How I came to hate everything you love. Part 1.

Posted: 12th July 2015 by Christian in Blog

It’s not that I hate superhero films. (Although, I’m not fond of them.)
But I distrust them. I’m deeply suspicious of them.

Here’s why. But I warn you, we have to go way back.

…I didn’t read superhero comics as a kid. I read war comics and horror comics. I’d save up me fifty cents a week pocket money and I’d not buy sweets, but waited till me aspirational working class family went to do the shopping. Then we’d go to the second-hand book shop and I’d buy. Sergeant Rock was a great favourite, though the morbid tone unsettled me. Weird War Tales was the best.  And the outrageously sexual, evil Tomb of Dracula. Then Creepy and Eerie. All the black and white reprints Murray used to put together, bundled up in thick magazines. Sometimes Savage Sword of Conan but the sexuality, the carnality, of it was a bit much for my five year old self. It embarrassed me. Where Dracula played games of cat and mouse with women seduced by sex and death and the ecstatic moment of pure annihilating pleasure (I perhaps had different words for it at 6) Conan was a brute. Some of those 8 page horror shorts remain with me to this day, though.

When I was 12, my friends read X-Men comics. So I started. I read superhero comics on and off (the typical story is “I found girls” but I found girls and never felt the urge to stop reading) until my early 20s. They were too expensive, the stories too similar, early events like Crisis on Infinite Earth confused me and more importantly, I was become aware of a new way to read. Signs and signifiers opened up entirely new ways to read and appreciate everything.  To anyone who says ‘you’re supposed to turn off your brain’, I say ‘I don’t want to. Open yours up and you’ll get a lot more out of fiction.’ And as my aspirational working-class family hit the middle-class, happy to do so.

New schools, new socio-economics and suddenly I was aware that I didn’t like  most of the people around me. Their lives were obsessed with what they bought, what they paid for it, how they could put money in banks and turn that into more money. Every exchange was somehow fiduciary. And that wasn’t what I wanted life to be. (It would take me a few more years to find theories and ideologies that expressed what I wanted human life to be.) Everything became Left or Right to me and I was happy to jump into my new pinko allegiance.

Spider-Man… no more

So superheroes became very quickly fascist things to me. Figures of individual will, or state-sanctioned power and the moral right of violence. My views on them became rigid. Then when I began to understand what the mainstream industry was, how it treated people, I lost all interest. One or two millionaires seemed a poor exchange for decades of hierarchical abuse, and if there was enough money to make a few creators wealthy, what was being kept? Other genres interested me more then, and have to this day. Hard to come back from Los Bros Hernandez to Liefield. But I wasn’t quite finished yet.

A few years after that, I returned to superheroes. Doom Patrol lead to JLA. Tony Harris art on Starman lured me in. Ennis on Hitman. Things like that. Books that defied political readings as examples of fascist aesthetics. That were about friendship, history, the polity. Community. I got a lot of back issues for fifty cents a go. I began to  wander down old paths. I bought a lot of reprint books. I did, and still very much do, love the energy and strangeness of old comics. Starlin’s mind-bending Warlock. Saga of the Super-Sons, an outrageous bit of 70s pop, where groovy Bruce and Clark Jr. would endure genuinely mad adventures before being convinced of their own unreality and destroying themselves. The pure wish-fulfillment of Amethyst, with it’s feuding houses of sorcerers, dependent on one beautiful lost princess to bring peace and justice, uneasy about her own rank and role. Ann Nocenti’s surreal take on vigilantes Daredevil, liberal politics meeting a mordant, horror-fan’s sense of play. I had read one issue as a child in hospital with golden staph, terrified of sewer mutants holding hostage a beautiful woman who didn’t know who her own name. The charm of the Flash, unable to fly, leaping out of a plane to save a man, hoping he’d figure out how to land safely. Raban’s final, tragic fate at the hands of mad Kobra. Diamonds in a very great rough, but diamonds still.

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These were stories of cosmic visionaries, children of privilege out to use their resources to make the world better. (And yes, it would be fine if Batman gave all his money into the public trust, but it would hardly make a good comic. Accept the Wayne Foundation’s profit-sharing as nice liberalism and move on.) Less the fascists of my suspicion and more citizens who placed their extraordinary gifts into public hands, helping all citizens. Once they were racists, now they fought the white power groups and terrorists. Heroes are, in the real world, suspicious things but in fiction, surely we can relax and let our hair down? None of them were perfect and can never be. Nor should they be, they’re hero comics, not agitprop. But at least I could decipher those signs and signifiers with more charity than I had in my early 20s.

Of course, I also looked the comics of WWII. Superman asked you to ‘slap a jap.’ The Black Terror mowed down helpless racial caricatures with machine guns. But many of those generations of artist went to war and came back with no use for such propaganda. They’d seen war up close. The next generation of artist had no taste for Vietnam and such grotesque images were few and far between. Tony Stark could rail against Commies all he liked but pro-war imagery was noticeable by it’s absence in the 60s. Liberals and vets alike said no.
But then the 2000s ticked over and suddenly heroes were cool. Badass.

Violence stopped being so outlandish to have no political context to being a butcher’s shop. Wonder Twins were eaten alive. Prisons were gassed so all the burly heterosexual guards were up each other in an orgy of gay lust, something so amazingly homophobic, done in the name of meager liberalism, that I was so stunned a shop clerk asked after my well-being. Arms were severed. The Joker carrying  around his own severed face. (How I longed for Ace-the Bat Hound to steal it like a bone, leading the Harlequin of Hate on a ludicrous game of chase.)
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Worse yet, the Avengers were re-imagined to be perfect neoliberal ideologues. Captain America, who once punched Hitler, and also a masked, suicidal Richard Nixon, was now palling around with George W. Bush. Apparently no one was aware that the leadership of the Nazi Party were executed for illegal wars. Why wasn’t Cap putting the vicious bastard into a headlock and arresting him. Iron Man fought crime on a budget that saw him spending millions a second on keeping his armour active. And the world loved him for it.

What was missing was insight. Starman was a dense family drama, a generational tale looking at responsibility and guilt. About generational conflict and turning in to your dad. About responsibility and duty.

Hitman took a humorous look at what living in a world of superheroes would be like, blackly amused at it all. Then it talked about the importance of friendship and even honour. About violence and it’s dehumanising effects and the joys of community even amongs underclass criminals.

Suicide Squad was a look at the effect of the Cold War on it’s soldiers and the gulf between US rhetoric and praxis and the nature of capitalist.

All of this built around dynamic interesting action sequences because, well, sometimes punching is it’s own reward.

Diamonds, diamonds all. But too rare and too hard to find and so rarely prized by comic readers who just wanted body counts and sadism.

I moved on. A good time to go because when superheroes turned up in my consciousness again, fascist asthetics were waiting for me.

And you in Part 2.