-credit sequence. The real story begins with the transformation of Rann on page 9. The arrival of the Enigma Force has been foreshadowed and indeed foretold for several issues, so revealing the title on page 1 would hardly have counted as a spoiler. But, in a small way, it violates the normal architecture of a comic book (much as Acroyear's monologue did the end of issue #9). It makes what is already a strange comic that little bit stranger, and it lends a sense of importance to the final revelation.

Page 10

Lyrical, mystical, kosmic: a single image which justifies everything which has happened up to this point. As revelatory, in its way, as Charltan Heston discovering the Statue of Liberty; the best page in the best issue or the best bad comic book I have ever read. 

Captain Universe pulled on the imagery of superheroes -- spandex costume, melodramatic dialogue, heroic name. Rann is more like an angel than a long-underwear character. But at the same time, it's the purist piece of super-heroics there has ever been. It's more like a superhero battle because it doesn't really look like one.

Rann: fluorescent yellow, surrounded by those little cosmic fireflies which seem to represent the Enigma force. Floating, or perhaps falling, at forty-five degrees to Karza, legs together, arms outstretched, with a full-body halo. Light from his feet flows down towards Karza. Argon was white and Karza is black; but this scene is more directly about light and darkness in some mystical sense. Argon and Slug in the foreground, so far out of the frame that you might not see them. A huge speech bubble coming out of Rann's mouth, which serves as the delayed title for the comic.

"We are the one and the many, man and immortal, Micronaut and Time-Traveller. WE ARE THE ENIGMA FORCE."

The only other dialog comes from Mari, very small, but near the centre of the picture. "Arcturus, my love." A subtle bit of writing, this: reminding us that the transfigured figure is still the space-hero we've been following for eleven months.

Three caption boxes. The language is that of the olde worlde story teller, not the voice of a Lee or Thomas hype machine. Perhaps we are supposed to think that it is a continuation of Time Traveller's dialogue:

"Take a man through time a thousand years. Even though he sleeps in suspended animation, with each passing second he is born anew into the Time Stream. Now collect the infinitude of individuals arising from that first man into a single collective whole..."

Well: yes. Obviously. That makes complete sense.

The sensible thing, the obvious thing, would have been to turn Arcturus Rann into Captain Universe. But this is genuinely unexpected. It's as if the Force had turned out to be Luke Skywalker; as if Gandalf had turned out to personally be the text of the Silmarillion.

Rann doesn't look like a superhero. 

He looks like a glowing green holy floaty science fiction Jesus action figure.

Like a lightsaber.

Buzz Lightyear has turned into a lightsaber.


A man on the letters page of Micronauts #18 says that he read issue #11 through an old pair of 3D glasses. (The red/blue perspex kind.)

"I couldn't believe my eyes!!! The cover literally comes alive! Many pages glow with an otherworldly light, giving the mag a more cosmic aspect than you originally intended."

The colouring is certainly odd. Since Ray fell into the Prometheus pit, Bob Sharen has been using single, bright colours and geometrical forms to represent otherworldly forces; as if photographic ink had been superimposed onto the four-colour spot art. I want to call it "fluorescent" but comic book ink can't actually achieve that kind of effect. There are certainly lots of reds and blues.

Does it glow? I don't know if it glows, But it tells you a great deal about the comic that it would occur to someone to try the experiment. It's very much the kind of comic you might expect to be apparelled in celestial light. I can assure you that Judge Dredd and the Bash Street Kids never glowed.

"A more cosmic aspect."

I don't, actually, imagine the comic in terms of light. When I think of Micronauts #11 I seem to hear an audio soundtrack. Was it a high pitched drone? Or was it Gregorian chant? Am I in fact thinking of the Dresden Amen? It comes on strong and I am lifted. Can you hear the drum, Zarathustra? 

If Marvel can make an agreement with Mego to publish a Micronauts omnibus, is a reprint of Kirby's 2001: A Space Odyssey really not on the cards?

Have I mentioned that it was 1979 and Mrs Thatcher had just become Prime Minister and that Clause 29 and AIDS were just around the corner and that I was being systematically bullied and my dad was sick and I am pretty sure that the PE teacher liked looking at undressed adolescent boys a little bit too much and even if he didn't, compulsory group showers, damn, damn, damn. The olden days were not better than nowadays and it is impossible to detach my own subjectivity from the memory of what were disposable funny books. 

Very disposable funny books. 

Based on toys.



I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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Saturday, July 01, 2023

Andrew, Why Are You Wasting Your Headspace Thinking About All This Shit?

Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it's a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe.
                    Lex Luthor

And the big question, obviously, is "What would CS Lewis have said about all this?"

For Lewis, there were no "good books" or "bad books": there were only good readers and bad readers. Good readers, he says, receive books; bad readers merely use them. Good readers pay attention to what the writer actually wrote. They want to laugh at the passages the writer intended them to laugh at, and feel sad in the passages the writer intended them to feel sad in. (That's where criticism can help: by explaining obscurities and difficulties so the book can affect you in the way it is supposed to.) Good readers read the same book over and over again, and would notice if a single word were changed. Good readers want description which really describes; which shows them things they haven't seen before or which makes the familiar seem strange.

Bad readers, on the other hand, are only interested in the general shape of the tale; they read in order to find out what happens next. They forget the book once they have read it, and they wouldn't think of reading the same book twice. Once they know how it ends, the book is exhausted. Bad readers don't want proper description: they just want stock phrases which trigger stock responses. They are happier with a few words about a pirate ship or a penthouse or sexual encounter: they fill in the details from their own imaginations. They regard stylistic and literary effects as embellishments or distractions. 

It's a bit like music, says Lewis. The true aficionado cares about the arrangement, the performance, the placement of every note. The unmusical listener just wants a tune he can sing along with, dance to, or (most likely) completely ignore.

It follows that a good (high brow, serious, literary) book is one that allows for a good reading, or which is generally read in a good way. And a bad (low brow, pulp, popular) book is one which only allows for bad readings or is almost always read in bad ways. 

CS Lewis made this argument in a book called An Experiment in Criticism which he wrote primarily in order to annoy FR Leavis. It probably shouldn't be regarded as the last word on the matter. 

When I was a child, I could become completely absorbed in a book. The characters became real to me; and the places became real; and I became almost unaware of the world around me. I have sometimes returned to childhood favourites and been surprised at how slight they are; how little of what I remember is actually present in the text. AA Milne told me that Winnie-the-Pooh had a larder; but my mental-image of Pooh's larder isn't in the book. It's probably a combination of my Granny's larder and the one my Mum had before we redecorated the kitchen. Before fridges were ubiquitous, houses did often have walk-in cupboards to store food.

I keep being sent Facebook memes from groups with names like Book Lovers, Books Are Awesome and Awesome Librarians. These memes take it for granted that this is the whole point of reading. They perpetually tell me that they feel lost in books; that the places in the books are more real than the rooms they are reading them in and that the characters are more real than any of their friends. In extreme cases, they seem to say that engagement with real people or real places (as opposed to fictional ones) is weirdly deficient. Tellingly, there are groups called Book Addicts, Lost In Book Land and Books: An Escape. 

They rarely point out brilliant descriptive passages or point me to a pithy phrase or some telling dialogue. They often imply that close attention to the text is an affectation perpetrated by nefarious people called Critics or Teachers. Ha-ha, they say, there was once a teacher who told me that there was some reason that Thomas Hardy keeps on drawing our attention to red things. The poor booby didn't understand that the writer told us about Tess's red dress because that was the colour of the dress that Tess was wearing in the story. Ha-ha, they say, there was once a teacher who said that Moby Dick was a metaphor for the human race's struggle with the natural world and Ahab's personal conception of God. But the author had already told him he was a white whale! 

Dave Sim said that he was fascinated by comic books as a medium: the infinite creative ways in which words and pictures can be combined on a page. He contrasts his approach with that of Wendy Pini who (he asserts) read the Silver Surfer and the X-Men because she wanted the Silver Surfer and the X-Men to be her friends. She disliked Batman because she would not have liked to be a friend of his. When she became an artist, she created the elves and wolves that she would like to be friends with. Sim, being Sim, treats this as a gender issue: Wendy Pini's approach is characteristically female and therefore bad, and his approach is characteristically male and therefore good. But I think the distinction is a recognisable one. Sim's own masterpiece is a triumph of form over content: if you were to read Cerebus in order to find out what happens next, you would go insane. And there is no reason to read Wendy Pini's comics except in order to find out what happens to Cutter and Skywise. If you ever stop thinking of them as real people, with real problems, whose sorrows and joys you really care about, you would never pick up an issue of Elfquest again. Which indeed I haven't.   

On Lewis's terms, Sim's way of reading is good and Pini's is bad. So, by his logic, we would have to say that comics like X-Men and Silver Surfer, which invite bad readings, are bad (non-literary, low-brow) comics; and conversely, comics like A Contract With God or Maus are good (serious, literary, high-brow.) 

Which, very conveniently, is exactly what we would have said in any case. 

When the Books Are Awesome crowd sing the praises of reading, they are largely singing the praises of "bad" reading: and, indeed, they tend to advocate books of pure narrative and deprecate books of style and experimentation. When I regret or mourn the loss of my ability to perceive the Hundred Acre Wood as if it were an actual place, I am in fact saying that up to the age of eight, I was a "bad" reader: but when I began, precociously, to tackle War of the Worlds, a Study in Scarlet and Frankenstein, my reading was starting to become "good". The books I remember getting lost in were by any sensible standards very bad indeed. We aren't talking about Black Beauty or Alice in Wonderland. Think Blast Off At Woomera and South Seas Adventure and the "Great" Lensman Saga. Reading the final page of Galactic Patrol remains the most vivid literary experience of my entire life. 

"First Kinnison, the bullets whining, shrieking off the armour of his personal battleship and crashing through or smashing ringingly against whatever happened to be in the ever-changing line or ricochet. Then Helmuth, and as the fierce-driven metal slugs tore in their multitudes, through his armour and through and through his body, riddling his every vital organ, that was....THE END." 

It's the very definition of bad writing. 

I don't think that Lewis's distinction between good and bad books is necessarily a moral one; or indeed that he thought that everyone ought to read only "good" books. One of his quarrels with Leavis is that Leavis thought that literature was morally and psychologically improving, and didn't allow much room for simply enjoying books. Lewis liked to tell the the story of the Serious Student who was very offended that he, Lewis, had said in a lecture that Chaucer put fart jokes into the Canterbury Tales in order to make people laugh. 

There are plenty of people who would rather look at old buildings and old paintings without understanding them: their enjoyment of the pretty ladies with funny hats and the naked babies with wings would be spoiled if they knew which Biblical characters or allegorical figures they were meant to represent. Fair enough, says Lewis: they have their reward. If you want to sit dreaming in your chair, taking the words "It was a dark and stormy night..." as a cue to create a vivid daydream of a thunderstorm out of your own imagination, no-one in the world is going to tell you that you shouldn't.

Perhaps, rather than "good" and "bad" we could try saying "serious" and "playful". When I was in Miss Beale's class I could read a very bad boy's book about moon rockets and honestly feel as if it was me who had flown to the moon. But equally, I could spend a whole day building a moon rocket out of Lego and creating the same journey in my head, with the same vividness. The book and the toy were points of departure; but they were not the core of the experience. I didn't even go as far as Lego most of the time: old cardboard tubes and cooking foil did the job just fine. Bad reading is, in that sense, a ludic activity: reading and playing require you to flex the same imaginative muscles. 

I wonder if devotees of the Books Are Awesome school of criticism are likely to be, or to have been, Dungeons & Dragons players? And do those of us who no longer Get Lost In Books also find it difficult to get back to RPGs? A good D&D game is very like a "bad" book, The places and the characters seen real; but they exist only in the imaginations of the players; with no pesky text to mediate the experience. Can a person who enjoys Middlemarch ever really enjoy Dungeons & Dragons? Can a person who plays Dungeons & Dragons ever really see the point of Middlemarch? Is it a coincidence that college RPG clubs recruited more from the Science and Computer departments than from English Literature and Creative Writing?

But there is a catch. Very many of us study low brow literature extremely closely. We watch old TV shows and old comic books over and over again: we pay close attention to the actual words, the actual pictures, and what actually appears on the screen. We would notice and indeed write a jolly stiff letter to the BBC if a single line were changed. People with discerning and informed musical taste do, as a matter of fact, sometimes listen to show-tunes, boy-bands and bubble-gum pop music with critical appreciation.

So are we engaged in a perverse activity -- reading "bad" books in a "good" way? Or do we have to say that if even one person can do a "good" reading of the Amazing Spider-Man or Conan the Barbarian -- nay, of Rentaghost or Fifty Shades of Grey -- then these must, after all, be good texts? Or should we just retreat into subjectivism and say that HP Lovecraft became English Literature on the day Penguin put him in their "classics" range in the same way that Duchamps' loo became art when he put it in the Tate Gallery? 

It is certainly true that many fans engage in "bad" readings -- in the sense of pretending that Harry Potter is their best friend or imagining themselves on the bridge of the star ship Enterprise and generally looking through the text and imagining lots of things that aren't there. That could almost stand as a definition of "fan". But it is also true that "fans" engage with texts in subtle, sophisticated and creative ways. They write fan-fic, create role-playing games, make models and reproduce character's costumes in great detail. They write probable outlines of the careers of fictional characters and calculate the date of Peter Parker's birthday from internal evidence. "Sherlockians" (the amateur scholars who pretend that the Sherlock Holmes stories are historical documents) are arguably "using" Conan Doyle's texts rather than "receiving" them; but they are also doing something interesting and clever and fun. It may be "bad" but it isn't bad.

So maybe the field isn't divided into Good Books and Bad Books. Maybe there are good Bad books and bad Good books. Maybe we can distinguish between Good good-bad books and Bad good-bad books. Maybe there are even Bad bad-good books, and good Bad bad-good books. Little fleas have lessor fleas, and so ad infinitum.

When Germain Greer said that The Thorn Birds was the best bad book she had ever read, she meant, I think, only that its literary ambitions were not high -- it's a melodramatic love story -- but that it achieves its modest ambitions to the highest possible degree. Umberto Eco's judgement of the Count of Monte Cristo is more nuanced. It is, he says, very badly written; but if it were well written, it would not be such a good adventure story, and since it is the best adventure story ever written, it follows that it must be very well written indeed, The academic who told C.S Lewis that The Prisoner of Zenda was the best bad book he had ever read was (I think) using "Bad-Book" as a label for a particular genre and saying that Anthony Hope wrote that genre superlatively well. If someone said that Cyrano de Bergerac was the funniest tragedy ever written or that Twelfth Night was the saddest comedy, you would understand what was being said. 

It is interesting, by the way, that Umberto Eco and Lewis's friend both treat swashbucklers as their example of good good bad books. Are adventure stories, I wonder, a special case?

I would happily defend Jack Kirby and Steve Gerber and even Stan Lee as creative geniuses. Anyone not hopelessly mired in ideology and snobbery can see that Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Dave Sim are good writers and even Good Writers. No-one on earth would place Bill Mantlo in the same league. It would be a category mistake. He's corny and derivative and in the nicest possible way, a hack. Michael Golden is a decent draftsman, but he's no Kirby and he's unfortunately badly served by his inkers and by 1970s four-colour reproduction. So, when I typed that Micronauts was the best bad comic I have ever read, I was really only thinking that I had a great deal of affection for it, but couldn't really defend it as a work of art.

In CS Lewis's terms, Micronauts is a "bad" comic. What I carry in my head is not the words and the pictures. What I carry in head is my first reading of it. My memories of my first reading of it. My memories of what was undoubtedly a bad, non literary reading. Not necessarily the words and pictures I found in the back of Star Wars weekly. The story and images I built in my own head.

In some moods I could wish that my life had fallen our differently. I wish I could tell you that if you drilled down to the core of my being you would find Anna Karenina or On The Road. But you wouldn't. What you would find would be Micronauts #11.

Maybe not that specific comic. But that mythology; those myths. Third-hand, discarded myths. Myths that were based on a series of children's play-things. Myths that grew out of a father's observation of a child playing with action figures. A game. A day-dream. 

Bill Mantlo is derivative; the fill-in king. But Bill Mantlo is transmitting Jack Kirby and Stan Lee; and Kirby and Lee were transmitting their own European Jewish cultural traditions on the one hand and a kind of obsolescent Great Tradition on the other. When you cut through all the bullshit, Stan Lee admits that he stole his ideas from Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson and William Shakespeare and the Christian Bible. 

Bad readings of good books. A child playing with action figures. Toys as text. 

Why do I waste my headspace talking about these comics? Because these comics are not what I am talking about. Have you not been paying attention?

I have a bunch of my old Superman comic books. It's pleasurable to flip through them once in a while. But... if I ever read the stuff and say, "This is so good!" Please. Shoot me.
     Dave Sim


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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