Thursday, 10 July 2014
LGS #3: "Just Let Me Die"
(The certainty of chance.)
Three issues in, and Nocenti is still doing an excellent job here. This is another story that makes use of Longshot's unique status to deconstruct both the superhero genre and fictional stereotypes in general.
This time around the setup is obvious, if not downright inevitable; pair Longshot up with someone who considers themselves entirely devoid of fortune. A self-described "jinx", in this case Theo, a balding homely guy with a nagging wife, two indifferent children, and more than his share of money worries.
In the hands of a less interesting writer, the route this scenario might take is depressingly obvious; an issue dedicated to the intersection of Longshot's powers of fortune with that of Theo's accidental maledictions. I suppose with sufficient thought one could construct something clever there, but Nocenti takes what I think is the smarter tack here, which is to contrast what it means to consider oneself lucky or unlucky.
The first of these isn't all that interesting to me, in truth; repeated reference to one's own good luck almost always translates into bulletproof self-belief of a kind I find wearying. The people who truly recognise their luck in the areas that actually end up mattering tend to be quieter about it, predominantly out of guilt. What I'm interested here is in the desperately unlucky sidekick. There's two divergent and perhaps even contradictory threads here. The first, as stated, involves the conventions of the superhero. At this point we're still almost a decade out from Green Lantern #54 and the infamous scene that led to Gail Simone coining the term "being fridged", but even so it's fairly clear that being superhero-adjacent is a pretty good way to get your life turned upside down, or even snuffed out. In the strange rules by which the universe of fiction conducts itself, all that good luck superheroes enjoy as they pirouette through storms of blades and tsunamis of bullets has to be cancelled out somehow, and that task usually falls to the poor schlub who's tagging along. Just as Longshot represents all superheroes and their ridiculous streaks of luck, "Jinx" is every superhero's friend, just waiting for death so their mate can sulk a little in-between brief trips to their own graves.
So much for the comics meta-commentary. The other question raised here is what it actually means to be unlucky in any real sense. "Jinx" spends his time bemoaning the fact he's less attractive or fit than Longshot, but elsewhere the issue seems to rather take the stance that this position shouldn't carry much weight with us. Our guy's lack of fitness isn't something that lies beyond his control, any more than does his dissatisfaction with his approach to life. And OK, I get that whether or not other people fancy you is something you can have limited control over, but even then, the two-page foray into Longshot's malfunctioning memory demonstrates how subjective the issue of attractiveness really is.
In fact, this brief window into the world of the Spineless Ones goes much further, reminding us as it does that Longshot came into this world an enslaved pit-fighter forced to risk his life for hideous creatures who despised him. We're sure we want to call him lucky because he's enjoying his escape?
This is the problem with people who bemoan their luck (and I've been as guilty of this as anyone) it's so often seems to be an endless avalanche of small potatoes. Parking tickets and shitty dates. A wife and kid that don't give you the respect you've unilaterally decided you deserve. A suboptimal roof over your head, and less than delicious food on your table. In my experience, the people who have actually found themselves significantly disadvantaged by life tend to blame systemic factors , if they want to blame anything at all. There's no need to put it down to luck because the actual mechanisms materially damaging their lives are all too easy to see. Is there anything less impressive than watching an able-bodied white man with a job and a family bemoan his bum hand?
Seen this way, "unlucky" seems primarily to mean "fortunate enough in life that setbacks can be assumed not to represent systemic disadvantages", which is hardly a position we'd expect to elicit much sympathy. The closest "Jinx" seems to come to actual systemic disadvantage is the degree to which the power company is leaning on him. Here the story is wonderfully without ambivalence; the power company is in the wrong. It must be, because when Longshot decides to steal their perfectly legal profits to return to the people in the street, his good luck powers hold out all the way. Sure, Longshot doesn't know at the time the money was legally acquired, but as we saw last issue, Longshot's context-dependent luck powers don't require him to think he's doing the right thing, they require he actually do the right thing. Quite who or what has the actual job of determining that within the narrative is never explained - it's just so obvious authorial fiat that there doesn't seem any point in considering the issue further - but the end result is a clear comment that power companies bilk their customers to so ridiculous an extent that literally stealing some of that money back should be completely justified.
It's a wonderful note of social commentary, knocking aside the usual anaemic bullshit arguments that rich people follow the law when they rob people blind, as though rich people didn't set the laws up that way to begin with. But it's also pretty much the only way "Jinx" is positively portrayed in the story. His suicide attempt is wretched. He blames Longshot for saving him when he throws himself from a bridge only to land on our hero's unconscious form, but the truth is if you've leapt from a bridge into water only to land without injury on a prone "human" form that saves you from so much as getting your crotch wet, you were never leaping from high or aiming for deep . Also, when he finally decides to end it all, Theo's first instinct is to shoot his television, terrifying his wife and kids. Because you know, he's so unlucky he's going to leave his wife a widow and his two young girls without a father, the day he starting shooting up their home. A few pages later, he's bemoaning the fact that even his TV is busted, completely failing to realise that this, like so much else on his list of complaints, is an event he was complicit in. It's too pat to say we make our own luck, but we should make efforts to contextualise our luck, at the very least. We should consider what really matters, and what really lies outside our control.
Of course, this is easily said. There's a major potential problem in this line of thought, as which is as follows. One of the most insidious features of depression - and "Jinx" has a hatred of repeated tasks like teeth-cleaning which reminds me of the experiences of more than one acquaintance who suffers from depression - is just how difficult it makes it to objectively process your experiences. The last thing I want to do is seem like I'm telling depression sufferers that they should suck it up and realise how lucky they are. Everyone who's ever felt the bite of the black dog can tell you how terribly counterproductive that "advice" is. This is the one major criticism I have of this story, it would have been so much easier to process its meaning if Theo was presented as simply a self-obsessed complainer, rather than a man in the grips of depression flirting with thoughts of suicide.
So how do we square the circle here? How do we suggest people with obvious societal and economic advantages learn to better process their self-labelled misfortunes even as we accept there are circumstances under which that's essentially impossible? I've absolutely no idea. If I did, I'd probably be a lot more help to people, to say nothing of considerably richer. The best I can do is to say there's a difference between not recognising something, and finding recognition unhelpful. Is that enough to tiptoe our way through the minefield? I just don't know. All I really know is to my mind the most plausible reading of Nocenti's issue is that even suffering from depression doesn't give one a license to first terrify and then abandon your family, which seems essentially unobjectionable, and that whilst actually suffering from depression can reasonably be described as "unlucky" (though again; compared to what?), the actions we take whilst under its influence remain our responsibility, they are not simply outbreaks of bad luck we can blame on the caprice of fate. As I've suggested, this all rubs rather uneasily against the idea that superhero sidekicks genuinely are unlucky, but that just boils down to an argument that says the fictional trope being played with has to be considered separately from the social commentary on offer.
I can live with that.
 Which isn't to say people with no actual reason to won't try to blame systemic factors as well, of course. This is a non-trivial proportion of what keeps the conservative movement alive.
 I'm not trying to minimise the importance of the "cry for help" approach to suicide here. I'm not one of those people who feels comfortable lambasting suicide survivors for "selfishness" or what have you. My point is simply that Theo's suicide attempt is presented here as being part of a wider pattern of self-involvement.
It's not clear how long this story takes to tell (mainly it depends on the distance between Jinx's apartment and the river), but it can't be more than a few hours. Presumably it must follow on more or less directly from Longshot being unceremoniously dumped in the river.
Wednesday 30th January, 1985.
"I find the spine particularly distasteful."