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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...

Saturday, January 9, 2016

NULL-MYTHS: SQUADRON SUPREME (1985)

Since I'm a little behind this week-- and since I never claimed I would necessarily present a new "null-myth" every week-- I've decided to recycle some material I wrote in an earlier post. It occurred to me that Gruenwald's meditations on erring superheroes make for a good example of "overthinking the overthought," as well as offering a contrast to the JUSTICE LEAGUE story examined earlier, which seems to be simple kid-fare but proves more symbolically complex than many tedious attempts at superhero-satire. Ironically, Alan Moore's WATCHMEN, a meditation on the same theme of "realistic superheroes," came out the next year after SQUADRON, but though Moore had a philosophy of sorts to express, he didn't go overboard in his philosophical asides. Gruenwald may be less like the artist seeking to express a particular outlook than the editor seeking to express forbidden thoughts-- the forbidden thought here being, the viability of superheroes as dictators.

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In my post on ethical criticism, I criticized three of the heroes as being inadequate vessels of moral agency, and I still believe that Gruenwald did not manage to use his high mimetic superheroes as well on the ethical plane as did, say, Frank Miller in THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Still, there are some promising elements that suggest certain mythopoeic intuitions that might have been better-developed. Of the three character-related plotlines I castigated for being facile moral agents, the one involving the Golden Archer-- who brainwashes his superhero girlfriend into loving him-- doesn't succeed any better in the mythopoeic department than in the ethical one.

The plotline with Hyperion (pastiche of DC's Superman) comes a little closer to a successful symbolic discourse. True, there's nothing exactly new about a goodguy hero fighting a malefic counterpart who embodies many of his self-oriented desires, which is what happens when the goodguy-Hyperion is displaced by such a counterpart, who promptly forms a romantic liason with Power Princess (pastiche of DC's Wonder Woman). But at the conclusion of the inevitable "duel of duplicates," Gruenwald shows an interesting ambivalence toward how the "good" hero destroys his duplicate. On one hand Gruenwald exonates "good Hyperion" from the charge of willful murder by rationalizing that "bad Hyperion" is just made of "psuedo-matter," and thus is apparently not any more alive than the Superman villain Bizarro. On the other, Gruenwald borrows a little from the Greek myth of Orion as far as punishing an overreaching hero, so that "good Hyperion" is struck blind (albeit temporarily) as a result of the duel. Thus as in many archaic myths the hero is allowed the pleasure of destroying a foe and subsequently chastised for going beyond the normal limits of social existence to do so.

Lastly, though I caviled at one of the specific plotlines involving the character of Tom Thumb-- who, as I noted, is a little too goody-good in being conflicted about stealing a vital serum from a despotic overlord-- this dwarfish hero is probably the most interesting figure in SQUADRON in a mythopoeic sense. Once or twice Gruenwald makes references to Thumb seeking to make a "deal with the devil," but this Faustian metaphor goes nowhere and isn't even exclusive to the character (Nighthawk uses the same phrase). Thumb is no Faust, but a Hephaestus amid the traditionally-gorgeous superhero "gods." Tom Thumb is the nearest structural parallel to the character of Rorshach in WATCHMEN, in that both are outsider-heroes whose existence adds a dark counterpoint to the fantasies of beauty and power embodied by superheroes, just as maimed Hephaestus did for the Greek gods.

Of course, as should be obvious, I still think WATCHMEN succeeds in terms of its use of symbolism than does SQUADRON, but the archetypal view demonstrates that the Gruenwald work is not entirely worthless because it does not attain to the same level of significant literary merit. If nothing else, SQUADRON is certainly significant in historical terms as one of the first works to begin expanding the normative superhero work into divergent literary modes, and making those modes more a part of the "mainstream."

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On a side-note, I can't resist adding that Gruenwald had no problem in believing that his cosmos' version of Wonder Woman, the aforesaid Power Princess, would have no problem with fascism-- which puts the writer in the same company with my old sparring-partner Charles Reece.

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