Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Spyder! Spyder! (Zenith Phase I)

"No, I'm Peter Parker. Aren't you Harry Osborn?"
There are many ways we could approach this book. We could take the most obvious route and use this opportunity to talk about how both Phase I and Watchmen ended roughly around the same time as one another, and turn this essay into “The Crap Version of The Last War of Albion” before concluding with “Oh, so that’s what Klaus was about.” Alternatively, we could go a subtler route and look at Grant’s obsession with Adolf Hitler, comparing this to The New Adventures of Adolf Hitler, that one issue of Swamp Thing, and Multiversity: Mastermen (indeed that one in particular has relevance due to its title). We could notice the line “My head feels like a haunted house,” and just riff on the works of Avital Ronell (as Josh probably would) or talk about the implications of “Spook fell into a mirror and was never seen again” (a more “Jane and Jerry” approach). We could talk about the many invocations of Blake, which would actually tie it into the topic of this blog. Or we could, you know, talk about the book as opposed to talking around the book.
Instead of doing those, we’re going to do the third most obvious approach imaginable and talk about how it relates to Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Faust Act. That way, we don’t have to deal with being compared to Phil for at least ten to fifteen years (if we live that long). There are some obvious connections between the works: both look at the premise of a world where superheroes are akin to rock stars, both push that aspect towards the background in favor of exploring a plot tangentially related to the thesis (murder mystery as means of a “There, but for the grace of God, go I” style pop star collapse in the vein of Britney Spears for Faust and the logic of the superhero team up as means of collab concert in the vein of The Dissonance Tour for Phase I), they’re both setting up ideas that’ll be explored further in later arcs, and both have explosions at their core.
Equally, they have their differences. For starters, Zenith actually sings his music, whereas the gods in The Faust Act emit an aura that feels like orgasms (at least, of the ones we see). Given the aesthetic design of Zenith, one could surmise that his music is akin to that of Morrissey, on the cusp of None More Goth without ever crossing the line. The limited research I’ve done has found no songs that give their listeners orgasms. Whereas the aesthetic of Amaterasu, the goddess who gives people earthshattering orgasms, is more akin to that of Kate Bush (so she emits “Running Up That Hill [A Deal With God]” at full blast).
Additionally, where The Faust Act looks at the failings of the current generation, Phase I looks at the failings of the previous generation. Sure, there some aspect of exploring the current generation given that Zenith’s characterization can be best summed up as “slightly less cockish than Morrissey,” the majority of the narrative’s focus is on how the previous generation has failed utterly at their goal of changing the world. Coming out of the day glo era of the sixties, the survivors of that generation’s superheroes are either dead, drunk, or a fucking tory.
That’s not to say that the narrative looks at them with complete malice. The sole survivor of the previous generation not to fit within that triad, Ruby Fox, immediately works to try to solve the threat by reforming the band to fight Lovecraftian Nazis. However, her efforts are hampered by the threat of Nazis returning to haunt the present day not being taken seriously both by Peter St John, the Tory, and the titular Zenith. Additionally, a good sum of the narrative is focused on helping one of the Old Guard, The Great Red Dragon: Siadwel Rhys, overcome his alcoholism.
But though the narrative looks at these heroes with some level of sympathy, it nonetheless views their efforts as being ultimately failed. When they finally confront the Nazi horror from beyond time, Ruby is thoroughly trounced, Siadwel is unceremoniously killed, and while the day is ultimately saved by the last minute by St John, it’s revealed that he only did it for the publicity ala The Falklands War (a scene where St John looks at a picture of the past nostalgically near the end seems to imply otherwise, but he the casually discards it and moves on to more “adult” matters). The 60’s lost and got consumed by the dread beast they were trying to slay.
Conversely, The Faust Act is invested in the fucked up ways our protagonists act around one another. There are three central characters to this arc: Lucifer, Laura, and Cassandra. And all three of them are terrible people, in their own way. Cassandra is perhaps the least terrible of the three, in that her terribleness takes the form of being a pessimistic New Atheist in the face of God literally blowing people’s heads up and giving people orgasms (in her defense, she doesn’t feel anything when attending a performance, but then again the core to the “It’s Magic, I don’t have to explain it” defense is that magic itself is only understandable to the people it works for. Describing the mechanics of a magical act does not necessitate understanding the magic. Even those who have experienced it at the time or themselves created it can’t fully grasp what exactly they’ve done and what it means. Sometimes a magical spell only works for one person, which is fine. Sometimes it’s just enough to change only one person’s world). Laura, our viewpoint character, highlights her terribleness by constantly acquiescing to Lucifer’s demands, never thinking it’s a good idea to stop even as she literally starts to burn shit down. And it’s not done out of some altruistic desire, but because Laura thinks it’ll be a way to become a God (which is a terrible thing to be, as it’s effectively placing ones self in the position of being both master and slave. Given the tragic end of Tara [the ghost of The Faust Act, hated because she wanted to play a different game entirely], it’s more the latter than the former). Lucifer is perhaps the least subtle of the three, as she’s the aforementioned “There, but for the grace of God, go I” character going through a very public breakdown. Said breakdown takes the form of a rampage across the city, burning everything in site. You know, typical superhero fight.
Speaking of which, the climaxes of both stories are radically different, even though they involve “superheroes punching each other in the wreckage of London.” In the case of the Faust Act, it sticks with the aesthetic of “Superheroes punch each other while looking pretty” for the majority of the fight, until it’s stopped by FUCKING RAVENS EVERYWHERE!!!!! Indeed, save for the lack of fanservice shots (I mean, he literally has his shirt ripped to shreds, and you bastards don’t even let us see his abs) and Lucifer’s bloodied face, this wouldn’t be out of place in a typical superhero comic. Equally, the climax is a small affair, consisting of Lucifer and two minor characters in The Faust Act who become important later on. Once the fighting is over, the conflict is essentially resolved by Lucifer’s manager snapping her fingers and exploding her head. The conflict never arises to any other plane beyond the world of the story.
Contrastly, Phase I’s conflict while also starting out at a state of “a small group of super powered people fights each other in London,” the fighting is less over “Oh god, she’s taken way too much coke” and more “OH SHIT, NAZIS!” Indeed, the fight itself is a relatively bloodless affair, at most having characters slightly bleed from one side of their faces. Equally, while the stories both end their physical conflict via a set up deus ex machina, The Faust Act goes with the adult finally taking action and decapitating her, Phase I has Zenith finally take responsibility and stabs the Nazi through the heart.
But this doesn’t end the fight. Far from it, this causes the fight to escalate into higher dimensions, where the distinction between reality and fiction blur. Here we see the Nazi “Masterman” in its true form: a Lovecraftian nightmare. Now Lovecraft is notable for several reasons, not the least of which being one of the greatest writers of the early 20th century, if not the whole bloody century. He has inspired many an artist including Stephen King, Guillermo Del Toro, and Metallica. His nightmarish non-vision of the elder gods’ outline has left a dent within the cultural lexicon that will be remembered for as long as people are around, even if Lovecraft himself is forgotten.
Which, in some ways, is a problem seeing as Lovecraft’s vision is inextricably tied to him being a horrible racist. I mean, just going off the top of my head, we have “the foreigners are a freaky fish cult who want to pervert our way of life and must be exterminated,” “this middle eastern fellow is the cause of all our suffering and madness,” and “Shub-Niggurath.” It’s not subtle, is what I’m getting at (though many an author have tried to deal with this influence’s problematic tendencies. Chuck Tingle, for example, has resorted to embracing being pounded in the butt by various horrors, Stephen King went with creating his own mythology blatantly riffing on ideas from Lovecraft [his Nyarlethotep, Flagg, is more Charles Manson than anything else], and Alan Moore made a “not as good as From Hell, but still one of the best comics ever written” adaptation of the mythos). So naturally such ideas, such fictions, would align themselves with another ideology from the turn of the century that advocates exterminating large swaths of people because they’re weird and different: Nazis.
So in the face of this fascist fiction, what do we have to offer to defeat the monsters? Surely, given that the main character is a musician of some merit, we would solve this with the power of rock and roll, right? Wrong. Instead, the Tory straight up quotes William Blake at the horror, causing it to explode. One could argue that this means that the ideas of William Blake are intermixed with the ideology of Conservatism and Neoliberalism; if we fall in line, we can destroy our enemies for good.
All well and good, except for the part where that’s wrong. Firstly, the quoting of Blake doesn’t destroy the Nazi Lovecraft Horrors. Rather, it merely destroys only one of them (and one Phase I deems to be a crap one at that). The Many-Angled Ones, as they’re called, are still out there, waiting to pounce upon humanity and consume everything around it. Furthermore, citing a connection between Blake and Toryism is about as shit of an idea as connecting David Bowie and Donald Trump: sure, the band played Station to Station at the 2016 RNC, but that doesn’t mean Bowie would’ve supported Trump.
And, of course, there’s the quote itself: Tyger! Tyger! Putting aside quoting from the most overrated Blake poem (in the sense that Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane are overrated), it doesn’t provide a narrative alternative to Lovecraftian Nazis from the Fourth Dimension. St John just uses the word Tyger twice to trigger the Many-Angled One to die. There’s no fiction to counteract the narrative, merely the iconography of one.
And it’s not even Blake that he invokes. Rather, it’s the memorial for Maximan, the first superhero in the world, upon which just the first line is written. This is not an appeal to Blake and his self-contradictory vision of creation; rather it’s another neoliberal appeal to a bygone era where heroes were heroes, and all was proper and decent in London. Merely the apperence and trappings of a story is enough to be considered good enough. And as with all of these tiskings neoliberals and Tories do, it’s not enough to actually solve the issue of Fascist horrors from beyond.
So the question remains: what would be enough to destroy a fascist idea? A fuller understanding of Blake? A rejection of the conservative politics implicit within Nazis? An actual narrative with ideas and politics capable to combat fascism? A revolutionary tale, of love and friendship that offers an alternative approach to creatures from beyond space, perhaps? Or perhaps we reveal to the world just how ridiculous the ideology and symbolism of being a fascist really is? What could the answer be?

Incidentally, I prefer The Faust Act.

(Next Time: Rock and Roll Supergod)

[Photos: Providence #11 by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows]

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