Everybody go out and start smashing flags!
So you’re all basically aware of Herbie Popnecker, right?
Did you know he started the trend of epic superhero crossover battles a full 20 years before DC decided to horn in on the action?
It all starts with one sinister, metatextual mad scientist named Roderick…
I think every failed self-published superhero series was born out of that exact chain of logic. Anyway, he goes off and invents a machine that makes superheroes, because in the Herbieverse all it takes to create sentient life from nothing is a trip to the hardware store and a weekend of hammering random things together.
Naturally it can only crank out horrifying abominations and misshapen parodies of God’s creation.
HALF MY BODY IS TRAPPED IN A HELLISH VOID DIMENSION vs MY HEAD IS A FOOD PRODUCT, which is worse? Wonder how long it takes for Pizzaman’s head to become soggy and collapse in on itself. These terrifying distortions of everything that is human embark on a crime wave which includes stealing a diaper (which is labeled DIAPER) from a baby, a beard from a Santa Claus (possibly the enchanted beard of the True Claus?) and also drinking a lady’s soda. That was back when soda was serious business.
Thus the call is sent forth across the multiverse! WORLDS WILL LIVE, WORLDS WILL DIE, AND NOTHING WILL BE THE SAME! I assume this is a metaphor, right? They don’t actually live inside of giant versions of their own comic books? And why does Nemesis have an hourglass on his shirt? Did he buy it at the used costume store? Was he not wearing a shirt when the call came and he had to borrow some other hero’s shirt? SO MANY QUESTIONS
Long story short, they show up at the evil Roderick’s house to put a stop to his teratomorphic army and manage to get their asses captured and frozen in about a minute. Looks like somebody will have to save them, but WHO WILL ANSWER THE CHALLENGE?
YOU JUST MESSED WITH THE WRONG SOAP, PAL. Yes, that is the legendary patriarch of the Popnecker family, who commands the fierce loyalty of the indomitable Herbie Popnecker. Herbie wastes zero time in getting into his superhero identity as the Fat Fury, and frees Nemesis and Magicman from their icy prison. Naturally they mistake him for a bad guy and they fight, because that’s just what superheroes do.
After they work things out they make short work of the pitiful half-men who didn’t know any better.
Don’t worry, Halfman is used to pain. He lives in a state of constant agony. And oh, if only you could see what his other half sees, stuck in an unimaginable nightmare dimension. Oh, such wonderful horrors he could show you…
No-one can escape Herbie, even when he’s covered in marshmallow. LA LA LA FREE FREE FREE all you want, pal.
No, wait, they… do… live in giant versions of their own comic books? Which stand in the middle of featureless wastelands? They live in comic books inside comic books, people, this is some advanced hyperdimensional shit. And that’s the story of how Herbie saved the multiverse, and that’s why all superhero comics now take place on Earth-H.
The Girl just finished watching Lost for the first time and thus I was forced to play the role of Lost apologist. (her: “does kate ever stop being boring?” me: “kate is always boring, sorry”) Most flaws I admit readily but one common complaint against it I’ll always defend as its greatest success: the endless procession of unexplained mysteries and strangenesses. Lost was at its overambitious best when it piled up mystery after mystery at high velocity, answering questions with total insanity that only raised dozens more questions. What’s in that hatch? Oh, it’s a button that ends the world if you don’t press it. How does that work? Because there’s a magic time-travelling steering wheel beneath it. What is with that spirit horse? Why are all these characters named after philosophers that have no bearing on the plot? Why does that statue have four toes?
Maybe I’m unique in this but I find incompleteness to be compelling. The writers can promise that EVERYTHING IS PLANNED and you will be AMAZED AND ASTONISHED but in reality it’s usually a letdown when the central mystery is revealed to be aliens/God/destiny/whatever routine explanation is supposed to satisfy. The unknown and unknowable answers are the ones that dig into my brain and give me that tingling spooky feeling. When The X-Files tipped its hand it revealed that the real ultimate truth was irredeemably campy. When Twin Peaks ended with a batshit insane non-ending it produced maybe one of the greatest TV episodes of all time, because that thing can resolve any number of different ways in different viewers’ heads. You get to pick the answer you want.
Lost was about the unknown, the Fortean, about the writers making up the craziest things they could think of in each season finale and then trying to explain them in the next season. It was inevitable that the final explanation would some large chunk of the audience. It’s an okay ending, but it’s not a great one. It doesn’t leave you with the same sense of mystery you came in with. But then explanations are rarely as compelling as mysteries.
In 1978 an Australian Cessna pilot disappeared along with his aircraft, after reporting another strange aircraft hovering above him. There’s a recording of his final transmission. I’ve never been able to track it down. But it ends with seventeen seconds of dead air and metallic noises. Even here sitting on my bed in the sunshine the thought of it gives me goosebumps. There is no final explanation, no authorial plan to give us answers. There is only the knowledge that strange things might be out there, that sometimes there’s a hole in reality that you can fall into and never return from. Seventeen seconds dead air and then nothing ever again.
So why not in fiction too? Look at Picnic at Hanging Rock, also perhaps not coincidentally from Australia, and there is the perfect mystery movie. Nothing is resolved or explained but it wriggles around the edges suggesting hints of something great and terrifying. When the novel it was based on first came out people assumed it was based on a true story, because it all unfolds the same way things do in reality: the truth is only glimpsed in slivers that serve to confuse instead of clarify. And when audiences first saw it they reportedly hated it, because they felt it wasted their time and made no sense. Why does everything have to be answered all the time? Why not embrace the unknowable?
One day I realized, rather unexpectedly, that I counted Martyrs among my favorite movies. It’s not an easy film to watch and it’s certainly not for everyone, but assuming you can stomach it (or even if you can’t) it’s one of the most emotionally intense movies around. I’ve described it as the apotheosis of torture porn. It takes the genre to its greatest heights even as it repudiates it. Ultraviolent horror typically plays itself like a freakshow of atrocities (we’ve severed this guy’s tendons, LOOK IF YOU DARE), or as twisted black humor, or some mixture of the two. There’s always an air of detachment, a sense that these victims have it coming and it’s OK for you to look on their gruesome deaths with glee. What separates Martyrs is the compassion.
Martyrs cares about the victims. The scene in it that really gets inside my gut and makes me sick isn’t filled with gratuitous violence and gore (well actually there is a fair amount of gore but that’s not the important part). It’s a scene about compassion. Anna rescues the girl from the basement, tries to take care of her and set her free, but it just doesn’t work. The girl’s too broken, too far gone into insanity to really function as a human ever again. It’s one thing to watch an awful asshole die horribly, it’s completely another to see an innocent destroyed, to see somebody try to save them and fail. Martyrs plays compassion against the viewer. The more you care, the worse it hurts.
Martyrs isn’t even particularly gory. Up until the end Anna’s torture isn’t about getting cut up or otherwise grotesquely injured, grand guignol-style. Up until the end all the violence takes the form of simple beatings, and it’s far more effectively nasty than anything else in the genre. It just hurts to watch someone get chained up and systematically dehumanized. Destroying the body is one thing but destroying the spirit is another. And Martyrs makes sure you care about Anna, this impossibly compassionate girl who is put in a situation where she is utterly without hope.
There were rumors a few years ago of an American remake, which would probably be a hilarious trainwreck on par with that hypothetical remake of Oldboy starring Will Smith. The key quote from the prospective producer is this: “Martyrs is very nihilistic. The American approach would go through all that darkness but then give a glimmer of hope.” But the hope was always in there. Anna wins in the end. “Wins” is too crude a word – she transcends, she is transfigured. It’s one of the most serene and beautiful depictions of the spiritual in movie form. Everything around that final revelation is awful, gut-wrenching, deeply disturbing and hurtful. It is nihilistic. But the bleakness has a purpose. It’s not just a sick joke, or just an excuse to look at gross special effects. Martyrs cares deeply for its characters. It makes you care too. So it can hurt you deeper, yes, but also so you can transcend too.
Often is the question asked of me: “what comic book web logs do you read and recommend?” I pretty much get asked that question on a near-constant basis, really, that’s all anyone ever wants to talk about with me is comic book web logs. Since the foundation of this blog lies in the fact that I kill a lot of time at work by seeking out and reading fancy intellectual comic book blogs, the kind that take comics SERIOUSLY, I may as well share/give props to the ones I like the best, the ones that convinced me people on the Internet might like to read my very important Batman ideas.
A long time WAY back in the day (apparently 2008 is The Day) I stumbled upon a link to this essay about the sheer weirdness inherent in Batman vehicles. It really resonated in my head, and I spent about three years occasionally trying to find it again, punching in various combinations of “batman essay joker helicopter” into Google to no avail. Then I found this website through some unrelated process, found it to be an excellent source for all things weird, intellectual, and Morrisonian in comics, read through the archives, and discovered that essay. Circle completed, mind reblown. If you, like me, prefer your pop culture smart and weird, you have great friends in the Mindless.
Probably the first comic blog I read on a regular basis, Mr. Sims, the world’s pre-eminent Batman scholar, introduced me to the pleasures of weird old superhero comics. Most of his stuff is up at Comics Alliance these days, which is also a nexus of good comic book news and writing.
Encompassing not just comic books, but also hip-hop and pro wrestling sometimes. David Brothers, Gavok, and Esther Inglis-Arkell are some of the nicest and most thoughtful comic bloggers in a fandom that lacks both those qualities. Sadly I am a being of pure hate and cannot aspire to such niceness.
Also super smart, well-written, intellectual, etc., to be honest, we’re past the point where I have individuated things to say about these blogs, so let me just put up the rest without much comment.
The Stupid Comics here are PURE GOLD. Oh wait that was something to say wasn’t it? Anyway, if you read these all already, congratulations to you, you are my equal. If not, I hope this humble offering of links shipped from the far reaches of the Netglobe pleases you, milord.
The superhero genre is an inherently utopian one. At its most primal basic level the tale of the superhero is a tale of an avatar of good who fights for justice, always beats the bad guys, and even if they die, they always come back. Even Batman, most inherently pessimistic of the archetypal supers, will at least temporarily be able to lock the Joker away in Arkham, and he’ll do it over and over again forever. The superhero world is a world of eternal hope, where gods watch over the mortals and keep them from harm.
This anti-reality is unbounded from the rules of our world. Superheroes transcend biology, physics, logic itself in their escape from the gravity of the real. The best of the old comics have a boundless freedom. Infinite possibilities spill forth from the mighty id to be barely contained in pen and ink. The standard punctuation of this world is the exclamation mark! Suddenly! The bolt of shazam! The gamma bomb!
When comics grew older and more respectable they pitted the real against the utopian. Peter Parker had amazing powers that defied the laws of physics but the laws of physics still killed his girl. Superman can fight giant robots all day long but he can’t fight the evils of society.
But even the most degraded and dystopian superhero reality is based off of a utopian core. The superhero dystopia isn’t just the opposite of utopia, it’s a utopia turned in against itself and all that boundless energy and light harnessed for the basest purposes. They could have cities in the sky and instead they kill each other with dead psychic squids. Seeing these avatars of infinite good chained down to mortal flesh creates a perverse tension. The real and the impossible pushing against each other.
Doesn’t good always win? That depends on which world comes out on top.