Tuesday, 9 September 2014
LGS #4: "You Can't Give It All Away!"
(Won't somebody think of the children?)
I've been very complimentary of this series, and the good news is that isn't really going to change here. As I've been saying, each issue puts effort into deconstructing superhero comics, and occasionally fiction more generally. LGS #4 most certainly maintains this approach, though here the specifics are a little harder to untangle.
So let's start with what's obvious. The central scene in this issue involves a group of children playing at being interstellar buccaneers (views differ on whether this imaginary outfit are the "Starslammers" or the "Star-rammers"). The boisterousness of this play-acting results in an argument between the parents of some of the children over how their little ones should play most appropriately. The mother wants them to avoid introducing violent elements into their games, and fears television is corrupting their innocent little minds. The father, in contrast, thinks an awareness of the uses of violence is a basic part of any child's development - no-one will mess with your person if you walk down the street with an assault rifle, or mess with your country if you seed your deserts with ICBM silos. His worry is that they read too many comic books, with all that fantasy nonsense and such.
Stating the obvious, then, we're being invited to pick a side here. The only question in any doubt is whether we're to pick from the two options given to us, or generate a third by rejecting both. And it's clear we're never going to be down with Dad. Complaints comic books are just fantastical nonsense? In a comic book? 98% of the audience are going to hotly deny the charge, and the other 2% are going to say "Sometimes, and isn't that just wonderful?". But of course it's his stance on weaponry that's the real problem here. Walk down the street with a gun and no-one will mess with you? Good job his kids are white, right? But even for white folks, walking down the street with a gun may end up with you shooting someone. With you shooting yourself. Who in their right mind talks in public about nuclear missiles being "good etiquette"? This is a man from whom children are learning? A guy who thinks the world is safer for the advent of nukes?
So obviously, we're meant to realise this man is an idiot. That's not the same thing as immediately dismissing him, however. As imbecilic as his position is, it's desperately common, so we need some kind of coherent statement against it. Which, of course, is what Nocenti gives us. The father opines his children need a dose of reality from time to time, and that's exactly what happens; the kids see Longshot's increasingly monstrous companion Pup and decide to track him down, just like heroes would do. Which might be entirely fine, except they go get hold of a gun to do it. Because that's what Pa says heroes need.
The problem here is not that fantasy is bleeding into the kid's fantasies, it's the other way round. Kids are supposed to act out what look to adults like incomprehensibly weird ideas. They're not supposed to know how to use a firearm, something we're seemingly reminded of a weekly basis in the US news. A bit of light demon-chasing has now become something genuinely dangerous. And yes, looking at it from a certain angle, it's questionable as to whether hunting Pup without a weapon is actually any less dangerous than doing it with one, but that too is letting reality intrude. Narrative convention is pretty clear on these matters, a gang of kids chasing a demon will get scared but end up safe. A gang of kids chasing a demon whilst packing heat is in real trouble.
Reading this as a clash of two narratives is, of course, entirely the point. The father's definition of "reality" is utterly ridiculous. It is no less a fantasy than the kids' dreams of fighting amongst the stars. This idea of colliding narratives is being played out on a larger canvas, too, as Mojo breaks through from his own world into the main Marvel Universe, to start causing all kinds of hideous trouble.
(We should pause on that for a moment, actually. In his later, Claremontian years I don't particularly care for Mojo; in his hands he becomes the kind of teeth-grinding "zany" character Claremont seems so endlessly fond of. But the Nocenti original, it turns out, is generally unsettling, a delusional unbalanced murderer, what you might expect the Joker to be like if he traded in his spine for magic powers and a TV network. One minute Mojo is demanding everyone wear his face so they're no longer ugly, the next he's setting people on fire for wearing Mojo masks and thus breaching copyright. It's properly unnerving. And it only gets worse...)
Which brings us rather neatly to the mother's position, and her criticism of television. A broadside against the potential problems of TV contained in a comic book is interesting considering how much of a beating comics themselves have taken from the busybodies and witterers of the world, but I guess at least comics can help you read, so there could plausibly be at least some members of the "choose an entire medium and call it awful" brigade who'll rate the idiot box below the funny pages. And at a surface level, it looks like Nocenti counts herself amongst them. After all, what is Mojo but the ultimate end product spewed from the vicious process of network television evolution? Mojo is a network president who literally lacks the spine to resist the lowest common denominator of ultra-violent spectacle. Indeed, he revels in it, and the power he gains from his viewing figures. Everything they see is his, a truism he has twisted into a physical law: if he sees it, he owns it.
But let's credit Nocenti with more intelligence than to write a comic lamenting the violence of television whilst including two different punch-ups between her titular character and other Marvel heroes (first She-Hulk, then Spider-Man, both after Longshot for the diamond theft last issue). The complaint here isn't quite so simple as "television is too violent", rather that television focuses on violence for the wrong reasons. You can see Spider-Man and She-Hulk attacking Longshot over a misunderstanding and see entirely superfluous punching, or you can see it as people trying to be the most moral and useful people they can be. We can focus on the how of the struggle, or we can focus on the why. Nocenti's earlier issues have already made it clear where she stands on that subject. The punching is no more important the explanation of super-powers ; they're all just mechanisms to generate the central point: being a moral person is important.
But then, just because violence can serve this purpose doesn't mean it can't have other effects, nor that there's no limit to how much you can pepper your story with punching before you begin to undermine your underlying message. Marvel demonstrated this all too well themselves in the '90s, of course. Whether the television of the mid-'80s deserves to be criticised on such grounds, I'm not sure - a quick scan of the most popular US shows of the time reveal nothing more violent than shows like Street Hawk. But whilst it's not clear how much TV deserves to be held up as a villain here, nor is it clear how much that's the intent.
So let's concentrate on what we do know, which is this. We have a choice as to whether we want to focus on how violence is applied, or the reasons it was employed to begin with. Those that insist most forcefully that we must live in the real world are those most ill-equipped to recognise what reality actually is (indeed the final panel of the issue has Pup staring straight at the reader, vocally daring us to deny that he isn't real). We have to realise what stories are and what they do. With Richochet Rita now in Mojo's hands, and Pup preparing to tear Longshot up into the world's luckiest steak tartare, it's probably best to remember what we're in this for.
Because things are about to get very unpleasant.
This story takes place over a single day. Timing is tricky, since the news reports at the beginning imply it's only been a day, perhaps two at most since Longshot broke in to the power station and made off with his swag - any longer and it's not clear why it would still be on the news. On the other hand, Rita mentions that he disappeared from set (ostensibly to the hospital) "last week". I suppose we could work off the pleasingly cynical idea that the power company has been leaning on the media to keep reporting the crime until they get their diamonds back, and if we move the action forward by three days we get to Saturday and could maybe say the previous Wednesday constitutes "last week".
So, er, that thing. We'll do that.
Saturday 2nd February, 1985.
"My dad says nukes are the best weapons... let's get some of those first!"