Tuesday, 27 May 2014

LGS #2: "...I'll Wave To You From The Top!"

(Cash, culture and violence.)


Two issues in, and I'm really rather enjoying this miniseries.  Comics should be About Things, and so far at least there's ample evidence that Nocenti entirely gets this.  The first issue of Longshot was a statement on the unimportance of how a superhero does what they do in comparison to why they choose to do it. To mistake superpowers for the point of a superhero story is to mistake seasoning for the meal.

Nocenti made this point by introducing a superhero who can basically manage anything, just so long as he's doing it for the right reasons, which of course is the underlying principle of 99.98% of fiction which contains any action component at all. But she was also smart enough to realise she could take this idea further.  Issue #1 sets up the idea that Longshot can only operate when pursuing noble goals.  Issue #2 starts to explore what exactly a noble goal consists of.

The backdrop to this exploration is the American film industry, as Longshot accidentally gets himself hired as a stunt-double on a sci-fi film following some ridiculous train-jumping. This leads inevitably to the most obvious idea possible that the pursuit of a ludicrous paycheck doesn't constitute a noble goal - Longshot learns this the hard way when his final stunt leaves him shot to pieces and close to death. But the commentary here lies beyond the obvious, and is rooted in the zeitgeist of the, er, zeit.

1985 was the first year of an increasingly drifting Ronald Reagan's second term. It had been less than a year since the greatest landslide in American presidential history, with fully 49 states deciding they wanted another term from the man who gained such popularity in no small part by selling rapacious capitalism as fundamental to the American dream, and by invading a tiny island nation to demonstrate that the USA isn't afraid to get into a fight, just so long as it's with a country with 1/300th their population which had made and could not make any aggressive moves.

For the chattering classes of the time, then, aggression and materialism were simply the way things were now. It was inevitable that this attitude would filter through into contemporary cinema. The very month given on this issue's cover, Commando was released; Schwarzenegger's first foray outside of science fiction/fantasy since his breakout in Conan the Barbarian.  Commando could hardly be more '80s if it tried (well, maybe the topless chick could've been in a strip club): a former US soldier is brought out of retirement because a nasty South American ex-dictator is killing off his unit (in revenge for them ousting him years earlier), and then kidnaps his daughter.  Obviously the only way to keep his child safe is through the judicious application of endless ultra-violence.

Aside from the jaw-dropping historical revisionism required to suggest that US interference in South America was all about deposing vicious dictators, what's notable is the idea of the US military being unabashed heroes who need to shoot their way to victory to keep people safe. In other words, amazingly high body counts and revelling in murder is actually entirely fine so long as there's some simplistic jingoism that can be bolted on to justify the carnage. This is something to remember next time a voice on the Right starts bellowing about the damage caused by violent films and video games. Thoughtless violence is absolutely the province of the right; it's just they prefer to have it dressed up as a moral tale about the dangers of messing with the "good guys".

But let's compare a simplistic nationalistic tale like Commando with where American sci-fi was in the first half of the '80s. Yes, you have films like Flash Gordon - threnodies for a simpler, four-colour age where the heroes were blond ubermensch and the villains were basically Oriental - but you've also got films like Blade Runner, in which America's future is imagined as a hellish corporate-driven dystopia. It was this latter approach that became dominant, though due to the long development time of films most such movies - Aliens, Robocop, arguably The Running Man, in its own way - appeared a year or two after this comic.

This is more the kind of film that comes in for abuse from those who claim to speak for those worried about "the yoof". And yet the difference here is not really in the level of violence, but in the nature of the hero.  The '80s is absolutely awash with rather unpleasant protagonists, swearing, indiscriminately aggressive types so unpleasant as to require the villains of the piece to be cranked up to 11 just to make it obvious whose side we should be on [1]. To the extent the right's objections to these tales are more than just a knee-jerk dislike of the dim light in which they cast corporations (a tendency that reached its hilarious nadir when the pitchforks were grabbed over the new Muppets film in 2011), it would seem to focus on the heroes killing for reasons other than a noble cause ("noble" here being indistinguishable from "in the pursuit of American imperialism"). Which is ironic, of course, since with the dominant political philosophy of the times being "get rich or damage others trying" and a renewed drive towards the kind of rugged individuality Republicans claim to venerate, you'd think running around slapping people around for your own benefit would be just the sort of thing they were into.

But here lies the rub: the hypocrisy of the money-loving, bloodthirsty right in objecting to violent films does not mean there is no progressive objection to the same phenomenon.  On the contrary, there are many reasons for the left to criticise such an approach, precisely because it echoes so much of the hollow nightmare of Reaganomics.  The film Longshot finds himself involved with is a case in point; a nihilistic vision of the future in which renegades steal from the robber barons presiding over America and, well, keep it all for themselves. The heroes are thieves, in other words, distinguishable from the villains only in that they're acquiring their ill-gotten gains from the villains themselves.

Is this any better than the Commando model? Or simply problematic for different reasons? Aren't we just swapping out Reagan's omni-directional belligerence for Reagan's relabelling of greed as a virtue? Nocenti certainly seems to have her doubts, and she voices them by revealing another sliver of Longshot's past, in which "spineless creeps" have enslaved him into appearing in action movies which are both predominantly improvisational and have very real death-tolls. The question here would seem to be: are horribly violent movies where people only pretend to die really all that much better?

Well, the answer is "yes", obviously. But that just means the comic is hitting us with a reductio ad absurdum. Can we really get out of it so easily by insisting that if everything was faked, it's all good?  I've never been entirely convinced of that. Certainly, the common response of "I've watched loads of violent movies and never killed anybody" is sophistry of the first order.  The relevant question is not whether violence in media lead young people to become killers (which is an argument almost exclusively fuelled by the desire to distract from vastly more pressing social concerns), but whether an abundance of gratuitous violence in media might lead to genuine problems.  How many times can you watch some muscle-bound, flag-wearing lummox punch terrorism to death before you start viewing the world in black and white? There's a sad and very telling story about (mercifully) former US Senator Joe Lieberman in which he was observed watching a war film and punching the air every single time an American soldier dropped a German. It's entirely possible Lieberman's frothing obsession with bombing every Muslim country in range is completely unrelated to his enjoyment of simulated death. For that matter, it could be that Lieberman started off lusting for random murder in other countries and only later discovered his thirst for blood could be temporarily off-set by celluloid corpses. But maybe a steady diet of un-nuanced violence isn't entirely unrelated to the belief that there isn't any problem that can't be solved by the right people tracking down the wrong people and beating the crap out of them.

So ultimately two threads are being brought together here. On one level you've got an extension of last issue's attack on readers more interested in a character's power-set than their desire to do good, by explicitly suggesting that violent stories devoid of restraint or morality are a bad idea. On another, you've got the idea that searching for ridiculous wealth is a terrible pastime.  Nuts to you, Reagan, in other words. I don't want to sign off on every jot and tittle here - Longshot gives a speech about being a superstar is a "shameful job" because you give up entirely on having a private life, which comes entirely out of nowhere and strikes me as grotesquely unfair - but the general point I'll endorse completely.

Especially since there's one last sting in this tale. Our director, "Hitch", has Longshot sign a waiver to protect Hitch from indemnity over any injuries our hero sustains during a ridiculously dangerous final stunt (Hitch believes all stunts should be as dangerous as they look, so as to drag the line as close to actually killing people on screen as is possible).  The trouble is that the contract is utterly illegal (much to the sorrow of libertarians, I'm sure), so when Longshot is badly injured during the stunt - hoping to pick up a cool million for three minutes work not constituting a noble motive, it turns out - Hitch grabs him and throws him first into his truck and then, a few miles down the road, into the river, where he hopes the body will sink and leave him in the clear.

Because why stick to the rules when you can break them to make money quicker?  And why worry about committing crimes when you can always use worse crimes to cover them up in any case? 1985 was too early for Nocenti to know about the Iran Contra scandal, but her tale of nestled crimes in the pursuit of material gain proves that you didn't need a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing.  Everything was awful back then, and Longshot would seem to be just one more casualty of an era that insisted a human being is only as much use as the money they can bring you.

Thank the Gods there's an issue three...

[1] This was a tendency that spilled into the early '90s, of course.  Indeed, I think one could construct a fairly strong argument that says a direct line can be drawn between the nihilistic cinematic output of the '80s and the nihilistic comic-book output of the '90s.


This story takes place over eight days.


Tuesday 22nd to Wednesday 30th January, 1985.


X+6Y+327 to X+6Y+335.

Contemporary Events

USA For Africa release "We Are The World".

Standout Line

"My movie of the future! It's about a bunch of displaced people who form a band of futuristic pirates! They rob the rich to give to themselves!  It's my statement on unemployment." - Hitch

Well of course it is. What could be more Reagan than viewing the unemployed as selfish thieves robbing the rich to fuel their own lifestyles? Strapping young bucks and welfare queens, the lot of them.

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