Friday, 16 January 2015

LGS #5: "Deadly Lies"


("We're all stories in the end")

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With only two issues left (even if the last one is grotesquely swollen), time is running out for our dimensionally-displaced hero. Nothing for it, then, but for Nocenti to raise her game.

I'll admit that when I first read this installment, I was a bit disappointed. After four issues which each used a fairly simplistic superhero tale as a springboard for some good-natured meta-sniping at the genre as a whole, LGS #5 intially felt a bit of a mess. It wasn't that I thought it didn't have a good idea; it actually had two good ideas. But neither of them really got time to breathe because of having to rub against each other as well as make room for the final showdown between Longshot and Pup.  Ultimately though the truth sank in: there aren't two ideas here jostling for space, but one idea approached from two very different directions. So let's start off by sketching out Past Me's witless confusion, the better to explain what I came to realise was the truth.

We begin this issue where we ended the last: Longshot and his accompanying gaggle of children face off against a fully-charged and murder-minded Pup, who is finally ready to take his revenge against our hero. Well, first he has to punch the kid with the revolver so last issue's subtext can be paid off, but once that's out of the way, it's on to the battle royale.

Except that Longshot's hearts don't really seem to be in it. And one can see his problem.  If indeed he is responsible for lumbering Earth with Pup (now calling himself Gog N'Magog which sets up all kinds of potentially interesting Biblical parallels I won't actually go into here), and if his former companion's transformation into a drooling demon is in fact entirely on him, then does he have any business seeing himself as the hero of the piece? And if he does destroy the creature that until sixty seconds ago made up precisely 50% of his friends, who will be left to actually tell him who he is?

As we might surmise from Nocenti's previous scripts in this mini, the solutions to both these problems lie in narrative convention. What does Longshot actually need to know to function in a superhero comic? That he's the hero. How do we know Longshot is the hero? Because he's fighting the villain. That's how superhero comics work, at least most of the time, and pretty much all of the time in this period. Moreover, the relationship here is transparently antithetical. Pup just can't wait to list all the ways that Longshot has screwed up his life. It doesn't matter that Longshot didn't intend for any of this to happen.  It doesn't matter that Pup is on Earth purely because he was brought here as a direct result of trying to murder Longshot. All that matters is that without Longshot, Pup might still be back home killing innocent people, and for that Longshot must pay with his life.

As with so much else in this title, the link to superhero fiction in general isn't hard to tease out. How many supervillains have sworn vendettas against heroes because they blame them for setbacks that aren't truly anybody's fault, or should be laid at some third party's door, or even that the villains themselves engineered and now won't accept the blame for. Doctor Doom is perhaps Marvel's ur-example here, but there are plenty of others. Pup then is not a villain simply by dint of wanting to murder people (and/or lamp kids, albeit ones packing heat) but because of his refusal to take possession of the consequences of his actions.

But does that in turn free Longshot from his culpability here? Well, no, but this too is a regular ingredient backed into superhero sponge-cakes. Whilst we might not be brimming with sympathy for those who use their misfortune as an excuse for inflicting pain on others, though, we do have to accept the fact that an awful lot of bad luck does seem to dog anyone nearby our heroes.  How else could comics keep generating new villains with a personal connection to their nemesis? Pup isn't actually wrong when he blames Longshot's probability manipulation for how things have turned out. But what in fact he's attacking is the logic upon which all superhero fiction works, just as the first two issues explored the endless stream of good fortune a noble hero enjoys, and the third concentrated on the unfortunate effect heroes seem to have on anyone who befriends them. As always, Longshot's powers simply allow the text to comment openly on what has always been lurking beneath the surface.

Issue 3 is helpful here, actually. When I discussed it I noted the "jinxed" man Longshot met was far less a victim of terrible luck than he was his own poor choices and his failure to recognise the many ways in which he was quite fortunate. Now, as then, I don't want to overstate my case, since this kind of selective blindness to one's advantages is a symptom of depression as well as privilege, and I've no intention of even implying obliquely that those suffering the bite of the black dog should try counting their blessings more. As I say, though, that's far from the only reason someone can become so caught up in their woes that they conclude themselves "cursed". And if you're doing that, are you not succumbing to narrative logic; replacing the actual messy randomness of the real world with a perversely comforting story about how your destiny is to be shafted?

It's clear that Pup is making the same mistake here, and Nocenti takes pains to underscore it.  Longshot is losing his battle against Pup when Quark - the goat-headed tracker demon Longshot fought on earlier occasions - arrives to help Luckmullet out.  Quark, of course, is in exactly the same straits as Pup, an alien visitor trapped in our dimension by Longshot's escape attempt.  He's just refusing to be a dick about it. Thus whilst we are reminded here of how the tropes of superhero comics function, we're also warned that as actual people we have a choice. A comic book supervillain can spend their non-existent days lashing out at those with the gall to live their lives in ways that don't correlate perfectly with the villain's needs.  The rest of us should probably reach for some perspective.

Alas, none of this has yet occurred to Longshot, who is too shot through with existential dread to help Quark out.  Instead he flees to brood somewhere else, leaving Quark and Pup to fight to a bloody draw.  It's here that the issue takes what Past Me found a screeching left turn, as Longshot uses his ability to read objects to catapult himself into a flashback/vision of himself meeting his creator, Arize, outside a house surrounded by mechanical butterfly fairies. Which if nothing else is a wonderfully fun sentence to write.

In a comic so concerned about the construction of superhero comics, it's hardly a surprise that as the finish line approaches we should get to meet our hero's actual constructor (I wish Arize was a woman so as to better reflect Nocenti, but I suppose follow that logic too far and you end up writing like Dave Sim).  Arize himself is difficult to get a handle on.  Early on he gives the best summation of the creative drive I've heard for a long time:
Yes, I create. I have just the proper temperament -- impatience for the way things are, and an angry desire to make things better.  
You see, the proper combination of irreverence and rage makes for a great inventor.
That's just perfect. We create because we can't stand the world in the appalling configuration it currently has, and because we have no respect for those who insist this is the way it must or even should be. And so we try to put together something better. This is why Arize creates Longshot, so that he can fight for the freedom of those enslaved by Mojo and the other Spineless Ones. Arize has no truck with Longshot's concerns about whether our hero is really "real".  Of course he's real.  He was created, but he's still real. And he has a job to do.

This is quite delightful. We're watching a fictional character being told that it couldn't matter less whether or not he is "real", what matters is the actions he takes.  Which is as true outside the comic as it is inside. Of course Longshot is real, insofar as his existence as a concept has an effect on other things that are unquestionably real.   If you read a story that inspires me to be braver, or kinder, or more loving, what possible difference does it make whether that story was "true" or not?

Stories change the world.  It's important they change it for the better.

As I said, on my first read-through it wasn't clear to me how this tied in with the first section's focus on the nature of implausibly bad luck in villain creation, but once it clicks it's obvious: this is about how we're all authors of our own life stories.  Not the only authors, obviously; we share writing duties with thousands of other writers as well as endless contributions from the Gods of chance.  But we're always in the writing room. No matter how sad or painful our story, anyone reading this has the capacity to try and make their stories at least a little better, if only by trying to make themselves a little better. We can let our pain turn us mean, or we can let it inform our compassion. Our story can be about how we limited the stories of others, or how we helped to shape them so they found them more appealing.

Which is a lovely sentiment, and something which seems an entirely fitting one to be spun out from a superhero comic (or at least from one not written in the '90s, where these ideas were seemingly forgotten entirely). So why did I fail to see it first time around?  Aside from innate incompetence, I mean? Well, what threw me the first time around was one of the last thing Arize says to Longshot: "Now I build only the frivolous, the amusing -- the beautiful -- nothing of purpose or meaning".  This is just a bafflingly bone-headed thing for Nocenti to put into her fictional counterpart. Of course the amusing and the beautiful have purpose and meaning. A world where mechanical butterfly-fairies exist would self-evidently be one that improved upon ours (until they rebelled against us and started eating our faces, which surely could only be a matter of time). Beauty can be overvalued, naturally, and it can most certainly be misdiagnosed, but neither of those means it should be dismissed.

But I realise there i9s no shortage of irony in my complaining about one moment of denigrating beauty spoiling so beautiful a book. So let's just declare it a bum note of no further significance and move on. There are bigger concerns on the horizon in any case. Longshot #5 spends over half its length riffing on the idea that we can and should work to generate better and more affecting stories.  That's a hell of a hill to climb on to when you've still got your own story to finish.  Longshot is heading off to face down Mojo and rescue the woman in distress.  Is there any way this most clich├ęd of set-ups can live up to the standards Nocenti has set for us?  Even with 40 plus pages to play around with?

We shall see.

Also in this issue: Mojo continues to torture Rita as they slide through dimensions and Longshot teams up with Doctor Strange to defeat Pup (nodding as they do to Mr Creosote, who devoured his final wafer-thin mint just three years earlier). Even after multiple reads, though, I'm struggling to find anything particularly interesting to say about these sections other than that Mojo is even scarier here than he was last issue, so perhaps it's time to bring this post to a close.

Clues

This issue continues directly on from the last one, and takes place over several hours.

The dialogue here unambiguously places this story on Halloween. That requires moving the whole miniseries back by about four months, but the storyline is sufficiently independent of other titles for that not to matter all that much.

Date

Wednesday 31st  October 1984.

X-Date

X+6Y+244.

Contemporary Events

Indira Gandhi is assassinated.

Standout Line

Aside from Arize's line quoted above, it's got to be Mojo

"Strap this imposter to the prow, so that she may be cleansed. Render her baroque."

Or

"Then perhaps you'll start talking -- or I'll smash you oblique!"

Or

"Silent screams? Perfect! She must be in love with me already."

So. Utterly. Damn. Terrifying.

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