Thursday, 30 July 2015
ALF #32: "Short Story!"
("Leave comedy to the bears!")
From the tasteless pun that starts this issue to its final moral on how much it sucks to be a little person, this is a deeply frustrating issue. In part that's because there's quite a bit I like here.
So let's start with the positive. Putting the focus on Puck is a tremendous idea, because Puck is awesome for all sorts of reasons. Indeed, it strikes me as I write this that I haven't given him sufficient credit. Puck is brilliant. Not only is he a man entirely without super-powers who has trained himself to the extent where he can operate quite happily in the world of capes, he's done this despite suffering from achondroplasia. In a world still having trouble seeing little people as anything beyond a casting pool for sci-fi films and pantomime, Puck is not just showing himself to be the equal of those of average height, but superior to most of them. Some might like to argue it unrealistic that someone suffering achondroplasia could achieve such a physical peak, but even were such people to persuade me they had the medical knowledge and/or direct experience to make that call, this is a superhero comic. Unrealistic physical feats are literally what they are all about. It is, to say the very least, hard to see how Puck's fitness and strength are more implausible than those of Batman, or Hawkeye, or Daredevil. Just as importantly, Puck's abilities here are serving a worthwhile purpose, pushing back against the idea that little people are no more than pratfalls and problems with door handles. Why choose this moment to take a stand on how comic stories should realistically depict the human frame and its limitations? Well, I know full well why, but I'm hoping the rhetorical question will scare off the those inclined to argue the point.
Puck's impressive levels of fitness is also the springboard for this particular plot. Heather Hudson has been talking for several issues now about wanting to get into the cape game, and finally she has her chance thanks to Jeffries and Bochs having rebuilt the powered suit "Dark Guardian" had been wearing during her period of pretending to be the original Vindicator. Fighting in the armour your husband's killer wore to pretend to be him? Even George R. R. Martin hasn't tried that one yet. Or maybe he has; it's tough to keep track.
Heather's desire to up her game slapping-wise provides Puck with something of a dilemma, though, because she wants him to provide the training (in the new Alpha Flight Danger Room, modelled on Xavier's original). On the one hand, that would mean lots more time hanging out with his secret love, but on the other, Puck doesn't want to encourage Heather in any endeavour that might lead to her getting hurt or worse. That's not an easy problem to navigate, and indeed Eugene screws it up, yelling at Heather for messing around where she doesn't belong (mere seconds after she's almost blown up by a brace of missiles, in his defence), mightily pissing her off in the process.
Poor Puck. What's a secretly love-sick super-acrobat to do? Well, he could try actually telling Heather how he feels. Puck's behaviour here is a problem because he won't give Heather the information she needs to understand why he won't train her. Refusing to help put the one you love in danger is a bit of an issue when they're asking you to do just that - it's hard to think of a way to define real love that encompasses the total refusal to respect your loved one's choices - but it's even worse when you won't let them know why. But as poor a showing this is on Puck's behalf, it's an entirely understandable, entirely human one. Who hasn't been desperately in love with someone and been convinced that fact could never be revealed? And when that someone is the former spouse of your dead friend, I'd imagine that cranks the complications dial up a few notches, too.
If that were all that were going on here, I'd be perfectly happy. I'd feel bad for Heather, trying to work out why her friend is acting so out of character, and I'd feel bad for Puck, because as flawed and unreasonable as he is he's trying to do what he thinks is the right thing. But then Mantlo has to push it a stage too far and have Eugene admit to Bochs (who he derides as a "cripple", just to make everything even nastier) that part of the problem here is that he thinks Heather is too wonderful a woman to settle for a dwarf.
And this simply isn't on. I'm not saying there is no such thing as a little person who believes their lack of height somehow disqualifies them from dating anyone closer to the population average. I'm saying that's not a suggestion we want reinforcing. It's entirely too well-ingrained already. The existence, opinions and mental states of self-hating little people are not subjects that writers of average height should be dabbling in. Hell, I may just have linked to it to demonstrate a point, but even Life's Too Short bothered me a great deal on multiple occasions, and that was written with Warwick Davies' direct input and whilst Merchant and Gervais were presumably trying to atone for getting the nomenclature so wrong in an episode of the Office. Getting this right is hard.
Maybe that's why Mantlo decides that this is the issue where he will reveal Judd isn't a little person by birth, but has been shrunk by an evil Baghdad spirit which has lived within him for decades. If that is the reason - and I see no evidence of a better one - then it's a horribly wrongheaded one. Revealing a member of a minority isn't one at all is a despicable story move; a conscious choice to make a title less diverse. And for what? So we can have 14 or so pages of a giant jet-black Arabian demon (who I'm also less than happy about by the way) attack our heroes? I'd be furious with what Mantlo was doing here whatever the specifics, but at the very least you'd hope the story that results from learning Judd's dwarfism was mystical in nature would lead to something more involved than a done-in-one fight with a djinn named Razer. Razer? Tuwthbrush was taken, was it? Loofarh didn't quite scan? Don't try to tell me loofahs are less dangerous than razors, either; those things could scratch your eyes out quite happily so long as you keep them out of the bath long enough.
This isn't even a good story. The pacing is truly awful. At one point Aurora finds herself alone against Razer attempting to keep him from killing her unconscious brother, and Jeffries announces she can deal with the monster herself so Puck can explain why he's almost seven foot tall now. Speaking of which, this sudden change in age makes it all the more obvious how unnecessary the change to Puck's stature is. It's revealed here that Razer's presence inside Puck caused not only the agony Bryne had attributed to Eugene's achondroplasia (one of around 200 different forms of dwarfism, and so one would think it rather a specific diagnosis for something mystical in nature), and the condition itself, but a retarding of Eugene's aging process, so that he appears decades younger than his actual seventy one years would suggest. So why not just have Razer's escape from his body cause Puck to become a seventy-one year old little person? Why link Puck's stature into this at all?
Alas, the answer is not difficult to discern. Razer's escape returns Eugene to his old height simply so he can sacrifice his "normality" and become a dwarf again to re-absorb the djinn. The subtext here is almost deafening: "How awful it must be to be a dwarf". And there's nothing you can do with that idea but stare at it hatefully and hope it will shrivel up and die from the sheer force of your loathing. Mantlo is telling us being a little person must be terrible at the same time as he removes the identity of that little person in front of our eyes. John Byrne has gone on record about how much he didn't like this story, and he's completely right. There are far too many people who won't understand what I mean by this, but by replacing a determined, irrepressible man with achondroplasia with a tall man cursed by a djinn to live in agony as a magic dwarf, Mantlo has made the Marvel Universe that little bit less filled with wonder.
This story takes place in approximately real time. There are no references to how long it's been since, so I'll take this opportunity to move the action forwards a full month to bring Alpha Flight closer to the parent title.
Friday 24th August 1984.
It's the last full day in the life of Truman Capote.
There's nothing particularly pretty or well-formed in this whole issue, so instead I present an example of just how ugly Mantlo's prose can get. This is truly, truly clumsy stuff.
"The turret blows off the tower enclosing the elevator shaft up which the pain-wracked Puck had been ascending to the roof when he collapsed."