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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, September 24, 2012

TRUISM LIES PT. 3


Part 2 of Chicken Colin's mis-analysis of the Silver Age X-MEN starts off in the same vein, harping once again on the supposed discrepancy between the first couple of X-Men tales, in which the heroes seem to be embraced by the American public, and later stories, in which that same public becomes increasingly fearful of the supposed threat of mutantkind. 

For all it matter to his political interpretation, CC might as well have harped on the difference between the speech-pattern of Hank "Beast" Mc Coy in the first two issues-- which has the same lowbrow cadence of Ben "The Thing" Grimm in FANTASTIC FOUR-- and in later issues, wherein McCoy begins talking with a multisyllabic phraseology.  In both cases, the primary meaning is that the creators changed direction for the Beast, as for the concept of the series he appeared in, because they had conceived what they considered a better direction.

CC writes:
The mob, or the threat of one gathering, was a relatively frequent and disturbing presence in Lee and Kirby’s stories.
 
By itself, this isn't incorrect, though it's myopic not to state the cultural sources of the motif.  By the time of the birth of Marvel's superhero universe, Lee and many of his collaborators had done countless stories for their fantasy/science-fiction anthology titles which invoked the same motif.  Some of them took their idea of "mob rule" from old FRANKENSTEIN flicks, while others had a more sociological take, hypothetically under the influence of the then-successful TWILIGHT ZONE teleseries under the aegis of Rod Serling.

However, it's debatable as to what extent Lee or Kirby meant to invoke the political developments of the time, as CC says:

To be different and hated for being different in the X-Men was a process which constantly haunted the mutants. Every moment of their day was coloured by the consequences of intolerance. Wherever they went, they went in disguise. Whoever they met with, they had to struggle to control the terms in which they were viewed. To anyone who’d ever been bullied, or been disturbed by the sight of bullying occurring, Lee and Kirby’s stories offered a means by which individual experience could be used to inform an understanding of broader political issues.
 
And a little later:

The autumn of 1965 saw the Sentinels trilogy begin, the most politically outspoken issues of the Lee/Kirby run. In what appears to be an unmistakable pop-comic critique of the witch-hunts of 1950’s America as much as the reactionary social campaigns of the early Sixties, the X-Men find themselves being tracked by an army of privately-developed robots – the Sentinels – designed to “protect” Homo Sapiens from the new race of mutants. The reader is taken so deliberately through the process by which folk devils are defined and moral panics ignited in the first of these three issues that it’s hard to see why X-Men #14-16 haven’t received more attention and respect. After all, in the context of the medium, the sub-genre and the marketplace of the time, they were an undeniably committed, if hardly unambiguously coherent, political statement.
 
It should be pointed out that for the most part fan-scholars don't know what either Lee or Kirby thought about the political events of the early 1960s, for neither of them went on record either within the text of their works on in interviews.  Most of what we know comes from statements both men made much later, so those statements don't prove what they thought at the time of, say, the Sentinels story in X-MEN.  Both creators may well have disliked aspects of these amorphous "reactionary social campaigns of the early Sixties," but Chicken Colin doesn't say what these campaigns were, so his assertion is baseless.  We don't know what Lee or Kirby thought about the "witch-hunts of 1950's America"-- don't know that either of them worried excessively about the fates of accused Communists or homosexuals back in the day.  The only thing we know for certain is that Stan Lee took a few pot-shots at Frederic Wertham's anti-comic-book crusade, but that in itself hardly translates into a blanket condemnation of all witch-hunts.

Shortly following the above paragraph, CC makes explicit reference to the McCarthy hearings:

No one beyond Xavier himself was shown speaking up for the mutants, and no one was portrayed as being willing to intervene to protect their freedoms either. If such a tale had been published just a few years earlier, the undeniable parallels with McCarthy’s quasi-fascism, for example, would have made the Sentinels trilogy a lightning rod for right-wing criticism. (Lee and Kirby would have run the risk in the first half of the Fifties of being associated with the party of the Reds had it been published back then.)
 
But what the Chicken giveth, the Chicken also taketh away:

Even the tale’s central antagonist Trask finally repents of his prejudice and sacrifices his life after the X-Men prove themselves to him, which suggests that prejudice is just an example of extreme misjudgement which might be reversed with a weight of affirmative evidence.

 
The Chicken doesn't make clear why this notion of "misjudgement" [sic] so compromises Lee and Kirby's view of prejudice.  I suspect, given his ultraliberal credentials, he would pleased with nothing less than a lynch-mob turned against the agents of bigotry.  Perhaps Lee and Kirby would have considered this outcome a violation of the point they were trying to make.  Certainly *I* do.

Two paragraphs later, CC finally takes the agents of bigotry to task, as he's claiming Lee and Kirby should have:

Instead of suggesting that discrimination is a social fact which serves the interests of profoundly powerful groups, and in the absence of the expectation that the state has to be a – if not the – major player in policing bigoted behaviour, the X-Men are reduced to attempting to win Americans over one by one through good and dangerous deeds.
 
This birdbrained misstatement of the X-MEN feature's supposed theme is rooted in the ultraliberal's constant refrain: "If you're not part of MY solution, you're part of the problem."  In the real world one may take issue with repressive acts by "the state" or by "profoundly powerful groups" with regard to the marginalization of racial groups/ethnicities.  But in the subcreated universe of the X-MEN, there is no "John Birch Society against Mutants" until the creators say that there is, nor are those creators guilty of committing some political misstep by not positing an exact parallel with the perceptions of real-world history.  Chicken Colin never considers that in the Lee-Kirby world, mutants have only come into prominence within a time-period relative to that of the comic's publication, so the events of the issues examined by CC-- issues #1 through #19-- probably take place in less than three years.  That's not a lot of time for a mutant-focused division of the Klan to get organized. 

As for the actions of the state, it actually did take a bit more than three years for the real-world state to mobilize its forces, for instance, to enforce school de-segregation as the law of the land.  If CC is so anxious to see the real world reflected in the comics, he might actually pay attention to the way the real world works.

The Chicken's basic take on the Sentinels story is that it doesn't go far enough to indict such real-world villains.  He wrings a typical Barthes-style reverse-reading out of this Stan Lee caption:


“Beware the fanatic!” runs Lee’s closing caption, “Too often his cure is deadlier by far than the evil he denounces.” (XM#16)
 
With foolish literalism CC chooses to believe that because Lee's bromide momentarily takes the POV of the cited fanatic-- that is, in imagining a PERCEIVED "evil" through the eyes of that fanatic-- Lee must be taking the fanatic's part.  Thus we get this incredibly snotty disparagement of the very tale the Chicken praises in other respects:

Two problems, then. Firstly, Lee appeared to be suggesting, in contradiction to many other aspects of his X-Men tales, that mutants were in part at least to blame for the hatred which so afflicted them. Secondly, he seemed to be arguing that there have been times when the “fanatics” solution for the perceived problems posed by despised groups have actually worked.
 
This is typical ultraliberal cant; no reasoning person would believe that this is the message being expoused by Lee or by Kirby in the story.  Yet, conversely, these are the same creators into whose hearts Chicken Colin so psychically saw, to *know* that they opposed the McCarthy witch-hunts.

As the second part of this essay wraps up, it's abundantly clear that the writer isn't the least interested in the messages expoused by Lee and Kirby.  He's interested in dunning them for not being as radical as he thinks proper:

To note the limitations in how Lee and Kirby discussed prejudice in the X-Men isn’t to suggest that their stories weren’t both inspiring and, in the context of particularly the first few years of the comic’s existence, somewhat daring. But it is to suggest that the X-Men’s creators quickly locked themselves into a way of presenting social problems which was repetitive, unsatisfying and politically nervous.
 
In the previous essay I've noted that there was a perfectly good extrinsic reason that the X-Men would never be validated for their good deeds: Lee and Kirby were selling angst.  It may be that for the first couple of issues they considered allowing the X-Men to be a traditional rah-rah supergroup.  But once they settled on the notion that the public would despise the heroes for their extraordinary origins, that eternal frustration became the feature's selling-point.  I doubt that the juvenile audience found this emotive tone "repetitive," for their concern, unlike the Chicken's, was not to gauge political correctness but to thrill to the character's heroic acts and to sympathize with their agonies.  On one hand Chicken Colin says that he doesn't expect a  "coherent, ideologically-informed critique of social exclusionism in a kid’s comic of the period."  Then he turns right around and makes it obvious that this lack is exactly what he finds "unsatisfying."

In a larger sense, Chicken Colin's essay is another of many critiques marred by Whitman's "foolish consistency:" in particular the belief that fantasies must be recapitulations of Really Real Reality in all respects.  Of course what Chicken Colin considers "real" is subject to just as much inquiry as the works of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  But I can't imagine anyone being all that interested.


PECULIAR FOLLOW-UP: I can't tell if others can see my comment appended at the end of Part 2 of the Chicken's essay; on my computer it says the comment's still awaiting moderation.

I think that it must have shown up for some people, though, as one of my "traffic sources" in the last week traced back to a site that did make mention of the Smith/Phillips altercation.  But I've no idea what the site said about the matter, since the text is in Portuguese.

Possibly I'm better off not knowing.


FOLLOW-UP PART DEUX: The author of the Portuguese post commented on it in the comment-section of TRUISM LIES PART 2.



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