Journey Into Marvel – Part 55
Extremites, Sean Howe’s “Fantastic Four Equation,” featured in his book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story states that the Four are incomplete on their own. Human Torch is a powerful out of the box thinker but lacks any form of control, Sue Storm has a strong conscience and empathy but she is not a strategic thinker, Reed Richards is a brilliant strategist but his ability to think beyond the norm is nominal, and Thing lacks empathy but his strength of character and over abundance of feelings make him into one of the most loyal and trustworthy characters in Earth-616. Together, the Four make one perfect hero. But Sean has missed the completing digit in the equation: Alicia Masters. Alicia Masters, in her non superhero way, anchors the team. The team is often wrapped up in their personal “greatness.” Alicia reminds them that they are human.
Masters seems like another helpless damsel in a line of damsels, but Alicia’s damseldom — new word Extremites — is novel for archetype obsessed early Silver Age Marvel. AM is in many ways a modern redux of the Comedia Del Arte role: the Inamorati or Colombina. An Inamorati is an innocent, with great ability for insight, who is victimized by the Il Dotore character. Often these dastardly characters trapped the poor damsel within their houses. Il Dotore is embodied in the Puppet Master.
“No man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit.”
A famous philosopher said that; a man named Georg Hegel – who most of you have probably never heard of, but I swear he’s famous with us philosophy nerds. The above statement is taken from his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, an amazing book to read if you spend an inordinate amount of time pondering the ridiculous impossibility of our civilization surviving into the 21st Century. Conversely, if you don’t care at all about this crap and you really need to fall asleep, it’s also a wonderful sedative.
The reason I bring this old German blowhard up is because of a term you’ve probably heard ad nauseum in the past few years, a term that he inspired: zeitgeist. Literally, the word is German for “spirit of the time”, and it refers to the culture that a specific era of history adhered to, like the obsession with Christian symbolism that dominated Medieval Europe, or the masterful weaponry and military strategy that accompanied the rise of the samurai in feudal Japan, or the monoliths and mythology of ancient Greece and Egypt.
However, in the spirit of the current time, Hegel’s above statement no longer applies. The world of today is multicultural, spanning the length and breadth of our history with every politic, religion, language and ethnicity represented, if not equally, at least in a limited capacity.
We, the thirty-somethings and under of the plugged-in section of Earth, are the generation without identity: we define ourselves not just by our neighbourhood or family background, but by our taste in music, our favourite film and literature, and our favourite food. It’s not unheard-of to meet a white kid from the suburbs who loves blaxploitation films and can beatbox like a pro, nor is it rare to find kids of Asian descent shredding a metal solo or screaming punk lyrics while sporting the smoothest, tallest mohawk any scene kid’s ever grown.
For us, that stuff’s old hat, but go back thirty years and find an Asian kid at a Black Flag concert, or a white kid busting a beat for his freestyling friends – it happened, but it was usually accompanied by “where’d that Asian kid come from?” or “where’d that cracker learn how to beatbox?” Today, we just take it all in stride; our heritage helps to define us, but it’s no longer the definition.
The idealist will look at this new trend and smile. “See,” he/she will say. “Through technology, we’ve unified under the common banner of Humanity. In time, all of our prejudices will fade out of existence and we’ll spend our days singing kumbaya and writing poems about how enlightened we are.”
And they’ll say it just like that, complete with the sardonic sneer (which you can’t hear, but trust me – it’s there).
I, however, would beg to differ. I think that our technology has erased some battle lines and replaced them with others, on sections of the field that were previously out of sight; sections like freedom of expression, right to property, and social justice on a global scale. If this technologically has assisted us in increasing our awareness, it’s only making clear how much more fucked up it all is for everyone, not just certain strata of society.
In fact, I would say that war is not an event, but rather a state of being – our state of being, to be precise. Veritably, there is only one thing that we can safely say is the zeitgeist of our age, and it’s not high definition screens or sub-woofers. Today more than ever before, we have all become warriors on a global, digitized battleground.
Whether you fight for solar panels and cancer research; or you protest the invasion of small nations you can barely pronounce by radicalized extremist factions with equally unpronounceable names; or you simply choose to shop at local markets and boycott Walmart; you have become a social soldier. The war of the present is not just fought with bullets and bombs, even if it may feel that way from the view of the mainstream media. On the contrary, our war is fought on message boards, blogs and social media; our weapons are our voices, our signatures, and our money; our only armour is our anonymity, something that is being slowly chipped away week by week.
You may want to believe that you are a pacifist. That’s a really sweet sentiment, and one I admire greatly as I myself aspire to such heights, but make no mistake, friends; pacifism is an ideal, something to aim for. It is not a reality, no matter how we’d like it to be; rather, in a world of perpetual war, pacifism is merely another type of resistance, a form of civil disobedience that is the quintessential monkey wrench in the gears of the global war machine. However, by that resistance, the pacifist becomes a target of the violence around them, invariably directing that which they resist directly at their blissful face.
Peace sounds real nice on paper, but it doesn’t just appear out of thin air, and it can’t exist without someone fighting to keep it – unless, of course, everyone’s perfectly happy with the way things are, which has never, ever happened.
This, however, brings me back to Hegel, whose philosophy on history fits our age better than any other. Hegel developed a historical trend that he called the Hegelian dialectic; simply put, in every pivotal period of history there are two competing ideas: the first is the zeitgeist of the previous era, known as the thesis; the second, a new, opposing idea introduced through technology, exploration, or social innovation, known as the antithesis. As these two modes of thought, the thesis and antithesis, combat each other, they eventually combine to form a new, third idea, known as synthesis; this idea carries within it aspects of both the thesis and antithesis, but allows neither to be supreme. Examples of this throughout history can be seen with the founding of the Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the American nation, and the Soviet Union. As can also be seen through those examples, each synthesis becomes a new thesis to be challenged by its next antithesis, leading to another inevitable conflict that will synthesize again, on and on into infinity.
Looking at things today, with the Internet rife with both censorship and hacktivism, the stock market a place of mergers and corporate conflict, nation-states fragmenting and unifying almost in the same breath, and even the farmland of the planet in a struggle between the seeds of the past and the GMO crops of the future, Hegel’s theory is more prevalent today than it has ever been.
The world of today may look different, but the eternal conflict rages on – in lieu of swords and spears, we wield drones and missiles; instead of religions and heretics, we have corporations and terrorists; but no matter the weapons or the motivation, the conflict remains uninterrupted, and the enemy is as it has always been: our neighbours, our rivals, and ourselves.
For the human race, existence is a perpetual state of war.
This is the premise of Zero, a new series written by the burgeoning talent that is Ales Kot (Suicide Squad, Change).
You may have heard of Ales Kot. If you haven’t, you will. Only a year and half since the release of his runaway hit graphic novel Wild Children, this Czech wordsmith is about to take on two new Marvel projects: Secret Avengers and Iron Patriot, both of which look extremely promising in Kot’s capable – and innovative – hands.
But we’re not here to talk about the big M, so let’s move on, shall we?
Edward Zero is a soldier, born and raised. He’s been taught from childhood to repress emotion, strike with murderous intent, and never leave a job unfinished.
And he’s not alone, as his small cadre of colleagues – employed by the secretive agency known as … the Agency (things are more important when they’re capitalized) – can attest. Or rather, they won’t attest. Because they’re secret agents. Attesting is against protocol, since it would require an opinion, and an opinion would necessitate feelings, and feelings are just messy when your sole purpose for existence is … um, murder.
But as is commonly the case with enigmatic paramilitary organizations, the river of secrets runs deep, and with only seven issues given to us so far, it’s already clear we’ve barely dipped our toes in.
Murder, betrayal, hidden agendas – even a little warping of space and time – it’s all there; yet, Kot also delivers it in a unique way: from the perspective of our protagonist decades after the story begins. Here, in 2038 at the barrel-end of an anonymous kindred gun-toting spirit, Edward’s tale is a combination of story and old man’s confession. Told in this way it feels almost like a memoir, complete with the regrets and nostalgia that only those older and wiser carry with them.
There are times while scanning a page-full of intricate hand-to-hand combat, that one wonders how such a scene of seamless martial ballet could share the same space with the articulate prose that Kot delivers, but it’s assuredly only the beginning. It’s clear from the outset of Zero that he intends for the series to exist for a good long time.
And for Edward – for all of us – existence is a perpetual state of war.
Until next time,
It was a week ago today that Phillip Seymour Hoffman tragically died. I’d like to lend my voice to the cacophony who will miss him.
Anyway, sadness aside, I want to keep all you fine Extremites abreast of what will be on the docket for this week’s posts. I will tell you for what we lack in new posts this week we will make up in quality.
This week, on Thursday, we have Part II of our hotly followed and uber popular series The Seven Shitty Moffatisms Destroying Doctor Who. Look out for that.
Next Sunday, Ben will be back with his sardonic and hilarious thoughts on the state of Modern Comics in a new article part of Ben’s Grim Corner.
When it comes to TV, all my favourite episodic shows like the CW‘s Arrow and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are sadly off the air because of that blasted closed minded exercise in ‘Bread and Circuses’ that is the Sochi Olympics. Who knows what will keep me interested for the next few days.
Anyway, Extremites, I remain: Julian Munds.
It’s a powerful force, perhaps the powerful force … at least in the present moment. It’s brought us stealthily through the past fifty years right into now, and it appears to be towing us ever forward into the future, drawing us further into its jaws with every turn of its gears. It brings with it interminable, inescapable agony akin to a neverending sequence of paper cuts that inevitably leave us all hemorrhaging – and like those metaphorical tiny slices across our skin, it leaves many of us bloodless. It is the slow death we all fear, and yet can never seem to escape.
I’m talking, of course, about debt.
There’s no beating around the bush at this point, folks. It’s not just individuals who are feeling the sting now: the city of Detroit is officially a ghost town, squeezed dry of every indentured penny over the past decade of combined real estate debacles, oil price fluctuations, and business closures. Europe is a rapidly-spreading wildfire of austerity with no end in sight … at least, as long as things stay the way they seem to be going.
Even here in my own home, my mind is split, half of my thought devoted to writing this op-ed masquerading as a comic review while the other half spins in mathematical circles, adding and subtracting, prioritizing pleasures and necessities to ensure that all of the financial leg-breakers of the world keep their baleful gaze from my doorstep.
But then there’s the other side of the coin (there’s always another side of the coin, isn’t there?). Our eyes and ears are force-fed an unending stream of advertising, bright colours flashing across our vision as loud voices command us to buy this phone or sign for this plan, consolidate our loans with a bigger loan carrying a larger interest rate over a longer period of time. Most of us see it for what it is – trading a bowl of turds for a deeper dish of the same odorous confection – but somehow, those hooks dig their way in and we find ourselves staring incredulously at the bottom of the contract, wondering who signed our names there so nonchalantly.
“He/She was so friendly,” we tell ourselves. “They made it so easy.”
But the smiles and handshakes mask the desperation in their tone – because they’re in it just as deep as we are, and the only way out is on our backs.
The reality, folks, is that this isn’t a race. There isn’t even a finish line. It’s a treadmill, and we – and by we, I mean everybody – have been told that our choices are to run or starve.
And so we run … and starve nonetheless.
As always, however, I can’t help but look forward and consider what’s next. I’m forever stretching my neck to look over that seemingly insurmountable hill to check the next horizon. You see, in spite of the mathematical gymnastics I’m currently performing in my head, I still remember that this isn’t anything new. It’s not fair and it’s definitely not ethical, but looking back over history, this is the prettiest that indentured servitude‘s ever looked. Historically, the current debt crisis is no different for most of us than 19th Century slavery, or the serfdom imposed as a result of feudalism in the Middle Ages. The only real difference between then and now is that now we have a carrot in front of us to substitute the whip at our backs.
But it’s not the seemingly revolving door of servitude we keep reeling around that concerns me the most; what really worries me is that it’s not over yet – or worse, that this is better than what’s coming next.
And it appears I’m not alone. Mark Rucka has seen the dangers of an indebted future, and he’s created a visually-striking new world for us to experience it in.
You may have heard of Rucka. If you haven’t, I’m sure you’ve read some of his work: he’s written Batman (Detective Comics), Wonder Woman (2003-6), Wolverine (Vol. 3), and was a co-writer for DC’s pivotal 52 series. Now he’s contributing his considerable talent to Image’s inventory in the form of a new series called Lazarus.
Before I get into the story, I have to give some textual high-fives to artist and letterer Michael Lark, whose list of comic involvement is longer than my introduction. Seriously, Google this guy and try to keep your jaw closed while you read his resume. His work on this series alone has me excited to see what’s next in his future (hopefully more Lazarus!). Santi Arcas’s colouring also adds such an essential element to this comic; like I mentioned in my article on East Of West, a good colourer can enhance the story as much as they add to the art, and Arcas does just that, allowing the blue ambience of underground lighting to permeate the interior and lengthen the shadows of this dark future dystopia, while the washed-out colours of the harvest fields add to the melancholy of the scene.
Alright, enough blabbing – on to the plot!
The world of Lazarus takes place at an undetermined point in the near future, where the world is now split along very different lines. Where once the planet was divided by political or cultural boundaries, it is now under the purview of a select group of families. Each Family owns territory and controls all of its resources – one of those resources, of course, being people.
The families are small but powerful, holding all of the technological advances, transportation services and financial clout of their particular section of the world within their grasp.
Obviously, these families don’t all get along. The interplay between rival Families is reminiscent of mafia-style gangs: there’s an appreciation for power or a mutual respect based on trade, but they’re not afraid to lay waste to each other at the slightest hint of weakness.
But what of the other people?
Well, they (or we, as the case may be) are split up into two groups; the smaller of the two works for their respective Family, born into indentured servitude for their entire life.
The rest? As Rucka puts it in his introduction, “All others are Waste.” The Waste have yet to be introduced to us at this point in the story, but the implication is that they live a life of pure subsistence, barely able to scrape by while under the purview of the comic’s corporate offspring.
Sounding familiar? It should be. The more I read the news, the more I get the feeling that we’re not as far off from this possible future as we may be led to believe.
What I find the most fascinating about this story is the perspective Rucka chooses from which to explore this eerily-realistic future.
The first issue introduces us to Forever, a member of the Carlyle family. Forever isn’t just any Carlyle, though – she is what’s known as a Lazarus (hence the … you get it, I’m sure); a cybernetically-enhanced enforcer whose sole purpose is to defend her Family from any encroachments on their territory. She possesses heightened strength and agility, as well as a ridiculous healing factor. In addition, every Lazarus is remotely monitored by both an engineer and a doctor at all times. She’s also the de facto commander of the Family’s security forces.
What I find so fascinating about Rucka’s chosen protagonist is that she appears, at least at first, to be one of the bad guys. It would be like telling the story of the 2008 real estate crash from the viewpoint of Goldman-Sachs‘ head of security: you feel for the guy, but you also kind of wonder how he sleeps at night.
As the story progresses, however (and it’s not that far along – going on six issues – so sink your teeth in now!), you begin to appreciate Forever’s difficult position all the more. She may be an enforcer, but she’s no less stuck in this mess than the rest of the herd. In fact, she seems to be as much a victim of the system as those who slave in the fields. She wears chains, just like the others – hers just shine a little brighter.
After all, what kind of freedom comes with a killswitch?
Beyond that, for me there is a pervading feeling throughout the story that he’s not telling you a tale from the other side of the fence. As I found myself coming around to respect Forever’s situation, I slowly came to understand the real reason why I related to her, even though we’re such profoundly different people in such different worlds.
You see, ladies and gents, we relate to Forever Carlyle not because she is a tragic hero, but because she is just like us.
She, like the workaday men and women of today, is simply a person trying to do the right thing in a deeply fucked-up situation. She’s desperate, fighting with her own indentured status while she keeps the rest of the slaves in line. She sees the tragedy of her own circumstances, but simply digs herself a deeper hole, blinds herself to the plight of her fellows because it’s “not her concern”. She has her own battles to wage, her own demons to fight. She, like us, is in it up to her eyeballs.
And the only way out is on our backs.
Until next week.
- Your New Year’s Resolutions Should Include Reading Saga (ladygeekgirl.wordpress.com)
Confession time: until just a few weeks ago, I still hadn’t read Saga. I actually bought the first trade paperback of Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s award-winning comic ages ago when I had some extra money, but for some reason I had never sat down and actually read it. Well, unemployment has its upsides, and one of those is significantly increased amounts of reading time, so let me tell you a thing:
You should be reading Saga.
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I mentioned in the tail end of my review of the Fantastic Four #1: Stan Lee’s writing of this period was wildly inconsistent. One issue could be titanically brilliant and the next would be utter swill. It is amazing how fast that theory was proven, for this issue is the latter. The Skrull’s invasion were the first of what would become a plethora of alien invasion stories that were hastily thought out pulp of the worst kind. Yet, in some of the later issues the aliens would prove to be greater threats. The Skrulls, however, are laughable frog like beings who are more reactionary then the Thing on his worse day, which makes them pretty pathetic beings, indeed.
The funny thing about Skrulls is on paper they are not pathetic beings for much of their makeup is actually quite novel. They can change their molecular structure into any living thing. Not only does this give them the ability to frame any member of any team for crimes they did not commit, as they do to the Fantastic Four here, but they can morph into gigantic destructive beasts. However, the gigantic behemoths that they morph into near the end are easily taken care of by ingenuity and fast movement. The Skrullish serpent, is easily made mince meat by Thing. It seems the deck is unnaturally stacked high, in favour of the Four. They are not written as a threat by Stan and this makes the conflict rather pointless.
What is interesting, is how the story develops the team. In this issue, more is made of the underlying emotional problems Ben is going through. Ben suffers a feeling of inadequacy because he looks like a pile of rocks, so he covers up with a long trench coat and dark glasses when venturing into public. Keep in mind, this is the period when Thing was depicted without a neck or strong brow. He very much resembles a yellow stone ogre-like creature. As the comics evolve, so does Ben’s look, to the point he is sleek and human looking. I much prefer the former rendering of Thing, as it shows him as a beauty within the beast.
In the beginning of the story, when the Skrulls are acting as doppelgängers for the the Four, and perpetrating crimes, the comic brings up some wonderful points about fame. This comic demonstrates how when a character puts themselves out to the public as a hero everyone will gun for their destruction. The vulnerability of fame becomes a reoccurring theme in later Fantastic Four comics and indeed Marvel as a whole, esp. Spider-Man. Everyone and the kitchen sink comes out of the wood work to claim victory over those who stress that they are the best at something. Humans have a natural animalistic need to show their dominance and the Marvel Superheroes/villains are no different.
By this point, I am sure you are wondering why I consider this story so shoddy, if I approve of the developments in Thing’s character. My disapproval stems from the climax. After the Four finally catch up to the Skrullish framers and after a pointless battle between two extremely weak “indestructible monsters,” Reed fools the Skrulls into thinking the Fantastic Four are omnipotent, omniscient weapons of the Earth. This successfully dupes the naive Skrulls and they retreat to the stars in fear. If the Skrulls, truly believed that the Fantastic Four were omnipotent, then how did they frame them so well at the beginning? Wouldn’t a truly omniscient weapon have foreseen the framing attempt and stopped it while it was happening? Furthermore, wouldn’t the Skrulls, a “super intelligent race with interstellar traveling capabilities” have been quick enough to pick up on the lie?
Am I asking too much for a narrative to make sense?
I must say, in spite of all these narrative flaws, I have to give great admiration to Jack Kirby. His character construction of the frog-like Skrulls, is some of the best in the Silver Age. Some of the panels, particularly the ones with the Skrull monsters, are gorgeous. Too bad Stan Lee’s contribution is nowhere near his partner’s. It’s always one or the other that is good. It is never the both of them together.
Rating: 2 out of 5
Pros: The Art, the alienation of the Four, The Thing’s struggle with self esteem and opening framing plot.
Previous Review: “The Fantastic Four Meet The Mole Man, The Moleman’s Secret” (The Fantastic Four #1 Nov 1961)
Upcoming Review: “The Man in the Ant Hill” (Tales to Astonish #27 Jan. 1962)
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- Brovember Day 18 – Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm (evilgeeks.com)
- Robinson adds to legacy with relaunched ‘Fantastic Four’ (drhiphop85.com)