Tuesday, July 17, 2018

They Said My Mother Was Insane. (Die II)

1/8: It brings on many changes.
            Tragically, You Died.
“It’s strange… I never imagined it would feel so good to realize I’ve been wrong all along.”
-Gene Luen Yang, 2009
            The End.


[Photo: The Royal Tenenbaums Directed by Wes Anderson Script by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson]

Long ago in an American autumn.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

You Can’t Stake Your Lives on a Savior Machine. (Hold Back The Night)

"Through the ruin of a city
stalked the ruin of a man."
Commissioned by Aleph Null

There were two men, both doctors of technology and science. For the whole of their lives, they had lived to see their parents suffer and die in a system of cruelty and pain we call Capitalism. The men, one passionate and full of light while the other wily and duplicitous, forged a plan to save the workers by building an army of robots to do the backbreaking work for them. No more will man need to die in the mines.

But the wily doctor had a far grander scheme. A scheme he would tell but one person prior to its completion: a woman named Emily Stanton. But she loved the lightness of his companion’s touch. So in a fit of passion, the wily doctor framed his lighter companion for the murder of Emily Stanton. With him on the run, the wily doctor was able to build a utopia of his singular vision on the bones of those who were too weak to deserve such a utopia. It is a utopia of leisure where all are able to live without suffering and pain… so long as they obey their betters.

One man, a lad named Joe, grew weary of this brave new world the wily doctor caged the people in. While escaping the robots that patrol the streets looking for undesirables unable to afford to live in the utopia above, Joe comes across a man once filled with light. He was a broken man, filled with guilt over letting such a cruel and wily fellow kill the one he loved. He cares not to save the world that has had is chains switch from the unknowable hands of capitalism to those of the wily doctor, but of suicidal vengeance. There is nothing left to love, so there is nothing left to save.

Nonetheless, the two set out on destroying the infrastructure of the once light doctor’s acquaintance’s utopia. But it’s a trap. Systems like that of the wily doctor’s, much like that of the old capitalism is not killed by mere terrorism. It consumes the act to make itself stronger. The act allowed the cage called utopia to tighten its grip. Remove the pretense. Bear its teeth and consume its people.

Despondent over the realization that his was “fucked,” the doctor who only wanted a better future, who thought that people could better themselves if they never had to work again, whose sins were seeing only the chains of mining while missing the chains of capitalism and the fascism festering within the utopian ideal of “white saviors” and “let the smart people run things,” this man contemplated suicide. As a bit of closure, he read the last words Emily ever wrote to him. She begged him to save the world. He didn’t smile; he hasn’t since she died, he might never smile again. But there was resolve in his being, and the doctor named Thomas opts to save the world.

His first attempt was so disastrous that he decided to never try again.

Years pass, and the doctor lacking in light has a second son. He tells stories of his first son, of how he tried to save the world, but was met with only indifference. How the wily doctor took the lad away from him. The doctor without light does not wish that for his son. And so, they stay locked away from the rest of the world, and watch from the outside while it dies.

The second son, like many children, rebelled against his father. Surely, he reasoned, if the people were motivated, they would rise up against the wily doctor and unshackle themselves from their chains. The good doctor pleaded with his son that he doesn’t have to do this… that his plans for a better future will fail. The people won’t fight for a better future. Don’t end up like your brother! The son replied that he won’t die like him and left before his father could say another word.

Unlike his father and his brother, the second son started out by rallying the people towards revolution. A revolution will never succeed if it’s just a single voice or even a straightforward conductor. The people need to be involved or everything falls apart. They fought tooth and nail against the robot army of the wily doctor until only one soldier remained: a lone centurion, shrouded in darkness. The second son, not knowing who the centurion was, leapt to fight the servant of the wily doctor. But light shone upon the centurion, revealing him to be the son’s brother.

He hadn’t died, you see. He was turned to believe in the cause of the wily doctor after the people refused to save him as he tried to do for them. For they didn’t want to be heroes, they didn’t even want someone to save them. They just wanted a martyr, “One who moves along the line of least reluctance towards a desired death.” And so, the centurion turned against the people and towards the wily doctor. The words of his brother confused the second son and, in a fit of passion, he killed his brother. The last words of his brother were of what heroes truly are. Not dragon slayers nor martyrs nor even those who help, but simply those who know they are free.

Grieving for his brother, the second son flees from the people as they try to console him, leaving them defenseless as reinforcements come to slaughter them all. Like father like son.

The song opens with the clicking of a clock. Or perhaps not a clock. Maybe it’s the innards of an old machine ready for decommission. Suddenly, guitars and drums burst into the soundscape, galloping like bulls chasing fools.

When I was young, couldn't stand to believe it
Somewhere there was a sun left to shine
Now my heart won't be still till I've seen it
Won't be still till I've made it mine
The voice is feminine, unlike the previous narrators who have all been male. Her words talk of how the world was before the reign of the wily doctor. But not of the chains that allowed the doctor to rise to power nor the people who lived in there. But rather something beautiful that no longer exists in the world of the wily doctor: the sun. It is a rather deadly creature, something of immense light but that which will burn those who get too close. And yet, viewed from the distance of the planet earth, there is a beauty and warmth to the ball of destruction. Something the cold and wily doctor would never allow. For frozen utopias reject chaotic things with contradictions and implications. It’s more orderly to keep things the way they are.

There’s a fear, can’t be seen, it surrounds me
As afraid of the dark as the light
Was a time, long ago, these were safe streets
Now I’m the only one that keeps it alive
Keeps me alive!

The time the streets were safe most likely refers to the period wherein the wily doctor had his murder bots stalk the streets and kill the rebellious, the undesirables, and those who don’t matter. Of course, this is not the only interpretation. An alternative could refer once again to the time before the wily doctor. The fear, after all, refers both to the dark and the light, indicating that it is afraid of the change offered by embracing both. The liberation of light necessitates accepting the great power and responsibility of being free whereas the cage of darkness is essentially what Zapffe refers to as “anchoring” (“One Nation under God with Families, Morality, and Natural Birthrights for all”). The singer says the word “OOOOHHHH!” twice before the next lyric.

But I know a hero will come

The problem the female singer faces isn’t just the society trapped within the clutches of a wily doctor, nor the capitalistic beast still lurking within the margins of this place they call utopia, but the fact that she doesn’t believe she can be a hero. Indeed, no one can. It’s not that they want a martyr, but that they can’t conceive of a hero as anything but a martyr. How many stories are out there where the hero dies for his people? Where the only solution is to go down with the ship. Indeed, the story as a whole exemplifies the speaker’s believed inability to be a hero as the main pushers of the narrative thus far have been men (and white men at that). Indeed, the centurion’s exact last words were “If these people… tell this story… to their children… as they sleep… maybe someday… they’ll see a hero… is just a man… who knows he’s free.”

There’s a face that I’ve seen in the windows
There’s a face of a stronger man
When I turn as a leaf when the wind blows
Blown away as the will in his hands

The stanza is most likely referring to the wily doctor as it is his will that controls the city. (Indeed, this is the only portion of the song that refers to this third party. The rest are talking to someone else. More on him in a bit.) While he is a “stronger man,” he is not necessarily a good one. Much like his formerly light counterpoint, he is removed from society and uses his will to control the city. There is an indication that he is losing grasp of his control, especially after the fall of the centurion. Though there remains not enough information to confirm this.

You’ve been fed what they’ve wanted to feed you
You were bled of the will to survive
Now you’ll stand just as long as they need you
But you’re the only one that keeps it alive
Keep you alive!

The “you” in this stanza is a you (pl), indicating that the speaker is trying to get the people to rise up. The speaker realizes the nature of the system and the cruel joke of it: we made it up. It’s not some distant God that requires us to suffer for its pleasure. It’s just an arbitrary set of numbers and equations that determines who lives and who dies. The only reason we keep following it is because it’s all we’ve ever known. We’re as afraid of the light of socialism as we are of the dark of fascism. Perhaps I was misguided in my despondency in her claims about the need for a hero. Perhaps she is the hero who will come.

But I know a hero will come
And the night, the night will be torn apart
And I know he won’t fight alone
And the spark that we carry will turn the dark into
A flame, a fire, a light

Evidentially not. There is a bit of optimism in this passage of course. One of my favorite actors of all time once said “Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame.” And while more could be asked of the gendered nature of the quote, the sentiment feels right with the song. History is full of “Great Men,” which is to say the people History deems as important. The truth of the matter is that there are countless other people working in the background. Forgotten people whose impact greatly change the course of things. They are those who died nameless in the grand scheme of things, those who stole plans for doomsday weapons, fought with their lives for a righteous cause, or took a bullet that would have hit the hero. As said before, revolutions require more than one person to change things. Otherwise, they just return to the way things were with only a larger pile of bodies.

There must be an end to the darkness…
There must be an end to the darkness…
There must be an end to the darkness…
There must be an end to the darkness…
No one will come
This city is dead.

This is not sung by the female speaker but instead by a ghostly choir. There’s a mechanical quality to the first line sung, as if sung by the ghosts of the fallen army of the wily doctor as opposed to those who fought him. More human voices join in on the second line. The awful truth of the cruelties of life is that all tend to be victims of its cruelties. The act of performing violence on others can be just as traumatic as being violently beaten. The final lines then are perhaps the most pessimistic of the entire song. There is no one coming to save the day. No hero(es) to realize at the last minute that they are free. The cage of modernity is too overwhelming to allow people to realize its obvious flaws can be overcome. Everybody dies.

But all of your heroes are gone
And the blood that they spilled is on my hands
A darkness will blot out the sun
Not a thing could be done with so few men
That a hero couldn’t do

The singer has once again changed, this time to the masculine voice of the second son. The failures of the past revolutions seem to be preventing him from working with the female singer in bringing about a revolution. What’s the point, he thinks, if it only brings about more pain and suffering while returning to the point it was at before the revolution even begun? Heroes can’t bring about material social change on their own, so why bother when no one else will. Why persist when we’re fucked? There is, however, a bit of optimism hidden within the second son’s words. Consider the second to last line “Not a thing could be done with so few men.” When this all started, when the centurion went up against the wily doctor and fell, there were no followers. There were no people willing to fight for their freedom. Now, there’s a few. It’s not much. It’s probably not even enough. But it’s a start. A forest doesn’t grow overnight.

When the voice from the shadows calls you
When the wind whips past your ears
Will you stand when the weight is upon you?
Or will you go to your knees in fear?

We return to the female speaker. This is more straightforwardly propaganda to get more and more people to rise up. Though, it should be noted that both the female singer and the second son sing the final line. Perhaps her words are getting through his pessimistic malaise.

There’s a chance, though I know it’s a long shot
And the city is out of time
All forgot if the heart stops beating
‘Cause you’re the only one that keeps it alive
God, keep it alive

At last, the song explicitly states the nature of the world they live in. We’re the only ones keeping the system we live under alive. We could lift our chains off at any time, but we choose, consciously or otherwise, to remain within them. But we’re also not alone. We have each other. We can rebuild a better city than the one of the wily doctor or the one that let him rise in the first place. It might end in failure, we might very well be fucked, but the important thing is that we try. The singer gets another two “Ooohs.”

The next portion of the song is a bit difficult to parse, as all three sets of singers sing over one another. From what I’ve been able to parse, the second son is acting as a counterpoint to the female singer’s optimism, pointing out that there’s no one else left to hold back the night. But at the same time, he joins her in declaring the need to do so. To save the world from the cruelty of darkness.

For the sake of competion, here is the conversation as best translated (bolded text is sung by both):

Female singer: But I know a hero will come
Second son: And all of your heroes are gone
FS:Someone’s got to
SS:No one left to
Bring back the light

FS:And I know he won’t fight alone
SS:A darkness will block out the sun
If we can’t
Find a way to
Hold back the night

FS:But I know a hero will come
SS: And all of your heroes are gone
FS:Someone’s got to
SS:No one left to
Bring back the light

FS:And I know he won’t fight alone
SS:A darkness will block out the sun
If we can’t
Find a way to
Hold back the night

FS:But I know a hero will come
SS: And all of your heroes are gone
FS:Someone’s got to
SS:No one left to
Bring back the light

FS:And I know he won’t fight alone
SS:A darkness will block out the sun
If we can’t
Find a way to
Hold back the night

However, more interesting are the lines sung by the choir:

We can hold out past the endless dark
All a fire needs is a single spark.

If we were to assume that it is true that great men are forged in fire and it is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame, it would follow that heroes are not necessarily great men. They are the lesser men who inspire the greatness of people to burn their chains. They’re stories that make us better people. We may not be able to live up to the mythology we’ve made out of them; few ever live up to their ideals. But then, an idea can’t be killed as easily as a person. They might not work for everyone, or even more than one person. But for that one person, it’ll change them forever.

If just one person believes in you
Deep enough, and strong enough, believes in you…
Hard enough, and long enough,
It stands to reason, that someone else will think
“If he can do it, I can do it.”
-The Muppets, 1990

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

And I’m Going to be Free. (Seekers into the Mystery)

CW: Discussion of Pedophilia

                    1/8: You are sleeping off your demons when I come home.
There are many ways I could approach this one. The most obvious would be to look at it through the lens of JM DeMatteis’ belief system, though that would require a knowledge of said belief system that I neither have nor have the time to research. Alternatively, I could look at it from the perspective of Spider-Man and point out that, much like the main character Lucas Hart, Peter Parker has some… experience with being sexually abused as a kid. But that would be a bit too miserable of an ending for this project. Another possibility would be to point out that the T-shirt Lucas wears from his film “Rocket Starfield” is akin to the shirt Steven Universe wears, but that doesn’t really say much beyond “Oh, look. They wear the same shirt. Isn’t that interesting?”

In the end though, what I’m focusing on is the fact that somehow, someone from 1987 was able to predict the existence of Quentin Tarantino. The obvious answer would be to point out that this was not a story written in 1987, so DeMatteis most likely forgot (or was unaware that) Tarantino wasn’t a thing until 1992 (though My Best Friend’s Birthday did come out in ’87). However, there are mystical implications to invoking Tarantino in a mystical work. For starters, Alan Moore is apparently a fan of his. Or, at the very least, the movie Reservoir Dogs, which is referenced and invoked in his two most personal and mystical works: Promethea and Jerusalem.

I’m not going to go into the Jerusalem reference, as that would require rereading that book, and I frankly don’t have the time, energy, or coping mechanisms to do so. Suffice it to say, there are two, one of which is in the chapter narrated by Alma Warren, Moore’s author insert character, so there’s some importance there. Promethea meanwhile tells the story of a hybrid between Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel being lectured and lecturing about the mystical implications of the universe. In the third issue, she enters the land of Fiction and meets up with her imaginary friend, a machine gun toting version of Little Red Riding Hood. Somehow, she got the idea for this character after watching Reservoir Dogs.

Out of all of Tarantino’s films released at the time the issue came out, that is perhaps the most ill fitting option Moore could have picked. Not just because the film isn’t all that violent (it has the infamous ear scene, sure, but the majority of the film is a group of angry men talking about who fucked them over), but also because men exclusively dominate the film, with the sole female character (a minor police researcher who I don’t think was given a name) being cut out of the film entirely. Tarantino would certainly improve on the roles female character would have in his films (in that he would give them actual roles), but that doesn’t change the fact that Reservoir Dogs is brimming with testosterone (and I’m saying this as someone who views Reservoir Dogs to be one of his three favorite films).

Given this, the most likely explanation for Promethea to create such a character after watching such a film is either a) She was so bored by the lack of violence implied by the statement “Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino” that she created a character who inverts all that film stood for or b) Alan Moore has never seen Reservoir Dogs and is basing the character off of his assumptions of the phrase “Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino.” (Indeed the aspects of Jerusalem that invoke Reservoir Dogs are very much the aesthetics of the film rather than the narrative, or so I recall.) Both are equally likely.

But of course Seekers into the Mystery predates both texts, and its invocation of Tarantino is extremely interesting. In the penultimate issue (drawn exquisitely by Jill Thompson), Lucas is offered the possibility to abandon his reality in favor of one where his father didn’t rape him, his brother didn’t die as a kid, he isn’t divorced, and is in fact a successful screenwriter. To highlight the absurdity of this false reality, it postulates that the fourth film of a science fiction film series seeped in the works of Joseph Campbell and has characters with the name “Obidiah Crater” can win Oscars in categories like “Best Original Screenplay.” (Not that the film is inherently bad, but rather the Oscars are notorious for their refusal to let even the barest bones genre piece get recognized.) Suffice it to say, it’s too good to be true.

Which in many ways is the point. If we were put into Lucas’ position, we would want to believe the lie. That life isn’t a series of painful events that often ends in anticlimaxes and despair; that you can be successful if you set your mind to it; that your father’s love will be enough to not make him want to rape you as a child and those complicated feelings of love won’t be around once he’s dead. Lying has its uses, certainly but lying to that degree is delusional at best. It only hurts us in the end.

Which brings us back to the work of Quentin Tarantino. As a storyteller, Tarantino has an extreme investment in the concept of lying. His films are full of liars attempting to one up each other in their lies. Existence within a Tarantino film is performative (fitting as his films are invested in the implications of movies, but that’s a different matter entirely). But at the same time, he is keenly aware that one can easily fall into delusions of grandeur. For example, let’s take a look at the film that came out the same year the final issue of Seekers into the Mystery came out: Jackie Brown. Not so much the main character herself, but rather the central antagonist: Ordell Robbie. Robbie believes himself to be this bad mother fucker who no one should fuck with, less they end up with a bullet in the head. But in reality, he’s a fuck up who gets conned out of his money twice, gets all his sales pitches from crappy infomercials, and he puts way too much trust in someone whose been in prison for 20 years because he’s played by Robert DeNiro. He needs to play the role of a bad mother fucker because it’s expected of a drug dealing gun runner to be as such. But he’s not good at it, and it kills him in the end.

But at the same time, there’s the Tarantino film DeMatteis inadvertently predicts. In the aforementioned Oscar win, the other films nominated include films by Mitchell Rose (a short film director whose short film “Helicopter” was somehow good enough to get nominated), Jeff Maguire (the screenwriter of Timeline), Chris Columbus (who for some reason was pinched to direct a remake of a 1972 Hammer Studios piece), and Quentin Tarantino for a film called “Little Men.” Within the filmography of Tarantino, the term “Little Man” appears in his 2009 film Inglourious Basterds as the inexplicable derogatory nickname used for BJ Novak’s character, a character so minor you don’t even remember him being in the film at all.

It’s at this point that I realize that I don’t really have much to say about Seekers into the Mystery. It’s not a text that inspired a lot of weird and interesting ideas in me; it’s not Moonshadow, what DeMatteis followed Kraven’s Last Hunt up with and the other “piece about the nature of the universe from a mystical lens” that Seekers is a complement to. It’s a wonderful book, full of ideas and implications that someone far more interesting than I should write about. But at the same time, the book left me a bit cold after reading it. Not in the “I hated this book” or “I missed something within the text” but rather in the “I have nothing to say about this book beyond the technical aspects, which make for terrible analysis.” There are some moments of charm, dangling themes and threads that could make entire books on their own.

At its heart though is a somber story of a man coming to terms with being sexually abused as a child by his father by falling in love with a magician. I use the term somber not in the humorless sense one would expect (there are a lot of jokes made in regards to the [in both the academic and literal sense] magical negro’s bodily fluids), but rather in the stark look it takes at the history of repression and abuse Lucas has gone through and how its affected his ability to be in committed relationships. Even worse is the fact that he comes to this revelation shortly before his father dies. So there’s no moment of confrontation between the two. No point of closure for Lucas. Just complicated feelings of love, disgust, hatred, and compassion towards his father.

I suppose, since I talked at length about Alan Moore, I should discuss a work by his opposite, Grant Morrison (I need another 500 words or so, so why not). In his major piece about the nature of the universe via a mystical lens, The Invisibles, Morrison centralizes the narrative around the character of Audrey Murray, a minor character who only appears in two issues and never as the main character. Her husband, both through gas lighting Audrey in front of her friends and physically assaulting her, abused her. But in the end, he dies at the hands of the Grant Morrison self insert character not for her sake, but because he was just another faceless mook in the army of the enemy.

And yet, for all the pain she’s gone through, all the trauma and torment, she doesn’t let this make her a shitty person. Likewise Lucas Hart, for all his shittyness (there’s a reason why he got divorced), doesn’t let his trauma turn him into a shitty person. It’s only when he acknowledges the trauma as something that happened rather than repressing it that he becomes a better person (with the occasional relapses into shittyness). (Alternatively, there’s Dean Trippe’s autobiographical comic Something Terrible, which deals in these same themes as well as the constant worry that his abusive past will make him want to hurt his kid the way he was hurt.)

For some, trauma is the “be all/end all” of existence. It’s the moment where life stops making sense and everything just hurts. For others, it might be too much to handle and thus needs to be repressed until such a time they’re ready to cope with it. But it comes out eventually and the fact is no one is ever truly ready. But people have their way of trying to find their true self, to seek the answer to the mystery of existence. And the answers aren’t always pleasant.

But we seek anyways because we are a species that can’t handle not knowing. We want to know about why we’re here, if we have free will, and what other people are keeping from us. We don’t like being left in the dark, so we go out and try to find out why. Even if the methodology is weird like looking at a work of fiction from the perspective of the historical context it comes out in or by making a movie critiquing another movie. Nonetheless, we seek the answers to the problems we face as if there’s one coherent answer that’ll explain everything to everyone.

But that’s rarely if ever the case. The answers tend to lead to more questions, which lead to further questions and so forth. We’re never going to have all the answers to the meaning of life, be it personal or mystical. Not because there is no correct answer, but because the correct answers contradict each other. Seekers into the Mystery and Promethea and The Invisibles are all contradictions. But then-- aren’t we all?
“And now that I’ve lost everything… now that everyone I love is gone, all I have left is everything. The river carries me on, though every fear is facing me. And I do not know what next will be, and I cannot know what next I’ll see. I’m running forward anyway. I’m not afraid to meet the day! The world is filled with everything. I’m a boy who could be anything. And now, I will do everything! The whole world unfurls before me; a great adventure lies before me. I’m reaching out for anything. I’m calling out to everything. There’s nothing I’m afraid to be: the world is new and glittery. I run to meet it, hopefully! Love never dies in memory and I will meet life gloriously.”
-Anne Washburn, 2014
            The End.


[Photo: Praying Directed by Ross Shuman Script by Dino Stamatopoulos]

Long ago in an American autumn.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

We Got Every Last One of These Punks. (Spider-Man: Reign)

“Sometimes, it's necessary to fight back.”
-Andrew Cartmel, 1992
1/8: The revolution will not be televised.
When I was a boy, my aunt would get me Christmas presents. Some years it would be video games, others it would be Hot Wheels. Nowadays, it’s cash (which is increasingly the present I get from that side of the family. Then again, I don’t have the closeness to them that I do with the other side, mostly due to distance). But the last year I remember getting an actual present was when I was just exiting middle school. I got a phone call from my aunt and she asked what I wanted for Christmas. At the time, I had begun reading comics in earnest again, and so I asked for some.

Or rather, just one: Spider-Man The Other. While I was getting into comics, one of the trades I would always return to was “Back in Black,” which featured a story with a character from The Other. I was intrigued by the oddness of such a character in a Spider-Man comic and I wanted to learn more about them. So I asked my aunt for the comic and she sent it to me. The Other was a storyline from a few years back wherein Peter dies at the hands of a vampire and comes back from the dead through mystical means. Looking back, I don’t think either was as good as I remembered it being when I was 13.

But that wasn’t the only comic I got that Christmas. There were two others: Fallen Son (which looked at the Marvel Universe’s reaction to the Death of Captain America) and Spider-Man Reign: One of the greatest Spider-Man comic of the 21st Century. There are many negative things one could say about Reign: The art is a bit crap at times (especially the backgrounds, which don’t seem to even try at points), some of the plot details are left to the side when they should have been somewhat explained (how did Jonah learn about Peter’s secret identity), the story probably needed another issue of space, and a couple of panels are counterintuitive to the themes and ideas the story is invested in (specifically, in the final issue, one of the minor characters inexplicably says, “I believe” and that works against the rest of the comic’s suspicion of the previous generation).

But when people talk about Spider-Man Reign in a negative light, what they focus on aren’t those aspects of the text but rather the text’s approach to sexuality and how it flagrantly nicks ideas from the Dark Knight Returns. In regards to sexuality, this comes from two moments. Firstly, in the initial printing of the story, Kaare Andrews drew a picture of Peter Parker completely naked. Which is to say we see his cock. On the one hand, this is a very embarrassing miss on the part of Marvel editorial. But at the same time, it’s not all that detailed in the panel it appears in (indeed, it’s even less so than Dr. Manhattan’s infamously tiny penis), so it’s understandable that Andrews was briefly able to get away with that.

The other piece of sexuality requires a bit more work. In the penultimate issue, it’s revealed that the cause of Mary Jane’s death was being in a relationship with Peter. (The fact that Mary Jane Watson died at all was something that was suggested by both the covers and the fact that her ghost literally haunts Peter, but not something that was explicitly stated until the second issue.) Now the decision to kill off Mary Jane as a means to get Peter to stop being a superhero is problematic to say the least, but the contention most critics of this story have with this isn’t that she was killed off but rather how she was killed off. Though not explicitly stated in the text, one can infer (both from the dialogue of “I am filled with radioactive blood. And not just blood. Every fluid. Touching me… Loving meLoving me killed you!!” and the fact that Andrews decided to draw Spidey’s penis) that Mary Jane was killed by Peter’s Spider-Sperm.

If one is to make the argument that Spider-Man Reign is one of the greatest Spider-Man comics ever made, this is certainly a moment for redemptive reading. In many regards, this is a literalization of what Harry was talking about in Best of Enemies: “…We leave nothing but pain in our wake. We’re toxic, Peter-- anyone comes near us… and their lives become radioactive.” (For all that I’ll get into the influence of Frank Miller, perhaps the biggest influence on this story is that of JM DeMatteis from the invocation of Kraven’s Last Hunt [indeed, Reign was the story that introduced me to that one] to the investment in masks and performance to the contrast between toxic masculinity and healthy masculinity. Also, note the lack of appearance of Gwen Stacy and Harry Osborn. While most likely done to give the story the ability to somewhat stand on its own, it also has the implication that Peter was able to make peace with those deaths as he was with Ned Leeds and Charlamange, connecting the story with another theme of the DeMatteis era: the ability to cope with trauma.) In this regard, recall that I argued that comic could be read as being about the final stages of a collapsing polyamorous relationship. Given this, it could be read that the Spider-Sperm was less of a “super cancer” than it was a metaphor for having AIDS. Many an AIDS narrative focused on either the experience of slowly dying of the disease or, as Spider-Man Reign does, the guilt of the carrier for having caused the death of their lover through their love and how they cope with outliving them. (An alternative reading would be just to point out that there's no actual proof within the text that being in a relationship with Peter caused Mary Jane to die. Literally all we have is Peter Parker's word on the matter. It could very well be that Peter just blames himself for his wife getting cancer. Indeed, the text supports this theory given the ghost of Mary Jane [because comics] responds to Peter tearfully confessing that he gave his wife cancer with "Stop being silly.")

Of course, connecting this text with my own read of a 20 year old comic isn’t enough to actually argue that this is a queer text (nor is it enough to save said text from the banality of killing off a female lead solely to give the male lead some drama, but then few things can and Spider-Man Reign is interesting enough to survive without those factors). There has to be something within the text that alludes to queerness in some fashion. Fortunately, this comes in the form of the story’s main antagonist: Venom, the Black Suit made manifest. When confronting the bad guy in the final issue, the way Venom talks to Peter has an abusive ex-boyfriend vibe to it, in particular: “Well, well, well, look who’s come crawling back. It’s been a long time, lover. Heard you’re single again.” Add to that the way Venom gaslights Peter about the nature of their relationship (specifically in regards to his awareness about the Black Suit’s nature), and it’s abundant that Venom’s relationship with Peter (as with all his relationships really) is one founded upon abusing his partner.

(There is of course a sensible argument to be made in regards to implicitly queering the main antagonist of the text. However the narrative doesn’t do so in the typical way, opting to instead make the queerness an implication of dialogue rather than the typical methodology of using stereotypical queer signifiers [such as a focus on fashion and being extremely camp] to highlight the villainy. Indeed, the villainy of Venom is less in regards to his queerness than in regards to him being a fascist who plots to enslave and consume humanity because he was “abandoned” by the one person who he “loved.” Even if we are to assume a sympathetic motivation [which the text grants to some degree, but not enough to allow Peter to be unsympathetic], the final solution Venom comes up with dashes those arguments away for the bollocks that they are.)

Which leaves us with the Dark Knight Returns connection. In most regards, this is a superficial read of the text, focusing on the fact that it’s the story of old man Spidey coming out of retirement to do battle with a dystopian future. There are some other minor details that connect the two texts: there’s an army of young people who don masks to combat the horrors of the dystopia, a murder occurs that everyone (including the author) ignores, and the main character’s retirement is caused by the death of someone close to him.

However if one were to actually look at those moments closely, it becomes clear that Spider-Man Reign is talking about completely different things. For starters, Peter’s reasoning for retiring has less to do with Batman realizing that he’s pushed the game of caped crusader too far (again, he’s blatantly Adam West Batman) but rather the guilt caused by the death of someone he loves. (In fact, unlike Jason Todd, the death of Mary Jane is central to the text. Peter's arc within the story is making peace with her death. Batman doesn't give a shit about Jason once Carrie Kelly comes into the picture.) Indeed, when given the opportunity to return to being a costume superhero, Batman immediately jumps at the chance whereas Peter tries to run as far away as possible. As for the youths, where Dark Knight Returns demonized them until they were wielded by someone of great power and control, Spider-Man Reign views them in a more valorizing light. (This should come as no surprise given their more recent work: where Frank Miller went on to write a screed against Islam to such a degree as to plausibly mortify Ben Garrison, Andrews went on to write a comic that argues for the extrajudicial murder of the 1%.)

Furthermore, there’s the people who brought the youths together in the end. For the Dark Knight Returns, it’s Batman who whips these criminal youths into his own militia. His indomitable will pushes their criminality towards his own ends. Conversely, Spider-Man Reign initially has this role be played by J Jonah Jameson. Jameson has an interesting role within the narrative. He’s a sympathetic character, and yet he’s consistently viewed as being in the wrong about just everything. He’s wrong about Peter’s willingness to be the great superhero who will destroy the dystopia, he’s wrong about the people being inspired to fight once they see the superhero in action, and he was wrong about who Venom was possessing (he thought it was George W. Bush whereas it was really Dick Cheney). (This has an interesting impact on his final benediction where he thanks god for the return of the Superhero as opposed to the collapse of the fascist state. Indeed, it’s ambiguous as to whether Spider-Man is now a traditional superhero or if he’s become something else entirely.)

Midway through though, he’s arrested for starting a riot and the young people are scattered without a leader. And so the person who brings them together is not Spider-Man, but the text’s deturagonist (who remains nameless within the text, which doesn’t work at all). She proclaims to the crowd of fellow teenagers and kids “We can’t rely on them anymore. The old men. They can’t show us how to live. They took our city and made it a cage. They only hurt us. Stop running. Stop hiding. It’s time we became something more than what we are.“ This reads a lot differently in 2018 than it did 10 years ago, especially given the gun debate going on right now. (In many ways, this prescience is what makes Spider-Man Reign one of the best Spider-Man comics of the 21st century.) (Another interesting note is that she’s reacting against, of all things, a Doctor Who reference. In the episode Survival, a joke is made about two men being chased by a tiger, and one of the men claims he’ll survive because he’s faster than the other. Spider-Man Reign tells the joke verbatim, save for changing the tiger to a bear.)

At the same time though, Andrews is aware enough of these small connections to the Dark Knight Returns to play with them in his narrative, which really hurts the story overall. While some, such as the televisions (and, subsequently, the journalist Miller Janson), add to the theme of watching the world as a method to bringing about social change (for one cannot change the world if one looks away from their child of Omelas), the decision to confine the story within four issues hurts the flow and impact of the narrative. In retrospect the story should have either had the issues extended as Dark Knight Returns were or had an additional issue added to expand on things. Also the decision to toy with some plot beats of the Dark Knight Returns (the superhero returns for a one off mission, which is successful so he goes after a bigger target, which proves to be too much for him and he’s saved by his girl sidekick [the subversion comes from that last part, where instead of a last minute rescue, the girl flees because “he’s just an old man. Weak. Like the rest of us”]) should have stopped in the first issue in favor of doing its own thing.

And yet, I can’t help but love this story. There are so many things that I haven’t brought up that are absolutely fantastic (the use of Deus Ex Machina, the Mary Jane scenes, the two instances of the nine panel grid, etc.). But more than that, this is one of the texts that actually got me invested in literary criticism. One of the first comics blogs I ever followed was 4thletter, which is sadly no longer active. One of the posts I read on that site was David Brothers’ take on Spider-Man Reign in a series on the influence of the Dark Knight Returns. It’s a spectacular piece that highlights why this comic is great to such a degree that if I was to make my argument, I’d just be ripping off his work entirely. Brothers, along with Gavok, Andrew Hickey and the rest of the Mindless Ones, and Dr. Anj, were among the earliest of my influences and guides to comics. Without them and so many others, this blog wouldn’t exist. Thank you.

            The End.


[Photo: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys #5 by Gerard Way, Shaun Simon, and Becky Cloonan]

Long ago in an American autumn.