Sunday, 1 March 2015

ALF #31: "The Ungrateful Dead!"

(The one who got away.)


LOLgrim, as we used to say in Durham. This is no skip through the summer meadows.

A major recurring theme of the blog is going to be how we ended up in the blood-slicked nightmare of Marvel's output in the early and mid-nineties. One of my central assumptions on that is that much of the problem can be traced to Frank Miller's two seminal series, The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One. As the Bronze Age reached its end cape writers began to cast about for ideas and approaches that could sustain a genre that risked becoming lamentably quaint at best and actually extinct at worst.  Seeing the tremendous success of Miller's one-two punch must have - ironically - seemed like a beacon in the darkness, lighting the way towards continued relevancy for a genre struggling to grow up.  The problem came with all this though is that whilst Miller's contemporaries were easily capable of aping the dark, violent set-dressing of his masterworks, they were utterly unable to grasp the structural and thematic considerations that put that nastiness into context. 

Alpha Flight #31 seems very much a case in point. Just look at how the story opens; a callous murder (for the sake of stealing clothes, no less) in the middle of a red light district at night. The setting, the utterly unnecessary violence, this could all have been lifted straight out of Batman: Year One.

Note also the face in shadow, an ubiquitous '90s motif
The only problem here is that Year One is still months away at this point.

So something else is going on, some more general trend that Miller will perfect, rather than create from whole cloth. The obvious culprit here is the grime-streaked, cynical output of Hollywood during this period, where it was almost impossible to watch a movie for adults which didn't feature absurdly gratuitous nudity and/or a scene in a strip club.  For now I can't offer this more as a gut feeling, but that's my suspicion.

Once we move away from this early auguring of the coming darkness we settle into a done-in-one struggle against a supervillain that distinguishes itself from the herd in two ways: the bonkers nature of Deadly Earnest, and the spectacularly grim manner in which he is ultimately dispatched.

A quick review for those who don't remember my spluttering disbelief: "Deadly" Earnest St Ives fought on the battlefields of the First World War, and became immortal after Death came to claim him and he refused to go. Which, and I'm no expert, doesn't seem to be the way it works, unless we want to assume that literally every other human being who died in the Marvel Universe saw Death rock up and figured they could do with the vacation. That's not really Mantlo's fault, of course, but then I assume no-one was holding a gun to his head insisting he brought back so ludicrous a villain, so it's not like our new writer gets out of this with his hands clean.

Anyway, we learn here that Earnest's indefinite reprieve from death comes with some rather harsh small print; he makes it home to his ecstatic wife and daughter only to kill the former during his welcome-home hug. As a result, his traumatised daughter dedicates herself to being the antithesis of everything her father has become - in other words, taking the equivalent path to Shaman's daughter Elizabeth. Which is a nice parallel, though rather over-signified since this issue decides to offer us a potted history of Michael Twoyoungmen so as to drive the point home. Subtlety is for other genres. I guess, or at least other decades.

So St Ives Jr, dedicates herself to the pursuit of revenge, picking up a codename (Nemesis), costume (ridiculous) and mono-molecular sword (inexplicable) along the way. The latter is ultimately lent to Puck so he can save Heather Hudson from Earnest's lethal clutches, and it's here that we return to the grimness angle, as Eugene borrows Nemesis' vorpal sword to lay down the snicker-snack on Earnest (not something you expect from two characters named Earnest and Eugene). The villain has kidnapped Heather Hudson, Puck's secret love, and this our dude will most certainly not abide.

Ultimately this leads to probably the most horrific scene this project has covered to date, as Puck first chops off half of St Ives' arm, and then chops his head off, resulting in both the severed limb and the decapitated torso still crawling towards our heroes as Earnest's head screams with rage. This, obviously, is awesome.

Not everything about the finale goes off without a hitch, though. Much is made here of Puck having sworn to never again take a human life, which I don't remember having been mentioned before. Certainly it hasn't been prominent. What this means in practice is that Puck only really mentions this tremendously important vow a few pages before he decides to break it.  This is bad idea, partially because it's unearned drama - "I will NEVER kill agai- oh wait I've killed again FROWNYFACE" - but mainly because it feeds into a much larger problem, namely the self-congratulatory myth we tell ourselves that killing is an absolute moral wrong except for those occasions when we regretfully have no other choice,  It's a nice fiction, but the inevitable result is that rather than deciding to kill only when we have no other choice, we can persuade ourselves that we must have had no choice whenever the urge to kill comes over us.  What should be a bright moral line becomes instead a panacea, and worse, a panacea legitimising real and terrible damage. Yes, Earnest St Ives us the kind of character it's hard to care about receiving an extra-judicial execution - he's a multiple murder who killed three of Puck's friends in front of him, requiring some existential hand-waving from Nemesis to save Box and the Beaubier twins - but that's the benefit of fiction; it can generate the villains that would make our choices simple.

Fiction should explore reality, It shouldn't legitimise it. In this sense, St Ives' (latest) death may have caused more trouble for our world than his life did for that of our heroes.

And speaking of causing trouble...

(Meanwhile, in subplot corner, Shaman finds himself back in his old shack and chatting with his grandfather's skull, both of which should be hundreds of miles away, and Snowbird finds herself suffering from unexplained attacks, which I presume is her godly masters once again refusing to send her memos like normal people.)


This story kicks off very soon after the last one ended; we have to assume Deadly Earnest couldn't have been wandering naked through Montreal for all that long. We'll therefore set this issue on the evening of the same day St Ives was reassembled.


Tuesday 24th July 1984.



Contemporary Events

Frankie Goes To Hollywood enjoy the first and second spot in the UK charts. Which is well deserved, obviously.

Standout Line

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